In a briefing on the Children and Families Bill, The College of Social Work (TCSW) warns that proposals encouraging the creation of fostering-for-adoption plans at an early stage of the care proceedings process could make “redundant” social workers’ efforts to find birth relatives of looked-after children.
The TCSW report, co-authored with Family Rights Group (FRG), also says that plans to introduce a 26-week target for the completion of care proceedings in all but special cases could act as a block to finding alternative care placements within the family.
The report says: “It is critical the current reforms support relatives and friends to come forward at an early stage so that they can be assessed as potential carers. The current foster-for-adopt proposals could squeeze out such family placements, while the speeding up of care proceedings could mean that it’s too late for family members to be assessed within the court timescales, once proceedings are under way.”
A recent survey of TCSW members showed 90 per cent thought the government had a duty to emphasise other placement solutions than adoption that could deliver permanence for looked-after children.
Under Clause 1 of the bill, social workers in England must consider placing a child with a prospective adopter who is approved as a temporary foster carer as soon as the local authority is considering adoption as a possible solution. This could happen in the first week of a child being taken into care or even before birth, and exempts the local authority from having to give preference to wider family members.
The briefing says this could lead to courts looking more favourably on maintaining fostering-for-adoption care placements out of concern that returning children to the care of a family member could be potentially unsettling and harmful.
“The court process will be pre-empted by a fostering-for-adoption placement and [family] placement orders will effectively become redundant,” it adds.
Clause 1 of the bill only applies in cases where parental agreement has been gained, meaning that parents, many of whom will be vulnerable, will be making decisions without legal advice and without fully understanding the potential consequences, the briefing adds.
TCSW and FRG argue for the bill to be amended so that any proposal for adoption should first involve a thorough exploration of family options before a fostering-for-adoption placement is made.
The briefing warns that the 26-week proceedings timescale could pose an “insurmountable barrier” in some cases where much work may be needed to identify suitable family carers. However, it also says children’s welfare could be jeopardised because local authorities may be tempted to delay issuing care proceedings to have longer to work with a family even though they have safeguarding concerns.
The college and FRG are urging the government to withdraw the proposal from legislation, but adds that if it remains in the bill it should be amended “to empower the court to extend the 26-weeks in order to promote the child’s welfare, based on the professional judgment of those who work with the family”.
Meanwhile, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) is also calling for an amendment to the Children and Families Bill that would give children the legal right to an independent advocate at child protection conferences.
NCB says having independent advocates at both initial and review child protection conferences would support vulnerable children and help them share vital information during the evidence-gathering process.