March 26, 2013 by Susan Moore, Adviser

We are in a time of huge change for families with welfare reform and major spending cuts affecting children and families.

One of the most significant changes that will impact on the families who use our services is the Children and Families Bill 2013.

The Bill includes major reform to the systems for adoption, looked after children, family justice and special educational needs. In short, all of the issues that families contact us to discuss are about to get a serious overhaul and the implications are huge.

The Government is promoting the Bill as improving services to vulnerable children and supporting strong families but, from the point of view of many of our service users, there are some very serious concerns.

In particular, I feel increasingly worried about the effect that the Bill will have on the ability of family and friends carers to care for children being removed from their parents.

If a child is removed from a parent’s care, either by consent of the parent or by order of a court, the Children Act 1989 currently gives priority to placing the child with a suitable family member before someone not connected to the child. Under a clause in the new Bill, however, if adoption is being considered as a possible outcome for a child, the local authority must consider placing the child with a potential adopter who is temporarily assessed as a foster carer (a “foster to adopt placement”). The local authority is exempt from prioritising family members as carers in these circumstances.

As an organisation, we believe strongly that it is best for children to be raised within their birth family wherever this is safe and suitable to meet their needs. The above development is, therefore, of great concern. Taken with measures such as the speeding up of care proceedings, it is going to be vital for potential carers from within a child’s family to come forward as early as possible, otherwise they are in serious danger of being overlooked and for the child to end up outside the family.

There are many examples from our advice line of situations where family members do not put themselves forward at an early stage for various reasons.

Some relatives simply don’t know what is happening early on, like the aunt I recently advised who had a strained relationship with her sister. She had received third hand information through a family friend that her niece and nephew had been removed in to care but had no details of the situation and no idea what to do to have the children placed in her care.

I was able to talk her through approaching the local authority and putting herself forward as a carer for the children. I can’t help wondering, though, if, in a year’s time, some of these calls may come too late to keep children safely within their families, particularly when there are very young children involved.

In other situations, family members may be fully aware of a situation and involved in supporting the child’s parents through care proceedings. In some of these cases, relatives can feel unable to come forward and offer to care for children for a fear of undermining mum and dad’s position.

I can think of a grandmother I have spoken to in the past who found our conversation extremely hard. She wanted to support her daughter, who had mental health problems as much as possible. Coming forward as a potential carer for her grandson felt like a betrayal as well as an assertion that her daughter was not capable of parenting him. Her view was, if she was needed, she would come forward and do whatever was necessary to keep her grandson safe, even if that meant restricting her contact with her daughter. But she didn’t want to do that until she was certain that he was not going home with mum.

In the above case we had a long discussion about parallel planning and the importance of having a back up plan for children even if they may be able to remain with their parents. Putting herself forward as a carer for her grandson was not letting her daughter down but supporting her to ensure that the baby was not going to be permanently placed outside of the family.

In the future, such conversations may well be more frequent and more urgent. Family members will not have the luxury of time if they wish to have children placed in their care. They will need to be clear about their availability from the very beginning of the process.