The Assistant Director, Safeguarding and Children's Care submitted a report, the purpose of which was to provide the Overview and Scrutiny Board with a briefing in relation to the areas of concern identified within the Balanced Score Card, namely the continuing high numbers of Looked After Children and the report by Ofsted which indicated that Middlesbrough Safeguarding and Children's Care services required improvement.
The Chair of Overview and Scrutiny Board advised that Members had concerns about the number of "red" categories indicated on the Balanced Scorecard and the Board were interested in hearing about the strategies that had been put in place to deal with the issues.
The Assistant Director, Safeguarding and Children's Care advised that it was evident that Middlesbrough had a high number of looked after Children compared to other neighbouring authorities. An independent review had been commissioned to look at why the Looked After Chiidren (LAC) figures were so high.
Changes in legislation had made an impact such as :
Judges making Supervision Orders to ensure that children were protected at home;
the Local Family Court decisions sometimes restricted what options were available to the local authority in terms of LAC;
changes to Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (Accommodation).
The department were currently working on a policy to make it clear what kind financial support was available to families in need of intervention.
The reasons why Middlesbrough continued to have high numbers of LAC included:
Middlesbrough displayed a risk averse approach to assessment rather than signposting at an earlier stage to Early Help. Many of the cases underwent assessments but the cases were later closed with no further action being taken. Middlesbrough also sometimes took longer than other authorities to complete assessments.
Care plans were routinely completed before an assessment had concluded.
Some managers considered that the "Middlesbrough Factor" had an impact; whereby the disadvantage in Middlesbrough had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Families had lower aspirations and there was a greater acceptance that they would require social care intervention which had increased the numbers of LAC. The numbers could be reduced by challenging and supporting families to build on their strengths and support themselves.
Early Help was not impacting enough on the high numbers of LAC. There was a lack of confidence amongst partners to co-ordinate Early Help activity and the need was only addressed when the family required social care intervention.
Resources were not sufficiently aligned to priorities such as reducing demand. The ratio of children placed with In House Foster Carers in comparison to those placed in Independent Fostering Agencies was too low, and current strategies to address this were not having sufficient impact in rebalancing this.
Commissioning and Community Cohesion Strategies were strong. Commissioning was promoting capacity-building within the voluntary sector which should reduce the need for the Council to be the main provider of services.
Referrals were received from schools (e.g. children appearing to be malnourished); the police (in respect of cases of domestic violence) and health visitor referrals. In the past, more resources had been allocated to dealing with families in crisis and the Council were trying to shift the focus and allocate more resources to Early Help to avoid families reaching the crisis stage. Early Intervention needed to be delivered in partnership with other organisations such as schools.
Reference was made to the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) which aimed to help professionals working with children, young people and families, to find out about their strengths and needs. It improved the way different organisations worked together.
The CAF was a standard assessment that could be used by all services working with children and young people. It was particularly suitable for use in integrated early intervention work, to work with families as soon as it was identified that a child or young person was experiencing difficulties. The problem with the CAF process was that it was very complex and involved completing lots of forms and the assessment took a long time to complete which meant that it could be months before any results were evident. The Early Help strategy had moved the access point for Early Help under the same umbrella as safe-guarding, so that when a family was referred to the Social Care department, the department would first consider whether Early Help was the appropriate intervention tool rather than referring the family straight down the safe-guarding route.
It was commented that although it was recognised that Early Help would meet some family's needs, the people assessing the families were sometimes not confident enough to sign-post families along this route, for fear of making a mistake.
It was anticipated that the Single Access Point should make the process simpler and more efficient, although more work and further training needed to be carried out to change the mind-set of those people dealing with referrals to provide them with the confidence to sign-post to Early Help. The Council faced a challenge in retaining experienced Social Workers because it attracted newly qualified Social Workers, who would complete their training and move on to other authorities that paid more for the service. It was suggested that Social Workers who received training from the Council, then chose to move on, should repay the training fees and this should be written into their contracts.
The Board was advised that the Council was making efforts to retain staff by offering a number of benefits such as a 9 day fortnight flexible working patterns. Many Social Workers were choosing to work for agencies because they paid more than the Council. Some authorities were working with a 30-40% agency staff ratio because agency staff could earn up to £40 an hour. This could mean that agency staff would only have to work six months of the year to earn the same amount of money that a Social Worker working for Middlesbrough would earn in a year.
The Council was trying to establish a sub-regional agreement with regard to the pay rates for agency workers. It was highlighted that the Government could also be making changes to the tax rates for agency staff. In response to a query whether the Council employed agency staff, the Board was advised that sometimes up to 3 or 4 agency staff were employed but where possible the Council tried to employ full time employees as some agency staff might not be as committed as a permanent full-time employee. If the Council did have to employ agency staff, they did not offer long term contracts.
The Council did work with schools in relation to Early Help and many of the schools had good pastoral support in place. The role of Health Visitors had also changed in terms of visits to new mothers. The Health Visitors were only required to carry out visits in respect of mothers who were considered high risk or who had a high level of need.
A member queried whether the Council's partners received a copy of the Ofsted report. The Board was advised that the report had only just been finalised and it was due to be submitted to the Safe-Guarding Children's Board and the partner's would see a copy of the report at that meeting.
The Chair of Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel advised that the Panel had looked at the topic of Early Help in the past and it was evident from the previous investigation that CAFs was being by-passed.
Members advised that it was frustrating to see that the same issues identified when the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel had looked at the topic before, still existed. A Member queried whether the political direction from the Council had made staff more risk averse.
The Board was advised that the key to changing the way in which the authority worked was to adapt the role of the Social Worker so that when they worked with families, they concentrated on the strengths of the family by working with the wider family to see what benefits they could bring in terms of support.
The Board was advised that Members needed to be challenged to make them less risk averse and to encourage them to offer support to staff making decisions about Looked After Children. The service had received support from the LMT and the Lead Executive Member for Children's Services. It was acknowledged that to change the way in which Early Help was delivered would cost money and take time. The real challenge was to bring about a culture change for staff in respect of the way in which the authority dealt with LAC to bring about better outcomes for children and young people.
It was suggested that the Board establish a Task and Finish Group consisting of the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Board, the Chair of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel and the Assistant Director, Safeguarding and Children's Care to look at the previous Scrutiny Panel report in respect of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel's investigation into Early Help Improving Outcome for Children, Young People and Families to see if the recommendations contained in the report were still relevant and if so, if they had been implemented. The outcome of the Task and Finish Group would be reported back to the Board.
The Assistant Director, Safeguarding and Children's Care advised that the department were currently working on establishing a Parenting Strategy and a copy of the strategy could be submitted to the Board once it had been agreed.
ORDERED as follows:
1. That a Task and Finish Group consisting of the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Board, the Chair of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel and the Assistant Director, Safeguarding and Children's Care be established to look at the previous Final report in respect of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel's investigation into Early Help Improving Outcome for Children, Young People and Families to see if the recommendations contained in the report were still relevant and if the recommendations had been implemented. The outcome of the Task and Finish Group would be reported back to the Board.
2. That a copy of the finalised Parenting Strategy be submitted to the Board, for information, once it had been agreed.