Legal expert Ed Mitchell on changes children's teams will have to work under from April
Radical reform of children's services law is coming soon. The changes stem from the Children & Young Persons Act 2008. But they did not come into force straight away and so many working in children's services may have overlooked them. The government has now decided that the changes will come into effect in England on 1 April 2011. This article looks at the top 10 changes for which authorities now need to prepare for.
1 Removal of restriction on cash payments
Currently, section 17 of the Children Act 1989 states that children's services are only permitted to make cash payments to families in "exceptional circumstances". That restriction will be removed by the 2008 Act.
2 Preference for parental placements
Currently, a range of placements with persons closely connected to a looked-after child - such as with parents, relatives or friends - are prioritised over other options. As a result of the 2008 Act, while placements with relatives or friends will continue to be prioritised over professional care, parental placements will become the number one preference. However, an overriding requirement remains that any placement must be consistent with a child's welfare.
3 New placement rules
The new section 23C of the Children Act 1989, amended by the latest legislation, states that in determining the most appropriate placement, an authority will have to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that a placement is neither disruptive of a child's education or training, nor out-of-area. This is in addition to the current rules, for example about co-placement of siblings.
4 Promoting supply of local placements
The new section 22G of the Children Act 1989 aims to ensure good-quality local placements. It will require authorities to take steps to ensure that, so far as reasonably practicable, looked-after children (who are not placed with parents) can be accommodated in the authority's area, if that is consistent with their welfare.
5 Visits by local authority representatives
Councils need to prepare for a programme of formal visits to looked after children. A new section 23ZA of the Children Act 1989 will require children to be visited by representatives of the authority. The nature of the visiting duty, such as frequency of visits, is set out in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. Other regulations extend the duty to other children such as those in youth detention.
6 Independent visitors
Councils will probably have to appoint significantly more independent visitors for looked-after children. Currently, a statutory visitor can only be appointed if a child lacks family visits. But a new section 23ZB of the Children Act 1989 will require an appointment (subject to the child's veto) whenever an authority considers an appointment to be in a child's interests. So the lack of family visits pre-condition will be abolished.
7 More care leavers entitled to services
Designed to assist care leavers who return to education or training, a new category of care leaver has been created. This includes care leavers who were not in education or training beyond their 21st birthday, and subsequently notify their authority that they intend to pursue education or training. They will be entitled to an adviser, a pathway plan, grants and accommodation assistance.
8 Extension of age limit for services
Currently, no leaving care services may be provided once a person becomes 24. This will be extended to 25 under the new Act.
9 Independent reviewing officers
Independent reviewing officers (IROs) will have an enhanced role. A new section 25A of the Children Act 1989 provides that the IRO will review an authority's performance generally, not only looked-after child's statutory reviews.
Additionally, the new care planning regulations provide for IROs to be more proactive in securing a looked after child's rights. For example, there is a lower threshold for referring a child's case to Cafcass to consider whether to bring court proceedings to secure the child's rights.
10 What about Wales?
All of the above provisions of the 2008 Act extend to Wales. However, no order has yet been made to bring them into force in Wales. It is possible that no order will be made. For example, other provisions of the 2008 Act introduced higher education bursaries for care leavers. These came into force in England in August 2009 but have not been brought into force in Wales, which is why care leavers in Wales are not entitled to higher education bursaries.
Ed Mitchell is a solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today
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