Fears over Norwich children’s centre

Fears have been raised that hundreds of vulnerable children will be left without specialist support under proposals to cut a vital service in Norwich.

The Unthank Family Centre in Unthank Road, Norwich, is under threat of closure as Norfolk County Council looks to plug a funding gap of at least �155m over the next three years.

Under the proposals, the centre, which provides therapeutic support for children from birth to 12, will close and instead the service will move across the council's three operational divisions – city and south, north and east, and west and Breckland – to provide services locally.

There are concerns, however, that there will not be the same level of service as currently on offer at the Norwich-based centre.

The Unthank Family Centre, which has been in the city for up to 20 years, works with about 300 families every year.

A multi-disciplinary team of 12 people, including therapists, social workers, early years workers and teachers, put in place a number of interventions including therapy for children who have experienced trauma and abuse – there is believed to be nowhere else that offers this service.

Many of the children who attend the centre, which is open Monday to Friday, have suffered so much trauma at an early age that they are unable to recognise emotions – they do not understand that when someone smiles it is because they are happy or they put themselves at risk because they cannot feel fear.

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The centre also helps courts and child protection conferences decide whether it is possible for a child to remain within their family and offers support to foster carers.

Forty per cent of the children who attend the centre are in foster care.

David Lambert, senior Unison steward for children's services, said: 'The Unthank Family Centre is a frontline service safeguarding the wellbeing of the most vulnerable children in Norfolk, in line with child protection legislation.

' It is a unique and essential service for which there is an enormous demand.

'The requirement for this work is unquestionable, and it can't currently be replicated by the voluntary or private sector.'

The closure of the Unthank Centre, which is believed to cost about �500,000 to run, would see staff numbers halved to just six.

Under the proposals, it states that the service is only available to children within travelling distance. The centre, however, supports all children within the 'central belt' of Norfolk and staff do make home visits.

Boo Dickens, who lives south of Loddon, and a foster carer for 10 years, said: 'I think it is very short-sighted. I think it has been made by people who don't understand how vulnerable these children are.

'They are the most vulnerable children in Norfolk and have suffered great trauma.

'We have fostered very challenging children who have benefited immensely from the help at the centre.

Bert Bremner, Labour spokesman on children's services at County Hall, added: 'It's a horrific proposal. What one has to think about is the consequences in terms of child deaths and abuse – we all know about Lauren Wright and Baby P.

'To reduce our children's social workers and this marvellous team is so terribly sad.

'These children are some of the most traumatised and stressed children in the world and we as councillors have a responsibility for their care.'

The closure of the Unthank Family Centre is part of a series of proposals set out in the Big Conversation consultation to reduce the scale and capacity of the county council's family support.

As well as closing the Unthank Centre, the council plans to reduce the county adolescent prevention service team to nine staff.

Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services, said: 'These are exceptional times and we have to transform the way we work and the services we deliver if we are to meet the pressures on our budget.

'In order to make decisions about the county's future, we have consulted widely with the public and partners, via the Big Conversation and have had more than 9,000 responses.

'We will be considering all these views very carefully. '

Have you got experience of the centre? Call Evening News reporter Kate Scotter on 01603 772326 or email kate.scotter@archant.co.uk