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Special investigation: How ‘unmanageable’ caseloads hampered Norfolk’s children’s services social workers

Norfolk County Council's County Hall in Martineau Lane, Norwich.

Norfolk County Council's County Hall in Martineau Lane, Norwich.

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Workloads in Norfolk’s troubled children’s services have been “unmanageable” for some time, according to union leaders who say council cuts have contributed to the problems which have plagued the department.

Focus on Norfolk County Council

Over the course of this week, the EDP is looking at four key county council issues – the incinerator, children’s services, the former RAF Coltishall and the Norwich Northern Distributor Road.

We will look at the past, the present and the future.

We have showed how an 11th hour change of mind altered the course of the King’s Lynn incinerator saga and how social workers have been struggling to cope with “unmanageable” caseloads in children’s services.

Still to come is whether the council was right to buy RAF Coltishall and how almost £14m has been spent on the Norwich Northern Distributor Road, before planning permission has been secured.

More than any other department at Norfolk County Council, it is in children’s services where actions – or lack of them – can be the difference between life and death.

Yet inspectors from Ofsted, earlier this year, unearthed a string of concerns about the department, including the way it looks after vulnerable children, child protection and the support it gives to schools.

It also recently emerged that 998 of children in need had not been fully assessed and allocated social workers, although the authority has since got on top of that issue.

Union leaders have blamed the problems partly on the excessive, “unmanageable” workloads social workers have had to juggle, caused by council cuts over the past three years.

And they have warned the next wave of £189m of cuts could be paving the way for similar problems in the council’s adult social services department.

Given the number of departures from children’s services, it is a department in transition. Sheila Lock has come in as interim director following the departure of her predecessor Lisa Christensen. Her exit came after sustained pressure from the county’s MPs following the Ofsted inspections.

The council’s answer to the problems in the department has been, put bluntly, to throw money at it, with £16.5m invested to “ensure we have the resources needed to support frontline social work and strengthen the work to challenge and support schools to improve”.

In August, the council’s cabinet committed to £2.7m of immediate one-off investment to employ agency social workers to begin work to reduce caseloads.

Some £2.3m of revenue funding was also agreed to recruit permanent social workers – to pick up the work of the agency staff.

Eighteen permanent social workers joined the department between April and November this year, while a dozen left over the same period.

Twenty more have been appointed and will soon start work, while 21.6 vacancies are currently being covered by agency staff. A further 9.5 agency workers are covering maternity leave and long-term sickness.

In October, the council launched a campaign to recruit at least 50 more social workers.

The goal is for social workers to work earlier with families to stop children ending up in care.

But how did the department get in this state? A look back at the Big Conversation, which the county council carried out three years ago in order to make £140m of cuts, goes some way to explaining it, according to Unison.

The scale and capacity of family support services was reduced to save £4.2m, the youth service was axed completely and the number of social workers dropped from 249 full-time equivalents from March 2010 to 216.73 full-time equivalents as of November this year.

Jonathan Dunning, branch secretary for Unison at Norfolk County Council, said: “Our view is that the proposals the previous administration implemented hit services which did a lot of preventative work.

“They said they were not cutting anything which impacted on safeguarding, but by reducing the preventative services, that led to a lot of people sliding down the slope, which led to the circumstances of them needing care.

“The concern now is that the present administration is going down a similar route in adult social services and has not learned the lessons of the past.”

The current average workload is 25.1 cases for each social worker and the council’s target is to bring that down to 18. The council says it has not kept data showing workloads in 2010, before the Big Conversation cuts happened.

But Mr Dunning said: “For quite some time the workloads of frontline staff have been excessive. I have spoken to a steward in children’s services who says they have been unmanageable for a long time.

“There has also been a reduction in the administrative support, so you have social workers having to enter details into the Carefirst database system.

“The Unison view is that staff have been under increasing pressure and, inevitably, in dealing with that, paperwork has taken a back seat. The director’s view is that it has created significant problems and we wouldn’t disagree with that, but the point is that you need that administrative support.”

But Mr Dunning said his stewards were of the view that things were moving in the right direction, following the appointment of Ms Lock.

However, he refused to blame Ms Lock’s predecessor, Ms Christensen, for the problems and attacked the MPs who agitated for her removal.

He said: “My view is that it is wrong to point the finger at any individual. The way she went, however, was disgraceful, with MPs uniting to speak out against her without knowing the details. They should have been standing up to get the council more money.”

With 1,144 looked-after children in the county as of mid-November, costing an average of £46,300 a year per child, the department has already gone over budget for this year by almost £900k, due partly to a higher number of looked-after children than had been budgeted for.

Council leader George Nobbs said his administration had taken action to change the direction of the department, describing the appointment of Ms Lock as “an essential key element”, along with the appointment of two cabinet members to specifically deal with schools and safeguarding. He said: “I was determined to make a break with the disastrous past in terms of children’s services and send a signal that this would be our number one priority as an administration. Changes were made in the direction of the department as soon as was humanly possible.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he had been “impressed” by Ms Lock and her willingness to face up to the issues. “That has been quite refreshing,” he said.

WHAT’S BEEN DONE SO FAR TO IMPROVE CHILD PROTECTION SERVICES?

In rating Norfolk County Council as inadequate for child protection services, Ofsted inspectors called for a string of improvements.

The EDP asked the council to explain what it has done to address issues raised in the Ofsted report:

The help that children receive when their families begin to experience problems is too patchy. A common frustration parents had was the lack of recognition of problems by agencies when they first came up, particularly schools. The council needs to sort this out within six months.

Council response: We are developing a pilot scheme with schools to place social workers directly within clusters of schools to support families earlier and to help give school staff the knowledge and skills they need to help identify families’ needs.

It is important, as part of the focus on early help, that this support for families is available at the earliest opportunity. We are in the process of re-evaluating our Early Years offer and strengthening our family support service so we can strengthen the response to families.

Part of this involves working with our partner agencies to ensure there is support from health, housing and other services that can help to prevent them reaching crisis point.

Once concerns about children have been identified, too often there are significant delays in them getting the support, help and protection that they need because social workers often have too much to do. The council needs to sort this out within three months.

Council response: We are improving the operation of the multi-agency safeguarding hub to ensure a quicker response. The appointment of additional social workers has also meant that needs can be met earlier. Alongside the additional interim leadership capacity, we are looking at making the journey of the child much more simple, removing some of the bureaucracy so that children can get help much more quickly and we can reduce the numbers of children coming into care. This work is really important because it links to our early help offer and our aspiration is to try to keep as many children as we can with their own families, as opposed to them coming into the child protection and safeguarding systems.

Assessments by social workers of risks to children are influenced by managers who want them done quickly, but this often means that they don’t properly consider their needs. During these assessments children are not always seen and their views and the views of their parents are not always taken into account. Assessments are therefore completed without all of the information needed. The council needs to sort this out immediately.

Council response: This goes back to our focus on getting the basics right. It is imperative that children and parents are seen and spoken to and their views are considered in planning for their care. Cases are being routinely and robustly audited to make sure that this is happening.

We have developed a new training and development plan focused on mentoring, support and supervision to help decision makers to manage their staff more effectively.

We have also streamlined our electronic social care record system to make sure that the right information is recorded and used when making decisions.

■ Risks to children are not always well recognised then written down properly by social workers’ managers and as a result some children do not get the help and protection they need. The council needs to sort this out immediately.

Council response: As above

Too many cases were seen by inspectors where children in need of social work support did not have a social worker who could help them, or where children had too many changes of social worker and could not get to know them well. The council needs to sort this out within three months.

Council response: We are confident we are well on the way to tackling this. We have brought in social workers on a temporary basis whilst we work to recruit permanent staff. Their first job has been to look at any unallocated cases to ensure that any cases that need action are identified and social workers are allocated.

The additional capacity will help to address this and we are also ensuring that our social workers have the technology to allow more mobile working so that they can spend more time with children and their families.

INSPIRATION?

If Norfolk needs inspiration that children’s services can be turned around, it need look no further than Lambeth Council.

In 2005 Ofsted placed the South London borough council’s children’s social services on special measures after a series of damning inspections.

Yet despite that troubled record and its status as an inner-city borough with some deep-seated social problems, Lambeth last year became the only council in England to be graded “outstanding” by watchdogs for safeguarding, looked after children, adoption and fostering services.

Ian Lewis, interim divisional director for children’s social care, said the reason for the turnaround was not because of anything ground-breaking: “We concentrated on doing the right things as well as we could and on knowing our services well.”

Caseloads for social workers were reduced, through a focus on early intervention – a lesson Norfolk County Council seems to have taken on board, given the drive to recruit more social workers.

Mr Lewis said other key approaches included genuine engagement with service users; councillors taking on board their role as champions of young people and children; talking to and listening to staff; a strong, visible management team prepared to be challenged by staff and each other; good partnerships with other agencies and good preparation to give social workers confidence.

Tomorrow: The council’s decision to spend £4m on former RAF Coltishall – bargain buy or peculiar purchase?

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