Further concerns over the safety of vulnerable children have been raised after the government has relaxed many of the procedures put in place to protect them.
The government has published a statutory instrument in order to make changes to regulations (secondary legislation) relating to the legal protections for children in care as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Director of Article 39 Carolyne Willow said: “The idea that local authorities have been clamouring to remove fundamental legal protections from vulnerable children during the middle of a global pandemic is just not credible. This is deregulation on steroids.”
WillisPalmer has been raising concerns for weeks over the impact of lockdown on vulnerable children, warning that the repercussions of lockdown measures could prove more dangerous to vulnerable young people than the virus itself.
But the introduction of the latest measures which relaxes some duties relating to children in care – including visits by social workers and independent reviews – are likely to leave vulnerable children in dangerous situations for longer.
The changes include:
- Social workers can carry out visits to children in care remotely using phone or technology.
- The requirement for social workers to visit children in care at six-week intervals has been scrapped and instead, when visits cannot take place in line with these timescales, they should take place “as soon as is reasonably practicable”.
- Six-monthly independent reviews of a child’s care no longer mandatory.
- Ofsted inspections of children’s homes usually take place twice a year but this is no longer required.
- Monthly independent visits and reports on children’s homes no longer mandatory.
- ‘Emergency’ foster care placements can last for nearly six months.
- Adoption agencies are no longer required to establish adoption panels while fostering panels become optional.
- Short breaks can last for 75 days without care planning safeguards.
Article 39’s Carolyne Willow added: “It is soul-destroying that so much time and effort has been put into systematically eroding the rights of children.
“Much of this disrupter’s wish-list has been in the public domain, one way or another, for at least four years. It’s an insult to children to suggest that COVID-19 is the cause of this.
“Having spent hours going through the statutory instrument line-by-line, I haven’t been able to find a single new protection for children. The whole document is about taking away, diminishing and undermining what has been built up for children over many decades.
“Ministers have not even bothered to make a statement about compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, because the statutory instrument will just go through on the nod. We have to assume that the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child have not been considered either,” she added.
Chief Executive of WillisPalmer Mark Willis said: “Every organisation, whether in children’s services or otherwise, has had to make adaptations to their way of working. The use of technology or phone calls for checking on families is being utilised in children’s services departments already in response to the outbreak. At WillisPalmer we have carried out both independent social work assessments and psychological assessments entirely remotely without compromising our high standards.”
“However, there will be child protection cases which require face-to-face contact. Frontline social workers have told us that vulnerable families rarely respond to phone calls but will engage in text messaging, but you cannot ascertain the health, safety and wellbeing of a vulnerable child via text messages. Furthermore, s47 cases where it is likely that a child will be removed from their parents cannot be done using technology.”
“What is of grave concern to us is the relaxing of systems and timescales put in place to safeguard vulnerable children. This is not the answer. While it may alleviate pressures on local authorities currently working with fewer staff during the outbreak, it is merely storing problems up for post-lockdown when children’s services departments will be inundated with referrals to the many problems we already know are being exacerbated in lockdown such as a rise in domestic abuse,” Mark Willis added.
One frontline social worker told us: “What worries me is that children in care who are in new placements may not be seeing their social worker regularly and so if they are experiencing any problems or even abuse in their placements, they would not be able to disclose this to a social worker because statutory visits are not being carried out or are being done virtually. For children in care who are in a long-term stable placement with no concerns, this may not be so much of an issue, but in other placements it could leave children at risk.
“The local authority is the corporate parent to any child in care, therefore, if we are not fulfilling our statutory duty, we are effectively abandoning these children," she added.
President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Jenny Coles said: “Keeping children safe and protecting their welfare remains a priority for all local authorities during the pandemic. The Association is working closely with the government to address the challenges children and families face and to find sensible and, crucially, safe solutions to those we face with a reduced workforce, rapidly embedding new ways of working and what this means for our ability to meet all of our duties at this unprecedented time.
“We recognise the concerns raised about the statutory instrument affording some flexibilities to local authorities due to the outbreak of Covid-19, however, it’s important to recognise that all local authorities and their staff will continue working hard to ensure that we can fulfil our statutory responsibilities to children and young people, particularly the most vulnerable. The best interests of children and families remain at the heart of any decision made by local authorities,” she concluded.
The regulations came into force on 24 April 2020 and are due to expire on 25 September 2020 – though this expiry date can be revoked.
Children And Young Persons, England The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020