By Judith Harwin, Bachar Alrouh, Stuart Bedston and Karen Broadhurst
Would you be surprised to find out that children in the North West and North East are more likely to face S31 care proceedings than in any other part of the country?
Would you also be surprised to discover that, in 2016/2017, children in S31 proceedings within the London circuit were approximately 3 times more likely to be made subject to supervision orders than children in the North West circuit?
These findings emerged from a new report published by the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University. It is the first ever study into care demand and regional variation in England.
Its findings build on two studies funded by the Nuffield Foundation at Lancaster University and provide an analysis of all six regional court circuits in England as classified by Cafcass.
They cover the period 2010/11 to 2016/17 and use information derived from the Cafcass electronic case management system. The report contains some important discoveries.
Greater risk of care proceedings
It has found that not only are children in the North at greater risk of care proceedings, but that proportionally the volume of cases is larger there too.
In 2016/17 cases brought in the North constituted 36% of all proceedings nationally, but in population terms only 28% of children live in the North. The regional variations become even more intriguing when the legal orders made by the courts at the end of the proceedings were examined.
Clear regional disparities emerged in the use of care orders and supervision orders. In general, circuits that made high use of care orders made low use of supervision orders and vice versa.
In 2016/17, approximately 47% of children in the North West subject to proceedings were placed on a care order, compared to 40% in the Midlands, 30%-34% for the North East, South West and South East and 28% in London. When it came to supervision orders in 2016/17 the North West had the lowest use of supervision orders at 9%; the Midlands, North East and South West (12% to 14%), and London was highest at 25%. These differences were not just a one-off. They captured continuity in patterns over time.
Special guardianship orders
But there was little variation between the circuits for the other permanency legal order types we examined. The circuits tended to converge in relation to trends in the use of special guardianship orders (SGOs), placement, child arrangement orders and orders of no order.
To take just one example, all circuits showed an increase in percentage use of SGOs over time since 2011 with relatively little variation in 2016/17. It ranged from 19% (the North East, London and the South East) to 16% (North West and South West). Only the Midlands was markedly lower (12%).
What might help explain these patterns of regional convergence and disparity? We suggest that professional cultures may play a critical role in local decision-making in the absence of a strong central mandate (such as for care and supervision orders), whereas there will be greater uniformity when the central mandate is strong. A good example of the latter is the national drive to prioritise family-based placements and to recommend adoption only “when nothing else will do”, as in the R B case.
This policy shift helps explain why SGO usage rose across all circuits whereas the proportion of placement orders declined everywhere.
It is important to emphasize that highlighting differences in decision-making between the circuits is a description rather than a judgement. But it does suggest that risks are weighed up differently in different areas. It also has major consequences for children and their parents as well as significant cost and resource implications for courts and children’s services.
London is the area most likely to use family support options across the board and least likely to use placement and care orders.
The North West is the most likely to place children on care orders and use care orders ‘at home’.
It may be that it is not just risk that is weighed up differently but that the risks posed by the cases are actually different. None of the case features we investigated helped shed light on this question as there was very little variation across the circuits in relation to the basics of age, gender and family size. As Cafcass did not collect data throughout the whole period on ethnicity, it was not possible to investigate its influence.
We conclude that it would be useful to be able to examine a broader range of parental and child case characteristics than was possible in this report to understand variability in professional decision making. The possibility of linking different data sources such as on health, deprivation, domestic violence and housing would also greatly enhance opportunities to provide a much more robust picture of the cases courts are dealing with on a daily basis.
With this kind of information to hand, it would be easier to establish how far professional cultures play a significant part in the legal orders made at the end of the case. Finally, local autonomy may be less determined by professional culture than by the resources and services available to support families at local level. Where these are absent there may be few possibilities to keep children safely within their own or wider families.
Systems are always complex and here we are dealing with professional decision making by local authorities, courts and Cafcass in the context of different socio-economic patterns across the country. Weighing up the relative influence of each factor is difficult but essential for policy and practice.
A good starting point would be for local family justice boards to investigate their own patterns and examine their own local cultures and practices.
An examination of practice at designated family judge level could prove a valuable way of sharing and comparing experiences within the same circuit. Exploration of variations in local authority practice to shed light on pathways to proceedings informed by strategic use of local data on specific topics could provide a robust underpinning to inform, probe and challenge local practices.
Professor Judith Harwin, Dr Bachar Alrouh, Dr Stuart Bedston and Professor Karen Broadhurst work for the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University. Their research is available to download.