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Families ‘subject to thin, red line decisions’ should be diverted from the courts

Principle of ‘No Order’ should be more readily applied in children cases

Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, has produced a report in which she argues that families subject to 'thin, red line decisions', where the decision to remove a child from his or her parents could go either way, should be diverted away from court. The report – Care Proceedings in England: The Case for Clear Blue Water – states that there should be clear blue water between children brought into care proceedings and other children considered to be at risk of significant harm.

The report was quoted extensively by the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, in his address to the Association of Children Lawyers Annual Conference. He did so, he said, because it 'readily chimed' with his own developing thoughts that the area which would most fruitfully benefit from close consideration by him, as President, is that relating to the pre-proceedings period.

Isabelle Trowler concluded that stronger family focused practice, better decision making and more sophisticated and tailored support services, should create a distinction between the standard of care and protection given to a child involved in public court proceedings compared to the care and protection of other local children considered to be at risk of significant harm.

The report notes that over the last 10 years in England, there has been a significant increase in the number of families brought into public care proceedings because of concerns about the care and protection of their children. Twenty per cent of those children return home on Supervision Orders.

In an exploratory study of care proceedings, 34% of all disposals resulted in Supervision Orders. Some social workers told the research team that it often takes the symbolism of the court to strike a strong enough chord with parents and the extended family to accept the seriousness of the situation. However, with such a significant proportion of proceedings in England ending in Supervision Orders and with a wide variance between authorities (from 8% to 36%), the report finds that the public purse pays a heavy price for taking this group of families into court only for children to remain at home anyway; but families and their children pay the heaviest price of all.

Ms Trowler considers that the legal principle of 'No Order' should be more readily applied in practice. The use of voluntary accommodation should be reclaimed as a legitimate and respected support service to families for the long-term care of children. Shared care should be developed and incentivised, so that where safety allows, parents and extended family in partnership with the State, are fully supported to look after children within their own family networks.

Where, however, permanence for children can clearly not be secured within family networks, swift and skilful practice must lead to court action without delay.

Charlotte Ramsden, Chair of the ADCS Health, Care and Additional Needs Policy Committee, responded to the report:

"The paper is a helpful contribution to the current debates about the rise in care proceedings ... However, the report fails to recognise that councils are also being forced to cut the very services that help keep children and families together due to rising demand for statutory child protection services and diminished budgets. The endorsement of the No Order Principle for children and families is welcome as is the message about the importance of testing promising approaches to support families to secure lasting change. It is crucial that this work is resourced appropriately. Many of the report's recommendations seem sensible; we'd welcome further discussions with relevant partners and government departments on developing models of shared care that enable children to stay within wider family networks where appropriate as well the notion of sharing learning and good practice."

For the report, click here.

25/11/18 (supplemented 25/11/18)