Ofsted inspectors say lack of communication between police and social workers is leaving Sunderland children at risk

Police and social workers in Sunderland need to improve communication to identify and protect vulnerable children, a new Ofsted report says.

Thursday, 13th June 2019, 2:10 pm
Updated Monday, 17th June 2019, 12:00 am
Sunderland Civic Centre

Inspectors Neil Penswick and Peter McEntee have criticised the way information is shared at the ‘front door’ stage of the assessment process.

But they have praised the way the system works once problems have been identified.

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Jill Colbert, chief executive of Together for Children.

The council set up a new agency – Together for Children (TfC) – to run children’s services after Ofsted first graded the service as inadequate in 2015.

Both Together for Children and Northumbria Police have said they “recognise that there are still some areas where a greater pace of improvement is needed” but are taking steps to address that.

“Since the last monitoring visit, there has been a deterioration in the quality of some services, and not all children are being protected,” says the inspectors’ letter published today, Friday, June 14.

“Since the monitoring visit in January 2019, the quality of the front door response to some safeguarding issues has deteriorated. Unless the presenting concern is obvious, children are not always protected from harm.”

The letter is critical of Northumbria Police, saying the force ‘do not provide enough information to ensure that TfC can provide timely and appropriate responses to concerns.

“Due to the poor quality of information being received, risks are not always fully recognised, and child protection work is not commenced by TfC when it should be.

“The multi-agency ‘triage’ arrangements are well resourced by the police but are not fit for children’s services purposes. All of the decisions are further reviewed by a social work manager. However, this is ineffective.

“Due to the poor quality of information from other agencies, further interventions are not always provided at the correct level of support.

“Inspectors saw a number of cases where children had not received a child protection response when this would have been appropriate: all the risks had not been recognised and immediate actions were not being taken to protect children. “

“Since the last monitoring visit, in the social work locality teams some children have not had an allocated social worker and had not been visited regularly. Necessary work has not been undertaken and managerial oversight is also poor. This has resulted in children not having their needs met in a timely manner and, in some cases, safeguarding issues not being responded to robustly.

“When team managers are allocating a child’s case, they do not identify the direction and tasks needing to be undertaken. The recording of supervision is too limited to enable robust oversight and is insufficiently reflective. Subsequent plans remain too parent focused and are not always specific about timescales for actions to be completed.

There was praise for the service’s work once a risk has been identified.

“When immediate safeguarding concerns are recognised, in the main child protection investigations and assessments are of a good quality, and are timely and thorough,” says today’s letter.

“This is an improvement from when this was last looked at on the inspection in 2018.

“When child protection issues are identified, in the main the quality of work is effective. Multi-agency strategy meetings are well attended, with clear recording of actions to be taken to reduce risk.

“Visits are undertaken promptly by the police and social workers, ensuring that children are immediately protected. When children need to be removed from their home due to identified safety issues, this is done in a timely manner with other options robustly considered.

“Workers in the assessment teams have small caseloads, which allows them to work with families and carry out direct work with children. The workers know their families well, and in these teams the morale is improving.

“Experienced and recently qualified workers and student social workers described being well supported.

"Inspectors met workers who considered that their recent move to work for Sunderland has been a positive career choice.

“In the main, when assessments are undertaken, they are of a good quality, evaluating the concerns and presenting well the views of the children. However, examples were also seen of much poorer work lacking consideration of all of the risks and strengths in the family.”

TfC had made progress tackiling staff shortage among social workers: “TfC have successfully recruited to the remaining management posts and are continuing their steady progress in recruiting to the permanent workforce,” says the letter.

“Experienced managers have either recently joined or are about to start. TfC has also been successful in recruiting to some social worker posts, and positive feedback given by staff is testament to the experience they have working in Sunderland.”

Together for Children, Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group, Sunderland City Council, Sunderland Safeguarding Children’s Board and Northumbria Police issued a joint response to the letter: “We welcome the acknowledgement from the latest Ofsted visit that child protection investigations and assessments for vulnerable children have improved. We are also pleased that the quality of social work is acknowledged.

“As partners, we recognise that there are still some areas where a greater pace of improvement is needed and have already taken steps to address these. This includes improving information sharing, the way actions are recorded and being able to provide robust evidence of the impact improvements are having on the lives of the children and families we work with.

“There has already been progress in addressing management capacity issues with recent appointments to all TfC management positions and experienced managers either in post or about to start.

“We value Ofsted’s feedback and have taken immediate action to address the issues raised, building on the progress already made in other areas of the service, including fostering and adoption which were both rated good by Ofsted in 2018 and within our children’s homes which are all rated either good or outstanding.

“We remain firmly committed to delivering the best services for all children in Sunderland.”