Child protection service in West Sussex is stretched to the limit

Improvements are being made in West Sussex County Council’s child protection service – which had been strongly criticised by the Ombudsman – but there is ‘still a long way to go’, a County Hall meeting was told.

Members of the children and young people’s services select committee heard an acute shortage of social workers meant having to constantly ‘juggle’ with staff resources.

The Ombudsman found the county council was guilty of maladministration with injustice after a 12-year-old was left with no schooling for nearly two years.

The child was temporarily excluded from school in 2004, and apart from a short period in a pupil referral unit, did not return until September 2006.

The Ombudsman concluded the county council had failed to provide adequate education while the child was out of school, and had made an inadequate social service assessment.

The council said it had now implemented the Ombudsman’s recommendations, which included reviews of procedures to ensure social care casework was written up promptly and to address staff shortages and workload pressures.

Cllr Colin O’Neill demanded: “Are we going at a fast enough pace to avoid future incidents?”

Cllr Sue Knight asked how the council would ensure, once it had got past the period of a huge shortage of social workers, that it did not allow this to happen again.

“Somewhere we went wrong, and it went drastically wrong, and people are suffering because of that,” she declared.

Cllr Margaret Johnson said it worried her that all authorities with this responsibility were on a knife-edge that this sort of thing could happen to any of them at almost any time.

Cllr Chris Mullens said social workers were working under intense pressure and stress, and working long hours.

“The shortages are real, and the problems are real,” he added. “Their priorities have to be the most urgent cases.”

Stuart Gallimore, director of operations, children and young people’s services, told the select committee: “I think we are doing as much as we can within the resources we have. This is not a plea to say the council is not giving us enough money. With the available social workers we can recruit, we are doing as much as we can.”

Plans would see additional social workers coming in, and the number would rise to the full complement.

“This will reduce the possibility of incidents like this happening again,” said Mr Gallimore.

Efforts to prioritise situations at greatest risk had been redoubled, involving juggling a scarce resource of social workers.

“We are in a better place than we were at the time of this incident, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.

Staff had to see that resources were directed at the areas of greatest need.

“My staff and I are doing all we can, and we have plans, with additional resources coming on stream, to further strengthen that,” he told councillors.

Mr Gallimore added: “There is the beginning of an improvement.”