Progress has been made in many areas of children’s services in Worcestershire since the last inspection, when the local authority was judged to be inadequate in all key areas of practice in 2016.
Effective work by senior management and staff, together with commitment and investment by political leaders, has led to improved responses to the needs of children and families. As a result, outcomes for many children and their families are better, and there is evidence of a sustained trajectory of improvement.
However, Ofsted still rated the authority as requires improvement to be good.
"A strengthened front door multi-agency response (MASH) and improved children in need and child protection practice identify risk of harm and, in most cases, ensure timely and effective interventions. The local authority understands the risks of exploitation better and has ensured that practice in this area has improved," said the report.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, Ofsted said:
- Most families who have more complex needs receive timely responses from the MASH.
- Daily triage meetings about domestic abuse are effective and enable multiagency discussions to take place to plan actions to safeguard children where domestic abuse is a feature in their lives.
- When serious safeguarding concerns are identified, timely strategy meetings, which are well attended by partner agencies, make informed decisions regarding next steps.
- Assessments of need are completed in a timely way.
- Child protection conferences and children in need meetings (CIN), together with core groups, are timely and generally well attended by partner agencies, parents and young people.
- The use of a strengths-based system of assessing risk is now embedded and used effectively to help professionals and families discuss risk to children and measure progress in reducing that risk.
- Practice arrangements for the support of some vulnerable groups have developed since the last inspection.
- The recently introduced missing children officers have contributed to a reduction in the number of children who go missing.
- Social workers understand and implement locally agreed processes when a risk of radicalisation is identified.
- Arrangements for privately fostered children are effective. Assessments are timely, and, once they are approved, an appropriate ongoing social work service is provided to privately fostered children.
Decision-making is usually prompt, however, in a minority of cases, decisions are made without the full triangulation of all information available. This is a vulnerability for the local authority, and, in a small number of cases, has led to significant information being missed. Weekly MASH meetings held to discuss cases with significant histories of previous involvement, including neglect, are not always effective. In a small minority of cases, a lack of analysis of risk has resulted in missed opportunities to carry out strategy meetings and child protection enquiries, although no children were seen to have experienced harm as a result.
The report says that edge of care services are currently underdeveloped, and an edge of care team is not yet fully in place. Current efforts in the family support service to prevent entry to care are not always effective.
The response to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds is poor, it adds. Assessments require improvement and are characterised by a lack of contact with young people, insufficient analysis of risk and poor evidence that young people are made aware of their entitlement to be accommodated and supported by the local authority. At best, this means that some vulnerable young people may not be provided with the opportunity to experience more security and the benefits attached to becoming looked after, and at worst, inadequately assessed young people are potentially being exposed to risk.
Regarding the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, which requires improvement to be good, inspectors highlighted;
- When decisions are made for children to come in to care, these are appropriate, and, where necessary, immediate action is taken to safeguard children.
- Effective parallel planning for young children ensures that adoption and plans for long-term fostering are progressed quickly.
- Most children live in placements that meet their needs, and they are making progress.
- When children return home from care, plans to support the family are in place.
- Children are placed with brothers and sisters where this is in their best interests.
- Children in care benefit from the support of an independent advocate.
- Looked after children who are at risk of going missing or child exploitation benefit from well-coordinated multi-agency intervention to reduce risks.
- Assessments of mainstream foster carers are timely, thorough and analytical.
- Planning for children with a plan of adoption is a strength.
- The care leavers service, from a low base, has made some improvements and in most cases now meets the needs of young people.
- Personal assistants build positive relationships with the young people they work with and know them well.
- Most care leavers are offered and live in suitable accommodation.
However, the report states that not all children who are in care and who are likely to remain in care have a lifestory book to help them to understand why they are in care, and the work is not always completed by workers who are known to the children. This is not good practice and can be unsettling for children, it says.
There is no clear pathway for children in care to access mental health support. As a result, timely access to services for children experiencing emotional and mental health problems is poor.
Some young people over 18 years old are having to live in bed and breakfast accommodation. Over the last 12 months, 17 care leavers over the age of 18 have been placed in such accommodation, with four young people currently living in such accommodation. In addition, a further 10 care leavers are currently homeless, although they are not living on the streets. Senior leaders do not collate data about this instability in accommodation for care leavers, and this means that they may not have sufficient overall awareness of the extent of the situation and the need for strategic intervention as a result. The unacceptable practice of using bed and breakfast accommodation for some care leavers was noted at the last inspection, and senior leaders have not acted to improve the situation.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement to be good. inspectors highlighted:
- The local authority has made considerable progress in many areas in improving the quality of services for children and families since the inspection in 2016.
- Senior managers have taken the essential steps to meet the goals of their social care improvement plan.
- The local authority has implemented a quality assurance system and has established a range of performance information, allowing senior managers to better understand its practice.
- Effective work has strengthened the workforce. Use of agency staff has reduced and the stability of staff in post has increased. The establishment of a social work academy has meant that there are increased opportunities for the local authority to ‘grow’ its own staff.
- Effective partnership working between the police and social workers for children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and going missing means that the response to such concerns is often strong.
- Good strategic partnerships have enabled the development of an encompassing exploitation strategy, GetSafe, in recognition of the previous approach being underdeveloped and needing to be strengthened to be effective.
- The local authority has a positive relationship with both the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) and a good reputation with the local judiciary.
- Since the last inspection, corporate parenting has been strengthened.
However, in some key areas these improvements are not yet making a sufficient difference for children. Joint commissioning with health has not resulted in any clearly identifiable mental health pathway for children in care or care leavers. The absence of an established priority for access means that they are having to wait several weeks to be seen, with the prospect of a further waiting list for intervention.
The report adds that the local authority continues to use bed and breakfast accommodation for some care leavers and has not improved this situation since the last inspection. The quality of supervision offered to social workers is inconsistent.
Success in implementing the 2016–18 sufficiency strategy is also very limited. The proposed edge of care service will only be implemented later this summer, recruitment of new fostering households has fallen well below targets and attempts to increase the number of ‘placement plus’ carers has also not been successful. The overall rise in numbers of children in care means that pressures on in-house provision are acute, but this has been mitigated by the increasing use of independent provision.
"Caseloads have reduced overall, but there remains some unevenness across teams, which the authority is committed to resolving. Staff are positive about changes that have been implemented, including that a strengths-based model of social work intervention is in place and embedded," the report concluded.
Worcestershire needs to improve the engagement with partners to deliver early help to families and to ensure that this help is timely and the quality of intervention with families where there is a risk that children may be received into care if the right support and guidance is not available. The assessments of need for 16- and 17-year-olds who present as homeless needs improvement, including whether they should come into the care of the local authority. Young people should be told clearly about this option.
Worcestershire should address the timely availability of family support when children have a plan to leave care and return home.
The authority should learn from the breakdown of placements for children by the holding of timely disruption meetings.
The availability of a dedicated pathway to the provision of mental health services for children in care needs addressing and the provision of personal assistants for care leavers when they reach the age of 17 needs improvement.
There should be suitable accommodation and timely interventions that ensure that care leavers, including those aged over 18 years, are not placed in bed and breakfast accommodation or become homeless.
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