A government special measures order slapped on Birmingham’s children’s social services department is set to be lifted in the new year. But huge problems remain, writes Public Affairs correspondent Paul Dale.
It is often claimed that Birmingham, by virtue of its sheer size, is bound to have unique difficulties – children’s services are beset by challenges more severe than those faced by any other city in the country.
Last month a much-anticipated council scrutiny investigation chaired by veteran Tory councillor Len Clark found children’s social services under-performed, was riddled with systemic failure and unfit for purpose. It was failing vulnerable youngsters most in need – a conclusion shared by Ofsted, whose report a year ago led to the government special measures order.
Alarm bells rang for Ofsted after council bosses admitted 19 children died of abuse or neglect in Birmingham in the past five years – with 16 known to social workers. A further three youngsters suffered ‘serious injury that could have resulted in death’.
Significantly, Coun Clark’s inquiry found that the division of social services into adults and children, with responsibility for children passing to the education department, had been badly handled. The level of strategic management needed to make such a dramatic change work was “demonstrably insufficient”.
Last week the vulnerable children scrutiny committee was updated with events but the prognosis remains gloomy.
Children’s social services director Colin Tucker, hired post-Ofsted, defended his staff. He said social workers faced with investigating 800 child abuse cases a month were at breaking point. Many had “given up” and were ill with depression – absenteeism rates were 25 days per person a year.A failure to recruit social care staff meant almost one-fifth of the department’s 722 jobs were unfilled. When holiday entitlement, bank holidays and local government lieu days are added to sick leave, staff are absent for almost a quarter of the year.
Mr Tucker said: “In defence of my staff, I would urge people to be aware of the pressures they face. In Aston they are right in the front line of murders, stabbings and gang-related incidents. Some of them have done an extraordinary job in extremely difficult circumstances and they have simply had enough. They have given up.“We have to have an honest conversation with them and ask ‘are you ever going to be able to come back to work and if you can’t you will have to go’.”
The council plans to reduce absenteeism and is to form a Corporate Stress Team to investigate why so many are too depressed to work. It will involve anyone off sick for more than 26 weeks.
Mr Tucker says staff sickness was one indicator the government would look at but he remains “cautiously optimistic” that Birmingham will be removed from special measures in the new year. If so, he expects staff morale to improve and for absenteeism to fall. “We are going to target those who have been absent for the longest and we will be really focused,” he said.
The financial cost of absenteeism on hard-pressed budgets is enormous. About 10,000 working days will be lost in 2009, the equivalent of 80 never turning up for work in an entire year. This forces managers to hire emergency cover from independent agencies, at considerable additional cost.
Mr Tucker has promised to transform how the council deals with vulnerable children, with less emphasis on expensive residential care.
* Birmingham has 2,142 children in care, one of the highest proportions in England.
* Some 40,000 live in households where violence is commonplace.
* Absenteeism among children’s social care staff is out of control at an average 25 days a year per person.
* Budgets are continually overspent with the council paying up to £6,000 a week to keep children in residential homes.
* Social worker job campaigns haven’t cut vacancy rates of almost 20 per cent.