What kind of family support can avert looming care system crisis?


Record rise in number of care applications has prompted England's most senior family court judge to warn of a looming "crisis". He says efforts must focus on intensive support for struggling families to prevent care proceedings.

The number of applications for children to be taken into care is continuing to rise, with the pace of increase accelerating, according to latest figures.

In August, 1,254 care applications were received by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), an increase of 34 per cent compared with a total of 941 in August 2015 - a record annual month-on-month rise (see graphic).

It was also the third month in a row that the total number of care applications has exceeded 1,250 - a number reached only for the first time in June this year.

The rises suggest the annual total for 2016/17 will likely be significantly higher than the 12,781 in 2015/16.

For the first five months of 2016/17, there were 6,219 applications - a 22 per cent increase on the 5,059 received for the same period in 2015/16.

For the three years prior to this, numbers of applications for this five-month period had been relatively stable - 4,533 in 2012/13, 4,460 in 2013/14 and 4,484 in 2014/15.

The rises have prompted England's most senior family judge Sir James Munby to declare an imminent "crisis", stating that although courts are struggling to cope with the demands being made of them, there does not appear to be a strategy for addressing the situation.

Indeed, Munby predicts the situation is likely to get even worse - suggesting the figure could be "nudging 20,000" a year by 2019/20.

So what is causing the rises and what can be done about them?

Munby puts forward three possible causes for the increase: that the amount of child abuse or neglect is increasing; that local authorities are becoming more adept at identifying child abuse neglect and taking action to deal with it; or that local authorities are setting more demanding standards and lowering the threshold for intervention.

Changing behaviour

Dismissing the likelihood that child abuse is rising by around 20 per cent a year, he suggests that changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role.

Andrew Webb, family justice lead at the Association of Director's of Children's Services, agrees and says detailed investigation is required into why thresholds appear to be lower in some areas.

"The law has only one threshold, which is whether the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.

"Not every local authority is seeing the same sort of rise [in care applications], so we have to look at how the local system is working.

"There are reasons why in some areas the system is more risk -averse than others and social workers, lawyers and judges are more likely to want court oversight of the case, while others are more confident they can manage it outside the system.

"If the child is placed with extended family such as grandparents, how much has the court added to the process?

"In some cases, people are too quick to use an order to make sure they cover their backs."

Webb says the effects of critical statements by the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court can feed into the system quickly and create "heightened concern".

"The system can get quite defensive and I think there are places where systems are less resilient than others," he adds.

This trend is highlighted by Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas's assertion that in some areas, up to 10 per cent of children a local authority has concerns about are eventually placed at home with their parents following a court order, while in some other parts of the country, the provision is "not used at all".

Douglas says that by standardising the approach to this kind of case, demand can be reduced in some parts of the country.

Analysis of the Cafcass care applications data does show significant variations between authorities. Of England's 152 councils, 102 saw a rise in their rate of care applications, 47 saw their rate fall and three stayed the same.

The exact cause for the susceptibility of some areas to critical statements is unclear - although factors such as high-profile serious case reviews or critical Ofsted inspection judgments could have a role to play.

Early intervention

It has also previously been claimed that increasing numbers of child protection interventions could be, in part at least, a result of cuts to early intervention services.

Analysis of local authority Section 251 returns last year showed government funding for early intervention had fallen from £3.2bn in 2010 to £1.4bn in 2015.

Giving evidence to the education select committee in March, Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, described the cuts as "decimating" early intervention services.

"We are escalating the families into the child protection system because that's the only resource we now have for those children," Jones said. "It's threatening for families and children. It's demoralising for social workers and we are overheating the child protection system."

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, has previously said that more targeted and successful early help provided by local authorities could result in fewer applications.

To that end, Cafcass is piloting a new way of working with councils that focuses on supporting families before care applications get to court (see below).

In his statement, Munby advocates the use of two forms of early intervention - family drug and alcohol courts (FDAC) and the Pause Project, which works with mothers who have had children previously taken into care to try and prevent repeat removals - as examples of work that should be continued and expanded.

"FDAC, Pause and similar projects are, at present, the best hope, indeed, in truth, the only hope, we have of bringing the system and the ever increasing numbers of care cases under control," Munby says.

Webb says he is in favour of any initiatives that prevent repeat care applications.

"The statistics show that roughly one third of children who are in care proceedings are from families where an earlier child has been removed," he says.

"There are a number of slightly different models of that type of working with parents that have demonstrated significant success."

Pause places a lot of support around women who have previously had a child taken into care to work on their self-esteem, but they have to agree to a long-acting contraceptive as part of the agreement.

"Anything we can do to support them not to have children where they have struggled to look after children in the past, I would support," Webb says.

He is also hopeful that an initiative being run in his council area of Stockport, paid for out of the Department for Education's social care innovation fund, will deliver benefits.

The initiative uses restorative practices to solve problems rather than taking things through the courts.

"We can be very adversarial with parents - getting lawyers involved at an early stage," Webb says.

"In areas with restorative practice, we have seen drops in numbers entering the care system and in the use of care orders. It is a much more sustainable approach to family intervention."

 

HOW CAFCASS PRE-COURT WORK REDUCES NEED FOR PROCEEDINGS

Cafcass is keen to do more work with local authorities before care proceedings are launched, so that children who do not need to be subject to care orders can be identified and looked after in the community, with the focus on child protection planning.

Cafcass's functions are currently restricted to cases in court or cases that are imminent. However, so-called Cafcass Plus services have been established in a number of local authority areas to try to work with parents and assess the viability of plans prior to court action being taken.

A 2013 report into Cafcass Plus pilots in Coventry and Warwickshire shows that the overall diversion rate, based on 56 cases, was approximately 40 per cent.

The pilot found that as well as diverting many cases from court, those cases that did need to proceed to court applications did so with more coherent assessments and plans, enabling the cases to be completed more quickly - reducing delay for children.

However, Cafcass has to be invited to establish a service - it cannot be imposed on a local authority. Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas has previously said that if the service is to get more involved in pre-proceedings work, there may need to be legislative changes.

Neville Hall, assistant director at Cafcass, says: "Our statutory role begins when proceedings are initiated. Rolling out Cafcass Plus nationally would need additional funding, but it is investing to save from our perspective."

As part of Cafcass Plus, which parents have to opt-in to, health services provide the local authority with early notification of a pregnancy. If there are any known issues of concern with the parents - such as substance misuse or domestic violence - a meeting is arranged involving the parents, Cafcass and the council to look at the authority's plans, identify any gaps and discuss concerns.

"Very early on, the parents are fully aware of what the concerns are, what the local authority wants to do and what they need to do," he says. "We [Cafcass] are seen as an independent voice in that, which helps engage some parents in the process.

"Research by the University of Warwick shows that it is most effective in repeat baby situations - cases where children have been removed in the past."

Hall says that in many cases, parents are able to make the necessary changes to be able to keep the child. In those cases where care proceedings are initiated, he adds, the pre-court work that has taken place allows for much speedier permanent care placements to be found.

"It enables courts to handle cases more effectively, which creates space for them to deal with other cases," Hall says.

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