By Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter
The number of children subject to child protection plans in Lewisham increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.
An updated report on how the council is improving children’s services following its ‘requires improvement’ rating from Ofsted was presented to Lewisham’s children and young people select committee on Monday.
According to the report the figures are not because of more children being identified, but because the council’s “capacity to work with the family to reduce risks and remove children from plans has been compromised by the reduction in face-to-face contact”.
“Pressures have also been seen in identifying placements, with increasingly limited placement options and higher charges.
“Recruitment activity has been effected, it has been challenging to appoint agency staff willing to work in the community and consequently we have a number of unfilled vacancies, creating caseload pressures for existing staff,” the report states.
After lockdown began in March, 70 per cent of children’s social care staff were restricted from carrying out face-to-face work due to “underlying health problems and/or challenges with childcare and started working from home”.
The rest, about 100 staff members, continued to work from the office and in the community meeting families in person.
The threshold for deciding whether a child needed multi-agency safeguarding was raised during lockdown because of the drop in available staff, so they could concentrate on the most at-risk children.
To mitigate this, the council set up a temporary one-stop information service for families to seek advice and help.
Lucie Hayes, director of children’s services, told the committee: “We raised them largely because of the impact of Covid on staffing levels, those thresholds are gradually being lowered back down again near to where we normally would be.
“Part of the reason that we’re not going to take them all the way back to where they were is because, simultaneously, we’re working on and strengthening that targeted early help offer.”
Ofsted found in July 2019 that Lewisham’s early help services were “underdeveloped, capacity was poor, and management oversight wasn’t sufficiently rigorous”.
In the updated report, which showed that the majority of improvements made to children’s services have been “moderate”, early help services were identified as needing “significant improvement”.
The council launched a programme in July to develop an improved early help system in a bid to reduce the number of children becoming seriously at risk.
A new early help service is expected to be in place by March 2021.
Ms Hayes told the committee that face-to-face meetings were increasing every month, while 95 per cent of staff were back out working in the community.
In general, Ms Hayes said children’s services had improved, but there was “no doubt” that Covid-19 had an impact on the pace of improvement.
“We are seeing a gradual shift in the standard of practice but the vast majority of our social work practice is still what I would describe as reasonable, but still needs improvement to be judged as good by Ofsted and by us,” she said.
Ms Hayes told the committee that children’s services had “some good success” hiring staff, and that she felt “confident that we will move to 85 per cent permanent staffing by December”.
She said one of the biggest challenges going forward was improving practice around corporate parenting, “which had the biggest length of journey to go and attached to that is the financial challenge”.
Pictured top: The number of children on protection plans in Lewisham has increased during the coronavirus pandemic
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