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19 November 2010, 14:06 | Updated: 19 November 2010, 17:56
Health and social services professionals apologised following the publication today of a critical report into the care of vulnerable children.
Ofsted inspectors found that most services intended to protect children's welfare in Kent were inadequate.
In around half the cases seen by inspectors, ``significant concerns'' were raised about the quality of care children were receiving.
And in the worst of those cases, vulnerable children were left ``unprotected and were at risk of significant harm'', the report added.
Inspectors found some failings to be so serious that immediate action was needed, including reviewing the current childcare caseload.
Council and social services officials accepted the findings and pointed out that referrals have risen sharply recently, adding to bulging workloads.
There were 1,362 children in Kent subject to child protection plans at the end of August.
In addition, 1,568 children, including 248 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, were looked after by Kent County Council.
One part of the report said: ``The overall effectiveness of services in Kent to ensure that children and young people are safeguarded and protected is inadequate.
``While there are areas of adequate and better practice across the partnership, including the voluntary sector, serious deficiencies in the social care fieldwork service result in too many children being left without sufficient safeguards or adequate protection arrangements.''
It added that the council and other professionals had not yet properly addressed areas for action flagged up through their own audits or the unannounced inspection in August.
``This leaves children at continued risk,'' it went on.
Another section read: ``During the course of this inspection, 22 of the current cases selected for scrutiny raised serious concerns about practice and management.
``In a significant proportion of these cases children were judged to be vulnerable with their safeguarding needs either unrecognised or not responded to.
``In the worst cases, children and young people were unprotected from the likelihood of significant harm, a finding which necessitated immediate action to ensure their safety.''
A total of 12 out of 15 areas inspected were found to be ``inadequate''.
These included the overall effectiveness of safeguarding services and its capacity for improvement in Kent.
The effectiveness of services intended to ensure children are and feel safe were also found to be wanting.
In a joint statement, the county council, Kent's children's trust, the county's safeguarding children board, NHS Trusts and Kent Police, apologised for the shortcomings.
It said: ``We fully accept the findings of the report. Where we have fallen short we offer our sincere apologies.
``All agencies are completely focused on putting right the shortcomings and weaknesses that have been identified.
``There is no greater priority for us all than the protection of vulnerable children, young people and their families.
``We know that actions speak louder than words. We would like to reassure everyone that the areas identified for immediate improvement by Ofsted are already being addressed.
``We will provide regular updates on our progress so that people can see what is being done and hold us to account.''
It said that referrals have risen by 21% in the last two years and that Kent has struggled to recruit enough staff to deal with the increased workload.
But following a £5 million investment by the council and recruitment campaigns in the UK and overseas, the social worker vacancy rate has halved from 26% in January to 11% currently.
It added: ``Our unstinting focus is on the frontline, the hundreds of men and women working across social care, health and the police who safeguard children.
``They all do a difficult and demanding job facing unimaginable pressures.''
Responding to the report, Kent County Council leader Paul Carter said: ``We take the Ofsted judgment extremely seriously.
``Let us be under no illusions that looking after vulnerable children is the most complex and challenging task.
``Our social workers are dedicated people who work very hard. But this is a service which is rooted in making judgments about the lives of families.
``So this work entails some of the most difficult and demanding judgments that have to be made in public service.
``As leaders of the service we need to re-focus our efforts so that the work is at the frontline, not on processes and tick box procedures.
``The Ofsted report is critical of public agency partners who work across the field of safeguarding.
``We now start the recovery plan to restore the level of services to good or outstanding.''
Mr Carter promised every recommendation will be met and that they welcome a follow-up Ofsted inspection in 12 months time.
Rosalind Turner, the council's managing director for Children, Families and Education, said they regretted some vulnerable children and families were ``not receiving the quality and timely response they deserve''.
She said: ``The first priority for us all is to safeguard all our children and young people.
``There are examples of good practice in the report but we need to confront all aspects of practice which are deemed less than adequate.
``We are undertaking a major improvement programme with external scrutiny and support.
``The service, along with many others nationally, has become too focused on process and coping with the relentless increase in demand.
``We will support our social workers and managers and work with our partners to ensure exemplary support for children and families is delivered by our frontline teams.''
Sarah Hohler, the council's cabinet member for children, families and education, said: ``Our social work staff work very hard but clearly elements of the service have fallen below the standards we aspire to.
``I want to reassure everyone that we are working on the most immediate areas with the utmost urgency and will address the other recommendations as quickly as we can and within the timescales set by Ofsted.
``We are all totally committed to making these essential improvements.''
David Worlock, chairman of the Kent safeguarding children board, said its ways of working were being reviewed to make sure they are ``fit for purpose''.
Ann Sutton, chief executive of NHS Eastern and Coastal Kent, and Marion Dinwoodie, chief executive of NHS West Kent, said in a statement: ``The NHS in Kent is committed to doing the utmost to safeguard children.
``While we acknowledge the seriousness of this report, we feel the feedback will help us continue to focus our efforts.
``The report highlights significant areas for improvement in partnership working, as well as areas of good practice throughout Kent, including the quality of training and supervision.
``There are a number of further areas indicated in the report where work is already being done to address some of the concerns that Ofsted raise.
``The two primary care trusts in Kent are addressing the concerns raised in the report as a matter of urgency and are working closely with our acute hospitals, community services, mental health providers and GPs to continue to improve the quality of safeguarding in Kent.''