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Shorter family court proceedings improve outcomes for children

UEA report investigates what happened to children two years after their final court hearing

A study examining the impact of shorter family court care proceedings on children found more ended up in stable placements and those still needing one faced less of a wait.

The evaluation, published by the University East Anglia's Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF), investigated what happened to children in the two years after their final court hearing.

The study followed up an earlier evaluation by CRCF of a pilot project to reduce the duration of care proceedings, in the Tri-borough area of London (Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster). This ran from April 2012 to March 2013 and reduced the average time from court application to final hearing, from 49 weeks in the pre-pilot year (2011-12) to 27 weeks. It also resulted in a speeding up of the pre-court proceedings stage.

This new study looked at whether children in the pilot year ended up in more or less stable placements than those whose proceedings took, on average, almost twice as long, and whether there was increased or reduced delay between final hearing and permanent placement.

It follows major reforms in recent years to care proceedings in England and Wales, particularly to reduce the length of time taken to complete family court cases. The average duration of proceedings fell from 56 weeks in 2011 to 28 weeks in early 2016.

The researchers found that reducing the length of care proceedings did not mean more children were left waiting for a permanent placement at the end. A slightly higher proportion of children in the pilot year were already in their planned permanent placement when proceedings ended – 65 per cent compared to 60 per cent the year before.

For those who did need to move to a permanent placement afterwards, the focus on shorter care proceedings saw the wait from final hearing to placement fall from 30 weeks to 14, a reduction of more than 50 per cent.

The incidence of 'serious problem indicators', for example breakdowns in permanent placements or renewed child protection concerns, declined for children from the pilot group compared to the pre-pilot group. This suggests that quicker decision-making processes do not necessarily lead to less stable placements for children. Rather, the focus on good decision-making can lead to more secure outcomes.

Prof Jonathan Dickens, who conducted the study with colleagues Dr Chris Beckett and Sue Bailey, said:

"Care proceedings are one of the most intrusive state interventions into the lives of children and families and this was a unique opportunity to track and compare the outcomes for children and assess the impact of such a major system change.

"There is widespread interest in ensuring that proceedings are brought in appropriate cases, conducted in a fair, thorough and timely manner, and that the outcomes are as beneficial as possible for the children. It is not easy to satisfy all these requirements but our findings show that is it possible to reconcile these demands. Shorter care proceedings do not necessarily mean that delay is squeezed to either side of the proceedings."

Another key finding was that shorter care proceedings did not result in more children living away from their families. The most frequent type of final placement for children in both groups was with their parent(s), followed by placements with a relative or friend, and there was an increase in family and kinship placements in the pilot year.

The study was funded by the Department for Education and Cafcass. Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said:

"Unnecessary delays in care proceedings mean that children have to live with insecurity and uncertainty, and this can impact on their chance of stability and permanence. This important report shows how the Tri-borough has made it possible to combine faster family justice with safe and positive outcomes for children. Our task now is to find ways to reach this level of performance throughout the country, so it becomes the professional norm."

Prof Dickens said such changes did bring challenges and put "heavy demands" on family members and the social work and legal professionals involved, adding that the provision of suitable support for all was essential.

"These are encouraging results, but there are things to watch out for," said Prof Dickens. "The social workers we interviewed generally supported the new way of working, but it did bring extra pressures on them.  And most importantly, the people who care for the children, such as foster carers, adopters, kinship carers and parents, must receive sufficient high quality support."

The study involved 256 children from the Tri-borough authorities. Of these 125 were from the pilot year and 131 from the pre-pilot year. These were all the children who were the subjects of care proceedings in those authorities in the two years.

The research also included a questionnaire for parents and carers of the children, to get their views on the child's progress and the support they received, and interviews with social workers in the Tri-borough authorities about how they perceived the new approach to court proceedings to be working, four years on.

The full report, Outcomes for children of shorter court decision-making processes: A follow-up study of the Tri-borough care proceedings pilot, is available here.