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Social care team was short-staffed before Stafford house fire that killed four neglected children

The social services team tasked with helping four neglected children killed in a house fire was short-staffed and under pressure in the run up to the siblings' deaths, council bosses have said.

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Keegan Unitt, 6, Tilly Unitt, 4, Olly Unitt, 3, and Riley Holt, 8, all died in a fire in 2019

Social workers in Staffordshire were each having to work with around 30 children each before the fatal blaze in 2019 - a number which has now been reduced to around 18.

The shortage of workers was partly caused by other councils poaching staff from the county council, the senior leader responsible for social care at the authority said this week.

Siblings Riley Holt, Keegan Unitt, Tilly Unitt and Olly Unitt were killed when a blaze broke out in their family home in Sycamore Lane in Highfields, Stafford, in February 2019. The fire was believed to have been caused by a lit cigarette.

A review into the tragedy found that social services’ care for the children fell short, and that the children “suffered significant harm as a result of neglect”.

Helen Riley, deputy chief executive and director for families and communities at Staffordshire County Council, said there had been staffing problems in the period around the youngsters’ deaths.

Speaking at a meeting about how services are being overhauled, she also said the authority had worked to change its systems so that care workers now spend less time filling out forms and more time working with families.

The aftermath of the house fire in Sycamore Lane, Stafford

Ms Riley said that “for various reasons during late 2018 and early 2019 the council experienced some significant difficulties in recruitment and retention of social workers”.

“One of the predominant reasons was at that time Staffordshire was the only ‘good’ children’s service in the West Midlands," she said.

“Our social workers were always targeted for any recruitment campaigns, and around us other local authorities started to offer things like golden hellos for social workers and introduce a friend bonus. On top of other corporate reasons, this approach to recruitment meant we lost a significant number of permanent staff and saw an increase to the rate of the employment of agency staff to about 18 per cent, which was about the highest it has ever been.

“This reduction in the permanent workforce meant that the number of children that each social worker was working with increased significantly, to around an average of 30. That means that each social worker had less time available to work directly with the family.

“Also, many agency staff are of very high quality but bringing agency staff in at short notice often meant it took quite a while for them to be fully trained up into our practices and processes. This in itself creates a challenge.

“The previous nature of social work up until a few years ago had been for social workers to look for an event to indicate that children were no longer safe – a threshold event, such as visit to A&E, spotting an injury, police involvement with the family around domestic violence or drug and alcohol problems.

“I think the nature of continuous, insidious drip feed of neglect on children was not always acknowledged. Where it was seen, not all social workers were equipped with the skills and techniques to know how to work with the family to improve the situation.”

The fire-damaged house has since been demolished

In December, the findings of a serious case review into the deaths of the children – aged between three and eight – were published.

The blaze was likely to have started in the main bedroom, although parents Natalie Unitt and Christopher Moulton disputed the conclusions of experts who gave evidence to the children’s inquest in November.

The couple escaped the flames after jumping out of a window with their two-year-old son Jack, and were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence but have not been charged.

A serious case review the following month found that the children had suffered “serious neglect” and “barely talked”. And it highlighted that while health care professionals chased up the family for appointments, they were “listening to what the mother said rather than looking at the evidence”.

The council is now involved in a pilot scheme to place social workers in schools to identify neglect as quickly as possible, and work with families and other professionals to put things right.

Ms Riley said the average number of children that social workers are now working with had reduced from 30 to around 18.

Tributes left near the house in the aftermath of the fire

And she added that there was now only a four per cent vacancy rate for social workers.

She added: “(That is) much improved from 2019 and it does feel like back to normal. We’ve always had a relatively stable workforce and it feels like over the last two years the work we’ve done has seen us return to that stability.

“As part of the transformation – and we did it in phase one 18 months ago – we reintroduced the role of the professional lead for practice and development, the principal social worker.

“The first national social workers’ survey that has just been run has shown that Staffordshire performed better around social work support and satisfaction than the regional and national average. This includes the support people receive to do their job, training and development people receive to deal with current challenges and having the right tools to do the job.

“We have invested, increasing the number of family support workers on the frontline as part of the transformation, and their area of expertise in working directly with families to combat neglect is essential for us. We’ve also invested in increasing the number of social workers.

“A key workstream for the transformation is making our complex and bureaucratic systems and processes simpler, so that social workers and family support workers spend more time visiting and working with families than filling in forms and doing bureaucracy.

“Currently, until we go live with our new system, most of our social workers and family support workers spend 60 per cent of their time filling forms in rather than doing that direct work with families. We have to flip that as part of the transformation.”

Councillor Mark Sutton, cabinet member for children and young people, added: “The four children are very deeply missed by everybody who knew them. The harrowing events that unfolded that night have deeply affected the community.

“The coroner’s verdict is that all four children died by inhalation of products of combustion. He indicated that having looked at the evidence, the most likely cause of the fire was an unextinguished cigarette.

“We at the local authority contributed fully to the review and although the tragic outcome could not have been predicted, the review identified some areas of learning in relation to the issues of neglect.

“We’re continuing to implement the recommendations and we are currently implementing a transformation process across children’s services. The findings of this report and the transformation process are intrinsically linked.”

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