by Carolyne Willow
Less than a year since former education secretary Justine Greening added her name to Labour amendments to delete dangerous clauses in the then Children and Social Work Bill, several of the ditched plans have found their way into Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers’ Foster Care Review.
The exemption clauses would have allowed local authorities to opt out of any of their statutory duties in children’s social care. Shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck asked the House of Commons library for a list of the endangered legislation: it ran to 12 pages.
Government motives slowly emerged during the parliamentary passage of the Bill –there had been no Green or White Paper – and we heard that independent reviewing officers (IROs) could be removed from “low-risk cases”; that councils may want to test not having adoption and fostering panels; and social workers may not be necessary for every child in care and care leaver.
In the dying days of the exemption clauses, there was also a suggestion that opt outs could be used to offer respite foster care to older children without them being legally looked after (with the obvious consequence of young people losing their leaving care entitlements).
‘Affect every child in care’
Every one of these reductions in children’s legal safeguards has appeared as recommendations in the Narey/Owers review of foster care.
When it comes to independent reviewing officers, though, the ambition has extended far beyond removing them from “low-risk cases” (a deeply problematic concept anyhow) to their complete demise. A footnote on page 38 calculates that local authorities could save up to £76 million if they got rid of every independent reviewing officer. This would affect every child in care, including those remanded to custody.
Even though their companion ‘call for evidence report’ makes just one reference to IROs, and this is that some respondents called for “improving the role”, Narey and Owers confidently conclude: “We saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing.”
There is no discussion of the unique children’s rights function of IROs in the 51 lines of the report discussing them.
In 2001, the Court of Appeal introduced a radical means of holding councils to account. Starred care plans would have required councils to report on progress and possibly return to court if the child’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) “had been or were at real risk of being breached”.
The mechanism was overturned in the House of Lords the following year, though Ministers went on to introduce a provision in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 requiring councils to appoint a person to undertake children’s reviews, monitor the performance of the local authority and refer appropriate cases to Cafcass.
It is inconceivable that Ministers will seek to remove all three elements of independent scrutiny and safeguarding on the threadbare content of this Review. Since IROs are enshrined in primary legislation, their removal would have to have the consent of Parliament.
I am not suggesting there isn’t a lot of scope for improving the effectiveness of IROs. There is, but there is also solid academic and case study evidence to show the enormous benefits for children of having a highly experienced social work professional holding their corporate parents to account.
Those who followed the Children and Social Work Bill closely will recall the moving case studies submitted by the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) to the House of Commons. The majority of these described actions taken by IROs to stop children being moved against their best interests.
One case study concerned a 13-year-old boy who felt no-one believed his serious complaints about his foster carers. IRO intervention led to the complaints being investigated and the foster carers were deregistered.
On the subject of abuse allegations, the Review rightly recommends carers be properly supported when concerns are raised about them, but makes no comment about care for children during investigations. Further, Narey and Owers state “between one-fifth and one-quarter of allegations are confirmed as involving an act that could be defined as abuse or neglect” [their emphasis], whereas the research they cite actually indicates that in around a quarter of cases (23 per cent) abuse or neglect was confirmed to have occurred.
Narey and Owers refer to all unproven allegations as being “without merit”, yet the research they rely on inevitably shows this to be more complex than that. Data from 85 local authorities, concerning a total of 1,490 allegations, showed 26 per cent to be confirmed and 29 per cent to be unfounded. Insufficient evidence was available or investigations were continuing in the remainder.
Narey and Owers’ choice of words – “an act” – could also be misleading, since proven allegations included physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.
There are other deeply problematic proposals, including that a single social worker could support “the child in placement and would undertake looked after children reviews, personal education plan reviews, and managing contact with the birth family, while continuing to offer support to the foster carers”.
Narey and Owers say this will cut down family intrusion as well as save money for councils; and that it is “irrelevant” whether the social worker is employed by the local authority or an independent provider. At the back of the report, there is an annex which describes the views and wishes of 100 children in foster care consulted by the Office of Children’s Commissioner.
This concludes: “In terms of contact with their social worker, the majority of responses suggested contact with the social worker was ‘not enough’. Many viewed this unresponsiveness as ‘lazy’ and expressed that they would like more contact with their social worker.”
As they so frequently do, children also asked for more contact with their brothers and sisters. Their views on this are also included in the report’s annex: “The majority of young people for whom the question applied indicated that they had too little contact with their siblings.”
Narey and Owers recommend that councils should not presume that keeping siblings who enter care together is in the best interests of the individual children. Professionals are urged to “not shirk offering evidence to the courts about the potentially damaging consequences of contact” with siblings or parents.
At the same time, in relation to former foster carers, Narey and Owers state: “Quite simply, children need to be asked who’s important to them and with whom they’d like to remain in contact.”
They recommend a presumption of continuing contact after a child has moved placement, unless it would not be in his or her best interests. I believe it would be an unforgivable insult to children for public policy to recognise the love, attachment and shared history they have with former foster carers, but not to similarly validate the brothers and sisters they shared their earlier lives with.
Media coverage of the report’s launch has inevitably concentrated on foster carers being able to show physical affection towards babies and children. This is a massive credit to the work of Max Wrigley and A National Voice which started campaigning for children in care to be hugged in 2013.
Article 39 is naturally delighted that Narey and Owers have recognised the value of independent advocacy, so soon after we launched a national campaign with the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium and NAIRO. This has the backing of the current and former Children’s Commissioners for England and nearly 40 organisations.
Last week, we announced our official campaign name – Advocates4U Your future, your dreams, your voice – devised by Heather and Megan from Sheffield Children in Care Council.
The Review recommends that statutory guidance around advocacy be “reinforced”, which is baffling because it is badly out-of-date: it was drafted when children’s social care policy was the responsibility of the Department of Health and advocates worked primarily with children in care.
Now children also receive advocacy support in child protection, mental health in-patient units, prisons and sometimes during education exclusion processes. A fresh look and a national strategy is desperately required and, when this happens, children and young people’s voices, experiences and rights must be all that matters.
Meanwhile, I cannot be alone in wondering why Narey and Owers want children in care to know about their right to advocacy while at the same time recommending the dilution or disappearance of rights protection, which advocates are employed to defend.
Carolyne Willow is Director of Article 39 and a patron of NAIRO. She received the award for Championing Social Work Values at the 2017 Social Worker of the Year Awards.