It could take up to three years to bring the department tasked with looking after Wearside’s most vulnerable children back up to a good standard, a senior official has admitted.
Steve Walker, interim director of children’s services for Sunderland City Council, has said a recruitment campaign to find new, long term social workers who are up to the job is underway, while the authority has already advertised to find four new directors to help turn things around.
It comes in the wake of the Government’s announcement that a voluntary trust could be formed to manage cases and bring together all the organisations charged with protecting those at risk.
The city was singled out by Prime Minister David Cameron after a damning Ofsted report in July, which said the department and its safeguarding efforts were inadequate, as part of a larger plan to target under performing children’s services.
Mr Walker, who is on secondment from Leeds Council, is working alongside Government-appointed commissioner Nick Whitfield, as they address the concerns.
Those included “widespread and serious failures” such as poor leadership, a lack of communication, a large number of unallocated and unworked cases, and services for those missing from care or home or at risk of sexual exploitation being poorly coordinated, putting young people at risk.
The significant issues around social workers have been brought to light and we will need to strengthen the response to families and we’re doing a lot of work to do that.Steve Walker
Mr Walker said: “I think that it’s important to recognise things are different already and are better and a lot of work has been done, even before I arrived in September to change things.
“The significant issues around social workers have been brought to light and we will need to strengthen the response to families and we’re doing a lot of work to do that.
“We are hopeful there will be a further Ofsted inspection in the next 12 to 18 months.
“I think if you think about it, it will take two to three years to get it back to good.”
Mr Walker said that out of the 75 councils which have been checked under the new form of Ofsted inspection, 17 have been graded good.
“The bar is high and that is good because we are talking about the services for our children,” he added.
“I’m not complaining, but what I would say is authorities at the moment are under an awful lot of financial pressure and are working very hard to get up to a good level.”
The council is advertising for a director of social care, director of early help, director of education services and a director of performance and quality assurance as it sets up a new structure and aims to improve children’s services to help youngsters “live safe, happy, healthy and successful lives.” A series of “locum” social workers have been drafted in as the council looks to boost its numbers on a long-term basis.
It has previously said it would be taking on 90 more to its ranks.
Mr Walker said: “I think social work is a challenge and I think social work involving children in Sunderland isn’t any more of a challenge than places elsewhere in the North East.
“If Sunderland wants to be a successful and vibrant city, it needs to successfully look after its children.”
Council leader Paul Watson agrees there is a need for a “cultural change” within the department as it strives to return to the good rating it was given in 2012.