The drive to complete care proceedings more quickly under the Public Law Outline has led to “unintended consequences”, like social workers having to complete assessments in a day, research has said.
Some family courts have also set time limits for the disposal of care cases “well below” the 26 weeks required under the PLO, the report published by the Department for Education said.
One court had listed cases to be completed within 18 weeks, with provision to go to 22 weeks if necessary, which had created challenges for social workers to demonstrate their evidence.
However, the focus on improved timeliness introduced by the PLO has the “strong support” of senior children’s services workers, according to a study by Research in Practice this month.
The revised 26-week timescale was introduced in 2014, and the time it takes to complete care proceedings fell from 56 weeks in 2011 to 27.5 weeks by December 2015.
The report, based on 60 interviews with professionals at senior levels of children’s services in 21 local authorities, found the 26-week limit had brought “unintended consequences” to local areas, including social workers being asked to complete assessments “within 24 hours” if family members came forward late in proceedings.
“Some participants noted the unwillingness of courts to allow purposeful delay, contributing to permanence decisions that were followed by reissuing of proceedings within a relatively short timeframe,” the research said.
“This was reported to be creating challenges for social workers and for families’ ability to demonstrate the meaningful and sustained change required.”
The research identified the following factors as being crucial to meeting the 26-week timeframe and complying with the revised PLO:
– Clear, well-structured pre-proceedings practice with mechanisms for quality assurance of assessments and reports and for monitoring the progress of cases.
– Early identification of support for parents and/or identification of alternative family carers, either through family group conferences or family meetings that are well embedded within wider social work practice with the families concerned.
– Undertaking high quality and timely assessment of family members as potential carers.
– Local authorities, courts, Cafcass, private practice solicitors and other agencies sharing responsibility, through collaborative working, towards meeting the 26-week timeframe for completing care proceedings.
The report also highlighted the challenge posed to courts by social work turnover and agency staff, and how some social workers had felt pressured to agree to special guardianship orders.
While social workers’ expertise was “increasingly accepted” in court, there were worries that judges had “varying levels” of confidence in social work analysis and professional judgement.
“Concerns were also raised about judges at times going beyond their remit with regard to specifying the details of care plans, especially when adoption is recommended by the [local authority],” the report said.
The time taken to complete care proceedings had been reduced in all the local authorities which took part, and changes in pre-proceedings practice “were markedly more embedded in some local authorities than others”.
“The reforms and the revised PLO have provided social workers with a clear framework for working with and supporting families, whilst at the same time gathering evidence in the event that care proceedings are issued,” the report said.
The practice of “front-loading” assessments meant evidence was being gathered early in case it went to court and had also helped ensure families had been given adequate support.