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

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 involved—it is part of a child's guardian's role in such an event to consider alternative family members—do 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,[4] 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 ago—the public law outline—was 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 concern valid?

  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 at risk.

  Q403  Paul Holmes: Another fear—again, you will say that it is far too early to tell after two months—is 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 be—when 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 care proceedings.

  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 them—because it is a very rewarding area of law—and 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 panel—that the solicitors involved are not doing their job properly, because the job is not well enough remunerated to attract good enough people?

  Caroline Little: I had no difficulty with much of what was said in the written submission by Parents Against Injustice. Indeed I acted for it—for parents—some time ago. I am aware that parents and relatives—this is the particular point in the written submission—have 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 lacking—no 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 into care?

  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 workers—and also involving the Department of Health—will 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 issues—values and training issues—that 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. Since when?

  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 outsider—

  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 not?

  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 stages—prior to or during care proceedings, or even after care proceedings—to 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 feature—I am speaking anecdotally and not from research—is 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 years?

  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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