Children's services chief says progress being made in Sunderland

Nick Whitfield
Nick Whitfield

The man charged with helping rebuild the reputation of children's services in Sunderland says he wants to focus on the future rather than dwell on past mistakes.

Children's services commissioner Nick Whitfield was drafted in last year to oversee operations after Ofsted rated the department and the authority’s safeguarding section as ‘inadequate’ in a report issued last July.

The services was placed in special measures and has been subject to Government monitoring since.

Last November, two separate case reviews found the local authority's failings may have contributed to the death of one child and the injury of another.

Ofsted found the council did not act quickly enough to concerns over a girl, known as Baby Penny, who fell and drowned in the bath in 2014.

It also said information about risks to a child - refrerred to as Baby Nicola - whose father was later convicted of neglect and ill treatment, was not properly shared.

Now with a £16million investment and 90 new social workers promised to turn the service around, a new Children's Services company is to be set up to run the service, the first organisation of its kind in the country.

The council has appointed Alex Hopkins as Chief Executive of the new company which will have responsibility for services involving children in need of protection (social care); children that are looked after; and children with disabilities. From September, the company will begin to operate in shadow form, until the formal transfer in April 2017

Mr Whitfield told the Echo he is pleased with the progress being made so far.

Speaking at Sunderland Civic Centre, he said: "There were problems in the past, and we can focus on those problems or look to the future.

"I'm pleased with the progress being made and we need a resilient service that is able to do the job.

"I promised that I would stay long enough to ensure the job is done.

"I've been here nine months now and I'm part of this very, very hardworking team and we are beginning to see what the future might look like.

"I'm really confident in the senior team and I look forward to the service becoming a beacon of quality in the future."

"My role is to oversee the start of the process, to get the service to improve, and then also to set up a sustainable organisation, to ensure that improvement can be sustained in the future.

"I have found the council very cooperative in working with the Government to actually look at the services and decide what needs to be done differently and better, and investing more finance to bring in additional workers, to ensure that quality of work is better.

"From talking to social workers, I understand that the service is more timely and there is a better understanding of what needs to be done and how to make sure services for children are really resilient."

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