A damning report published today warns Blackpool Council is failing to help some of the town’s most vulnerable children who are living in ‘chronic neglect’.
The council’s Children’s Social Care Service has been rated inadequate by Ofsted inspectors for the second time in six years.
It comes on the back of the resort’s Youth Offending Team (YOT) also being branded ‘inadequate’ only last month following an inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation.
Leadership has come in for heavy criticism in the latest report which focuses on a raft of deficiencies meaning some children are living “in neglectful circumstances for longer than they should, resulting in their needs often becoming more complex”.
The response to young people who are homeless means some teens must resort to sofa-surfing or living in b&B accommodation, with the report warning this “increases their exposure to risk”.
Concerns are also raised about child sexual exploitation, children who go missing and youngsters being absent from school.
But council chiefs said there was no indication in the report that children in Blackpool are not safe, which had been the case in 2012.
However leadership, the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, and overall effectiveness were all given the lowest “inadequate” rating by Ofsted, which carried out its inspection between November 26 and December 7 last year.
The experience of children in care and care leavers was rated slightly better as “requiring improvement to be good.”
Placements did lead to “stable adoptive families being identified”, inspectors said.
The overall inadequate rating is a step back from 2014 when Blackpool’s Children’s Services was rated “needs improvement”.
In 2012, the council was also rated inadequate and was put into special measures.
The latter has not happened this time, but the immediate response to the latest report will include the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner for Blackpool by the end of February who will work with the council for three months to help turn things around.
Blackpool Council leader Coun Simon Blackburn admitted it was unacceptable to have overseen two ‘inadequate’ reports during his time in charge at the town hall.
He said changes were being made but Ofsted felt the pace of change was not quick enough.
He said: “No politician wants to hear that arguably the most important service in the council is considered to be inadequate.”But he said he would not be resigning over the issue, and instead would be sitting on an Improvement Board which will be established.
Coun Blackburn said: “Have I thought about the fact children’s services have failed twice on my watch? Yes, absolutely.
“Have I considered whether I am the best person to turn that around? Absolutely. But I believe I am.
“For anyone to just walk into the sunset and allow someone else to fix this, is wrong.”
He said while poverty and transience played a part in making it a challenge to care for vulnerable children in Blackpool, these were not excuses for the poor performance.
He added: “It is always going to be a challenge here until our long term plans around housing and the economy come to fruition.
“Children’s care is the one thing that has consistently caused me to lose sleep and it will continue to do so.”
He also backed director of children’s services Diane Booth, who has been in post 18 months, and cabinet secretary for children’s services Coun Graham Cain.
Coun Blackburn, whose own professional background is in children’s social care, said the inspectors had “acknowledged the significant impact” made by Ms Booth since she joined the council.
He added: “Likewise, I have every confidence in cabinet secretary Graham Cain and the chief executive Neil Jack, to assist and support her in this task.
“Diane’s senior management team and our staff who work at the grassroots level with children and families, are amongst the most committed and professional people it has been my pleasure to work alongside, and they will be given every opportunity and resource to support their improvement journey.”
This includes an additional £1.2m of funding to the annual £40m cost of running children’s services.
Around a quarter of Blackpool’s children in care are originally from outside the town, and Coun Blackburn said it was difficult to turn back the tide of families moving to the resort hoping for a better life, particularly because accommodation was so cheap.
He said: “This is exactly the place you would flee to if you’re trying to escape from drug or alcohol abuse, the police, or from an abusive relationship.
“So we do soak all of that up and it all comes back to housing.”
Inspectors say since the 2014 inspection “the pace of progress has been too slow, and there has been a decline in strategic leadership”.
Although there has been a focus on improvement since the appointment of Ms Booth “it has not led to the level of improvement required”, they added.
Children in need of protection are dealt with inconsistently with some “not receiving the help they need at the right time”.
Some youngsters in care receive too many placement moves and there are “missed opportunities to explore wider family alternatives earlier”.
However members of the fostering team are “knowledgeable and experienced”, health needs are routinely assessed and 68 per cent of children in care have a personal education plan now compared to only 14 per cent a year ago.
Ms Booth said many steps were already being implemented to improve the service.
She said: “When I took this job, I knew what I was coming into. We are working in the most deprived town in the country and we have more families needing support in more difficult circumstances.
“The number of children in care has increased dramatically at the same time as resources have decreased for the police, NHS and voluntary sector.
“However I accept the contents of the report and that we do need to improve.
“We have over 150 children’s social workers, and an additional £1.2m has been committed towards improving the pace of change.
“Training development plans are in place for our social workers and our plans to help retain our social workers are beginning to reap rewards.”
Dr Amanda Doyle, chief clinical officer for the Blackpool Clinical Commissioning Group, and Linda Clegg, chairman of the BlackpoolImprovement Board, have both pledged to support the council.
Ms Clegg said: “Despite progress being made in some areas, we have not achieved this across all services, nor has it been done quickly enough.”
There are currently 563 children in care in Blackpool, and 321 children subject to child protection orders.
Better response to risk particularly in relation to long-standing concerns of chronic neglect
Improvements in the recording of decisions and the quality of social work assessments
More recognition of the vulnerabilities of children at risk of exploitation, including young people who are homeless
More effective working with partners such as the police and NHS
Better training of social workers in preparation for court proceedings
Improving the quality of personal education plans, and increasing support for those leaving care
Action to improve the service
A Children’s Commissioner will be appointed to work intensively with the council for three months. This will pull together various elements to create a fast-paced 12 week improvement plan.
An Improvement Board, to include the council leader, will be set up.
A new head of service has been appointed who is experienced in safeguarding.
There will be a focus on stronger working with partners, including the police and NHS.
Initiatives to tackle inequality will continue, including the Better Start early years intervention programme and the Head Start project providing mental health resilience training for young peopl).
Work to boost aspirations of young people will include a campaign about the availability of apprenticeships in the town.
Staff will work with schools to offer more vocational-based education.
A new school at Mereside will provide education for children with particular emotional needs who currently have to travel outside the borough for lessons.