COUNCIL chiefs have vowed to carry out a major shake-up of social services in Southampton after inspectors branded them “inadequate” at a time when four children died in the city.

A damning Ofsted report said the quality of care for vulnerable youngsters failed to meet minimum standards in 2011 when Blake Fowler, Nico Maynard and brothers Jayden and Bradley Adams all died.

Inspectors said children were put at risk “for months and longer because of delays in recognising and responding to potentially abusive circumstances”.

The circumstances of all four deaths have been subject to Serious Case Reviews, investigations into actions of all the agencies involved with the families to see whether more could have been done to protect the children.

Daily Echo:

Blake Fowler (above) and the Adams brothers were under the care of Southampton City Council social services at the time of their deaths.

Their deaths came at a time when many care workers left the authority during a bitter industrial dispute over pay cuts and dozens more walked out on strike.

But the council’s former children’s boss says he does not believe the dispute and subsequent shortage of workers was a factor in the children’s deaths.

Now the council’s ruling Cabinet is to discuss a move to improve how it looks after the children under its care.

Councillors are being urged to approve plans to revamp the Corporate Parenting Committee, which reviews and monitors how looked-after children in the city are cared for.

In a report to councillors, officers say improvement of the service is vital following a critical report by Ofsted published last year, reported at the time by the Daily Echo, which ranked the quality of provision for looked-after children as “inadequate”.

In that report inspectors highlight 2011 as a year when the department was under particular strain due to the industrial action that saw experienced social workers leave the department.

It says: “As a result, a significant turnover of staff has adversely impacted on the quality of safeguarding work to a level which is now overall inadequate.”

Inspectors found that youngsters were being left for too long with parents who were not looking after them properly. Paperwork was regularly overdue as a result of social workers leaving the city council due to industrial action over plans by the then Conservative administration to cut council staff pay by 5.5 per cent.

The report goes on: “Children who have been known to social care services or have been allocated to social workers for some time have not always received a timely or adequately risk-assessed response at the point of referral, or as new concerns have arisen whilst they were receiving social work support.

“Inspectors saw cases where children were exposed to risk for months and longer because of delays in recognising and responding to potentially abusive circumstances. In all those cases the council has, in recent months, identified the concerns and has taken appropriate protective action.

"However, the delays have meant that children have spent long periods living in adverse environments and that more permanent solutions were not achieved at an early stage.”

In evidence given at Blake Fowler’s inquest the coroner heard how concerns over the welfare of the seven-year-old and his siblings were raised with social services by other family members in the weeks before his death.

Daily Echo:

In the case of Jayden and Bradley Adams (above), their mother Shelly Adams asked social workers to take the children away from her as she was not capable of looking after them. However they remained in her care.

Serious Case Reviews are still ongoing in both those cases and as a result no one from the council was able to comment on whether the problems social services were experiencing at that time had any bearing on their deaths.

The Daily Echo understands a significant number of care workers left the council during 2010-11, but the authority has refused to disclose how many, saying it forms part of the Serious Case Reviews into the children’s deaths.

City council chief executive Dawn Baxendale said: “The Serious Case Review process involves detailed scrutiny of evidence from various sources.

“The review team will seek to build up a full picture of the services provided to these families which will allow them to draw sound conclusions about lessons to be learned.

“During this process it is not appropriate for agencies to put into the public domain information which has not been thoroughly checked, tested and validated before being assessed by the SCR review teams.

“The right thing to do is to allow the review teams to get on with this important work quickly and avoid taking any action that might prejudice or pre-empt their conclusions in any way.”

However, the man in charge of the department at the time stood by his earlier comments to the Daily Echo that he did not believe the industrial action and subsequent shortage of social workers was a factor in how the children died.

Former Conservative council children’s services chief Jeremy Moulton admitted that the industrial action did cause “disruption” to the work of social services, but argued that social workers had their pay protected during the strikes.

The shortages experienced in South-ampton were set against a national shortage following the Baby P scandal, he added.

He said: “Those were the questions I was asking and I was told that the industrial action was not a factor in these cases although we have not yet had the findings from the Serious Case Reviews.”

Tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting will hear how plans for revamped review committee will improve how looked-after children are cared for.

Cllr Sarah Bogle, Cabinet member for children’s services, told the Daily Echo that it is one of a number of improvements to the department.

She said: “It is a tough area of work and there has definitely been improvement since the safeguarding report was carried out. That said, there is still much to do.

“We have not given the best possible service to the children in our care in the past, but we are determined to improve and this is one part of that.

“The new panel will report more directly to the council and give the ‘cared for’ young people a voice.

“The question we need to ask ourselves when talking about the outcomes is whether this would be good enough for our own children. That is what we are aiming for as corporate parents in the absence of these children’s own.”

The inspection report does hint that improvement was beginning and praised aspects of the adoption and fostering work done by the local authority.

The overall inspection of safeguarding and children’s services carried out in 2012 did give the authority an “adequate” rating and made a series of recommendations about how the council could improve its service.