Watchdog gives positive rating to region’s child protection services

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CHILD protection services provided by Scottish Borders Council and its partner agencies – including the police, NHS Borders, Children’s Reporter and voluntary organisations – have this week been given a largely positive appraisal following a comprehensive review by a national watchdog.

An inspection by the Care Inspectorate, which took place in September, rated the services over six key criteria – and awarded two evaluations of “very good” (major strengths), three of “good” (important strengths with some areas for improvement) and one of “satisfactory” (strengths just outweighing weaknesses).

In her report published on Tuesday, the CI’s managing inspector Jan Lafferty acknowledges the number of children (under-18s) referred to the council for child protection enquiries had increased between 2006 and 2010, and that the current level of referrals was higher than that of Scotland as a whole.

A year ago, we revealed the number of children looked after away from their own homes – in foster care or safe accommodation – had increased from 173 to 223 in 2010, with 83 of these subject to supervision requirements.

But Ms Lafferty stressed that the proportion of children on the region’s Child Protection Register (CPR) – at 1.6 per 1,000 – was lower than the Scottish average of 2.8 per 1,000.

The inspectors read a sample of children’s files held by the various agencies and spoke to children and their parents and carers for their views on the services they received. They also talked to staff who worked with children and to senior managers.

That feedback forms the basis of the appraisal, although Ms Lafferty cautions that, because samples were involved, “we cannot promise this will be the same for every child in the area who might need help”.

The inspectors found that staff worked well together to help children learn how to keep themselves safe. Education and community learning staff with SBC, in conjunction with the police, provided helpful information about personal safety, including how youngsters could safely use the internet.

There were a range of programmes to help parents improve skills in looking after their children and vulnerable pregnant women were identified early to ensure babies were safe and well cared for.

“Staff are developing ways of co-ordinating support, usually high quality, for children and families at an early stage, making a positive difference to staff and their families,” states the report.

“However, it is still not always available at the right times or for long enough to fully meet children’s needs. Some vulnerable families in need of support do not get enough help when they need it to prevent a crisis happening, and in some areas there is limited ongoing support for children of primary school age or for families with very young children.”

Staff are commended in the report for being “highly alert” that children may be at risk, quickly reporting their concerns so that police and social workers can investigate.

“Children benefit from sensitive enquiries carried out by skilled and experienced staff ... who use legal measures effectively to ensure they find safe places for children to stay if they cannot remain at home.”

Ms Lafferty points out, however, that appropriate specialist services are not always available and some children have to wait too long for help to recover from the effects of abuse and neglect. She concedes that a lack of local foster carers has led to more children being cared for outwith the region at a considerable distance from their home communities.

The report concludes that parents and carers feel respected and listened to by child protection staff, but notes that, in a few cases, staff do not take enough time to help children express their views.

Ms Lafferty says no more visits are planned in connection with the inspection and she is “confident” identified improvements can be achieved. These include continuing to develop support to vulnerable children and families at an early stage and improving support to meet the longer-term health, education and care needs of the children.

Ms Laffery says staff must strengthen their approach to self-evaluation, “ensuring a clearer focus on outcomes for children and families”.

Managers, she states, must involve staff more fully in reviewing work to make them aware of the areas which need to be improved.