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16.04.14

Children’s services: spotting the signs through early help and intervention

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

Tasked with managing one of the toughest and most expensive areas in local government today, Buckinghamshire County Council’s cabinet member for children’s services, Cllr Angela Macpherson, explains how a preventative approach is helping when it comes to protecting vulnerable children and young people across the county.

In theory, my job is simple. My overriding priority is for the safety and well-being of Buckinghamshire’s children and young people. However, in reality, one of the biggest challenges of my portfolio is that it is focused almost entirely on our most vulnerable young people. And, even in places like Buckinghamshire, often seen as more affluent and successful than most, the problems are increasing.

Let me give you a flavour:

• Buckinghamshire is the county currently experiencing the greatest increase in 0-15 year olds, with most growth in the birth rate coming from our most deprived areas;

• The level of referrals to the council is expected to more than double from 2009/10 levels, with over 75% involving a domestic violence and abuse issue;

• We’re seeing considerable growth in unaccompanied asylum seekers in the county;

• We’re retaining more young people in our care, and for longer, than in previous years;

• Young people’s needs are growing in complexity, particularly with issues such as self-harm and suicide;

• We have a greater focus on the issue of child sexual exploitation; and

• In common with many other parts of the UK we are experiencing problems with the recruitment of specialised staff.

Alongside many other pressures, these are helping to fuel both higher costs and higher caseloads for staff. Whilst every elected member of the council bears the responsibility of being a ‘corporate parent’, the overall responsibility for the 455 children and young people currently looked after by the authority rests with me. The really worrying figure however is that this number represents a 33% increase from just 2009 and the projection is that numbers will continue to rise, particularly if we continue to work in the same way.

It’s clearly not a sustainable position and one which is driving us to look further upsteam for opportunities to step in at an earlier stage to encourage families to be resilient and make plans to solve their own problems before issues become too critical.

We are investing in these ‘prevention’ measures in a number of ways. For example, we have the Buckinghamshire multi-agency ‘Early Help’ offer where a multitude of agencies come together to provide support to families who, without early intervention, might progress to needing statutory intervention.

A critical ingredient is the need for families to make a commitment to change. This is where ‘Families First’ (our local approach to the government’s Troubled Families agenda) provides the joined-up approach required for Early Help to work. It’s well-proven that later interventions are less successful in preventing family breakdown, domestic abuse, substance misuse, truancy, youth offending and poor achievement at school – a cycle that often gets repeated between generations. It’s our Family Resilience Service that helps to provide ‘whole family’ support before their problems become too difficult to manage.

Our award-winning CATCH service (Children and Teenager Community Help) supports 11 to 17-year-olds, enabling them to live safely within their families and communities and reducing the risk of them becoming looked-after children. We have also recently launched ‘Junior Catch’, providing similar help and support for families with children from birth to secondary school age.

We’re also working hard to increase the number of local foster carers. About half of all foster care placements are currently with more expensive independent fostering agencies, which often place children away from their own area. If we can shift the balance in placement type, it will be better for young people and help make my budget go further – a win/win.

It’s a similar story on adoption and we are on track to approve 30 adopters this year, a 50% increase on previous years. A recent marketing campaign has also tripled the number of enquiries from those potentially wishing to adopt, from which we hope to achieve a higher conversion rate.

To better combat child sexual exploitation, we are developing a new Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) with colleagues from police and health to deliver a more joined-up and cost-effective approach to this high-profile area of work.

The pressures faced by those, like me, who are responsible for children’s services are ever-growing. In Buckinghamshire, we are changing to provide earlier, better targeted and more effective services with our partners – and at a cheaper cost.

It’s not an overnight transformation, indeed there’s no magic sticking plaster, but it’s beginning to work and it’s delivering some of the best outcomes possible within our financial constraints.

Some comments from families

• “Without Family Resilience we would not have come this far. I believe our worker’s involvement helped me keep sane and prevent another breakdown.”

• “Before meeting Family Resilience, I felt alone and that nobody listened to me. I now feel more informed and in controlof my son’s wellbeing.”

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