Staffordshire council chiefs told of how they were left stretched as social workers were tempted away to go to work for other authorities in the run up to a fire that killed four neglected children.
The four - aged between three and eight - perished when a blaze believed to have been caused by a lit cigarette swept through the family home in Highfields in Stafford.
Keegan, Tilly and Olly Unitt, and their sibling Riley Holt, all died. They family was known to social services, and a review of their case found they suffered neglect.
A county council meeting today to discuss how social services were being overhauled since the tragedy in Sycamore Avenue heard that the council had staffing problems in the months running up to the blaze in February 2019.
The meeting was told that as the council had the only "good" rated children's services in the West Midlands at the time, its staff were poached by other authorities.
Helen Riley, deputy chief executive and director for families and communities at Staffordshire county council, said there had been "significant difficulties in recruitment and retention of social workers".
She added: "One of the predominant reasons was at that time Staffordshire was the only ‘good’ children’s service in the West Midlands.
“Our social workers were always targeted for any recruitment campaigns, and around us other local authorities started to offer things like golden hellos for social workers and introduce a friend bonus. On top of other corporate reasons, this approach to recruitment meant we lost a significant number of permanent staff and saw an increase to the rate of the employment of agency staff to about 18%, which was about the highest it has ever been.
"This reduction in the permanent workforce meant that the number of children that each social worker was working with increased significantly, to around an average of 30. That means that each social worker had less time available to work directly with the family.
“Also, many agency staff are of very high quality but bringing agency staff in at short notice often meant it took quite a while for them to be fully trained up into our practices and processes. This in itself creates a challenge.
“The previous nature of social work up until a few years ago had been for social workers to look for an event to indicate that children were no longer safe – a threshold event, such as visit to A&E, spotting an injury, police involvement with the family around domestic violence or drug and alcohol problems.
“I think the nature of continuous, insidious drip feed of neglect on children was not always acknowledged. Where it was seen, not all social workers were equipped with the skills and techniques to know how to work with the family to improve the situation.”
In December, the findings of a serious case review into the deaths of the children were published.
The blaze was likely to have started in the main bedroom, although parents Natalie Unitt and Christopher Moulton - who were initially arrested on suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter - disputed the conclusions of experts who gave evidence to the children's inquest in November.
A serious case review the following month found that the children had suffered "serious neglect" and "barely talked". And it highlighted that while health care professionals chased up the family for appointments, they were "listening to what the mother said rather than looking at the evidence".
The council is now involved in a pilot scheme to place social workers in schools to identify neglect as quickly as possible, and work with families and other professionals to put things right.
Ms Riley said the average number of children that social workers are now working with had reduced from 30 to around 18.
And she added that there was now only a four per cent vacancy rate for social workers.
She added: "(That is) much improved from 2019 and it does feel like back to normal. We’ve always had a relatively stable workforce and it feels like over the last two years the work we’ve done has seen us return to that stability.
"As part of the transformation – and we did it in phase one 18 months ago – we reintroduced the role of the professional lead for practice and development, the principal social worker.
“The first national social workers’ survey that has just been run has shown that Staffordshire performed better around social work support and satisfaction than the regional and national average. This includes the support people receive to do their job, training and development people receive to deal with current challenges and having the right tools to do the job.
"We have invested, increasing the number of family support workers on the frontline as part of the transformation, and their area of expertise in working directly with families to combat neglect is essential for us. We’ve also invested in increasing the number of social workers.
"A key workstream for the transformation is making our complex and bureaucratic systems and processes simpler, so that social workers and family support workers spend more time visiting and working with families than filling in forms and doing bureaucracy.
“Currently, until we go live with our new system, most of our social workers and family support workers spend 60% of their time filling forms in rather than doing that direct work with families. We have to flip that as part of the transformation.”
Councillor Mark Sutton, cabinet member for children and young people, added: “The four children are very deeply missed by everybody who knew them. The harrowing events that unfolded that night have deeply affected the community.
“The coroner’s verdict is that all four children died by inhalation of products of combustion. He indicated that having looked at the evidence, the most likely cause of the fire was an unextinguished cigarette.
“We at the local authority contributed fully to the review and although the tragic outcome could not have been predicted, the review identified some areas of learning in relation to the issues of neglect.
“We’re continuing to implement the recommendations and we are currently implementing a transformation process across children’s services. The findings of this report and the transformation process are intrinsically linked.”
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