BEHIND THE HEADLINES: How did child protection in Northamptonshire come to this?

Are our child protection services in crisis?
Are our child protection services in crisis?

Public confidence in Northamptonshire’s child protection services is bound to be severely rocked by the revelations published in today’s Chronicle & Echo.

“Inadequate” is the very lowest rating used by Ofsted and the watchdog has ranked every single aspect of safeguarding practice carried out by Northamptonshire County Council, Northamptonshire Police and within the county’s NHS as that.

It’s a withering assessment, the full details of which will be made public at a press conference in a few weeks time.

And yet in a strange kind of way, we are rather lucky to discover these shortcomings as early as we did. Ofsted is in the process of reviewing its inspection procedures and needed local authorities to volunteer themselves as guinea pigs for a so-called pilot assessment, a dummy inspection if you like.

We understand that County Hall, as the lead agency on safeguarding issues, had some concerns within this area and put themselves up for selection.

However, the findings of the pilot carried out at the end of January and beginning of February proved so awful that Ofsted returned to carry out an official inspection which is still ongoing at the time of writing.

Crucially, inspectors will be trying to come up with an action plan to rectify the systemic problems which exist and they too will be published in a few weeks time.

What has been striking about this process has been the deafening silence from politicians throughout what has clearly become a crisis within one of the most important statutory services provided by a local authority.

The Chron has learned, for example, that “inadequate” has been applied to all the criteria but it is very difficult indeed to find out what those areas actually are. The lack of information, on or off the record, is unusual considering the gravity of the situation.

Scraps of information have surfaced regarding major failings in the way children have been handled after being charged for offences and bailed. Rather than being handed over to a remand foster carer, for example, in one case at least a child has been held for up to 34 hours in a police cell, a clear breach of safeguarding guidelines.

The question is, however, how did we get to this stage?

One body bound to come under scrutiny is the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board Northamptonshire (LSCBN), the multi-agency organisation whose job it is to drive policy-making for child protection in the county.

Janet Galley left - very quietly as it turns out - as the independent chairman last November, barely two years after she took over from the high profile, inaugural chair, Chris Few who was in charge the last time Ofsted assessed children’s services.

The Chron has learned that a recruitment process is now under way to find a successor and an announcement on that is expected within weeks.

November also saw a shake-up within the Conservative cabinet with Councillor Andrew Grant effectively losing half his portfolio when Councillor Catherine Boardman was created cabinet member for children’s social services.

Their boss, council leader Jim Harker, said at the time: “This appointment reflects the growing and complex nature of this vital work, which has been very much in the public eye recently, and will ensure that the best interests of vulnerable children remain at the heart of our work.”

Councillor Boardman’s relatively short tenure in charge of her new brief would suggest no finger of blame will be pointed at her by rival politicians even if - as seems likely - she will have to face some awkward questions at next month’s publication of the official Ofsted report.

The same may not be true for Councillor Grant, formerly the cabinet member for children and young people, who was in charge when children’s services was given an “adequate” rating in May 2011, even if the publication of report came not long after Opposition Lib Dems had raised real concerns about child protection procedures, in particular the time being taken to assess children deemed to be “at risk”.

Considering his key role within safeguarding, it may seen slightly odd too that he actually only attended 17 per cent of the LSCBN’s meeting between April 2011 and March 2012. How much effective input can he - and County Hall by extension - have been giving to the LSCBN over that period?

And to throw further mud in the water, County Hall recently revealed its highly rated director of Adult and Children’s Services, Charlie MacNally, has also left the county council.

The publication of the report is likely to deliver some findings which will be uncomfortable reading for the Conservative leadership as it prepares to try to win a third successive term in office on May 2.

But politics aside, the real priority first and foremost needs to be to turn around the situation and to turn it around fast. Failure to do so will be to fail our children.