In April we celebrated the first year of the Sandwell Children’s Trust. In 2017, OFSTED found that services for the most vulnerable children and families in Sandwell were inadequate so the Trust was set up to drive improvement.
I’m enormously proud of the progress we’re making. OFSTED have praised the grip and leadership of our new team. They can see a difference in what we’re doing for vulnerable children. However we’re struggling to manage the demand for our services and the financial pressure this brings. When we went live in April 2018, it was with an assumption that we’d have 720 looked after children. That number now stands at just above 900.
We’ve done in depth analysis of each of these children; we’ve speeded up the process to enable children to leave care when permanent arrangements can be made; we’re investing in new services to support families and children at the edge of care. We’ve got a target to reduce the proportion of Sandwell children in care. But we won’t get back to the 720 figure on even our most ambitious projections.
Looking at the excellent analysis carried out by Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner we can see why. Families are under pressure – many children live in homes blighted by domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems or mental illness. Austerity is contributing to the neglect which brings many children into our care in Sandwell.
And costs are spiralling for the placements for those children. We struggle to find foster care or residential places for many of the neediest children. We’re forced into the private sector where a failing market is providing profits for providers who give neither value for money nor the quality of care we’d want for our children. A market failure like this can only be addressed at a national level or councils are forced to bid up prices to house the most vulnerable children.
Those children need a strong voice and they have it in Anne Longfield. In today’s report, she challenges politicians of all parties to prioritise children rather than, for example, tax cuts or tuition fee relief for young people who’ve already successfully made it through their childhood.
But she challenges us to do things differently too. There is already evidence that investing early will support families and vulnerable children and yet hard pressed councils are having to cut their early help and youth services just to keep children’s social care running at all.
Politics is about priorities. The Children’s Commissioner has shown our politicians what’s happening to our most vulnerable children. Now they must choose to do the right thing.
Rt Hon Jacqui Smith
Chair, Sandwell Children’s Trust