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Norfolk children's services: 'There have been very serious miscarriages of justice'

PUBLISHED: 14:02 04 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:25 08 March 2017

An investigation by this newspaper looks at if children have been let down by Norfolk County Council. Photo: Thinkstock

An investigation by this newspaper looks at if children have been let down by Norfolk County Council. Photo: Thinkstock

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Serious concerns remain about the department which looks after hundreds of the most vulnerable children in Norfolk, almost four years since it was rated as 'inadequate' by Ofsted.

An investigation by this newspaper, starting today, will look at the issues that continue to hang over the department.

Just four months ago Ofsted inspectors carrying out their latest review ruled that “children and young people are still not consistently receiving good enough services”.

Our probe into the department, rated as inadequate by Ofsted since 2013, comes as part of a wider campaign titled ‘Fighting For Their Futures’, which will look at whether or not children in this region are being failed and given a harder start in life because of where they are growing up.

As well as Norfolk County Council-run children’s services, we will focus on education standards, mental health, deprivation and a range of other areas. We will also draw up a manifesto of improvements that need to be made to give our youngsters the best opportunities possible.

Over the next few days, our findings on children’s services will include:

•how an MP is preparing to take a dossier of concerns and allegations about how children have been removed from their families to the new head of Norfolk County Council’s children’s services department

•how two former Norfolk councillors allege they were forced out by council lawyers when they raised concerns about the department

•concerns over how and why senior foster carers have had children removed from them

•doubts over the independence and effectiveness of a review looking into foster carer complaints

•how a much-trumpeted partnership between Norfolk County Council and a charity has yet to get off the ground

•the staggering amounts of money spent on consultants and interim heads of the department since it was branded inadequate

Responding to our findings, a spokesperson for Norfolk County Council said its children’s services department was improving and looking to the future. A new interim chief, Matt Dunkley, started in February and is said to be optimistic that inspectors visiting the department this week will find further improvements.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he believed there had been North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he believed there had been "unacceptable practices" at the children's services department. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The department’s job is to safeguard all children who need help and protection, to act as the corporate parent of children who need to be taken into care, to provide adoption and fostering opportunities, to support care leavers up to the age of 25 and to provide support for schools.

It currently has around 1,100 children in care, who are placed with foster carers as well as in council and private accommodation.

In both 2013 and 2015, the service was rated as ‘inadequate’. Inspectors in 2015 found “widespread failings” for looked after children and care leavers.

And the department was told at the end of 2016 by Ofsted that its rate of improvement to get out of its current “inadequate” rating was slow.

That led to the resignation of the department head Michael Rosen who has been replaced with another interim – the fifth head in four years.

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham has been involved in about half a dozen cases where he said there had been allegations of wrongdoing against the children’s services department.

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

He has gathered a dossier of these cases which he will take to the department’s new head, Mr Dunkley.

Sir Henry said: “I know that the vast majority of social workers are doing an excellent and very difficult job and they are in a no-win situation.

“If they don’t act and there’s another tragedy like Baby P they will be pilloried and if they are overzealous they will be accused of not doing enough to keep the child with the mother.

“The key thing is that it is incumbent upon them to put full evidence to the court. I find, in some cases, corners have been cut.”

Sir Henry said some of the cases in his dossier should be reopened.

“I know that where children have been taken away, that can never be reversed,” he said. “But it would help people involved to be able to ask questions and to be given assurances what happened to them would not happen under the current regime.”

North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham said he had a dossier of cases which raised concerns about how some children had been removed from families by the council. Picture: Matthew Usher.North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham said he had a dossier of cases which raised concerns about how some children had been removed from families by the council. Picture: Matthew Usher.

He is also taking cases to the most senior family court judge in the country, Sir James Munby, who has said there is a “crisis” 
in the system nationally because so many children are being taken into care.

In September last year, Sir James called for urgent research into why the number of cases where councils applied to separate children from their families had more than doubled since the Baby P scandal to almost 15,000 in 2016.

Norfolk’s children’s services department takes more children into care proportionally than neighbouring Cambridgeshire or Suffolk and the numbers are rising again with almost 1,100 in care now, an increase of five percent in a year.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he had also come across cases where there had been “unacceptable practices” within the department, particularly with the way foster carers had children removed from them.

“It goes back over many years,” he said. “There definitely have been very serious miscarriages of justice.”

He too called for a change of culture at the department.

What Norfolk County Council says...

This newspaper asked the county council a series of questions about the concerns raised in these articles.

A spokesman for the council said: “Children are taken into care when their parents can no longer look after them safely.

“There is no single reason for this and each family’s circumstances will be unique and complex.

“We want children to be cared for in permanent, stable homes wherever possible. However, we will always look for the best placement for each individual child and this can include kinship care, residential care or specialist facilities.

“Children’s services was completely reorganised in 2015 and additional investment was made to support children and families to reduce the risk of children being taken into care.

“A range of anonymised case studies formed part of the annual review of early help services report.

“We were one of 10 authorities chosen to develop best social work practice via the Signs of Safety project.

The positive impact of this was recognised in our 2015 Ofsted report.

“Additionally, improvements are detailed in the published Ofsted monitoring letters of July 2016 and November 2016.”

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