Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Ofsted reports on the protection of vulnerable babies and young people

Yesterday, Ofsted publishes two reports which highlight the vulnerability of teenagers in the child protection system. One describes the success that some local authorities have had in improving outcomes for these young people, by supporting them to remain living successfully at home rather than bringing them into care. The other highlights key practice issues in the protection of young people as well as babies under one, who remain one of most vulnerable groups of all.

The report Ages of concern: learning lessons from serious case reviews highlights key lessons learnt over the last four years from reviews of serious incidents involving either babies under one year old or children over 14. Previous Ofsted reports into serious case reviews (SCRs) have consistently identified that a large proportion of SCRs concerned children in one of these two age groups. Of the 482 SCRs evaluated between 2007 and 2011, which involved 602 children, 35% were babies less than one year old and 18% were children aged 14 and over.

In too many cases for babies less than one year old, there were shortcomings in timeliness and quality of pre-birth assessment. The aim of this assessment is to make sure risks are identified as early as possible, to take action to protect the baby, and to support parents in caring for the baby safely.

The role of parents, their involvement with agencies, the support parents receive and the lack of attention to the role of the fathers are all crucial factors in safeguarding babies. The cases reviewed showed repeated examples of agencies underestimating the risks for children arising from their parents’ background and lifestyle, whether they related to drug or alcohol misuse, a past history of being looked after, abuse suffered during their childhood or being a victim of domestic violence as an adult. Some reviews were found to focus too much on the mother’s needs at the expense of the baby. There was also inadequate support for teenage parents who should have been considered as children in need in their own right.

The report found that for babies, health agencies were the main, and in some cases the only agency involved with the families. The messages for health agencies are the need for better coordination between the different aspects of health provision involved with safeguarding babies, particularly on the transfer of care between midwifery services, health visitors and GPs; the importance of understanding and implementing agreed procedures; and the need to improve assessment that uses all sources of information.

For children aged 14 and over cases reviewed showed the complexity and range of risks teenagers face including alienation from their families, school difficulties, accommodation problems, abuse by adults, unemployment, drug and alcohol misuse, emotional and mental health difficulties and domestic abuse.

The report found there is a wide diversity of incidents that resulted in the SCRs for teenagers, where there were no clear patterns. However, lessons can still be learnt. Common messages from the reviews analysed were:

  • agencies focused on the young person’s challenging behaviour, seeing them as hard-to-reach or rebellious, rather than trying to understand the causes of the behaviour and the need for sustained support 
  • young people were treated as adults rather than children, because of confusion about their age, their legal status or availability of age-appropriate facilities, especially for those aged between 16 and 18 
  • there was no coordinated approach to meeting young people’s needs and practitioners had not always understood the important contribution of their agency in achieving this.

One case examined was a 17-year-old girl who had committed suicide. She was a vulnerable young person who had suffered physical and domestic abuse. As a teenager she had self-harmed and had a history of running away from home and had been involved in drug and alcohol misuse.

When younger, she was placed on a child protection plan due to neglect. The lesson to be learnt from this was that the young person should have been identified as a child in need rather than a challenging, hard-to-engage adolescent. Strategies should have been put in place when she was first admitted to hospital following a deliberate overdose.

Along with the Ages of concern report, Ofsted is also publishing Edging away from care – how services successfully prevent young people entering care. This report looks at the good practice of 11 local authorities who are taking measures to help ensure that only those young people who need to, do come into care. The authorities were committed to working ‘safely’ to reduce their numbers of looked after children and to manage the risks associated with helping young people to remain living with their families and communities.

The overriding message from young people and families interviewed was that it was the key worker who was crucial in helping families successfully stay together. Practitioners’ persistency, reliability, openness and frank nature helped them to engage with families who previously would have been difficult to approach. The practitioners recognised that while the young person’s needs were the priority, the needs of parents, including fathers, also had to be addressed to successfully achieve this balance.

Services which successfully supported young people and their families were often felt to be a lifeline for families in crisis. The report found that successful intervention required strong multi-agency working both operationally and strategically, combined with clearly understood and consistent decision-making processes, and investment in services to address young people and their family’s needs.

Miriam Rosen, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said:

'These two reports make a significant contribution to our understanding of how to better protect some very vulnerable groups, particularly babies and children over 14. Our analysis of the lessons to be learned from the serious case reviews we have evaluated over the last four years reveals recurring themes which contribute to failures to protect children within these age groups. I hope the reports will help Local Safeguarding Children Boards and practitioners alike to review their own practice and be alert to the potential gaps in protecting children of all ages.

'The report on Edging away from care highlights some of the very positive work that local authorities are doing with teenagers who are at risk of entering care. The examples given provide insight into the challenges that practitioners face and the different approaches applied to help young people remain living with their families rather than being placed into care.'

Notes to Editors:

1. Ages of concern: learning lessons from serious case reviews and Edging away from care – how services successfully prevent young people entering care can be found on the Ofsted website.

The Ages of concern: learning lessons from serious case reviews report covers evaluations of 482 serious case reviews, involving 602 children, carried out between April 2007 and the end of March 2011. It looks specifically at a sample of cases (approximately one third) of the two age groups of children: babies less than the age of one year and young people over the age of 14.

Ofsted has been responsible for evaluating serious case reviews since 1 April 2007. The review of child protection by Professor Eileen Munro recommended that Local Safeguarding Children Boards should use a systems methodology when undertaking serious case reviews and that Ofsted should cease to have responsibility for the evaluation of serious case reviews (The Munro review of child protection: final report, a child centred system, DfE, 2011). The government agrees that systems review methodology should be used by Local Safeguarding Children Boards when serious case reviews are undertaken and will give further consideration to this recommendation. The government has accepted in principle that Ofsted’s evaluations of serious case reviews should end but believes that it is important to plan carefully the transition to new arrangements (A child-centred system: the government’s response to the Munro review of child protection. DfE, 2011). In the meantime, Ofsted continues to evaluate serious case reviews.

The reviews and the evaluations under consideration here were conducted in accordance with the statutory guidance set out in chapter 8 of Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children*. Annex A sets out the circumstances in which a Local Safeguarding Children Board must consider conducting a serious case review.

Ofsted has previously published five reports on the lessons to be learnt from serious case reviews. These reports have covered reviews evaluated by Ofsted between April 2007 and the end of September 2010.

Edging away from care – how services successfully prevent young people entering care report looked at how a range of intervention services, across a small sample of 11 local authorities with a variety of geographic and demographic features and population size, provided successful support to young people who were at risk of entering care. The local authority areas included large cities, a range of metropolitan areas, London boroughs and large counties with a combination of rural and urban features.

None of the children and young people taking part in the survey had ever been in the care of a local authority. Inspectors met and spoke to 39 young people and 33 parents or carers in 43 families about their experiences of support and help from a range of services. In most cases, inspectors spoke to the young people on their own without the presence of their family members. Many of these young people were from families with large sibling groups meaning that considerably more individuals than the 39 children and young people who were the focus of the survey had benefited from the support provided.

2. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children's social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses local authority children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

3. Media can contact the Ofsted Press Office through 020 7421 6574 or via Ofsted's enquiry line 0300 1231231 between 8.30am - 6.30pm Monday - Friday. Out of these hours, during evenings and weekends, the duty press officer can be reached on 07919 057359.

*This report covers the period from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2011 and there have been minor amendments to Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children throughout the time period covered by this thematic survey, but these do not impact on these findings.

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