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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)


30 JUNE 2008

  Q420  Mr Chaytor: Is the public law outline programme likely to increase the use of kinship care?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I think it will improve the level of consistency in its consideration. Obviously, authorities where it has been embedded good practice for a number of years have been considering it for a number of years. Those that were lagging behind—there were a few—are now absolutely putting it at the forefront of their thinking. They now need to develop the services and support for those arrangements, because obviously kinship care support can be significantly different from other types of fostering or adoptive support and certainly requires a different level of work prior to placement. It requires a level of specialism, as do all the different systems, but certainly some of that expertise is developing among local authorities.

  David Holmes: I think that what we are seeing through Care Matters is an increasing emphasis on kinship care. Certainly, it was encouraging to see how much it was discussed within Care Matters, but the Government have stopped short of introducing, for example, a national framework for kinship care or requiring local authorities to have a particular set of minimum services for kinship carers. We are therefore seeing developing local practice, but that falls short of a national framework.

  Q421  Mr Chaytor: Are you strongly suggesting that there ought to be a national framework?

  David Holmes: We need to be realistic when talking about what we mean by kinship care. If we are just talking about kin carers who are foster carers, it is a defined, relatively small group of people, but if we are talking about all of the people providing kin care—grandparents and everybody else—we are potentially talking about 200,000 or 300,000 children. It is a huge group, and I think that there would be very significant resource consequences. We need a very careful debate, but certainly we want kin carers, and what they do and provide, to be recognised more.

  Q422  Mr Chaytor: What about the training of social workers?

  Mick Lowe: Yes, kinship care features in the generic degree—particularly on the post-qualification specialism around children. It is one reason why we are strongly in favour of the generic three-year degree, rather than a specialist degree starting earlier, because it helps social workers to understand the relationship with the child in a family and community context. It also helps them to understand adult, as well as child behaviour. Within that generic degree, combined with that post-degree specialism in children, kinship care features a great deal.

  Q423  Chairman: Is kinship care driven by demand from particular ethnic minority communities? Does it become more available because perhaps particular ethnic minorities have more extended families? Does that have anything to do with it, or am I just speculating?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: There is an element of that. Newham, where I am director, is quite a diverse authority. Kinship care is quite a high priority in that authority. I have worked in other authorities where there is less diversity and it has been variable. There is perhaps not enough evidence to create a direct causal relationship, but you are right: diversity certainly increases the demand for kinship care arrangements.

  Q424  Chairman: Does that square with your views, David or Caroline?

  David Holmes: Yes, inasmuch as some communities certainly would strongly recognise kinship care as part of their normal way of caring for children. Some communities do not recognise the legitimacy of adoption, for example, and would support, understand and recognise kinship care much more. So there is that dynamic.

  Q425  Fiona Mactaggart: In looking at the court system, I would like to start with kinship care, because I am concerned about the rights of carers in these relationships, where they might not have had a full responsibility order or a transfer of responsibility to them. That is more likely to happen in kinship care arrangements. I have had concerns mentioned to me by grandparents and others, who are unable to be legally represented because they cannot afford to, for whatever reason, and where there has not been a transfer of responsibility, even if they are actually caring for the children. In such circumstances, they have not got the right to make important decisions about children whose parents are not capable of caring for them. That seems to be made worse by the fact that local authorities now have to pay £4,000 to take a case to court. I suspect you are a bit reluctant to spend that £4,000 when someone is happily looking after the children. What do you think about this and what ought to happen?

  Caroline Little: You have had witnesses from Barnardo's and you heard from Robert Tapsfield from the Fostering Network.

  Q426  Fiona Mactaggart: I am also a constituency Member of Parliament. I am not just citing evidence that has been presented formally to this Committee, although Barnardo's is part of it.

  Caroline Little: Our experience in court is that financial considerations weigh heavily in decision making all the time. A lot of what children's solicitors do is to fight within the court system to obtain the appropriate support for kinship carers. If someone within the family is able to care for a child but does not have the appropriate housing, or does not have funds to do it, a lot of the court process is about arguing—often with reluctant local authorities, I must say—to try to get sufficient support for the child into the future. It takes up a lot of our time.

  Q427  Fiona Mactaggart: How would you change it?

  Caroline Little: I liked the evidence that Robert Tapsfield gave to you: the idea of a separate fund, effectively, to support kinship carers. The lengthy arguments that go on to try to get the correct support waste a lot of time. Consider an aunt, an uncle or a granny being approved as a carer for a child and being entitled to a certain amount of money, resources and support. The support package under the special guardianship provisions allows for that, although I do not know whether we have time to go into that this afternoon, and that assists a lot. But the suggestions about an allowance for kinship carers is helpful. The court process helps kinship carers, because they will often have the benefit of some legal advice. We argue often for local authorities to pay for them to have a session of legal advice so that they know where they stand. They are then brought into the court process and the complexities within the family can be understood and the evidence can be seen. That helps protect the child and helps support them while they are looking after the child in future.

  Q428  Fiona Mactaggart: David and Kim, are you reluctant to spend money on court fees when the children require a decision?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: It is variable. I have worked in authorities where we gave the same level of allowances to kinship care arrangements as we did to any other placement, and also funded aids, adaptations and extensions to property as a result of a kinship care placement, so that does happen. The problem we have at the moment is there is not a national framework for that and it is variable in delivery. Certainly those authorities that I have talked about, where it is embedded practice, tend to pay allowances and treat kinship carers with equity in relation to their other carers. That practice needs developing across the country. There are some advantages to having a framework within which to deliver that. What is the minimum and core entitlement for kinship carers? That would be a helpful approach.

  David Holmes: I agree. Transparency in policy and procedures for kinship carers is really important. Some of the children who are being looked after by kinship carers would, if those carers did not exist, be in care, and we know that the resources expended on children in care are very large indeed, so without doubt those carers are saving the state a considerable amount of money. It is therefore not unreasonable to think about how they need to be supported.

  Q429  Fiona Mactaggart: Do you need extra help to make sure you think about those carers' rights to make decisions over those children's futures? Where there has not been a transfer of responsibility, which there has not always been, sometimes those kinship carers are not allowed to make certain decisions that are important.

  Caroline Little: I did not address that properly. That is one of the areas that we have concerns about when children are accommodated or family placements are made without going though the court process. The court process is required to acquire parental responsibility for a child for a kinship carer, and that process is useful and necessary for kinship carers.

  Q430  Fiona Mactaggart: I am just wondering whether local authorities are reluctant to do that or to get residence orders or whatever in these cases, because the children are living somewhere. Is there a risk—I fear there might be—that with those children it is a case of, "They're sorted. We don't need to worry to get it right"?

  Caroline Little: This is not research evidence but experience. I think there is not the same priority in that sort of case. The children are safe but not always as well supported as they should be.

  Q431  Fiona Mactaggart: Let us take a different kind of case then. I was shocked, in relation to some of our earlier evidence, at the way in which the relationship between parents and social workers can be utterly destroyed by this process. Parents feel that they are disrespected. They lose trust in people whom it is important that they trust. I got the impression from your earlier comments that that was not a picture that most of you immediately recognised, but I bet you recognise it in some cases. I am wondering what more could be done, practically, to prevent the way in which the process is conducted from destroying the prospect of a constructive relationship between the parent and the social worker, which it seems to me it too often does.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: My view, having been a social worker, is that the foundation of your relationship with parents and carers is honesty and good communication. Much of what a social worker does is not necessarily uniformly popular with families, because of some of the decision making that falls behind it, but you need to be honest and communicate, and communicate effectively. I am sure it is true to say, as you said, that there will be cases where that does not happen sufficiently well. Certainly parents and carers need to know where they stand, what they need to do to change the circumstances they find themselves in, and what level of support can be offered to help them with that. That can actually be quite a complex relationship. Sometimes the social worker changes and people covering for others in key decision making arrangements, court cases or other circumstances militates against the process being fully effective. Certainly, there are parts of the country where the level of turnover is high and recruitment is difficult. That makes it difficult to create a sustainable relationship with a family. We need to work hard on dealing with that. If you can develop a sustainable relationship with the family and the young people involved, the outcomes are much better, the relationship is less fractious and there is less tension. That approach is based on good communication and honesty.

  David Holmes: If you look at the statistics and the primary need codes—the key, or principal, reasons why children come into care—one in two children come into care because of allegations of abuse or neglect. After that, it is absent parenting, families in acute stress, and families that are dysfunctional. That probably accounts for 80% of children who come into care in terms of the key reasons why they come into care. There are extraordinarily difficult and complex circumstances that social workers will try to talk about with the families to find out exactly what has happened, negotiate what happens next and work out what is in the child's best interests. We need to recognise the difficulty of the circumstances that social workers are dealing with and the stress that families are under in responding to allegations. It is imperative that there is as good a level of communication as possible between the social worker and the families. The Children's Rights Director has just published a report on social workers' engagement with families. It is certainly worth referring to that report because it talks a lot about what he found while doing the review. This is very difficult territory. Social workers have to work their way through the issues and protect the children involved.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: When talking to social workers and other professional groups involved in children's services, many of them argue that they increasingly spend less time doing direct work with people and more time undertaking assessment and process-orientated work. That puts a strain on the relationship. One of the things you would hope is that there are some positive benefits to interaction with a social worker. Rather than just someone having their child removed, you would hope that some social work goes on in relation to how you live with your family or the circumstances in which you find yourself. Carving out enough capacity for social workers to do that work is critical to the relationship because there have to be advantages to working with a social worker. Working with a psychologist in the special educational needs system is another good example of where the interface and the direct work with the family and the individuals within that family is what makes the difference, in most circumstances, to the relationship that people have with the social worker.

  Q432  Fiona Mactaggart: I am glad to hear you say that because one of the things that I encounter too often is families who are in stress and are not paper people arriving with a massive file of bits of paper. They say to me, "Do you think I'm allowed to show this to you because Cafcass told me that I couldn't share it with anybody else in the world?" One feels that such people lack an advocate and that they do not have a relationship to provide a way through the system. It worries me that we have not constructed that. Although in a short visit you cannot see the whole picture, the thing that I found most striking in Denmark was that I sensed that the decision about the future of children was taken in partnership between a parent and a social services department. I have never met a parent who feels that in Britain—I have just never met one. Such an approach might sometimes be your intention, but I do not believe that is how the process works. It would be utterly wonderful if we could create a system where a substantial proportion of parents—it will obviously never be 100%—felt like that about the system. As we heard earlier, there are parents who are calling out for help with caring for their children and who know that they are not coping and that their children could be at risk. It sounds as if the only way in which they can get help when they are not coping is to say that their children are at imminent risk.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Yes, I agree with you completely. The critical step forward in terms of current Government policy and practice in local authorities is to create a different interface for colleagues who are social workers and for other professionals working with families, while maintaining the safeguarding systems that we have. The professionals who have the skills needed to work with families are not always working with families, while some of the least qualified individuals have the greatest direct contact with families, and we need to address that as we move forward. That does not mean that such people do not have a range of skills, but they are often not the most qualified people in the system. The system of thresholds for intervention by a social services department that was designed by Seebohm is not necessarily the way forward. SureStart is a really good example of that. You do not need a threshold to intervene with a family, and nor does a social worker need a threshold in the real world. There is no reason why we cannot have social workers intervening at the lowest common point, rather than having to go through a threshold. That does not mean to say that we do not need a system that is safe, and we need a safeguarding system, but we need to spread our resources so that that interaction can be positive.

  Q433  Fiona Mactaggart: If you ask any successful business, they will say, "Front-load your capacity. Put some expertise and strength in your sales force, not just in your back office." It seems that social services departments have made sure that the guys making the decisions about thresholds are the best trained and the most expert, but the people out there on the front are those who your lot just about let out or who are still on their placements, Mick—they are not actually the people who are capable of making substantial decisions. Is it time that you perhaps turned things upside down?

  Mick Lowe: As your earlier witnesses indicated, the adversarial system that we face in some of these care proceedings is a systemic issue, and it does not necessarily create the basis for working together. However, I do not know whether the Committee has seen the recent Ofsted report about what parents say about children in care. Interestingly, 74% say that their children do get good care once they are in care, but 76% say that they themselves do not get enough support from the system once their children are in care. So parents say that the care for their child is okay in 74% of cases, but they say that support for them once their children are in care is not quite so good. I have spent most of my life in local government, and the pressures on social services and social work are such that the child becomes the priority, and that is a resource issue as well.

  Q434  Chairman: This is a very rich seam, but we have to talk about adoption. However, I have just a quick question on the back of Fiona's. In Denmark, we saw highly skilled groups of professionals, such as the social pedagogues. They were highly trained and they supported and worked well with social workers. Is there not a gap in our system? The support people in the UK who would do the jobs of the social pedagogues do not seem to be very highly qualified at all. Are they, Kim?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I would argue from a director's perspective that we are desperately trying to shift that balance. That is much of the work of the director, and that is what we are trying to do. However, we still have to keep the system safe. It is not an either/or at this stage—both are required. We still need good-quality safeguarding systems, but you are absolutely right that we need to front-load the system and to have greater access to highly qualified individuals at a universal level. A lot of the strategies around extended services, SureStart and family support development relate to providing universal access to better multidisciplinary—that is the key—arrangements. Family group conferences in many authorities do not wait for the threshold to be applied; it is actually a self-referral, direct access service. I have certainly worked in authorities where if somebody says they have an issue with a young person's behaviour, they will immediately directly access a social worker—they do not have to go through an assessment to access that service. Those arrangements are developing, and they are very similar to the Danish approach. However, you need to do both. At this stage, you cannot do one without the other.

  Q435  Chairman: We are moving on, but let me say one last thing. We noticed that there were a lot of well qualified and sparky psychologists—would it be sexist to say that most of them were female? Is not that a big missing part of what we have? I am not particularly saying that they should be young or female, but that there should be access to that sort of service.

  Caroline Little: That is such a big area that I hesitate to say a great deal about it. Through the changes in the use of expert witnesses, which were referred to by your previous witnesses, the teams of experts that we hope will develop should be accessible to local authorities pre and post-court proceedings. It is one of the hopes that social work teams will have access to whatever advice they need, whether in relation to special educational needs or to psychological or psychiatric help. That development is starting.

  Chairman: As you know, at the end of these proceedings, I always say that this is just the oral session and that we will keep in touch on these issues. Now, we are going to move on, with Sharon and Annette, to adoption. David will be sulking on his way home, I think.

  Q436  Mrs Hodgson: Last year, Ian Sinclair and others published a report arguing that an increase in the number of adoptions is possible and desirable. In practice, do you think that we should be moving towards that, and that adoption should always be the preferred option?

  David Holmes: I do not think that adoption should be the preferred option because I do not believe that there is such a thing as a hierarchy of placements. I do not think that any one placement is any better than another. What is important is what is the right placement for a particular child with a particular set of circumstances. It is important to say that. As for whether adoption could be used more—yes it could. Look at the rate of adoption of children from care: in the late '90s, maybe 2,500 or 2,700 children a year were adopted, but the impact of the Government's adoption reform programme was that the number went up to 3,800 children a year. I think it was Kim who mentioned that there was a drop back down to 3,300 children being adopted from care in the last year for which statistics are available. If you look just at the hard numbers, we are seeing quite a variation in the number of children being adopted from care, year on year, but if you look at the percentage of children from care who are adopted every year, it is pretty consistent at 5% or about one in 20.

  Q437  Mrs Hodgson: Obviously, there is adoption that involves legal separation from the parents, but what about other forms of adoption that do not have that legal separation, such as special guardianship or even kinship care? Do you feel that more should be done to have more special guardianship arrangements?

  Chairman: What about adoption where there are still links with the birth parent?

  David Holmes: My starting point is always what is in the best interests of the child. Adoption is a service that is very much for children. It is about what individual children need. What we know—here, I want to refer to the evidence base—is that as an intervention with children, adoption works. There was a huge study by Van Ijzendoorn and Juffer in 2006—I can give you the reference—which looked at 270 different adoption studies that had been carried out over the years, with a sample of nearly 250,000 adopted children and their parents.[5] It looked at the effectiveness of adoption as an intervention by looking at what it had done in terms of those children's attachment, cognitive development, self-esteem and physical growth. It found that adoption had been shown to work against all those measures. If NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) were looking—as it does with different drugs—at whether or not to recommend adoption as an intervention with children in care it would have to recommend it. That does not mean it is right for every child. The reason why special guardianship was introduced—the policy intention behind that—was recognising that for some children it would not be right to cut the ties legally between the child and its birth parents; what the child needed was security and stability throughout its childhood, but it did not need a complete legal break with its parents. That is why special guardianship was introduced. If there is a kinship carer, the Children Act 1989 is absolutely clear that the first responsibility is to try and keep the child within their family; if you cannot do that you look to the wider kin network. Only if that does not work do you look for stranger carers. I think it is about making sure that we do not allow very strong views about individual types of placement to mean that those placements are not available for children who need them. I think that is what is important. It is about making sure that a child who needs adoption, for whom adoption really is the right plan, can achieve adoption; but what we still see, even today, is many children for whom there is a strong, clear evidenced plan that adoption is the right answer, who cannot achieve it, because either the adopters are not available or, for whatever reason, we cannot achieve adoption of the child, and that is very sad.

  Q438 Mrs Hodgson: It is really interesting that you said the outcomes are better for children who have been adopted; you obviously must have been able to measure that and prove that. Whenever we have been looking at this, especially in Denmark, trying to compare their system to our system and trying to see which one works better, I think it was agreed on both sides that children who enter the care system have worse outcomes than children who do not, and they have twice as many children, as a percentage, entering the care system as we do. So the question is whether we are not bringing children into the care system who should be there, or they are taking in too many. We could not find out whether the outcomes for the extra children they were taking in were better, because they have never measured that, and it would be hard to have a control group. It is interesting how you have managed to get the evidence together that the outcomes for children who have been adopted are better; that is great to hear, but I would be interested in how many of the 5% of children who have been adopted were adopted against the wishes of the birth parents. I think you call that forced adoption. In Denmark they said there had only ever been—was it three?

  Mr Chaytor: Three in five years.

  Mrs Hodgson: Yes, there were very low numbers for what they said was forced adoption, when the child had been adopted against the wishes of the parent. That is not to say that no parents had ever put children up for adoption voluntarily, but where the state intervenes and says "We are taking this child away and severing your legal rights and having that child adopted,"—they never went down that road.

  David Holmes: It is important to qualify the research evidence and say that we know the younger the child at placement the more likely very good outcomes for adoption are. That is important. I do not know, but I suspect, that there have been very few domestic adoptions from care in Denmark, because certainly England, the US and Canada are very different from the rest of the world in terms of our tradition of developing a domestic adoption system. If you look at the number of children who are adopted in England I think it is 10:1 or 12:1 you are more likely to be adopted from the care system than you are to be adopted from abroad. If you look at inter-country adoption in western Europe, there tend to be very few domestic adoptions but very large numbers of inter-country adoptions. Certainly in other Scandinavian countries, I know that there are large numbers of inter-country adoptions. In terms of the number of domestic adoptions in Denmark, we are probably looking at a very small number. In terms of whether or not those adoptions are adoptions with or without consent, under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which is the new adoption framework in this country, we have introduced the concept of a placement order. Essentially there are two routes to a placement order: either through consent with the birth parents or, if there is no consent, if a court determines that a child's needs are such that you have to dispense with the birth parents' consent. Certainly, if you look at the statistics, some birth parents consent, but the majority do not, so the proceedings are much more complex and contested.

  Q439  Mrs Hodgson: So what are the numbers? Of the adoptions in the past year, how many were not with consent?

  David Holmes: I would need to check. I thought you might ask that, so I had a quick look. I think it is about 4:1 between contested and not contested, but I would like to check that.

  Chairman: Four times as many contested as not contested.

  David Holmes: Yes. I think that is right, but I would like to double-check.[6]

5   Note by witness: Van Izendoorn M. and Juffer F. (2006) "Adoption as intervention: Meta-analytic evidence for massive catch-up and plasticity in physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive development" Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 47:12, pp 1228-1245. Back

6   Note by witness: Corrected to 8:1 contested Back

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