The Child Protection System in England

Written evidence submitted by Magistrates Association

Select Committee terms of reference

1. Whether the child protection system allows for effective identification of, and early help to, children at risk of different forms of abuse and exploitation (including, but not restricted to: neglect, sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child trafficking and online exploitation);

2. Factors affecting the quality of decision-making in referral and assessment and variations across the country;

3. Appropriate thresholds for intervention, including arguments for and against removing children from their families;

4. Whether the child protection policies and practices of non-social work agencies and Government departments assist professionals to work together in the interests of the child.

i.The Magistrates’ Association, representing the 7000 magistrates who sit in the Family Proceedings Court and deal with the majority of the public law Children Act work and a substantial and rising proportion of the private law work, welcomes this opportunity to make representations to the Committee in response to their inquiry into the child protection system.

ii. We support the need for early identification of problems in families through the child protection system so that appropriate and professional support can be given to vulnerable children to improve their wellbeing, whether this be by focussed work within the family setting or through the care system if removal is the only option. If there was more effective work with families we believe that fewer children would become the subject of care proceedings. We base this on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Act and the view that the risk of significant harm has to be such that that removal from a child’s birth parent/s is the only tenable way to protect that child from future harm and to offer them better life chances.

iii. We support the aims of the Munro Report in complementing the work of the Family Justice Review in improving the quality of social work practice in bringing forward Section 31 applications where necessary. We support the aims of the Family Justice Review in reducing delay in care proceedings such that decisions about children’s futures are made within their timescales rather than those of the system.

iv. We welcome the announcement that the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) is allocating £8.5 million funding on behalf of the Department for Education to help local authorities implement recommendations from the Munro Review of Child Protection and acknowledge the vital specialist support work that it will provide to help local authorities find workable and sustainable solutions to address the recommendations.

Terms of Reference

1. Whether the child protection system allows for effective identification of, and early help to, children at risk of different forms of abuse and exploitation (including, but not restricted to: neglect, sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child trafficking and online exploitation)

Neglect and emotional abuse

i. Magistrates are faced on many occasions with cases of neglect where there has been an extensive chronology of a referral being made, some work being done then the case being closed and for this pattern to repeat itself several times over a period of years and eventually for care proceedings to be sought. During this time children may be bullied at school, may have poor school attendance, may exhibit other behavioural problems where the parent/s fail to engage with services. Olive Stevenson raised the concern that the child protection system was incident-led rather than taking a holistic view looking at patterns of behaviour to assess neglect. Nina Biehal in the study (2011) Caring for Abused and Neglected Children: Making the Right Decisions for Reunification or Long-Term Care by Jim Wade, Nina Biehal, Nicola Farrelly and Ian Sinclair (University of York) says that she was shocked at how long some of the children in the study had been left at home in appalling circumstances, particularly in relation to emotional abuse and neglect. They found that most children had a relatively long exposure to harm before becoming looked after, had experienced multiple forms of maltreatment and a high number of other adversities.

"At this stage there is a need for decisive early intervention and provision of services (identifying written goals, timescales and consequences) in order to support families, and speedier decisions to reduce the likelihood of further damage to children."

ii. There is abundant research, some of which is quoted by Munro, that significant harm is caused at an early stage of a child’s life to their neurological and development pathways if the causes of the distress are not dealt with. One example given by one of our members is the work of Dr Aileen Naughton, Designated Doctor, Safeguarding Children Service, Public Health for Wales:

Effects of removing neglected children at various ages into alternative care but no additional services (Dr Aideen Naughton)

 

 Munro reinforces the need for:

· timescales in the identification of children’s needs

· quality assessments to inform the next steps

· effective help to be provided

We support this analysis and hope that the Family Justice Review’s final report will address these issues.

iii. Physical abuse and diagnosed sexual abuse

Where these concerns are raised, it is our experience that there is prompt action to address these issues for the children concerned. However there is more need for training for social work staff in identifying sexual abuse, eg what happened in Derby children’s homes where the sexual abuse of children in care was not picked up until the police identified the abuse.

iv. Domestic violence

Dr Pamela Towner (2007) has identified the significant harm caused to children where there is domestic abuse in the family: poor attachment, poor neurological functioning, post traumatic stress disorders. The police are key in informing social work staff and health visitors about incidents where children are present, however from case notes and chronologies seen by magistrates it is apparent that not all cases are then followed through as the threshold is set too high, effective and preventive action is not taken and more damage is done to the children in the meantime.

v. Forced marriage

Magistrates do not deal with these issues, they are sent to the designated Care Centres.

vi. Female genital mutilation

If action needs to be taken then this is an issue again for designated care centres

2. Factors affecting the quality of decision-making in referral and assessment, and variations across the country;

i. Please see above regarding neglect and emotional abuse and domestic violence. From magistrates’ experiences, the submission of the Magistrates’ Association to Munro and the University of York report it is clear that thresholds vary across the country. Munro spells out that coordination between agencies working with families is vital but that there is lack of clarity about how to manage and share information, and what the boundary is between what is safe for a child or young person and what has become too dangerous and harmful. Magistrates see evidence for this confusion in the chronologies presented to them in case files from the perspectives of the professionals working for different agencies such as health visitors, teachers and social workers..

3. Appropriate thresholds for intervention, including arguments for and against removing children from their families;

i. We note that that family proceedings courts do not use a separate criteria when considering 'thresholds for intervention' but rely on those used by local authorities/police and then consider these in relation to any challenges which are made in courts.

ii. We consider there is not an appropriate threshold to determine whether neglected children on child protection plans should be removed from their parents. The length of time they are on plan is not monitored by Independent Reviewing Officers,

iii. The threshold used by police officers when taking a child/children into police protection need not be tested for 72 hours by a court. The decision to remove by a police officer is at the police officer’s discretion.

iv. There has been much recent discussion about the value and appropriateness of removing children from their birth parents, witness the remarks of Martin Narey and the ensuing correspondence. The University of York study makes the case from their research for neglected children who have been removed to remain in care:

"Although the care system is rightly criticised for its weaknesses, this study has shown that for many maltreated children it can provide an opportunity for children to feel safe, to re-shape their lives and take advantage of opportunities that had previously been closed to them."

v. We fully support the primacy of the family in bringing up its children with all the necessary support from the local authorities but where families fail their children then the primary concern is the welfare of the child as spelt out in the Children Act., not the welfare of the parents. We are not convinced that the evidence magistrates see before them daily in court demonstrates this principle consistently in practice. The decision whether a child is to remain with its family or be removed must be for the court having regard to all the circumstances.

vi. One major concern of magistrates is whether parents always fully understand the reasons why care proceedings have been brought and what they have to do to demonstrate to the local authority, the guardian and the court that they can provide adequate parenting. A related matter that can be the cause of significant delay (and delay is always regarded as likely to be prejudicial to the child’s best interests) is a late application for members of the wider family to be assessed as potential carers. It is important therefore that a family group conference is held at an early stage to ensure that family members do not hung back out of perceived loyalty to the birth parent/s.

vii. We would support research into the effectiveness of the letter before proceedings and its timing in making an impact on parenting. We heard recently from Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of Cafcass that a pilot project in the Midlands involving guardians at the pre-proceedings stage was showing good results.

viii. Before a case comes to court, it should be clear what assessments need to be done, what the timescale is for the child and whether parallel planning (including adoption or special guardianship) is appropriate in which case the relevant local authority decision making panels should be booked to avoid delay. Courts should be able to expect that such assessments will be part of the initial filing bundle in the vast majority of cases, and that the guardian (able to engage fully with the issues of the case from date of appointment) will provide an independent view of the local authority case and timescales at first hearing.

ix. One of the reasons that cases have come to take longer once in court has been the growth in expert assessments. While there are cases where these undoubtedly assist the court, magistrates have become increasingly concerned with what we might call the ‘multiple children’ cases. These are where we are faced with parents who will have already had several children permanently removed from their care and where on the facts there has been no significant change whatsoever in the behaviours, usually but not exclusively associated with chronic substance abuse, that lead to the removal of their children. Then along comes the fourth or fifth baby, proceedings are instituted and an application made to the court to order further assessments by one or more experts, for example psychologists or Independent Social Workers. We think it is only right that magistrates are prepared to critically examine and challenge such applications particularly where granting of them would adversely affect the child-focussed timetable already in place.

x. Where there are disputes about assessments then the following appeal before Sir Nicholas Wall, the President of the Family Division, Lord Justice Moore-Bick
and Lady Justice Black is relevant (22nd June, reported 15.07.11 - b4/2011/1004/fafmf -  [2011] ewca civ 812) where an appeal against refusal for a 38(6) application for a residential assessment was refused. One of the grounds was the welfare of the child and the detrimental effects to the child of the delay involved. Re B was quoted where Baroness Hale judged that "in many cases the local authority and the guardian should be able to assess the situation and that further or other assessments should only be commissioned if they can bring something important to the case which neither the local authority or the guardian is able to bring". Sir Nicholas Wall also stated that "This court has of course stressed the importance of the hearing of the care proceedings being fair, being Article 6 compliant. However, it is not necessary, for that purpose, to continue to assess parents if the process is not going to contribute anything to the information that is needed for the ultimate decision."

4. Whether the child protection policies and practices of non-social work agencies and Government departments assist professionals to work together in the interests of the child.

i. This section is outside our competence.

November 2011

Prepared 15th November 2011