A report by Isabelle Trowler, appointed by government as the first chief social worker for children and families in 2013, argues that cases where the decision to remove a child from their parents could "go either way" should be diverted away from court in order to ease pressure on the care system.
It also calls for government to launch a national programme of work to identify the best ways of supporting families with children on the edge of care, and provide funding to councils that are struggling to keep children safe in the community.
Publication of the report coincides with Chancellor Philip Hammond's announcement that 20 councils will receive a total of £85m over the next five years to help them deal with high or rising numbers of children in care. Children's services leaders have warned that the amount is not enough.
The number of children in care, and numbers of those believed to be at risk of harm have been growing steadily in recent years, as has the number of applications for children to be taken into care.
However, councils have less money to support them and concerns have been raised by the most senior family judge that the care system is at "crisis point".
Trowler's study, based on analysis of care proceedings in four English local authorities, found that although the vast majority of decisions taken to initiate care proceedings were "certainly reasonable", it is questionable "whether or not they were always necessary".
"For the family justice system to work effectively and fairly, there should be clear blue water between those children who are brought into public care proceedings, and other local children who have suffered significant harm, or who are at risk of being so," the report states.
"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 study found that services available to provide support are not always sufficiently tailored to meet the needs of families facing court proceedings. It adds that while some social workers spoken to as part of the research lamented the historical loss of services such as family wellbeing hubs, youth services and parenting groups, it is "difficult to see how these types of services could effectively tackle the complexity of need and risk facing the majority of children and parents in the study".
"A national focus over the last 10 years on lower-level early help services for lower-level social problems, with the honourable aim of trying to stop the trajectory of families into high-level need further down the line, has meant too little time, focus or resource has been spent on developing services sophisticated enough to meet the needs of the families who do find themselves at the sharp end of the family justice system.
"By design, services are often neither sophisticated enough to tackle the entrenched violence, addiction or family dysfunction (often across generations) which characterises many family problems which result in care proceedings, nor designed to support parents with learning disability or enduring mental ill health, very often present in families who face care proceedings.
"The study found that it is not that these types of services are no longer commissioned, they rarely existed in the first place. For this high-need group of families, we need to urgently identify and test promising, or new, approaches to support families and secure lasting change."
- Identifying Inequalities in Child Welfare Intervention Rates
- Duration of care proceedings off target
The report calls for a national programme of work to be launched to test if and how families who have the greatest chances of staying successfully together for the long-term, can be diverted away from court proceedings. And it urges government to invest in a "targeted improvement fund" to provide resources for local authorities that have yet to develop their practice system sufficiently well.
Meanwhile, it recommends the creation of a national learning programme, to help calibrate senior social work leaders' decision making within and between local authorities across England, pointing to the current absence of systematic mechanisms through which those who make final decisions about care proceedings can test their professional judgment against those of their peers, outside of their own local authority.
It also calls for voluntary accommodation arrangements for "at risk" children - whereby parents agree for the child to live for a period with foster carers or with an approved person, such as a grandparent, to be "reclaimed as a legitimate and respected support service to families for the long-term care of children".
And it wants the pre-proceedings period, prior to a care application being made, to "be resurrected" as the key point of hope at which local authorities can work with extended families to develop long-term, sustainable plans for children. It states that some social workers in the study said that the original purpose is "somewhat lost" and it is now used as a process primarily to prepare for court proceedings.
However, the report does sound a note of caution that, with the introduction of any changes, "great care" must be taken not to undermine progress in child protection practice.
"Where permanence for children can clearly not be secured within family networks or without court involvement, swift and skilful practice must lead to court action without delay," the report states.
Publication of the report comes after children's minister Nadhim Zahawi last month said steps are being taken to try to stem significant increases in the number of children being taken into care, with the government "acutely aware" of the impact the situation is having on local authorities.
Speaking in a parliamentary debate on the independent Care Crisis Review published earlier this year, he said government is actively considering what more can be done, with representatives of the DfE and MoJ meeting with members of national and local family justice boards across England, to understand the challenges in the family justice system better.
The Care Crisis Review made a total of 20 recommendations, with a central suggestion being that more children suffering abuse or neglect should be placed with their wider family in order to reduce numbers coming into the care system.