A TOXIC climate of savage budget cuts, crippling poverty and the haunting legacy of the deaths of four vulnerable youngsters is fuelling a crisis where soaring numbers of children are being taken into care in Southampton, unions warn.

Senior union bosses say that proposals to overhaul Southampton City Council’s children’s services could push the department into deeper troubles unless more is done to combat the “dramatic impact” of central government funding cuts on the under-pressure service.

And they say that the shock departure of another top council officer just 14 months into the job could lead to more overstretched staff leaving the department at a time when they are already struggling with crippling caseloads as the city looks after double the number of children in care than the national average.

The warning comes as civic chiefs reveal that outgoing director for children and families Kim Drake has been replaced by new interim Hilary Brooks.

As previously reported Ms Drake resigned just 24 hours before the authority revealed plans to overhaul the services and slash the number of looked after children by a third in the face of £42.3m budget cuts.

The council has been forced to make £92.4million of cuts in the past five years – the equivalent of £1,300 per person.

Council bosses have refused to disclose her reason for quitting, but Ms Drake – who left on November 18 – had been brought in to replace Alison Elliott, the former director of people to ensure the authority continued to improve following the deaths of four youngsters.

Council leaders have refused to disclose why Ms Drake left.

Previously the council has been heavily criticised after the deaths of seven-year-old Blake Fowler, three-month-old Nico Maynard and brothers Jayden and Bradley Adams, who were two and four.

They died within months of each other and Serious Case Reviews found that there was a series of “missed opportunities” to help the youngsters.

And while the council’s social services department has improved since, the most recent Ofsted inspection still said improvement is required.

Figures have also revealed that the authority has twice the number of children in care than the national average.

The number of children being looked after by the authority in the period 2010-15 rose by 42.9 per cent compared to 5.3 per cent nationally.

On average there are 612 children being looked after at any one time in the city.

The number of placements with Independent Fostering Agencies Continued over page (IFAs) – which are up to three times more expensive than internal placements – has increased by 30 per cent between April 2014 and December 2015.

The council’s new Children’s Transformation Plans aims to slash £7million by reducing the number of children the authority looks after from 600 to 400.

Council chiefs say the move will improve early intervention services to prevent family break-downs.

It will also promote the use of Special Guardianship Orders which make it easier for other relatives to look after children and will include a drive to recruit more foster carers.

There will also be a move for more voluntary sector groups to help families.

But UNISON Southampton branch sectary Hayley Garner said that the city faced a number of challenges including high levels of poverty aggravated by Government cuts to working tax credit and housing benefit leading to families spiralling into debt and eviction.

But she said that this is impounded by the legacy of the serious case reviews also driving up referrals of youngsters.

She said: “I think professionals are reporting concerns earlier – which is obviously positive, however this puts an increase on services.

“Decision making in terms of placements may also be affected, with social workers and other professionals choosing to place the child in care rather than place with a family member who may be a low risk.”

She added that work to focus on early intervention could be further hampered by the wider cuts and said: “Without local services to signpost families and young people, we miss important opportunities to help and support them.

“Getting early help for these vulnerable young people is essential in order to stop it reaching a critical level where they are taken into care of the local authority.

“Our members continue to do an incredible job of looking after the most vulnerable children in the city with less resources and additional pressure.

“Central government must acknowledge the lack of resources provided to local councils and provide additional resources immediately to help tackle the underlying causes of children and young people coming into the care system.”

She said that staff morale is “extremely low” with a high staff turnover and many agency workers amid the leadership crisis, adding: “I have had several emails from staff concerned about the Service Director leaving and what this could indicate.

“Staff are overworked, stressed and many have highlighted high caseloads as a contributing factor to their low morale.

“Many of our members do not feel that they are listened to by management and are left with no option but to leave Southampton and look for alternative work in the surrounding areas.”

Daily Echo:

Conservative opposition shadow member for children’s services Paul O’Neill said that he understood that the threshold for taking children into care had been changed in the months after the serious case reviews – having a “knock-on effect” on high numbers today.

He said: “It is understandable and it is a difficult job being a social worker but there is a balance to be struck.”

He said that there needed to be greater opportunity for outside agencies to help in early intervention services to reduce the burden and for the authority to improve its IT services and technology to adopt mobile working and share information on families more easily.

More emphasis on recruiting foster carers and work to retain staff also needed to be done, he said.

He added: “There is a lot of work to be done.”

“The staff on the ground are fantastic social workers and we need sustainability in senior management.

“For a long time the authority has a closed mind of working with outside agencies and the mindset was keeping everything in-house. We are living in a different time here.”

Southampton Itchen MP Royston Smith, who says he receives regular calls from constituents concerned about child welfare, said it will be difficult to slash the numbers without creating a stable management.

He added: “Other authorities are managing to do it when they have the same challenges. We are going through directors at the rate of knots. Maybe there needs to be a restructure of the people who are running the council as the buck stops with them.”

Independent Redbridge ward representative Councillor Andrew Pope claimed the high staff turnover meant that increasing numbers of “inexperienced” social workers who are making “incorrect” assessments resulting in more children going into care.

He said: “They still have issues with recruitment and retention. Something drastic has got to happen. They have to bring Ofsted back here.”

But city council cabinet member for social care Cllr Paul Lewzey denied the serious case reviews had caused a “knee jerk” reaction leading to more children being taken into care.

He worked for a number of years for Hampshire County Council and Southampton City Council, as a social worker and manager and blamed the impact of Government cuts driving up poverty and causing worse problems with substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, domestic abuse and mental health problems.

Cllr Lewzey said that the legacy of the serious case reviews were that the authority and other family agencies were “better” at spotting children at risk needing to be taken into care.

He added: “Over the last few years numbers have moved up and we want to reduce them.

“We have a great group of staff and a good senior management team and our staff work tremendously hard.

“We are trying to get money from central Government and hope they will listen.”

He also blamed pay disputes stretching back to when the Tories themselves were in control of the council which had caused “damage”.

But Conservative opposition leader Jeremy Moulton, who was cabinet member for children’s services at the time, agreed the disputes had caused problems but said: “Now four-and-a-half years later Labour have made no difference.”

A council spokesman said Hilary Brooks has been appointed as the new interim director for children and families and will be working part time until January 5 when she takes over full time.

Daily Echo:

SOCIAL workers are so pressured by the burden of work on them they are often reduced to tears, a woman who is helping some of Southampton’s most vulnerable families has revealed.

The domestic abuse worker who has spent time working closely with the authority’s social services department was too scared to give her name.

But she said: “I’ve seen the hard work and the tears and how they don’t get back to their own families until 10pm so they can make sure that a child is safe.

“They are really tired and frustrated because they can’t do what they are doing.

“The managers are great – but they are in the same situation as their hands are tied.

“It isn’t the directors who are at fault it is those who are in control of the budgets.

“We are just constantly scrimping and it will continue until they plough in money.”

She said that the legacy of the Serious Case Reviews is that the department, schools and other partner agencies are working harder to help at risk children.

She said: “Southampton shouldn’t be criticised for having a more young children in care. Surely the children are better off with foster carers than at home where they are being abused?”

She said there should be more money invested into children’s centres which are an important part of early intervention, adding: “The children are our future and it won’t change unless something is done.

“We have got all these pots of money for fireworks displays and things to make the city look pretty and there are children being failed as the funding is not available.”