Significant weaknesses in child protection services at North East Lincs

There continues to be significant weaknesses in the quality of services for children in need and those in need of help and protection at North East Lincolnshire, Ofsted has warned.
Some children are not being appropriately safeguarded or having their needs met in a timely way. Children were found to be at risk during this visit, the focused visit of North East Lincolnshire which looked at the local authority’s arrangements for children in need, children subject to a child protection plan and children subject to pre-proceedings found.
"Two priority actions from the previous focused visit have not been sufficiently addressed. The local authority has failed to take swift and decisive action to improve the quality of assessments and decision-making, and the quality and effectiveness of managerial oversight and supervision," said the report.
"Many children at risk of harm are not being seen by social workers appropriate to the level of risk and need. Risks to children are not being appropriately assessed, and, therefore, some children remain in unsafe situations for too long. Multi-agency meetings to share information, identify risk and review the progress of children’s plans are irregular. When risks are identified or when they escalate, they are not progressed to pre-proceedings in a timely manner. Social workers’ caseloads are excessively high, which prevents workers from undertaking effective work with children and their families," it added.
Ofsted also highlighted that management oversight at senior and operational levels is weak. Performance data is unreliable. Scrutiny and challenge by senior leaders are ineffective. Senior leaders have been aware of the poor practice for some time through an improved audit process, however, this is not leading to improvements in practice or in the services that children receive.
Inspectors highlighted:
- The local authority’s actions and responses to the two priority actions highlighted at the last inspection requiring the local authority to act swiftly and decisively to address weakness in child in need and child protection practice have not been sufficiently addressed or effective enough and have not had the desired impact on practice.
- Assessment quality remains poor. In many cases, assessments were incomplete, or, in some children’s cases, had not been started. Where assessments do take place, analysis of risk is limited. The child’s and family’s histories are not well considered, and there is a lack of professional curiosity when assessing a child’s experiences and circumstances. This means that risk and need are not always recognised. During this visit, inspectors identified children at risk who required urgent interventions.
- Children at risk of harm are not being seen often enough by social workers. Visits to children are not proportionate to the level of risk and need, and the quality of some of these visits, when they do take place, is poor.
- Senior leaders have acted too slowly to address the significantly high caseloads and deficits in practice in the children’s assessment and safeguarding teams. Social workers, including those who are newly qualified, have exceedingly high caseloads.
- The high caseloads impacts on social workers' capacity to carry out visits to children, undertake qualitative work, and to practise safely and effectively. This is leading to drift and delay in identifying and responding to risks and need. Too many children remain in situations that are unsafe for too long.
- Numerous changes of social worker mean that children and families are experiencing stop and start assessments, which leads to delays in children’s needs being identified and responded to.
- Social worker turnover is high. Staff are not being supervised in a way that enables them to effectively carry out their roles. Some staff go many months without a formal opportunity to discuss their work and reflect on their practice. Management direction and oversight is weak.
- The quality of care planning is weak. Children’s plans are not informed by robust risk assessments. Some families have additional safety plans that are ineffective.
- When multi-agency meetings do take place, there are often delays in minutes being written, or they do not exist in some cases. This does not give families and professionals the opportunity to review any progress and share information.
- Where decisions are taken to enter pre-proceedings, this work is subject to drift and delay. Current systems used by senior managers to track this work are not robust or effective. However, there are plans in place to develop this area of work.
- Where children have recently entered care, there are delays in decision-making in their assessments. Assessments, as well as some parenting assessments, are of variable quality and timeliness. They are overly descriptive, lack analysis and do not identify children’s experiences well enough.
- Decisions to enter into pre-proceedings where children are either at risk of, or suffering, significant harm are not made soon enough. This results in children experiencing further harm. Deficits in this process mean that parents are not being given the earliest opportunity to improve their parenting and their children’s circumstances.
- Senior leaders are aware of the concerns identified during this visit. However, there are weaknesses in the managerial response. The self-assessment accurately identifies where improvement is needed. Plans have been implemented to address some practice deficits. and the social work establishment has been increased.
However, this is insufficient, and has not happened quickly enough.
- Due to some implementation problems with a new case recording system, the local authority is experiencing issues with the accuracy of the available performance management information. Currently, senior managers are relying on some manual counting. This makes the performance management information unreliable.
- The performance data identifies that some children are unnecessarily subject to strategy meetings where risks do not require a child protection response. This has remained an issue since the last focused visit. Current strategies put in place to address this have not been effective, although work is currently being undertaken to address the issues.
However, the report states that some families are receiving support from the early help (edge of care) service, which undertakes direct work and visits to families alongside social workers. The staff are skilled in delivering specific interventions, although drift and delay were evident in some cases seen, and it is difficult to see the impact on improving children’s overall experience.
Furthermore, the recently introduced auditing team has vastly increased the number and quality of audits taking place. Practice in this area has improved. The audits seen by inspectors, including child protection conference chair scrutiny and challenge, are thorough and accurately outline where drift and delay are occurring in a child’s case, as well as identifying practice strengths.
"There is strong political and corporate support for children’s services, and there has been significant financial investment since the last focused visit. Since the last focused visit, an improvement board has been put in place, and challenge and support have been commissioned from external consultants to support improvement. However, progress has been slow. Scrutiny and challenge by senior leaders are ineffective and do not translate into robust actions to keep children safe or improve the services available," the report concluded.
Ofsted says that priority areas for action are ensuring that visits to children proportionate to the level of risk and need and the quality of planning for children needs improving. The frequency and effectiveness of multi-agency reviews needs addressing and there should be swift and effective remedial action following case file audit and child protection conference chair challenge. There also needs to be timely escalation to pre-proceedings.
To improve social work practice, North East Lincolnshire should address the size of caseloads for all social workers in the children and family assessment and safeguarding teams to enable effective social work practice to take place.
The support and development of social workers in their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) needs improving.
There needs to be improved and accurate performance data and reporting and the challenge and scrutiny of performance data and the effectiveness of services by senior leaders needs addressing.
Focused visit to North East Lincolnshire children’s services

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