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Blog: Keeping families together safely

By Mark Willis, Chief Executive, WillisPalmer

It is a startling statistic to think that 92 per cent of children in care return to their families or home communities eventually after a period in the care system. Given children will have been taken into care for emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence or living with a parent with substance misuse problems to name a few of the reasons, it is perhaps inconceivable to imagine that so many children actively decide to return to the families whose actions (or omissions) often resulted in them becoming looked after.

According to research by the Family Rights Group, 85% of all the children in state care return home to their family network or home communities within five years, and an estimated 92% return eventually. The possibility of a child’s return home in the following 12 months remains high no matter how long a child has been away. Statistically, it is usually the most likely thing to happen to a child.
However, to delve beyond the headline statistic, children often feel a sense of loyalty to their families with whom they potentially experienced many good times alongside the difficulties. It may have been a sudden bout of parental mental ill health which resulted in the child being taken into care if they were struggling with parental responsibilities due to a debilitating illness. However, once treated with medication and therapy, the family could potentially return to some sense of normality with the child returned home. There may also be a strong emotional attachment to their parents in spite of the difficulties the child experienced.

It should also be taken into consideration that at 31 March 2018, there were almost a thousand children in care living over 150 miles away from the area they would call home. A report by the children's commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, found that four in ten children in care in England were living ‘out of area’, with more than 11,000 children living more than 20 miles from their home postcode.

There were over 2,000 children living 100 miles away from their home postcode and almost a thousand children living over 150 miles away their home area.
The report outlined that local authorities are often forced to place children 'out of area' as there is no suitable accommodation locally. There has also been a 13 per cent rise in the number of children living 'out of area' in the last four years.

Children in care placed out of borough are disconnected from their support networks of family, a wider support network and friends. They may have to change schools and are in unfamiliar settings during an emotionally difficult period. Often these moves are being made without advance warning or preparation. The children most likely to live ‘out of area’ are aged 13 or over.

Given that children are being lifted from their families and literally slam dunked miles away from their communities, schools, friends and everything they know - is it any wonder they want to return to the familiar setting of home no matter how many problems there may have been there? Home is, after all, home - a familiar setting and what should be a safe place for children.

However, recent research from the NSPCC states that for some children, returning home from care is the best possible outcome. But sadly, for many others, this can result in further abuse or neglect. Many children end up back in care and a significant number move back and forth between care and their family. Research suggests that almost half of children who return home to their parents are re-abused or neglected within two years, 30% are back in care within five years, and a third of children experience two or more failed reunifications.

This is why at WillisPalmer, we have launched our Multi-Disciplinary Family Restoration Service in a bid to tackle the root causes of problems within a family and work to address these to enable a safe return of children.

The genuinely multi-disciplinary service uses the skills and expertise of a social worker, psychologist and family support workers to co-ordinate a package of care for families where children are accommodated under S.20 or the subject of a Care Order or Interim Care Order or children who are on the edge of care or in pre-proceedings.

In a nutshell, the local authority refers the child and WillisPalmer and the authority hold a planning meeting that includes the child’s IRO. The WillisPalmer multi-disciplinary core team of social worker, psychologist and family support workers create a costed plan for approval by children's services. WillisPalmer then begins a consultation process with parents, siblings, other family and current carers. Parents, the local authority and WillisPalmer agree the restoration plan and the child is consulted to ensure their wishes and feelings are incorporated into the plan.

The social worker co-ordinates the service, the psychologist provides a baseline and tests for change, and the FSW provides support to the family particularly in relation to the identified pinch points in relationships. The service incorporates solution-focused interventions, the theories of change model, Kolb’s learning styles, Baumrind’s parenting styles and, where very young children are concerned, notions of reciprocity, attunement and attachment. The FSW provides intensive support initially to carry out observations, ensure the protection of the child, help identify change and help the family overcome initial challenges although the FSW support should reduce over time.

The process, which is constantly reviewed, is methodical and tested throughout and therefore usually lasts for a six to 12 month duration. The extended intervention period is important so that children and young people don’t end up simply returning to care - the ‘revolving door syndrome’ - therefore, medium to longer term support aims to reduce the risk of this happening.

The MFR works on the principles of acknowledgment that the family has experienced a painful and possibly bitter struggle during the care proceedings. Parents are responsible for their children and therefore need to act with authority, knowledge and understanding. All parties need to understand that successful restoration requires time and perseverance and the child's best interests are at the centre of the process.

The overall aim is to facilitate a successful reunification of families whereby any previous difficulties have been addressed, the child is in a safe place and thus prevents the child from entering the care system. Furthermore, it aims to end the revolving door phenomenon which is distressing and disruptive for the child and family and costly to the local authority.

While there are clear exemptions whereby children should be removed from their families for their own safety, or placed far from their familiar environments if, for example, they are at risk from gangs, this model offers local authorities the chance to genuinely address the problems families are experiencing in a sustained, methodical, tested and reviewed process. And given that more than 90 per cent of children will gravitate home after their spell in care in any event, addressing the often complex issues within a family environment can only be beneficial to children and families further down the line.
Given the huge proportion of children in care who gravitate home anyway, it is imperative that the complex difficulties which led to the child/children being taken into care are addressed before the family can be reunited. A failure to do so results in the revolving door syndrome whereby children are entering care, returning to families, only to re-enter care at a later date because the issues within the families have not been addressed. That is why at WillisPalmer we have launched the MFR service to work with families to address any problems and support them in their parenting before a phased return home of the child or children and prevent them re-entering care at a later date.

The model works equally well for families where children are on the edge of care. Given the significant cost of placing a child in care, this model is recommended to work with families over a sustained period to address any problems with the aim of keeping families together and prevent local authorities facing astronomical costs of placing a child in care - only for them to return home at a later date anyway.

For more information about MFR, please contact WillisPalmer on 01206 878178.

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