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CHILDREN IN CRISIS: Social workers and care providers have no confidence in failing children's services

Vulnerable children are being put at risk by the failings of Tameside’s Children’s Services department.

Youngsters in the most need of care have been sent as far away as Reading in Berkshire,  while a constant turnover of social work staff means many children are slipping between the cracks and not receiving the care they deserve.

The claims come from a number of whistle-blowers, including staff, parents, carers and providers working with the council to provide care and foster placements for children.

Some of the youngsters come from violent homes and the numbers include extremely vulnerable and neurodivergent children.

Earlier this year, the council overhauled the management of the department after a scathing report by Ofsted inspectors.

Since the report, Children’s Services has been in special measures.

Three new managers were put in place, with two coming from Luton Council, and the other from Carlisle.

However, there have been complaints that the new managers – Director of Children’s Services, Allison Parkinson, her assistant, Alison Montgomery, and Allison Sollom, who is the Head of Service – have not responded to repeated concerns about the quality of service being provided since their appointment.

In 2022, then Denton and Reddish MP Andrew Gwynne called for the department to be taken out of the council’s hands.

He said the service – which has been rated ‘requires improvement’ since 2019 – is “letting children and families down”.

He said children in the area of his constituency covered by Stockport were receiving much better levels of care.

Following the latest Ofsted inspection, the council announced an improvement plan for the service.

Councillor leader Ged Cooney promised the service would be “brilliant at basics again”.

Cllr Cooney likened the way they spent money at children’s services in the past to dealing with an old, problematic car. 

“My thought is that a bad car costs you more than a good car over the years.

“We have to be honest with ourselves, people we paid good money to run children’s services didn’t deliver. We’ve invested a lot of good money in who we believed were the right people to run it.

“It wasn’t about the money, but about the management. I feel we have the right people with the right focus (now).”

Ofsted identified ‘serious failures’ which left kids ‘being harmed’ – or at ‘risk of harm’

The service was deemed to ‘require improvement’ in 2019. Performance has since gone backwards and services have deteriorated.

Inspectors criticised a reliance on agency staff to deal with soaring demand. The quality of children’s assessments was ‘not good enough’ and sometimes failed to identify risk.

The service was deemed inadequate in four categories – ‘the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families’; ‘the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection’; ‘the experiences and progress of children in care’; and ‘overall effectiveness’.

‘The experiences and progress of care leavers’ inspectors said, ‘requires improvement to be good’.

The council’s improvement plan sets out four key priorities for improvement.

These include: improving quality of practice on a consistent basis; bettering views, experiences and engagement with children and young people; making sure they have the right resources in the right place to meet the needs of the children and families; and having the right management structure in place to inspire and support staff to be the best that they can be.

The improvement plan states they will do this through listening to feedback from children and families and working more collaboratively with partner agencies. 

Improvement in identifying risks, something Ofsted criticised them for, as well as making the care practice framework more clear for staff is also included in their plan.

The plan read: “Our vision is that all children, young people and families in Tameside have the best start in life to grow, thrive and achieve their best outcomes.

“We are determined to continue to improve our services for our most vulnerable children, young people and families. 

“With our partners we are committed to ensuring all our children have the best possible start in life. 

“We believe that children should grow and achieve within their own families when it is safe for them to do so. We are committed to working together to make sure our children and young people are safe and able to reach their full potential and they remain at the heart of everything we do.”

However, many working with the department and its new management believe these pledges to be hollow.

One whistle-blower said: “Speaking personally and from what other care givers have said, the department is now so ruthless that they don’t seem to care about the children.

“I believe that something tragic could happen if things are not changed.

“They are making life and death decisions about some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“Tameside children’s services used to have good people, the people were phenomenal and there was a great amount of care and devotion from the staff.

“But within weeks of the new team taking over – now known as ‘The Allisons’– some of the social workers were like shadows of their former selves.

“People started going off sick with stress and many are now leaving – in six months at least 20 have gone.

“You can see the impact and you can see the strain on all of the staff.

“Ofsted reported that Tameside have the highest amount of children in care in the country and we are now in a situation where children are being sent back to places where they are at risk.

“Social workers are in tears daily. This should not be the case. 

“If they are here to save the authority money, the money they will now need to spend defending legal cases and putting right their wrongdoing will probably cost more than the savings.

“There is black and white evidence of children coming to harm.

“And it’s not only the staff who are fearful; it’s carers and parents who are as well.

“They are undoing all of the hard work to remove the stigma that social workers are just there to take children away from their families. 

“All the hard work countless people have done to address this has been undone in a few weeks with children being ripped away from their good foster carers for no good reason. 

“Processes are not being followed and despite all the people raising concerns, nothing is being done about it. Many have contacted the councillors, but it is falling on deaf ears.

“The management are turning everyone against the department, and good people are leaving on a weekly basis. They can’t take it anymore.”

Another care provider said: “We feel professionally unsafe dealing with them. It’s like they have ripped up the rule book and are just doing what they want with no fear or worry for the consequences of the children. 

“We are having sleepless nights about some of the children we were caring for. 

“The local authority hold so much power and no one can overrule it.”

Many of these concerns are shared by a number of organisations including the Tameside Parent Carer network, the Tameside Foster Carer network as well as other Local Authorities in Greater Manchester.

One of the cases highlighted is that of a teenage boy who is now in a secure unit in Reading, nearly 200 miles from his family in Denton and his carers of two years in Tameside.

He was intercepted on his way to school and taken away without consultation with his parents or carers.

The 16-year-old, who is autistic with complex needs and who needs routine and familiarity, was moved to the Berkshire town just weeks after the new management team took over.

He was thriving at the time, and had started attending school in Tameside five days a week after a number of years struggling to access education, but since the move his behaviour deteriorated catastrophically and his family says he has been harmed as a result of unsafe decision making by council leaders.

His father said: “He was really getting on and improving but when the council took him away from Great Minds Together, everything got worse.

“His situation is now the worst it has ever been and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s only a matter of time before he ends up in prison or in a coffin.

“He was stable for the first time in his life and then he was shipped off away from his mum and dad and his brother and sister.

“More importantly, he was taken away from the care which was helping him cope and helping him to get some education.

“Now, he is like a lost cause and we don’t know where to turn, we don’t know what to do for the best.

“We always thought the council would put children first but they just seem to want the worst cases out of the way at the other end of the country because they are the most expensive ones to deal with, because they cause the most problems.

“It’s not right. My son was receiving the help he needs. Now he has just been sent away to cope on his own. But he’s not coping, he’s not coping at all and I hate to think what will happen to him in the long term.

“This has had a terrible effect on me and the wife.

“She has taken an overdose and, I feel ashamed to say it, I have thought about ending it as well.

“We just want our son to be treated with some kindness and respect. That can’t be too much to ask, can it?”

We approached Emma Mander, the CEO of Great Minds Together, a specialist organisation for neurodivergent young people that support hundreds of children across the North West and West Yorkshire, for comment.

She said: “I unfortunately cannot comment on individual cases, but we are worried about the changes in recent months. 

“We will continue to support the families of Tameside in the best way we can, and remain open to partnership working in the best interests of all children which should be at the heart of everything we all do as adults and professionals.”

A local advocacy service report reveals that at least five other children are suffering as a result of similar last minute changes to their care package without following processes have taken place in recent months. 

Despite following the usual protocol to raise concerns, things are reportedly getting worse, not better, with the council refusing to engage with anyone who raises a complaint.

These concerns were also echoed by the Tameside Parent Carer Forum (PCF), which represents more than 3,000 carers throughout Tameside.

Last week members unanimously voted to write a formal letter of complaint to Allison Parkinson, director of Children’s Services, after it discovered the local authority was in the initial stages of setting up a new PCF in Tameside, dissolving the current forum which has operated for 22 years.

The letter from the steering group said: “As you are aware, the PCF has several ongoing issues that have been previously raised with the local authority (LA) that still have not been resolved to our satisfaction. 

“We are extremely concerned that the LA’s actions are a direct result of us raising serious concerns about four key consultations that directly affect the children, young people and families in Tameside. 

“This seemingly political move means that we have not been able to have a robust, professional discourse with the LA regarding the concerns outlined in the letter despite several attempts to broker a meeting.”

The letter goes on to accuse the council of wasting money on public consultants, claiming that public records reveal a £500,000 contract had been awarded to consultancy firm IMPOWER.

The consultant’s brief is to “engage with staff, schools, partners and parent carers across the special educational needs system to understand additional opportunities to ensure children receive the right support at the right time”. 

The forum also claim in the letter that the council lied to them about its intentions to employ an outside consultancy.

The letter also claims 40 children in Tameside are without school places for this coming September. 

The letter continued: “Rather than having these robust and professional discussions with the existing PCF the LA are spending more time and expense trying to create a new one to avoid addressing all these complex issues that our 3,000 plus members face.

“It is in our opinion that the LA’s determination to create a new PCF is no more than smoke and mirrors so that the real issues faced by families across the borough are not openly and honestly addressed. 

“Rather than engaging with the wide diaspora of Tameside families, the LA are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to keep the existing group out of the much-needed dialogue and we are confused as to why.”

The group demanded a reply from the council by the end of next week. A number of providers in the area report similar experiences, with some even reaching out to the council to ask why they are disengaging with the services that are there to help them. A previous letter from the forum accused the council of ‘not listening’ to their concerns.

Elaine Healey signed the letter, which said: “The forum believe the council is failing to listen to the most vulnerable children, young people and families across Tameside.”

Members of the forum now believe they are being left out of the council’s decision-making on children’s care and safety issues. And they believe the Children’s Services department will be able to bulldoze through any changes without proper consultation.

In response to the letter from the PCF, a Tameside spokesperson said: “The council absolutely values the work Our Kids Eyes (“OKE”) do for children and families as evidenced by a number of contracts awarded to OKE to deliver direct support to families.

“The DfE recognises that parent carer participation has been happening for a long time in Tameside, but everyone would be better served by a formal arrangement, which would enable the parent carer forum to access independent funding.

“We are therefore currently working with CONTACT – the DfE appointed parent participation organisation to formalise and strengthen parent carer voice in Tameside and ensure DfE grant money comes to the area.

“Our Kids Eyes are very much part of this progression along with other parent carer support groups in Tameside.

“This process is only to strengthen and support children and families to build on the fantastic work that OKE have undertaken for decades, which other parent and carer groups really want to work alongside OKE and create the opportunity to build a stronger Parent Carer Forum.”

As one worried carer to an autistic boy who self-harms said: “We are now actually worried about the physical safety of our son – for the first time in years.

“The council owes a duty of care to our children. They are responsible for keeping them safe from harm.

“I don’t for a minute think children are at the top of the agenda anymore.”

One provider added: “We all have a horrible feeling that something tragic will occur unless the problems at the top of Children’s Services are addressed.”

In March, the government assigned a commissioner to examine whether children’s services should be removed from the control of Tameside Council after Ofsted found “serious failures”. Andy Couldrick, a former chief executive of Wokingham BC and the current chairman of Birmingham Children’s Trust, has been appointed children’s services commissioner at Tameside. His remit includes assessing whether the long-term improvement of the services can be achieved under council control, and advising on alternative arrangements. He is expected to report to the education secretary this month. A statutory direction from the Department for Education says the council is expected to cooperate with a review by Mr Couldrick into whether “the most effective way of securing and sustaining improvement in Tameside is to remove the control of children’s social care services from the council”.

Tameside Council was contacted for a response to the claims made by care providers and parents in this article, however, they did not respond before the Tameside Reporter went to press last night (Wednesday).

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