The potential injustices likely to arise from the Children and Families Act

The government failed to listen to concerns from reputable organisations, creating an Act that is not child-centred, writes Cathy Ashley

houses-of-parliament
Houses of Parliament (Credit: Gary Brigden)

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

6 Responses to The potential injustices likely to arise from the Children and Families Act

  1. Gordon Frew March 20, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    Speaking as an individual who works in Children’s Rights, I am horrified at reading this. I practiced in England for twelve years as a social worker before moving to Scotland in 1998.

    I suppose it fits with the disregard for civil rights that respective governments have cast upon us like a plague. The utter disregard for the rights of parents and children in this leads me to think that it will not be long before it is challenged under the Human Rights Act 98 Article 8 and maybe even Article 6 which would highlight the fundemental nature of the injustice.

    Scotland is not without its flaws that is for sure but this runs so far against what we are trying to achieve, that legislation of this ilk would be unthinkable.

    Mind you, I would have said the same in England in 1990.

    Maybe I have had too many birthdays and am out of touch with the new orthodoxy but where is the dissent in the ranks.

  2. Helen Tomkins March 26, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Our committee submitted to the Baroness Butler Sloss Committee on this legislation when it was going through parliament. We wrote of the harsh experiences of birth mothers who had been coerced into giving their babies for adoption in the last century, simply on the grounds that they were unmarried and, therefore, considered unfit to parent their own children. Many of us are alive today to tell the tale and to ask for our experiences to be taken into account in the current legislation. Like all the contributors mentioned about we have been patronisingly ignored. Many many women are going to suffer as a result of this legislation, as my generation did. Baroness Butler Sloss did submit that she had had submissions from birth parents families. It is truly incomprehensible that so many submissions have been ignored.

  3. Helen Jeffreys March 27, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    When I was a social worker back in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s our first line of enquiry in arranging alternative care for child whose birth parent(s) could not cope was the extended family. It is an obvious solution to keep a child in his/her family of origin and to offer whatever support necessary to the relatives. I believe adoption should always be the last not the first option.

  4. Joe Burns March 28, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

    Thank you Cathy for what appears to be the first honest analysis of the CFA. It would seem obvious to me as an advocate for families, that all of this is driven by Austerity and cutting corners wherever possible. We are also seeing social work being privatised to large corporations and “Care” going to the lowest bidder.

    What I don’t understand about this dysfunctional system why, with over 80,000 social workers working in Child Protection alone, that their professional bodies don’t take a more active role in lobbying government to take back control of their own profession. 80,000 is a lot of votes.

    Social workers complain of high case loads and endless bureaucracy. It’s clear that managers are playing a Numbers Game and that individual professionals are not in control of decisions they make. When it comes to a Fitness to Practice Committee, it’s not the Managers job on the line.

    Individuals who speak out as Whistleblowers rather than an individual who is reporting a problem that needs to be addressed. Why cant people just complain without been seen as a whistleblower or disgruntled?

    It’s not hard to see how the profession is vilified in the public eye and the media. Mistakes and miscarriages of justice are becoming commonplace and the blame should be apportioned to the decision makers.

    Social workers are all “tarred with the same brush” and this will continue until they rescue their profession from the number crunchers and politicians who have hijacked it. The “Nuremberg Defence” has never worked and as long as the profession has no leadership, no lobby and no voice, “the beatings will continue”.

    The CFA is a step back and the profession should organise and have it repealed.

  5. Freda Brodie March 29, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    I am a grandmother fighting to gain custody of 2 children in care in Scotland.

    Whilst I agree that the current system is too drawn out with children in foster care for sometimes 2 years before their future is finally decided allowing them to form strong bonds with paid foster carers, I cannot condone this archaic ruling. Children have a right to be with their family wherever possible. At the moment there is a big drive on to find adopters for children currently in care this problem will only increase if this ruling is implemented. If the system can’t find permanent carers for the children they already have in the system how will it find them for even more children? Something is very wrong.

  6. Sue Gardiner March 31, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    There is a nasty punitve feel to this act – somewhat in keeping with the cruel practices of the 1960s when unmarried (not unfit) mothers were bullied and coerced into signing uninformed consents to adoption. As one such mother, I know that losing a much-loved child in this cruel way results in lifelong grief. Efforts should concentrate on keeping families together for the good of all concerned – most importantly the child.