The most recent monitoring visit by Ofsted has unveiled a series of significant improvements at Herefordshire Children's Services. However, a further commitment to steady progress is crucial.
A letter by Ofsted, summarising findings from their visit on 28 and 29 June 2023, marked this as the second monitoring session after the services were deemed 'inadequate' in July 2022. Alison Smale and Nick Bennison, His Majesty's inspectors, reported visible progression in the way the service manages children in need or under a protection plan.
Acknowledging the scale of improvements needed, the service leaders have implemented a comprehensive plan. Signs of improvement have been identified, and progress is evident with several families. However, the consistency of practices remains variable due to a few hindrances, including a high turnover of social workers and families with chronic needs experiencing inadequate practices over several years.
An essential factor impacting the progress is the premature closure of children's cases before achieving sustained change, leading to an increase in re-referrals. It was found that management support is not yet consistently effective across the board. Despite these challenges, the council's new leadership has publically committed to prioritising children's services and improving the understanding of children's social care.
The inspectors observed varying qualities of plans for children and families. Premature closure of cases before ensuring improved experiences and outcomes has led to an escalation of original concerns through re-referrals. In contrast, some children's plans showing stronger practices have resulted in better outcomes for them.
Family support workers have provided tangible assistance to parents, boosting their parenting skills, which has proven beneficial for vulnerable families. However, the inspectors noted that long delays in resolving housing needs have negatively impacted progress.
There has been significant concern for children experiencing repeat episodes of child protection planning due to recurring concerns when cases are stepped down or closed without further support. Over-optimistic risk assessments have oversimplified the complexities related to domestic abuse and substance misuse. As a result, the progress achieved remains fragile for these children.
Despite several challenges, social workers have shown dedication to their roles, making earnest efforts to understand children and their families quickly. Pre-proceedings mechanisms have been put in place to escalate plans for children where there have been prolonged concerns. However, these mechanisms are not initiated soon enough for all children, leading to stressful and unplanned care situations.
Concerns were also raised for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come into care. There are delays in their placements and assessments, resulting in their temporary stay in adult hotels, exposing them to potential safeguarding issues.
The local authority's improvement plan has failed to address issues identified during the visit relating to housing and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The commitment from senior leaders to prioritise children's social care is appreciated, but more needs to be done to address recruitment and retention issues.
Overall, although the foundations for improvement are being strengthened, the variable quality of practice remains a concern. The service leaders are aware that they need to do more and achieve more at a faster pace. Social workers continue to find support in Herefordshire and appreciate the training and development opportunities provided, despite the inconsistent induction experiences. The council leadership remains committed to securing a better service.