Northamptonshire’s children’s services are failing to keep children safe and have been rated inadequate again by Ofsted.
While some progress has been made since the Ofsted focused visit in October 2018, there remains a range of significant weaknesses in services whose effectiveness is central to protecting children.
"There are also highly vulnerable children in care who are living in unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable. A small cohort of care leavers are vulnerable and homeless, and services have failed to prevent these young people from remaining in unsuitable and unsafe circumstances," said the report following the inspection of children's services.
Further, the quality of support for vulnerable children in Northamptonshire has declined since the last full inspection in 2016.
Northamptonshire has also experienced a period of significant instability at senior leadership level for both the council and within children’s services. However, there is now a new senior management team in place for children’s social care, which, in a short period of time, has produced some key improvements.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, which was rated inadequate, Ofsted highlighted:
- In the MASH, new contacts, screening and information-sharing are completed in a timely way for the majority of cases.
- When safeguarding concerns are identified by workers, decisions are made promptly by managers to escalate cases to S47, and strategy meetings are held in a timely way.
- The emergency duty team is effective and ensures an appropriate response is provided to children at risk of harm during out of office hours.
- Where a risk of female genital mutilation is identified, the local authority and partners take appropriate action in a timely way to prevent and protect children at risk.
- Disabled children benefit from strong relationships with their social workers, who are committed to ensuring that their often-complex needs are appropriately met through effective relationships with partner agencies.
However, children and families are not always offered early help at the right time. The cases of a sizable minority of children referred to the MASH who may be at risk of harm are closed without good enough evaluation. This means that these children may remain at risk without the necessary support. Consistent recognition of risk and consistent application of threshold is not fully effective in the MASH.
The assessments of the first response team (FRT) are completed within maximum statutory timescales. However, this is not always done in a timely way that addresses children’s individual circumstances. To improve this, time checks at 10 and 20 days are being appropriately applied.
While children are allocated quickly into the FRT, they are not always seen in a timely way to ensure that their needs are understood. This was an area requiring priority action following the Ofsted focused visit in October 2018 that has not been fully remedied.
Assessments across the service do not include enough information about individual children and their lived experience, and this leads to plans which are not effective enough. All children have a plan, and these plans are reviewed regularly through a core group or child in need meeting, but progress or deterioration are not always added to the up-to-date plan as new or revised actions, and timescales for action are not sufficiently clear. This means that plans are not always effective and it is hard to measure progress for children and their families.
Actions formulated in child protection conferences are not sufficiently clear about the objectives and expectations of what is to be achieved to improve children’s circumstances. Some children remain on child protection plans for too long when they are at risk of significant harm in neglectful situations. Social workers and team managers in these cases are over optimistic about change, accept self-reporting too readily in chronically neglectful situations and do not develop alternative plans for children.
Escalation and audit are not effective for challenging and improving the practice for these children.
Pre-proceeding work under the Public Law Outline (PLO) does not start soon enough for children where there are chronic neglect concerns. Although numbers have improved, too many children do not have an allocated social worker, and, as a result, timely actions have not been taken to improve their circumstances.
The capacity of specialist support services is not enough to meet needs, the report adds.
Most children at risk of child sexual exploitation in the wider service do not have an up-to-date risk assessment informing interventions and plans for children. RISE is a targeted support service for children at high risk of child sexual exploitation, working with children, their families and partner agencies to reduce this risk. In the majority of cases, the role of the RISE worker is having a positive impact on reducing risk, building strong relationships with these children with creative direct work. Yet other forms of exploitation, such as criminal exploitation, that are increasingly prevalent for young people in
Northamptonshire are not integrated into the RISE support service, and the pace of addressing wider exploitation has been slow.
The approach to homeless young people is not effective, and social workers are not always familiar with young people’s right to become looked after, using s20 under the Children Act 1989, and do not always explain this consistently to young people.
Ofsted adds that management oversight and decision-making do not consistently provide clear actions and are not sufficiently well recorded on children’s files. This does not ensure that children’s circumstances improve or that progress is made through child-centred plans and timely action.
Regarding the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers - which was rated inadequate - the report stated:
- Once in care, the majority of children are appropriately placed in settings that are meeting their needs. For the majority of children, plans are clear and ensure effective progress.
- The very newly formed care planning team is undertaking some impressive direct work with children.
- The edge of care service, which has been in place for 18 months, provides an effective, flexible, and child-centred service for the cohort of young people it works with, and who are at risk of coming into care.
- Children in custody are regularly visited and are subject to children looked after reviews.
- Children’s health assessments are regularly updated and considered at reviews.
- Once children come into care, their need for security through permanence is well understood.
- Once children are identified as needing permanence through adoption, timely and well-considered actions are taken by the permanence team.
- Adopters are well prepared for the task of adoptive parenting.
- All care leavers have pathway plans, and, in most cases young people were involved in writing them.
- The proportion of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) has declined sharply. Positive relationships with colleges and schools, along with effective careers guidance and well-planned transition arrangements, ensure that there are high post-16 retention rates.
- Children who are unaccompanied and who are seeking asylum are routinely considered as s20 under the Children Act 1989, and appropriate placements are sought for them in line with their assessed needs.
However, the report notes that there are highly vulnerable children in care who are living in unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable. This is the result of a long-term failure to identify and match children to appropriate placements when they present with complex and challenging risk. There is also a small cohort of care leavers who remain vulnerable and homeless, and services have failed to prevent these young people from remaining in unsuitable and unsafe circumstances.
Too many children come into care in an unplanned way. Children have experienced too many placement disruptions prior to their current placement, and these have impacted negatively on their experience and outcomes.
Children who return home from care do not routinely have a clear reunification plan. Appropriate support services or contingency plans are not always in place to ensure their secure transition home and reduce identified risks.
Staff are not always clear about terms of approval. Some foster carers are experiencing undue pressure to take placements and are not always being provided with accurate information about children’s needs.
Furthermore, transition planning to adulthood starts too late for most disabled children. This results in uncertainties about future placement and support arrangements, causing anxiety for some children and their families as a consequence.
The quality of the service for care leavers is not consistent, especially for the most vulnerable young people. Some important areas of practice have not been sufficiently addressed, such as the effective use of risk assessments, the quality of pathway plans and the consistency and rigour of management oversight and direction.
For the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families which, Ofsted said, requires improvement to be good, inspectors highlighted:
- The new children’s services senior management team has a comprehensive and credible plan for service improvement. The team is taking a whole-system approach to improving practice by putting the right staff in the right place.
- Progress has been made in the MASH, with a strengthened management team. Decision-making is now taking place and being recorded in a timely way.
- Caseloads for social workers have reduced to a more manageable level, and the number of children who do not have an allocated social worker has reduced from 267 at the Ofsted focused visit in October 2018 to 86 at the time of this inspection.
- Performance management has improved.
- Staff report that morale has improved over very recent months with an increasing confidence in the current senior management team.
There has been a longstanding turnover of staff, and staffing across the service remains extremely fragile. While vacancies are low, a high proportion of staff are provided by agencies and so are not permanent.
Management oversight is not consistently ensuring effective case progression to improve circumstances for children in a timely way.
Early help services have not been sufficiently developed, and the pace of change is too slow. The local authority preferred social work model has not been consistently implemented in a timely way, either within children’s services or across partner agencies.
Children’s identified needs are not always met through appropriate and stable placements. The local authority sufficiency strategy has not been proved effective, and plans to address this are not yet having an impact in securing the right placements for children.
The quality assurance framework is an area under development. The initial response to the findings of recent serious case reviews was very slow and the resultant plans were of poor quality.
Ofsted makes a number of recommendations. The inspectorate states that the strategic development of early help services needs to improve to ensure that children’s needs are identified and responded to at the earliest opportunity.
The identification of and response to risk when contacts relating to safeguarding concerns for children are received into the MASH needs work and timely and purposeful visits to children need to improve to ensure that their needs are understood.
The quality of social work assessments and plans should be improved so that they are consistently timely and are effective in improving children’s experiences. The identification of and response to risk in relation to long-standing concerns of chronic neglect also needs addressing.
The quality of management decision-making, oversight and challenge should be improved and social worker caseloads should be addressed to enable all children to have an allocated social worker and workers to have manageable workloads.
The response to children at risk of exploitation needs addressing to ensure that their vulnerabilities are fully recognised and lead to intervention to keep them safe. Northamptonshire should ensure sufficiency of placements that meet children’s needs.
There should be clear reunification plans and support services for children returning home and timely transition planning for disabled children in care to reduce uncertainties and anxieties for them and their families.
Pathway plans should include clearly defined objectives for young people and there should be proactive intervention and focus for older teenagers disengaged from support services.
The social care workforce needs Stability and sustainability. Quality assurance activity such as case auditing and escalations should be used to inform and improve practice. Action planning needs improving in response to the findings of serious case reviews.
Northamptonshire County Council
Inspection of children’s social care services