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 DenmarkI 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 arbitera judgewho 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 knowI talked about it earlieradoption 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
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
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
Q447 Chairman: It has been a long
sessionthis 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
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 professionalsstarting perhaps with social workersand
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?".