Lancashire County Council has improved how it makes permanent arrangements for children in care – but needs to do more to ensure no young person is left facing unnecessary uncertainty about their future.
That was the conclusion of OFSTED inspectors who visited the county in November to assess how the authority finds solutions for the youngsters who have been brought into its care – such as adoption, long-term fostering or an eventual return to their family home.
The issue was highlighted as an area of concern during a full inspection of County Hall’s children’s services department 18 months ago, when the council was told that its plans for so-called “permanence” were not always timely enough.
In a letter reporting the findings of November’s one-day visit, inspectors said progress had been made and the authority now has a “more organised approach…so that the need to live in secure and caring homes for the duration of their childhood is being appropriately considered for more children”.
But social service bosses were warned that some children are still waiting too long to learn who their long-term carers will be. They were told that, in some cases, more detailed care plans were needed to avoid “drift and delay” – echoing some of the criticisms levelled back in 2018.
Cabinet member for children, Phillippa Williamson, said staff were working to “minimise” any hold ups in reaching a final decision about a child’s future.
“It’s about getting the right policies and procedures in place and making sure our social workers have manageable levels of work – and [OFSTED] could see evidence that we had done that.
“You have to treat every child as an individual. The inspectors found that our social workers really knew their children and had good relationships with them – and they use that [as a] basis to understand their situation.
“It’s important to any young person that they understand why people are worried about them, what steps are being taken to help them and what will happen in the end,” County Cllr Williamson added.
A new “permanence tracker” was introduced at the start of 2019 to help monitor the progress of children through the system.
Inspectors said that young people in the care of the authority were well looked-after and had their emotional and wellbeing needs met. They also said that staff were well-supported, resulting in a low turnover rate – but warned that some social worker caseloads remain too high.
The latest visit does not alter the overall rating for County Hall’s children’s services department, which was set at “requires improvement” during the full inspection 18 months ago.
REDUCING THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN IN CARE
OFSTED recognised that the county council is attempting to reduce the “very high numbers of children in care” – which stood at almost 2,100 at the end of the first quarter of 2019/20.
The authority was also credited with bringing children into care at an “appropriate” time.
But County Cllr Williamson said that there was more that could be done to try to divert young people from the care system – and that County Hall would be introducing a new “family safeguarding” policy during 2020.
“We have to recognise that there may be things that we can do within the family situation that can help, so it’s not always necessary to bring a child into care.
“Every family has problems at times. If we can reach a point where we can stabilise a situation within the home, helping the family to sort that out and keeping [the child] at home, we would look to do that,” she said.
Inspectors found that the council was already increasing it use of “connected carers” – other family members who can offer a permanent place to a child who cannot return to their parents.