Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by research in practice (CF 62)

Background to research and practice

1. research in practice is a not-for-profit organisation , part of the Dartington Hall Trust’s Social Justice programme. The focus of research in practice is to build capacity for evidence-informed practice across the children’s sector, working to improve the quality of social work practice and supporting local authorities’ children’s services. We work to identify and disseminate examples of good and innovative practice and, drawing also on up-to-date research evidence in the sector, create new knowledge and an evidence base for effective practice in the children’s sector. A big part of our work is to disseminate this information through network events, a wide range of research publications and products and a range of training for all levels of the system – from ASYE social workers to Lead Members.

2. At present we have 87 partner agencies in children’s services and national children’s charities and we support over two thirds of local authorities in the UK. This means our network covers a wide geographic area, encompassing different levels of resources, needs, practices and priorities. Our work themes are identified in consultation with our Partners.

3. Our work in improving the quality of practice we believe will improve the lives of children, young people and families.

Key messages

4. We support the move to faster timetables in the family court that take account of the timeframes for the chid. However, we would like to see parental substance misuse recognised, alongside mental illness and criminal proceedings, as reasons why family court proceedings may need to be delayed. Current evidence, from both research and practice, points to the effectiveness of intensive, evidence informed and multi-disciplinary approaches that address substance misuse and strengthen and keep families together. These approaches may take longer than the 26 time limit to take effect.

5. The spirit of the Bill limits the use of experts in the family court. This is, in our view, justified as the need to instruct experts is often a cause of delay. We would further emphasise that assessments by appropriately trained, skilled and supervised social workers during proceedings is a way to reduce delay and provide sound evidence for courts to base timely decisions. Research in practice’s work in this area suggests that social workers can provide a significant proportion of the evidence required and we would support further clarification on the Bill to that effect. The issue of social workers training becomes paramount and we would recommend further thought be given to these issues. The increasing role of social workers in the family court is in agreement with the recommendations of the Family Justice Modernisation Programme.

6. Contact with birth parents and/or other family members can be extremely important for the child, and can play a key role in supporting identity, but it must be purposeful, proportionate, and appropriately supported by skilled professionals. Messages from research are that that the levels of parental conflict, the quality of the child’s relationship with non-resident parent before separation, the views and wishes of the child, the wellbeing of the resident parent and the quality of contact supervision and planning are determinants of whether contact is positive for children. We would support a clarification of the Bill to ensure that a decision around contact for each child takes into account the range of conditions affecting children outcomes and is fully based on the evidence available. We believe that the wording ‘child safeguarding and welfare’ is not sufficiently specific.

7. In addition, we would argue that the purpose of contact should be in the interest of the child not due to a perceived entitlement of the birth parent or wishes of adoptive parent. We propose that the Bill should clarify this and not appear to focus solely on adoption (see Explanatory notes in particular).

Sources of the evidence submitted

8. Our main source of evidence for this submission is our network of partners in local authorities, academia and other organisations in the sector. One of the more distinctive ways we collect evidence on a particular area of practice is through Change Projects – a method for collaborative working and co-production of resources through which we work with practitioners and academics. One of our projects ‘Evidence Matters in Family Justice’ was initiated as a response to the challenges social workers in our network faced in using research in their court reports.

9. Our submission regarding the Part 2 of the Bill – Family Justice- draws on this work which has developed significant learning around the social workers’ role in the family court. This knowledge has partly been published as one of our newer resources ‘Evidence Matters’ [1] .

10. In addition, research in practice, in partnership with the Children’s Improvement Board (CIB), is currently running a series of regional seminars focusing on the reforms to the family justice system, promoting evidence-informed practice, supporting social workers to use research to make well-informed decisions and increase their confidence and competence in the court process. These seminars are providing a forum for us to capture thoughts and concerns of social workers, local authority legal teams, heads of service and senior managers in this area of practice. Some of the knowledge gathered here has helped form the basis of our submission.

11. In terms of our submission on contact we based our comments on work we did for our partners recently pulling together messages from research. The current research provides an interesting picture of the conditions that determine whether contact is beneficial and we would encourage the Committee to further consider the evidence.

Detailed information

Part 2 - Family Justice

Clause 13: Control of expert evidence, and of assessments, in children proceedings

12. We welcome the attention given in the Bill to the use of experts on proceedings. There needs to be consideration given to the trade-off between the potential additional evidence provided by expert witnesses with the fact that their instruction may extend timescales and will mean another person will need to be involved with family and child. The use of expert witnesses appears at the moment to be widespread. Cassidy and Davey’s [2] analysis of public law cases closing in 2009 found that expert reports were ordered by the court in 87 per cent of cases, and in 92 per cent of those involving care applications. We do not argue that there is no need for expert reports but there is widespread concern of over-use. In addition, if expert reports are going to be ordered during court proceedings there is a disincentive for local authorities to carry out rigorous assessments and use multidisciplinary experts in their pre-court preparation.

13. We support the shift in culture on how social workers are seen to be able to provide high quality assessment and evidence that the court needs to make decisions in the children’s best interest. We would advocate that better use needs to be made of social worker’s expertise and their in-depth knowledge of the families involved in proceedings, sometimes gained over years of interaction with the family.

14. Views gathered from our network have allowed us to get a good grasp of the areas where social workers have expertise and should be able to provide high-quality evidence. Practising social workers will have trained and practised within different specialisms. Nevertheless, core areas of social work expertise include: child development; parenting; the impact of abuse, neglect and adverse environments; risk and vulnerability; attachment, separation and loss; and capacity to change. Expertise could also be provided by other social workers in the local authority with different expertise and experiences.

15. In general, experts would still be required for injuries, suspected severe mental disorders, severe learning disabilities, potential to benefit from therapy, major disability, risk assessment in serious sexual abuse and violent adults. Recognition of the areas where social workers can provide all the necessary evidence will replace reliance on experts which should be limited to the discrete specialist areas that are truly outside the skills and expertise of the court.

16. However, this shift in working practices within the court is not without obstacles. It is evident that there has been a tendency to instruct experts rather than relying on social workers’ assessments. Anecdotal evidence points to a lack of confidence in social worker’s capabilities and expertise by some members of the judiciary and the quality of some social workers assessments presented to court has been found lacking, with insufficient information being collected or insufficiently analysed [3] .

17. If this clause in the Bill is to be successfully implemented, it requires further workforce development, courageous leadership and properly supported practitioners. Organisational support for evidence-informed practice is essential. Managers and leaders play an important role by setting strategies and expectations, encouraging learning by staff, improving access to research and learning. This will encourage social workers to develop their critical thinking skills and increase their confidence in their own judgement.

18. Serious consideration is particularly needed around workforce development. Our work has found that the use of research, evidence-informed practice and analytical skills must be key elements of social work expertise and should be central to training of both the workforce and students. The first steps to address this have been taken, but much more work is needed. The needs of the sector in terms of training and development, and a focus on the quality of education are essential. This has implications for higher education institutions and training providers.

Clause 14: Care, supervision and other family proceedings: time limits and timetables

19. We strongly support the need to conclude care and supervision cases without delay and setting a time limit to which all parties should work to. There is evidence that very long cases can reduce the options available for the child: the chances of adoption reduce with age, and unreasonable delay reduces the chances of permanency [4] . The importance of avoiding undue delay has rightly been identified as an area where all the professional groups and agencies involved need to improve practice.

20. Experience from practice demonstrates that it is possible for LAs to change procedures to attain the 26 week limit (Tri-borough experience). Further efforts to identify, describe and spread examples of good practice should ensure most local authorities are able to meet the new timetable.

21. However, there are cases where due to the characteristics of the families involved, it is unlikely that the 26 week limit can be adhered to. The Bill documents recognise, for example, a disability or other impairment or the involvement in criminal proceedings as obstacles to the timely completion of proceedings . However, we would argue that a nother factor that is relevant when the court is deciding to extend the time beyond 26 weeks, and which has not been mentioned in the Bill, is in the cases when parents are substance misusers. Addressing and potentially recovering from substance misuse is likely to take longer that the 26 week timetable.

22. Initiatives such as the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) [5] and others are beginning to demonstrate effectiveness in treating substance misuse, reducing costs and keeping families safely together. But such approaches may need to more time to demonstrate effectiveness, through verifying engagement of parents with recovery services, all the way to full recovery. Even though the cases in the FDAC are not short, it does not immediately follow that the potentially extended completion time is detrimental to children timeframe or outcomes. Although it took longer for children to be reunited with their parents, it took less time for FDAC children to be placed in a permanent alternative home. On the delay to reunite children with their parents, the study’s authors state that ‘it could reasonably be argued that this is "purposeful delay", to help consolidate recovery and safe parenting.

23. On a final note, whilst in agreement with the principle of establishing timescales to reduce delay, we strongly caution against adopting a punitive approach to those areas not meeting the timescale. Approaches such as league tables are not proven to be an effective means of improving practice and sustaining high quality and may have a series of undesirable lateral effects – e.g. making wrong decisions regarding the removal of children from their families in the interest of sticking to timetables. It also undermines the principles of the Munro recommendations, whereby professional judgement and increased autonomy are sought. Generally we would support the reduction in timescales but not the increase in prescription, in line with the recommendations of Professor Munro, allowing the system the flexibility that sometimes is necessary to address different needs.

Part 1- Adoption and children looked after by LA

Clause 7: Contact: children in care of local authorities

24. Contact with birth families (including siblings and extended family) is generally beneficial for children and young people. There is a wealth of research, guidelines and practice knowledge pointing out the benefits of contact, which include maintaining family links and promoting a healthy sense of identity, a sense of belonging and potentially providing a basis for support for care leavers. This has led to almost a presumption for contact by court and CAFCASS officers and local authorities [1] .

25. The general view that contact is universally beneficial is not fully supported in research and practice evidence. Contact does not always lead to improved outcomes in terms of placement stability and improvements in the child’s mental health. We would support the need to carefully consider whether contact is beneficial and believe should be promoted in all situations, though it will be important in most. The evidence base needs to be considered regarding not only child protection issues but also the benefits to the child and family.

26. There is value in looking at contact on a case-by-case basis and there is unlikely to be a check-list or one solution to all cases. Messages from research point to a few factors that may affect decisions on contact, including the levels of parental conflict, the quality of the child’s relationship with the parent before separation and, in the cases of private law, the wellbeing of the resident parent [2] . The importance of children’s views and wishes on contact has also been highlighted in several studies [3] .

27. It is particularly important to consider the impact of contact for babies, as this is a crucial stage of development in a child’s life. A baby’s need for stability and routine needs to be weighed against the need for parents to maintain their relationship and demonstrate their capacity to parent their child. Kenrick [4] pointed to the distress caused by contact in some children and Humpfreys and Kiraly [5] highlighted the potential negative effects on development from intensive travelling and multiple people involved to maintain contact.

28. Research findings have particularly highlighted the role of contact arrangements in undermining the safety of women and children when domestic violence is a factor in the family or where abuse has occurred. UK research provides evidence for the various ways in which contact can be the means by which abuse is perpetuated post-separation [6] .

29. It should be noted that not only the characteristics of the child and family determine the success of contact, but also the way contact is managed and supported by professionals. Professionally supervised contact is a limited resource in England and Wales and a lot of contact is either unsupervised or poorly supervised by friends or family [7] . This becomes particularly important in cases where domestic violence and abuse has been a factor.

Clause 8: Contact: post-adoption

30. As for the previous section, decisions around contact should be made on the child’s interests and on a case-by-case basis – not the needs of the adopters to have a clean break, or the rights of the birth parents. Where contact is happening, carers and adopters should be supported to understand the issues it can evoke and to develop strategies for supporting the child.

March 2013


[1] Lewis J and Erlen N (2012) Evidence Matters in Family Justice. Dartington: research in practice .

[1] http://www.rip.org.uk/publications/handbooks?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=133&category_id=4

[1]

[2] 2011

[3] Brandon et al ( 2008 )

[4] Giovanni ( 2011 ); McSherry et al ( 2006 ) ; Selwyn et al ( 2006 )

[5] Harwin et al (2011)

[1] Radford and Hester 2006; HMICA 2005

[2] CRFR Briefing 42

[3] Hunt ( 2003 ) ; Hunt and Roberts ( 2004 ) ; Pryor and Rodgers ( 2001 )

[4] 2009

[5] 2011

[6] Radford et al (1997) ; Humphreys and Thiara’s (2003) ; Stanley et al’s (2010)

[7] Radford and Hester 2006

Prepared 22nd March 2013