The pressure on the care system is showing no signs of easing.
Last month the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) reported that 1,221 care applications were made in April, up 28% on the same period in 2015.
It’s the third month in a row that the volume of new cases topped 1,220 – the highest figures ever recorded.
The causes are myriad. Criticism of the misuse of voluntary care arrangements under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 by Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, as preludes to care proceedings has prompted local authorities to re-examine cases and bring some to court as care proceedings.
Elsewhere the growing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seekers and referrals due to sexual exploitation is further increasing applications to bring children into care.
But there are also quieter, less headline grabbing drivers of the increase at work too, says Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
“There is no single reason or cause for the rising numbers of children in care,” he says. “Our partners, including schools, are better trained and more effective in identifying need and local authorities are continually improving their own assessment work.”
Even though some of the individual factors appear to be short-term, Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas feels that rising care applications are the ‘new normal’.
“Whether this is a temporary spike or the new normal has been the question for something like seven or eight years,” he says. “When something goes on that long it is a bit like climbing a mountain that stops for a bit and you seem to be on a plateau but then the climb goes on.
“All the factors that have lead to increases over the last seven or eight years are still there and so I think it will go on. The section 20 numbers are probably short term but over the last seven or eight years there have been a number of short-term factors that have kept pushing the system up.”
Inevitably the rising volume of care applications is upping the pressure on every agency involved in proceedings. “It’s difficult for everybody,” he says. “When the number increases quite quickly then it means you’ve got a number of simultaneous extra hearings and a number of simultaneous assessments and so on and that’s always difficult.”
Serious case review
The risk is that no-one has the time and resources to do the job properly, says Margaret Payne, policy officer at Nagalro, the association of children’s guardians and independent social workers.
She points to the recent serious case review into the murder of four-year-old Alexa-Marie Quinn as an example of what can happen. Quinn was beaten to death by her father after the court agreed that she should live with him. The serious case review criticised professionals for not challenging a court-ordered report by an independent social worker.
“The independent social worker in Alexa-Marie’s case dealt with a letter of instruction that failed to mention the specific needs of the child,” says Payne. “Why didn’t the guardian look at that more carefully? Why didn’t the local authority legal advisor or the social worker? Why didn’t the judge look more carefully?
“They all failed to say ‘we’re not actually looked at what poor little Alexa-Marie needs here’. That was a failure in detail and in having the time to look at it properly.”
The risk is compounded by a legal system that is under pressure to make big savings.
“Independent social workers are under increasing pressure from the Legal Aid Agency to limit all their assessments to ridiculous limits – 30 hours to do everything – see everybody and write it up,” says Payne.
“I won’t do independent social worker Legal Aid work for that reason. I cannot do what I call a proper job, so I don’t do the work. But there are people who have the financial pressure to take on this work who then either adhere to the time limit and almost inevitably must miss key points or work at a financial loss.”
Judges are also being pressured to make savings and meet the 26-week target for care proceedings set in the Children and Families Act 2014.
So much so that in December 2015 a senior judge at the Central Family Court in London issued a practice directive, since withdrawn, that children’s guardians should usually only be in court to give evidence or to hear the parents’ evidence.
“We challenged him legally on the basis that it was going against the rules,” says Payne. “The judge accepted our point but indicated that he still had to find efficient methods of working to deal with the heavy workload coming through his court.
“We’re being told that our job as guardians is just to go out and do our own assessments and write reports – not to be present and actively involved in hearings because we haven’t got the resources to allow for that.”
The practice directive was also at odds with the Quinn serious case review’s criticisms of the children’s guardian involved in the case, she adds: “The serious case review judged that the guardian had failed to protect the interests of the child, which is the guardian’s duty set down in regulations, presumably by failing to adequately scrutinise the letter of instruction and challenging the assessment of the independent social worker, all of which would have required an active engagement with the court process.”
A further pressure on the entire system is the 26-week target for care proceedings, which Payne fears has come to be seen as an immovable deadline.
“If you talk to judges they will say that if you have got cogent arguments for asking for an extension then they would extend the time,” she says.
“The problem is this basic 26-week ground rule becomes almost like a dogma. Instead of being a flexible statement of best practice or an optimum aim – but merely an aim – it becomes a dogmatic injunction.”
Shoehorning care applications
Douglas also believes that the pressure on the system is such that it may be necessary to adhere less strictly to the 26-week goal. “The constant tension is in terms of the system having enough time to get it right, especially when there’s a 26-week limit that you also have to keep to,” he says.
“Those systems have to be slightly more relaxed about timescales because the dangers of shoehorning massive increases of work of mixed quality into too short a time period is just a recipe for disaster. You simply have to allow a little more slack under those times of great pressure or you are asking for trouble.”
While relaxing the 26-week goal could help ease the current pressure, the real solution is to prevent cases ever escalating to the point where care proceedings are needed.
“The only variable that changes things is more targeted and successful early help provided by local authorities,” says Douglas.
“There is evidence that if you do provide well funded, targeted early intervention services you can stop so much pressure later in the system and support children better, there is a lot of evidence for that now. If the models in the 10 to 20 local authorities that are doing that were rolled out nationally then we wouldn’t have anything like the same pressures.”
“There is a huge problem but also staggering local innovation to try to find the solutions. The Family Drug and Alcohol Court interventions have shown 35% to 40% of children stay at home and the mainstreamed family group conferencing model in Leeds based on restorative practice has also kept the numbers of children coming into the care system down across the city.
“Those are brilliant, brilliant examples of addressing a really complex problem and getting somewhere.”
But there is concern that the government remains focused on adoption as the catch-all solution when it comes to child in care, as signaled by Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent article in the Sunday Times.
“At the moment there’s a real lack of focus and commitment to trying to identify what the issues are in the care system actually are and what is needed to actually address that,” says John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at fostering and adoption charity CoramBAAF.
“You almost get a sense that what the government is saying at the moment is that adoption is the way forward and the rest will improve as a consequence and that’s a nonsense.”
Payne agrees: “What is being ignored here by using the more expensive and complex remedy of adoption is prevention. With all the pressure on local authorities to cut, cut, cut, it’s inevitable that we’re going to end up with more care cases and given that we’ve already got more care cases all one can say is that we need more of everything.
“We need more bodies on the ground to do the work, more individuals with more time to reflect on what they are doing.”