CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council’s dilemma over cutting funding to the children’s services department has been highlighted by a report which says that youngsters in care are being let down by local authorities
A report published by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman says that statistics around children in local council care are “startling”, with ever-increasing numbers of youngsters being placed in care over the past decade.
The report – entitled Careless – Helping to improve council services to children in care – shares the cases of children who have been let down by the local authorities who should be looking after their interests.
The report finds that children in council care are more likely to have a special educational need or mental health difficulty than their friends who live with parents. And, the ombudsman says, “Their outcomes are just as concerning: formerly looked after children are more than three times as likely to be out of education, training or employment once they leave care.”
This is all set against a backdrop of increasing numbers of children being brought into the system: 28 per cent more children were in care in 2019 than in 2009.
“Children who cannot be cared for by their parents and become the responsibility of their local authority are some of the most vulnerable in society,” the report states. The official term is “looked after children”, and they may live with foster parents, in group homes or with friends and family foster carers.
Cases shared in the report include a young man left never knowing if he was deprived of the chance to say goodbye to his dying mother when he was younger, a teenager returning to her foster home to find her bags packed as she’d turned 18, or the siblings removed without warning from the foster parents who wanted to adopt them.
The report also shares best practice guidance for local authorities at every stage of a child’s experience through the system.
In Croydon, the department responsible for looking after the interests of children in care in this borough failed its Ofsted inspection in 2017.
At that time, inspectors stated that some children in care in Croydon were at serious risk of harm. Croydon children’s services only gained a “Good” rating from Ofsted in March this year, after lots of hard graft, much recruitment of additional social workers, and an extra spend of £30million by the council.
‘Would this be good enough for my child?’
But with Croydon Council now bankrupt, staffing levels even in children’s services have been cut and social workers’ caseloads have increased by 25 per cent in the months since Ofsted last visited.
Because the cases cited in the ombudsman’s report have all been anonymised, it is impossible to say whether any involved cared for children in Croydon. But the report’s examples do show what might happen if councils are not operating in an optimal manner.
Speaking at the publication of the report, Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said, “Each case highlighted in this report is a case too many, and reflects the real-life experiences of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
“While these cases reflect a time before the covid-19 pandemic, we know the system is under even more pressure today. Although the councils’ actions in these cases were disappointing, we want to drive home the importance of learning from mistakes. In doing so this can help avoid repetitions and improve the lives and opportunities for all children in care.
“I am issuing this report so councils providing children’s services can use the learning and reflect on their procedures and processes.
“At every turn, I invite them to ask themselves, ‘Would this be good enough for my child?’”
Perhaps usefully for Croydon’s generally useless scrutiny committee, the report also suggests a range of questions councillors should ask to ensure their authorities are providing the best services they can to the children in their care.
Among the questions suggested are:
- How many 16- and 17-year-olds are in bed and breakfast accommodation or in unregulated homes?
- How many children in care are placed out of area, or at a distance, and are social workers visiting these children in accordance with statutory requirements?
- How many placement moves does a child in care have on average?
- How many children in care are now in permanent placements?
- Do children in care have up to date personal education plans? and
- Are there delays in the Education, Health and Care plan process?
A further question which Inside Croydon has sought answers to through a Freedom of Information request to the council is the number of cared-for children and young adults in the council’s care who have died in each of the past five years, and for these tragedies to be listed by cause of death, including suicides and murders.
Speaking today about the ombudsman’s report, Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of Family Rights Group, said, “The themes in this report reflect poor practice that is commonly reported by families to our advice service.
“Whilst some local authorities are striving to get it right for every child and are keen to learn and improve, there is huge variation in practice across the country.
“This can too often result in children and families not getting key advice or support to prevent problems escalating into a crisis. At times, authorities are failing to comply with the law or their own internal procedures, including refusing some young people the help to which they are entitled.
“This report highlights how poor decisions can be so damaging at a critical moment in the lives of children in care or at risk of care. It is particularly concerning given that more children are now in the care system than at any times since 1985, and the pandemic is increasing the pressure and strains on families and on children’s services.
“Putting the voices and experiences of children and families at the centre is key to getting this right. We particularly welcome the ombudsman’s checklist for local authorities which is designed to help each authority give every child the best life chances.”
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