The decision, which the council said aimed to make more effective use of its resources and the support given to the county’s most vulnerable families, was made at a meeting of the cabinet on Tuesday (July 27).
Jacquie Russell, cabinet member for children and young people, told the meeting that requests for Early Help were at record levels, having risen during the pandemic and ‘proving that vulnerable families do not need to walk into buildings to reach out for the support that they need’.
A consultation into the redesign attracted almost 2,000 responses – most of which were opposed to the changes.
But it did lead to a few tweaks of the redesign, the biggest of which was to keep the Lancing Early Help service running.
Lucy Butler, executive director of children, young people & learning, said the current Early Help offer involved targeted support – a help plan aimed specifically at a family – and open access (drop-in) provision.
Explaining that this way of doing things was no longer fit for purpose, she added: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for our most vulnerable children and families, meaning that we need to have more of our resources for targeted support.
“Our current model simply does not give us the required resources to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children.”
Children’s services in West Sussex has been in the spotlight for the past two years, after being rated inadequate by Ofsted.
Huge changes have been put in place since then in an effort to put things right.
In a statement to the cabinet, Kirsty Lord, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, questioned whether the services could cope with another change.
Ms Lord also wondered how many families did not ask for help during the pandemic and had been left struggling.
Opposing the idea of removing Early Help from 31 centres, she asked: “Can you be sure that you will reach every family needing help with such a limited number of front doors?”
She also pointed out that, during the scrutiny process, officers could not give firm assurances that other services would continue at the centres.
Labour group leader Chris Oxlade said the children and family centres had been successful in identifying those in need of help and he was unsure how this would continue.
Appealing to the cabinet to rethink the changes, he said: “The decision is not safe for taxpayers or families in West Sussex and, more importantly, it is not safe for children. We cannot let them down again.”
But the decision was made, agreed unanimously by the cabinet members.
Thirty-one children and family centres will now be declared surplus to the Early Help services operational requirements.
A report to the cabinet said this would cost the council an estimated £400,000 over the next few years while the buildings were either re-purposed or disposed of.
But Mrs Russell told the meeting expressions of interest in some of the buildings had been received from health partners and community groups.
The decision will see the county’s 12 Find It Out (youth) Centres merged with the remaining Children and Family Centres.
A consultation with Early Help staff affected by the changes is scheduled to take place from September, while the redesign should come into effect in December.
The 12 centres remaining will be: Bewbush and Broadfield, in Crawley; Chichester, Durrington, Footprints, in Worthing Library and Lyndhurst Road, Worthing; Haywards Health, Kingston Buci, Lancing, Littlehampton, Needles, in Horsham; and Treehouse, in Bognor Regis.