Kent children’s services rated ‘good’ despite influx of unaccompanied asylum seeking children during migrant crisis
PUBLISHED: 09:30 13 June 2017
Kent County Council chiefs have hailed “a fabulous result” after Ofsted today published a report into its services for vulnerable young people
‘Good’ services are being offered to children and families in Kent despite a whirlwind period for the county council which saw it become responsible for hundreds of unaccompanied young asylum seekers.
Ofsted today publishes a positive report into KCC’s children’s services after 12 inspectors spent more than three weeks visiting centres and meeting staff, parents and children across the county in March.
In 2015, huge numbers of unaccompanied asylum seeking children arrived in Kent through Eurotunnel and the Port of Dover during the migrant crisis from the camp known as the ‘Jungle’ in the French port town of Calais.
Under the Children Act 1989, it is KCC’s legal responsibility to care for under-18s who arrive in the county from abroad, and council chiefs have made no secret of the pressure that has been placed on its ability to provide accommodation and placements.
However, the Ofsted inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers found the local authority “tackled the increased demand on children’s services effectively, along with the work it was already doing”.
The report added that senior managers responded swiftly to the changing needs, and that political leaders were responsibe to budget pressures, supporting increased financial investment, even when cash to support the council was not immediately made available by central government.
The ‘good’ rating represents a significant improvement for the council, whose services were deemed ‘inadequate’ in 2010 and then ‘adequate’ three years later.
Council leader Paul Carter said the ‘inadequate’ judgement was “one of the most depressing and dark days of my reign” and that the report “encapsulates the journey we have been on since”.
He said: “It’s been a long hard journey against the backdrop of having to support some 1,400 to 1,500 young asylum seekers which, if we had to cater for them alone, would make us one of the largest children’s services departments in the country.
“On top of that we have to support our indigenous young people and keep them as safe as possible.
“Indeed, something that is much forgotten that does put pressure in less direct ways is supporting some 1,400 young people placed in care by other local authorities into the county of Kent.”
A lot of those come from London boroughs who have struggled to cope with the number of vulnerable young people in their authorities and instead turn to the Home Counties, and more often than not, Kent especially, to help ease the pressure.
While those London councils are responsible for the financial cost of the accommodation - typically much cheaper in the counties compared to the capital - responsibility for schooling and medical coverage “falls squarely on the shoulders of Kent residents”.
Bosses add that a lot of such young people also go missing, therefore adding to the strain already faced by Kent Police.
To help Kent as it was becoming overwhelemed with unaccompanied asylum seeking children, the government set up a national transfer scheme last year, where other local authorities across the country would come forward on a voluntary basis and offer to take children into their care.
It was the result of intense lobbying from both the county council itself and a number of Kent MPs, many of whom had raised the issue with ministers in the House of Commons.
Peter Oakford is KCC’s deputy leader and cabinet member for strategic commissioning and public health, but was in charge of children’s services at the heat of the crisis.
He told Kent News: “That incremental pressure has now left us, but we did staff up, we managed to get the incremental social workers we needed to handle that.
“The biggest problem during that period was finding foster placements and accommodation.
“Those challenges have now moved away and because we worked very hard lobbying central government to put in the dispersal programme, so for the past 14 months every young unaccompanied asylum seeking coming to Kent has been dispersed around the country, so we haven’t had to take the incremental young people into our care, but what we have is the ongoing cost and pressures created by the legacy group.
“The big pressure we have today is them becoming care leavers, and they have different issues in terms of education, carrying on English as a second language, finding the right accommodation for them and supporting them until they’re 23, or 25 in advanced education.
“Thus far the voluntary scheme has worked in keeping the numbers at bay. Our concern would be if the borders suddenly relaxed and we saw the influx that we saw in 2015, how the scheme would cope. We’d have to wait and see if that ever happens again.
“That is why this is such a fabulous result for Kent because if you take all the asylum seekers, plus the other local authority children placed in Kent, plus our own 1,450 children in care, and all of the pressures and challenges that brings, we still delivered a very good service to the most vulnerable children in our society, and I just cannot over-emphasise the outstanding job our team have done in order to achieve that.
“There were dozens of cases where a social worker would get a call at 11pm, saying a child has turned up in the port, and somebody would have to go down there, take the child out of the port and find them accommodation.
“But we got through the challenges and everything worked out okay.
“This has to be our number one priority, we are corporate parents, we had to find the money during the problems, we did what we had to do and then we went to government and tried to recoup most of that money.
“Each year we’ve got virtually all of the money back from central government, minus two or three million pounds, so the Kent taxpayer had to subsidise it to that level.
“But we don’t give up, we keep fighting government to recoup all the money owed to us.”