The Court Process
Barnardo’s have produced a diatribe (based on a parliamentary answer) which castigates the length of time taken by care proceedings. In the London area it takes 65 weeks on average for the whole process to creak and groan its way from beginning to end. Nationally the average is 57 weeks - more than a year, to spell it out. That means that for some children it is less but for others it is more.
If a baby is being fostered by its prospective adopters, s/he will be quite unaware of the length of the legal process and the most s/he will suffer is picking up some second-hand anxiety on the part of the carers - and, of course, disruption when the permanent placement is made, which no doubt risks increasing the longer that the child settles with the temporary foster carers.
For an older child or young person who is aware that s/he is the subject of care proceedings it is another matter. If you are three when the process starts, you will have spent nearly a third of your life subject to Court directions by the time it is over. If you are older, the uncertainty will probably make it feel like a lifetime.
Remember that the children who are being strung out in this way will probably have suffered plenty of disturbance (and maybe abuse) in their home lives already, such that what they need stability and security.
Clearly the decision whether a Care Order should be made is an important one, but in many cases the outcome is clear from the start and the whole process is more a matter of being seen to have done the whole thing properly than of decision-making. The due processes do need to be followed, but why cannot clear-cut cases be fast-tracked to leave more time for those where further information is needed or developments are awaited?
The Care Context
What the Barnardo’s press release did not focus on is that the care proceedings take place in a longer context. Prior to the case social workers will probably have agonised at length about ways of supporting the child’s family without resorting to the law. They will have had professional planning meetings and, if the child has been abused, case conferences involving other agencies. There may have been special legal meetings to determine whether the threshold criteria for care proceedings have been met. There may have been gate-keeping meetings to ensure that any costs entailed for fostering or residential care can be met within the budget. For children where adoption is planned there will have been meetings which decide on seeking a Placement Order, on approving prospective adopters and on matching children to adopters. (Do not become a social worker if you don’t like meetings.)
When the Care Order is made, a good authority will have undertaken preparatory action and it may be possible to move the child to his/her permanent placement without too much delay. In some cases, though, care proceedings seem to cast a sort of planning blight over the next stage, especially if the family are fighting the authority, and it is only when the Care Order is made and the authority has the power to act that serious planning begins. It may then take months, if not years, to find suitable adopters or long-term foster carers. In the course of the process a child who was originally adoptable may become unsuited to adoption through age or because of changes in the child’s behaviour or attitude to carers.
The situation can be complicated by changes of social worker. With the speed of staff turnover at present what percentage of such processes are seen through from beginning to end by one social worker? We came across a case not long ago when the whole process from the first decision that a Care Order should be sought to permanent placement took seven years.
The price for this dilatoriness is paid mainly by the children and young people whom the process is meant to be helping and protecting. Barnardo’s make that point well. We endorse what they say and will not dwell on it.
There are two other ways in which a heavy price is paid. The first is the sheer financial cost of the whole process. We do not know of anyone who has costed all of this, but behind the legal proceedings there are all the formal local authority and inter-agency meetings, and behind them there is the time spent on the informal discussions, the phone calls, the visits, the interviews, the correspondence, the reading of files, the drafting, typing, checking and retyping of reports and minutes.
The cost of making the decision that a child should be subject to a Care Order must be massive. It is an important decision, but would the quality deteriorate if the process were speedier and cheaper? Go back thirty years and local authority committees were able to receive reports from the officers and decide to take parental rights through Section 2 Resolutions under the 1948 Children Act. The process was much speedier and entailed a lot less bureaucracy. It was felt that this simple process was deficient in that it gave too much power to local authorities, who needed an independent check on their decision-making. Without necessarily returning to Section 2 Resolutions there may still be ways of saving money by simplifying and speeding up the decision-making process.
The second price we pay is reflected in the costs but is not monetary. The enormous financial outlay represents staff time, and much of that at present is the time of social workers and their managers and specialist advisers in the Children’s Services Departments. All the people involved in care cases are likely to be qualified and many - especially those in senior roles - will be among the more experienced workers. By allocating their time and talents to the completion of over-lengthy legal processes we are diverting them from other children and young people whose cases are receiving insufficient attention. Work such as preventative advice, case work and time spent with children, for example on therapeutic or relationship-building activities, goes out of the window when court work takes priority.
With the Best of Intentions
When the Children Act 1989 was brought in it was hoped that it would speed up processes such as care proceedings. It was also intended to ensure that children and their parents all had a chance to have their say and be represented. All these intentions were good, but the outcome is that the processes have become more complex, adversarial and legalistic. As a result lawyers play a much fuller role, all of which takes more time and costs more money.
When there is a national shortage of social workers this diversion of the time of the most experienced and best trained professionals into unnecessary processes squanders a valuable resource. So, if the Government is looking for ways to do things more efficiently and cheaply, simplifying the legal and bureaucratic processes of the care system is a clear target. If simplified, it should also make the job a lot more satisfying for social workers, and maybe they would stay longer in post.
And, going back to the point made by Barnardo’s, the legal process is meant to be protecting children and young people, who are often the innocent victims of the circumstances in which they have been brought up. But it is the victims who are suffering. Delaying the resolution of their problems amounts to a form of systemic abuse, and minimising it is within the powers of politicians.
For the Barnardo’s Press Release, click here.
For the Parliamentary answer, click here.
Thanks are due to Barnardo’s for highlighting the issue and making the information available.