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Watchdog launches surprise children’s social services probe

Watchdog launches surprise children’s social services probe

🕔11.Sep 2012

Government experts launched an unannounced inspection of Birmingham’s failing children’s social services department this week, ringing from a taxi to tell city council officials they would be arriving in 10 minutes.

A team from Ofsted took local authority managers by surprise when they began an eight-day visit which will determine whether Birmingham can be released from the special measures improvement plan imposed on the council in February 2009.

Although a full inspection by Ofsted had been anticipated, social services bosses believed the visit would not take place until later in the year. Their timetable was dashed when the watchdog’s team rang first thing on Monday morning to announce that they were just around the corner.

Children’s social services in Birmingham were declared unfit for purpose at the end of 2009 following critical reports from Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate. Concerns were highlighted about poor senior and middle management, difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff and serious delays in assessing children at risk of abuse.

Staff sickness levels were soaring, forcing the council to spend millions of pounds on temporary agency social workers.

The improvement notice followed several child deaths in Birmingham, where youngsters perished in violent incidents despite being on the books of social workers. Subsequent investigations routinely blamed poor co-operation between social services, the police and health services.

When  Khyra Ishaq, a seven-year-old from Handsworth, was starved to death by her mother and stepfather in 2008, a Serious Case Review found that social workers and education officials did not understand that they had powers to intervene against the wishes of Khyra’s mother.

The council’s Strategic Director for Children, Young People and Families, Peter Duxbury, has been in post for six months and has the task of turning around the country’s largest social services department. But he is playing down any suggestion that the improvement notice will be lifted in the short term.

Mr Duxbury said there had been significant improvement and he believed the inspectors would find examples of good work. However, they would also uncover examples “where practice is not as good as it should be”.

He blamed the size of Birmingham and the relentless pressure on social workers, arguing that it would be easier for smaller local authorities to deliver a consistently excellent service.

“It’s such a large organisation dealing with so many cases that I am sure they will come across some areas where practice could be improved. These areas will be around timescales for assessment and the quality of some of those assessments.

“What makes us different from excellent authorities is that we won’t be able to demonstrate excellence across the board,” Mr Duxbury added.

He is pinning his hopes on a new system of Integrated Family Support teams, where social workers, police, doctors and health professionals work together to intervene at an early stage with families to prevent children from being taken in to care.

The council has spent £7 million since April on hiring agency social workers following continued difficulties in hiring and keeping staff.

Mr Duxbury said: “I want to ensure that Birmingham is at the top of a list of places where they want to come and spend their careers.”


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