December 11 2013 Latest news:
Friday, October 25, 2013
Almost a thousand potentially vulnerable Norfolk children were not assessed or only partially assessed because of a lack of social workers and poor management in the county’s children’s services department, it has emerged.
And officials in the Norfolk County Council department, which has endured criticism from Ofsted, have admitted there was a point where they could only estimate how many children in need were waiting to be fully assessed - partially because performance had not been monitored well enough.
While bosses have insisted those were not children considered to be at serious risk, Sheila Lock, interim director of children’s services, acknowledged the situation was “unacceptable”.
She said it was being tackled through the recruitment of new social workers, with a 17-strong team put to work to deal with the outstanding cases.
The council confirmed some of the children had not received attention for “some months”, even though the target for an initial assessment is 10 days and the target for a more in depth assessment, if required, is 35 days.
And Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP, said it was an indictment of the former management of a department which had become dysfunctional and had been drifting, although he said he was encouraged that improvements were being made under new leadership.
Children in need, as set out in the Children Act 1989, are not necessarily cases of a safeguarding nature, but may be disabled children or those with additional needs referred to the council by professionals such as teachers or by parents and carers.
Based on the data they had, the council had estimated there was a “worst case scenario” of 1,600 children whose needs were not assessed because a social worker had not been allocated to them or had only been partially assessed because social workers, called away to tackle more pressing cases, had not been able to complete assessments.
But, in the past couple of weeks they have discovered there are actually 998 such children. Of those, 300 of them have been prioritised and 56 looked at in more detail, with social workers allocated.
The council says within the next week-and-a-half all of the 300 will have been properly scrutinised.
The issue was identified in a critical report drawn up by inspectors from Ofsted in January. While no figures were revealed at that time, the inspectors said there were “large numbers” of children in need who had not been allocated a social worker.
That, the inspectors said, meant it was “impossible” for the council to know whether children were receiving the right levels of support or intervention proportionate to identified risks.
Since that inspection, and following pressure from Norfolk MPs, Lisa Christensen, the former director of children’s services has left, to be replaced by interim director Ms Lock.
She said, of the unassessed or partially assessed cases: “They are not the cases that are high risk, but they are cases that we need to have a look at.
“Of course its not acceptable but it is improving, a fact recognised by partner agencies and monitored by an improvement board.”
Explaining why the assessments had not been completed, or only partially completed, she said: “Capacity was a big issue, but I’d also say it is about making sure we have got the right management and systems in place. Some of it is about having the right systems which enable cases to be managed effectively.”
She said since her arrival in Norfolk the performance management systems had been re-evaluated and temporary agency social workers brought in as part of a £16.5m investment in the department.
Ms Lock said 17 social workers were specifically deployed to deal with these children in need assessments, which would help free up other workers to concentrate on other, high priority, cases.
She said: “The additional leadership capacity is driving this and after just four weeks in post, I’m pleased it’s heading in the right direction. But I’m not complacent and know we have more to do.”
And, despite the criticism the department has received, Ms Lock said she was confident that a drive to recruit 60 permanent social workers would be a success.
She said: “Norfolk is proving to be a place where people want to come and work. The staff working from an agency perspective have come from northern cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, as well as from the south west and south east.
“Our website launched this week had 844 hits as of Friday, which is an amazing amount in just a few days. This is most definitely a place people want to come to - our leadership and workforce offer is amongst the best out there.”
Liberal Democrat MP Mr Lamb said: “While the majority of those case might be ‘low level’ and not cases of real concern, within those cases there might be some where the concern proves to be much greater than initially thought.
“They need to get a grip on the problem so it is a well-run children’s services department. From meeting Sheila Lock I have to say her response to challenges has been encouraging and positive.
“She does not seek to deny or cover things up, is prepared to accept where there are failings and knows there is a need for significant improvement in a number of areas, so that is encouraging.
“But this is an indictment of a department that was failing and had become dysfunctional, although that’s not to say there were not good people doing good work within it.”