Toddler murders highlight critical state of social services

Staff shortages and funding cuts mean children failing to get attention they need

The circumstances surrounding the horrific killings of Dylan Tiffin-Brown, two, and Evelyn-Rose Muggleton, one, throw the spotlight not just on “systemic weaknesses” at Northamptonshire county council but the critical state of children’s social services across England.

The serious case review reports said mistakes were made during events leading up to the children’s deaths over a four-month period in 2017 and 2018. Police, schools, health visitors and social workers all made errors. But it concluded it was not clear anything could have been done to prevent the catastrophic incidents.

The reports, however, made clear that the backdrop to the tragedies was an environment of chaos in Northamptonshire’s child protection services: unqualified staff making key decisions on the frontline, hundreds of cases left un-assessed for weeks and a chronic shortage of experienced social workers.

Those shortcomings were even more vividly outlined in a report to ministers published last month. It concluded children’s services were blighted by “longstanding and systemic” management failure, an embedded culture of complacency, and widespread cynicism among staff that services would improve.

The report was written by the commissioner appointed by ministers to overhaul Northamptonshire’s children’s services, Malcolm Newsam. A year after Dylan’s murder, he reflected, its safeguarding operations were still in chaos. Some staff were responsible for an unmanageable 50 child protection cases. “The service is still very fragile and there remain unacceptable risks in the system,” he wrote.

Northamptonshire children’s services’ problems are longstanding. In 2013 they were judged “inadequate” by Ofsted. Despite heavy investment they made little progress, and a crushing follow-up Ofsted report last November, which triggered Newsam’s arrival, confirmed they had slipped back into crisis.

Critics have linked Northamptonshire’s woes with austerity cuts to funding and services. However, its new children’s director, Sally Hodges, said financial considerations had played no part in safeguarding decisions. The authority was the second highest spender on children’s social care among county councils.

It is not so much that councils are not investing enough in child protection – nine out of 10 English councils overspent their children’s budgets last year – but that the gap between available resources and demand is growing – about £3bn by 2025 on current estimates – and spending is concentrated on crisis services, not preventive ones.

The council has spent millions paying for a huge rise in children being taken into care. It is also reliant on expensive agency social workers, who comprised a quarter of the services’ 328 staff in December. Ironically, the children’s budget was underspent by £2m in February because there were so many social worker vacancies.

The spiralling child protection bill, however, meant other services had to be cut: Sure Start centres and other family and community projects aimed at supporting families and stopping them slipping into crisis have been gutted, increasing the flow of young people into the child protection system, fuelled by rising child poverty, mental illness and destitution.

Safeguarding problems are often rooted in cuts to early intervention services. “Child protection social workers say that when they need to signpost troubled families to early help, services are no longer there,” the local Labour councillor Danielle Stone said. The council has said it wants to reinvest in prevention: but it is not clear where the money will come from to do so.

The independent Northamptonshire safeguarding children board is optimistic the new management team is making positive changes – there are fewer unallocated cases, lower social worker caseloads (down to an average of 19), and tighter management and oversight of cases – although it accepts change will take time.

The child deaths, however, will cast another shadow over a nightmare year and a half for the Tory-controlled council: it has twice been declared bankrupt, and been told by a government inspector that it must be scrapped because its leadership failings are so chronic and deep-rooted that it is unreformable.

The council is scheduled to be abolished in 2020, replaced by two new unitary authorities, and children’s services will go into an independent trust outside council control. It will complete the humiliating decline of an aspiring beacon of municipal conservatism into the much-derided sick man of local government.


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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