Serious weaknesses in front door decision-making has been identified at North East Lincolnshire children's services that fail to effectively protect children at risk of significant harm.
In a focused visit of North East Lincolnshire where inspectors reviewed the local authority’s arrangements for responding to contacts and referrals at their ‘front door’, the Families First Access Point (FFAP), Ofsted warned the council that the weaknesses fail to ensure that vulnerable children have their needs met.
"The screening of contacts to children’s social care is not consistently effective. Children’s histories are not routinely considered in order to understand their experiences, and decisions on contacts are made without the fullest of information. The recording of child protection enquiries is poor," said the report. "Managers cannot reassure themselves that strategy meetings and subsequent child protection investigations are effective in exploring risk and understanding safeguarding needs. The quality of assessments is weak, and they lack depth in appreciating children’s life experiences. Plans are often too vague and do not focus on children’s needs. As a result, inspectors saw children who were unsafe whose needs were not being identified and addressed."
Senior managers were aware of many of the weaknesses identified during this focused visit through improved performance information and targeted auditing.
- Prior to this focused visit, the local authority had identified concerns about the consistency and quality of practice at the front door. Senior managers have responded to the concerns and have developed a practice programme and have planned to increase social work capacity. However, at the time of this visit these were not yet in place.
- Social work and manager capacity were increased in FFAP, and the number of child protection conference chairs were increased to meet the significantly increasing rate of children becoming subject to a child protection plan.
- Senior leaders have recognised and are responding to the need for further increases in capacity to meet the continued rising demand. The quality of current practice has not improved.
- When children are identified as being at immediate risk, the response is generally swift.
- Social workers reported to inspectors that they are well supported, listened to and valued by managers.
However, thresholds are not fully understood by partner agencies and the quality of contact information provided by partners is not always good enough to identify children’s needs. The screening of contacts by the FFAP is not robust, and thresholds are not consistently applied to ensure that children are safeguarded and their needs are met.
Inspectors identified a number of cases of children needing a social care response that had been inappropriately closed or stepped down to early help services, and others where children needed a protective response, and this had not occurred. This had left children in situations of ongoing risk of harm or situations where risk is unassessed. The initial response for some of these children was not robust enough to keep them safe.
Current arrangements to ensure that children at risk of exploitation are protected are weak. The local authority has invested in gaining a deeper understanding of the prevalence and nature of exploitation in North East Lincolnshire, inviting the Home Office to undertake a locality review of criminal exploitation. However, this is not translated into improved practice, the report said.
The local authority is also over-reliant on the use of ‘safety plans’ - informal agreements with parents - to keep children safe. Further, assessments are weak and lack depth and management oversight and challenge is not robust enough to keep children safe.
Social workers reported to inspectors that they are well supported, listened to and valued by managers. While social workers describe managers as accessible and say that they can access a good range of training, this is not improving frontline practice. The frequency of supervision is showing some improvements. However, supervision seen by inspectors was not always regular, and lacks reflection and critical challenge. This is a missed opportunity for social workers to learn from and improve their practice.
Ofsted recommends North East Lincolnshire takes swift action to improve the identification and screening of risk and need when contact is made with children’s social care, the quality of assessments and decision-making and the quality and effectiveness of managerial oversight and supervision.
Furthermore, the authority also needs to improve decision-making and timing of premature case closures for children who remain at risk, or for whom the extent of the risk is unknown and the analysis and use of all relevant information about children’s experiences when making assessments, including: previous history, cumulative risk and neglect.
There should be proportionate decision-making for the most vulnerable children at risk and the authority should ensure that children are at the heart of practice. Multi-agency working needs improving, including partners’ understanding of thresholds and their application, as well as attendance by partner agencies at strategy meetings.
North East Lincolnshire also needs to improve the recording and quality assurance of key documents are recorded and quality assured, the quality and effectiveness of case file audits and the sufficiency and experience of the social work workforce, including managers.