By Professor Judith Harwin and Lily Golding
‘Not worth the paper they are written on’; ‘lack teeth’; ‘thresholds confusing’ – these are just some of the comments made by social workers and other professionals in a national study of supervision orders supporting family reunification in 2019.
But what do parents think and what are their experiences of supervision orders? Until now we have not been able to answer this question. Nor do we have any recent studies from parents who are bringing up a child on a care order at home.
A new study, published today, seeks to fill this significant gap. It was funded by the Department for Education to inform the first review of supervision orders since the Children Act 1989. This is being carried out by a sub-group of the Public Law Working Group, set up by the President of the Family Division to develop recommendations to improve the way the system works for children and families. A draft report and best practice guidance from the supervision review will go out for consultation later in the year.
The aim of the review is to see if the supervision order can be made more robust and to put forward short- and long-term recommendations for reform. There is an urgent need for this review.
In the 2019 national study 20% of children subject to a supervision order risked return to court within five years for further care proceedings, more than twice the rate for any other order considered and most likely to affect children under the age of five years. Here it is relevant to note that the number of standalone supervision orders supporting reunification was not inconsiderable – 3,528 in 2016-17, broadly comparable to the number of special guardianship orders (4,018) and placement orders (3,806).
Main route to reunification
The views and experiences of parents have never been more important because supervision orders are now the main route to reunification following care proceedings. Since March 2021, judicial guidance has specified that care orders at home, the other main route to reunification, are only to be used for exceptional reasons. Ensuring the provision of support and services is not a valid reason.
Our study of parental perspectives contains some important findings on both routes to reunification following care proceedings. They were based on interviews with 44 parents of 59 children from 13 local authorities in England and Wales. Domestic abuse, mental health problems and substance misuse predominated and a third of the children had special educational needs and disabilities.
Orders ‘vital but not fit for purpose’
Most parents thought that supervision orders should stay because they provided a vital ‘transition’ back to family life. However, nearly all thought that they needed a fundamental ‘revamp’ and, at present, were not fit for purpose.
The majority of the parents described a very mixed experience, though the few who told us that the supervision order met all their expectations have provided a valuable template of the key ingredients needed in a revamp.
A trusting relationship with a social worker who believed in the parent’s abilities was considered crucial.”
Indeed, some parents felt the social worker had facilitated a turning point in their life that meant they could keep their children in their care.
Focus groups put forward parents’ joint recommendations on the reform of supervision orders based on the key recommendations arising from the individual interviews. Parents wanted a supervision order to have a meaningful support plan that was endorsed by the court to ensure that the services were available, would be provided and were tailored to the family’s needs. They wanted the services to cover therapeutic assistance for themselves as well as their children (frequently not available), and they wanted practical assistance covering benefits, housing and employment advice.
‘Unacceptable and unjust’ variation
In short, parents were ambitious for the supervision order. They saw it as an opportunity and recommended that parents in a similar position to their own should not be afraid to ask for help and services. A key message was that the variability in the delivery of supervision orders was unacceptable and unjust. To ensure greater consistency, the parent focus groups called for independent reviewing officers (IROs) to be routinely involved and to be fully independent of the local authority, and for the reviewing framework to be strengthened.
One of the most unexpected findings of the study was that parents were more likely to report that the care order at home met their expectations than the supervision order. They felt that they were more likely to have a consistent framework to underpin implementation of the care orders and to receive the services that were promised in the care plan for themselves and their children. This helps explain why they wanted the care order at home to be retained. Parents were particularly motivated when the order was planned and used as a short-term order, of a maximum of two years.
They did, however, have their criticisms. These were particularly around the restrictive conditions of some aspects of the care order and the difficulty of not being able to bring it to an early end.
Powerful and troubling messages
Returning or keeping children with their birth parent(s) was the outcome of a journey that began with pre-proceedings and the care proceedings. The parents’ insights and messages on both these stages are powerful and sometimes very troubling. So too are their accounts of the response to domestic abuse from many agencies. The parents felt so strongly about this issue that they asked us to report on it separately. Key messages were about the need for greater knowledge and expertise, across the board, and how to avoid revictimising the parents and their children.
The implications of the parents’ testimony are wide-ranging. What is absolutely clear is that supervision orders require much greater investment. Retaining the status quo is not an option. As a route to reunification, the role of the court and children’s services have been marginalised in both research and practice. And there is the further challenge of how to take account of parents’ views on care orders at home. In the report, we have made a number of recommendations on how to strengthen supervision orders, informed by learning from the best features in the implementation and delivery of care orders at home.
Proposals for reform
Building on the parents’ recommendations, we have called for the DfE to issue guidance to underpin a national best practice framework to help ensure consistency of support and oversight.
We have recommended that there needs to be a bespoke IRO role and service and that the government should set up and finance a national, fixed-term ‘supervision orders support fund’, akin to the adoption support fund.”
Access to skilled and timely advice on housing and benefits must be prioritised. These issues were widespread amongst the families in our study and the harm associated with housing insecurity and poverty is well established.
Implementation of the impact of the changes on practice and policy needs to be monitored with better data. At present, it is not possible to track the outcomes of children on supervision orders through the children in need national framework because they are not flagged. Yet these are children who have been through the court system because of significant harm.
The case for investment
At a time when there is so little money in the system to support children’s services and so many competing demands on local authorities, the case for financial investment, including the provision of an IRO service, needs careful justification.
At policy level, the justification is that keeping families together is a key government priority and the partnership approach was central to the changes made to supervision orders introduced in 1989. Economically, there are enormous cost implications if more children end up in care because the supervision order has under-delivered and the child has further care proceedings.
Of course, ultimately, more investment is needed in prevention and early help. But there will always be children who need the court to help support family reunification, and children’s services and other agencies to support the families.
Judith Harwin is professor in socio-legal studies, School of Law, Lancaster University. She co-directs the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University and co-chairs the Public Law Working Group Supervision Order sub-group.
Lily Golding has been working in the field of child and family justice research for six years. She has worked on an evaluation of the London Family Drug and Alcohol Court and the national study of supervision orders and special guardianship. She is currently completing a PhD at Lancaster University on the impact of care proceedings on maternal identity.