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Watchdog praises children's services 'transformation - but points to 'significant shortfalls'

PUBLISHED: 13:29 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:04 31 October 2019

A watchdog for those looking after Norfolks most vulnerable children has praised a transformation in front-line services. Photo: Norfolk County Council

A watchdog for those looking after Norfolks most vulnerable children has praised a transformation in front-line services. Photo: Norfolk County Council

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A watchdog has praised a "transformation" in front-line services for vulnerable children - but said "significant shortfalls" remain in other areas of practice.

Sara Tough, director of children's services at Norfolk County Council. Pic: Norfolk County Council.Sara Tough, director of children's services at Norfolk County Council. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Norfolk County Council's children's services department was rated inadequate in 2013 and 2015, after visits from regulator Ofsted.

But after an inspection by the watchdog in late 2017, the service was judged as requires improvement - a step up from previous years.

And now, following a focused visit from inspectors - who examined a specific area of the department's work over two days earlier this month - bosses say the regulator's endorsement of the progress made in so-called front door services is "a vote of confidence".

In a letter, sent to executive director of children's services, Sara Tough on October 31, inspectors said: "Since the previous inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers in November 2017, the front door has been transformed."

Cabinet member for children's services, John Fisher. Photo: Broadland District CouncilCabinet member for children's services, John Fisher. Photo: Broadland District Council

Ms Tough, who has been executive director of the service since October 2017, said she was "delighted" with the letter, describing it as a "vote of confidence" in the service's ability to bring about change.

"They don't pay big complimentary comments in writing unless they really mean it," she said.

"We're delighted with that."

The front door, or the first point of contact for anyone with concerns about a child, deals with contacts and referrals from families, members of the public and professionals, and makes decisions for at-risk children.

Known as the children's advice and duty service (CADS), it now operates from county hall, and no longer uses referral forms, meaning anyone concerned about a child speaks directly to an experienced social worker.

Inspectors praised "significantly improved" information sharing, analysing and recording, and described decisions as "consistently strong".

READ MORE: Watchdogs say services for vulnerable children in Norfolk getting better - and adoption is outstanding

Ms Tough said: "We've provided a new model of practice and adopted a conversational approach.

"We've moved entirely away from 'if you have a problem, write it down and send it in'."

She added: "We put together a clear strategy of improvements, looking at how we do our jobs and how we can make changes that would be lasting.

"I consider this report to be a really positive one. It actually reflects back that we can make change."

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However, inspectors also highlighted areas where improvements were still needed, including:

- "Significant shortfalls" in the quality of practice in some of the newer family assessment and safeguarding teams (FAST)

- Staff recruitment and retention continues to pose "major challenges"

- Teams suffer from a "lack of consistency"

- Assessments could be "slow to start" and "not always rigorous or robust"

- And help and protection once children moved beyond the front-line was "not always good enough"

Inspectors specifically noted the "timeliness and quality" of assessments and the "consistency and impact of oversight" needed improvement.

However, the letter said senior managers recognised issues and were addressing challenges faced by the service.

And Ms Tough said the service was prioritising staff recruitment, and now had a permanent team of managers, and that work to make improvements was ongoing.

READ MORE: Children's services and adult social care face cuts as £40m more savings needed

She said work to support families had helped social workers keep children safe in their homes, and meant there were 80 fewer children in the council's care than at the 2017 inspection.

Issues raised in the report following the 2017 inspection included an "undeveloped strategic response" to missing children or those at risk of sexual exploitation. But following the monitoring visit this year, inspectors found the multi-agency child exploitation and missing team was "effective in helping to ensure timely and proportionate responses".

And John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services, added: "Ofsted has recognised the brilliant work of our children's advice and duty service and how we have transformed how we take calls and respond to concerns.

"This success is down to the huge commitment of our staff and partners in the police and health services - we are working together more effectively than ever before.

"We're now changing how our frontline teams work, so that social workers can spend more time with children and young people. As a council we're absolutely committed to getting the right support to families, which is why we're investing in recruiting more staff and transforming how we work."

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