The Children and Families Act, which received royal assent last week, is a far-reaching piece of child legislation that involves a significant shift in the role of the state in family life.
For example, section 2 (fostering for adoption) enables a local authority to place a child with a prospective adopter, without there even having been court proceedings, to consider whether the child should be removed permanently from their parents – and without the parents having had legal advice about their options.
Reflect on that for a moment and you’ll start to realise the potential injustices that are likely to arise as a result. But despite lobbying from us, the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), The College of Social Work and many other organisations of good repute, the government pressed ahead with applying foster for adoption not only to children on a care order, but also those in care with the voluntary agreement of their parents.
Speed over suitability
These include vulnerable parents, including care leavers, who may without advice, consent for their baby to be looked after, for what they may assume will be just a short time.
Currently, family members do not always come forward as potential carers for a child until care proceedings are underway. They may not be aware about the child’s circumstances or they may feel reluctant to jeopardise the parents’ case.
The acceleration of care proceedings arising from the now-statutory 26 week timeframe is therefore likely to result in many otherwise suitable placements with relatives being ruled out, due to the speed of the process rather than an assessment of their suitability.
To address this, we lobbied for there to be a duty on local authorities to identify and explore suitable family options before proceedings are issued, for example through family group conferences. Unfortunately, the government didn’t accept this amendment.
Them and us
I am somewhat baffled as to why there has been such little fuss over such potentially far-reaching reforms. I fear that families involved in the child welfare system have been ‘othered’ to such an extent, that they are deemed undeserving of the rights that families like ‘ours’ assume. But many families contacting Family Rights Group for advice never thought it would happen to them, never thought their daughter would get mixed up in a violent relationship, never thought it would be them having a breakdown and struggling to cope.
It is somewhat ironic that at the same time as politicians were passing legislation that undermines the child’s chances of being raised safely by their families, Supreme Court judges were upholding the importance of the human rights of all children and their families.
This included the principle that to sever such a relationship through adoption is a draconian step, which should only pursued if all other options have been considered and ruled out.
The positive parts of the Act
It would be wrong to portray these significant concerns as indicating opposition to the entirety of the Act. Parts of it are extremely welcome, including the right of children in care to remain with their foster carers beyond 18, improved provisions for adopters and a new framework of support for children with a statement of special educational needs.
Yet at the heart of it is a grave injustice: whereas the Act rightly secures improved support for adopters, including paid leave from work akin to maternity leave, similar help for family and friends carers is missing.
There are around 30,0000 children who cannot live with their parents who are being raised by family and friends carers, most commonly grandparents or older siblings.
The wrong direction
Research shows these children have suffered the same adversities as those who are in the care system or adopted, yet the vast majority of these children and their carers, including special guardians, are left to fend for themselves.
Nearly 40% of family and friends carers are forced to leave their job to take on the children. Three quarters end up suffering severe financial hardship. Significantly, many of the children get no access to help, such as life story work or bereavement counselling.
That these children do better overall than those in the care system is in spite of, not because of, the state. It’s time we created a truly child-centred system in which support for vulnerable children reflected their needs, not their legal status.
Unfortunately, this Act seems to be going in the opposite direction.
- Cathy Ashley is chief executive of the Family Rights Group