Understanding impact of abuse and reviewing care placement options

Review assesses the evidence on the impact of abuse on children and considers the merits of care placement options. The authors summarise the findings, while three organisations outline initiatives to improve decision making.

Children and young people enter care for a variety of reasons and there is no single placement type that will suit all children. The "right" placement for individual children depends on a complex variety of factors that decision makers need to weigh up.

The Department for Education commissioned Research in Practice to produce an evidence review to support the use of research in making these decisions.

The report, Childhood Abuse and Neglect: Comparing Placement Options, brings together findings in two areas at the heart of family law decision making: the impacts of abuse and neglect on children and young people; and an appraisal of what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different long-term placements in relation to their impact on outcomes for children and young people.

The review is intended to help local authority and judicial decision makers develop a shared understanding of the research to support decisions that lead to stable and positive placements for children and young people, whether remaining with or returning home to their birth family, or making a new home with a relative, in long-term foster care, adoption or a residential children's home (see graphic).

Learning from research

We can learn a great deal from research, but it is important to remember that research knowledge is ever-evolving, often contested and will never provide simple "off-the-peg" answers to complex placement decisions. And nor should it.

At the heart of any decision is the need for an in-depth understanding of each individual child, their family and wider context. The analysis of this empirical evidence, informed by research and theory, and set within the legal framework is the basis for decision making in the family courts.

A full systematic review of the research literature on these wide ranging and complex themes would take some months. This is a pragmatic scope, completed between October 2016 and January 2017, and drawing mainly on UK research published since 2010. The report was reviewed and critiqued by a DfE steering group and a number of academic experts. If it is to remain relevant, the evidence review will need to be updated on a regular basis. This is the kind of work that might well fall within the remit of the DfE's proposed What Works Centre.

A DfE spokesperson said the department hoped the research findings will help those involved in making decisions that affect children's lives, including local authority managers, social workers, children's guardians and judges.
The findings have been shared with a number of key organisations working with children and young people in the care system, some of which are developing their own initiatives to help improve how professionals make placement decisions (see panel below).

Review findings

Some of the key findings from the review are:

  • Abuse and neglect impact adversely on emotional, behavioural and mental well-being (see graphic). Providing earlier, effective and holistic support to parents, while keeping the child's welfare in mind, can reduce risk of such maltreatment.

  • Where children are no longer able to remain safely with their parents, timely decisions about permanence are needed. The age of a child at entry to care has been consistently found to be associated with the stability of placements and children's wellbeing.

  • Nurturing and consistent care can help children to recover from their experiences of maltreatment; nevertheless, some social, emotional and behavioural difficulties may persist many years after a child's environment becomes nurturing and stable.

  • Children who have been maltreated generally have better outcomes with regard to stability and wellbeing if they are placed in alternative care that can meet their needs, particularly if the issues relating to maltreatment have not been addressed.

  • Relational connectedness and identity are important considerations in decision making, particularly in relation to placing children with their siblings and in making arrangements for contact with birth relatives.

  • Advice and support for carers are crucial. Some children and young people may also need specialist therapeutic support to help them recover from adverse impacts of maltreatment and to make sense of their experiences.

  • Adoption, special guardianship, kinship care, residence orders/child arrangements orders and long-term foster care can all offer permanence options for children who are not able to be reunified with their parents. However, they are not legally equivalent and the permanence they offer differs in certain key respects.

Childhood Neglect and Abuse: Comparing Placement Options www.gov.uk/government/publications

Dr Susannah Bowyer, assistant director, and Julie Wilkinson, Research in Practice

Scoping a family justice observatory

By Teresa Williams, director, social research and policy, Nuffield Foundation

Research evidence can be valuable in helping family justice professionals make complex decisions that will lead to the best outcomes for children and families. But the application of research needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and that is not an easy task: research evidence is not always easily accessible, the findings from different studies do not always point in the same direction, and effective interpretation requires an understanding of the scientific method as well as the practice context. There is little advice or support to assist with this task, something that the Nuffield Foundation is working to address through scoping the potential for a Family Justice Observatory.

The purpose of an observatory would be to improve access to trusted administrative data and research evidence; provide advice on how it is interpreted and applied; and to ensure that new research is robust, relevant and focused on the most important gaps. The foundation has commissioned a team, led by Professor Karen Broadhurst at Lancaster University, to identify the potential scope, functions and delivery model for an observatory, which would be developed from 2018. 

Alongside this, the foundation is participating in an international taskforce led by the Association of Family Courts and Conciliation to develop guidelines to promote the effective and ethical use of research in family law. Available later this year, these will provide an important resource for the observatory.


Initial family and friends care assessment guide

By Cathy Ashley, chief executive, Family Rights Group

Initial family and friends care assessments, commonly known as viability assessments, are used by local authorities to decide whether a family member or friend might be a potentially realistic option to raise a child who cannot live safely with their parents.  Social workers may have to undertake such assessments with several family members and often to tight deadlines.

This good practice guide was co-produced by child welfare professionals and kinship carers as a response to the lack of any minimum standards as to how such assessments are conducted.

Developed by Family Rights Group in partnership with an expert working group, the guide is endorsed by the Association of Directors of Children's Services, Family Justice Council, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Principal Social Work Network, Kinship Care Alliance and many voluntary organisations.

The guide sets out best practice as to how viability assessments should be conducted. It lists factors social workers conducting the assessment need to consider, including when undertaking assessments with family members overseas. It includes research evidence, a schedule and example template. It is also a resource for professionals who make decisions about, work with or represent family and friends carers, and the children who may be unable to live safely with their parents.

It includes information for family members to help them understand the purpose of an initial assessment, what it will entail, what they need to consider and how to get independent advice. 


Stability index for children in care

By Leon  Feinstein, director of evidence, Office of the Children's Commissioner for England

Children frequently say stability is the most important aspect of their experience of care. Consistent, high-quality relationships enhance feelings of security, support children's ability to form relationships as they grow into adults, and enable the development of a sense of belonging and identity.
The Stability Index is a new initiative by the children's commissioner to measure stability in the lives of looked-after children by monitoring trends and supporting improvements to practice.

In some cases, a placement move may be in the child's best interests, or children may desire a move when a placement is not working out. When managed appropriately, a change of placement may be a positive contribution to a child's experience of care. But while some change may always be inevitable, the improvement of stability in the care system is seen as an important objective for all councils.

The index will initially report on three aspects of children's experiences of care - placement moves, school moves and changes in social worker. To do this, it uses existing looked-after children and school census data. The commissioner has also engaged with 22 councils to gather data on social worker changes.

The commissioner will now work with a handful of authorities, virtual school heads, fostering agencies and children to test the underlying drivers of instability, and to determine how the index should be developed. The aim is to improve the measure over time to get closer to capturing the actual experiences of looked-after children.


Further reading

Pathways to Harm, Pathways to Protection: A Triennial Analysis of Serious Case Reviews 2011 to 2014, Sidebotham, Brandon, Bailey, Belderson and others. Department for Education, 2016

Comparing long-term placements for young children in care: Does place­ment type really matter? McSherry, Malet and Weatherall, Children and Youth Services Review, 2016

Part of the Family: Planning for Permanence in Long-Term Family Foster Care, Schofield, Beek and Ward, Children and Youth Services Review, 2012

Planning for Contact in Permanent Placements. Good Practice Guide. Adams, BAAF, 2012

The Impact of Histories of Abuse and Neglect on Children in Placement, Howe in The Child Placement Handbook. Research, policy and practice, BAAF, 2009

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