The Department for Education has now published guidance for local authorities on children’s social care during the coronavirus pandemic. Below is a summary of the contents.
The Guidance states that the Government appreciate that those who work to support families and protect the welfare of children are working extremely hard in the face of unprecedented challenges and that these challenges may mean that local authorities and partners struggle to meet the full range of statutory duties relating to child protection, safeguarding and care. Therefore, when making difficult and complex decisions local authorities should follow the spirit of certain guiding principles:
• Child-centred – promoting children’s best interests
• Risk-based – prioritising support and resources for children at greatest risk
• Family focussed – harnessing the strengths in families and their communities
Evidence informed – ensuring decisions are proportionate and justified
• Collaborative – working in partnership with parents and other professionals
• Transparent – providing clarity and maintaining professional curiosity about a child’s wellbeing
Key points in guidance.
The Guidance states that “there is an expectation that all authorities will have similar arrangements in place which ensure proper scrutiny of the safety and well-being of children.” There are also expectations that where local authorities have to deviate from standard practice, that clear records are kept to capture rational and risk assessment for decisions made. The Government has also designated social workers and other social care workers as critical works meaning that their children are eligible for education or childcare places. Ofsted will also suspend routine inspections of children’s social services, but any urgent inspections where specific concerns have been raised can still go ahead.
Social Work England has written to all those social workers who left the profession in the last two year, providing them with detail of how to re-register. Anyone who has had a fitness to practice case upheld will not be able to qualify for re-registration, local authorities should continue to make all their usual checks regarding employment. Social Workers and others brought in for coronavirus purposes are eligible for fact-tracked DBS checks for free. Currently, it is not considered necessary to register student social workers but this will be kept under review.
Children’s social care
Local authorities and social workers are expected to make judgements about visiting children and families which balance considerations around risk to children and young people, risk to families and risks to the workforce. The guidance affirms that social workers and their managers are best placed to make these decisions about the form of contact they need to maintain to ensure the safety of children and young people. Though there are many ways to keep in touch without face-to-face interaction, where this is necessary social workers should take account of Public Health England’s advice on social distancing, however, PPE is not required unless those being visited are symptomatic of coronavirus. There is an expectation that children with a social worker will attend an educational setting but it is up to the educational setting and the local authority to make a risk based descision if these children have Education, Health and Care plans. Multi-agency support should continue as much as possible, in order to provide continuity of support. The Guidance adds that “Any practitioner working with a child can share relevant personal information lawfully, including without consent where necessary, if it is to keep a child safe”.
Alternative Provision (AP)
A high number of children in AP will meet the definition of vulnerable children and so local authorities will need to make arrangements to determine the best way to protect this group of children. This may include keeping AP settings open where it is feasible to do so, though close working with headteachers and regional school commissioners. If it is not possible to keep schools open, then local authorities must assess the safeguarding needs of children in AP on a case by case basis. The protocols that the AP sector often puts in place for the school holidays are typically tough tot be effective and thorough, but APs are asked to remain vigilant in safeguarding young people.
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel must still be notified when there is a serious incident involving children and young people and this still must happen within 5 working days, this duty remains on local authorities. The online notification system remains active and available 24 hours a day. Safeguarding partnerships must still undertake a rapid review for learning form serious incidents but the 15-day target for undertaking and reporting on the review may not be achievable during the outbreak. However, a rapid review should be expedited where there is a child death or serious injury in the context of abuse or neglect and coronavirus is a strong related factor. Safeguarding partners and/or local authorities may not be able to undertake more in-depth practice reviews within six months and so they must inform the government of any decision about initiating or publishing a review.
Children’s homes and residential settings
Practitioners should inform Ofsted if their home is going to close and if a closure is impeding due to a staffing shortage, then practitioners should discuss it as a matter of urgency with the relevant placing local authorities. The Guidance adds that “local authorities should prioritise, where possible, recruiting and developing their local fostering capacity to help meet demand.” If placements in children’s homes of foster care cannot be found then placements in independent and semi-independent provision can be right for some older children. Any setting that does deliver care must meet the definition set out in the Care Standards Act 2000 and should be registered with Ofsted as a children’s home.
Care leavers remain a vulnerable group throughout the crisis, and the Government encourages local authorities to use some of the funding from central Government to provide discretionary payments to care leavers to cover items such as food, utilities an rent during this period. Personal advisers are recommended to use technology as much as possible to contact young people to minimise face-to-face contact, but should use their own judgement as to the level and frequency of contact with a care leaver. The Government are consultation with a range of local authorities to understand the accommodation needs of care leavers at this time.
Where there are not enough foster carers to care for additional children or provide respite for foster carers who are ill, the Government are exploring “flexibilities in the fostering regulations and guidance around the time restrictions on short breaks, temporary approvals for foster carers and emergency placements, and ways to free up more space within existing foster homes”. The Guidance encourages fostering services to bring in more emergency foster carers to help build capacity. Where fostering services are concerned about capacity within foster homes, they may look to see if other fostering households may be able to accommodate additional children.
Regional adoption agencies should consider using communication technology to continue with the adoption process, although introductory meetings may have to be postponed. If potential adopters and local authorities are happy to proceed without the health assessment and/or DBS clearance, they should do so as long as these checks are completed by the end of stage 2. Education settings will know which children are vulnerable and this may mean in some instances that places are offered to adopted children or children subject tot special guardianship orders or wider kinship placements.