Honor Rhodes celebrates the 20th birthday of the Children Act 1989
I love the Children Act 1989: its creation with cross-party support, its elegant drafting, its very architecture.
Someone with a numerological bent hung important sections on the 7’s, s7 with its welfare reporting, s17 giving us Children in Need, s27 with the duty to collaborate and more, up to s47 with its investigative duty.
I liked the way it took two years to bring it into force. This was sensible as we had to resolve complex legal issues on children’s status, digest volumes of supporting Guidance and a raft of statutory instruments. As one of the newly appointed Children Act Development Officers I helped ready my local authority as we waved goodbye to Wardship, Matrimonial Care and Supervision Orders and stood ready to embrace the new world where the lexicon of everyday life had changed overnight.
Someone very wise decided that the words ‘Custody’ and ‘Access’ were the language of dispute and denial and replaced them with Residence and Contact. Now we were forced to note that Contact rights were for the child not the estranged parent(s).
Wishes and feelings
The child’s eye view of the world is enshrined in the opening section: a court is required to take account not only of the child’s needs but also their wishes and feelings. It takes a very able practitioner to elicit these and to make a faithful report of them.
We had to adjust practice. Children accommodated brought nothing of their parents’ parental responsibility with them, children subject to Care proceedings brought a requirement to share that responsibility, putting paid to the fostercarer who thought it sensible to cut a child’s long hair just before the child’s mother visited.
I always liked Schedule 2 with its amplifications of s17. Rarely in any legislation will you see the imaginative array of holidays, travel and homehelps, and more, identified as some of the services a child in need might require.
It is not perfect, of course. The s17 definition of children in need includes children with disabilities as a group, without thought as to what that would mean to the parents of those children. Well meaning, of course, but not adroit. I regret that we weren’t able to use the Family Assistance Order generally, it might have helped on those rare occasions when parents are resistant to accepting support to change.
But to its critics I say pipe down and get on with using the ’89 Act’s powers and duties to make children’s lives better. Remember or imagine what the Act intended.
For my small part I taught a decade of social work students that this was emphatically not A Children’s Act but THE Children Act; a piece of legislation pertaining, but not belonging, to children and young people. It belongs to us all as a beacon, lighting a path to practice that gives children safety and security, and better still, a voice in the work that is done on their behalf.
Honor Rhodes is Director of Development, Family and Parenting Institute