Oxfordshire County Council is looking to quell the rising costs of its children’s social care services by “revising thresholds and working practices”.
In its latest financial report to cabinet, the council predicts it will overspend by £8.7 million on children’s services in this financial year, with £8.1 million of that shortfall coming from corporate parenting – children who are placed into the care of the council.
As previously reported, the council is paying up to £20,000 per week to source placements for individual children with complex needs.
The authority had 14 such children at the end of July, a figure that reduced to nine by the end of September, but “the cost continues to remain disproportionate due to the high levels of agency staffing required”.
The report also cites “underlying” financial pressures in children’s services, estimated to be £11.5 million in September, “now appear to have increased further” despite efforts to mitigate them. No new figure was detailed.
It read: “The two main areas of financial pressure remain unchanged – front-line social work staff, in particular within Family Solutions Plus and placement costs arising partly from demographic changes in children we care for.
“In addition there is forecast pressure related to the cost of home to school transport within education & learning.”
Among the mitigation measures detailed is “addressing the flow of referrals to the council by revising thresholds and working practices” alongside the introduction of a circuit breaker – where staff look at immediate responses to vulnerable families – for referrals to the Family Solutions Plus service.
The council says this circuit breaker is “already having an impact on reducing the activity and, consequently, social worker caseloads”.
Oxfordshire County Council was approached to detail which thresholds would change and how.
That information has yet to be provided, but a council spokesperson highlighted examples of things that are happening in practice.
They include “providing immediate support to families in their home before they reach crisis point, working with education colleagues to ensure that children are able to access full-time education and ensuring that children in care who can step down from residential to foster care or return home can do so, if it is in their best interests”.
The spokesperson continued: “Reflecting national trends, there has been an increase in the number of children referred to children’s social care, and the number of children cared for by Oxfordshire County Council has increased.
“Nationally, placement costs for children in care have also risen. Part of the increase arises from a higher number of children requiring very high-cost support due to a lack of suitable placements both locally and nationally.
“In response to these upward trends, the council has established a programme of work looking at ways to reduce demand while still meeting children’s needs.
“We’re strengthening our approach through the launch of the early help strategy and working hard with partners to ensure the threshold for early help assessments is understood, and more children access support earlier.”