£7.7 million spent on agency staff for children’s services

A struggling children’s services organisation has spent £7.7 million on interim agency staff in a year, it has been revealed.

Additionally, the man brought in to lead its turnaround has resigned.

Sunderland City Council’s service was rated inadequate by Ofsted inspectors in a 2015 report.

An independent trust, Together for Children, took over the services in April.

The organisation defended its spending as part of its efforts to raise standards.

Following a Freedom of Information request from the BBC, the trust revealed it spent £7.7 million on temporary social workers in the 2016/17 financial year.

Newcastle City Council spent just under £157,000 during the same period and the 11 North East councils, excluding Sunderland, spent a total of £8.1 million.

Alex Hopkins, who took up the role of director of children’s services with the council in Sunderland in July 2016, resigned and left in recent weeks.

A social worker who was part of the team in 2017 told BBC Newcastle: “There were social workers that would come and go within a matter of weeks.

"I can't imagine how that would feel for a family who are perhaps experiencing domestic abuse, serious mental health issues or substance misuse problems - someone comes into their life and says 'I'm going to take responsibility for your children, to help make things better,' and two weeks later they're gone.

"I would be genuinely concerned about what service people are getting for the millions of pounds that have been spent."

In five monitoring reports published since 2015, Ofsted said progress had been made but more work needs to be done.

It said: “the reliance on a high number of agency workers is a risk to securing improvement for children" and added in some areas "performance has been affected resulting in high staff turnover and increased workloads.”

Deborah Jenkins, chair of the Together for Children board, said the use of temporary staff was ‘inevitable’ with ‘enormous efforts going into recruitment’.

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