Widespread and serious weaknesses at West Sussex children's services have resulted in an Ofsted rating of 'inadequate'.
Services have seriously declined since the last inspection, when all areas were judged to require improvement to be good, an inspection of children's services has revealed.
"The quality of help and support that children receive is a lottery and depends on where they live. Children experience a negative impact from the considerable turnover of the social workers and managers and from the substantial variability in the quality of assessment and intervention," said the report.
"Most social work practice is weak. Risks to children are seldom recognised, and social workers do not see children frequently enough. Children’s views are not often included in assessments and plans, and their records are rarely up to date. Children in care wait too long for their permanence to be confirmed. Drift and delay are evident at every stage of the child’s journey. This is particularly true for children living in neglectful circumstances. These critical weaknesses span across all social work teams. Consequently, some children remain without the protection and care that they need," it added.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers and overall effectiveness were all judged to be inadequate.
With regards to the experience of children who need protection, Ofsted highlighted:
- There are long-standing, widespread and serious weaknesses in the provision of services to safeguard children in West Sussex.
- Critical weaknesses in how social workers, managers and partner agencies identify and respond to neglect are evident across the service.
- The assessment and management of risk to unborn babies are poor.
- Child and family assessments are not always completed within timescales that meet individual needs of children.
- Child protection plans are rarely written with a clear focus on reducing risks to children and promoting their welfare.
- Not all children living in private fostering arrangements are supported effectively.
Under the direction of the strategic multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) board, partners have worked purposefully to strengthen the response that children receive when they are first referred for help, support or protection. Also, when children are first referred to the MASH, the response is mostly timely and effective.
Risks to children, including exploitation, are, for the majority, well identified and responded to.
Awareness of, and the response to, children at risk of radicalisation are established and effective, but further work is needed to ensure that the workforce is trained in how to respond to these risks.
With regards to the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, the report stated:
- Services for children in care have declined since the single inspection in 2016. Serious shortfalls in practice mean that children in care receive an inadequate service.
- Assessments and care plans vary considerably in their timeliness and quality.
- The quality of health provision for children in care is poor, despite this being an area of focus since the last inspection. Serious shortfalls remain in the timeliness in which children’s health needs are assessed when they first come into care.
- Independent reviewing officers (IROs) are largely ineffective in challenging poor practice or addressing drift and delay.
- Plans to reunify children with their families are seldom based on coherent assessments of risk and need.
- The importance of permanence planning for children is not understood across the service and is not effective enough for too many children.
Yet inspectors found that most social workers visit children regularly according to their needs. Most children live with carers who meet their needs, support their aspirations and act as a champion for them.
Foster carers receive effective assessment and training and carers value the support that they receive from supervising social workers.
The local authority has made some progress in the support it provides to care leavers since the last inspection and young people are involved in their pathway planning.
In terms of the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, Ofsted stated:
- Leaders and managers have not prevented service decline, resulting in widespread and serious failures in the experiences of children in West Sussex who need help, protection and care.
- Oversight, scrutiny and challenge from corporate leaders, including the children’s select committee and the corporate parenting panel, have not been sufficiently rigorous.
- A deep-rooted culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards is a serious issue across the service.
- The local authority’s reporting and governance arrangements do not provide a helpful framework to support the delivery of the largescale improvements that are needed across the service.
- Too many children have experienced too many changes of social worker, resulting in disruption and delayed intervention for many of them.
- The constant turnover of social workers and managers, combined with a lack of clear, up-to-date procedures and practice standards has led to poor and inconsistent practice.
Drift and delay are evident at every stage of the child’s journey.
- Management oversight at every level, including by IROs and child protection chairs, lacks rigour and does not tackle weaknesses or drive practice improvement.
However, senior leaders have an accurate and realistic understanding of the quality of services and a clear, targeted sufficiency strategy provides a coherent analysis, effectively forecasting future placement need.
Ofsted recommends that West Sussex improves the infrastructure and services to support good-quality social work practice, reducing the number of transfer points for children. There should also be clarity regarding the expectations of the workforce, including practice guidance and procedures and the quality of staff induction and training.
The quality of social work practice needs to improve, to assess, support and protect children who experience neglect and the effectiveness of assessment and planning for children in private fostering arrangements and 16- and 17-year-old homeless young people needs addressing.
West Sussex also needs to improve the quality of plans, particularly in relation to the focus on critical issues for families, timescales for actions and the consideration of what will happen if improvements are not achieved or concerns increase. The quality of social work recording, including the inclusion of intelligence and an analysis of the critical issues for children in return home interview records also needs improving.
Permanence planning for children, the quality and timeliness of life-story work and the quality and regularity of supervision, management oversight, direction and challenge, at all levels all need work.
West Sussex should also address the effectiveness of quality assurance arrangements, staff recruitment and retention so that children experience fewer social workers, the rigour and impact of corporate parenting arrangements and the active engagement of all relevant partners to tackle weaknesses in services and improve outcomes for children, the report concludes.
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