The new looked-after children statistics published by the government last week have highlighted a significantly changing landscape in permanence and care for children in England.
While the total number of children in care has risen again to record levels, there have been some notable changes in the ways in which they are accommodated. The number of children under a voluntary section 20 arrangement has fallen to a seven-year low, as far back as this dataset began. Adoptions have fallen for a second consecutive year after a high in 2015, and special guardianship orders (SGOs) have declined following an almost exponential rise in recent years.
The cause of this flux can be attributed to a push back over poor practice. Experts in adoption and care have attributed changes in adoption and section 20 to major interventions made by judges in practice. This has seen family court chief Sir James Munby setting out clear guidance about how social workers and local authorities should approach these cases.
In Re N, Munby attacked “misuse and abuse” of section 20 arrangements, and issued new guidance for what good practice in this area requires, while in Re B-S, Munby outlined how practitioners should use the balance-sheet approach when considering care proceedings. This followed judicial concern over local authorities recommending adoption despite recurrent “inadequacy” in their analysis.
Concern over special guardianship orders – which emerged during a period of huge growth in their use – prompted a government review which led to regulation changes, introduced in February 2016, to try to better safeguard children and families going through the SGO process.
With these reforms and guidance often being issued amid public scrutiny and criticism, has the fall in section 20 and SGO numbers been caused by a fear of using these interventions? Or has the attention and guidance improved practice and left more children getting the right placement?
Child protection social worker Ryan Wise says the drop in section 20 in particular is “not a surprise”.
“My inclination is that the drops are a result of improved practice following court judgments and practice changes rather than practitioners being uncertain or afraid following criticism of how these options have been used,” he says.
“In my local authority, and others, there is greater scrutiny of the use of section 20 and more thought on this being used properly. There is more senior management and legal team involvement in section 20 cases.
“Special guardianship order assessments are getting better and tighter. Serious case reviews highlighted this and greater understanding of special guardianship orders more broadly has led to this being assessed more rigorously.”
He highlights a good example of how practice has changed which he has seen, which was to have a specialist team and panel oversee initial viability assessments for special guardianship orders, and make decisions about whether to proceed.
“They also go through the agency decision maker, like in adoption, before a care plan is finalised. I think it is a really good move to make sure special guardianship orders are really well managed,” he adds.
Awareness of options
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, has also seen changing practice, as well as increasing awareness among practitioners about what each option available to children does or doesn’t offer.
“I think practitioners are much more aware of thinking about wider family in the first instance, I also think there is an increasing recognition around some of the challenges around adoption and adopters,” Williams says.
He points towards a recent Adoption UK report which showed that more than a quarter of adoptive families are ‘in crisis’, as part of a growing understanding about the complexity of children’s needs and what is required to serve them.
While overall SGO numbers dropped, the number being granted to foster carers was stable, and while Williams still has concerns about them being pressured into applying for the order, he says there have been signs of practitioners accepting a “proper plan” needs to be in place to support them.
“That’s both in terms of ongoing support and access to resources for the foster child and the ex-foster carer and also remuneration. I think we have seen some improvements in those areas,” Williams says.
Return home still the priority
Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering and Adoption, thinks social workers are better considering all available options at the start of the process of determining the most suitable placement. He also points to a third of children in care returning home as a positive sign that practice is not overly focusing on adoption or permanence away from the family.
The hierarchy should always remain the same, which is return home to parents – number one, everything else, pretty much equally, number two, in my mind.”
He says it’s important practitioners aren’t ruling anything out when they begin work on a case.
“Just because a child’s young doesn’t mean long-term foster care isn’t going to be an option, just because a child is seven doesn’t mean adoption isn’t going to be an option,” he adds.
He says family group conferences are happening more often and earlier, and practice is improving as leaders in this area begin to seed out better practice. He cites examples of how Leeds’ children’s services use family group conferencing, and the Family Rights Group’s ‘Lifelong Links’ project, which is piloting a new approach to family group conferencing that includes a family finding model.
“We’re hopefully moving to better SGO assessments,” he says. “Services are now far more aware of the need for an SGO assessment that is comparable with an adoption or fostering assessment because they are making a permanence decision and it needs to be based on a thorough assessment.”
He adds: “The drop in section 20 is a result of arrangements that shouldn’t have been section 20. The level it is at now is the level it should have been at.”
Foster carer recruitment
If the numbers of children leaving care through adoption and special guardianship, or staying in section 20 arrangements, are falling as a result of improved practice, where does that leave the rest of the system to cope with a still-rising care population?
Williams thinks the fostering system is equipped to deal with rising demand, but it needs to work on how it recruits and retains carers.
“I think there is, at the moment, the perception from the public that foster care is short term and it involves someone taking a lot of children into their home. I think we absolutely have to break that stereotype in order to attract potential foster carers who may be interested in foster caring for a single child or sibling group,” Williams says.
He also thinks it’s time to reassess whether resource, which the government has increasingly spent on adoption in recent years, should be more evenly allocated across the whole system as adoption becomes a less likely route for children in care.
“There are more young people in long-term foster care than ever before, and we need to recognise that as a permanent option and make sure the resources and support are there to support the carers, and that is whatever the legal status.”
There also needs to be a discussion about how practitioners – and the government – see the options available to them.
Elvin says the way the statistics are presented by the government is “disappointing” and clearly shows a focus towards adoption just by the sheer “column inches” it receives on the page.
Breaking down barriers
However, he sees an opportunity from the current changing landscape. As decisions regarding orders improve and the numbers of children in each arrangement even out, it creates opportunities to bring down barriers that exist between adoption, fostering and special guardianship in practice that “don’t exist in family life”.
He gives the example of Peterborough, where TACT delivers adoption and fostering services on behalf of the council, and where practitioners have been merged to work as permanence teams.
“The skills adoption teams have are directly applicable to SGO and foster care,” Elvin says, and there is work SGO and fostering teams can share with adoption practitioners. For him, the “holy grail” is for children to return home to their families being managed by permanence teams as well.
Williams feels similarly: “I think increasingly we need to break down this barrier between adoption and long-term foster care. What we know is they are the same children with the same level of need and their carers are likely to need a similar level of support, regardless of legal status, therefore it’s really important that in planning for children resources are allocated according to need and not according to the legal status.”
As Elvin says, these barriers “are in our heads, we just need to get rid of them.”