Family Rights Group’s response to Government’s plans for reform
Published: 15th May 2023
2 minute read
In February 2023, the Government published their plans for reforming children’s social care in a strategy document called Stable Homes, Built on Love.
Family Rights Group responded to the public consultation on the strategy in May 2023 and here we summarise our key messages. Our full submission can be read here.
The Government’s strategy presents a positive vision for a ‘family-first’ approach to children’s social care. It prioritises meaningful and effective help at the right time for families and valuing the support wider family and friends can offer including as kinship carers. We are also very encouraged by the focus on ensuring all children and young people in care have relationships they can rely on.
However, we agree with the House of Lords Public Services Committee’s recent report which claims that the reforms announced do “not represent the radical reset the children’s care system needs”. At present, they fall short of the scale of the crisis that is gripping children’s social care.
The Independent Review projected that the number of children in care in England will top 100,000 by 2032 without a significant change of course. The system has become too focused on investigating and assessing rather than supporting families, meaning many opportunities to work in partnership with families early are missed. The result is a system which is overwhelmed, where more families are struggling without help and increasing numbers of children are in care.
There is extensive evidence about the positive impacts of transformational practices, including early help and family group conferences on outcomes for children and families. Limiting the roll-out of these to pathfinders is a missed opportunity to deliver the nation-wide reforms desperately required. Failure to provide the system-wide reform and investment recommended by the Review is a false economy which could cost an extra £5 billion a year by 2032.
There is also a lack of recognition to the growing evidence on the relationship between child poverty and children’s social care involvement. As the cost-of-living crisis bites, addressing child poverty needs to be an integral part of the Government’s child welfare strategy.
Early family help
We endorse the MacAlister Review’s call for a revolution in family help and ‘a fundamental shift’ in the way children’s social care responds to families who need help.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to prioritise help for families. However, we are extremely concerned that in practice, implementation of reforms will be piece meal and geographically restricted. While there is much welcomed reference to non-stigmatising and community-based support, we are also concerned that this is still seen predominantly through a lens of child protection and managing risk.
We note that the Government strategy distinguishes between early help and Family Help which encompasses “targeted early help” and child in need. We are unclear how the distinction will work in practice, how families will understand and be able to navigate these differences and exactly what the threshold would be between “early help” and Family Help for families.
We are concerned about the creation of an expert child protection social worker (lead practitioner) who will co-work Family Help cases with a Family Help social worker. There is a risk of professional differentiation with more value or status being placed on child protection social workers. We also think that this split of responsibility could damage relationships with families which have been built in Family Help. We fear that despite the intent, at a time of severe financial strain on public services, families could find themselves having to overcome more bureaucratic barriers to get the help that they and their children need.
In designing early help and family help services, national government and local authorities and other public agencies need to work with families to design a system that is responsive to individual needs. Families often know what will make a difference to them and their children. In our submission we share extensive feedback from members of our parents panel about their experiences of family help and what would have made a difference in their situation.
Parental representation and advice
We strongly welcome the Government’s recognition that additional support and information needs to be available so that all parents are empowered to participate in child welfare processes and are supported to have their views heard in decisions relating to their children.
Family Rights Group has significant expertise in this field. Our free, independent, specialist advice service is the only service of its kind in England. We advise families when they are involved with children’s services or need their help. We provide advice for parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends including kinship carers in England. Our expert advisers are all experienced lawyers, social workers, or family advocates. They help families to understand the law and child welfare processes and their rights and options. The most recent evaluation demonstrates that by safely averting more children entering care, our advice service has saved the public purse nearly £15m over the last two years.
Family Rights Group has pioneered professional family advocacy service in the child protection arena, delivered by highly qualified lawyers, social workers or advocates with comparable experience. We have also provided indirect and self-advocacy (via written, telephone and online support) to families. In our submission, we share learning about the positive impact of this work for the families involved.
We are very alert to how challenging the environment is to secure funding to run direct advice, advocacy, or representation services. The legal aid rates mean almost no legal practice will attend child protection conferences. Direct advocacy services commissioned by local authorities have been forced to close due to funding cuts.
In addition to advocacy service provision, parents whose children are subject to child protection processes need to have access to independent legal advice. Unfortunately, the current legal aid regime fails to meet this need and we set out in detail how this needs to change. Financial constraints also mean our advice service is currently only able to answer four in ten callers.
Any recognition of the importance of parental advice and representation in the child welfare arena needs to be backed up by funding.
We urge the Government to work closely with families who have direct experience and knowledge of the child protection process to consider and understand the range of different perspectives of how parental representation might work in practice.
We recently brought together parents with experience of the child welfare system, children’s service leaders, and organisations with expertise in representing parents at child protection conferences to start developing a set of inclusive principles and standards for child protection parental representation services.
Embedding a ‘family first’ culture
We strongly welcome the commitments in the Government’s strategy to exploring family network options early, both as a support for parents who may be struggling and for identifying potential kinship care options if the child is not able to remain at home.
The consultation asked for ideas on how to best embed a ‘family first’ culture in children’s social care. We suggest the following:
1. Independent legal advice
An essential aspect of a ‘family first’ approach is that families can access independent legal advice when they need to. It underpins the ability of families to work in partnership with the state.
We set out the positive impact of Family Rights Group’s specialist advice service for families involved with the child welfare system.
The Government has recently expanded the scope of legal aid for some parents involved in adoption-related proceedings and for some kinship carers in private law proceedings. We warmly welcome this but further reforms are needed.
We have made detailed proposals for legal aid reform including:
- in deprivation of liberty (DOLS) cases
- for parents, before children’s services initiate the formal pre proceedings process
- for kinship carers
Read more about our work on legal aid reform here.
2. Born Into Care
The number of new-born babies subject to care proceedings has doubled over the last ten years. A new-born baby in the North East of England is three times more likely than one in London to be subject to care proceedings. This is in part due to the varying availability of services, such as parent and baby residential and foster care placements.
The Born Into Care (Mason, 2022) research study has shone a light on this issue and the findings are reinforced by insight from our specialist advice service. Too often decisions to remove children at birth are being made with little notice and without prior work with families including via family group conferences. Sometimes key local authority meetings or court proceedings take place whilst the mother is still in hospital.
We strongly advocate that the Government actively promote the new Born into Care: Best practice guidelines to help shift practice within health, children’s social care and the court arena.
3. Support for birth parents after removal
A family-first approach needs to address support for parents whose children are removed, to help them deal with their grief and address the reasons why their child is unable to live with them. There should be a new duty on local authorities to offer therapeutic support and counselling to mothers and fathers whose children are removed, to help them deal with their grief and to address the reasons why their child was removed. This duty should be funded by Government.
Family Rights Group is the leading legal and policy authority on kinship care. For almost 50 years, our legal, policy and campaigning work has influenced developments in the child welfare system including securing the two-child tax credit exemption for kinship carers and a recent extension to legal aid for special guardians. We provide the secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Kinship Care and the Kinship Care Alliance.
We strongly welcome the significant shift in emphasis in the Government’s strategy towards prioritising children remaining safely in their family and improving support for kinship care. We are greatly encouraged by the attention given by Government ministers to the importance of support for kinship care, and particularly by the commitment to produce a national kinship care strategy this year. We also welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that local disparities in policy, practice and support services for kinship care are inadequate and must be addressed.
However, to deliver on this ambition we need greater urgency within Government to ensure that kinship care is consistently explored and supported for all children who cannot remain at home. Kinship care is a unique and important form of care and for too long has been overlooked and undervalued. Too many children are being raised by strangers in the care system when they could be living safely and thriving in their family. Kinship families face many challenges, but support for children and carers is too often tied to the legal status of the arrangement and where the family live, rather than their needs.
Our key messages to Government on kinship care are:
- The national kinship care strategy must be a genuinely cross-Government endeavour that is co-produced with kinship families and the sector.
- The strategy must be properly resourced including providing local authorities with funding to provide adequate support services to kinship families in their community.
- A clear and broad definition of kinship care, enshrined in primary legislation, would be the foundation for an effective system where kinship care is recognised, valued and properly supported. (See: our Time To Define kinship care campaign)
- Families in every local authority should be offered a family group conference (FGC), wherever they are on the child welfare continuum. It should be a family’s legal right to be offered an FGC before a local authority can prepare to bring care proceedings (except in emergencies) in relation to their child.
- The proposed Family Network Support Packages should be carefully designed with families to ensure that where it is in the child’s interest, kinship foster carer remains an open route.
- There should be clear direction to local authorities on how kinship assessments are carried out to ensure the process is fair, transparent, culturally aware, and that there is consistent practice nationwide. The initial family and friends care best practice guidance, developed by Family Rights Group and endorsed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Family Justice Council, should be recommended.
- The kinship strategy must not just encourage but insist that local authorities update their family and friends care policies, with clear expectations and adequate funding.
- Local and national support services for kinship carers and their children must be available based on the needs of the family, and not their legal status or whether or not the child is or has been in care. Below we set out the key areas in which families need support.
What kinship carers had to say on the support their families need:
Family Rights Group’s kinship carers panel, and the carers who attended our national kinship care workshop in April, shared their thoughts on the forms of support that would have made the most difference to their family.
In our response we provided detailed feedback but here we summarise the key themes:
Specialist advice and legal aid
- The Government should address gaps in access to specialist advice and legal aid (See also: APPG on Kinship Care Legal Aid Inquiry)
- The Government’s investment in a training and support offer, should be designed with families and build upon local support systems already available including those working with minority communities
Respite and childcare
- Kinship carers, particularly those who are single or older in age, can find their new caring responsibilities extremely tiring, relentless and stressful. We call on the Government to ensure carers are not excluded from the Government’s free childcare offer and support the Mockingbird model being offered to kinship carers as some local authorities already do.
- Government should introduce a right to paid kinship employment leave akin to adoption leave (See our Same Love, Same Leave campaign)
- Expanded school support for children in kinship care, including Pupil Premium Plus, priority school admissions and virtual school heads.
- A kinship care awareness campaign among school staff, spearheaded by Government.
- Investment in support for young people in kinship care up to the age of 25
- The national strategy should ensure therapeutic support is available to available to all kinship families. A first step should be to extend eligibility criteria for the Adoption Support Fund and change its name to be inclusive and accessible to kinship carers.
- There must also be sufficient investment in children and young people’s mental health services
- Our advice service is receiving frequent calls from kinship carers who have seen the financial and practical support they were receiving reduced or taken away completely.
- Too many kinship carers face a postcode lottery when seeking to access financial support.
- Kinship carers on our panel and at the workshop agreed on the need for a kinship financial allowance, consistent with fostering allowances and non-means tested.
- The financial assessment model most commonly used by local authorities is outdated, having been produced prior to the introduction of child arrangement orders or Universal Credit.
- There is an urgent need to ensure a consistent approach is taken by local authorities to financial allowances for kinship carers including addressing the outdated financial assessment model. We are happy to work with the Government on this.
- The Department for Work and Pensions should also ensure the benefit system encourages rather than penalises kinship care arrangements, consistent with the ethos of the two-child tax credit exemption for children in kinship care.
- Some carers raised difficulties with overcrowding and being unable to move to more suitable housing for the increased size of the family. Local authorities and housing associations should have a duty to consider the needs of kinship carers in local housing policies.
We are delighted that Family Rights Group’s Lifelong Links approach is cited in the Government’s Strategy. We welcome the commitment by Government to investing £30 million over the next two years in evidenced family finding, befriending, and mentoring programmes such as Lifelong Links.
However, we would call on the government to be more ambitious in its investment plans, in order that every child in care and care leaver in England is offered Lifelong Links by 2027.
We have also been working as part of the Always Hope project to develop Lifelong Links for care experienced young adults in prison. We are keen to see this offered nationwide.
Illegal Migration Bill
The provisions of the Children Act must apply to all children. We are extremely concerned that the Illegal Migration Bill is at odds with the legal framework. We want clarification that mission 3 will not be compromised by the provisions in the Bill.
Children and young people deprived of their liberty
There is growing concern about the long distances children in care are being placed from their homes and family networks for reasons not connected to their needs. This is particularly stark for children who are being deprived of their liberty. Evidence suggests that the median distance from home for children placed in secure children’s homes for welfare reasons under secure accommodation orders was 132.3km. Many children from local authorities in England and Wales are being placed in secure care in Scotland. There is also significant concern about the children subject to orders under the inherent jurisdiction being placed in unsuitable accommodation which does not meet their needs, including children’s homes that are not registered with OFSTED.
Keeping brothers and sisters together
The child welfare system does not currently place sufficient priority on enabling children to live with brothers and sisters or supporting children who are split up from their siblings to continue having a relationship with them. The Siblings in Care (2023) report from the Children’s Commissioner for England estimates that 37% of children with a brother or sister, are separated from a sibling when placed in care. For some children, including those who are older or disabled, the chances of being separated from their siblings is far greater.
The law currently requires local authorities to allow a looked after child reasonable contact with their parents. We would strongly recommend that this duty is extended to siblings. We also call upon the Government to implement a ministerial commitment to amend regulations to provide for sibling contact between a child who is looked after in the care system and any siblings who are not looked after.
Regulating semi-independent settings
We reiterate concerns expressed by Children England and Become about the Government’s plans in relation to semi-independent settings for children aged up to 18. We support the view of these charities that the government should extend full standards of ‘care’ to homes for all children up to the age of 18 and invest sufficiently in local authorities that they can commission homes that meet these standards.
Regional Care Cooperatives
The care market is failing children and young people. A system that should be providing a safe and loving home for children and young people is instead dominated by private equity companies extracting excessive profits for their investors. The decision not to implement the MacAlister Review’s recommendations for a windfall tax to address excessive profits and provide new funding for the system is, in our view, a mistake.
We are also concerned that the regional cooperative approach to planning and recruiting foster care, could overlook the importance of kinship care including kinship foster care and reunification of children and the system prioritising children remaining safely in their family network in the first instance. It risks taking decision making further away from a child’s community.
Disabled children and young people
We endorse the key points made by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, of which Family Rights Group is a member. In particular:
- The need to focus on improving the workforce’s understanding of childhood disability;
- Promoting an environment in which interactions with parents are respectful and supportive, not stigmatising or blaming
- Improving coordination between public services, including education, health and housing
- Addressing a gatekeeping culture, in which too many children and families are failing to get the support they require due to high and often changing thresholds. Too often this is leading to children and families being told their needs are too complex for universal services or Early Help, but they do not fit the criteria to qualify for specialist support
Moreover, the severe crisis in mental health services is often resulting in children and adolescents failing to get the counselling or therapeutic support they desperately need. The significant rise in Deprivation of Liberty (DOLS) cases and recent court judgments provide a stark illustration of out how our child welfare system is currently failing these young people.
Equalities and children’s rights
We are concerned that without sufficient investment and greater urgency these reforms do not guarantee better protection for those with protected characteristics.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to develop its understanding of race and ethnicity. However, we would like to see clearer milestones on how Government is intending to measure and address these disparities.
Currently, there is insufficient gathering of basic demographic information about the circumstances of families of children in the care system or subject to care proceedings. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to measure the understand the impact of the child welfare system and reforms to it, on the child and the family. The Government’s data strategy needs to address this.
We also highlight the adverse experiences faced by many parents with learning difficulties and disabilities, who are disproportionately represented in care proceedings. The experiences and support needs of these parents are not explicitly addressed in the Government’s strategy. As a minimum, the principles of this good practice guidance need to be consistently applied when children’s services are working with parents with a learning disability, their children and their wider family.
The Care Crisis Review found frustration, despair and anger about the detrimental impact of poverty, cuts and austerity on the lives and life chances of vulnerable families. The Government must be mindful in the development of reforms how the impact of protected characteristics interplays with the impact of poverty.
We endorse the view of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers that a Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) must be conducted for the Government’s implementation strategy. The current two-paragraph assessment is inadequate and does not demonstrate how the proposed changes will impact children’s rights. The Government must build on the MacAlister Review’s Child Rights Impact Assessment as legislation and policy is being designed.