Children’s Services – in Crisis?

Despite IICSA opening its doors in July 2015 and including in its focus the work of local authorities children’s services the length and breadth of the country continue to be plagued with problems, probes, enquiries, intervention, financial crises, adverse press interest and funding difficulties.

The service appears to be in complete chaos. There are abuse enquiries in Pembrokeshire, funding constraints in Northampton, concerns that looked after children in Kent are at serious risk of exploitation and Sunderland and other authorities continuing to be rated as ‘inadequate’. The problems appear to be getting worse not better.

Sunderland Children’s Services are just the latest to be slated by Ofsted. The Council was criticised for a failure to recognise and respond to CSE risk, and protect vulnerable youngsters. CSE has been raised as a serious risk for the large number of looked after children sent as out-of-area placements. Whilst that came to the fore in Kent with the announcement that some headteachers have said they will not give school places to looked after children sent from other local authorities, it is equally a matter for concern elsewhere.

In Pembrokeshire the case of Mik’ Smith, a former youth worker highlights how abusers fall through the cracks.  He was convicted in 2014 for sexual offences against children. He had almost became an approved foster carer in 2010 despite there being serious concerns about his conduct in 2005. Investigations revealed he was employed by Pembrokeshire Council for 12 years before he was dismissed for gross misconduct. Roll forward two years he was convicted for sexual assault, indecency and inciting children to engage in sexual activity for which he was sentenced to six years. Having been caught with over 1000 indecent images of children it is difficult to comprehend how he almost became a foster carer having been disciplined 10 years earlier for inappropriate behaviour with children. An internal disciplinary enquiry held by the Council in 2005 resulted in him keeping his job and getting a verbal warning.

As if children’s services do not have enough to contend with a recent report is also critical of the impact of  lawyers who have been accused by some of just seeking  to tie those served with protecting the public in red tape and disrupting child abuse investigations. If it wasn’t hard enough already local authorities are at the thick end of the wedge. They get criticised and tied up in litigation and claims for compensation if they do intervene and equally if they don’t.

It isn’t easy to rid society of this cancer. The modern thinking in management of failing services continues to support removal of oversight from local authorities and the creation of independent Trusts overseen by Commissioners and trail blazers appointed by the Department for Education. But that’s not a magic pill and it doesn’t appear to improve standards.

How far have we really come since Victoria Climbie? In real terms we have to ask ourselves, despite greater scrutiny and interventions, working together, independent inspections, adverse report after adverse report and remodelled services have safeguarding standards really improved in the last 18 years?

Perhaps its’ time for a radical rethink. What about a national or even an international strategy (as the IT era knows no boundaries) and convening a think tank with like-minded professionals, academics, local authorities and other related stakeholders and having a real and meaningful debate to consider, develop and evolve a more effective model to manage an ever changing and evolving service in crisis.

Hayre_JAuthored by Jagdeep Hayre, a partner with BLM

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