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New boss of Norfolk children's services Matt Dunkley fights back

PUBLISHED: 08:19 09 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:32 10 March 2017

Matt Dunkley, the interim director of Norfolk County Council's children's services department. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Matt Dunkley, the interim director of Norfolk County Council's children's services department. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Norfolk County Council

The man charged with bringing the department, which looks after Norfolk's children, up to scratch today came out fighting, painting a positive picture of the service and its future.

Norfolk County Council wants to recruit more foster carers. Pic: Norfolk County Council.Norfolk County Council wants to recruit more foster carers. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Matt Dunkley took over as interim director of Norfolk County Council’s children’s services at the start of February and in his first wide-ranging interview he said:

•Fewer children should be taken into care

•More foster carers needed to be recruited

•Latest signs showed the department was performing well

•Coverage over the last week in this newspaper of problems with the department was “unfair and misleading”

This newspaper has been investigating children’s services over the last five days as part of our Fighting For Their Futures campaign.

The investigation was prompted by a series of complaints we have received and Ofsted inspectors stating in November last year that improvements to get the department out of its current “inadequate” rating were not happening fast enough.

The new head of children's services wants to fewer children to be taken into care. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA WireThe new head of children's services wants to fewer children to be taken into care. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

But Mr Dunkley said our coverage this week gave “an image of the department based on historical matters which people do feel has been dealt with”.

Despite being rated “inadequate” by Ofsted twice since 2013, Mr Dunkley said: “I’ve a found a department that is much more buoyant and forward looking than I was expecting to find.”

“I can see the milestones on the journey that this service is making from the low point of 2013 to where it needs to be to get out of intervention.”

He cited the example of Ofsted inspectors finding in 2013 that hundreds of cases where children were in need had not been given to a social worker. Now there are none.

Mr Dunkley, the former director of children’s services in East Sussex, said staff were optimistic about the future. The department was now planning the next stage in its improvement and looking at how to get better faster, he added.

“The basics are there. We are doing the right things,” he said.

According to its latest performance data, most services for children in care were performing “really well”, he said.

But he warned improvement took time at large councils and it was “unrealistic” to expect the department to be rated “good” at its next Ofsted inspection.

He said across the country councils had found it very difficult to emerge from “inadequate” ratings and the margins between inadequate and good were fine.

“All the boxes for the preconditions of success... have been ticked,” he said. “That doesn’t mean job done because you’ve got to convert that to real progress.”

One challenge facing Mr Dunkley is recruiting more experienced social workers into vacancies. But perhaps his biggest hurdle is dealing with why more children than planned are being taken into care and are then placed in expensive residential accommodation.

That has put his budget under pressure, with the department now expected to be £14m overbudget this year.

This newspaper has reported this week on past cases where questions have been raised about whether children should have been taken into care.

Mr Dunkley stressed that was for the court to decide and no children were being taken into care who should not be.

But he added the number of children being taken into care was not sustainable. Around 1,100 children are in care in Norfolk, proportionally higher than Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and although Mr Dunkley said that was not high nationally, he admitted it was causing a financial headache.

The council is looking at how to reduce the risk of keeping children with their families so they do not have to be taken away.

But Mr Dunkley said the council would continue to act “decisively” where it felt children should be put into care.

When in care, Norfolk pays more than other councils to house each child. If it was using similar accommodation to an average council it would save £6m a year, according to a council report in January. To get the expense down, Mr Dunkley’s predecessor looked at investing £5 million in building more care homes for children in Norfolk, but Mr Dunkley is not convinced that is the answer.

He would rather see more children placed in foster care rather than residential homes.

But to do that, he needs more foster carers.

•Why more foster carers are needed

If he can recruit more foster carers, Mr Dunkley will go some way to solving two problems facing his department.

He will save a lot of money (85pc of children in care in Norfolk are in some type of foster placement, but it takes up just 57pc of the total accommodation costs).

And he should also improve the lives of children being taken into care.

Children kept in foster placements close to home tend to do better than those sent away to residential homes.

But there is a snag in the plan.

“We do not have enough foster carers of any kind,” Mr Dunkley said. “The total number needs to grow and we want to grow it in-house (rather than using agencies).”

There is a pretty even split between the number of children in foster care placed “in-house” i.e. with carers paid for by the council and those placed with fostering agencies.

But agencies cost more and are getting hundreds of thousands of pounds a month from the council.

The department is spending £2m more than planned this financial year on fostering agencies.

“Another 200 foster carers would be fantastic but that is a lot to recruit,” Mr Dunkley said.

There are plans underway to recruit more and this week the council said it was looking for more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to come forward to foster.

When children leave care at 16, the council has a duty to provide some sort of support all the way up to the age of 21 and they could get support until they are 25.

But statistically, children who have been in care do worse in life than those not in care.

And again foster care could offer a solution.

Children now have the option to stay with foster parents until the age of 21 under an initiative called “Staying Put”, rather than leave at 18.

•To find out more about becoming a foster carer in Norfolk visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/children-and-families/adoption-and-fostering or call 01603 638343 or 0344 800 8020.

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