The government must do more to divert families with ‘entrenched’ problems away from the courts, research by the chief children’s social worker has concluded.
The ‘Case for clear blue water’ briefing by Isabelle Trowler found too many marginal cases involving children at risk of significant harm were entering the family justice system.
The study argued that a focus on early help in recent years has meant too little resource being directed towards “sophisticated” services to support families facing complex and longstanding, sometimes cross-generational issues.
Meanwhile social workers had become “far less tolerant of multiple attempts at generating adequate change”, the report said – sometimes placing them at odds with courts and fuelling the sharp national increase in supervision orders.
“People recognise the cumulative damage that can happen within families, and the impact on individual children,” Trowler told Community Care.
“But there’s also a big question mark as to whether we are always doing the right thing by the child, or should do more to explore with families how they can stay together,” she added.
Among a series of recommendations, the report said a national programme of work should begin to explore how families could be supported to stay together, where there was a good chance they could do so successfully.
“We have to have greater clarity about the support services that might help a family change to the point where they can keep their children – but when the trajectory [towards court] is clear we also have to move fast,” Trowler said.
‘Not messing about’
The study, carried out in conjunction with academics at Sheffield University, looked at care proceedings in four English local authority areas and focused on “professional reasoning” by practitioners.
“The vast majority of decisions taken to initiate care proceedings were certainly reasonable,” the report said. “The question is whether or not they were always necessary.”
In most cases, the research found children’s circumstances exposed them to “excessive, continuous domestic chaos and at worst… very serious abuse and neglect” – but in others the degree of harm or likely harm was less obvious.
Complexity of need did not appear to have increased in the last five years, despite a continued rise in care order applications, researchers found.
What had been changing was the context in which social workers were making decisions, according to the study. Interviews with practitioners quoted in the report indicated a tension between their focus on the child – and on “not messing about” – and courts, who were described as not always being on the same page.
“Many would argue this earlier intervention and removal, and lower level tolerance, is as it should be,” the report said. “But with a higher bar set, the family justice system must remain a fair one.”
One area in which the research identified issues was in the extent to which social workers and families were able to build trust – with its absence inevitably making care proceedings more likely.
“For the system to be a fair one, there must be sufficient social work skill and organisational capacity to effectively build those relationships,” the report said.
But the study also questioned whether – even disregarding the impact of austerity – enough services had ever been commissioned that were “sophisticated” enough to address “entrenched violence, addiction or family dysfunction”.
The report said new approaches to supporting families needed to be urgently investigated so as to disrupt a “conveyor belt” towards court many experience, and that a fund should be set up to help local authorities improve their practice.
Trowler suggested the children’s social care What Works Centre, which she sits on the board of, could be an ideal vehicle to support this work.
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“We have a real opportunity to look at how best to support high-risk, high need families,” she said. “We haven’t done enough in that area, we have tended to look at early help but we are always going to have high-risk, high need families and we need to know what is best way to work effectively with them.”
The report also recommended:
- That the principles of the Children Act 1989 needed to be reinforced both by government and at local authority level, especially the concept of No Order.
- That the pre-proceedings period also needed to be “resurrected as the key point of hope” in working with families, with a view to avoiding court wherever practicable.
- That a national learning programme should be developed to help calibrate senior leaders’ decision-making across England, in order to bolster professional judgement.
‘Change needs appropriate resourcing’
Responding to the report, Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) health, care and additional needs policy committee, said it provided a “helpful contribution” to the debate about the growth in care proceedings.
But she added that it “fails to recognise that councils are also being forced to cut the very services that help keep children and families together, due to rising demand for statutory child protection services and diminished budgets”.
Ramsden said she would welcome a re-endorsement of the No Order principle, as well as a focus on evaluation new approaches to help families achieve change.
“It is crucial though that this work is resourced appropriately,” Ramsden added. “Many of the report’s recommendations seem sensible; we’d welcome further discussions with relevant partners and government departments on developing models of shared care that enable children to stay within wider family networks where appropriate, as well the notion of sharing learning and good practice.”