New interim bosses move in to turn around Sunderland’s children’s services after serious failings

Steve Walker, who has returned to his post with Leeds Council after spending a time as interim director of children's services in Sunderland on secondment.
Steve Walker, who has returned to his post with Leeds Council after spending a time as interim director of children's services in Sunderland on secondment.

New interim bosses have been put in charge of under-fire departments tasked with looking after Wearside’s most vulnerable youngsters.

Colin Morris has resigned as the independent chairman of Sunderland Safeguarding Children’s Board, while Ann Goldsmith has been appointed as the interim director of Sunderland City Council’s children’s services.

Colin Morris,  who has stepped down as independent chairman of Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board.

Colin Morris, who has stepped down as independent chairman of Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board.

The teams have been put under the spotlight since Ofsted graded them as inadequate following an inspection, with work now under way to improve their results and set up a trust under the orders of the Government to manage cases.

Ms Goldsmith takes over from Steve Walker, who was on secondment from Leeds Council and has now returned to his post full-time, while Jane Held has been appointed as the interim chairman of the safeguarding board as efforts to recruit a permanent chairman to replace Mr Morris are under way.

Proposals for how the new trust will operate are to go before the council’s cabinet committee this month.

It comes as the Conservatives on the council call for the authority to be more open about the work which is being carried out to increase the standards of their work.

Poor leadership of senior managers and councillors came in for criticism by inspectors.

Councillor Peter Wood, leader of the Conservative members on the council, said: “Ofsted found the children’s services in Sunderland to be the worst in the country when it investigated last May.

“While some progress has been made, there remains a long way to go.
“What would help is some vigorous political leadership, from either, or preferably both, Councillor Paul Watson, leader of the council, and Councillor Pat Smith, cabinet member for children’s services.

“But that is lacking today as it was at the time Ofsted published their report last year and when Ofsted were severely critical of weak leadership in the city.”

While Coun Watson has spoken to the Echo and other media about the problems, Coun Smith has declined several requests for an interview.

The authority has recruited three new directors to head up the department, with a fourth to join them.

Councillor Michael Dixon, deputy leader of the Conservatives on the council, has praised Councillor Norma Wright, chairman of its scrutiny committee, for pushing for a transformation, but called for stability within the service and board’s management.

He said: “I cannot recall a single question being asked by any of the 60-plus Labour councillors about this massively important subject.
“I doubt too many of them were aware that the chairman of the safeguarding board was leaving his post until we raised it recently.

“His departure was only then discussed openly because we asked.

“I believe too that it would have been a great help to the many people of Sunderland concerned about this issue, had a progress report been made public by the council’s leadership, giving an update on the situation.

“Instead, nothing.”

A request to speak to Mr Morris, who is to remain as chairman of the adult safeguarding board, was declined by the council.

In a statement he said: “A significant amount of progress has been made in improving safeguarding in Sunderland since the Ofsted report last July.

“With plans well underway to create a new organisation to oversee Children’s Services, bringing with it a new approach to children’s safeguarding in Sunderland, it feels like this is the right time to hand over the reins to a successor.”

Sonia Tognarelli, the council’s head of paid service, said: “Colin has steered the Safeguarding Children’s Board through a period of significant change and we would like to thank him for the contribution he has made to improving children’s safeguarding in the city during this time.

“We are pleased that he will continue to chair the Adult Safeguarding Board.

“Pending the recruitment of a new permanent chair, Jane Held has been appointed as interim Chair of the Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board.

“Jane has worked in social work and the public sector for more than 30 years including chairing safeguarding boards and brings considerable experience to the role.

“She will support the board over the coming months, allowing time for a permanent chair to be recruited to take the board forward.”

Ms Ann Goldsmith added: “Work to improve children’s safeguarding in Sunderland is continuing following July’s Ofsted report, with an extra £16million invested into children’s care.

“A significant amount of work has been completed to strengthen front-line social work services.

“This has included additional staff to reduce caseloads, new policies and procedures to support key processes, strengthened management oversight, regular and reliable performance management reports and new scrutiny arrangements.

“The council is continuing to work closely with Nick Whitfield, the Children’s Commissioner for Sunderland, to address the issues raised by the inspection.

“Both he and the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson have acknowledged evidence of improvement and the council’s positive attitude to making improvements. The council accepts there is still work to be done. We want to be sure that all our children get the services they deserve. All council members and staff are supporting this improvement journey.

“The on-going serious case reviews are at different stages of completion. We anticipate a number of these will be ready for publication in the summer.

“As part of the improvement work, we are in the process of creating a new organisational structure for Children’s Services with a strong focus on early intervention and prevention.

“A report seeking the formal go ahead to establish a company to deliver Children’s Services functions on behalf of the City Council is due to be submitted to Cabinet this April.

“As a first step in the development of that organisation, a new management structure has been created and appointments made to three of the four posts.

“This is an good time to join children’s services in Sunderland as the service is benefiting from investment and a renewed focus on good practice to support our social workers to do the best job they can to support vulnerable children.

“New directors for education and safeguarding come into post next week and the director for quality assurance and performance starts in May.

“Interviews are due to be held in April for the remaining post. This is with a view to the trust/company being set up in shadow form in the summer before it becomes an organisation in its own right next April.”

Nine serious case reviews are now being carried out as the authorities seek to learn lessons from the care given to children on Wearside.

They include the reports into contact with two 14-year-olds, who were found hanged within a matter of days of each other.

The documents into the care of friends Sarah Clerkson and Danielle Formosa are yet to be published, despite their deaths more than two years ago.

Sarah was living with a foster family, while Danielle, a victim of sexual exploitation, was in a care home.

Ann Goldsmith, the new interim director of children’s services with Sunderland City Council, said: “The on-going serious case reviews are at different stages of completion.
“We anticipate a number of these will be ready for publication in the summer.”

In a statement issued by Conservative councillors Peter Wood and Michael Dixon, the ward members said: “The outstanding serious case reviews are an end-product of a failing system at Sunderland City Council, something we sincerely hope is being addressed after the terrible Ofsted report last year.
“We share everyone’s concern at this totally unsatisfactory situation and fully expect the council to keep the people of Sunderland informed as to the progress being made to assist in the long journey when some confidence is finally restored in Children’s Services.”

Nick Whitfield is continuing to work with the authority as children’s commissioner in the wake of the report.