Northamptonshire children’s services have been graded as inadequate by Ofsted which has found some looked-after children are living in unsafe accommodation and other care leavers have become homeless.
In a damning report the government watchdog has found after a full inspection last month that the service being provided by Northamptonshire is not fit for purpose and is failing vulnerable children in its care.
It was rated inadequate in three of the four inspected categories with the impact of senior leaders on social work being rated as requires improvement.
The service, which has been hitting the headlines for many months after Ofsted found last autumn that there were hundreds of vulnerable children who did not have a social worker, is now being overseen by Government-appointed Children’s Commissioner Malcolm Newsam.
Two serious case reviews last month also found murdered Northamptonshire two-year-old Dylan in Tiffin-Brown and one-year-old Evelyn-Rose Muggleton should have been better protected by social services.
The cabinet member for children’s services, Cllr Fiona Baker, says it is ‘regrettable’ that the service is so poor.
The report, which was published this morning, says: “While some progress has been made since the Ofsted focused visit in October 2018, there remains a range of significant weaknesses in services whose effectiveness is central to protecting children. There are also highly vulnerable children in care who are living in unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable. A small cohort of care leavers are vulnerable and homeless, and services have failed to prevent these young people from remaining in unsuitable and unsafe circumstances.”
The report does say that some improvements have been made since a series of management changes over the past year including a new director of children’s services, Sally Hodges, who is being paid more than £1,000 a day to get the department into shape.
It says improvements need to be made in 18 areas including earlier help for families, better management decisions, reduced caseload for social workers and better reunification plans for children leaving care and returning to their families.
The report levels a number of big criticisms at the authority with almost every area underperforming. It says that some children who are being chronically neglected are left in ‘harmful situations for too long’.
The report says: “Assessments across the service do not include enough information about individual children and their lived experience, and this leads to plans which are not effective enough. Most assessments focus only on presenting issues and do not give sufficient weight to the impact of historical concerns and patterns.
“Actions formulated in child protection conferences are not sufficiently clear about the objectives and expectations of what is to be achieved to improve children’s circumstances. Child protection conference chairs escalate issues, but this is not effective as there is rarely a sufficient response by managers to address the issues raised. As a result, children’s situations do not always improve, resulting in poor experiences and increased risk.
“Some children remain on child protection plans for too long when they are at risk of significant harm in neglectful situations.”
The way the council supports care leavers into accommodation is also criticised as some young people are ending up on the streets.
Ofsted found: “The approach to homeless young people is not effective, and social workers are not always familiar with young people’s right to become looked after, using s20 under the Children Act 1989, and do not always explain this consistently to young people. In most cases, young people are assessed and supported to find accommodation, but this can take several days while they remain vulnerable. There is a lack of sufficient appropriate emergency housing, meaning that too many young people are left in inappropriate arrangements.”
It is also damning of where the authority is placing its children. High numbers are going out of county and the authority is also using unregulated providers.
It says: “There are highly vulnerable children in care who are living in unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable. This is the result of a long-term failure to identify and match children to appropriate placements when they present with complex and challenging risk.”
Ofsted also said some key support services have now been decommissioned.
The report comes at a time when the authority has been failing financially and now is being wound up after poor financial management and political leadership. It has to make £10m of savings in its children’s services this year to balance its books.
The Government has decided that a new independent children’s trust will be set up to run children’s services, although few details of this are yet public.
In a response Director of Children’s Services Sally Hodges said: “We accept the findings of this Ofsted inspection report entirely. We recognise the failings that inspectors have highlighted and equally have a determination to build on the signs of progress they have identified.
“We welcome the report’s finding that there has been clear progress and improvements made since the focused visit last October. We are also pleased they recognise that we now have in place the right plans to improve our services. The leadership team is determined to do just that as recognised in the report. Children in Northamptonshire deserve nothing less.”
Cabinet member for Children Services Cllr Fiona Baker said: “It is regrettable that our services overall have been graded as inadequate but it is a grading we agree with and we are determined to tackle the weaknesses identified. It is clear from this report that we increasingly have the determination, plans and leadership in place to begin to make real and lasting improvements.
“It is very welcome that the report states we have a good understanding of our own weaknesses and therefore a clear view on what is required to address these.”
The report comes on the back of a highly critical report last week of Northamptonshire Police’s child protection services.