Memorandum submitted by Parents Against Injustice (PAIN)
Please accept the following submission which is based on the experience gained in our work for PAIN - Parents Against Injustice (www.parentsagainstinjustice.org.uk) which for over twenty years has offered advice and support to parents and carers who have been falsely accused of abusing children in their care.
From our experience as advocates for families involved in public law proceedings and beyond, we agree that outcomes for children in care can be improved through changes to:
· corporate parenting
· family support including contact
· care placements
· health and well being
· social work practices
We believe though that more emphasis needs to be placed on certain aspects of these principles to ensure that high quality care and support is given to children and young people in care.
1. For corporate parenting to work effectively there needs to be a substantial improvement in transparency within care planning and its operational base. Our feedback from local councillors seeking to ensure quality care within corporate parenthood is that officials within social services can often be obstructive as well as patronising when asked questions or when information is sought on behalf of birth families and friends of children in care. The prevalent attitude that they are the professionals and therefore know what is best for children in care is a barrier to effective and shared corporate parenting.
2. There is an ignorance of the role that local councillors play in looking after children in care and some of that ignorance is held by local councillors themselves.
3. Local councillors are duty bound as corporate parents to ensure that children in care are fully protected and that includes protection from abuse by individuals and by the system. Increasing numbers of parents at councillor surgeries claiming false allegations of abuse do not generate confidence in the system if those councillors as corporate parents are not allowed to see for themselves that, unless they are the Lead Cabinet Member for Childrens Services, the process of taking a child from caring parents is rigorously scrutinised at every stage. Social services are part of local authorities and as such are accountable to the local community through elected representatives. These representatives though need to be able to look into concerns raised by the people they represent in order to curtail instances of over zealousness by social services in their intervention into family life.
4. Scrutiny is therefore crucial to the workings of corporate parenthood and complaints should be open to all and not restricted to the immediate parties involved and those that the local authority choose to allow to complain to them. A system where the complainant's eligibility to complain is judged by the organisation that is being complained about is not sustainable. Accountability is needed throughout so that a robust complaints procedure allows criticism to be noted and lessons learnt through the various stages. A migration therefore is needed away from 'marking ones own homework' to a rigorous and critical investigation of all complaints by an independent body not associated in any form with local authorities and well before the local government ombudsman is engaged.
Family and parenting support
5. The Children Act 1989 is an effective piece of legislation but it is not working. Local authority social workers are ignoring the guidelines and the spirit of the Act. PAIN through their substantial caseload is aware that social services are not supporting families in need. Care orders should be used only when all other possibilities have been exhausted but in our experience they are used much earlier than at the 'last resort' stage and well before family support is looked into. The search for kinship care is a case in point.
6. The Public Law Outline and associated changes in the statutory guidance (Volume 1 Court Orders Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations) are being introduced nationally on 1 April 2008 and a key element in this process is to place kinship care as a more preferable option to placing children into care. This will be the stumbling block for any successful change to current thinking within social services as to quote Jean Stogdon, chair and co-founder of Grandparents Plus, there are "highly restrictive notions of safety which persuade social workers it is better to place children with strangers than kinship carers no matter how unfulfilled emotionally a child may be because of the apparent risks associated with family placements."
7. A further stumbling block in reducing the numbers of children going into care is that from 1 April 2008 the pivotal stage is the Letter Before Proceedings (LBP) which not only attempts to ensure that only extreme cases get to go forward to care proceedings but also provides the platform for identifying carers from the extended family and friends. The LBP triggers legal aid for the meeting arranged for the parents to discuss the problems with social services but there is no provision for potential kinship carers to attend this crucial meeting and if they do they will not be legally represented unless they choose to find funding for themselves or have parental responsibility.
8. The problems are exacerbated as the legal aid reforms are in danger of ensuring that the interests of the child to remain if at all possible with the family are ignored. Case after case we advise on suggest injustices on a worrying scale but legal recourse is being compromised as more and more parents, grandparents and kinship carers are forced to become litigants in person as they are unable to seek adequate legal representation either because the legal aid is not in place or because the huge demand for such services is being met by a dwindling supply of specialised legal practitioners willing to take on this work.
9. The postcode lottery that exists needs to be eradicated from the process so that the dependency on where you reside does not become the determining factor whether a child enters care or receives family support. This not only demeans a child's value but will create irreparable harm in the future when a child reaches adulthood and is made aware of the failures in the system.
10. There is too little emphasis on the discharge of care orders and much more effort needs to be made to encompass this stage as a workable solution is assisting positive outcomes for children in care. Our particular concern relates to the need for complete independent advocacy where the voice of the child is required as too often parents complain to us that their children's views are ignored or changed to reflect the professional's position.
11. The other major concern that works against children been discharged from care relates to contact of the child with parents, family and friends. Reasonable contact as enshrined in the Children Act 1989 is being flouted by local authorities so children often stay in care longer than they should or more worryingly it ensures that children stay permanently in care rather than be returned to their parents or to kinship carers. Lack of contact can have serious consequences for a child as it can be a major factor in deciding whether to discharge a care order.
12. PAIN has noted the results of the recent What Makes The Difference Project which found that children in care who have been moved frequently from placement to placement are nearly three times more likely to be detained in a youth offending institution or prison.
13. Children in care need far more stability and a cap needs to be made on the number of placements a child goes through whilst in care. Stability would also improve if out of borough placements are reduced as this would not only assist children's ties with their families and friends but also free up social work resources. We are aware of round trips of eight hours or more being made by key social workers to carry out their statutory duties of meeting with children in their care. This also impinges on contact with family and friends where distance, time and costs negatively influence reasonable contact.
14. There is an urgent need to end the role of the local authority in assessing children's special educational needs. Councils' dual responsibility of assessing and funding SEN leads to a conflict of interest. We are aware of cases where local authorities have refused additional educational funding for looked after children with SEN and those cases have not been challenged by the corporate parent cases as robustly as the birth parents.
Health and wellbeing
15. PAIN is aware that some children in care are severely disadvantaged by the rigid risk averse procedures that social workers demand. These children do not have the same opportunities as other children to engage in out of school activity which provides character building exercises, skills for social networking, cultural sustenance and sporting encouragement. Bureaucratic procedure means that often such activity is not sanctioned in time or CRB checks are found to be still outstanding. In replicating aspirations of parents for their own children corporate parents must replicate the means to which those aspirations can be achieved for looked after children. It must be accepted that risk averse procedures can also harm looked after children.
16. There is a worrying lack of awareness and understanding by social workers of conditions such as of ADHD and autism in children. We have dealt with many cases that have been judged by social workers as bad parenting of children when in fact ADHD, ASD and other genetic conditions have been diagnosed. As these children represent a large proportion of children in care it is essential that social workers are trained to deal with the needs for such children.
The role of the practitioner (including training and workforce development)
17. There needs to be a substantial culture change within social work practice for the outcomes of children in care to improve. These changes may also have a collateral effect in reducing the numbers of children entering care thus giving them the potential for better outcomes in their lives if the State continues to be a bad parent.
18. The culture change needs to start earlier in the child protection process so that children only enter care as a last resort. Unfortunately our experience is that often children are wrongly removed from parents and carers where there is no evidence of abuse or where proper support to the family as a system would result in there being no need for the child to enter care. Social work practice needs to be overhauled so that family support and kinship care is encouraged. We find that grandparents are overlooked as carers in many cases and there is a suspicion of age discrimination creeping into assessments by social services.
19. The quality of social work needs substantial improvement as we constantly encounter examples of a very poor standard of work, be it in assessments, investigations or court preparation. The proposed social work practices may offer the opportunity for a complete change in culture that will also lead the emphasis away from over management. To work effectively though they must be robustly scrutinised not by the usual professional peers but by "the community" either in a model similar to school governors or a completely new model that will help to improve public confidence in this area.
20. Throughout the professional practices working in the care system, the lack of independence makes it difficult for the outsider to be confident that the children's best interests are being taken into consideration at all times. The state's role as employer or funder of social workers and childcare experts involved in the proceedings can allow for bad practice to continue unabated. The recent Ofsted Report on Cafcass (Ofsted's Inspection of Cafcass East Midlands, January 2008) was the first Ofsted report on a Cafcass region and some of the findings will reflect wider practice nationally. In the experience of PAIN, much of the criticism of Cafcass in this report can be applied to other childcare professionals involved in the system and we can confirm Ofsted's findings in that we have also noted regular references to information in reports on the children as being "unnecessary, inappropriate and [which] made implications rather than explicit evaluations" and that evidence presented did not substantiate allegations or assertions. We have also found many cases where the views expressed were outside the worker's professional expertise, particularly in relation to mental health concerns.
21. Decisions need to be continually scrutinised as there are continuing problems in implementing, monitoring and carrying forward plans for children in care. Accountability is essential for the system to produce improved outcomes for children in care.