26-week target often unrealistic for kinship care assessments, say social workers

Report by Kinship charity finds courts rarely extend proceedings despite complexity of assessments with family and friends carers

Image of child's hand in grandparent's (credit: Ole_CNX / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Ole_CNX / Adobe Stock)

Social workers have called for more time to complete kinship assessments during care proceedings, with many saying the 26-week restriction is unhelpful.

Practitioners interviewed by the charity Kinship said that courts often rigidly adhered to the 26-week target, meaning practitioners lacked the time to carry out robust assessments.

In a report published by Kinship this week, social workers also urged policymakers to better recognise kinship care as its own unique form of substitute care, rather than fitting it into systems designed for fostering and adoption.

Kinship spoke to 42 practitioners from 25 local authorities in England and Wales, many of whom were either part of a specialist kinship team or had been so in the recent past.

More time for assessments

Social workers said they were allowed insufficient time for kinship assessments in care proceedings, with judges rarely agreeing to extend care proceedings beyond the 26-week limit introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014.

Practitioners stressed the inherent complexity of kinship assessments, both because they often happened in the context of care proceedings and because the decisions to approve a carer and place a particular child were combined, unlike with fostering assessments.

However, while 16 weeks were allowed for a fostering assessment, with the possibility to extend to 22 weeks, no minimum timescale is prescribed for kinship care assessments, with practitioners interviewed reporting being given 6-10 weeks to carry them out by the courts.

“If they want robust assessments, if they want assessments that have really good decision-making and analysis and all the things we need to do and try to do, then we need the time to be able to do that,” said one social worker quoted in the report.

‘Daunting pressures’

“The timescales, the pressures we’re under at times can be daunting. I completely understand why the courts have their timescales and why things happen but sometimes it feels like it’s at the expense of the work we do and the sensitivity to the family that’s needed.”

Practitioners said that, if it could be concluded within the 26 weeks, they were given extended time to complete the assessment, but this was rarely the case if it involved extending proceedings beyond this.

“On occasion the timetable is extended if they feel the circumstances are extenuating enough but I think, on balance, they wouldn’t necessarily consider just a kinship assessment, the timescales for that on its own, necessarily enough reason to extend. There are usually other circumstances around or within that that would make them consider extending the timetable,” one said.

Social workers said judges needed a greater appreciation of what was involved in a kinship assessment, but also suggested a minimum timescale for assessments, or for court cases involving kinship care assessments to be exempt from the 26-week target.

 ‘Square peg in a round hole’

The report’s main conclusion was that policymakers should recognise kinship care as a unique form of substitute care, and therefore tailor systems and practices to its needs, rather than fitting it into frameworks developed for other purposes. Practitioners described it as a “square peg in a round hole”.

It said this was particularly the case regarding the difficulties in approving kinship carers as connected persons foster carers using regulations designed for mainstream foster care. Kinship carers often had a different profile to mainstream foster carers, practitioners reported, for example, being grandparents, having lower levels of education or not having English as a first language, which meant they were not deemed to meet the fostering standards.

Practitioners said they had to work to persuade fostering panels of the differences between the two groups and to treat applications regarding kinship carers more flexibly.

The report suggested the government develop a distinct set of fostering regulations designed for kinship care, citing the recommendations of last year’s report of the Public Law Working Group, for the English and Welsh governments to consider this.

The Kinship report said there also needed to be a more consistent understanding of what a kinship arrangement should consist of across social workers, frontline teams and permanency panels.

It suggested specialist workers sharing their expertise and expectations with frontline teams and having a kinship carer on the fostering panel and joint training between professions.

The report also said that kinship carers did not receive the same “lengthy period of preparation” that other foster carers did before a child was placed with them, despite their role being “at least as demanding”.

The research called for local authorities to offer tailored training developed through consultation with kinship carers.

Special guardianship issues

The report also said there needed to be greater consistency in the provision of support for special guardians across local authorities, which it suggested could be improved by mapping and evaluating different service models.

Social workers also highlighted the difficulties of concluding a special guardianship assessment before the arrangement had been tested, particularly where the prospective guardians and the child did not have an established relationship. This was in contrast to private applications for special guardianship, which require the child to have lived with the prospective guardian for a year.

The report said a standardised approach was needed to these situations, suggesting the possibility of introducing interim special guardianship orders (SGOs).

Social workers reported that care orders were often made for kinship placements rather than SGOs, or supervision orders were attached to SGOs, due to anticipated problems in contact between the guardians and the child’s parents. The report called for services to be developed to help kinship families to establish and maintain children’s contact with their parents.

‘Taken for granted’

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) echoed many of the report’s recommendations, saying the “system takes kinship care for granted”.

“What we need is better institutional recognition of kinship care, consistency with support across local authorities, and that support must not depend on legal orders,” a BASW spokesperson said.

“We would also welcome social workers being provided with more training and more ways to share expertise as this will allow the profession to be better equipped to support the unique complexities of kinship care arrangements.”

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