THE number of children referred to early help social services has increased by 50 per cent in St Helens, a new report has revealed.

At present, more than 1,600 children are engaged with social services in the borough, according to Fiona Woods, the council’s assistant director for children’s social work assessment.

Ms Woods provided an update on the council’s Revised Early Help Strategy, which it plans to launch in June, to the children and young people’s services overview and scrutiny panel on Monday.

She revealed the borough has seen a “high volume” of referrals compared to other authorities.

Between April 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017, there were 1,064 Early Help Assessment Episodes initiated, up from 712 during the same period 12 months earlier, an increase of 49.4 per cent.

The main cause were behaviour-related issues, which accounted for 272 incidents. Ms Woods said neglect is often an underlining factor.

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As part of the Revised Early Help Strategy, Ms Woods said the authority has made some “radical changes” to the front door service, including employing four advanced practitioners, which are experienced social workers.

“You want decision makers at the front door, so they can act swiftly and offer advice and guidance where necessary to others coming through,” Ms Woods said.

During the meeting, Cllr Joe Pearson, Billinge and Seneley Green, questioned whether the service was capable of meeting the demands.

“It is a small number, they are busy, it’s the front door so we have a high volume of referrals coming through, but they are also part of the multi-agency arrangement,” Ms Woods said.

Ms Woods insisted the service is safe.

She said: “Would I like to have fewer cases per social worker, so they have more time to spend with the family?

"Yes, I would, of course I would because I think everybody would like to do that.

“I haven’t met a local authority yet that can define what the optimum number of cases that should be open to a social worker at any one time."

The Revised Early Help Strategy was largely prompted by an Ofsted inspection in 2014-15.

Ms Woods said the strategy will aim to create a single access point for children and families to access services.

She said the new system also aims to improve the child’s journey through the various transition points through the system, which at present can be very “unsettling”.

Ms Woods said there is no immediate changes to the emergency duty team, which is a shared service with Halton, but said there will be “rearrangements and revisions” to those posts likely in the next six to 12 months.

She added: “I can say as far as I’m concerned, we are going in the right direction. It is a challenge recruiting experienced, qualified social workers.

“I can’t do anything about that, that’s market forces which I have no control.”