Early help: whose responsibility?

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  1. This report summarises the findings of the thematic inspection, exploring the responses of professionals when they identify that children and their families need help.

  2. Inspectors visited 12 local authority areas, which varied in size and included counties and metropolitan areas with a range of rural and urban features. They examined 56 early help cases for children in total. For each of the early help cases considered, inspectors met at least one professional from a partner agency providing support to the individual family. They also met 31 parents and six young people across the 56 cases.

  3. Inspectors examined an additional 84 cases referred to children’s social care alongside the social workers responsible for decision making on these cases. Of these, 47 cases received no further statutory intervention. In the remaining 37, a social worker completed either an initial or core assessment before taking the decision that no further statutory intervention was required. Inspectors also spoke to the 62 workers in partner agencies who made these referrals.

  4. Inspectors met LSCB members, local authority and partner agency staff in connection with local early help commissioning and quality assurance arrangements.

  5. The key areas that the thematic inspection considered were:

  • the arrangements in place in local areas to ensure that children and families needing early help are identified at the earliest opportunity

  • whether professionals use locally agreed thresholds effectively to provide an appropriate response to concerns about children

  • arrangements to assess children’s needs and plans made in response

  • the extent to which professionals seek to understand the individual experiences of the child living in the family

  • whether the early help provided is routinely reviewed to ensure that individual children’s circumstances are improving, risk is reducing or that further action is needed

  • the extent to which professionals working with families understand their role and how to effectively escalate their concerns

  • the extent to which professionals work together to monitor and evaluate the impact of early help for children and families and how this information is used strategically

  • how effectively LSCBs evaluate multi-agency early help and whether they oversee professional training and support

  • whether professionals are aware of and use research and learning from serious case reviews in relation to early help and the impact this has on professional practice.

  1. Good practice in a range of authorities is highlighted in this report. These examples illustrate particular aspects of the work; they are not intended to suggest that practice in a local authority was exemplary in every respect.

  2. This report brings together themes identified across all local authorities visited for the purpose of this inspection. Not all findings in this report were evident in each local authority visited.

  3. Where case studies are referenced, contextual details such as the child’s age and/or gender may have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Findings from practice

Early help provision

  1. A wide range of professionals working in universal services are identifying additional needs for children and families.

  2. Inspectors considered 56 early help cases. The children concerned had a variety of needs that led to professionals from different disciplines working together to support them and their families. These needs included:

  • parents struggling to manage their child or children’s behaviour

  • children with a learning difficulty, such as an autistic spectrum disorder

  • a child displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour

  • parental or child isolation

  • low-level parental mental or physical ill health

  • vulnerable young parents

  • bereavement

  • parental alcohol misuse

  • financial difficulties/debts

  • parental learning difficulty

  • early neglect

  • housing difficulties (overcrowding and homelessness)

  • risk of school exclusion

  • poor attachment between child and parent

  • child’s low self-esteem.

  1. Inspectors found that thresholds were appropriately considered and used in all but three of the early help cases examined. These cases were referred back to the local authority for further assessment as children were considered to be experiencing significant harm.

  2. Inspectors closely reviewed early help cases alongside a professional involved in working with the family. They found that opportunities to intervene earlier were missed in over 40% of the cases. In a very small number of cases, despite the efforts of professionals, parents had refused offers of help and professionals appropriately judged that this refusal did not warrant referrals to children’s social care at that time.

  3. These missed opportunities were attributed to a number of factors, including delays in information-sharing between agencies, delays in providing services following assessment and parents not being given support when they first asked for help. Most significantly, in six of the cases, the families had long-standing identified needs that, historically, individual agencies had only responded to in a crisis. In these cases, until the current early help intervention, agencies had failed to work together to support these families at an earlier point.

  4. In one case, a family was known to children’s social care and received child in need services in 2011. The social work assessment at that time did not robustly assess the parents’ long-term ability to respond to the children’s changing needs as they got older. As the children got older, the parents, who had moderate learning difficulties, were not able to manage the children’s changing needs. No one agency had a good oversight of the family’s circumstances after the case had been closed. As a result, different schools responded reactively to the issues as they arose with each individual child in school rather than supporting the family and understanding the child’s experiences in the family home environment. The parents always responded to schools and accepted any help willingly. This masked and deflected attention from the experiences and neglect of the children.

  5. The quality of the early help assessments undertaken with families was too variable. Inspectors considered fewer than half of the assessments to be of good quality. Poor assessments routinely:

  • failed to analyse information

  • were overly descriptive and so not clear about strengths and concerns

  • relied heavily on one parent’s self-reporting, with limited or no input from professionals

  • did not consider the family’s history nor consider the significance of the current issues

  • focused too much on the parent rather than the impact of the parent’s difficulties on the child

  • contained limited information about the father or other partners even when they were part of the household.

  1. Too many assessments did not include the views of children. In almost a third of cases, the inspector specifically noted the absence of the child’s voice or sufficient understanding of their experiences, where this would have been expected given the child’s age. In almost all of these cases the assessment was also found to be too focused on the adults’ needs and not sufficiently child-focused. For example, an inspector noted:

‘… the young person was not consulted despite being 15 years old. There was a lot of information about his behaviour in the assessment which attributed a sense of blame to the child. I would be uncomfortable with this young person reading the assessment as it was not child centred’.

  1. Good assessments were characterised by:

  • a professional speaking to the child about their experiences and asking for their thoughts and feelings about their circumstances

  • consideration of brothers’ and sisters’ needs individually

  • the participation and consent of both parents

  • the family’s history informing the findings and decisions

  • all professionals known to the family contributing to the assessment

  • comprehensive information

  • needs, risks and strengths being clearly identified

  • sound conclusions based on good analysis of information.

    In areas where professionals used a standardised assessment tool, assessments were generally of better quality. For example, in Milton Keynes, professionals used the Signs of Safety20 model for early help assessments. In one case, an inspector noted that:

‘… the use of this model assisted professionals to identify strengths, needs and risks within the family … information is gathered from the professionals who know the children and the parents; history has been considered well (which leads to a time limited emphasis to the plan); the children have all been spoken to alone and despite the very low levels of speech of the five-year-old, efforts were made to communicate with her at school by those who know her well.’

  1. In another local authority, some professionals conducted early help assessments using an ‘Evaluation Wheel’. This is a graphical tool that invites parents to rate their level of confidence in areas such as ‘using services in the community’, ‘parenting skills’ and ‘feeling good about myself’. The areas to work on are drawn from these ratings. The exercise is then repeated when the intervention is reviewed in order to measure impact. Although simple, this tool is effective in both engaging parents and in measuring the impact of work.

  2. Inspectors saw some good practice with proactive steps being taken to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings as well as understand what life was like for them in their household. In just over a quarter of assessments, inspectors found that the child was spoken to directly and that this contributed to a good assessment. In other assessments, there were good observations of very young children from professionals who knew them well. One inspector noted that:

‘the worker clearly has engaged the child and you get a sense he is at the centre of the assessment. His voice can be clearly heard in the narrative.’

  1. Engaging fathers or male partners living in the household, was a significant failing of early help work. Both parents were sufficiently included in the assessment and plan in only two fifths of the early help cases. Of the remaining cases, a further two fifths of fathers were excluded without rationale. A third were available but not sufficiently engaged. One fifth of fathers were not involved in early help work because they were no longer in contact with the child or as a result of significant domestic abuse.

  2. In over two thirds of cases, the subject child had brothers and sisters. The majority of cases paid good attention to siblings who were also the subject of an early help assessment, high numbers of which also had an early help plan. Others were appropriately deemed not to require a plan following assessment. Some assessments grouped children’s needs and did not provide details about the children’s individual needs. In others, brothers and sisters were not considered. This meant that for almost a quarter of cases opportunities were missed to assess and support these other children in the family. In one local authority, the standard early help policy, which was well known by professionals, required them to assess the needs of all children in the family. This assisted professionals to think holistically about families.

  3. In just over a third of the early help cases, inspectors saw effective planning that was contributing to improving outcomes for children. This included regular reviews of plans focused on outcomes and good use of ‘distance-travelled’ tools that attempted to measure and evaluate the desired outcomes. Practitioners were able to evidence a wide range of improvements in the child’s circumstances. These included:

  • improved school attendance

  • reduced short-term school exclusions

  • reduced inappropriate sexualised behaviour

  • reduced isolation

  • improved presentation

  • immunisations being up to date where they had been absent previously

  • improved progress in meeting developmental milestones

  • academic improvements

  • improved housing and home conditions

  • care arrangements stabilising

  • improved speech and language.

  1. Practitioners were also able to evidence improved parental behaviours that were having a positive impact on the child. These included:

  • more consistent behaviour management and routines

  • parenting that had improved after attending a parenting course

  • increased emotional warmth demonstrated to the children

  • parents engaging with and taking advice from professionals

  • improved mental health

  • a reduction in debt

  • a reduction in drug/alcohol misuse

  • gaining employment.

  1. In almost all cases, practitioners were able to verbally articulate that outcomes for children had improved, although this was often absent from written records. Written plans were not sufficiently outcome-focused so they did not assist professionals in knowing when a goal had been reached or in measuring progress towards a goal. In almost half of the early help cases, inspectors reported deficiencies in the plan and in ongoing work. Four cases had no written plan. Some plans did not feature the needs identified in assessments. Most significantly, inspectors found that in almost three quarters of the deficient plans actions were overly focused on parents and it was not clear how the action would improve the child’s outcomes. A large majority were not sufficiently specific or measurable, did not set achievable goals, contained no plans to review and did not set timescales in which changes needed to be achieved.

  2. Too many plans and subsequent reviews did not clearly establish whether the child’s circumstances were improving, neither did they hear from children. While almost all cases had plans, in too many instances plans were not being reviewed regularly. Because plans were not outcome-focused, where reviews took place the meetings did not effectively consider progress in relation to the plan. Plans were too often a list of actions that did not identify the outcome to be achieved for the child or how these actions would improve the child’s circumstances. Many made the assumption that the issue would be remedied with the action taken; for example, many required a parent to attend parenting sessions. While the parents may have attended, there was rarely subsequent analysis about whether this attendance had improved either the parenting or the child’s circumstances and experiences.
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