The evidence on this inspection indicated that current statutory powers do not provide a sufficient focus for any one agency or partners collectively to give early help the priority that it requires. For example, referrals that did not progress to statutory intervention were not analysed to understand whether children’s early help needs were met. Evidence further showed that children’s needs were sometimes left unmet and no agency had overall responsibility to provide help. Again, in the absence of a duty for agencies to hold each other to account for early help arrangements, it is not known if they are effective.
The Munro Review recommended that the government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to secure sufficient provision of local early help services for children, young people and families.22 The government’s response was that ‘there is sufficient legislation to realise Professor Munro’s vision of a transparent and coordinated offer of early help.’23
Munro recognised the need for a legal framework to secure ‘shared accountability for the early help offered to children and families whose needs do not meet the threshold for a social care service.’24This thematic inspection demonstrated significant variability in the effectiveness of local shared accountability and coordination of early help services. Little has changed for many children in the absence of this duty because there is no statutory duty to enforce the shared accountability needed to deliver an effective early help offer. In many areas, a disconnect remains between statutory service provision and an early help offer for children.
Not all partnerships had developed a shared early help strategy. In some, the early help strategy was led by the local authority and the local authority employed staff or commissioned services to coordinate, assess and deliver early help where needs were identified by partners. In others, a multi-agency early help strategy was in place or being drafted. None, however, had scrutinised the effectiveness of the delivery of the strategy and its impact on improving outcomes for children at the earliest point or reducing the need for higher cost, more coercive help.
For partnerships, the JSNA was the starting point and the statutory process by which they identified current and future health and well-being needs.25 Many JSNAs failed to focus sufficiently on and prioritise potential child protection issues. For example, JSNAs did not routinely identify the prevalence of parental mental ill health, drug or alcohol misuse or domestic abuse. Furthermore, even fewer identified the numbers of children living in such households. These issues are well known indicators of potential future child protection issues.26 Despite this extensive research, these indicators were not yet a key focus in JSNAs and were not used as a basis for early help provision. Without this shared information, early help services cannot be targeted to the children who need them most.
‘Working together to safeguard children’ requires the LSCB to publish a threshold document that includes an outline of the process for the early help assessment and the type and level of early help services to be provided. In all the areas visited, the LSCB either had an agreed or a draft multi-agency threshold document. ‘Working together to safeguard children’ places no requirement on the LSCB to evaluate the effectiveness of the application of the threshold document. Without such a duty, this inspection found that while LSCBs have complied with the duty to have a threshold document, only two areas could confirm that specific audit work had occurred to test out whether thresholds were appropriately applied for early help work. Most audits focus on the application of thresholds on statutory work and do not consider early help thresholds.
Many LSCBs recognised that they had not yet developed data to enable them to ‘assess the effectiveness of the help being provided to children and families’,as required by‘Working together to safeguard children’. Many were still working to secure regular reporting regarding early help and, at best, measurements of impact were still in the very early stages of development. Evaluation across the continuum of early help and statutory services required further significant development.
‘Working together to safeguard children’27identifies specific groups of children who would benefit from early help. Professionals should, in particular, be alert to the potential need for early help for a child who:
is showing signs of engaging in anti-social or criminal behaviour
is in a family circumstance presenting challenges for the child, such as substance abuse, adult mental health, domestic violence
is showing early signs of abuse and/or neglect.
Only in one area did professionals have some awareness of this list. Not one of the 52 professionals identified young carers as a specific group. Only just over half were able to identify a specific group of children that they recognised as vulnerable. It is a cause for concern that professional awareness about such vulnerable groups was so weak and that this poor awareness could prevent them from identifying and providing early help to families.
LSCBs indicated that specific focus on early help training was underdeveloped. Only a quarter stated that they had delivered specific early help training across the partnership. Most advised that early help awareness was integrated into basic safeguarding training. Most early help training was facilitated on a single agency basis or by the local authority. No LSCBs were able to confirm whether all those who needed to be trained on early help had received appropriate training. Only a quarter had developed processes for monitoring and evaluating the impact of training on practice. Few professionals were able to make reference to specific early help training that they had received. As a result, professionals were limited in describing examples of the impact of training on their early help work. This meant that many LSCBs were failing to take sufficient account of the statutory duty to:
‘monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of training, including multi-agency training, for all professionals in the area. This should cover how to identify and respond early to the needs of all vulnerable children, including unborn children, babies, older children, young carers, disabled children and those who are in secure settings’ 28