‘Widespread and serious failures’ are leaving children at risk of being harmed in the Black Country, a second damning report into a council’s social services has revealed.
Sandwell Council has been branded ‘inadequate’ for its children’s services more than two years after the same result triggered resignations and promises of major improvements.
And it has been accused of not understanding the ‘prevalence’ of child sexual exploitation.
But the authority refuses to accept the ruling by the education watchdog Ofsted and insists it has made significant changes since two inspections in 2013 raised serious concerns. No-one is going to lose their job this time.
Ofsted delayed the publication of its report following its inspection in January and February until last night because of the General Election. The council had also challenged the report’s rating.
But its overall judgment is that ‘children’s services are inadequate’.
“Leaders and managers have not been able to demonstrate sufficient understanding of failures and have been ineffective in prioritising, challenging and making improvements.
“It is Ofsted’s expectation that, as a minimum, all children and young people receive good help, care and protection.”
The council has, however, improved in the area of looked after children and adoptions, moving from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ since 2013.
The authority defended itself strongly against Ofsted’s report, saying that a government-appointed expert sent to help them improve believed that Ofsted had not recognised the changes made.
Cabinet member for children’s services, Councillor Simon Hackett, stressed that neither he nor any officers would be resigning this time and insisted children were safer now.7
His predecessor, Bob Badham, and the former director for children’s services Helen Smith both resigned two years ago and the council brought in a private company, Impower, to help it do things better.
The council says it has slashed spending on agency workers, recruited a full team of permanent managers rather than interim bosses, and has screened as many as 1,000 children since last October to ensure they are not at risk of being sexually exploited.
But the Ofsted report is scathing about how children’s services are being led.
The report says: “Strategic leaders have failed to ensure that vulnerable children at risk are protected. Managers do not always recognise risk.
“This results in some children’s needs not being assessed or supported at the appropriate level.”
And it flags up concerns at the drop in the number of children receiving services since 2013.
Although this might normally be considered a good thing, Ofsted says: “Strategic leaders and managers have failed to understand the potential impact on outcomes fro children and the significance and reasons associated with a large drop in the number of children in need receiving services from November 2013.”
The council claims that every case of a child either in need of help or at risk now has a social worker allocated. It says this is an improvement on 2013 when it had 266 unallocated cases.
There is also a team whose job it is to tackle child sexual exploitation with the police and other organisations.
The authority is working with businesses including takeaways, taxi firms and hotels to spot the signs and making landlords aware to look for it in any homes they rent out.
Councillor Hackett said: “In Sandwell we’re now doing more to understand and combat child sexual exploitation.
“We’ve so far screened over 1,000 young people to identify whether they may be at risk. We do this with all 10 to 17-year-olds referred to us.
“We’ve set up a child sexual exploitation team and by working with police and other agencies we are continually building up our intelligence so we can better understand it, target hot-spots and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The council has also lined up experts to defend it.
Stephen Rimmer, the Home Office director of crime who acts as the West Midlands leader on preventing violence against vulnerable people, said: “I do not recognise Sandwell as inadequate but as an improving children’s service, which clearly acknowledges it needs to improve further – in taking som big decisions transparently and honestly, in partnership with key agencies who have connected responsibilities, for the benefit of vulnerable children in Sandwell.”
And Claire Parker, chief officer at Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “While I am not in a position to comment directly on the recent Ofsted inspection, I am concerned that it does not reflect the progress that has been made and may put it at risk.”
Councillor Hackett said: “We believe there is absolutely no doubt that children in Sandwell are now much safer as a result of the many improvements we have made to our service since Ofsted’s last inspection in 2013.
“This is not only our view. It is also that of Professor Ray Jones, the social work expert appointed by the Government to oversee our work with children, and other specialists.
“Our improvements include setting up a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub – Mash for short – which brings together social workers, police, health visitors, schools and others.
“This focuses on children who are at real risk of harm and effectively shares information across all agencies so that – when needed – social workers and police can immediately take action to keep young people safe.
“We have set up the Mash which the Government’s own Home Office has acknowledged as a ‘best practice’ organisation which others across the country could learn lessons from.
“Another key improvement we have made is to launch seven key community hubs across Sandwell where we help families – with things like parenting classes and advice from all agencies – before things become so serious that social workers need to step in.
“These hubs bring social work into the towns in Sandwell making it easy for the council to work with staff in places like schools, children’s centres, health centres, etc.
“We realise that going to families with a formal social work procedure can be overwhelming so this approach means we help families before problems have time to escalate, not dragging families into protection situations when there’s no need to.
“Families get a quick response to their problems without lengthy form filling. Social workers are now dealing with cases where children are really at risk.”
He said the council had slashed the number of agency staff by 75 per cent. Spending on temporary workers has fallen from £5.4 million in 2013 to £600,000 a year now.
Councillor Hackett said children and families were now seen ‘much more quickly’.
On Ofsted’s report he said: “Given the improvements we have made, we are deeply disappointed that Ofsted continues to rate our children’s services as ‘inadequate’
“We struggle to see how it can come to this conclusion.
“We’ve worker on recommendations from the last Ofsted report and changed the way we work in social care for the better.
“We are currently thinking about whether it would be in the best interests of Sandwell’s children and young people to pursue a challenge to Ofsted’s judgment.
“We know we still have more work to do. But we firmly believe that we are on the right road and will continue to improve.”
Councillor Hackett also said he feared the report would result in staff leaving, which he said would make it more difficult to continue improvements.
“We want to assure families we are doing our very best to keep their children safe.”