We have oppressive system that purports to be about child protection – but parents and children are frightened of us #cpchange2016— CPResource (@C_P_Resource) February 19, 2016
We all know the care system isn’t working. Conference after conference, review after review over the last 20 years tells us so. In 2014 I helped to set up this website, over growing concerns from many lawyers, parents and social workers that the system just wasn’t working. In 2015 I organised the first of three multi disciplinary conferences in 2015, 2016 and 2018 examining why the current child protection system wasn’t fit for purpose.
In February 2016 I attended a conference about more humane social work practice and noted
What kind of society do we want? Is social work about ‘helping’ or ‘fixing’? What’s going wrong, and what can we do about it? The paradox is that we pump enormous amounts of resources into a system that doesn’t seem to be helping – in fact is often terrifying families. There is too much focus on a complex system that ‘investigates’ more than it helps.
A quick review of the posts on this website reveals myriad attempts to analyse and address the problems and suggest solutions since 2015.
In 2015 there was a ‘Solution Finding Conference’ at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre and I attended a conference in Finland to discuss the ‘leap to co-working’ between parents and professionals. I wrote that the system was in ‘continual crisis’.
In 2018 the Family Rights Group published the Care Crisis Review
In February 2020 the Westminster Legal Policy forum keynote seminar
In December 2020 came the report of the Family Justice Board with vague statements of intent such as
…the system needs to be ready to support all vulnerable children and adults who depend upon it, and the greatest need is to ensure that those who need support and safeguarding receive it at the right time. Where appropriate, pre-proceedings work and the extended family network should be used. The priority should be to renew existing good practice within the Public Law Outline and implement a system-wide leadership focus on practice improvement.
In March 2021 we had the President’s Public Law Working Group Report
So what does the latest Review recommend? How likely do I think it is that any recommendations will be implemented or have a positive impact?
The 2022 Review
There are over 70 recommendations including the creation of around 20 new ‘Regional Care Co-operatives’ or RCCs to run and set up new fostering services and commission services from other sectors. Ultimately the Review would like to see all children’s homes managed by the regional bodies. There is a further recommendation for the abolition of the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer.
The Review describes its remit as
…a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care. What we need is a system that provides intensive help to families in crisis, acts decisively in response to abuse, unlocks the potential of wider family networks to raise children, puts lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system and lays the foundations for a good life for those who have been in care. What we have currently is a system increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise. For these reasons, a radical reset is now unavoidable.
Recommendations are made in ten areas
- Helping families
- Keeping children safe
- Making good use of family networks
- Transforming care
- Listening to children’s voices
- Protecting care experienced people from stigma and discrimination
- Moving on
- Helping the workforce be the best it can be
- Making sure the system is focused on children and families
The full report is 278 pages so I am going to comment here on just a few areas and recommendations I think are significant. A primary focus appears to be on recognising and supporting the child’s links to their family and communities. Those contributing to the review expressed the concern – with which I agree -that the system often seems intent on ‘assessing’ rather than helping and parents and children find this confusing and frightening.
There is a recommendation to make ‘care experience’ a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, which seems a good idea. I agree with the following assertion
The disadvantage faced by the care experienced community should be the civil rights issue of our time. Most children in care feel powerless, they are often invisible to society, and face some of the greatest inequalities that exist in England today.
There is a recommendation for a new form of ‘Family Help’ which seems sensible, to replace ‘targeted early help’ or ‘child in need’ work.
The aim of Family Help should be to improve children’s lives by supporting the family unit and strengthening family relationships. This will help children to do well and keep families together, helping them to provide the safe, caring environments that children need.
If concerns escalate, despite the intervention of Family Help an “Expert Child Protection Practitioner” will start to work alongside the Family Help Worker, to provide continuity and to hopefully enable parents to find the process fairer and more understandable.
There is increased focus on maintaining the child’s relationships with wider family. While I agree that the first step should always be to investigate what help the wider family can provide – indeed, this is a statutory requirement, I did find this comment odd
Currently there isn’t enough time spent identifying family members who, with the right support, could either provide full time care, or share care with a child’s parents, whilst the parents work through resolving the problems they’re facing.
That isn’t my experience in court at all – quite the reverse. In all my care cases considerable time is spent on viability assessments of various relatives. It is common for final hearings to be delayed due to the late arrival of a family member. Of course, the Review is looking at how to avoid care proceedings and I assume that this comment is directed at work done prior to the application to court. But my experiences in the court process do show that in the majority of cases where I am instructed, family hep and support is patchy at best – or at worst it was the parents’ experience of growing up within their own abusive families that have left them unable to recognise and implement any template of good parenting. The answer to the current crisis cannot simply be to assume that family ties conquer all. And ‘the right support’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. What is this ‘right support’ and how much will it cost?
A system that is ‘relentlessly focused on children and families’ – as the Review wants it to be – will still have to grapple with the fact that some children face the most serious risks of harm from their own families. This problem of ‘two hats’ in the child protection system will remain; helping to support a family while at the same time gathering evidence about why the family isn’t safe. This is a constant and damaging tension and I think needs more explicit recognition than this Review is willing to give.
Why am I cynical?
I have absolutely no doubt that the Review correctly identifies the problems inherent in the vast expense of care proceedings, which usually come far too late to help cement any positive change and that it makes more sense to spend this money on helping families before they get to care proceedings and supporting familial ties of love and affection. I agree with this comment from the Executive Summary
Without a dramatic whole system reset, outcomes for children and families will remain stubbornly poor and by this time next decade there will be approaching 100,000 children in care (up from 80,000 today) and a flawed system will cost over £15 billion per year (up from £10 billion now).1 Together, the changes we recommend will shift these trends and would mean 30,000 more children living safely and thriving with their families by 2032 compared to the current trajectory.
But to get the new systems approach up and running is going to require a considerable initial cash injection and the returns on this investment may not be seen for many years. The State will have to continue providing a framework of legal support for those parents who face the removal of their children.
The Review suggests the Government should invest £2 billion now “to make Family Help a reality for families now and to keep supporting families in the future.” More training is needed for social workers and other professionals. That is broken down
….achieving this whole system reform programme will require £2.6 billion of new spending over four years, comprising £46 million in year one, £987 million in year two, £1.257 billion in year three and £233 million in year four.
The Review recognises the current crisis in foster care by calling for a drive to recruit 9,000 more foster carers. All of these once recruited, will need to be paid.
I am afraid I think that a cash injection of £2 billion is never going to happen. In the next few years we will see another child protection scandal, where a child is killed, and the cries will start up again about useless social workers and their incompetence and how children at risk should just be removed as soon as possible. We get the child protection systems we are prepared to fund and the quality of social workers we are prepared to respect.
The Review suggests that some of this funding will come from “a one-off payment from the following people to cover the cost of changing the care system: the largest private children’s home providers and large independent fostering agencies. This payment will be based on the profit they have made from children’s social care.”
I am ignorant as to how this will work in practice, how such a levy will be organised or profit calculated and how much money all that will cost. I assume legislation will be needed. Handing over child protection to private profit making agencies was not something that happened without the Government’s knowledge -it was done with their full connivance, in the continuing hopeless and naive (corrupt?) view of many politicians that the private sector is necessarily lean and efficient, rather than focused on profit for a few individuals.
Without doubt the Review is correct to focus on making child protection work well – to make the right decisions at the right time about when investigation is necessary, where support would be the best way to keep children safe, and where a child needs to come into care so that they are safe.
But Social Work is at its foundation about relationships. This is explicitly recognised by the Review
This means giving professionals the time and resources they need to build strong, respectful relationships with children and families.
Relationships take time and skill to build. The Family Help Workers and ‘Expert Child Protection Practitioners’ will not work for free. And to do their jobs effectively they will need time to do them. Making rules about when agency workers can be appointed, is not addressing the reasons why so many expensive agency workers are relied upon – because so many social workers are off work, burnt out from stress.
The current massive strain on the existing system, where social workers routinely have to juggle case loads way in excess of recommended safe levels, suggests to me that – and sadly – this review will join all the others that float about the internet in ghostly recrimination of us all. We have all known for decades what is going wrong. But there seems very little political will and certainly no public money to fix it. As ever, I will delighted to be proved wrong.
Commentary from Article 39 – which sounds a note of caution
“There are thousands of children in care who are living in unregulated properties where there aren’t any carers or consistent adult supervision. Children are being sent hundreds of miles away from their communities to Scotland, and the family courts are inundated with stories of desperately vulnerable children and local authorities who have nowhere for them to go. Children who arrive in the UK on flimsy boats, without parents or carers, are being put by the Home Office into hotels because the care system has been closed to them. In every part of England, our communities have adults in them still struggling to come to terms with childhoods where they didn’t feel loved or that they mattered, and a care system which left them to fend for themselves at the earliest opportunity. The care system, like many other collective endeavours in our country, has been undermined and starved of public funds.
“Against this backdrop, it is heart-sinking that the care review’s principal recommendations are for major structural reorganisation, which will, for years, consume many millions of pounds and the hearts and minds of people who could instead be leading cultural change to put children and their rights at the heart of everything. It is depressing that, yet again, there are proposals to take away legal protections from children, and that the promise of strengthened advocacy services, which exist to make sure children are always heard and their rights defended, has been tied to the loss of other independent roles.
“The review is rightly passionate about the need for fundamental change, and sets out a powerful case for it. There are individual proposals within the review’s report which have the potential to make life hugely better for children in care, particularly for those children whose families can be properly supported to look after them well. But this will be a review remembered for the structural reorganisation of children’s social care, moving people, services, power and funding away from local authorities. At any time, this kind of major structural upheaval would be questionable. When there are children in the care of the state who are living in hotels, bedsits and caravans, it could be an unforgivable distraction.”
Statement from the Children’s Society
Statement from Pause
Patrick Butler in the Guardian