Watchdogs say Norfolk still letting down most vulnerable children with “inadequate” rating for county council
- Credit: James Bass
The most vulnerable children in the county are still being let down by Norfolk County Council, watchdogs have ruled, with the authority today branded 'inadequate' for the second time in three years.
Today, as members of the children's services committee discuss what could be a further £15.9m of cuts in the children's services department, Ofsted has published its report into child protection and services for looked after children.
While two of three areas were rated as 'requires improvement', another - support for looked after children and care leavers - was deemed inadequate.
One of two elements of that category - adoption performance - was rated as requiring improvement, leaving just experiences and progress of care leavers as inadequate.
And, despite representations by the council to convince Ofsted to reconsider, that meant the watchdog's overall verdict is that that children's services remains inadequate.
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That damning verdict came after a return visit to the authority earlier in July. In 2013, Ofsted had said the overall effectiveness of services for looked after children and young people and arrangements for the protection of children were inadequate.
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The report acknowledges progress has been made, but highlights some areas where the service for children is still not good enough.
Inspectors said: 'There are widespread or serious failures that mean the welfare of looked after children is not safeguarded and promoted.'
Among the reasoning for the inadequate verdict were that the council had lost 'touch' with more than a quarter of care leavers and that 16 looked after children had no allocated social worker for three months.
The report had been due for publication last month, but the county council has challenged Ofsted's findings and continues to raise concern about 'inaccuracies', such as over the above two points.
The council said, in the case of the 16 looked after children, those cases were overseen by a team manager following the sudden departure of a member of staff.
The authority says the manager took the decision not to split the cases, which would have led to several changes in social workers, but to await for the arrival of another social worker who would pick up the entire case load. The council says all the children were not without a social worker for three months and all still received support.
And, on the care leavers, the council said further detail on them could be made available, but Ofsted did not request it. The council said all closed cases were closed with agreement from all parties and some did not want ongoing support.
James Joyce, chairman of the children's services committee, said: 'There is much in the report that we welcome and agree with, which is why we can't agree with its ultimate conclusion.
'But it is clear from the report that children are now much safer and better protected than they were two years ago.'
The council said, while its complaint continued, the authority would not take legal action against Ofsted. Mr Joyce said the money would be better spent on looking after children.
The 2013 reports had led to the resignation of Lisa Christensen, the director of children's services, and the appointment of Sheila Locke as an interim head of department.
Millions of pounds has been spent to try to turn around children's services, with advertisements on the London Underground to try to lure social workers to Norfolk.
Yet the council admitted recruitment was a struggle and progress in reducing the number of looked after children on the authority's books had been slower than hoped.
In February, social work adviser Mark Gurrey, who was parachuted into Haringey Council after the death of Baby P, was drafted in to County Hall in the first appointment of its kind in the country, to help oversee the attempted turnaround.
The department suffered further criticism when MPs and foster carers called for an investigation into claims vulnerable children had been wrongly removed. An independent inquiry was launched.
And a team manager was suspended and subsequently dismissed because of a recommendation made to remove a child from a foster carer – in which he made statements which appeared not to be backed up by evidence.
Ms Lock's contract has come to an end, although she is still providing support to the department. The council now has a new executive director in Michael Rosen.
Mr Rosen said: 'Typically, it takes four years to recover from the position that this department was in in 2013. It is clear from the report that the department has made substantial progress in what is a relatively short space of time. My predecessor deserves significant credit for the strong leadership that has made this possible.'
Today, the council's children's services department, which currently has 1,058 looked after children, will consider the possibility of having to make £15.9m of cuts and savings over the next three years - as part of an attempt to close a £111m funding gap at County Hall.
At the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron said poorly performing social services departments could face being taken over.
Arrangements for supporting school improvement, which were also deemed 'ineffective' by watchdogs in 2013, are now said to be 'effective'.
On the council's complaints over the report, an Ofsted spokesman said: ''Norfolk County Council has made notable improvements, which our report acknowledges. However, widespread and significant failings, including poor professional practice, must be urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable young people - particularly looked-after children and care leavers – are receiving the help, care and protection they need.
'We shared our inspection report with the local authority before publication, in line with our procedures, and are confident that the inspection report is accurate.
'Ofsted will be closely monitoring the local authority to ensure these improvements are made, which we hope to see fully reflected in future inspections.'
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