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Child mental care shake-up demanded
A radical rethink of England's social care and mental health service which looks after vulnerable children is needed now, according to a major report on the state of the system.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is calling for a Royal Commission be set up to "radically re-think, and advise on the wholesale re-design of social care and statutory mental health services for vulnerable children and young people".
This needs to report by the end of 2017, according to the CSJ which claims it has unearthed "profoundly worrying systemic issues" in the present approach.
Standards of frontline child protection work, which is under huge pressure in some local authorities, suggests " there is a bigger child protection problem in England than the statistics indicate," the CSJ claims in its 400-page report.
It carries the testimony of 50 child protection experts from across the country as well as 20 children "abhorrently failed" by social services in London.
Some of them spoke of being "overwhelmed," "in crisis" and "at breaking point".
A lack of prioritisation, identification and understanding of some vulnerable children's social care needs were all identified as ongoing problems.
It means that despite the work of some well-meaning professionals, some children's problems would only get worse.
The researchers noted "staggering delays and shortfalls" sometimes over many years in the care and protection provided.
A review of some of the troubled London-based children who were involved in the report found they had failed to gain the care and support they needed or had received help that was short lived or sporadic.
The report notes: "There is a stark contrast between the aspiration and reality for early intervention, with a crisis response being taken towards severe mental health problems in some areas - meaning that some children and young people are not seen until their needs have become acute."
There was also "shocking" claims of the "brutal reality" faced by vulnerable youngsters who had to deal with the network of rules which govern the system.
The CSJ report states that some local authorities are operating "unscrupulous and unlawful practices", adding: "We were left incredulous by the lengths to which some local authorities are going, either completely to withhold or restrain services from being provided. This was, for example, repeatedly apparent in the context of supporting homeless 16- and 17-year-olds.
"Our research revealed unlawful practice by some local authorities in respect to their joint housing protocols.
"Some are deceiving vulnerable 16- and 17- year olds, by failing to provide them with the correct, comprehensive information on their available options."
The CSJ claimed it found " a host" of situations which needed to be legally challenged by solicitors because the authorities had not complied with its legal obligations;
Some vulnerable children may have a grassroots organisation - Kids Company in London - or a voluntary group they could turn to for help.
The report added that this "reinforces the vitally important role that Ofsted has to play" but notes that "significant criticism has been raised by various witnesses over how Ofsted conducts its assessments of services and reaches its conclusions."
Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), argued that the 20 cases outlined by the CSJ "whilst damning, must not be taken as an indicator of widespread failure."
He said: "The challenges facing children's social care are more acute than ever before especially in a climate of diminishing resources and increasing demand. In the last year alone, over half a million children in England were referred to children's social care with nearly 53,000 children becoming subject of a child protection plan and in excess of 375,000 children designated as children in need. "
Mr Wood said that help could also come from schools, GPs, hospitals, nurseries, the police and probation as well as people in the community.
"It is not the case that a child or family that does not meet the statutory threshold for intervention is simply sent away without any further help," he stated.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of the 4Children charity said: "A radical overhaul of the support we offer is long overdue."
Children and families minister Edward Timpson said: "We are clear that we won't hesitate to take swift action if any council fails to fulfil its duty to protect every child."
He said the "vast majority" of councils are protecting child protection budgets and pointed to an Audit Commission report which shows that council spending on children's social care has on average increased by 1.2% since 2010-11.
Mr Timpson said: "The distressing case studies in this report show how important it is for vulnerable children to receive timely support.
"We've already made important changes to improve standards of care by moving from a bureaucratic and inflexible system to one that is driven by the needs of the children.
"However, we know there is more to do to ensure every child gets the best possible start in life."
An Ofsted spokesman said: "In November last year Ofsted introduced a new, tougher inspection framework which examines all elements of children's services. This puts the child absolutely front and centre when reaching judgements on performance. Good is now the minimum standard of service children and young people should expect to receive.
"A recent independent review from Professor Eileen Munro found the new framework to be ambitious, and is already driving forward real improvement in children's services."
"We take seriously any contribution to the improvement of child protection, and will study the findings and recommendations for Ofsted in detail."