Many supervision orders that return children to their parents are breaking down in the long term, an academic study has found.
A briefing published earlier in the summer, part of a wider investigation into the impact of 2014 reforms, which introduced a 26-week timescale on care proceedings, found a quarter of such cases eventually returned to court.
The research, which was conducted in six local authorities in 2009-10 and 2014-15, captured the impact of two much-discussed 2013 court judgments, Re B and Re B-S, which were seen to have raised the bar for adoption.
Numbers of placement orders halved between the first and second parts of the study, with special guardianship orders (SGOs) and supervision orders becoming much more common.
“The change in orders was not planned as part of the [26-week] reforms, not predicted, nor was it based on evidence about ‘what works’ for children,” the briefing concluded. “It related to case law decisions and the uncertainty they caused for local authorities and courts.”
Jonathan Dickens, head of East Anglia University’s school of social work, who co-led the study, said it raised questions about the quality of assessments and courts’ decision-making.
The fact that its two segments occurred before and after the advent of austerity, which has seen both councils and families become harder-pressed and the number of court cases rising, added an extra layer of complexity, he said.
“Courts have to make a decision [within timescales] and it is tough,” Dickens said. “Maybe it’s easier to make a decision for supervision or kinship care, but maybe it’s not always the right one.”
Between the first and second halves of the study, supervision orders – the merits of which came under scrutiny in a recent serious case review – almost doubled, from 11% of cases to 19%.
Variation between the two time periods was “particularly marked” in two local authority areas, the briefing said, echoing earlier findings of marked regional disparities in the orders’ use.
Children subject to standalone supervision orders were the most likely group to have further care proceedings, the research found.
Within the 2009-10 group, 31% of such cases had returned to court within six years; for the later time period the figure had reached 22% of children in just two years.
Dickens said that while decisions to grant a supervision order were rarely straightforward, with judges tending towards caution, a minority of cases examined appeared to feature some “remarkable” outcomes.
“I suppose you have to ask, what is the quality of assessment, and are people saying clearly and strongly enough, “Is this actually likely to work out?” he said. “And are courts listening to the evidence?”
‘We don’t trust you that much’
Within the six areas examined by the study, special guardianship orders also increased markedly, from 15% of court outcomes to 24%.
Many of the newer orders also came with an attached supervision order, indicating concerns over relatives’ ability to care for children. The research found pressure to keep to the 26-week time limit for proceedings had resulted in some “very short timescales” for assessment of kinship carers, a third of which were conducted within eight weeks. This was despite social work managers telling researchers that 12 weeks was the minimum period required for a sufficiently thorough assessment. Some professionals interviewed by researchers expressed frustration and anger at having to rush procedures through.
The rise of the SGO-plus-supervision-order, Dickens said, represented an “interesting legal paradox, handing over the majority of parenting responsibility, and at same time saying, ‘We don’t trust you that much’.
“It reflects a lack of confidence courts have in local authorities’ offering of support,” he said, noting that there appeared to be little practical difference in assistance offered by areas that made greater use of supervision orders and those using more standalone SGOs.
Dickens added that while few orders broke down, the struggles experienced by some special guardians underlined the need for parity of support, including financial support, with adopters.
‘We should be able to say we did our best’
John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at the CoramBAAF fostering and adoption academy, said the new findings illuminated the “complexity of the life-changing decisions” facing local authorities and courts.
“The research is clear that assessing two major changes – halving the time the court has while increasing the robustness of the local authority’s plan – make it difficult for the research team to be confident about what has influenced what,” Simmonds said.
“My concern is this fundamental issue regarding the focus on children and families – what is helpful and necessary and appropriate – and the degree to which the combination of the B and B-S judgments, austerity and the 26-week time limit diverts local authorities and courts from that.”
Simmonds added that questions around kinship carers’ housing, health and financial circumstances remained “huge issues”.
“We should be able to look back in five, 10 or 50 years’ time and say that we did the best for every child in the decision we took,” he said