Delays in resolving the long-term arrangements for children who are subject to Care Proceedings has been a political hot-potato for some time now. The Children and Families Act which came into force in April 2014 sets a time limit of 26 weeks for the conclusion of such cases.
Not content with the changes provided for in the CFA, the government continues to bang the drum of quicker movement for children through the care system and, where appropriate, placement outside of their birth family by way of adoption.
On Wednesday, the Queen announced that in the next Parliament there will be a ‘Children and Social Work Bill’. The primary goal of this proposed legislation appears to be to make adoption an available and viable option in far more cases. To put it another way, the government wants more children in the care system to be adopted, and as quickly as possible.
Ministers have said that the aim is to “tip the balance in favour of permanent adoption where that is the right thing for the child, and drive improvements in the social work profession by introducing more demanding professional standards, and setting-up a specialist regulator for the profession.” The courts and local councils will have to “take better account” of a child’s need for stability when making adoption decisions as part of the changes.
Already stretched local authorities with under-resourced children’s social care departments can expect further pressure to comply with new regulations, although the government maintains that the new law is intended to improve social care standards across England.
Young people leaving the care system will apparently benefit from a new ‘covenant’ to ensure local authorities act as a better “corporate parent” to help them when they make the transition into adulthood and independent living. Care leavers will get the right to a personal adviser up to the age of 25 to help them move into adulthood as part of the overhaul.
The government maintains that this reform is essential as one in four people in prison have been in care.
This is all very well, but the concern must be how the government proposes to square these stated objectives with equally compelling issues which are pulling in the opposite direction.
Considering all the options
In the case of Re B-S (Children)  EWCA Civ 1146 the Court of Appeal stated that cases where adoption of a child was an option demanded “…global, holistic evaluation. This point is crucial. The judicial task is to evaluate all the options, undertaking a global, holistic and multi-faceted evaluation of the child’s welfare which takes into account all the negatives and the positives, all the pros and cons, of each option.”
The President of the Family Division, Sir James Mumby, went on to say: “…Where the proposal before the court is for non-consensual adoption, the issues are too grave, the stakes for all are too high, for the outcome to be determined by rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable and justice thereby potentially denied.”
Many professionals are already concerned that the demands for haste are trampling all over the rights of parents (and, indeed, the child itself) to have a proper consideration of whether a child can remain living with its birth family. Reduced budgets for public services and the problems which many local authorities have in recruiting and retaining high quality social workers only compounds the problem. And that is a problem which is likely to be made worse with the ‘big stick’ approach towards social care departments which seems to be proposed.
There looks to be a very difficult balancing exercise ahead. For parents, the prospect of adoption potentially being a ‘preferred option’ from the outset will be very worrying. For professionals working in this area, hopes for a bit less ‘stick’ and a bit more ‘carrot’ do not seem likely to materialise any time soon.