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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-447)


30 JUNE 2008

  Q440 Mrs Hodgson: I just feel that that is totally different. We picked up throughout all the evidence that we have a punitive relationship towards parents when children enter the care system in comparison with Denmark—I know that we keep mentioning Denmark, but that is where we just been, so it is in the forefront of our minds. Denmark does not have that punitive approach to parents, no matter how bad they have been, or even how abusive their relationship with the child has been. The parent-child relationship is sacrosanct. Someone even said that the parent will always be a parent to the child and the child will always be a child, and that we can never take that away, so we should always leave that relationship there. We have a totally different approach, and I think that we almost punish parents for being bad parents, and we are perhaps quicker to break that link. I am not saying which is right and which is wrong, which is why we are doing this.

  Chairman: Was that a question?

  Mrs Hodgson: Yes.

  David Holmes: If you had a panel of adoption social workers here instead of us, there would be an interesting discussion if they were asked whether, in their professional practice, they positively intend to punish birth parents. I do not think they would say that they do. They try very hard to find the best solution for the individual children involved. The Government have recognised in the adoption support regulations that were made under the new adoption and children legislation introduced in 2002 that birth parents involved in adoption need support. They are entitled to an assessment of their support needs, but there is no entitlement to services, just as there is no entitlement to services for anyone who needs adoption support services. The local authority is required to put in place services for birth parents. I cannot think of a more difficult set of circumstances to be involved in than to be a birth parent when decisions are being made about whether adoption is the right answer. That is incredibly difficult, but I do not believe that social workers are out to punish those parents.

  Q441  Annette Brooke: I am a bit worried about the role that I am being cast in, but we need to ask these questions. How do you respond to the allegations that social workers' decision making has been influenced by targets and, in some cases, by local authorities getting financial rewards?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I completely refute them. The targets were for children in long-term residential care, which was how they were generated. Having worked in and with a number of authorities, local authorities target their energies on young people, whom David has talked about, who have been in residential care for a number of years and for whom local authorities are looking to improve outcomes. Only around 35 local authorities built that into their public service agreement, which was simply because of the inconsistent practice across the country. The general view is that some local authorities were allowing children to stay in long-term residential care for too long without considering adoptive placements. We saw an increase in the number of adoptions from around 3,300 to around 3,800 a year. That approach targeted the group from five to 10 years old, but the rate has fallen back to 2003 levels. I know of no practitioners, and I can think of no managers, who made those decisions based on the ability to recoup money or to hit targets. In fact, local authorities have failed to hit the targets, which suggests that most of them did not put targets to the forefront of their minds. Certainly, the two authorities for which I worked in that period have made decisions based on the welfare of the child, and they were not particularly driven by targets.

  Mick Lowe: Obviously, the GSCC (General Social Care Council) is not engaged in this area, but I have looked-after children statistics in front of me that show an 8:1 ratio of those placed with consent to those placed without consent. Interestingly enough, the numbers and the percentages have declined in the past few years. Performance indicators can affect behaviour across any sector, but one would not necessarily see a marginal decline. If social workers made decisions on a basis other than the best interests of the child or family, it could be deemed to breach their code of practice, which is when the GSCC could get involved.

  Annette Brooke: Can I just throw something else in there?

  Chairman: Hang on a moment. Do you want to hear Caroline on that?

  Q442  Annette Brooke: Yes I do, but I want to throw something else in while people are answering. Annual statistics seem ridiculous, because there cannot be any annual pattern for children being taken into care. Also, there must be some time lags, given what the panel has been saying about how long it takes to get through court. Again, does that weaken the argument for such allegations? Please answer fully, without considering my intervention.

  Caroline Little: There is a time lag, because it takes time to go through the court process. Personally, I have seen no evidence of such alleged behaviour in my practice. The system makes it difficult for a local authority to remove a child through the court system into adoption without justification. There has to be evidence, which must be tested in court, and there is an independent arbiter—a judge—who decides on it. There must be some evidence, and there is a threshold for intervention, namely, the likelihood of significant harm. A care order would not be made without such evidence, and a placement order could not be applied for. The process by which children are removed through care proceedings refutes those allegations.

  David Holmes: The Prime Minister initiated a review into adoption, which reported, I think, back in 2000. In the introduction, he wrote that there is some evidence that adoption is being used as a last resort. The modernisation programme for adoption that the Government introduced was intended to counter the sense that adoption is being used as a last resort. As we know—I talked about it earlier—adoption works. It needs to be present as a placement option for the children who need it and whose circumstances are such that they will particularly benefit from it. That is not to say that it is right for every child. There was also considerable evidence of drift and delay in the care system and an absence of proactive decision making regarding children who would benefit from adoption, which is not in children's interests. The targets, the rest of the adoption modernisation programme, the new legislation and the adoption standards and time scales for the different processes within adoption stimulated a necessary focus on adoption. That has resulted in more children being adopted, delay being reduced, much greater understanding of the need for adoption support and new investment in the system. However, the money that was linked to adoption targets for those local authorities that took out local PSAs recognises that you cannot build up a system without investment. People forget that the Government also put two relatively substantial amounts of money into adoption through an adoption grant, which was used between 2000 and 2003, I think, and through three years of additional funding for adoption support, which was used between 2003 and 2006. That investment recognised that if you are asking people to build up adoption and adoption services within the local authority, frankly it will cost money, because you need to staff it, to create new services and to make it a viable option, if it is an option that you are going to offer children increasingly.

  Q443  Annette Brooke: I want to ask a related question, which is probably for Kim. When there are parents with learning disabilities, do you consider that more use should be made of advocacy to support them either through the fostering process or indeed with open adoption, if that should be the outcome? It seems to me that provision is rather patchy, yet there are all sorts of ways in which you could handle a situation with parents with learning disabilities that would not make them lose contact with their children.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Yes, the key word is "patchy". The picture is inconsistent. My personal view is that, yes, we should look at greater levels of advocacy service not only for young people but for parents generally, as well as specialised advocacy for those parents who have particular needs, such as those with a disability. It is also my view that the type of family support that we might offer around those families to prevent care proceedings is much more complex, because of the range of support needs of the individual parents. My view is that we need to develop those services, of which there should be more. Obviously, however, the key decision is around the long-term and best interests of the child. Balancing those two considerations is exactly the same as in any other circumstances. If we could provide sufficient advocacy support to allow a disabled parent to voice their views, that is absolutely right, because we really do not want to isolate people from the process, even though I know there is some evidence that that is how people feel. On top of that, there would be additional post-adoption support needs for those parents, if we were to go down that route. We need a whole-system approach. We need more advocacy at the start of care proceedings, during care proceedings and in terms of the young person. However, if we go through care proceedings and adoption happens, there is also post-adoption support for birth parent and parents, which needs to be significantly enhanced.

  Q444  Annette Brooke: Caroline, may I ask you the question, because you seemed to react when I put it?

  Caroline Little: Personally, I have dealt with many parents with learning difficulties and the advocacy services are invaluable; good advocacy services for parents with learning difficulties should be universal. The other matter that this Committee should perhaps look at is the fact that there are some residential units for assessing parents with learning difficulties that are under threat because of changes in legal aid funding. One of them is highly successful, and we are very concerned about the loss of that service.

  Q445  Chairman: Where is it?

  Caroline Little: In Kent. It is very effective, and it succeeds where other forms of assessment fail. There is a great concern that that resource will be missing for families in the future.

  Chairman: I think that we shall have to give Paul the last question, on something slightly different.

  Q446  Paul Holmes: It occurs to me that it would be remiss not to ask this panel about the secrecy of family courts. One of the big criticisms is that secrecy works against children and parents, who, we are told, are getting a raw deal. Do we have to have secrecy? What could we do instead?

  Caroline Little: The Ministry of Justice has done a lot of work on that issue. There has been a consultation on the transparency of the family courts, and decisions have been made about what steps to take to open up the courts. We produced a response to that debate on behalf of children, which shared the view of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service young people's board, and many other children, that children do not want their private business open to the public. The family proceedings courts are open in fact, and measures are being taken to produce judgments frequently at every level of court. It is quite a long, ongoing process that relies on the introduction of new IT, and I think that the Committee could learn much from the investigation into that and the work being done.

  Chairman: Does anyone want to come in on that?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: From the local authority perspective, we feel comfortable about working with the Ministry of Justice on that development. Anything that breaks down the perception that we are operating secretly and covertly to make judgments skewed by ideology is not a bad thing. I am quite comfortable, therefore, with a development to create a process that is as open as possible. I am sure that most local authorities would feel the same way. They are certainly quite concerned about the level of criticism based on that perception and the fact that it is very difficult for us to respond, owing to the nature of court proceedings.

  Q447  Chairman: It has been a long session—this is the latest that we have sat for as long as I can remember, but I must ask this question: if there is one thing that we must not miss in our report, what would it be?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: It is on the ability to deliver enhanced family support at an earlier level without going through a threshold, so we can provide preventive services that are early interventions by nature. That way some of the situations in which families become dysfunctional and need high levels of support, or where care proceedings are triggered, might not happen to the same extent. As a colleague said earlier, it is about shifting to a front-loaded system to support that process.

  David Holmes: We must recognise how important families are to children. The relationships that a family have with a child are massively important to that child. However, that must be balanced with the reality that sometimes families are dangerous to children.

  Caroline Little: I endorse what both the other witnesses have said, and add that the Committee should consider the need for advocacy for children outside care proceedings. Generally, children have an effective voice within care proceedings, but outside it, as looked-after children, many of them cannot access other needs, including educational needs.

  Mick Lowe: I want to mention good quality professionals—starting perhaps with social workers—and robust, continuous training to ensure that quality. We also need a process that retains those professionals providing direct services to people who need them, rather than allowing them to be sucked into other more glamorous or higher-paid areas. We need to retain the spark that you might have seen in Denmark.

  Chairman: Thank you, very much. It has been quite a long session. We have gleaned a great deal of information from both sets of witnesses. We do not make up stuff. If we produce a good report, it is because we listen and pick up the points that resonate. Please remain in touch, in case we have more questions or you think, "Why on earth did they not ask us that?".

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