Community groups are as placid a bunch of people as you’ll find in any society. These are the quiet organisers, the comforters and advisers, the providers of safety nets.
Well, that safety net is hanging by a strand in Northamptonshire according to a raft of key Northampton voluntary groups that help young people, who have signed a report warning tragedy is waiting for councillors who meddle with anything linked to our precariously balanced children’s service.
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The 12 groups and child experts (see panel below), organised by former minister and Labour MP for Northampton North Sally Keeble, are afraid that councillors genuinely don’t realise how dangerous these proposed cuts are.
And they are not alone. One frontline children’s worker told the Chron: “You think of Baby P... it sounds awful but I feel like we’re waiting for someone to die.”
Another in the same line of work agreed: “Yes, absolutely. There’s a real sense that we’re waiting for something to happen.”
Mrs Keeble, who thought it unusual and significant that the groups and experts agreed to write the controversial report, said: “This is the highest- risk stuff that councillors deal with and if they get it wrong, the result is a dead child.”
Kathryn White manager Blackthorn Good Neighbours family centre, which provides dozens of services for children, said child safety in the county was already on a knife edge because the likes of social services, Children’s Centres, Homestart Service and even Relate are drowning in workloads.
“The threshold is in effect so much higher now because they can’t deal with everyone. The cuts mean there’s both more families in need and less funding to help them.
“Each step in the process takes longer.
“We now have children who we have had grave concerns about for months and they can’t be moved.”
Hayley Walker, an Early Years Provider in Blackthorn, said she was also terrified of the consequences of these cuts going through.
“There’s just no-one to signpost them to even now, Sometimes I think to myself, where am I going to put those families?”
She said virtually every agency that should be helping families can no longer intervene before things “erupt”.
“There’s a high turnover of social workers,” she said. “Some of our children only get a social worker for a few weeks. Some families are on their fourth social worker.
“Health visitors are absolutely maxed out. They can’t deal with anymore and kids are definitely slipping through the net
“There are definitely cases going unseen.”
Neglect is rife and rising, according to Blackthorn Good Neighbours with less and less help as funds dry up for family organisations. Even now, children regularly arrive hungry. Some mums don’t feed themselves because they have to choose between themselves and their children. Some poverty-stricken children literally don’t have a bed to sleep in.
“All it needs is a complication in a parent’s benefits and they often quickly spiral into mental health problems. There are mums who just can’t see a way out and all this – and it impacts on the children,” Kathryn says.
David N. Jones, from Northampton, has worked in child protection for nearly four decades – and has also been chair of Leicester’s safeguarding board, an Ofsted inspector and chair of the International Federation of Social Workers.
He says that the council’s Tory administration can engender sympathy from the public. But only if they are willing to recognise what we as a county are about to condemn our children to.
Mr Jones said: “We have to ask ourselves: is this the community we want to live in?
“The consequences for children are rises in crime, more injuries at home, more neglect... and it’s a long-term, generational impact that will go on for years.
“I’m more worried than at any point in my 40-year career – and I’m not alone in that.
“This is really deep, serious stuff.
“It’s a social crisis; we are at a tipping point.”
Everyone the Chron spoke to accepts that there has always been poverty, but dozens of small cuts in recent years have undermined the collective ability of Northamptonshire to look after its children
Almost everyone also believed that Heather Smith and fellow cabinet colleagues in County Hall probably don’t realise the effect they are about to unleash.
The county proposes to cut £2.8m from a children’s service but analysis that shows £4.1 million of further, indirect cuts, could also affect our children.
Mrs Keeble said: “We feel it is important that the cuts to children’s services are fully and clearly set out, with impact assessments and are fully consulted on with parents, carers and those working with children.
“In addition, the council needs to have some means of measuring the impact of these cuts on children, should they press ahead with the proposals.
“These plans have none of those things.”
A Northamptonshire County Council spokeswoman said: “The safety and welfare of children in Northamptonshire is our utmost priority. The budget proposals currently being consulted upon do not affect our ability to safeguard vulnerable children and families, and any referral to children’s social services will continue to be assessed under our existing policies and timescales.”
Who are the groups and child experts who helped write the report?
Blackthorn Good Neighbours Centre - Kathryn White, Danielle Reeves, Lewis Bevan
Emmanuel Church - Haydon Spenceley, Paul Foster
Emmanuel Foodbank - Lorraine Bewley-Tippler
Homestart Northampton - Bernie Barnes
Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs - Zoe Robinson
People Need People - David Jones (retired social worker and former independent chair of a local safeguarding children board outside Northamptonshire)
Springs Family Centre – Clive Ireson
Tracy Barford - local resident involved in children’s and youth work
Brian Burnett - former chair of a children’s centre, trustee of Spring Charity and volunteer with Healthwatch
Cllr Janice Duffy – Northampton Borough Councillor for Talavera
Sally Keeble – formerGovernmemt minister and ex-MP for Northampton North
Dawn Wright - Former director of Lowdown youth club, now working in mental healthcare
Cuts community groups say directly affecting children’s services:
Management of Tiffield site £235,000
Contractual reductions including cuts to children’s centresin Corby £692,000
More local foster carers, rather than agencies £150,000
Review of non-statutory children’s services £500,000
Cut international social worker recruitment – principally South Africa £310,000
Converting agency staff to permanent staff £992,000
Cuts community groups say indirectly affect children’s services:
Phone access £75,000
Less office openings £66,000
First point of contact restaff £500,000
Cutting commissioning work to reduce staffing £250,000
Library closures: up to £1,226 m
Removal of subsidies for bus services. £1.054 m
Northamptonshire Community Foundation funds eg supplementary schools
Total: £4.1 million
Editor's note: The county council issued an additional statement in relation to the front page headline, following publication of this story in yesterday's Chronicle & Echo. You can read their statement here.