Cafcass care application study 2014
that five years on from the tragic Baby Peter Connelly case local authority social workers are making timely and well prepared care applications for children at risk.
The final sample population comprised: 304 Guardians; 391 care applications; and 684 children. The guardians were asked a number of questions:
- Whether the timing of the care application was appropriate, premature or late;
- Whether there was any other course of action which, in the view of the Guardian, the local authority should have taken before issuing proceedings;
- Whether the local authority met the requirements placed on them by the revised PLO; and
- Whether new or updated assessments had been commissioned prior to the making of the application and, if so, whether the assessments were in the child’s best interests.
The key findings of the research were:
- Guardians believed there was no other course of action [than making an application] available to local authorities in 84% of cases.
- In 84% of cases Guardians thought that the local authority had met or partially met the requirements of the revised Public Law Outline (PLO); and in 32% of the cases where Guardians indicated that the local authority had not met the requirements they considered this was appropriate.
- Neglect remains the principal category of concern for children who were, or had been, subject of a child protection plan; and was identified by Guardians as being the principal trigger for care applications where the child was not subject of a plan.
- Guardians considered that the timing of the application was appropriate in 54% of cases.
This was reported by Community Care as very positive:
“It is fantastic news that Guardians consider that, in general, local authorities are bringing the right cases to court, in a timely way and with the cases being well prepared,” Cafcass chief Anthony Douglas said.
Is ‘fantastic’ really the mot juste here?
Failure to consider other options
The most common alternative to care proceedings suggested was further assessment but it is clear that there was a wide range of options the guardians felt had not been explored when they should have been.
Table 3 Category of Guardians’ views on whether an alternative course of action should have been taken
- Further assessment 20
- Family group conference 18
- Temporary kinship placement 12
- Child protection plan 11
- Referral to other services 11
- Section 20 accommodation 6
- Parenting education programme 5
- Respite care 2
Failure to meet the requirements of the PLO
The 84% of cases where the PLO requirements were met or ‘partially met’ masks a very worrying percentage of those cases where the LA had ‘entirely met’ the requirements of the PLO – in only 43% of cases.
The guardians considered failure to meet the requirements of the PLO appropriate in only 1/3rd of their cases.
No letter before action
A letter before proceedings was sent in only 63% of cases. Where a letter was not sent the guardian’s thought this was in the child’s best interests in only 45% of cases. This is an important document which is meant to ‘enable the parents to obtain legal assistance and advice, prior to a meeting with the local authority, the intention of which is either to deflect proceedings or, at least, to narrow and focus the issues of concern’.
Of course, in some situations, such as emergency there won’t be time to send such a letter. However, given that parents often complain they do not understand why the LA is making an application for care proceedings, this seems a significant and unfortunate failure.
It is not clear from the report what percentage of the 37% of cases where no letter was sent were ’emergencies’.
Timing of the application
A significant proportion of applications – 46% – were not made at the right time. 3% the guardians were unsure about, 5% were felt ‘premature’ and 39% were ‘late’. The report comments:
Cases where children were accommodated for extended periods also featured, either under s20 or with unregulated carers, as did cases where the local authority was seen to have delayed between holding legal planning meetings or other pre-proceedings meetings, despite parental behaviours not having changed. In some cases the Guardian simply identified a lack of urgency in bringing the case to court.
A cause for celebration?
The report reveals:
- approximately 1 in 5 cases where the guardians thought the LA had failed to fully consider alternatives to making the application for a care order;
- the majority of all applications (57%) were not fully PLO compliant and this was considered inappropriate in 2/3rds of the non compliant cases;
- a significant proportion of parents didn’t get a letter before action (37%) and in the majority of these cases the guardians didn’t think this was in the child’s best interests; and
- a significant proportion of the applications (46%) were not made at the right time and 39% were made too late.
Community Care are silent as to what exactly was going wrong in these cases, quoting instead Annie Hudson, the chief executive of The College of Social Work.
“These survey results are encouraging. They testify to the expertise and commitment of local authority social workers and guardians to making sure that children’s needs are at the heart of the complex and necessarily finely balanced family justice system decision making process.”
The use of the words ‘fantastic’ and ‘encouraging’ in response to this report are odd. It seems an attempt to put a weirdly positive spin on some not particularly encouraging statistics. The case law couldn’t be clearer. Care plans for adoption must be subject to strict scrutiny and holistic evaluation of all realistic options. How is this requirement met if the guardian thinks there is a hole in the assessment process? If a kinship placement was available? If the parents should have been referred to other services?
We don’t know what kind of care plans these cases involved. We don’t know the outcomes of the proceedings – did the children go home? Kinship care? Adoption? What was the impact on the children and families if they were the nearly 1 in 5 cases where the guardians thought the care proceedings were initiated without proper consideration of the other options? What’s the impact on the children of being part of the 39% of cases where applications were made ‘too late’ ?
Without answers to these questions, maybe the commentators should row back a little from words such as ‘fantastic’ and ‘encouraging’.
There is a need to consider more fully the impact of judgments such as that in Surrey CC v AB and others in 2014 where there was considerable criticism of the ‘systemic failure’ of the LA and the very damaging impact of delay (para 72) and not keeping an open mind about placement (para 74).
This case was decided in March 2014. So time enough for lessons to be learned?