Social workers back standalone supervision orders, despite questioning their effectiveness

Study finds vast majority of professionals favour maintaining the option of standalone supervision orders, but identifies wide regional variation in their use and perceived value in safeguarding children

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Only 18% of local authority children’s social care professionals think standalone supervision orders should be scrapped as an option in care proceedings, a survey has found.

However, participants in the research by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory highlighted issues with the orders, and differences in how they were used and perceived in different parts of England and Wales.

Half of all professionals who thought supervision orders should remain wanted legislation and guidance to change, primarily to give the orders more “teeth”.

The report divided professional respondents into ‘children’s social care’ (covering local authority social workers, managers, independent reviewing orders and directors of children’s services) and ‘family justice’ (covering Cafcass guardians, judges, lawyers and independent social workers).

Family justice professionals were even more likely than those from local authorities to want to retain supervision orders, with only 6% thinking they should be removed.

The authors intend the survey results and suggested changes to inform a review of supervision orders, which is being carried out by a sub-group of the President of the Family Division’s the Public Law Working Group (PLWG). In its final report last month, the group – set up to identify how pressures on the family courts could be relieved – said the orders needed to be reviewed to increase their effectiveness in diverting children from the care system.

The law on supervision orders

Like care orders, supervision orders (SOs) can be granted by courts under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 if the ‘threshold’ that a child is or is likely to suffer significant harm is crossed.

Under section 35 of the act, the local authority has a duty to “advise, assist and befriend” the child for the duration of the SO (up to one year, although local authorities can apply for them to be extended). Unlike with a care order, the local authority does not share parental responsibility for the child. Most commonly, standalone SOs appear as an option during proceedings where parents are co-operating, rather than being the local authority’s initial plan.

There have been concerns raised about the growing number of supervision orders made alongside special guardianship orders but this survey focused on standalone supervision orders where the child stays with or returns to their parents.

Questions about the value of supervision orders and practitioners’ understanding of them have been raised for a number of years, including in serious case reviews and in research identifying a high proportion of families returning to court for further care proceedings, as well as the wide variation in their use between local authorities and family court areas.

‘Less draconian option’

Many respondents who wanted supervision orders to remain on the statute book said they provided a “proportionate” or “less draconian” option between a care order and no order.

A barrister commented that supervision orders sit “between the constant threat of removal and telling the parent/s that everything is ok now. That can be a useful place for parents that have engaged and made good progress.”

Other reasons given for seeing supervision orders as helpful were maintaining local authority involvement with a family for a longer period of time than a child in need plan, encouraging engagement between parents and the local authority, and providing support where the situation had improved but ongoing help was seen as necessary or some risk remained.

However, the report said a number of local authority social workers and lawyers “indicated that they were aware that it was relatively common for supervision orders to be made because there was a lack of confidence that the necessary support would otherwise be provided, but they considered this concern to be unfounded”.

“Supervision orders are often made because the guardian prefers this option in order to feel that risks are being managed but in reality they usually achieve nothing more than we could achieve under a child in need plan, but a supervision order ties the local authority to providing this support for a prescribed period of time.” (Social work manager).

“They provided such limited powers it doesn’t seem realistic to keep them if we review. Plus they can give a false sense of security to other partners when in reality they have little real power” (director of children’s services).

Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group and a member of the PLWG sub-group on supervision orders, said that “undoubtedly, we see some cases where a supervision order is made in part because the judge isn’t confident the LA would otherwise provide the support that family needs”. However, she continued, “some parents have said they just felt further under the spotlight [and] it’s not actually made a material difference in support”.

Ashley stressed that a key part of the ongoing research into supervision orders would be to ensure the motivations for making supervision orders – who was seeking them and whether the aim was to supervise the actions of families or local authorities – were better understood.

‘I’d rather have a CP plan’

Further differences of opinion and practice were identified when the survey looked at variation between different areas.

Respondents who had worked in multiple regions noted that in parts of the country where there was a “culture” not to use ‘care orders at home’ (ie placing a child with their parents but with the status and LA oversight of a looked-after child), supervision orders were much more prevalent.

Ashley said that the PLWG sub-group had discussed that one potential risk if supervision orders were removed would be an increase in care orders at home and an increased level of state intervention in family life that no one desired. In its final report, the PLWG was critical of the use of care orders sat home, saying they should not be used to secure services and only applied when a final care order was necessary to protect the child.

Some professionals’ experiences were that a supervision order meant a family would be “bumped up” when it came to getting support and resources from over-stretched local authorities than if they were put on a child-in-need plan after proceedings. Some thought they had more “clout” with parents, being court-ordered.

However others questioned these views and compared supervision orders negatively to child-in-need and child protection processes, especially in relation to multi-agency working:

I believe their foundations and framework are weaker and less defined than working under CIN and CP, yet threshold is said to be met… (Social work manager).They are a bit pointless. Little power attached to them. I’d rather have a CP plan so police info is shared. Other agencies don’t understand them… (Social work manager).

The survey found considerable variation in processes and protocol when supervision orders were made, including how often they were reviewed.

Only around half of local authority respondents said their organisation had guidance about what should happen at the end of care proceedings when supervision orders were made, and a similar proportion said children under supervision orders were identifiable as such on their system. Where they weren’t, social workers reported this could mean children got “lost within the umbrella of child in need” and orders could expire without proper review of the family’s progress.

A Cafcass spokesperson said that along with the recommendations of the PLWG, the survey findings “reinforce the need to tackle the current variation in how and when standalone supervision orders are used and their effectiveness”.  They said that “as a national service, Cafcass has a key role to play in promoting consistency of approach in a way that is focused on children’s needs”.

Making supervision orders more ‘robust’

The report identified key changes suggested by the 291 professionals and 10 parents who responded to the survey that would make supervision orders more “robust”. These included:

  • setting out mandatory obligations on both the local authority and parents within the order – for example, compelling a local authority to fund therapy or parents to attend;
  • reviewing the “nebulous” language in the legislation (“to advise, assist and befriend”) to make expectations clearer;
  • providing guidance on the types of situations when supervision orders would be appropriate;
  • ensuring orders were accompanied by a written support plan with measurable outcomes or a contract of expectations to provide clarity for parents and the LA;
  • making more funding available to implement support plans;
  • mandating oversight by an independent reviewing officer (IRO) (which currently happens in some areas) or Cafcass guardian to monitor progress;
  • a clearer process for returning cases to court if obligations were not met or safeguarding concerns persisted.

Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield FJO, said that respondents to the survey had highlighted problems and questions about supervision orders that had been raised for some time but that “there was also strong support for retaining supervision orders if these problems can be addressed”.

Commenting on the use of supervision orders, Charlotte Ramsden, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said that while they can be “transformative” if used in the child’s best interests, “the effectiveness of supervision orders has never been formally reviewed in over 30 years since [their] introduction”.

“It is important that we use our collective experience to identify problems and find solutions for the benefit of children and families,” she continued and highlighted both the role of the PLWG sub-group and the care review commissioned by the Department for Education as an opportunity to address these issues.

Risk of distortion 

Ashley echoed the view that this form of order had had little attention to date. She said if they were made more enforceable, it wasn’t clear what would happen if local authorities didn’t provide the support agreed in the child’s care plan once the order is made and what parents’ rights would be in those circumstances, and that the implications “needed unpicking further”.

She also emphasised that the survey was one part of a “jigsaw puzzle” in building evidence about the experience and effectiveness of supervision orders, which she said also included comparing them with similar orders internationally and a case file review. “When all those strands are brought together, it will need further reflection to see whether there’s a common story,” Ashley continued. Insight into families’ experience was “definitely the piece of the jigsaw that’s most missing at the moment,” Ashley said, and urged family members to come forward if they were happy to be interviewed.

She said any parents or family members who wanted to contribute to the PWLG sub-group could contact FRG’s principal legal adviser, Caroline Lynch, at CLynch@frg.org.uk.

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