Promises of radical change have been common currency during the past decade, but despite the constant departure and arrival of chief officers and senior managers all promising to make a difference, the standard of care for vulnerable children in Birmingham is still officially classified as failing.
At least 20 children across the city have died through abuse and neglect since April 2005, although the true figure may be higher.
Some of the more shocking cases, like Khyra Ishaq, the seven-year-old Handsworth girl starved to death by her mother and step-father, shocked the nation and exposed severe shortcomings at the heart of Birmingham social services.
Social workers and education welfare officials failed to intervene to save Khyra, even though teachers at her school pleaded for direct action.
A lack of co-operation between the council, police, GPs and health trusts has been a constant factor in the numerous Serious Case Reviews conducted into violent child deaths in Birmingham.
Yet another Government inspection is planned to decide whether children’s services can be removed from the direct control of a Whitehall-appointed Improvement Board which has been running the department for almost a year, but no one is placing any money on a positive result just yet.
The inspection is likely to coincide with a huge organisational shake-up in children’s services as the council embraces a new strategy aimed at identifying children and parents in need of help at a very early stage.
Sixteen Integrated Family Support Teams consisting of social workers, teachers, health specialists and police will be embedded in local communities and act as an early warning system, identifying youngsters who are not immediately at risk but who because of their family circumstances require substantial support at home and school.
The politician with the task of overseeing this is Matt Bennett, a 35-year-old Conservative councillor for Stockland Green, who took over as executive member for children’s social care after veteran Tory Len Clark lost his Quinton seat at the elections in May. Coun Bennett, regarded as quietly determined by his colleagues, could hardly be a sharper contrast to the outspoken 70-year-old Clark.
While in charge, Clark hit out at middle management complacency at the council, told senior officials to work harder and described social workers as among the sickest people in Europe based on their sky-high absenteeism levels.
It was Clark who, in October 2009, produced the seminal Who Cares? report which laid bare in public for the first time the shortcomings of children’s social services, which he declared to be a victim of systematic failure and unfit for purpose.
Coun Bennett (Con Stockland Green) says improvements have been made – children see a social worker more quickly now, far more children on the at-risk register have their own social worker, more case conferences are held within the allotted timescale.
But he accepts more progress is required. “This is a service that has been failing for far too long. We still have a long way to go but we are moving in the right direction.”
The departmental re-modelling put in place by Coun Clark has seen 114 out of 753 staff in the children’s social care department lose their jobs, including a number of very senior officials. They were not successful in applying for positions in the new set up, an indication says Coun Bennett of the council’s determination to get the very best people for the job.
Having spent three months getting his feet under the table, Coun Bennett confesses to being shocked at the cynicism displayed by a minority of employees.
He said: “You meet people who have worked for the council for 20 years and have a weary attitude to the way they do their job. They wanted to make a difference, to help others, but we have taken their idealism away.
“We need to create a culture where people can feel confident in the decisions they make and that where there are problems they will be backed up.”
The council deals with about 30,000 referrals each year of children thought to be at risk. Most of the calls come from police, schools or neighbours, and many involve the same families being reported time and again. It is the number of re-referrals that concerns Coun Bennett. These young people, in the words of Coun Bennett, are “booted out of the system and left to fester” until they reappear before social services at a later date when their home circumstances are likely to have worsened and some form of intervention is deemed appropriate.
The theory is that the Family Integrated Support Teams, which are costing £10 million to set up and run, will reduce the need for intervention by reaching potentially vulnerable children and their families before their lives deteriorate and they are placed in danger. If it works, long-term cash savings from having fewer youngsters taken into expensive residential care and coming into the criminal justice system will be considerable.
Coun Bennett adds: “A lot of referrals come from schools. Having these people based at schools and having a link person will help others with real needs.They will be able to reduce the number of unnecessary referrals over time, but it won’t be an instant quick hit.”
He accepts that there is a delicate balancing act between deciding to taking someone into care and allowing them to remain with a dysfunctional and possibly violent family. When social workers make the wrong call by failing to err on the side of caution, tragedy can all too often result.
Coun Bennett rejects critics who claim that social services is too eager to take children away from their families: “It is our duty to reduce the number of kids being taken into care, not just because of the cost but because it’s best for families to stick together if that is possible.
"Where we have really failed over the past 20 years is in creating the culture for social workers to do their jobs.
“People are risk adverse. We don’t want them to be going out on a limb and taking massive risks, but they need to be able to manage risk appropriately. I don’t think we have encouraged them to the degree where they can make these judgments.”
He concludes: “Len Clark’s Who Cares? report identified failure over 20 years and we can’t continue like this. You can’t just shrug your shoulders.’’