Cathy Ashley

September 30, 2012 by Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the Family Rights Group.

Family Rights Group advises over 7000 parents and family members a year who are involved with or require support from children’s social care services.  Some of these parents are crying out for help, for example to deal with their teenager’s violent behaviour, with their partner’s abuse or because their child has significant disabilities and they need practical help and respite. But too often they meet only rejection, until the crisis escalates into the child protection or youth justice arena, when they are then subject to statutory interventions.

There are huge differences across the country as to what preventative and early intervention support is in place, how readily the local authority initiates proceedings and the proportion of children who end up in care.

Since the death of baby Peter Connellly, many local authorities have become more risk averse and are more readily applying for care proceedings, with some children now being removed from their parents, who in the same circumstances a few years ago, wouldn’t have been. Unsurprisingly the courts and local authority social work teams are extremely stretched, the system is very expensive (care order applications cost the public purse well over £25,000 a case on top of the child’s care costs) and significant delays in finding a permanent placement for the child is a common occurrence.

Children who are in the care system are there either under a court order or a voluntary agreement with parents. In the latter, we see cases which have been allowed to drift, with no coherent plan in place and no external court scrutiny, the child is subject to multiple moves and split up from their siblings. Many of these children will return back to parents and many want to.  But often little work has been done with the adults or the child to address the very problems that led to the child going into care in the first place.  Whilst there are success stories, there are also cases of some children being deeply damaged or reabused.

There are 200,000-300,000 children in the UK being raised by family and friends carers, only around 4% of whom are in the care system i.e. where the carers are assessed as foster carers and the children are entitled to looked after children support services. The rest are raised under a residence or special guardianship order or indeed just with the parents’ agreement. Research shows these children have experienced the same adversities as those in the care system and do as well if not better, but the carers are often forced to give up work, suffer significant financial hardship and have to deal on their own with very difficult situations, such as managing contact or supporting a child deal with abandonment.

Initial research findings indicate that whether a child who is being raised by a family and friends carer ends up inside or outside the care system is primarily a reflection of their circumstances rather than their need or the level of abuse or trauma they have experienced. Moreover, in some cases, these children were placed by the local authority, and should be treated as looked after children, according to established case law, but the carer is kept in ignorance of this or the local authority actually denies such responsibility.   We also know that there is significant variation between and even within authorities as to what effort is made to explore whether a child who cannot live with their parents, but could live with a relative. Family group conferences, which are an effective approach in supporting family members to come forward to be assessed as a potential carer for the child, are still not routinely offered pre proceedings in most parts of the country.

At the end of March 2012, 4% of children who were in the care system were placed for adoption in England. In the last 18 months we’ve had revised adoption guidance from Government, new adoption scorecards, the appointment of an adoption Tsar, an adopters’ charter, an expert working group on redesigning adoption, an action plan for adoption, a House of Lords select committee inquiry into adoption and fostering to adoption measures will be included in the forthcoming Children and Families Bill. Yet adoption will never be the answer for the great majority of children who are in care, no matter how many adoption initiatives are announced.

Some children do remain or return home to loving parents, who have managed to address their own problems and put their child’s needs first with the help of committed social workers and other professionals.  Some children can’t remain at home and thrive under the care of an amazing foster carer, a loving and remarkable older sibling or a dedicated and battling adoptive parent.

However what the above picture shows, is that the system is inconsistent, can work against rather than facilitate the right outcome for each child, that policy announcements and practice on the ground are often driven by factors unconnected with evidence, and that when we get it wrong it is costly for the public purse, in terms of individual children’s lives and for society.

Read more about the Care Inquiry here.