A MAJOR review is under way in social services to reduce the number of looked-after children.
In a bid to ease pressure on stretched services, bosses have revealed Oxfordshire County Council is re-examining hundreds of cases.
They also said they wanted to prevent more youngsters from needing care in the first place by tackling issues earlier ‘in the community’.
But their comments were criticised by campaigners, who said funding cuts recently made to children’s centres would only pile more pressure on services.
Children’s centres offered free support to parents and children and were seen as a way of providing ‘early intervention’ for families who may otherwise have needed support from social services. However funding was fully withdrawn from 31 of 44 across the county at the start of this month.
They have been replaced with a service focused only on supporting the most vulnerable families, but children’s services boss Lucy Butler yesterday said it was ‘too early’ to say what the impact of the change would be.
Speaking to councillors on the scrutiny committee, she said: “Those changes were very much talked about and we now have our new community support teams in place. They are working with partners in schools, the health service and police to support them when any concerns are raised about a child or family.
“We cannot say how well that is working yet though, as it is very early days.”
The county council says services of some kind will continue at 34 children’s centres, with most kept open by community groups it gave one-off grants to. It continues to fund 10 centres itself, part of its new ‘locality community support service’.
The council said this would now carry out ‘early intervention’. Children’s services manager Lara Patel told the committee: “We need to look at how, as a partnership, we can meet a child’s needs in the community.”
But Jill Huish, a lead campaigner of Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres, said: “Our campaign made it clear that going without prevention services offered at children’s centres was a dangerous situation for families.
“We were told there was no money for prevention services and community groups have struggled to keep their centres open.”
The council said number of looked-after children rose to 672 at the end of January, up from 592 in March 2016.
Social workers are also under growing pressure, with the most recent figures available showing 30 per cent now have caseloads above what is recommended, with the children’s social care directorate currently forecast to overspend by £7m by the end of this month.
As part of reviews currently taking place, Ms Butler told councillors that she and other senior figures would be meeting frontline staff next week to see, first-hand, what issues there were.