‘Effective multi-agency response’ to at risk children but intelligence sharing needs improvement, inspection finds

At risk vulnerable children are receiving a “coordinated and effective multi-agency response” at the ‘front door’ in Walsall, according to a new report.

Jan 9, 2023
By Paul Jacques

A joint inspection of the Walsall Safeguarding Partnership – which includes West Midlands Police, the council and local NHS services – found there is “a culture of continuous and shared learning”, which helps identify risk and the needs of children at the earliest opportunity.

It said “strong and stable leadership across the partnership” has successfully embedded the ‘Right Help, Right Time: A Multi-Agency Guidance Continuum of Need’.

“This ensures that children receive a timely and proportionate response when needs and risks are identified in the front door,” said the report.

However, inspectors found the partnership does not have a process to share intelligence about criminal investigations into online child abuse.

“West Midlands Police and partners know this work needs to be progressed, but an agreed process to securely share intelligence is not in place. This would help to identify unknown children at risk from abuse at an early stage, so that they can be protected,” the report said.

The joint targeted area inspection, carried out in November by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, also found that the effectiveness of the partnership response to children at risk of, and subject to, sexual or criminal exploitation is reduced due to lack of data and information from partner agencies.

“Currently, it is only West Midlands Police data that is used to inform the child exploitation profile in Walsall, and this may limit the understanding of the problem and the identification of solutions to reduce exploitation risk,” they said.

“The Walsall Safeguarding Partnership has identified resources to support the appointment of a post to assist with this sharing of information, but this is not yet in place to support current practice.”

There was also “inconsistency” in the police’s understanding of the body worn video (BWV) policy when responding to incidents where vulnerable children are present.

“BWV can provide high-quality evidence and information about child abuse and neglect and capture children’s voices so this can be seen by other professionals to help their decision-making. However, BWV is not always consistently used in practice for this purpose,” said inspectors.

Chief Superintendent Phil Dolby, local police commander for West Midlands Police at Walsall, said: “The report recognises the good work we are doing alongside our multi-agency partners.

“There are areas to improve and lessons to learn from within this report which will enable us to make further improvements as we go forward.

“We have taken steps including investing in the employment of additional staff to the new role of early help officers, schools-based officers and the creation of a multi-agency co-located Vulnerability Hub. This indicates how important we feel the benefits of multi-agency working is to help reduce the risk of harm to children.”

The inspection looked at areas where children at risk may become known to the authorities such as the West Midlands Police control room, the Emergency Department at Walsall Hospital and the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

Among the areas identified that need to improve are:

  • The collation of information about children’s health needs so that they are consistently analysed effectively by a health practitioner in the MASH;
  • The MASH’s communication with general practitioners (GPs) and the consistency in using health information they provide about children;
  • The consistent attendance and participation of partners at strategy meetings so that relevant knowledge and information about risks to children are shared effectively; and
  • The supervision and quality assurance of multi-agency referral forms (MARFs) sent into the MASH by West Midlands Police.

“Referrals into the MASH are of good quality,” said inspectors. “They are child-focused, contain clear analysis of risks and capture children’s views effectively. This enables multi-agency professionals at the front door to be well sighted on the impact of parental substance misuse on the lived experience of individual children.

“[However] the quality of information provided in some contacts and MARFs to the front door is not always of consistently good quality. For example, when police officers send MARFs to the front door, they are not linked to WMP’s information systems, meaning the quality of information has no supervisory oversight.

“This is a missed opportunity for quality assurance by leaders and reduces accountability and opportunities for learning.

“Frontline police officers also report that the MARF takes too long to complete.

“Senior leaders across the partnership have identified the need to improve on the consistency of quality of contacts into the MASH and have plans for the imminent introduction of a revised e-MARF online form.”

The inspection also identified that risks to a small number of children are not always fully identified by WMP control room staff in their initial assessments.

“This means responses to vulnerability are not always prioritised as they should be, so they are not referred to the MASH,” it added. “Some children are not seen by the police quickly enough or get the help they need in time.

“West Midlands Police supervisory practice does not always identify these children or reassess risk when there are delays in response.

“During this inspection, West Midlands Police leaders acted quickly in response to this finding, and these children were seen and visited.”

Overall, the inspection found children in need of help and protection who are referred into the MASH receive a quick and coordinated response from co-located multi-agency professionals.

The quality of information about children in most contacts and MARFs is sufficiently detailed. Information provided by schools is often particularly strong, providing comprehensive information about children’s needs and risks. Managers and partners in the MASH are clear about the timescales for decisions about interventions for children, and they use the Right Help, Right Time guidance in their recorded rationale for decision-making.

Social workers have access to adult social care records, and this complements their ability to gather additional information about children’s needs. Some professionals report that they need to be tenacious in chasing feedback about the outcome of some contacts into the MASH, to find out about decisions for children.

Children’s family histories, including histories gathered from partner agencies as part of MASH checks, are well considered and responses to requests for information from professionals are timely. There is detailed and appropriate information-sharing from the police into the MASH, with effective use of Connect, and the automated information document that can be created from the police crime recording system.

Safeguarding risks for children are well identified by adult substance misuse practitioners at The Beacon. Staff understand the impact of parental behaviour and vulnerabilities on children, and records demonstrate “strong professional curiosity”.

However, there are challenges for some health partners in accessing children’s information to help inform MASH checks. This is due to poor IT systems, and as a result, record-keeping in public health nursing is weak.

Children are supported by a comprehensive multi-agency early help offer which helps them access a range of support and services when they need it.

West Midlands Police has invested in the employment of additional staff to the new role of early help officers. These police officers are focused on multi-agency work in the local early help offer. The officers work locally with the Walsall partnership, but the force has clear terms of reference for this initiative, and said it will be monitoring the impact of the scheme centrally.

The majority of domestic abuse incidents involving children in the preceding 24 hours are identified by the police screening team, whose members quickly provide the MASH with children’s essential basic details.

“The daily Domestic Abuse Triage meeting has good multi-agency representation and engagement from partners, who share information effectively,” inspectors said. “This knowledge is then used to inform decision-making about what further actions and interventions are needed when children are identified to be at risk of harm.

“The quality of most referrals to the Domestic Abuse Triage meeting is appropriate, although there is some work to do on the consistency in quality of police referrals.

“Operation Encompass is a successful method of police informing schools about children who are vulnerable to domestic abuse. The policy for Operation Encompass is comprehensive and has been reviewed and appropriately reinforced with training and guidance for school staff. School leaders say that the notifications they receive as part of Operation Encompass are valuable in helping them to provide support for vulnerable children and their families.”

When children are identified to be at risk of significant harm out of office hours, the inspection found the emergency duty team (EDT) provides a quick and appropriate response.

“Social workers visit children and liaise appropriately with partner agencies to arrange strategy discussions to agree next steps when child protection concerns are identified. EDT social workers can access children’s records, and this ensures that all contacts and information are passed on to the MASH for follow-up actions the next working day.

“This is a positive indicator of police understanding the benefits of the multi-agency offer of early help provision within the community to reduce crime, vulnerability, and the escalation of harm to children.”

However, when risks to children escalate, strategy meetings “do not consistently include all professionals who hold relevant knowledge and information about children”.

This reduces the effectiveness of shared accountability for decision-making, with some information about children potentially missed, said inspectors, adding: “Some strategy meetings in the MASH are discussions between only children’s social care and the police. During this inspection, senior leaders proactively undertook a review of strategy meetings and introduced a new process with immediate effect.”

The vast majority of strategy meetings do include relevant and appropriate partner agency representation, the inspection found, which enhances the quality of information-sharing to help inform next steps.

“When concerns about risks of harm to children increase, appropriate actions are agreed and decisions about child protection investigations are comprehensively recorded, with a clear rationale,” inspectors said.

“Risks to children from sexual or criminal exploitation are recognised well at the front door. The daily Exploitation Triage meeting is a well-attended multi-agency meeting that explores effectively the risks faced by children when they are reported as missing.

“Information is shared effectively in order to help professionals’ understanding of risks and actions, which helps inform decision-making.”

However, capturing and embedding children’s views, wishes and their lived experiences to fully inform decision-making was found to be “inconsistent” across the partnership.

“While there is some good-quality practice in obtaining the voice of children, the Walsall Safeguarding Partnership has identified this as a priority action for the partnership,” the report said.

“The AWARE prompt is a useful tool to guide frontline police officers in how to seek the voice of children. This is a good local initiative that had just been launched within West Midlands Police as this inspection was carried out. It had not therefore been fully communicated to all the potential users in the police force or been promoted to safeguarding partners.”

Walsall Council’s portfolio holder for Children’s Services, Councillor Stacie Elson, said: “As a group of partners, we have a shared purpose to enable the children of Walsall to have the best possible start in life, be safe from harm, happy, healthy and learning well.

“It is essential that together we provide a timely and effective response for any child in the borough who may be at risk. I am very pleased that this report recognises the good work that is taking place in Walsall. I would like to thank our staff and our partners for their hard work and commitment. “

However, she acknowledged the report’s  recommendations for improvements in some communications between partners where children may be at risk to better share information and inform decision-making.

Sally Hodges, independent chair of Walsall Safeguarding Partnership said: “There are lessons for us all to learn from this report, which will enable us to make further improvements.

“Together we aim to provide the most effective response to a child in need. I am very pleased that inspectors have recognised the collaborative and coordinated approach that we have embedded here in Walsall.”

Sally Roberts, chief nursing officer for NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, added: “This is an encouraging report that highlights the collective efforts of staff working across our partnership to protect children in Walsall.

“We look forward to working with MASH and our GP colleagues to strengthen communications, as well as continuously improve how health information is used to inform decision making.”

The partnership says it will develop an action plan in response to the areas for development identified in the report, which will be submitted to inspectors in the spring.

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