Supervision orders unsuccessful in a quarter of cases, research finds

Review of 26-week care proceedings reforms underlines impact of Re B and Re B-S case law and raises questions around decision-making

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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.

‘Unplanned change’

“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.”

‘Remarkable’ decisions

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

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5 Responses to Supervision orders unsuccessful in a quarter of cases, research finds

  1. EJ August 10, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    I’d say a 75% success rate is very high. So why is this being spun as “Many supervision orders that return children to their parents are breaking down”? It’s not only about not enough faith in LAs providing the family support, it’s also about looking at how robust the reasons for removing children in the first place were, otherwise an assumption is made that professionals didn’t get it wrong. When families are put under pressure of losing their children, relatives might come forward to save a desperate situation of cutting of blood ties happening, not having thought through the realities enough. Are any of these children special needs? It might be in some cases about parents not supported with their child’s special needs and the LA deciding that they can’t cope.

    • G August 24, 2018 at 9:02 am #

      Completely agree. By definition a supervision order is a marginal case. The alternative is removing a child unnecessarily: where are the statistics for how many care orders turned out to be overkill?
      Granted, if 90% of supervision orders returned to court, I’d say courts might be ducking difficult decisions, but 25% suggests… What? That the other 3/4s should have seen the children removed?
      We can’t predict the future, so we’re left with a balance of false positives (when we think a child will suffer further harm, but they don’t) and false negatives (when we think it’ll be ok, and it isn’t). Greater accuracy results in fewer of either, but raising or lowering a threshold only shifts the ratio of false-positives to false-negatives. Reducing the repeat proceedings rate to zero would either involve 100% accurate predictions, or a huge number of unnecessary care orders.

  2. Andy August 13, 2018 at 4:48 pm #

    There are number of issues at hand, here…. one of those being the (arbitrary) 26 week time limit that is imposed by Courts. While proceedings did take too long to complete, there was some merit in children remaining on ICO’s before concluding proceedings.

    Now, proceedings usually complete within 26 weeks. However, Courts can and do extend proceedings, in some cases. However, this appears to be ad – hoc with no clear rationale for which cases get extended.

    The 26 week timescale also pushes Courts into finalising care plans at that point, which I would suggest is not within the spirit of the Children Act as Court priorities over-ride the best interests of the child.

    In many cases, LA’s seek removal, but Courts decline to support such care plans as the threshold “for removal” is not met. Yet in making a Supervision Order, they accept the threshold for significant harm is met, but children are then returned, by the Courts to the source of that harm.

    And that presents child care agencies with a huge task as the children are in the care of parents 24/7, when support services are mainly available between the hours of 9 and 5, which equates roughly to 25% of the total hours in a week.

    There are numerous examples of Children’s Guardians and Courts insisting that proceedings conclude with either a Care Order or Supervision Order in place when children are placed with relatives and grandparents without evidencing a threshold of significant harm in the care of those relatives.

    We deal with the human condition, which is complex, fragile, unpredictable and infinitely variable and parents who are often less than open and honest (for many reasons, not all of them bad)and would rather statutory agencies go away and leave them alone.

    Interesting that the strap line focuses on the high rate of failure, rather than what many would see as a high rate of success.

  3. sw111 August 14, 2018 at 11:33 pm #

    Previously it was considered that Supervision Order was not of much value but recently with the granting of Special Guardianship Order, it is becoming a common occurrence with court and sometimes the guardians insist (which is resisted by some local authorities) that SO should accompany SGOs. Sometimes the guardians do not have confidence in the assessment and support plan proposed by LA and they wish to add on SO.
    If the assessment is robust and support plan comprehensive, I am unsure what SO can achieve. However, there are some cases where SO is imperative when the children are placed in another receiving local authority that has not had much involvement to understand the complexity of the case. In such a situation I understand the merit of SO which is another added on factor to ensure appropriate support continues.
    Supervision order will nor have its desired outcome only when appropriate support package is not in place.

  4. Char August 20, 2018 at 11:45 am #

    It is interesting that local authorities abstain from their right to appeal decisions made at court. The role of advocating in the best interests of children, must present with a challenge, local authority legal advisers and representatives must demonstrate increased rigour and determination. The courts are seen as superior, it is our social work reports and evidence, which enables them this authority. Serve the children by challenging court decisions, when our evidence informs us that is not in the best interest of the child.