A senior judge has said social workers are bringing more long-term and persistent neglect cases to court because they lack the resources to prevent them escalating.
In a lecture last week, Lord Justice McFarlane said it was now more common that judges and magistrates were “being called upon to determine whether children should remain with their families or be placed elsewhere” as social workers were “passing the decision making” to courts due to a lack of resources.
McFarlane said cases showing “low-to-medium level cases of persistent neglect” were often a “borderline” decision that comes down to resources.
Guidance on what courts expect
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He said councils were in a difficult position where they cannot leave a potential risk of harm unaddressed, even if it thinks support provided to the family isn’t sufficient, McFarlane said.
“If there was doubt about this prior to the case of Baby P, there is none now. The risk is therefore transferred to the court by issuing proceedings and the case moves on down what might be called the ‘lack of resources tunnel’.
“In such a case the court is faced with an application to remove the child because the resources are not there to support a continued placement at home. The court, despite, no doubt, investigating the alternatives, may find itself hemmed in (in the same ‘tunnel’) by the lack of resourced options, with removal as the only ‘safe’ prospect,” he said.
Adoptions for older children
He questioned the continued use of adoption orders for older children without evidence that it is the best outcome for them.
He said the risks posed to these children include a longer period of trauma as a result of a greater understanding of their life before adoption, the potential access to birth families through social media and a lack of adequate adoption support.
“How is it possible to say that by making adoption orders, particularly in the middle to low range of abuse cases, we are indeed getting the balance right between child protection and the right to family life,” McFarlane said.
Judges receive little-to-no feedback on orders they make, McFarlane highlighted, unless it comes back to court.
McFarlane said there needed to be research on outcomes for children. Without it, it was “impossible” to know that the balance between child protection and human rights – which favours separating families when it is necessary – is justified.
“Data that is available as to adoption “break down” is also unlikely to be of great assistance. My understand is that the concept of “break down” is given quite a narrow meaning,” McFarlane said.
Examples which were not considered a break down included an adopted child being moved into section 20 accommodation and a child’s adopted parents separating. He questioned whether an adoption landscape which may include events like this and unstructured contact with a birth family through social media in a child’s future should still be considered the right decision.
“[It] seems a long cry from the sunny upland of a happy, settled, secure future with a ‘forever family’ which has been the traditional goal of those making adoption orders to date,” McFarlane said.
McFarlane was speaking at the Bridget Lindley OBE Memorial lecture.