BLOG: Children must not pay price of targets to reduce time on care proceedings
BASW professional officer Sue Kent examines the issues raised by a new report from the Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which highlights a family courts system under extreme pressure.
BASW contributed to the Child Protection APPG inquiry and our evidence has been referenced in the resulting Making Care Proceedings Better for Children report. The inquiry focused on the scrutiny of care plans, the six month time limit for proceedings and exemptions and if the court decisions are heeding the best interests of the child.
The APPG has clearly listened to BASW’s concerns that the child protection system is at breaking point, evidenced so clearly in our State of Social Work survey by hundreds of testimonies of the working lives of children’s social workers.
Recognition from the APPG that social workers, as the professionals delivering these services, must be consulted if we are to improve care proceedings for children, has been long overdue and is much appreciated. We also applaud the APPG for recognising the very important contribution independent social workers make to particularly intractable cases in care proceedings, which has been borne out by the research of Dr Julia Brophy and for identifying independents as the solution to some of the shortfalls in resources and workforce.
As the government seeks to speed up care proceedings, as detailed in its proposed Children and Families Bill, this APPG report cannot be viewed in isolation or ignored by ministers, as it highlights a number of key issues that must be acknowledged if we are to prevent a meltdown of the child protection system.
The report makes reference to the high caseloads held by Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), an issue that became evident during BASW's IRO survey last year. BASW offers support to social workers on an individual basis and there has been a notable rise in difficulties expressed by IROs and requests for help from the Association.
IROs are qualified and experienced social workers. They are the professionals who are responsible for ensuring that a child's care plan agreed at the time of proceedings is appropriate, reviewed and amended when needed, and more importantly is “owned” by all those involved.
Can someone holding 200 cases really claim to have scrutinised every single one and chased up children's plans that had not been adhered to, indeed how could they even know the names of all the children for whom they are responsible, let alone keep up to date with admin? How can they also have the time to ensure that the decisions for a child are made independently and to challenge the decision if this has not been the case?
We hear that some local authorities, perhaps in an attempt to reduce costs, have re-evaluated the IRO role and re-graded it from manager level to the level of social worker. The Children and Families Bill is expecting the scrutiny of care plans to pass from the court to the IRO.
Within the recommendations of the APPG they ask that the court retains some responsibility for scrutiny and that IROs need the support, training and independence to do this task efficiently. This recognition is good to read because if they are not better resourced and their caseloads reduced to reflect the guidance within the IRO Handbook, IROs will not be able to offer a quality service to the increasing number of children who need one.
The APPG report also tackles the Children and Families Bill's approach to prescribing a six month deadline for care proceedings and provides evidence to suggest that this could be detrimental to children, heeding a number of situations which without extensions of time could lead to the wrong long-term care plan for a child.
BASW has expressed concerns about this proposition (which we believe is already in place in some areas of the country) as the focus on the time target will no doubt in some cases distract from the required outcome and in reality, the future life of a child, a concept raised by Professor Eileen Munro in her initial analysis of the child protection system in England in 2010. Thankfully, the APPG recognises the importance of good assessments, social workers having the training, skills and time to complete them and the inclusion of independent social workers to be used to speed up the case instead of a range of 'expert witnesses'.
Most importantly, the APPG report identifies the often absent voice of the child in care proceedings. It suggests that family court Judges are enabled (through training and time) to offer time to the child to discuss both the process and the child’s views. Young people themselves have suggested the making of a YouTube film to explain processes to children.
The young people giving evidence expressed their concern at being subjected to constant change of social workers and guardians. They suggested that after having experience abuse already, this lack of consistent support often left children feeling 'abandoned'.
BASW continues to highlight that as cuts increase across the country, social workers are not being replaced and as their caseloads grow, something has to give. It is likely to be the time spent with the child, preparing them for court or even helping them understand the legal procedures that gets sacrificed. This may well be exacerbated by additional pressure to speed up care proceedings, as outlined in the Children and Families Bill.
This potential risk to a child’s wellbeing will not only apply to local authority social workers but also those employed as Family Court Advisors (Guardians) within Cafcass, who are also reporting increasing difficulties in assessing and supporting children to BASW.
As we see the number of children going into care increase and an increasing focus on neglect is likely to add to this, we can only watch with dismay as local authority resources for children and families are cut.