#childsafety | ‘Culture of fear’ in children’s services where leaders unilaterally overrode practice decisions, finds probe

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A council has apologised unreservedly after an independent probe into its children’s social care service found a ‘culture of fear’ and that senior managers unilaterally overrode practice decisions taken in children’s best interests.

The report – by Malcolm Newsam, an experienced children’s troubleshooter and former director – upheld most of the complaints brought by 31 whistleblowers, mostly children’s services managers, about the leadership of the service and the safety of children earlier this year.

Though Newsam’s full report into the whistleblowers’ complaints, brought through a collective grievance by the Unite union, has been kept confidential, the council published a learning report drawn up by Newsam summarising his findings.

Senior managers ‘ignored advice’ on children’s safety

The whistleblowers alleged that the service was “failing to keep children safe due to poor and dangerous decision making” and Newsam upheld their complaint in 13 of the 21 cases he examined in detail.

Though he found no cases where children were at immediate risk, Newsam found examples of senior managers “unilaterally over-riding the collective planning arrangements that are in place to ensure that decisions are taken in the best interests of the child”.

Newsam, who was a director at five councils prior to a long career as an improvement consultant, said this was unusual in his experience, adding:  In many of these instances the decision-makers ignored
the best advice of multi-agency meetings designed to ensure that children are kept safe, and in this regard, they potentially placed a significant amount of risk upon themselves and the council.”

He also found that the priority the senior leadership placed on keeping children with their parents meant children’s needs were lost sight of as “wrap around” alternatives to care were either not available or unsuitable.

‘Culture of fear’

Newsam also upheld a complaint that “a culture of fear has been allowed to grow in children’s services, echoing the findings of an internal 2019 report whose findings were not shared with managers, creating to the impression it was “buried”.

He found the belief in this culture was widely held by the managers he interviewed, including those who had not blown the whistle.

It was driven by a service struggling to meet high demand, in which caseloads were “unrealistically high”, a situation exacerbated by the “regular transferring of cases caused by the departure and arrival of successive agency social workers”.

He also found that the engagement of external consultants, who were perceived to have too much authority, also contributed to the culture. The 2019 appreciative inquiry report had found “an expressed fear of speaking out” in a “chaotic” working environment where the style, tone and timeliness of leaders’ communication to staff created “resentment, confusion and anxiety”.

Newsam found that these problems continued after the 2019 report, which he said could have formed the basis of a more collaborative approach between senior management and staff, but this wasn’t taken.

Use of consultants ‘did not follow procedure’

He also found clear evidence that senior managers’ use of consultants did not follow council policy and procedure and lacked scrutiny, such that safeguards to protect the authority against allegations of preferential treatment or misuse of public money had not been adhered to.

Newsam did not uphold complaints that there had been a loss of trust and confidence among partner agencies or that senior managers had mislead Ofsted – which inspected the council in November 2019, rating it ‘requires improvement’ – in order to gain a better rating.

However, he did find that senior managers appeared to renege on a commitment not to withdraw funding after Ofsted’s visit, with the number of assessment teams reduced from four to three shortly after the inspection.

He made five recommendations – all of which have been accepted by the council. These were to:

  1. Develop a compelling and ambitious vision to deliver the best possible outcomes for children in the city.
  2. Promote an inclusive culture which connects senior management with practice and ensures staff concerns are addressed swiftly.
  3. Invest in managers and staff to deliver high-quality services for children.
  4. Introduce a compelling workforce strategy to make Southampton a destination of choice for experienced and capable social workers and managers.
  5. Ensure the council has a regular independent assessment of the effectiveness of children’s social care services.

Newsam said there had been significant changes to senior management since he submitted his report, with the former director of children’s services leaving and a new DCS, Rob Henderson, currently at Croydon, due to take up post next month. He said this provided an “excellent opportunity” to make the changes recommended.

‘I want to apologise unreservedly’

Responding to the report, chief executive Sandy Hopkins said:  “I want to apologise unreservedly on behalf of Southampton City Council to our colleagues and to the residents of the city for the failings highlighted in the report. We are committed to getting this right and must work together to achieve this. This report does not in any way detract from the commitment and dedication of our children’s services colleagues who I know work hard every day on the front line to protect and improve outcomes for children and young people in Southampton.”

The council has shared the report with Social Work England and Ofsted. Unite has also referred two former senior managers – who were the subject of the whistleblowers’ complaints and are no longer with the council – to Social Work England.

The branch secretary for Unite’s Southampton branch, Hayley Garner, said: “Unite the union and the whistle-blowers within children’s services welcome the findings of the independent investigation. We are satisfied that the serious concerns we raised that put children at risk were upheld by the investigating officer and that work has started on making permanent changes within the service to support staff and provide better outcomes for children.

“We always believed that a fair and robust investigation would uphold our complaints due to the substantial amount of supporting evidence provided.  Unite will be making sure that Southampton City council implement the recommendations on the Action plan which includes encouraging a culture of open communication within the service.”

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