The Democratic Services Officer submitted a report to provide information in respect of the scheduled attendance of Members of the Executive at the Overview and Scrutiny Board (OSB). It was intended for Executive Members to provide updates on their respective work in terms of their aims, aspirations, objectives, priorities and any emerging issues.
The Chair welcomed Councillor Carr, the Lead Executive Member for Childrens Services, to the meeting. Councillor Carr indicated that he would provide an update on progress since the last OFSTED inspection and also the way forward for safeguarding Childrens Services in future.
The number of children coming into the care system was increasing and there were 434 Middlesbrough Looked After Children (LAC) at the end of October 2016. Although the increase could in part be due to connected persons being incorporated into the system, a snapshot of the last 20 children brought into the care system in September 2016, showed that 19 had been through the connected persons route. Whilst this was a national trend, Middlesbroughs numbers were always higher than national numbers.
Connected persons or kinship carers were family members who looked after children who could not reside with their parents. In accordance with the legislation, children in these circumstances should be treated as being in care and the connected persons carers should be assessed and paid as foster carers. One of the difficulties was that some connected persons carers, whilst providing adequate care, would not necessarily meet the rigorous requirements as foster carers. If connected persons were treated as foster carers they would receive a foster carer allowance. If they cared for children on an informal basis they might or might not receive an ad hoc allowance. The best outcome for children was for connected persons carers to obtain a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) and take parental responsibility. However, if an SGO was granted, there was no requirement for the carers to receive any financial support.
The Executive Member explained that the increase in the numbers of children being cared for was regarded as a national problem and that the Courts interpreted the law differently. It was not clear whether this was strictly to do with the wording of the legislation. Whereas other Local Authorities would disagree with the Courts, it seemed to be the case that Middlesbrough almost anticipated judgements and did not argue for different outcomes.
There was currently an over-reliance on external provision for foster care and residential placements in Middlesbrough. There had been much change at management level over the last year and there were now very significant savings targets which would have to be met over the next two years. Whilst Childrens Social Care had not been totally exempt from the last five years of austerity, to some extent it had been protected.
This time last year Middlesbrough underwent an OFSTED inspection of its Childrens Services which identified some strengths and weaknesses. There were no weaknesses in the actual care of children. The weaknesses identified included how data was collected and used, IT systems and listening to the voice of the children.
Middlesbrough was currently trying to recruit more in-house foster carers to enable children to come back to Middlesbrough from more expensive out of area placements. In the last year, 12 children and young people had been brought back from placements outside of town and re-located with birth families. There were also 13 children and young people who might have come into care but were being supported in their families. For those 25 children and young people, this equated to £650,000 per annum savings. There were currently 117 Middlesbrough foster carers and the target was to reach 130. Middlesbrough was still using 133 independent foster carers although that number had decreased. The Council was currently looking at ways to improve the commissioning of residential care. There were four childrens homes in Middlesbrough.
Reference was made to the Regional Adoption Agency, which was a concept that had been around for a long time. If the five Tees Valley Local Authorities worked together on adoption there would be some savings as well as a pool of children available for adoption and adoptive parents. The Government was in favour of the concept but wished to create a structure outside of local authorities, involving voluntary agencies. In some parts of the country voluntary bodies had effectively taken over the Local Authorities role in adoption. The Executive Member added that the Government had provided funding for Consultants to work on suggestions for a Regional Agency and a report had been produced. However their recommendation for a separate local organisation had not been well received.
Referring back to the increased numbers of LAC, the Executive Member stated that the numbers were phenomenally high and Middlesbrough was ahead of statistical neighbours as well as nationally by large amounts. This was also the case with children in need and those on child protection plans. Despite Middlesbroughs problems with deprivation, local educational attainment, families with drug and alcohol abuse, these issues were no different to those faced by statistical neighbours, yet Middlesbroughs numbers were higher.
OFSTED had never criticised Middlesbroughs thresholds and no external examination had ever suggested that Middlesbrough was overly risk averse. However, there was a view that if you were being risk averse and bringing children into care, you were generating greater risk towards children further down the line because the children who were in care, did less well in school, had poorer outcomes, were more likely to be unemployed or be involved in the criminal justice system. So avoiding one sort of risk potentially expanded the risk of other things.
The safeguarding budget was currently £28 million but between now and April 2019 there was a requirement in the Councils Strategic Plan to save £5 million. The service needed to transform and change the way it worked completely to deliver better outcomes for children and families, bring fewer children into the system and also saves money. This had been done successfully in other local authorities. The Executive Member identified Leeds as one Authority where by changing the way they worked and their approach they had vastly reduced the number of children taken into care. Since they had fewer children in care they could be more effective in supporting them, as well as restoring families and enabling them to look after their children rather than bringing them into the care system. Middlesbrough had an early help department that could work with schools, health, police and other regional bodies to enable families to get through difficulties. In the last six months approximately 600 families had been supported.
The impact of Surestart Centres on Looked After Children (LAC) was unclear. Much of the Surestart work was around the concept of early help and building communities. It was noted that Parent Support Advisers, who were introduced about ten years ago, had been retained in Local Authority run schools and were dedicated to working with families. The conversion of many schools to academies had created a fragmented system and the Local Authority did not have as much influence. Through meetings with Headteachers, the high number of LAC had been highlighted. It was positive that the education outcomes of LAC were better than some statistical neighbours, although still below their peers.
The Executive Member summarised that it was time to change and do things differently, not only to save money but to give better outcomes for children and young people as well. Whilst some progress had been made this was not yet comprehensive and three staff briefings had been arranged as well as meeting with Headteachers in January 2017.
The Chair thanked the Executive Member for attending and providing an update.