Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale looks at the issues behind the huge failures in the city’s children’s services.
When Len Clark was appointed to head an inquiry into Birmingham children’s social services, local authority officials were right to fear the worst.
The veteran Tory city councillor does not mince his words. Diplomacy is not his bag.
Charged with investigating why, despite receiving millions of pounds of new investment, caring services for children at risk of physical and sexual abuse continue to perform inadequately, it was never remotely likely his findings would make comfortable reading.
And while the conclusions of the inquiry are yet to be published, Len Clark has dropped enough hints after more than 20 evidence-fathering sessions of his team to suggest that the final report will be dynamite.
He told a council meeting recently that social care in Birmingham was “wedded to an industrial delivery model based on 9-5 Monday to Friday working”.
It was, he said, as if nothing ever happened to children at weekends or in the night.
A scrutiny committee earlier this year heard why Ofsted found child protection services were failing, and why Children’s Minister Beverly Hughes ordered an intervention team led by financial consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers to help run social care in Birmingham.
Statistics tabled at the meeting showed that Birmingham is some distance from hitting targets for assessing children thought to be at risk of harm.
Fewer than three-quarters of assessments are completed by social workers within seven weeks.
The council was failing to hit 10 out of 13 targets for the standard of care that local authorities are supposed to provide for vulnerable youngsters.
According to Ofsted, reports of children at risk are not being investigated quickly enough, there is not enough funding for family support and the council is taking far too long to complete serious case reviews into incidents where social workers are believed to have failed.
The inquiry is expected to hit out at “sub-standard” performance by some managers and social workers – something that Coun Clark rehearsed at the scrutiny committee when he revealed that a lack of reliable data made it almost impossible to judge the department’s performance.
He said the council could only provide city-wide statistics and had no idea about the performance of social worker teams in different parts of the city.
He added: “This must be rectified. If we haven’t got accurate data on performance, then we are in no position to manage services at all.
“Some of our teams are performing at close to target or above it. Others are significantly below, and I mean significantly. They are dragging down the overall performance of the city and that under-performance maligns the reputation of the whole department.”
Andy Sedgwick, one of two new assistant directors of social services, appointed at the insistence of the government, described the failure to complete assessments of children at risk in a timely fashion as “depressing”.
Mr Sedgwick admitted the council was “an organisation under pressure” and was struggling to lift standards.
He was right about the pressure. More than 1,000 children are on the protection register, indicating that they may be at risk, and about 2,100 are in care.
Since 2000, Birmingham children’s services has been implicated in the death of toddler Toni-Anne Byfield, shot after social workers agreed she could visit her drug-dealer father – who it later transpired was not her father at all.
In December 2003, Chah Oh-Niyol Kai Whitewind, of Northfield, was convicted of murdering her 12-week-old son Bidziil only days after he was returned to her by social workers.
In July 2002, Jordan Reid was drowned by his mother Mirelene Stewart, of Washwood Heath, in Saundersfoot, Wales, just a week short of his second birthday.
She had warned social workers she might harm her son weeks before, but they took no action.
And a re-trial is about to get underway in the case of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, of Handsworth, who allegedly starved to death after being removed from school by her mother and kept at home. Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood demanded an inquiry into why social workers failed to intervene.
The Baby P case in London, in which a 17-month-old boy was tortured and killed even though Haringey social workers knew about his injuries, resulted in a huge jump in the number of suspected abuse cases in Birmingham – with a peak of 800 incidents a month being reported to social services by police at the beginning of this year.
The city’s 500 social workers simply cannot cope, particularly, as the Clark inquiry will point out, since almost 100 of them are off sick on any given day.
As a result of this, the council is forced to hire expensive temporary agency staff at a cost of up to 50 per cent more than in-house employees – eating into a social services budget that is already under intense pressure.
A long-term recruitment crisis shows no sign of easing, leaving the council with a limited workforce to meet government requirements that only social workers with three years’ experience may work on the most difficult cases of suspected physical or sexual abuse.