Norfolk child safety fears after downbeat Ofsted report

Norfolk's children's champion defended social workers after Ofsted highlighted a litany of child safeguarding shortcomings in the county.

After an unannounced visit, inspectors pinpointed 12 'areas for development', and said there had been 'limited progress' on many of the issues highlighted in a similar inspection last year.

At Thursday's county council children's service overview and scrutiny panel, the report sparked a heated debate, with members speaking of 'an awful lot of problems' and raising fears that looming cuts could exacerbate any problems.

But children's services director Lisa Christensen said staff had continued to 'keep children safe', and said the report was 'alarmingly written' and did not necessarily 'paint the right picture'.

Inspectors said the council had a 'good understanding of the needs of families', and said there were 'good examples' of effective support.

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But they highlighted the 12 areas for development, including:

A 'very high number' of initial assessments not completed in statutory timescales, with some 'significantly overdue' and delaying services to children and families;

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Some assessments being undertaken by unqualified staff;

Too few core assessments being initiated, leading to the 'potential risk of harm to children and young people not being fully assessed';

Case recording of 'variable quality and not always up to date'.

Ofsted said: 'The areas of development identified at the previous inspection of contact, referral and assessment arrangements on May 5 and 6, 2010 have led to an action plan being put in place.

'However, in the majority of areas for development there has been limited progress and the council has yet to demonstrate sufficient and sustained impact across all areas.

'Progress has been slow due to the impact of the restructuring of children's services on management and staffing capacity.'

At Thursday's meeting, James Joyce said: 'I'm really worried about this report and what it means for us. It shows an awful lot of problems.'

Bert Bremner said: 'This is something that the county council must take incredibly seriously. The impact of the restructure means we didn't improve. I'm significantly worried about the consequences next year.'

Mike Brindle said: 'There's a concern that we still have the impact of the cuts to come. We are being criticised by Ofsted, but from our side there's worse to come.'

Mrs Christensen said: 'We've been through a period of unprecedented change. Through that period we've kept children safe.

'Practitioners may not have met all the targets, but they've been working hard to see children and to support them. For me, this is useful information and objective analysis of one part of our service.

'I'm not pleased with this report. However, I'm very proud of the fact that our staff have managed to continue working when we've changed the whole organisation around them.'

The unannounced inspection in March was at a time when the department was being redesigned to meet �24m of budget cuts.

Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services, said: 'This has been a very challenging time for staff and I would like to commend all of those working on the frontline for their continuing commitment to safeguarding Norfolk's children and young people.'

She added: 'There are clearly still areas for development and, not surprisingly in the context of the changes taking place in the department, there has not been the progress we might have expected in some areas in the last year.

'However, we have strong plans in place to address this and remain committed to delivering the best possible service to support the safety and welfare of Norfolk's children and young people.'

To read Steve Downes' blog, visit Follow @stevedownes1973 on Twitter

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