Some Wirral children remain ‘for too long at risk of harm’

A small group of children overseen by Wirral Council “remain for too long at risk of ongoing harm” according to a new report criticising aspects of its children’s services.

A report published by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED)  on 1 February found that while improvements had been made by the council, all aspects of the service require improvement criticising the management of private fostering arrangements and older children under its care, and some decision making for not being “sufficiently robust.”

In 2019, the council was told it needed to improve in a number of areas in its last children’s services inspection though the department’s leadership was praised to be good at the time. It had previously been rated as inadequate in 2016.

Wirral’s Director of Children’s Services Simone White said the report was “harsh,” arguing it did not fully take into account the council’s financial challenges.

Chair of the local authority’s children’s committee Cllr Sue Powell-Wilde said, “The final report is disappointing because it doesn’t adequately reflect the improvements that have been driven forward since 2019.”

The OFSTED report said the quality of social work assessments, working with children and domestic abuse response had improved but standards were variable and “not all areas of practice have improved at a sufficient pace to meet children’s needs.” It criticised management of children placed in the care of private foster carers as “underdeveloped” and “inconsistent” and that some children did not feel prepared to be leaving care.

In summary, it said, “Decision-making when children are on the edge of care is sometimes too adult focused, which means that a small number of children remain for too long at risk of ongoing harm.” The council was also criticised about some children living with unapproved family members or friends because assessments were not completed in time.

The report said providing children in care with permanent homes needed to improve and that while the council was bringing in a new localised model to look after children, it is too early to say what impact this is having.

OFSTED has told Wirral a number of steps need to be taken including making sure 16 and 17-year-old homeless children are aware of their rights and entitlements as well as awareness and identification of those living in private fostering arrangements. The report said current management of private fostering meant “the local authority cannot be assured that children are safe in these placements.”

The report had found some children in supported living “struggle to manage their responsibilities, and some feel lonely” and health assessments were not always completed in time. Those leaving care did not always have access to Wi-Fi which “potentially increases their social isolation or limits their opportunities to seek employment and engage with education.”

A lack of accommodation choice in Wirral for care leavers meant people had “feelings of isolation and loneliness, as they live too far away from friendship groups and college.” The report said this was an issue senior leadership in the council was seeking to address.

However council services were praised in a number of areas including effectively reacting when there were welfare concerns including its out-of-hours team. Social workers were also praised for visiting children regularly and raising concerns when children were at risk of significant harm.

Its improving relationships with schools, effective recording and management of allegations against those who work with children, and its care for disabled as well as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were praised as well as strong relationships with partners including its early help strategy “resulted in many families receiving effective help at the right time.”

Wirral Council leader Cllr Paul Stuart said, “The report demonstrates that, in all areas, our practice is sound and safe. There are clearly areas of very good practice identified, although we acknowledge that there are still areas where the service has been slow to improve, or has shown a degree of inconsistency, and these issues are reflected in our overall judgement from the inspector.

“In 2019, the verdict of the service was that it ‘requires improvement’ so we can take a degree of solace in the fact that we are now much closer to receiving a ‘good’ rating. We have delivered improved services even while dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on children and families and decreases to our budget due to the council needing a recovery plan due to financial challenges.”

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