Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj report on the challenges facing children’s services in Northamptonshire.
Last February, Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority in two decades to declare itself effectively bankrupt.
What followed was emergency spending controls and uncertainty over the future of many of the area’s public services.
As local people fought to save libraries and protesters campaigned against proposed cuts, the council vowed to protect children and vulnerable adults. Yet, just months later, a damning Ofsted report led to the Government appointing a commissioner to oversee the county’s children’s services.
The Ofsted inspection found that 267 children in need of a statutory assessment and intervention had not been allocated a social worker and that, in cases sampled, there was no evidence of “risk being identified managed or robustly reviewed”. The watchdog went on to warn that the lack of oversight was leaving children at potential risk of harm.
All of the social workers we have spoken to said they are now under pressure to close cases too quickly.
They [managers] tell you over and over again that everything is fine, it’s like being in an abusive relationship. It’s gaslighting.Social worker in Northamptonshire
“There are cases that clearly shouldn’t have been closed,” one said. “They end up being sent back to be re-opened.”
A report from the Government’s Children Services Commissioner earlier this month stated that there were significant risks within the department, particularly in the safeguarding service.
It found that it “was particularly worrying that this situation was still in place almost 12 months after the circumstances that precipitated the serious case review into the death of a two-year old child”.
The findings of that review are due to be published any day now, but they were initially expected shortly after the trial of the child’s father who was convicted of his murder in October 2018. The delay has led to concerns locally and has prompted questions being asked in Parliament.
The Commissioner’s report also said that failings within Northamptonshire’s children services are “long-standing, systemic and will require a fundamental shift in the current culture”.
The Labour candidate for Northampton North, Sally Keeble, agrees.
At a recent council meeting, she highlighted five troubling cases that had been brought to her. They included a woman who was separated from her baby after losing her temporary accommodation, a young mother and baby left sofa-surfing after being chased out of their home by gun-wielding intruders, and concerns by a family that warnings they gave to the council about a dangerous man were ignored.
“Children’s services is the highest risk area in local government,” Ms Keeble said. “Staff are dealing with difficult issues and mistakes can have serious consequences. At present, the culture in the department does not seem to be delivering for the public or for the staff. What’s needed is a culture that is inclusive for the public so that they are, and feel, heard and believed, especially when there are warning signs of things going wrong.”
The social workers we spoke to said that, on top of growing caseloads, the services available for them to refer vulnerable people to are constantly being cut and an increasing number of homelessness cases is making things even more difficult.
“We rarely had people that were homeless a few years ago, now it’s a daily occurrence,” one social worker told us.
Another spoke about “aggressive gatekeeping” of people with no recourse to public funds. They said that the council used to house families who needed the support of social services and were unable to access benefits or public housing because of their immigration status. But, since the local authority’s financial crisis, the social worker said that has all changed.
“There has been aggressive gatekeeping of people with no recourse to public funds,” they said. “I’ve known staff to leave because they were unhappy with what they were being asked to do. If we’ve been housing a woman with no recourse for a while, they’ll tell us to get them out even if they have nowhere to go, they just say we can’t afford to keep them there.”
The recruitment and retention of social workers is another key problem.
The department has lost experienced staff and is struggling to find quality replacements. A marketing expert was even brought in to develop a more attractive recruitment portal, but, despite some improvements, the council is still struggling to recruit both agency and permanent staff.
What’s needed is a culture that is inclusive for the public so that they are, and feel, heard and believed, especially when there are warning signs of things going wrong.Sally Keeble, Labour candidate for Northampton North
“This is what a bankrupt council looks like,” one social worker said.
“People choose to go to other areas, places with better pay and better conditions. Staff are demoralised and unhappy and they feel that they are not listened to. They [managers] tell you over and over again that everything is fine, it’s like being in an abusive relationship. It’s gaslighting.”
The Northamptonshire branch of the trade union Unison said that pressure to recruit and retain social workers has been exacerbated in the county due to its reputation as a bankrupt council.
“The departure of experienced staff, who have not been rewarded in line with their knowledge and skills, has meant that leadership and strong management has suffered,” a spokesperson for Unison said.
“We have concerns that staff are working in a constant state of flux. Social workers need strong and safe leadership and good facilities to work effectively.”
A spokesperson for Northamptonshire County Council said: “We are continually working with colleagues across the council to examine all practices to ensure that children are served as well as they can be.
“There have been significant changes made to many of our systems and practices concerning children and young people as a result of work with the Children’s Commissioner and we continue to work hard to improve outcomes for children and families in Northamptonshire.”