How the child protection system under utilises the extended family

For most children, the biggest influences in their lives are their parents and their extended family, writes Cathy Ashley. A child’s family is an important part of their identity, their genetics and often their emotional wellbeing and stability.

Most children, including those subject to child protection plans, live within their family. So families are key to the successful implementation of any such plans.

Even when children enter the care system, 40% stay less than six months and then return home. Partnership working between local authorities and families is therefore critical to the successful protection of children at risk of harm.

Despite this, in many parts of the country, the child protection system ignores the risks and the strengths of the child’s wider family, including non-resident fathers, and instead focuses exclusively on the mother’s home.

In West Berkshire, the children’s services department has tried to turn this around. They have developed a framework for use in child protection conferences to engage practitioners and the child’s family members in considering all safety and protective factors as well as strengths for the child, while also fully exploring the dangers, harms and risks.

Many parents whose children are subject to child protection inquiries feel frightened, isolated, angry and bewildered about the process and the options open to them. Family Rights Group is pioneering professional family advocacy, and there is mounting evidence that such advocacy in the child protection process can strengthen parental participation and partnership working. The result is that parents are better able to address and, where possible, overcome child protection concerns.

We welcome the recognition by government in the white paper Care Matters: Time for Change that family group conferences (FGCs) are “particularly effective” in drawing upon a family’s resources and preventing children going into care. Yet many places in Britain don’t have an FGC service and it is still individual social workers who judge if a family is right for an FGC, rather than it being a child’s right that their family should be entitled to one before care proceedings.

In a survey for the children’s rights director, children in care voted the most important promise that a council could make to a child would be to explore whether there were relatives who could look after them to prevent them going into care – six out of 10 children described this idea as “brilliant”.

Children who can’t live with their parents and live with relatives appear to do as well if not better than children in unrelated foster or adoptive care and appear to be happier and feel well loved despite less state support.

A Bristol University report on placement patterns from 2005 found that 75% of family and friend carers suffered financial hardship compared to 13% of unrelated foster carers, and 35% were in overcrowded accommodation compared to 4% of unrelated foster carers. Yet only 4% of family and friend placements were initiated by a social worker.

Following concerted lobbying, the white paper proposes a new framework for family and friends care. Now it’s time for the government to go a step further and introduce a national financial allowance as part of that framework.

Even when children are in the care system, their families often remain of critical importance to them. Children who can’t live with their parents regard links with their family as important. But more than a third of children in care feel they don’t see enough of their siblings, and nearly half feel they don’t see enough of other significant relatives. That’s why we are pushing the government to amend legislation so children in care have the right to contact with their siblings.

Cathy Ashley is chief executive of the Family Rights Group and will be speaking at the conference below

Further information:
Bristol University’s School of Policy Studies placement patterns report

This article appeared in the 1 November issue under the headline “Children on the edge”

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