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Independent Review of Children’s Social Care urges shift from crisis intervention, calls for ‘expert child protection practitioner’ role, regional care cooperatives and increased support for kinship carers

The current system of children’s social care is increasingly skewed to crisis intervention and a radical reset is now “unavoidable”, the final report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has said.

Led by Josh McAlister, the Independent Review says: “This moment is a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care. What we need is a system that provides intensive help to families in crisis, acts decisively in response to abuse, unlocks the potential of wider family networks to raise children, puts lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system and lays the foundations for a good life for those who have been in care.”

The final report suggests that outcomes for children continue to be unacceptably poor and costs continue to rise.

Achieving a reset “starts with recognising that it is loving relationships that hold the solutions for children and families overcoming adversity”, it says, arguing that while relationships are rich and organic, children’s social care can be rigid and linear. “Rather than drawing on and supporting family and community, the system too often tries to replace organic bonds and relationships with professionals and services.”

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The final report makes a series of recommendations. These include that:

  • For families who need help, there must be a fundamental shift in the children’s social care response, so that they receive “more responsive, respectful and effective” support. One category of ‘Family Help’ should be introduced to replace ‘targeted early help’ and ‘child in need’ work. This new service would be delivered by multi-disciplinary teams based in community settings.
  • Where concerns about significant harm of a child emerge, an ‘Expert Child Protection Practitioner’, who is an experienced social worker, should co-work alongside the Family Help Team with responsibility for making key decisions. “This co-working will provide an expert second perspective and remove the need for break points and handovers.”
  • Information sharing should be strengthened through a five-year challenge to address cultural barriers, clarify legislation and guidance, and use technology to achieve frictionless sharing of information.
  • A more tailored and coherent response is needed to harms outside of the home, like county lines, criminal or sexual exploitation or abuse between peers. A bespoke child protection pathway – through a Child Community Safety Plan – should be set up so that the police, social care and others can provide a robust child protection response.
  • To boost parental engagement where there are serious concerns, parents should have representation and support to help navigate the child protection process. “To enable learning, there should be more transparency about decisions made and outcomes of children in the family courts.”
  • Before decisions are made which place children into the care system, more must be done to bring wider family members and friends into decision making. This should start with a high-quality family group decision making process that invites families to come up with a family-led plan to care for the child or children. In some cases, this should lead to a “Family Network Plan”, where a local authority can fund and support family members to care for the child.
  • Special guardians and kinship carers with a Child Arrangement Order should receive a new statutory financial allowance, legal aid and statutory kinship leave. A wider set of informal kinship carers should get a comprehensive support package.
  • Local authorities should be helped to take back control of the care system through establishing new Regional Care Cooperatives (RCCs). “They will take on responsibility for the creation and running of all new public sector fostering, residential and secure care in a region, as well as commissioning all not-for-profit and private sector provided care for children as necessary. The scale and specialist capabilities of RCCs will address the current weaknesses in the system and establish organisations able to transform the care system for the future.” Local authorities will have direct involvement in the running of RCCs “but to work they must be mandated rather than voluntary arrangements”. Children will continue to be in the care of local authorities.
  • There should be a ‘new deal’ with foster carers. “We must give foster carers the support networks and training needed to provide the best care for children, and then have greater trust in foster carers making the day to day decisions which affect children’s lives.” The Government should immediately launch a new national foster carer recruitment programme, to approve 9,000 new foster carers over three years.
  • Children in care “currently have a plethora of different professionals in their lives, but too few adults who are unequivocally on their side and able to amplify their voice”. This system should be simplified by replacing a number of existing roles with truly independent advocacy for children that is opt-out, rather than opt-in.
  • Five ambitious missions are needed so that care experienced people secure: loving relationships; quality education; a decent home; fulfilling work; and good health as the foundations for a good life.
  • The professional development offered to social workers should be vastly improved with training and development which provides progression through a five-year Early Career Framework linked to national pay scales. The barriers which needlessly divert social workers from spending time with children and families should be identified and removed. The use of agency social work, “which is costly and works against providing stable professional relationships for children and families”, should be reduced by developing new rules and regional staff banks. Action is also needed to improve the knowledge and skill of the wider workforce that supports children and families.
  • A National Children’s Social Care Framework is needed to set the direction and purpose for the system, supported by meaningful indicators that bring transparency and learning. The government should appoint a National Practice Group, to build practice guides that would set out the best-known ways of achieving the objectives set by the National Framework. Multi-agency safeguarding arrangements should be clarified “to put beyond doubt their strategic role, supported by improved accountability, learning and transparency”.
  • The Government should update the funding formula for children’s social care to better direct resources to where they are most needed. Inspection should be aligned to take a more rounded understanding of “being child focused” and to better reflect what matters most to children and families, alongside greater transparency about how judgements are made.
  • The Government should intervene more decisively in inadequate and drifting authorities, with permanent Regional Improvement Commissioners to oversee progress across regions.

The report says that all of this should be delivered “at pace and with determination through a single five-year reform programme”. A Reform Board, including people with lived experience of children’s social care, should be established to drive the programme.

The report suggests that there is a great deal of implementation that could be initiated by the Government now, ahead of new investment. “However, achieving this whole system reform programme will require £2.6 billion of new spending over four years, comprising £46 million in year one, £987 million in year two, £1.257 billion in year three and £233 million in year four. Government may well provide details of different or better ways to achieve the same ambitions and aims in their response to this review, but the costs of inaction are too high. The time for a reset is now, and there is not a moment to lose.”

Responding to the report, the Department for Education said it would set up a new National Implementation Board of sector experts and people with experience of leading transformational change and the care system.

It also said it would “boost efforts to recruit more foster carers, increase support for social workers including on leadership, recruitment and retention, improve data sharing, and implement a new evidence-based framework for all the professionals working in children’s social care”.

Seven areas of England will meanwhile receive funding to set up family hubs which offer early help and intervention. Local authorities will also receive funding for schemes that support vulnerable children to remain engaged in their education and strengthen links between social care and education.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “This is the start of a journey to change the culture and dramatically reform the children’s social care system. 

“Everything we do to raise the outcomes for children and families must be backed by evidence. This report will be central in taking forward our ambition to ensure every child has a loving and stable home and we will continue working with experts and people who have experienced care to deliver change on the ground.

“I am grateful to Josh MacAlister for his work, as well as to the families, young people, and professionals who shared their experiences. We are ready to meet the challenge set by this review and I will set out my plans for bold and ambitious change in the coming months.”

Steve Crocker, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said the Association welcomed the publication of the final report.

“ADCS has long called for a system overhaul and directors of children’s services are ready for change. The report has a welcome emphasis on children’s rights and outcomes, on social justice and on relationships and doesn’t shy away from the big challenges children, families, public services and society faces, in particular the report highlights the need for significant investment in rebalancing the social care system towards early family support,” he said.

“We want to carefully work through the detail of the final report but the focus on family help to prevent future misery and harm, on developing and strengthening our workforce, on the multi-agency nature of safeguarding, profiteering in the placements market, better regulation of agency social work as well as bolstering support for care leavers is welcome. It is rightly ambitious and offers an exciting platform for meaningful change. The report includes things that ADCS has been calling for, for years including a renewed focus and dedicated investment in family support and the implementation of the 2016 Taylor Review recommendations on youth justice, alarm bells have been ringing about the youth secure estate for some time, action is long overdue.”

Crocker added: “Whilst there is much to support, we do need further detail to fully understand how some of the reforms would work in practice, such as a national advocacy service for children in care and regional care cooperatives. Careful trialling and evaluation may be needed before wider implementation of some aspect of the recommendations to ensure children’s best interests are not lost despite best intentions.

“We understand the government will be responding fully to the Review in due course and we look forward to working with them to develop an implementation plan that delivers for children and families to realise the ambitions articulated here. The report rightly notes that a number of other significant reform programmes are currently taking place in relation to schools, SEND, youth justice and the early years with only children’s mental health services not now having been reviewed – something that ADCS has called for as a matter of urgency.  A clear vision for children and a plan for childhood to draw together these important pieces of work backed by cross government commitment and bold investment by the Treasury is needed so all children and young people can thrive.”

Responding to the report, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “There is much to support in this review.....It reflects many longstanding calls from councils, including an increased focus on family help, more support to keep children with their families wherever possible, and making sure children in care and care leavers are well supported with loving homes and lifelong relationships.

“We are also pleased the report recognises councils are best placed to deliver these services for local families and works to build on the good practice that already exists.”

Cllr Bramble added: “We now want to work quickly with government and partners on identifying elements of the report we can and should swiftly implement, and on planning the medium-to-long term reform process. This must include commitment from across Whitehall to tackle the issues children’s social care cannot solve alone, including access to health services and ending child poverty.

“Government should also work with councils to urgently address those issues that cannot wait for the longer-term reform outlined in this review, including workforce challenges across the sector and a lack of suitable homes for children in care with particularly complex needs.

“As the report plainly acknowledges, reform and investment go hand in hand – one will not be effective without the other. This is why we’re calling for a White Paper within the next six months to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to reform, and truly transformational investment by the Treasury in the services that give all children the best start in life.”

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