Supervision orders face overhaul to improve effectiveness in supporting family reunification

    Expert group rejects abolition but proposes changes to tackle high rates of cases returning to court, practitioner scepticism about order and parental dissatisfaction with support

    Photo: Florian/Fotolia

    Supervision orders face an overhaul to improve their effectiveness in supporting family reunification, but experts have concluded they should not be abolished.

    Under the proposals, local authorities would be expected to present a fully resourced plan in their final evidence to court, in cases where they are seeking a supervision order or this may be the outcome of care proceedings. This would be backed by government funding to finance support services for families identified in the plan.

    What is the Public Law Working Group?
    The Public Law Working Group (PLWG) was set up in 2018 by President of the Family Division of the High Court Sir Andrew McFarlane to propose reforms that would ease mounting pressures on family court and social work professionals. It reported in 2021, recommending improvements to pre-proceedings, to divert more cases from court, and producing guidance to improve practice in section 20 cases (section 76 in Wales), where children are voluntarily accommodated. It also set up a sub-group to examine the use of standalone supervision orders to support family reunification.

    The plan, which would be co-produced with parents and subject to regular review, forms the centrepiece of proposed best practice guidance from a sub-group of the Public Law Working Group (PLWG), set up to investigate longstanding concerns about the use of standalone supervision orders to support family reunification following care proceedings.

    A one-month consultation on its proposals closes tomorrow (30 November), with the group then intending to draw up revised best practice guidance for immediate implementation, potentially ahead of longer-term reforms to the order.

    Longstanding concerns but abolition rejected

    A supervision order requires a local authority to “advise, assist and befriend” the child and by extension, their family or those they live with, and is granted on the grounds that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. They typically last a year but this can be extended by the court, annually, by a further three years. Unlike with care orders, there is no statutory requirement to produce a supervision plan.

    Concerns raised include research findings that children placed on a supervision order had a 20% of chance of returning to court within five years for further care proceedings, a higher rate than for any comparable order. In addition, 24% of children experienced abuse or neglect during the course of a supervision order or for four years beyond, according to an analysis of case files in four areas (Harwin et al, 2019).

    Further research with professionals found concerns that supervision orders lacked accountability and were not properly enforceable and identified support was not always provided (Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, 2021), while parents reported a mixed experience, with many also saying support had not been provided as promised (Harwin and Golding, 2022).

    The sub-group also found that, in many cases, the courts, social workers and guardians used supervision orders as a formal way of securing resources for the child or family, risking “unwarranted state intervention” in family life.

    In the light of these concerns, the sub-group, consisting of social work, family justice and charity leaders, alongside government representatives, examined whether supervision orders should be abolished, with child in need and child protection statutory provisions used as an alternative

    However, a clear majority rejected the case for abolition, amid concerns that it would lead to an inappropriate increase in the use of care orders at the end of proceedings, and in accordance with the sub-group’s remit to consider how supervision orders could be made more “robust and effective”.

    Guidance ‘designed to ease pressures and benefit children’

    Instead, the sub-group proposed its best practice guidance. In an introduction to the consultation report, the sub-group’s co-chair and the chair of the Public Law Working Group, Mr Justice Keehan, said this “should result in an easing of the burden and pressure on all those involved in the child protection and family justice systems, to the inestimable advantage of all children who are or may come to the attention of children’s services and/or who are or may come to be the subject of care proceedings”.

    Key elements of supervision order guidance

    • In any case where a local authority is seeking a supervision order as part of care proceedings, or the court indicates that this may be the outcome, the council should file its proposed supervision plan with its final evidence.
    • The plan should be drawn up in partnership with families, ideally through a family group conference, which should identify what support is available in the wider network and what services are needed to help keep the child safe and well cared for.
    • It should also be based on multi-disciplinary working with all relevant agencies.
    • It should clearly set out the risks and needs it aims to address, based on the conclusions of the court, specifying the responsibilities of the local authority and the family in meeting these objectives.
    • The resourcing of each element of the plan should be confirmed and recorded, including the funding of specific services.
    • It should include arrangements for review, including details on who will chair the review, which should be an experienced social worker or social worker manager who is independent of the case, such as an independent reviewing officer. It should also specify how parents will be involved in the review process and the child’s views will inform the process.
    • The court and all parties should be clear about how concerns should be raised about progress of the plan, whether by parents or the local authority, and how quickly parental concerns are responded to.
    • The government should commit to provide the necessary resources to local authorities to enable them to adopt and implement the guidance to the fullest and most effective extent possible.

    Keehan’s fellow co-chair, Judith Harwin, professor in socio-legal studies at Lancaster University and lead author of the 2019 research into supervision orders’ impact and the 2022 study into parents’ experiences, told Community Care that the guidance reflected families’ feedback.

    Parents ‘want to see robust plans’

    “Parents wanted the plans to be robust and clear about what was going to be offered and what was going to be provided, and therefore the expectation that there needs to be very thorough assessment and that there will be those services in place, with funding, for themselves and their children,” she said.

    She said her research found that parents had generally preferred having a care order at home – the other main route to supporting reunification after care proceedings but one which judicial guidance states may only be used for exceptional reasons.

    “One of the reasons that the care order was preferred was that it did provide a consistent framework and process where there was ongoing reviewing and where, at the end of the day, there was a legal obligation, as the parents say, to make sure that the child returned home was ok,” she said.

    Harwin added that while her 2019 research had shown that 20% of supervision order cases returned to court, this meant 80% had not, showing the value of the order in keeping families together.

    She said: “We need to be confident that, when a supervision order is made, it will deliver for the child and the family in a proactive and agreed way and help ensure sustainability of safe family reunification.”

    Alongside its best practice guidance, the sub-group also asked the government to consider long-term reforms to increase the effectiveness of supervision orders including:

    • Providing a statutory basis for supervision plans, similar to section 31A for care plans.
    • Placing councils under a statutory duty to provide support and services under a supervision order.
    • Enshrining the best practice guidance in statutory guidance, obliging councils to follow it.
    • Commissioning research into the impact of supervision plans, including in relation to returns to court within two years.

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