Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)|
30 JUNE 2008
Q400 Paul Holmes: Mick has said that
social workers are trained to regard taking children into care
as a last resort; Caroline and Kim have both said that it is a
last resort, but that the numbers are decreasing. However, we
have pointed out that fewer children are taken into care than
in just about any other western European country. How do we square
that with the evidence from the first panel and what we read in
the newspapers, which imply a quite different situation?
Kim Bromley-Derry: My personal
view is that there are number of cases in which judgments can
be called into question, but I am talking about only a small number
of cases. It would be wrong to build a system based on a relatively
small number of cases. Certainly, there is a problem with training
for social workers. A lot of the initiatives that are being implemented
through Government policy or that use current resources are not
part of social work training simply because they change every
year, and some colleagues are being trained as we speak. That
is a problem. Also, the number of families with whom local authorities
work is increasing, even though numbers in the looked-after children
system are decreasing. There is a lot of evidence that we are
working in a more integrated and coherent way with families. From
my own recent experience, the number of families with whom we
use family support packages has increased by about 40% in the
past two years. Sometimes, those family support packages cost
more than looking after a child, because they are integrated and
multi-disciplinary. There is some evidence that trends are changing
and social workers and their colleagues are changing the way they
practise as a result.
Caroline Little: The threshold
for intervention by the state in families in pretty high. Evidence
from research carried out by Dr Brophy and recently by Dr Judith
Masson on behalf of the Ministry of Justice and the former Department
for Constitutional Affairs in 2005-06 shows that care proceedings
are brought only when things are very serious, so the threshold
is very high. From a child protection point of view, and as regards
ensuring that children are safe, you would not want that threshold
to be any higher. There is historical evidence from the Children
Act 1989 that expert assessments of family members are not often
carried out before care proceedings are taken. That provides parents
with the facility, on behalf of the child, to challenge evidence,
to commission an expert or to put forward alternative plans. If
mechanisms for getting alternative family members involvedit
is part of a child's guardian's role in such an event to consider
alternative family membersdo not operate prior to care
proceedings being issued, that would not be ignored when care
proceedings are taken.
Mick Lowe: I have two points to
make on that. First, to put it in perspective, in the past few
years there have been about 550,000 referrals to social services
involving children across the UK,
and approximately 5,000 cases go through the legal system, which
means that fewer than 1% of referrals go as far as care proceedings.
From the regulatory perspective, it is important that social workers
go through general training or a degree. We fix a minimum number
of hours for post-registration training and learning, and there
are a number of post-qualification specialist courses for social
workers. It is important that we invest in those, which we naturally
do, to ensure that people are kept up to date, certainly given
the changes to which Kim has referred. The post-degree training
is about maintaining quality within social work.
David Holmes: I just want to make
a point about numbers of children in care. It is true, if you
look at the statistics, that over the past 10 years there has
been a gradual increase in the number of children in care, but
there has been levelling off in the past few years. What is interesting,
if you look at the variations between different local authorities
and the number of children coming into care within those local
authorities, is that that may be explained by the recent history
of those local authorities' policies and procedures and by the
services that they have in place. Some local authorities that
have very highly developed support services may be able to use
care less, but in those circumstances they are still managing
a considerable amount of risk to children within the community,
and we should not delude ourselves about that. The needs of children
in different parts of the country are not different; it is just,
maybe, about how they are met.
Q401 Chairman: Come on, David; we
went to Merton, which is quite a challenging borough in London,
where we saw low levels of children in care and the very good
work of the NCH (National Children's Homes) Phoenix Family Project,
"Supporting Families". We were shown a graph that put
the City of London at the top. The graph also showed Manchester,
which is comparable, where there is a much higher level of children
in care. Surely, children in pretty average urban environments
are not that different.
David Holmes: No, but some children
will be in care for 18 years, so if you are looking at differential
rates of children in care, you need to look at what has been happening
in those areas in the past 18 years and what have been the policies
historically. Has there been a long-term push to develop family
support services over 10 years, for example, that has reduced
the looked-after population over time? Or is there a new initiative,
so you find that you already have a very high children-in-care
population? Some of those children will be in care until they
are 18, which is why you should look at the recent history. Past
policies, procedures and decisions are relevant to understanding
how the local care system works and why it might look very different
from the care system next door.
Q402 Paul Holmes: The major change
that was referred to a while agothe public law outlinewas
introduced in the past couple of months. Initially, much concern
was expressed because the local authority has to do all its preparatory
work before it goes to proceedings, rather than starting proceedings
and then doing the preparation. The concern was that that might
lead to more children being left in a dangerous position. Is that
Caroline Little: Yes, it is a
valid concern. The public law outline should not prevent local
authorities from taking emergency action to protect children when
required. That has been made very clear within the guidelines.
With any new procedure, there is a bedding-in process and a learning
process, and it is very early days for the public law outline.
The Association of Lawyers for Children, of which I am co-chair,
has been fairly involved in implementing the public law outline,
and we see it as a very good system to focus social work and local
authority practice. The idea is that when local authorities get
to court, they will have a plan and will know where they are.
They will have been through certain procedures; they will have
looked at family members and alternative support mechanisms; and
court will be a last resort. There should not be any reason why
protective measures are not taken, if required.
Kim Bromley-Derry: Can I add to
that? My particular authority also piloted some work around the
public law outline, and I agree with Caroline that there is a
risk. There is an inherent risk in changing from one system to
another, but we have no evidence on any decisions that would have
been made in emergencies but were not, which is encouraging. The
feedback from social workers and social work managers is that
they are finding it useful to look at the rounded picture within
a case before they enter the court system. They see it as an opportunity
to focus their energies on the work that needs to be done before
they enter court, so it is generally well regarded and seen as
a positive step in the right direction. Obviously, we still look
at casework decisions in emergencies to ensure that we are not
leaving children at risk. We do a case audit fairly regularly,
and my local authority would be no different from any other. Case
audits would still take place in cases where there was an element
of doubt about risk factors to ensure that children are not left
Q403 Paul Holmes: Another fearagain,
you will say that it is far too early to tell after two monthsis
that the local authority has to pick up the full £5,000 cost,
rather than the nominal £150 that it used to pay, so cost
could come in as a factor. The Government will say, "We've
given the local authority all the money," but as we all know,
local authorities have lots of other things to spend their money
on, and they do not always agree that the Government have given
them everything they say they have. Will cost be an issue?
Kim Bromley-Derry: Cost is always
an issue, but I have not seen any evidence that it is changing
the decision-making framework. Local authorities were aware that
that was going to happen, and most of them have built it into
their financial planning. Obviously, cost is one issue, but the
issue for us is whether it reflects on decision making in cases,
and there is no evidence that it has. Certainly, when we talk
to social workers and social work managers, that is not something
that they take into account when making their decisions. It might
be something that I take into account as a director, but it is
certainly not something that they take into account.
Caroline Little: We share some
of those concerns. There has been a significant reduction in the
issue of care proceedings, with a 40% reduction in London. There
is evidence that children are being accommodated in very serious
cases. Good quality child care practitioners are challenging local
authorities to issue proceedings, instead of leaving children
accommodated when they should not bewhen they have broken
bones, when there are unfounded allegations and that sort of thing.
However, the reduction in the issue of care proceedings, if ongoing,
will lead to fears that children are remaining unprotected, which
is a worry.
Kim Bromley-Derry: If I can speak
for my authority of Newham, Newham's perspective is that the amount
of work that we now have to do has led to a backlog in cases entering
the court system. We therefore do a case review in case we need
to intervene in emergency circumstances, so that a child does
not stay at risk. It is still early days, and we are only two
months in, but there is certainly an issue, which has led to a
significant amount of work on a number of cases. From talking
to other directors across London, which is your particular concern,
I think we are likely to see a significant increase in the amount
of activity over the next few months as that work is completed.
Q404 Paul Holmes: Caroline cited
the case of a child with broken bones. Would that not be a case
more for the emergency assessment that Kim has discussed?
Kim Bromley-Derry: It may be.
It depends on the age and the circumstances; it is difficult to
say. The issue for us is whether the child has been left at risk
and whether we should have intervened in an emergency or taken
Caroline Little: From our point
of view, we are finding evidence of children being accommodated
instead of proceedings being issued. It is early days, but the
public law outline pilot has been in operation since September,
so it has been running for several months, and there is still
a significant shortfall in the issue of proceedings.
Q405 Chairman: We want to move on.
It is interesting, because I have never seen two panels of witnesses
who seem to differ so distinctly in their views on one topic.
Caroline, I think that you demurred only once. Did you not say
that the experts in this branch of law are a diminishing band
and are increasing in age?
Caroline Little: Yes.
Q406 Chairman: Why is that?
Caroline Little: Legal aid has
been under severe stress for a number of years. The payment to
child care practitioners has not increased for years, and it has
recently been cut significantly under legal aid reforms. As a
result, the number of young people coming into this area of law
is diminishing, despite our efforts to try and encourage thembecause
it is a very rewarding area of lawand we are an ageing
population. There are very few child care solicitors under the
age of 35, and most are in their 40s and 50s.
Q407 Paul Holmes: Does that then
back up something that we heard from the first panelthat
the solicitors involved are not doing their job properly, because
the job is not well enough remunerated to attract good enough
Caroline Little: I had no difficulty
with much of what was said in the written submission by Parents
Against Injustice. Indeed I acted for itfor parentssome
time ago. I am aware that parents and relativesthis is
the particular point in the written submissionhave great
difficulty getting representation. On the threshold, parents and
children get representation free at source. They do not have to
fill in means tests, but if you are a grandmother, an aunt or
an uncle and you have a disability allowance or anything like
that, it is very unlikely that you will be represented. The courts
are seeing more and more unrepresented parties.
Q408 Chairman: But the general tone
of the first bank of evidence was that all the professions, social
workers, health visitors and lawyers, are lackingno one
seemed to escape. Is it true that across the piece the system
is totally flawed?
Caroline Little: On the legal
process, we have committed children's solicitors. The people who
have stayed through thick and thin tend to be very experienced,
well educated, very interested in the area of law and very keen
to do a very good job for their clients. On guardians, I do not
know how much this Committee knows about the Children and Family
Court Advisory and Support Service, but it has been through significant
changes, and the children's guardian system has also been through
changes. I would not say that all Cafcass representatives do not
represent children's voices. I work with them day in, day out,
and there are excellent children's guardians reflecting the voices
of children and challenging local authorities on a daily basis.
I am sure my colleagues in local authorities agree with that.
Q409 Chairman: But Mick, are poorly
trained social workers terrified and therefore bunging children
Mick Lowe: I do not think that
there is any empirical evidence to support that point on a bigger
scale. I think, as Kim has said, that there may well be exceptions,
and we see those exceptions. There is a three-year degree course
for social workers, which is new, and the third set of graduates
is coming through this year. Interestingly enough, the degree
course has now increased the number of people coming to train
in social work by 22%, which will be a positive thing as it plays
out in the years to come. Hopefully it will also address some
of the shortfalls that local authorities have in recruiting social
workers. It is interesting also that the most popular area of
social work activity, still, for those people coming through training,
is children's services; so there are some positive aspects. Obviously
the work that is currently going on with the Department for Children,
Schools and Families around newly qualified social workersand
also involving the Department of Healthwill hopefully improve
that quality in the years to come. So no, I do not think there
is empirical evidence to support that statement.
Kim Bromley-Derry: From the perspective
of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, we feel
that the current training should be more focused for social workers
who are working with children, and we have made submissions to
that effect. We feel that there are some generic issuesvalues
and training issuesthat need to be picked up in a generic
qualification, but we feel increasingly that children's services
is becoming a far more specialised area of work and that there
should be more focused training in relation to that. I guess the
area for debate is whether that should be part of a degree course
or part of something that is post-qualification training. I think
that we would argue it ought to be both. I also think that the
nature of policy and practice is changing in children's services
significantly and the training needs to reflect that. So I think
that there is room for development in social work training for
children and young people. Whether it should be a separate degree
is a matter of judgment. Our view is that it probably ought to
be specifically targeted. The other thing I would say about social
workers is that I very rarely come across social workers who do
anything other than put a child's paramount welfare at the forefront
of their thinking. Now, whether through the checks and balances
that is influenced to the better, I do not know; I think that
it probably is. However, I do not think that any social worker
comes into the profession without wanting to do the best that
they can; they come in to protect children from risk and to develop
services. I would also say, regarding increases in adoption, that
we do not adopt any more children now than we did in 2003, nationally.
There was an increase over the last three or four years, but those
targets and that finance from the Waterhouse report were aimed
at young people of an older age who are in residential care because
they were languishing in residential establishments. The general
view was that family-based care was better for those children
who were in long-term care. So, most of the public service agreement
and targeting was based on those children in long-term care who
were in residential care, not children who are entering the care
system at an early age. So the growth in adoption and the targeting
of our work has generally been at children between the ages of
four and 10.
David Holmes: I am sure that we
will talk about adoption later. My point was more to challenge
any suggestion that social workers are a maverick group who make
entirely unevidenced decisions about children. Social workers
work within a framework where they have to evidence the assessments
that they make. If they find themselves in the middle of a contested
application for a court order, they will find themselves in court
before a judge, justifying the assessments that they have made
and the judgments that they have come to. This is not a system
without checks and balances, and I think that we do social workers
a disservice if we forget that.
Chairman: We are going to move on, to
the issue of family support.
Q410 Mr Chaytor: May I clarify something
that Caroline mentioned earlier? Caroline, you said that there
had been a 40% drop in the number of cases taken through the courts.
Caroline Little: Since September;
since the public law outline initiative started in London.
Q411 Mr Chaytor: Presumably, a key
factor in that significant reduction has been the greater involvement
of parents and the family in the process at an earlier stage.
Caroline Little: There is no evidence
for that; we do not know what the causes are. The statistics about
the issue of care proceedings throughout the country and in the
initiative area since September are very mixed, and they have
also been potentially influenced by the increase in fees in May.
David Holmes: To support that,
if I may, certainly the British Association for Adoption and Fostering's
legal members have expressed concerns about the number of child
care proceedings that have been commenced. They have also expressed
concerns pretty consistently about the increased court fees. The
reality is that we do not know yet. I agree with Caroline's assessment
about not knowing the reasons for the reduction. That is why it
is so important to make sure that numbers of proceedings are scrutinised
really carefully, so that we are able to say very clearly what
is going on, but it is very early days.
Q412 Mr Chaytor: Is there any evidence
since last September of any increase in risk to the children whose
cases have not been taken through to the courts? There are no
major issues that have arisen in that regard, or no major public
incidents, are there?
Kim Bromley-Derry: Not yet, I
would suggest. Obviously, what we encourage colleagues to do is
to ensure that they audit cases on a fairly regular basis, and
that would be good practice anyway. I think that it is too early
to say exactly what the dynamic is. It may be around delay and
lag in the system, which is certainly true of some places. It
could be the additional cost. At the moment, I do not think that
there is any evidence to say either way.
Q413 Mr Chaytor: Earlier, Kim, you
said that one of the consequences of the change to the procedures
since September is the increasing use of family group conferences.
Why was that not done routinely prior to last September? To the
Kim Bromley-Derry: I was not creating
a causal relationship between the two. I was saying that there
has been an increase.
Q414 Mr Chaytor: No, but this is
one of the requirements of the public law outline reform, is it
Kim Bromley-Derry: Increasingly,
local authorities have been using family group conferences, and
very few have not started to develop that practice before September.
What the outline does is to create a focus for that work, but
I agree, and would argue that it would have been good practice,
and authorities should have been developing their approaches to
family group conferencing before the outline came in.
Q415 Mr Chaytor: To come back to
Caroline, what is your objection to that? Is it not obvious good
practice to involve the family at an earlier stage to keep the
case out of court?
Caroline Little: I do not object
to that. Indeed, in my experience, family group conferencing has
gone on at different stagesprior to or during care proceedings,
or even after care proceedingsto try to find carers as
alternatives to adoption for many years. Something that the Committee
needs to know is that the parents and families who come within
the care system are in the lowest socio-economic range in the
country. Many of them have significant problems and many are very
isolated. One featureI am speaking anecdotally and not
from researchis that there is significant research about
the problems that many parents have and I have already mentioned
that, but I would say anecdotally that many families that come
within care proceedings do not have the support of family members,
and that is why they end up in the care process.
Q416 Mr Chaytor: Coming back to the
40% drop in cases, we have seen figures showing the huge variation
between local authorities in the proportion of children in care,
so presumably there has always been a parallel variation between
local authorities in the proportion of cases taken through the
courts, but has there been any significant change in that since
September? Are the new arrangements impacting differently on different
local authorities, and what does the evidence suggest?
Caroline Little: I am afraid that
in my Association of Lawyers for Children capacity, I have been
trying to find out about that, but the statistics in various parts
of the country have been difficult to come by.
Q417 Mr Chaytor: Is there a formal
process whereby those statistics will be published?
Caroline Little: Yes, there is.
I sit on the ministerial group for reform of care proceedings,
which sits quarterly. Over the past few months we have been asking
for those figures. They should be produced in due course, but
they are not available yet.
Q418 Mr Chaytor: May I ask about
the contact arrangements after care proceedings have taken place?
What is the general view about the adequacy of contact arrangements
and the extent to which the parents are properly involved in agreeing
that? During the previous session, Jean was hugely critical of
every aspect of the system, and I am interested in whether her
criticism about parents' lack of involvement in the decision-making
process applies equally to the decisions on contact arrangements.
Caroline Little: If a care order
is made and children are removed from their family, their parents
retain parental responsibility. They should be called to reviews
and there should be ongoing consultation. I do not think it is
within my remit to indicate whether that always happens. I am
sure that there are problems from time to time. Within the court
process, when moving towards the final hearing, it is part of
the remit of the parents' and the child's solicitor and the local
authority's solicitors to look at contact arrangements if a care
order is made. It is always a question of balancing the risk of
disruption to a long-term alternative placement and whether the
parent is able to support that alternative care. Some contact
arrangements are quite regular, and it happens when parents do
not necessarily have drink, drug or mental health difficulties
that could cause them to disrupt the long-term alternative arrangements.
That is debated very fully within the care proceedings process.
Q419 Mr Chaytor: I have one final
question relating to kinship care. In earlier evidence sessions,
we discussed the exact approach taken to kinship care. On the
training of social workers, I would be interested if Kim or perhaps
Mick could tell us what the consensus is at the moment about the
role of kinship care. Has there been a shift in attitude in recent
Kim Bromley-Derry: Possibly if
we had had this conversation five to six years ago, kinship care
would have had a very low level of consciousness in most social
workers' minds, although it did exist and there were quite good
examples of where it had worked. However, increasingly, local
authorities are setting up specific kinship care teams looking
at a range of kinship care arrangements. Certainly, they now consider
kinship or alternative care arrangements when making decisions
in partnership with the courts. There has been a major change
over the past three to four years, but it is accelerating, and
certainly it has been embedded practice for many local authorities
for many years and for others it is developing practice. That
is the level of inconsistency at the moment.
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