The parents who dump their children on councils

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Some parents ask to put children into voluntary care for the wrong reasons. Charging for the service can deter them, but that can create other problems

The question of how best to support families where parents or carers want to put a child in care has long been a challenge to children’s services. There are many valid reasons why children might enter the care system under section 20 of the Children’s Act, whereby children are looked after on a voluntary basis through an agreement between their parents and the council.

These include older children approaching social services because of an abusive home life; a parent’s or carer’s concern that a child’s behaviour is a threat to other family members; parents temporarily being unable to cope on their own, such as during a mental or physical illness; or a parent not having the wherewithal to provide for the complex needs of a child with profound disabilities.

But there will also always be some adults who simply demand statutory services step in and relieve them of their parental responsibilities. It is with this group of parents that some local authorities have now decided to take a tougher stance.

“There are some very self-absorbed, chaotic people that put their needs before their child and sometimes they come to us fed up saying ‘take my child into care’,” says Andrew Christie, director of children’s services at Hammersmith and Fulham, and looked-after children spokesperson at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

“It might not necessarily be that they are abusing the system,” he says. “But it is not appropriate behaviour. We put a lot of effort into looking for alternatives because we know the outcomes for older children in particular entering the care system are often not that good. It can be disruptive if they have to transfer schools or there is placement breakdown. This can have a huge impact on their life chances.”

Many care orders

There are still a great many more care orders than there are section 20 agreements, but the numbers have been creeping upwards. The latest national data shows that in March 2008 18,000 out of a total of 59,000 looked-after children had been voluntarily placed in care, compared with 17,300 voluntary placements the previous year.

Christie believes the reason why care orders outnumber voluntary care arrangements – apart from the surge in care orders post-Baby P – is that the latter has become seen as more problematic. “With a voluntary arrangement it is more difficult to make a long-term decision about a child’s future and, if parents are ambivalent, there is a higher risk of them staying in the care system.

“Social workers also have to be careful to avoid children being caught in a revolving door and need expert advice on the long-term prognosis for a parent if there is an entrenched condition. Social workers are now more likely to go before the courts to have clearer, tighter decision-making.”

Under some circumstances, social services will ask parents for a financial contribution towards their child’s placement. This is an approach that more and more councils now appear to be adopting – or at least seriously considering.

“Charging can be used as a way to remind parents of their responsibilities, and Hammersmith and Fulham would do this under some circumstances,” Christie says. “I suspect charging is being thought of more often, and I do think it needs to be given greater consideration as local authority resources come under greater pressure.”

The financial benefits to councils of charging are marginal because the system can be costly to administer and it needs to be means-tested, with families on income or disability benefits being exempted. It also cannot apply to children on emergency protection or child assessment orders, children in care under interim care orders, or where a child is living with parents under a care order. This inevitably means that many of the families most likely to apply for voluntary care agreements would not be charged anyway.

Legal duties

But with weekly care placement bills amounting to around £600, any contribution or measure to make parents think more seriously about their legal and financial duties towards their children could be worth councils considering.

Conwy Council has become the first in Wales in recent history to introduce a charging policy for its section 20 agreement, although many authorities operated such policies decades ago. The move received cabinet approval in March, following a consultation with service users and social workers, and will start from the end of October. Several other councils in Wales and England are watching the plan closely.

The approach has been influenced by a means-tested parental charging policy introduced by the London Borough of Merton five years ago. Melissa Caslake, head of social care at Merton, describes it as “a way to encourage parents to seriously consider the implications of voluntarily placing their child or children into care, and to ensure that Merton’s social care resources are primarily directed to those most in need”.

David Lewis, policy author and planning and development officer at Conwy, says the numbers of voluntary care placements has increased locally over recent years and is putting additional pressure on social services. “Some parents seem a lot more ready to hand over responsibility for their children,” he says, describing disputes between teenagers and parents as one of the most common triggers for section 20 requests. “It is a frustration among social workers that parents in the heat of the moment immediately request a child is placed in care, often during calls to emergency duty teams. It does have an impact on caseloads and means that some of the preventive work has to be put aside.

“We are trying to get the message across that we have lots of support services we can offer, such as drug and alcohol teams, and we want to work in partnership with them so that children can remain in the family unit where ever possible.”

Lewis freely admits that the policy will impact on only a minority of families, with charges ranging from £118 per week for children aged up to four up to £168 for 11- to 15-year-olds. An audit last year showed that of 50 children accommodated by Conwy under voluntary arrangements, only seven or eight cases would have met the criteria for charging.

Charging parents

However, the idea of charging parents who voluntarily place their children in care has drawn criticism from some quarters. The children’s commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, has warned that if families are deterred by charges, it could lead to more family breakdowns or homelessness.

This is a concern shared by Bridget Robinson, director of children’s services at charity for looked-after children Voice. She says many of the cases dealt with by Voice’s advocacy service involve young people who are desperate to get into care, but have been told they cannot be accommodated by social services. “Voluntary care placements can be a very valuable means of improving outcomes for young people,” Robinson says. “We wouldn’t want to see families at crisis point put off seeking voluntary care placements by charging policies that could put young people at risk.”

Finding the right balance between deterring parents and carers from abdicating their responsibilities and trying to keep them engaged with social services is a conundrum that Andrew Christie thinks needs to be part of a national debate.

“This is a national policy issue and we need a debate about charging and what the alternatives are,” Christie says. “But it should be seen as a small part of a complex picture of meeting the needs of children on the edge of care. It is no panacea and equally we don’t want to deter parents from seeking help.”

This article is published in the 17 September 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Caring or Deterring?

Picture credit: Stephen Elford

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