Read the full Ofsted report: Norfolk County Council’s ‘inadequate’ child protection services criticised
'Inconsistent and patchy', 'lengthy periods where potential risk to children was not assessed' and examples of 'very poor decision-making which left vulnerable children at risk' – the latest Ofsted assessment of Norfolk County Council's child protection services makes for difficult reading.
It brands the authority's offering as 'inadequate' in all areas from the help and protection given to children and families and the quality of practice, to the leadership and governance of the department.
Last night children's services leaders in the county were faced with a long list of action points which inspectors want addressed immediately, or within three or six months' time.
Summing up the overall effectiveness of the safeguarding service in Norfolk, Ofsted said: 'The delivery of arrangements for the protection of children in Norfolk is inconsistent and patchy. While some examples were seen by inspectors of effective intervention, there are too many cases where practice is very poor.
'As a result, the council and its partners cannot be confident that all eligible children have been identified, their needs appropriately assessed and plans put in place for the protection.'
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The authority has now begun talks with the Department for Education (DfE) about what will be done to ensure the service is brought up to standard and the county's children are given the level of protection they deserve.
They are likely to consider three options:
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-Outsourcing the running of child protection services to another body;
-Handing it over to an authority which is considered to be offering a good service; or
-Setting up an improvement board.
While the third is the most likely, improvement boards are usually chaired by the chief executive of the local authority.
With David White set to leave soon, an alternative chairman would need to be found.
Last night a DfE spokesman said it was 'very concerned' to hear of the inspectors' judgement, adding: 'Any failure in children's services is very serious.
'It is vital there is a relentless focus on local arrangements for the protection of children and that Ofsted inspections are rigorous. Ministers are aware of the report and departmental officials are in contact with the council to discuss next steps in order to make sure their plans for improvement are robust and undertaken as a priority.'
The Ofsted assessment took place from January 14-24, with inspectors scrutinising 119 cases of the 5,500 children currently being dealt with by Norfolk children's services either through child protection or as looked after children.
It acknowledges the increased workload of the service which saw 8,500 referrals in 2012/13, compared with 7,500 the year before. There are currently more than 1,000 looked-after children in Norfolk.
This latest report comes just 19 months after a previous assessment judged Norfolk County Council's child protection offering adequate with some inadequate features.
Criticism at that time included the variable performance of safeguarding teams, the response to referrals and completion of assessments, and a lack of information about the health care needs of looked-after children.
Following the publication of the report, in July 2011, the authority put together an action plan to address the problems and regularly updated members of the children's services overview and scrutiny committee on its progress.
But this time the concerns are even more far-reaching.
Early support offered to children and families was found to be inconsistent, schools are not recognising problems early enough, children and young people's views and diverse needs are not consistently taken into account and 'large numbers of children in need do not have an allocated social worker and therefore do not have an assessment of need'.
Attempts to complete initial assessments in a timely manner mean they sometimes lack important information, and protection plans can lack details specific to the child in question.
The report welcomes the 'strong commitment' from the county's director of children's services (Lisa Christensen), chief executive (David White) and children's services lead member (Alison Thomas) but adds: 'Despite evidence of scrutiny and challenge from senior leaders, there has been an insufficiently consistent impact on the quality of services to protect children at the front line.'
But there are some glimmers of hope.
Inspectors highlight the use of the MASH – multi-agency safeguarding hub – team where all initial calls about child safety are dealt with by a group which includes police, children and adult health workers, and children's services staff. It was found to add 'considerable value to the council and its partners' initial response to risk of harm'.
Ofsted also welcomed the effort made to recruit more permanent social workers and ensure they are offered career progression, and to support the training of future workers through 'links with local higher-education establishments'.
Last night Mervyn Scutter, children's services spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: 'The main concern is for the youngsters in Norfolk for whom this report says they are at risk. That is very, very worrying. Eighteen months ago they [the authority] were told there were problems. People have to ask why it hasn't been sorted out.'
He said Alison Thomas, the Conservative administration's cabinet member for children's services, should ask herself 'whether she's the right person to carry on and sort this out'.
But Labour spokesman Sue Whitaker said now was the wrong time for someone to step down and that stability was what was needed.
She added: 'One of the glimmers of hope is that, in most areas, they did find there was some good practice. That's something the council can draw on. There's something they can build on – but it strikes me as an uphill battle.'
Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk branch secretary of the Unison union, which represents many of the county's social workers, said he believed child protection services here was of a 'good standard' but said the kind of failings highlighted by Ofsted were symptomatic of a local authority hit by central government cuts. He added: 'Unison has committed we will work with them [the council] to tackle some of the problems identified.'
Click here to view the full report.