Early help: whose responsibility?
This thematic inspection evaluates the effectiveness of the early help services for children and families provided by local authorities and their partners. The report draws on evidence from inspection, from examining cases in 12 local authorities and from the views of children and young people, parents, carers, practitioners and managers.
Published: March 2015
Reference no: 150012
Executive summary 4
Key findings 5
Findings from practice 12
Early help provision 12
Referrals to the local authority 16
Monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of early help 19
Management oversight 19
Quality assurance 20
Roles and responsibilities 21
Learning from serious cases reviews 23
Annex A. Local authorities subject to this thematic inspection 27
Annex B. Serious case reviews considered 28
It is estimated that over two million children in the UK today are living in difficult family circumstances. These include children whose family lives are affected by parental drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse and poor mental health. It is crucial that these children and their families benefit from the best quality professional help at the earliest opportunity. For some families, without early help difficulties escalate, family circumstances deteriorate and children are more at risk of suffering significant harm.1
Independent reviews and research have long championed approaches that provide early help for these children and their families. As Professor Eileen Munro highlighted in her review of child protection, ‘preventative services can do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services’.2 It is only right that local authorities and their partners are focusing increasingly on early help and prevention services for families. Many are now establishing a more coordinated and structured approach to this crucial role.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector commissioned this thematic inspection to gain a more accurate picture of how effectively local partnerships’ early help services are improving children’s circumstances, reducing risk and taking further action when needed.
Inspectors considered 56 early help cases in 12 local authorities. Encouragingly, they found that the partner agencies in all the local authorities visited were committed to improving and coordinating their early help services. In nearly all of the cases, early help was the right approach. However, in over a third, partner agencies had missed earlier opportunities to provide help, leaving these children with no support when they needed it.
In just under half of the cases reviewed, early help professionals had undertaken sound assessments of children’s needs. Over half, however, were of poor quality. In some instances, professionals gave limited or no consideration to family history. In other cases, they did not collect or analyse information about fathers or male partners, even when they were part of the child’s household. Inspectors were particularly concerned that, in many cases, professionals failed to speak to the child and relied solely on what parents told them.
Inspectors found evidence of effective planning in only a third of cases. These plans focused strongly on improving children’s lives and were regularly reviewed to ensure sustained progress. Yet in two thirds of the cases plans were ineffective. Many did not sufficiently take into account children’s individual circumstances when deciding what action was needed. Plans often lacked objectives and were not regularly reviewed, so it was not always clear how actions would achieve any improvements. Inspectors found that reviews focused too much on whether actions had been completed, rather than whether they had the intended impact on the child’s life.
Overall, inspectors identified serious weaknesses in the management oversight of early help cases. A small number of cases had no formal arrangements in place at all. In others, arrangements were significantly underdeveloped. Worryingly, inspectors found that Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) were not monitoring the management oversight of early help practice.
More generally, local authorities and their partners were not fully evaluating the impact of their early help work. The majority of their audits focused too much on process and compliance and not enough on the quality of the service and the extent to which it helped improve children’s lives. Many partnerships had not yet developed systems to evaluate whether the right children were receiving early help at the right time.
LSCBs were complying with their duty to produce a threshold document that sets out the different types and levels of early help for families and makes clear when any professional should refer cases to children’s social care. However, very few had audited whether children were receiving the right type and level of help when they needed it. Most LSCBs were not providing enough training on early help, or working with challenging families, to those practitioners who needed it.
More encouragingly, few workers felt isolated and most said they could access a range of formal and informal support. Where they existed, early help coordinators were highly valued.
This thematic inspection also considered 84 children’s cases referred to local authorities by various professionals. In most cases, local authority managers made sound decisions that these children did not need the statutory services of a social worker. However, some of these children were not directed to early help services from which they would have benefited. As a result, their circumstances deteriorated and the same, or in some cases other, professionals in the partner agencies later referred them back to children’s social care. Despite training, some professionals were not sure when they should make referrals and found it difficult to interpret the local guidance. Too often, referrers did not receive feedback on the outcome of their referral and did not follow up on this.
Inspectors found considerable variability in how well local authorities and their partners were sharing accountability and coordinating early help services. The evidence indicated that the current statutory powers do not make clear the roles and responsibilities of the different agencies involved in early help provision. Without this clarity, none of the partners can give early help the priority that it requires.
Many of these findings mirror those in serious case reviews that looked at early help services. This highlights a concerning lack of progress. Many local authorities are failing to learn the lessons from serious case reviews to improve early help services. It is hoped that the findings from this thematic inspection will trigger the critical progress required to ensure that children and families receive the help they need at the earliest opportunity.