ESPCF Meeting with Head of Children’s Services

Here’s ESPCF chair Holly’s round up of her most recent meeting with Alison Jeffery, Director of Children’s Services at East Sussex. These termly meetings are an opportunity for ESPCF to raise issues which parent carers are sharing with us.

Last time Alison and I met we didn’t get time to talk about the social care and respite issues that members wanted us to cover, so that’s where we started this time.

Social care

I wanted to make sure Alison has a current ‘on the ground’ picture of what families are telling us. I particularly highlighted concerns about families who have told us they are at crisis point, at risk of family breakdown because they are so desperate for support.

Alison said she is really conscious of the gap in East Sussex, particularly for overnight respite, and that although a small number of families, she is acutely aware of what a big issue it is for those families who are under such a lot of pressure.

Whilst it was reassuring that Alison said they are looking at options, and she knows “we have to find a solution that’s better than where we are now”, we really do understand that will likely offer little comfort to those in need of support now.

Assessment process
As well as availability of social care/respite provision for families who have already been told they meet the criteria for social care support, we also talked about the challenges families face in getting to that point.

We have heard from families that the request and assessment process is long and difficult, with lots of hurdles along the way. I shared the frustration of having to give the same information over and over again to different people, often within the same department. Families would expect this information to be held centrally, with consent to be shared with other professionals when necessary so parent carers aren’t having to tell one part of ISEND what another part of ISEND is doing.

(*ISEND is the Inclusion, Special Educational Needs and Disability department at East Sussex County Council)

I also highlighted that families have told us about the stigma around social care assessments. Children’s disability social care is often confused with the more commonly heard of social services in the safeguarding sense. Some parts of the assessment process don’t help this feeling. For example, during the assessment process, families may receive checks every six weeks from a social worker.

We have heard that for some this can feel intrusive rather than helpful and can put some families off even requesting an assessment, particularly given the potential lack of availability of support even if the high thresholds are met.  Alison said she would look into this further. Children with a disability are formally/legally ‘children in need’, but it may be that they can create a new category within the system of children who are being assessed for respite support but who don’t need to be brought within the statutory six-weekly visiting programme if they don’t value the regular visits.

Update received after the meeting from Alison Jeffery:

Social Care Support – The Children’s Disability Service have worked hard to act proportionately and in line with Adult Social Care by having a Review System. Cases that have been assessed as requiring support, but that do not require ongoing social work intervention, enter our Review System and will not be visited. These cases will be reviewed annually, or sooner if any contact is made in respect of the family or by the family within that time, in which case they will be allocated for a period of the social work intervention. The only exception to this was during COVID when we were telephoning all parents of disabled children to check that they were coping (and were attending school). Cases that require social work intervention (i.e. where children are at level 4 of the Continuum of Need) follow the same agreed visiting patterns as Locality Social Care teams and require a child’s plan that has pace and purpose. We encourage most parents to access the Local Offer to access support directly and we sometimes refer to our Early Intervention Team who do not carry out Family Assessments or have the same visiting patterns. We have a small social work team who assess and offer support when all other avenues have been explored, including the family’s own resource, and when we are concerned about a family. 

Social care assessments as part of EHCPs
Finally, for now, on social care I flagged that we continue to hear from families that social care assessments are not carried out when they should be as part of an assessment for an EHCP (education, health and care plan).

Alison agreed that each plan needs to say what the care needs are and what the answer is, even if there are difficulties providing it; a “not known to service” response, which we still hear is happening, is clearly not an assessment of social care needs.

Alison said this should be picked up and taken forward within the East Sussex SEND ‘Self Evaluation Framework/SEF’ work, which identifies and aims to address gaps and areas for improvement. However it is not clear to ESPCF whether this is adequately covered in that work yet, so we will aim to get this more explicitly included.

Update received after the meeting from Alison Jeffery:

Social Care Assessments – we have an agreed process where Locality teams screen all statutory assessments and call parents as part of this. I know that the increases in requests for statutory assessment over the last 12 months has put additional pressure on social care teams and there have been some delays in assessments; discussions are already underway between the Assessment and Planning team and Locality Social Care to address this.

Please share your experiences with ESPCF:

  • If your child/young person has recently had an EHC needs assessment, did you have contact from the social care team?
  • If so, how did it go? For example, what was covered? Did it result in any social care support/provision if you felt this was needed?

Wider work

Alison and I also spoke about the process of developing the East Sussex SEND strategy, which is in progress at the moment.

The overwhelming message still from families to the forum is about the battle in accessing support, including from East Sussex County Council (ESCC) as well as schools, and that this has to change. So far it is tricky to feel our voices are being heard regarding what we think needs to change to resolve this and that we will see change impacting any time soon; further detailed commitments in the strategy are essential.

For example I shared concerns that whilst there are ongoing conversations about expectations and responsibilities of schools, and likely changes to the law following the national government’s SEND Review, it feels like the layer in the middle – the ESCC/ISEND piece of the picture – isn’t being explored in enough detail yet. This is a really important aspect for a coproduced strategy we would like to see. However, there is lots of the strategy process left to work through, so this is very much ‘to be continued’ ….!

Tribunal appeals

We also discussed EHCPs, in particular tribunal appeals. I shared concerns that as pressures on schools increase, even those schools with a really inclusive ethos often end up being able to provide less support than in previous years.

The result being a reduction in what is normally available in schools. This is important because it is part of the legal criteria for EHCP assessments, i.e. that the school is not able to provide the support needed. What we hear from families is that too often this is not recognised by ESCC when an EHCP request is made, the upshot being that requests are then refused because it is felt the school can meet the child or young person’s needs. As well as hearing this from families, the tribunal appeal data also backs this up: when decisions are challenged, the results are overwhelmingly found in favour of the families.

I particularly highlighted parent carer concerns about decisions made at the last minute by the local authority and the perception this gives of deliberate delay in order to save money. This is in cases where an appeal has not got as far as a tribunal hearing.

Alison said that she understands why people feel like this, but that there is no policy of deliberate delay. I explained that unfortunately the statistics make this difficult to believe. We spoke about this being a national problem, and Alison hopes that the SEND review will lead to more clarity for everyone around who should be doing what, as she believes the current legislation is not clear enough and doesn’t have objective enough definitions. She agrees that “Why does ESCC change its mind late?” is a legitimate question for families to be asking however, which she feels reflects the lack of clarity of the law, rather than incompetence or deliberately not complying.

We agreed it would be useful to look at some examples of cases where the local authority made late decisions to concede appeals to try and understand what is happening. This is something ESPCF will aim to take forwards, and can hopefully be included in upcoming work looking at experiences of the EHCP process. This follows the finding in the SEND Joint Strategic Needs Assessment that “there is a view amongst some parents and carers that the EHCP process of assessment and allocation is not working effectively or fairly.”

Please do keep getting in touch to share your experiences.

Holly, ESPCF Chair
May 2022

0300 700 1367