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Children’s Commissioner raises concerns about Children and Families Bill

OCC publishes child rights impact assessment of Parts 1 – 3 of the Bill

The Office of the Children's Commissioner has published a child rights impact assessment of Parts 1 – 3 of the Children and Families Bill.

The purpose of the assessment is to identify the likely impact of the Bill's provisions on the promotion and realisation of children's rights. The OCC has assessed the Bill against the rights set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC); the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law; and other international human rights obligations.

With regard to the adoption provisions, the OCC is concerned that any significant growth in 'Fostering for Adoption' risks undermining children's right to have a relationship with their birth parents if possible, and could be perceived as pre-empting the court process.

The report says:

"Long-term foster family care with kin or non-kin families, with some carers making the decision to apply subsequently for a Special Guardianship or adoption order, is likely to remain the preferred permanence option for most children in care. It is therefore essential that the proposed legislation and guidance does not have unintended consequences with respect to the recruitment for and support of these other permanence options."

In respect of the changes to the consideration of ethnic background when placing children with adoptive parents, the OCC foresees a risk that the change will lead to some children being placed with families who cannot meet their linguistic, cultural and identity needs, as the focus of practice and of efforts to recruit adopters from a wide range of backgrounds may be reduced.

On the proposed provisions concerning s called 'shared parenting', the OCC says:

"[I]f the provisions are widely (mis)interpreted as a presumption of equally 'shared time', there is a risk of greater conflict and litigation focused on parents' wishes rather than the child's needs and interests. A number of stakeholders have suggested that a belief that there is a presumption of shared time would lead parents (largely women) to believe that it was pointless to report domestic violence or child abuse. Careful monitoring would be required to ensure the meaning of 'involvement' has been effectively communicated to the public and understood, and that neither of these unintended, but very serious consequences resulted from the provision."

The OCC does believe that the proposed restrictions in the adducement of expert evidence are likely to support children's best interests.

As for the time-limit (subject to court-approved extensions) of 26 weeks for care proceedings, the OCC considers that the proposals do not adequately ensure early identification of either complex cases or cases where the particular facts are such that the proceedings cannot be resolved within 26 weeks. It says that early identification may be supported by changes to the Family Procedure Rules. Nevertheless, there remains a risk of recurrent late extensions of the timetable by 8 weeks, which would increase uncertainty and disruption for children and would not be in their best interests.

The report can be downloaded from here.