Herefordshire families who reached out for help from county’s children’s services were first ignored, then met with hostile responses that amounted to “witch hunts” against them.

This was among the findings of a panel convened by children’s commissioner Eleanor Brazil to hear from families affected by the department as part of her review into its failings.

Ms Brazil, who has already published a highly critical initial report earlier this year, was approached by several families in the course of preparing it, prompting her to set up a three-strong independent panel to hear and record their concerns.

Following ten day-long sessions with families in Hereford and Leominster during March and April, the panel’s report has now been published and makes for more grim reading for the council.

The panel found their cases showed “core failings in the system”, which is “particularly concerning as most cases are still open with children’s services”.

Families “felt that the professionals’ responses exacerbated and escalated” initial problems. And when then complained to the council, they found procedures were “inadequate, not least because, where they have had their complaints upheld, the promised actions have rarely materialised”.

The panel itself “experienced delays and poor-quality communication when following up issues directly with children’s services”, which “suggests that the issues are significant and systemic”.

It calls for “major cultural change” at the council, requiring “all the workforce to understand and work to the basic principles of good practice”.

The panel “also heard of poor practice in other services and departments, including Adult Social Care, NHS settings including mental health provision, and the police”, the latter having been found to be “judgemental and abusive to family members”, the report added.

One parent, Eddy Parkinson said the report was “damning but nowhere near damning enough”.

“It doesn’t address the criminality or numbers of unlawfully taken children, the unqualified staff who masqueraded as social workers from agencies, or the false statements to courts and parents deliberately misled to gain control of children,” he said.

For the council, director of children’s services Darryl Freeman said the report was “a hard read”.

“I apologise to all the families for what they have been through,” he said. “We will now look at the questions it raises, and explore with families how we can better work with them and meet their needs.”

Newly-appointed cabinet member for children’s services Coun Ivan Powell said: “I am committed to ensuring that every aspect of children’s services learns from what the families has told the panel.”

Timeline of Children's Services failings at Hereford Council

The failings at Herefordshire Council’s children’s services department, and the impact this has had on children and families in the county, go back over a decade.

September 2012: Herefordshire Council’s protection of children rated “inadequate” by Ofsted, which finds “systemic failures in management oversight, decision making, performance management and quality assurance”.

April 2014: Ofsted’s next inspection says the council “requires improvement” and “is not yet delivering good protection and help and care for children, young people and families”.

June 2018: Ofsted’s inspection again returned an overall “requires improvement” rating, with the impact of leaders on social work practice rated “inadequate”. “Senior leaders acknowledge that insufficient progress has been made in key aspects of their service, and many weaknesses found during this inspection mirror many of those identified in 2014,” its report says.

February 2019December 2019July 2021: Successive “focused visits” by Ofsted inspectors find “the quality of practice remains too variable and is not yet good”, with “little progress in improving the quality of practice for children in need”.

March 2021: In a damning High Court judgment, Mr Justice Keehan says he had “rarely encountered such egregious and long-standing failures by a local authority” as in a case where a fostered child’s life support machine was turned off at the council’s behest before her natural mother could visit her.

April 2021: In response, an extraordinary meeting of Herefordshire councillors concedes that “as corporate parents, [we] take full accountability for the failings of our children’s social care services” and vows to implement “much-needed changes in our culture and practices”.

May 2021: Also in response to the High Court judgment, and to “a lack of pace and progress to improve children’s services since the 2018 Ofsted inspection”, the Government issues Herefordshire Council with an Improvement Notice, its progress to be overseen by “improvement adviser” Gladys Rhodes White.

May 2022: A BBC Panorama investigation finds “a culture of bullying and control” at the department which was “not safe for social workers or families”. In response, senior council figures issue a joint statement “apologis[ing] again for the serious failings that have occurred in Herefordshire Children’s Services over many years”.

September 2022: Ofsted’s most recent inspection of Herefordshire children’s services rates the department “inadequate” across the board. “The quality and impact of social work practice has significantly deteriorated since the last judgement inspection in June 2018,” it concludes. The Government then directs the council to cooperate with children’s commissioner Eleanor Brazil, who it appoints to investigate the department’s failings and propose remedies.

January 2023: Ms Brazil’s initial report, not made publicly available until March 1, and backed by Minister for children and families Claire Coutinho, concludes that Herefordshire Council “doesn’t have the capacity to improve the service in a reasonable timeframe by itself” and must continue to work to this end with Government appointees and other local authorities.

June 2023: A spin-off report from Ms Brazil’s investigation, produced by a panel of experts convened to hear directly from families affected by the department, finds it regularly exacerbated rather than addressed the problems which prompted families to seek help in the first place.

July 2023 (expected): Follow-up investigation by Eleanor Brazil to determine whether Herefordshire Council has progressed far enough to be left in control of its children’s services department.