There is often tension between the rigid statutory framework around child protection and the frontline child protection work done with families. A common issue at the point at which care proceedings are issued, is whether it is felt that the parents have been supported enough by children’s services and, if not, whether that support may have prevented the family reaching crisis point.
On 17 June, LocalGov drew attention to an independent review of children’s social care, ‘The Case for Change’. This review drew from work undertaken with professionals within the system, families who had had involvement with the system along with researchers and academics. It identified several issues within the children’s social care system and invites feedback by 13 August 2021 for the next phase of the review.
The chair, Josh McAlister, describes the children’s social care system as 'a 30 year old Jenga tower held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky', an analogy that many working within the system will recognise.
A significant issue identified is that services are too focused on families in crisis rather than providing the early help and support that may have prevented the families reaching crisis point, an issue frequently explored when matters come before the courts. How is it possible, therefore, to utilise elements of the current system, with its imperfections, to firstly maximise the chance of identifying the families that need assistance and provide the necessary support?
A local authority has a general duty under s17 Children Act 1989 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area and to promote the upbringing of children by their families, encapsulating the duty for families to be supported as much as possible.
Initial assessment is key. The identification of the challenges that individual families face is crucial when tailoring the support required. This seems to be a logical statement, but the identification of the challenges and the availability of the correct support is something identified in Case for Change as an issue for this system under strain. In addition, the types and availability of support has been significantly impacted upon by the pandemic.
S17 support is very wide ranging with Sch2 Part 1 of Children Act 1989 setting out the duties in more detail. These duties include provision of family centres and, amongst other things, support for families in terms of maintenance of their homes and other practical provisions for children living with their families. The physical provision of the services set out in this schedule is not mandatory but a local authority must consider them and provided where appropriate. Financial constraints on children’s services will clearly have a bearing on this.
Section 20 accommodation is something that local authorities are, rightly, now cautious of after several recent court decisions. The Public Law Working Group considers that the appropriate use of s20 accommodation can assist a family to avoid crisis. The emphasis here is on the correct use of s20 accommodation with the necessary understanding and informed consent of the parents.
If matters do have to proceed to the pre-proceedings procedure, the pre-proceedings letter should identify clearly what the issues for the family are so that the parents understand the issues and what they can do to address them with the support offered.
The importance of the support available from the extended family and the use of family group conferences, raised in The Case for Change review, is also a helpful resource when looking at what community support structure can be built around a struggling family.
The challenges for professionals working within children’s social care are clear, especially during such a difficult time. Professionals have little choice but to work within the current system with all of its challenges. Assessment and support is key in identifying issues and avoiding crisis. This may not always be possible, but the attempts themselves may prove key and give the best possible chance.
Jo Porter is a barrister at 4PB