Borderline cases in care proceedings should be diverted from court: Isabelle Trowler

Families where the decision to remove a child from his or her parents could go either way should be diverted away from court, the chief social worker has said. Isabelle Trowler said there should be 'clear blue water' between children brought into care proceedings and other children considered to be at risk of significant harm.

"Stronger family focused practice, better decision making and more sophisticated and tailored support services, should create clear blue water between the standard of care and protection given to a child involved in public court proceedings compared to the care and protection of other local children considered to be at risk of significant harm," said the report on care proceedings in England.

Over the last 10 years in England, there has been a significant increase in the number of families brought into public care proceedings because of concerns about the care and protection of their children. However, 20% of those children return home on Supervision Orders.

The policy paper by the chief social worker highlights the findings from an exploratory study of care proceedings in four local authorities across England. The study found that the vast majority of decisions taken to initiate care proceedings were certainly reasonable, however, it questions whether or not they were always necessary.

In the study, many parents experienced entrenched and serious violence, drug and alcohol addiction or sexual abuse, often over many years and mostly in the context of poverty and deprivation. Similar social circumstances had often been a feature of their own childhoods and indeed across generations.

A high proportion of parents also had mental health problems and/or learning disabilities. A significant number of fathers or male partners were assessed as “a risk of sexual abuse to children”. A significant number of mothers were assessed as “unable to prioritise their children over their partner” usually in relation to domestic abuse.

However, while in the majority of cases reviewed, the health and social problems experienced by parents led their children to experience excessive and continuous domestic chaos and at worst, exposed them to very serious child abuse and neglect, in other cases, the degree of harm, or likely harm, to a child was less obvious.

The study found that the difficulties facing families in court proceedings today were very similar to five years ago and there was little evidence in the records of greater complexity of need.

When a child has suffered significant harm, or is likely to, but where concerns are not so serious as to warrant removal of a child from their parents, the Court can make a Supervision Order.

The increase in supervision orders over the period studied is "very striking" according to the report. It says that while the proportion has not changed, the volume of children and families being brought into care proceedings, only to remain together or be reunited at the end, has increased.

Local authorities are making an increasing number of applications for Supervision Orders but they are also making an increasing number of applications for Care Orders to remove children, but which result in the Courts making Supervision Orders.

"This must raise the question as to whether families subject to these thin, red line decisions, because the decision to remove a child from his or her parents could go either way, should be diverted away from Court in the first place," said the report.

In the study, 34% of all disposals resulted in Supervision Orders. According to some social workers, it often takes the symbolism of the Court to strike a strong enough chord with parents and the extended family to accept the seriousness of the situation. However, with such a significant proportion of proceedings in England ending in Supervision Orders and with a wide variance between authorities from 8% to 36%, the public purse pays a heavy price for taking this group of families into court only for children to remain at home anyway. The report warns that "families and their children pay the heaviest price of all".

One of the most striking findings of the study, the report says, was the extent to which families were expected to have open and honest relationships with social workers, and that an absence of this trust, was taken as an indicator of increased risk to the child. Parents were described as “not open and honest” and having “deliberately misled the authority”.

Ms Trowler suggests that without trust and confidence that the family is able to work in partnership with the local authority, the social worker may have little choice but to consider care proceedings as the best way of protecting a child. Yet for the system to be a fair one, there must be sufficient social work skill and organisational capacity to effectively build those relationships of trust and confidence in the first place.

The study also found that 25% of the children remained within their own family networks at the end of proceedings, which concurs with national data showing 26% of children return to family members.

Local authority negotiations with families about alternative care arrangements can be messy, with the finer detail sometimes left to chance, and inconsistent levels of financial and other support for families between and within local authorities frequently viewed as unfair. However, by addressing these important concerns, resurrecting the principles of No Order and partnership with parents, and viewing long term voluntary accommodation and shared care (between extended family and state) as a valuable alternative to Court, the number of applications to court might be significantly reduced, said the report.

It adds that with 20% of applications leading to return home on Supervision Orders, and a further 26% of applications leading to return home to extended family, the system must be sure that all applications to Court are indeed, necessary. As a result, the pre-proceedings period should be resurrected as the key point of hope at which local authorities can work with (extended) families to develop long term, sustainable plans for the children of concern. Particularly in circumstances where the decision to go to Court would be crossing the thin red line, every effort should be made to avoid the "truly burdensome and costly action of initiating court proceedings".

Ms Trowler's report recommends that a national programme of work should begin to test if and how we can divert away from court proceedings, those families who have the greatest chances of staying successfully together for the long term. However, she warns that it is equally imperative that this does not distract from recognising families where children are being seriously harmed, and where the prospect of sufficient change is unlikely.

A national learning programme should be developed, to help calibrate senior social work leaders’ decision making within and between local authorities across England. Further, the use of voluntary accommodation should be reclaimed as a legitimate and respected support service to families for the long term care of children.

"Finally, great care must be taken not to undermine progress in child protection practice. Where permanence for children can clearly not be secured within family networks or without Court involvement, swift and skilful practice must lead to Court action without delay," the report concludes.

Care proceedings in England: The case for clear blue water by Isabelle Trowler

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