Ofsted sees deterioration of services at Sunderland

Since the last monitoring visit of Sunderland children's services, there has been a deterioration in the quality of some services, and not all children are being protected, Ofsted has warned.

Management oversight and quality assurance are not sufficiently robust in identifying and addressing weaknesses in practice. Information to the council and the quality improvement committee (QIC) does not provide an accurate picture of the quality of work and progress being made.

"Management oversight is still weak and quality assurance arrangements are not robust. Many of the findings of this visit were not known about by Together for Children, the council and the QIC, and the information they collectively receive does not assist in them knowing accurately the quality of the work and the consequent impact on children," said the Ofsted report.

The visit was the second monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate for overall effectiveness for a second time in July 2018. Following a judgement of inadequate at a previous inspection, in July 2015, Sunderland city council set up Together for Children (TfC) to deliver children’s services functions on behalf of the council.

Inspectors reviewed the progress made in response to requests for social work support for vulnerable children, in particular whether risks to children are identified and whether thresholds to children’s services are applied appropriately.

"Since the monitoring visit in January 2019, the quality of the front door response to some safeguarding issues has deteriorated. Unless the presenting concern is obvious, children are not always protected from harm. Other agencies, in particular Northumbria Police, do not provide enough information to ensure that TfC can provide timely and appropriate responses to concerns. Due to the poor quality of information being received, risks are not always fully recognised, and child protection work is not commenced by TfC when it should be," the report added.

Inspectors found:

- Management oversight and quality assurance remain too weak to ensure that essential improvements occur in children’s services.

- On this visit, inspectors identified far too many children whose needs were not being identified and addressed soon enough.

- Much information is provided by TfC to the council and the QIC, who have responsibilities to hold them to account and to support them to achieve. However, there is too much focus on process information and not on the quality of work. This has given a misleading picture of the experiences of children and their families when receiving a service from TfC and therefore of the overall progress being made in improving children’s services in Sunderland.

- Continuing staffing issues in the social work locality teams are impacting negatively on the quality of the work and on the experience of children.

- Since the last monitoring visit, the response to child care concerns at the front door has deteriorated and not all children are being effectively safeguarded. Inspectors identified a number of children’s cases which needed to be urgently reviewed to ensure that children were safe.

- TfC had inappropriately introduced a new policy of not acting on children’s cases where there were lower level concerns when consent had not been sought by referring agencies. In some cases, this had been applied in child protection matters, leaving some children at risk of significant harm without a response from children’s services.

- The quality of information provided to TfC from some agencies continues to be poor, for example, inspectors saw insufficient information being supplied by Northumbria Police to enable an understanding of risks to children.

- The multi-agency ‘triage’ arrangements, where decisions are made about whether further actions are necessary to protect children, are well resourced by the police but are not fit for children’s services purposes.

- Due to the poor quality of information from other agencies, further interventions are not always provided at the correct level of support.

- Most contacts are appropriately identified as needing a child in need assessment. However, social workers were carrying out some assessments when it was unnecessary because the referral information from other agencies was inaccurate.

- Since the last monitoring visit, in the social work locality teams some children have not had an allocated social worker and had not been visited regularly. Necessary work has not been undertaken and managerial oversight is also poor. This has resulted in children not having their needs met in a timely manner and, in some cases, safeguarding issues not being responded to robustly.

- Quality assurance of children’s cases is weak. Audits do not enable TfC to fully understand the quality of the social work and outcomes achieved by children.

However, the report highlights that when child protection issues are identified, in the main the quality of work is effective. Multi-agency strategy meetings are well attended, with clear recording of actions to be taken to reduce risk. Visits are undertaken promptly by the police and social workers, ensuring that children are immediately protected. When children need to be removed from their home due to identified safety issues, this is done in a timely manner with other options robustly considered.

Workers in the assessment teams have small caseloads, which allows them to work with families and carry out direct work with children. The workers know their families well, and in these teams the morale is improving. Experienced and recently qualified workers and student social workers described being well supported. Inspectors met workers who considered that their recent move to work for Sunderland has been a positive career choice.

Furthermore, inspectors found that in the main, when assessments are undertaken, they are of a good quality, evaluating the concerns and presenting well the views of the children. However, examples were also seen of much poorer work lacking consideration of all of the risks and strengths in the family which, the report says, is due to poor management oversight.

Monitoring visit of Sunderland children’s services

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