Children's services in St Helens have been rated inadequate by Ofsted.
The social services watchdog has given out its lowest rating, despite acknowledging some recent improvements to services.
The Ofsted grading is split into three categories, with an inadequate rating for “overall effectiveness” of children’s services.
“The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families” and “the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection” were both rated “require improvement to be good”.
“The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers” was also rated “inadequate”.
The downgraded rating follows a two-week inspection covering all aspects of children’s social care services in St Helens in September.
The findings, which has been published today, says children’s social services have declined since the last full inspection in 2014, when services required improvement.
In 2018, the social care watchdog carried out a focused inspection, looking at the front door element of the service.
As a result, Ofsted issued three out of a possible four priority actions and ordered a comprehensive action plan be developed and implemented.
An independently chaired children’s improvement board (CIB) was established to oversee and scrutinise the adoption of the action plan.
Council chiefs also approved a series of investments.
However, children and families who need help and protection are still not receiving a consistently good service, according to the new report.
Ofsted also says there are still “widespread and serious failures” in the quality of services for children in care, due to significant drift and delay in securing children a stable long-term home.
“Management oversight in this area of work is ineffective, and staff have limited awareness of the need for early planning for permanence,” the report says.
“This is compounded by a lack of tools and systems to help the local authority understand the extent of the issue and intervene to remedy the situation at the earliest opportunity.
“Senior leaders fully acknowledge practice deficits identified by inspectors, but they had been unaware of the extent of the problem.
“This has led to a significant number of children waiting too long to secure legal permanence and achieve their full potential.”
Inspectors found that the full range of permanence options, including special guardianship and adoption, is not routinely considered in a timely way, and sometimes not considered at all.
This means children are subject to unnecessary statutory involvement in long-term fostering arrangements for too long.
Appropriate decisions are made for children to come into care when risks escalate.
However, viability assessments are not completed to assess any potential risks for a small number of children who live with friends or family members.
Additionally, full risk assessments aren’t carried out on the child upon their return home.
There was also no evidence found of specific family support consistently being provided to address complex family issues which resulted in the child entering care.
This means that some children experience drift and delay in returning to their families.
Ofsted found the council’s special guardianship policy, which was revised and approved by cabinet in March, was “considerably outdated”.
This had led to this option not being explored proactively with families when it is clearly in the best interests of children to do so.
Ofsted also found that there has been “insufficient rigour” in progressing permanence once children are placed with carers.
This resulted in some children waiting years for permanence decisions to be made while living with their extended families or foster carers.
While a recently developed permanence tracker is due to be implemented, at the time of the inspection there was no clear mechanism for senior managers to understand the extent of drift and delay and the level of poor practice in this area.
No children were found to be left at risk of immediate harm during the inspection and Ofsted found child protection concerns are “mostly” responded to effectively.
However, allegations against professionals have not always been responded to robustly in recent months, as there have been delays in progressing and coordinating investigations.
The quality of assessments is not consistently good enough and the quality of plans was also found to be too inconsistent.
Management oversight was also found to not be consistently good across the service once work is progressed from MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub) into the duty and assessment teams.
“Supervision records are not clear enough about what actions social workers need to take,” the report says.
“The absence of clear direction in children’s plans is compounded by many changes of social workers and frontline team managers, leading to significant drift and delay for some children.
“Delayed transfer between teams following an assessment results in some families remaining in the duty teams for too long without a coherent and continuous programme of intervention being undertaken.
“This means that some children do not receive the support they need in a timely way, and concerns about their welfare can escalate.”
Ofsted says the response to domestic abuse and neglect is improving and children at risk of exploitation are recognised and responded to effectively.
Improvements were also noted within the children with disabilities team, which was described as a service ‘in crisis’ in a peer review completed almost a year ago.
Inspectors acknowledge that, during the last 12 months, the local authority has recognised that children’s services require more effective prioritisation within the wider corporate agenda.
It says the children’s improvement board is helping to implement a new model of practice.
However, Ofsted says “considerable cultural barriers” to practice improvement remain.
Inspectors also note that the recent departure of Mike Palin as the council’s chief executive has led to some “instability”.
However, Ofsted says senior leaders now have a “better grasp” of what needs to change for the situation to improve.
“The local authority’s evaluation of the effectiveness of its work is detailed and honest, and it acknowledges inconsistency of social work practice and the need to improve,” the report says.
“This demonstrates that senior leaders now have a better grasp of what needs to change.
“There still remain significant service deficiencies and not all the tools or systems are in place to ensure that there is an effective overview of practice.
“Staff do not yet understand what needs to be done to ensure that permanence is progressed at the earliest point that a child comes into care.
“Senior leaders acknowledge this, and recently started to develop new arrangements to support more effective permanence planning, but this has been too slow and has not led to sustained improvement.”
St Helens Council leader David Baines said the authority takes Ofsted’s findings “incredibly seriously” and has already started making changes in response to them,
Coun Baines said: “I have been clear since taking over leadership of the council, that supporting our most vulnerable residents is a top priority, and I will ensure that we continue to act with urgency on the recommendations made by Ofsted to ensure that in St Helens children in need of help and protection receive the service they deserve.
“It is no secret that local authorities continue to face severe financial challenges. Despite this we are putting an extra £8m per year in to better supporting foster families, increasing the numbers of Social Workers and improving safeguarding and edge of care services, and have already made available an additional £7m in 2019-20 and allocated an additional £9m for 2020-21 in recognition of demographic pressures facing the service and rising costs.
“The next step will now be to continue working with our improvement board to develop a detailed action plan to address the recommendations made.
"The plan will be a collective top priority for everyone responsible for caring for vulnerable children; elected members of all parties, council employees across the organisation and various partner agencies – all playing a part in driving improvements to the service.
“Our children and young people will remain at the heart of everything we do. It is vital that each and every one of them receives the support and care they need and deserve.”
St Helens Council’s director of children’s services, professor Sarah O’Brien, said she accepts the findings of the report.
Prof O’Brien said: “Whilst I am disappointed on the overall outcome of the Inspection, I am glad Ofsted acknowledged the improvements we have made since last July’s damning focused inspection, but I am disappointed that these improvements have clearly not been fast enough in some parts of the service.
“I do however accept the findings of the report and we are absolutely ready and willing to take these recommendations on board, learn, and improve.
“We knew from the findings of the report in July 2018 that there was much work to do in order to make the necessary changes to the department and that this process would need both additional investment and time to improve.
“Ofsted have recognised in this report how changes over the last year are starting to make a positive difference in areas such as the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, adoption, care leavers and early help, but most importantly inspectors did not find any children at risk of immediate harm.
“Our main area for improvement must now focus on the need for better permanence planning for looked after children, to ensure that all children know what their long-term plan is, so that they feel safe and secure about their future. I want this for all our children and to make our support for vulnerable children and young people as good as it can be.
“Improving our service is not just about improving the Ofsted rating, it’s about making sure children in St Helens benefit from the best services possible, making sure they are safe, protected and inspired to reach their full potential.”
To read the full report click here: https://files.api.ofsted.gov.uk/v1/file/50121476