Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 398-399)


30 JUNE 2008

  Chairman: Will the next group of witnesses join us, please? We have four witnesses in the second group—Kim Bromley-Derry, David Holmes, Caroline Little and Mick Lowe. Welcome and thank you for your time. As you know, we are trying to find out some facts before we write a report on this important subject. I shall hand over to Paul to open up the questioning.

  Q398 Paul Holmes: As was mentioned in the previous session, we have just spent two days in Copenhagen, looking at the Danish system, and we were struck by a lot of things there. They have spent more on child care, supporting parents and better training for the social workers, yet they take twice as many children into care as we do, which is interesting. I want to ask particularly about the quantity of children in the Danish system who were put into care voluntarily by the family—up to 80% or more are in care voluntarily, whereas here it is about a third—and the lengths that the system goes to to keep the families involved, even when children are in care in the long term or have been adopted, although not many are adopted in the Danish system. Is there more that we can do to have a less adversarial system and get parents involved more in placing their children voluntarily into care?

  Chairman: Who wants to open up on that? Perhaps the question could be considered a little more broadly, with introductory remarks cut out, because we are running a little late, as you might have noticed.

  David Holmes: I am happy to talk a little bit about Denmark, because I have some knowledge of the system. It is important to recognise that we need to compare like with like, wherever we can. Yes, Denmark has more children in care per 10,000 of population, but it is a much smaller country than England—there are 11 million children in England and about 1.2 million children in Denmark—and, yes, more children come into care in Denmark through voluntary arrangements, but about two thirds of the children who first come into care in England do so in a voluntary arrangement. When those children have been in care for some time, the local authority moves to take a care order. The other significant difference between the care populations in Denmark and England is that in Denmark it is generally much older than in England. You can go into care in Denmark until about 21 or 22 and the majority of young people or children in care are 10 and over. A big difference is that we have many more younger children in our care system. The final difference is that Denmark uses group care—residential care—much more than we do, with about half of children in group care. I argue strongly that younger children in particular are much better off in families.

  Mick Lowe: Actually, it is not something that is within the jurisdiction of the General Social Care Council. Our concerns are mainly to do with the training and development of social workers. I do not want to make statements outside that general area.

  Q399  Paul Holmes: But from the point of view of training, for example, are social workers encouraged to work with families to look to voluntary arrangements and to use more section 20 voluntary agreements, as opposed to compulsory agreements?

  Mick Lowe: Certainly. The last thing that any social worker wants to do is take a child into care, particularly if it were not done on a voluntary basis. The training for social workers is now degree training, and we are now on the third cohort of social workers coming through a three-year degree. That training focuses on all means to support children other than taking them into care. As I have said, that is a feature of those degree courses in all the higher education institutes that provide degree training.

  Chairman: Mick Lowe, I called you because I thought that you wanted to come in—you were holding up your pen, which I thought was a cue. In the future, perhaps you could catch my eye in another way. Do you want to come in on that, Caroline?

  Caroline Little: Yes. I am a child care practitioner representing children and parents in care proceedings, and I have done so for many years. I baulked at some of the previous comments about the care process, because, although there are problems in individual cases, care proceedings work well as a system of justice. The Children Act 1989 is a well thought out and researched piece of legislation, which, on the whole, has served the needs of children. The quality of representation for children, which is measured by the Law Society children panel, is good on the whole. There are risks, which have been alluded to, funding issues and problems with legal aid. We are a dwindling and ageing population, so there are risks. One of the things that concerns me is the emphasis on voluntary placement outside the family. You have heard from previous witnesses about the injustices in our system, and in my experience care proceedings provide protection against inaccurate allegations against parents. Such proceedings allow parents to be represented in a way in which they are not outside care proceedings, which means that they can challenge allegations and have free legal representation without means-testing. They can challenge social workers' allegations in a court of law and in front of an independent arbiter, and the child has separate representation through guardian and solicitor. If local authorities make inaccurate assumptions or say that a child has been injured, care proceedings on all the matters being considered by this Committee can provide justice for the parents and child.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I work for an organisation that represents all the directors of children's services across the country. We are seeing an increasingly high level of voluntary agreements and arrangements for older young people. Interestingly, the major investment in family support has been for younger children. One of the issues that that raises concerns the level of identification surrounding a family, which we might not have noticed or which might have been hard to reach previously. We are also seeing an increase in the number of children on the child protection register. An interesting debate is going on about whether you are sufficiently protected by being on the child protection register as opposed to brokering a package of family support or entering a voluntary arrangement. It is still early days in deciding on that balance of risk. The legal profession has criticised local authorities for being insufficiently cautious in managing that risk and has suggested that the balance might move in the other direction. Certainly, the number of children on care orders is reducing every year, as is the number of looked-after children as a result of that different level of intervention. We are also increasingly seeing the use of family group conferencing with families with complex needs and arrangements. Social workers rarely act independently, but usually act with a team of colleagues from other professions. One of the checks and balances in the system is that decisions are rarely made independently of other professionals involved with the family. Certainly, the threshold for either care proceedings or voluntary arrangements is discussed in those arrangements around questions such as whether it is possible to put together a package that supports the family. Most social workers of whom I am aware always see putting a package together within the family as their first priority. However, we are in a transitional phase. SureStart is still in its early days, and the evidence on the positive impact of that additional level of family support is not as strong as we would like it to be at this point, although families feel good about it.

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