Pre-proceedings work by social workers is being “marginalised” when cases reach court, a council has claimed.
A report by Barking and Dagenham council said the issue was causing delays and contributing to the authority’s failure to meet government timescales for care placements.
“Work undertaken prior to a court hearing in line with good practice, that is, pre–proceedings work expected of social workers, [is] being marginalised by the court. The court then requests further assessments to be done – this is also costly as well as adding delay,” the report said.
The council said judges order extra independent social worker assessments when parents and legal representatives have “questioned the validity” of the pre-proceedings work.
Sarah Phillimore, a family court barrister and trustee of The Transparency Project, agreed with this finding and said “we simply seem to start again in the care proceedings” if parents don’t accept conclusions.
“I do seriously question the value of pre-proceedings work in some cases and have often thought a more sensible and pragmatic decision is just to get it to court ASAP so that assessments are carried out on joint instructions,” Phillimore said.
Data on adoption performance in Barking and Dagenham for 2013-16 showed the council’s average time for a child entering care and moving in with an adoptive family was 721 days – 295 days above the government’s threshold. It took the council an average of 309 days to match a child with an adoptive family, 188 days more than the government’s threshold.
Other factors contributing to the “under performance” included lengthy delays caused by courts requesting further assessments of family members and delays in legal paperwork and social worker reports being submitted, the council report said. More parents were also launching legal challenges to placement orders, it added.
Phillimore said, in her experience, adoption orders were more frequently challenged than placement orders.
“In my first 15 years of practice I saw no challenges to any adoption order. In 2016 I had three contested adoptions. So the parents had been given leave to contest on basis of change in circumstances. It appeared to be the application by prospective adopters to adopt that triggered their challenge.
“I have not been instructed to deal with any challenge to a placement order to date.”
Barking and Dagenham also claimed children’s guardians and courts had been getting “over involved” with decisions.
“[For example] which adoptive family the child should be placed with rather than ratifying the care plan for adoption and allowing the local authority to progress placement,” the report said.
However, Phillimore said she had “never seen any interest whatsoever” in discussing who the adoptive family should be.
“The court’s response has always been – ‘We have no jurisdiction to oversee the care plan once approved’,” she added.
The council spokesperson said: “Courts and guardians regularly want confirmation of how many families might be able to be matched with children before the granting of a placement order.
“Previously a placement order was granted and the family finding was a matter for the local authority – this included children who were considered harder to place. With harder to place children there may not be a family available at the point of granting a placement order.”
The council said it would work with relevant children’s social care teams to improve the early notification of children who may be considered for adoption, and that it had introduced an adoption improvement group to track the performance of all children being considered for adoption.
“As a council which strives for excellence we are committed to improving our adoption performance and placing each child with the right family,” the spokesperson added.