The ‘front door’ of Norfolk children’s services has been completely transformed since the last Ofsted inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers in November 2017.
A focused visit of Norfolk children’s services found that thresholds have been revised and re-launched, and a new operating model has been introduced. The children’s advice and duty service (CADS) has significantly improved the way in which information is shared, analysed and recorded at the first point of contact.
“With appropriate checks and balances, and effective leadership and management oversight, staff in the CADS work well together to identify the kind of help and protection that children and families need. The quality of decision-making is consistently strong. Throughput is timely,” said the report.
The level of improvement achieved provides tangible evidence of the impact of senior leaders on social work practice at the front door. However, similar improvement has not been achieved in some of the still relatively new, locality-based family assessment and safeguarding teams (FAST). There remain significant shortfalls in the quality of practice in some of these teams.
Recruitment and retention continue to be major challenges. A lack of consistency between different teams and different localities is also an issue. Weaknesses in the level of critical challenge provided by some managers have clearly been contributory factors, however, senior leaders know what the issues are.
The focus of this visit was on Norfolk’s arrangements for dealing with contacts and referrals from families, members of the public and professionals at the ‘front door’, and on decisions made about what should happen next. Inspectors carefully considered the local authority’s ability to identify, assess and manage needs and risks safely and appropriately.
– Anyone who is concerned about a child or family is able to speak to someone in the children’s advice and duty service, which is open from 8 am to 8 pm.
– The quality of the conversations that early help pathway advisers and consultant social workers have with people who contact CADS reflects the quality of the training they have received. They calmly and carefully sift and record the relevant information in a way that demonstrates a shared commitment to exploring the issues and concerns in order to identify appropriate solutions.
– The huge open plan office in which CADS is co-located with police and other partners, including health and education partners, facilitates the easy exchange of information in real time between partner agencies, albeit always in line with the appropriate constraints of data protection and other legislation.
– CADS is well managed and well led. Although the service has only been in existence for 12 months, it does not feel new.
– Prompt action is taken to protect children who are judged to be at immediate risk of significant harm. The development of CADS has contributed to an appropriate reduction in the number of strategy discussions.
– With police domestic abuse teams sitting alongside CADS, response to domestic abuse at the front door is well developed and increasingly effective.
– The multi-agency child exploitation and missing team based alongside CADS is equally effective, helping to ensure a timely and proportionate response at the front door.
– The quality assurance framework is mature and well developed.
However, once children’s cases are passed from CADS to the still relatively new, locality-based FAST teams, children do not always get the right level of help and protection. While most cases are allocated promptly, a combination of caseload pressures and a lack of effective management oversight in some cases mean that children are not always seen as quickly as they need to be. Additionally, on occasions, social workers have been slow to start children’s assessments, and the quality of those assessments is not always sufficiently rigorous or robust. This is contributing to higher-than-average re-referral rates in some localities, particularly when cases are closed or are stepped down too soon.
Senior leaders are aware of the problems and are taking appropriate action to address them but, while there is evidence of improvement, this is from a low base.
“Workforce stability continues to be problematic, especially in the north of the county. In response to a net loss of social workers and an increase in staff turnover over the last 12 months, senior leaders have developed an ambitious strategy. This includes significant financial investment from elected members, designed to improve recruitment and retention while at the same time freeing up social workers and their managers to focus on professional social work tasks. In the meantime, some FAST social workers’ caseloads are far too high,” the report concluded.
In order to improve, Norfolk should address the timeliness and quality of assessments undertaken by family assessment and safeguarding teams. The consistency, quality and impact of management oversight in the family assessment and safeguarding teams also needs improvement.