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Surrey seems to be the hardest word

 
The High Court decision in Surrey County Council v AB and Others 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1115.html

This is a judgment which might be pertinent for an elephant in the room issue since the Family Justice Review started moving us away from independent experts. Once you take that expertise out of court rooms and decisions about families, what is filling that gap? Is it sufficient to treat all social workers as experts without considering the huge differences between an experienced and analytical social worker and a relative newcomer?

The writer is aware of a pending article for Family Law Week prepared by Miss Battie of counsel, which touches on this very issue.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed128671

In this case, the Local Authority ended up apologising, in writing, to the parents and grandparents because the social worker they had been allocated was “at the bottom of her learning curve”

[Just like any profession, newcomers start out new and have to gain experience by doing it. Every social worker has to have a first case, a first contested case, a first adoption case. The significance of course is that adoption(or separation of a child from birth parents permanently) is, as the Supreme Court reminded us last year, the most dramatic order that can be made in family Courts and it requires a robustness and rigour in the analysis and decision-making if it is to be done fairly. I don’t mean to suggest that all experienced social workers get everything right, nor that all new social workers get everything wrong, rather that when you are looking at a social worker having the entireity of the assessment process on their shoulders rather than having experts to consult with, the individual ability of that social worker comes into play far more than it did two years ago.]

“That document repeats the apology given to the parents and paternal grandmother for them being at the bottom of the “learning curve” for the allocated social worker.”

[Any underlining is mine, for emphasis]

The child in this case was 2 ½ years old. He had significant needs

X has complex health needs. He was born with hypertonia, suffers from a visual impairment Peters Anomaly Type 1/Anterior Dysgenesis Anomoly, has significant motor delay, scoliosis of the spine and suffers from digestive difficulties. As a result of these health difficulties he requires a standard of care that enables his particular health needs to be met. Such care includes 24 hour postural support, careful monitoring of his diet and significant care when feeding and essential auditory and tactile stimulation to ensure his emotional needs are met and to compensate for his loss of other senses. He has been placed with foster carers since May 2012 under a section 20 agreement.
The parents also had significant needs

10. His parents have their own health difficulties. His mother has cerebral palsy involving weakness in one arm and both legs and a possible mild learning disability. The father was diagnosed as a child with ADHD and is said to have Asperger-like symptoms, although there is no formal diagnosis.

The quality of the assessment and interventions that the parents received were a critical part of the case (and given that the Local Authority apologised in writing, you can make an informed guess that there was some judicial criticism of them)

11. One of the central issues in this case has been the adequacy of the assessments of the parents as to their capacity to care for X. Put simply the parent’s case was that the local authority comprehensively failed in their duties to support X’s continued placement with his parents. It is submitted there has been an unfair process resulting in a catalogue of missed opportunities and inadequate assessments, which have resulted in the parents now being at a significant disadvantage in putting themselves forward to care for X.
12. The local authority acknowledges some of their procedures and assessments have been inadequate, but submit the basic factual background has not changed. This is a young boy who needs exceptional care due to his particular needs and the combination of the parent’s volatile relationship and the father’s inability to provide emotional care for this young boy mean his parents were unable to provide the care he needed.

The Judge follows through the chain of mistakes and missed opportunities
Core assessment
17. A core assessment was started on 23 March 2012 and completed on 25 April 2012. Curiously the core assessment under “Agencies contributing to core assessment” records “No Key Agencies identified”. Under the section asking whether there were any disability or communication issues for the child or parents are to be recorded the box is left blank. This is despite it then being known about some of X’s health difficulties and the body of the assessment refers to his ‘global delay’, the mother having cerebral palsy and learning difficulties and the father Aspergers. The assessment also records in relation to the mother that she was ‘unable to use public transport due her physical disability’. The assessment goes on to record under parents’ views ‘[the parents] do not believe that their difficulties will impede on their capacity to care for or meet their son’s needs and their wish for him to be returned to their care in the very near future’. The parents are recorded as not agreeing with the local authority’s recommendation that X be made the subject of a child protection plan, however it goes on to record that both parents ‘are keen to work with all agencies so that they will be able to care for their son’. In the decision section the ‘No further action’ box was ticked.
18. This was not a promising start. On the face of the document it seems incomprehensible that the core assessment failed to identify the disabilities and communication difficulties that were obvious on the face of the assessment. Of the ‘tick box’ decision options there was included ‘specialist assessment’ and ‘referral to other agency’ yet despite identifying difficulties which required further assessment and the parents expressing their willingness to work with agencies no further action was taken. It is suggested that this was one of the first lost opportunities to support the parents in their wish to care for X. I agree.
Core group meeting
19. There was a core group meeting on 27 April 2012 attended by the parents, maternal grandparents, allocated social worker Ms Perrin, the ATM Mr Taljaard, Ms Livingstone the health visitor and Ms Murdoch (described as other social care staff). The minutes dated 8 June 2012 (some six weeks later) record ‘a residential unit for AB and X was discussed with AB stating that she is not keen for this to happen as this would put further stress on [the parents] as a couple’.
20. At this time X remained in the care of the mother in the maternal grandparents’ home. After the parents reported the mother’s brother’s use of pornographic sites X was placed with foster carers pursuant to section 20. There is no evidence of what, if any, other options within the wider family were explored to enable X to remain being cared for by his mother.
Allocation of new social worker

21. Ms Kim Horrox became the allocated social worker on 29 June 2012. She took over from Claire Stevens. Garth Taljaard was the ATM and remained so until Ms Grindon took over in January 2013, she remains the ATM to date. Ms Horrox qualified in 2011 although she had some previous social work related experience. This was her first case that resulted in care proceedings. By this stage X had been with the foster carers for six weeks.
22. Ms Horrox was clear in oral evidence that at the handover meeting in June 2012 she was informed that a residential assessment had been refused by the mother and was not being further explored. However, this is not consistent with other documents at the same time which seemed to indicate this issue was being actively pursued. There is a record of a discussion with the mother on 15 May 2012 in which she says she would rather go to a mother and baby foster home or residential unit than go back to her parents’ home for further assessment. A letter from the paediatric dietician to the consultant paediatrician on 24 May records that the mother was ‘awaiting a mother and baby placement in foster care for her and X’, it was mentioned as being the preferred plan in a meeting with the safeguarding nurse Mel Baxendale on 29 May 2012 and on 22 June 2012 there is an email from Mr Taljaard ATM after the review CP conference stating that the team manager and area manager have agreed a care plan that allows mother and baby to be placed in an appropriate residential unit for further assessment. This is said to be a further lost opportunity, I agree.
Assessment by the new social worker

24. Ms Horrox stated that on taking the case over she wished to conduct her own assessment of the parents and make her own judgment. She met with the parents on 3 July and on 17 July a youth support worker informed Ms Horrox that the mother was declining support from adult services. Ms Horrox accepted in oral evidence that she should have been more creative in helping the mother access appropriate support.
Assessment of the parents

29. In February/March 2013 there was a referral by Ms Horrox to the adult services team for an assessment to be conducted as the parents were said now to be consenting to such an assessment. It is accepted by Ms Horrox that this referral was not accepted by the relevant team until 23 September 2013 some 7 months later. Ms Horrox said in evidence that having made the referral she chased it three times and on the third time was told it needed to be sent to the ‘transition team’, that required a different referral form which she completed and sent. That was apparently deleted by mistake, once that was discovered a further referral was sent and then, finally, it was ‘actioned’. I agree this was another lost opportunity.

 

Delay in issuing / drift in section 20
30. The care proceedings were issued on 25 March 2013, 10 months after X had been placed with foster carers and over 4 ½ months after the local authority issued letters of intent to the parents informing them of their intention to issue proceedings. Ms Horrox frankly accepted in evidence this delay was unacceptable, she acknowledged it was her first case where care proceedings had been issued and had been a ‘steep learning curve for her’. She agreed with Ms Jenkins on behalf of the father that it was not fair the parents were at the bottom of this learning curve she said ‘I apologise for it being at the expense of this family’.
Lack of supervision of the social worker
31. Despite the volume of material in this case and the length of the social work statements there is little, if any, evidence of effective supervision of Ms Horrox between June 2012 and September 2013. If there had been it would have been expected such unacceptable delays would have been picked up and effectively managed.

 

Failure to consider of all of the options
32. The local authority care plan at the time the proceedings were started was, in reality, adoption, although Ms Horrox said she kept an open mind. The discussions she had had with the mother at the PLO meeting in November was in the context of long term placement with Mr and Mrs SG, either under a care order, adoption or SGO. In her evidence Ms Horrox kept talking about ‘parallel planning’ but there was no evidence of any effective parallel assessment of the parents’ ability to care for X at the same time as investigating alternatives in the care of the local authority. That is what parallel planning means. It is right the mother is recorded at the meeting in November as effectively supporting the long term placement of X with Mr and Mrs SG but that was without legal advice and in circumstances where there was no evidence of any alternative involving X being cared for by his family being actively discussed at that time.

The social work assessment in proceedings being flawed

33. Following transfer of the proceedings to the County Court the first effective hearing was not until 13 August. HHJ Cushing case managed the four significant hearings between then and 17 October 2013 when the deficits in the assessments undertaken by the local authority became clear. In essence a parenting assessment had been undertaken by Ms Horrox without the benefit of any assessment from adult services, and the subsequent assessment by adult services was accepted by the local authority to be inadequate. The care plan filed by the local authority on 6 September sought care orders and placement orders with contact with the birth family 4 times a year and made no mention of any outstanding assessments
The failure of the professionals meeting to answer the agreed questions
34. The Professionals Meeting convened on 2 October 2013 was, unfortunately, not a good example of how such a meeting should be structured. The minutes record at the beginning the 8 questions that were described as the purpose of the meeting, which included such matters as what are the identified needs of the Mother and Father, now and in the foreseeable future? What services are required to meet those needs? How can those serves be provided? What services are therefore required to allow the parents to meet X’s needs? This is followed by 9 pages of typed notes of the discussion with a record at the end as follows:
Meeting confirmed that
1) X’s needs are such that he needs consistent care
2) CWD will not offer a service
3) SSD to arrange another TAC meeting (team around the child)
35. In her evidence Ms Horrox agreed with Ms Wiley, on behalf of the mother, that this meeting did not answer the questions at the beginning, although it is clear from the record of the meeting that both the CWD team and the AWD team informed the meeting that they could only do assessments of the parents if X returned home, which seemed an unnecessarily unhelpful and rigid position to take. This was another lost opportunity.

 

 
The failure of the community based assessment

 

37. The matter came before Mostyn J on 22 October 2013. He transferred the case to the High Court and the order provides for further comprehensive community assessments to be conducted with a recital recording that ‘the court indicating that there should be an independent element to the assessment and that if a different person from both the Children with Disability Team and the Adult Team undertake the assessment, this would constitute that independent element’.
38. A 6 week community based assessment plan was devised at the end of October which included the children with CWD and AWD teams. The assessments were completed in early December 2013 and involved nearly 100 hours of observed assessment by the various teams. The matter came before me on 18 December. I made directions leading to the final hearing on 12 March 2014. It transpired that Ms Gomesz carried out one of the assessments. She had been part of the earlier assessments, this was not made clear by the local authority in the evidence they filed. When the Children’s Guardian made enquiries she was informed there was no one else available and, in any event, it was too late to do anything about it. Whilst there is no criticism of the work undertaken by Ms Gomesz it was not what was intended by the order made by Mostyn J.
By the end of all of this (and a further independent social work assessment) consensus had been reached between the parties that the current foster carers who wanted to permanently care for X were the best people to do this.
This must be one of the most damning paragraphs I have ever read in a family court judgment. It is heart-breaking. We should NEVER be in this position.
48. I am satisfied the agreement reached in this case does meet X’s welfare needs. Whilst it will never be known if the correct assessments of the parents had been undertaken earlier, as they should have been, whether the parents would have been in a position to care for X the reality is now the comprehensive assessments undertaken since are united in their conclusions that the parents would not be able to care full time for X, even with extensive support being provided. Those assessments have been subject to the critical eyes of two independent people.

 
If all of that were not enough, the Court went on to make four particular findings about the failings of the Local Authority
(1) Delay generally and, in particular, in issuing proceedings
72. Some of the delays in this case have been wholly unacceptable. There are three specific examples that illustrate the point:
1) X was placed with foster carers in May 2012, care proceedings were not issued until March 2013 some 10 months later. The fact of that delay put the parents in an increasingly difficult position to seek to restore X to their care, as there was no structure to the period of time prior to the issue of proceedings and they did not have effective access to legal advice. To rely, as Ms Horrox did in her evidence, on the fact that they did not take up the offer of legal advice at the PLO meetings misses the point;
2) The decision to take care proceedings appears to have been made prior to November 2012 yet the proceedings were not issued until some 5 months later. Again leaving the parents in limbo with the local authority, in effect, recommending permanent removal of X from his parents care by way of adoption but the parents not being within the structure of legal proceedings to challenge that was unfair. I appreciate the mother at the November PLO meeting appeared to be endorsing the plan of the local authority, but that was without the benefit of independent legal advice and was perhaps illustrative of the internal struggle she has had about where X’s best interests lay.
3) The delay in the referral to adult services from February/March to September 2013 was unacceptable. It was caused by a catalogue of errors, a lack of effective co-ordination and structure between teams that should be effectively working together. There appeared to be no system in place to chase up referrals.
(2) Ineffective supervision, planning or co-ordination
73. This concern applies in almost every aspect of this case up until late October 2013. There appears to have been a chronic lack of effective supervision of the allocated social worker who was inexperienced and dealing with a complex case. I agree with the observations made by Ms Dove about the lack of effective multi agency planning which should have been in place immediately after the initial core assessment in April 2012. Again three examples well illustrate this area of concern:
1) The initial core assessment dated 25 April 2012 is on the face of it flawed. It details the disabilities both X and the parents have, yet fails to record that in the relevant box which specifically addresses that issue. It records the parents willingness to work with all agencies so that they will be able to care for their son and then in the decision section ignores the options that would flag up further assessment or referral to other agencies and just ticks the ‘no further action box’. There is no evidence these inconsistencies were picked up in any subsequent discussions with the ATM or in any of the meetings.
2) When Ms Horrox took over the case she was clear in her evidence that at the handover a residential assessment was no longer being pursued as the mother did not agree. However other contemporaneous documents, one just a few days before she took over from the ATM is reported to state ‘the team manager and area manager have agreed a care plan that allows the mother and baby to be placed in an appropriate residential unit for further assessment’ and a letter in May refers to the mother waiting to hear about a residential assessment. It is deeply concerning that there appeared to be such a deep level of miscommunication on such a fundamental issue by two of the key social work professionals managing the case.
3) The failure to pick up in supervision (i) there had been no referral to adult services or when there was the delay of six months; (ii) to consider getting advice about how to more effectively communicate with the father; (iii) what further steps could be taken to engage the parents with support services; (iv) filing a care plan seeking adoption when a key referral to the adult disability team was still outstanding (which is not referred to in the Care Plan dated 6 September 2013 or the parenting assessment dated 17 July 2013)

(3) Not keeping an open mind about placement
74. There is a thread of evidence which points towards the local authority making up their mind at a very early stage that X could not be restored to his parent’s care and that, in reality, the options were either adoption or an SGO with his current carers. Whilst Ms Horrox said she retained an open mind, from the parent’s perspective that may not have been readily apparent to them. There is no evidence of a structure as to how that position was reached and an analysis of the options, with the advantages and disadvantages being properly weighed up and considering what support could be available for the parents. From the parent’s perspective it may have seemed an unfair process.
(4) Content of the statements filed on behalf of the local authority
75. The social work statements were far too long and, in part, unfocussed and there was a lack of balance regarding their content. For example, it was extremely difficult to find the core relevant material that underpinned the threshold criteria. There were pages of generalisations which lacked any real evidential value. The lack of balance in the way some of the information in the statement was presented is illustrated by the reference in Ms Horrox’s statement referring to the police being called by the neighbours in early December as the parents were reported to be arguing. The statement records the mother being ‘dishevelled’ is not in the referral from the police, which is the only source of the information. Also, what the statement does not record, which is in the referral document sent by the police to the local authority, is the particular neighbours who alerted the police had been previously arrested for wasting police time for making such calls. That could have been an important context that should have been set out and addressed, not just left out.
76. Another matter that arose in the oral evidence was comments made by the mother in July 2013 regarding her concerns about the paternal grandmother. Whilst those comments were referred to in general terms in the written material the detail only came out under cross examination by Ms Stone on behalf of the Children’s Guardian. Ms Horrox’s instincts were correct that information should have been recorded and disclosed. She was understandably concerned about the management of when it was disclosed, but appeared to be awaiting authorisation from some unspecified person to disclose it. It is right to record that the Court has made no findings about the concerns raised by the mother and no party has suggested that those concerns affect the paternal grandmother’s ability to care for X in the future during periods of contact.
To be fair to the social worker, the Judge outlined that these were not faults that lay entirely with her, but systemic failings
81. The court is acutely aware hard choices have to be made about limited resources but the structural failures in this case, particularly at the early stages, to properly assess the parent’s ability to be able to care for X has caused enormous delay in decisions being made about X’s future care.
82. I should make it clear whilst Ms Horrox has been the person giving evidence and been at the front line, I am satisfied on the information I have seen that the faults appear to be primarily systemic faults within the structure of the local authority. It was Ms Horrox first case where proceedings had been issued. She accepted there were delays in the disability assessments, delays in completing the relevant documentation for care proceedings. Those and other delays should have been picked up by those with responsibility for supervising her much earlier.

 

The Local Authority did take on board those failings and presented the Judge, after the judgment was delivered, with a blueprint for how they proposed to remedy those failings in the future. That doesn’t help this family, who were badly let down.

 

Having reached a broad consensus that X should live with his foster carers and under Special Guardianship Orders, there was also agreement that the Court should review the case in six months time.

62. What is being sought by the parties is for the court to retain a welfare oversight for a short period of time to assist the parties, if required, to deal with issues concerning the welfare of X. In particular to provide a legal framework which kept all parties on equal terms and did not undermine the morale of the parents and made both the parents and the local authority accountable to the court for the maintenance of a proper working relationship.

That posed a problem – how to legally structure that review?
One can easily understand that simply adjourning the care proceedings was not a palatable one, with the LA being in the driving seat, given the raft of criticisms made of them.
The eventual solution settled upon was to give the Local Authority leave to withdraw their application for care proceedings, and for the Court to use its inherent jurisdiction (if one of the parties asked them to)

64. Having considered the position I have reached the clear conclusion that in the very unusual circumstances of this case, and particularly because of the history, the court should accede to the request by the local authority to withdraw the care proceedings and invite one of the parties to issue proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction with the other parties to the care proceedings being joined as parties.
65. I have reached this conclusion for the following reasons:
1) The agreement reached by the parties was on the basis that the local authority does not pursue its findings regarding the threshold criteria and seeks leave to withdraw the care proceedings. It would be inconsistent with the letter and the spirit of that agreement, if the court went on to make findings, albeit on the lower level necessary to found an interim supervision order. The risk with that course is that it may hinder the future good working relationship between the parties which is not in X’s best interests. Particularly as there is going to be a change of team.
2) I am satisfied that the withdrawal of the care proceedings is consistent with X’s welfare. In the light of the agreement reached between the parties it would be wrong to require a trial on the threshold issues in this case. The parents accept X will be cared long term by Mr and Mrs SG under an SGO and they accept the revised care plan put forward by the LA regarding their contact. There would be no demonstrable welfare purpose in such a contested hearing. On the contrary I consider such a trial would seriously risk the positive steps made by the parties in reaching agreement. Having said that I am certainly not prepared to say on a summary basis that threshold could not have been made out in this case. As I indicated in argument, Ms Wiley’s submission at the start of this hearing that the proceedings were unlawful was ambitious and was wisely not pursued. I did not hear all the evidence and whilst it looked like the issues concerning missed medical appointments and failure to provide breakfast on one occasion during the assessment did not stand up to forensic scrutiny there were other issues, such as the parents’ relationship and the emotional care of X that would, if necessary, have required detailed consideration by the court as to whether the threshold criteria was met.
3) X’s welfare requires the parties in this case to look forward. I consider that has the best chance of succeeding if the care proceedings are withdrawn at this stage, rather than lingering on in the way suggested which may hamper the parties on the ground being able to move forward with a proper working relationship, which is what X’s welfare demands.
4) I have been informed by the parties that there are no procedural or funding obstacles in the way of the same parties being re-constituted within different proceedings. This step will not cause delay.
I am not sure that I share the same degree of confidence about funding obstacles, but no doubt some assurances had been obtained from the Legal Aid Agency. Care proceedings receive no questions asked free legal advice for parents (or at least “non means, no merits” funding within tight fiscal limits) whereas representation within the inherent jurisdiction sounds to me like it will be entirely discretionary for the Legal Aid Agency.

 

When is a duty not a duty ? (when it falls on CAFCASS, of course)

 

A brief analysis of the Court of Appeal decision in R & Others and CAFCASS 2012

 

 

http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/853.html&query=cafcass&method=boolean

 

 

It may alarm and stagger you to learn that in some cases back in 2009, CAFCASS did not appoint a Guardian immediately to represent children in public law proceedings.  (It would probably alarm and stagger you still less to learn that this was also the case in some private law proceedings, and almost certainly still is)

 

 

There were four individual cases bundled together :-

 

R – care proceedings began 28th June 2009 and a Guardian was allocated by CAFCASS on 15th September 2009   (the risks were of physical harm, and he was in voluntary foster care at the outset of proceedings)

 

E – care proceedings began 22nd December 2009 – there was a finding of fact hearing relating to physical injuries alleged to have occurred when E was just an infant. There never seems to have been a Guardian appointed. This bit (a direct quote) is astonishing even to my jaded palate.

 

“Therefore, other than to inform E’s parents that he was the guardian he did not participate in the case at all. He forgot to inform the court that he was the allocated guardian.” 

 

 

In the words of the immortal P G Wodehouse , on reading that, I inspected my mind and found it to be boggled.

 

J – care proceedings began 30th October 2009  and a Guardian was appointed on 22nd March 2010  (3 weeks after a Letter Before Claim was sent by those representing the mother)

 

K – care proceedings began on 25th August 2009 – on 22nd March 2010 a Guardian was appointed. (Once again, 3 weeks after the Letter Before Claim was sent to CAFCASS)

 

 

 

The case really turns on whether CAFCASS’s duty to represent children and provide Guardians to represent children extends to a duty to do so in any one individual case, or whether it is more of an aspirational global mission statement which does not ensure that any individual child gets proper representation   (note, this sentence does not purport to be in any way neutral and is strictly the author’s rather than the words of any Judge either at first )

 

 

These passages from the Court of Appeal judgment (that of Lord Justice McFarlane) illustrate the sympathy that the Court had with the Claimants argument that appointment of a Guardian is pivotal to the progress of a care case and that doing so in the early stages  (when the issues are separation or not, the levels of interim contact and the shape and nature of assessments) is critical.

 

 

  1. I need absolutely no persuasion as to the essential merits of the complaint that lies behind the claims of each of the four children before this court or of the plea that is now made so forcefully and eloquently on their behalf. Whether one uses the words of the Inquiries that argued for the introduction of the guardian’s role, or the words of the Family Justice Review and the government’s response to it, or those of Charles J and the Divisional Court, the immense importance of the role of a children’s guardian both to the operation of the statutory scheme for protecting children from significant harm and to the quality of outcome for the individual child in each such case is hard to understate. Without, I hope, stretching the metaphor beyond its tolerance: in the tandem model it is the children’s guardian, rather than the child’s solicitor, who steers the course for the child’s representation in the proceedings. A guardian who is appointed promptly at the start of the proceedings can conduct an initial investigation of the circumstances, offer a preliminary analysis of the issues and, crucially, assist the court in crafting the case management directions which will, to a large extent, determine the course and timetable of the litigation.
  1. The great value to the child, the other parties and to the court of appointing a children’s guardian very promptly after the start of proceedings under CA 1989 Part IV has been readily accepted by both sides in this appeal and has, since April 2008, been a key expectation of the PLO (and now the FPR 2010, PD12A). Although  CAFCASS  has, understandably, carefully chosen the word ‘undesirable’ to describe the delay in appointment in the four appellants’ cases, Mr McCarthy has not in any manner sought to justify what occurred in positive terms. All are effectively agreed that the optimal outcome is for a children’s guardian to be appointed promptly in every public law child case. The points made about the importance of representation to any party, particularly one under a disability, are well made. The question raised in this appeal does not, however, concern the desirability of prompt or immediate appointment. The question for us is not one of desirability but one of statutory duty and it is whether  CAFCASS  has a statutory duty, owed to each individual child, to effect the prompt or immediate appointment of a children’s guardian in every such case.
  1. Despite the real sympathy that I have for the plea that lies behind the Appellant’s case, it is necessary to apply a legal, public law, analysis to the arguments raised and to the wording of the key statutory provisions. In doing so, where a choice of statutory construction arises, and a purposive interpretation is called for, I am plain that any purposive construction must point to the early or immediate appointment of a guardian.

 

 

 

But also highlight where this is going – in order to impose a duty on CAFCASS to appoint a Guardian in an individual case and do so promptly, the Court would have to find something within the statutes which creates such a duty in an individual case. If not, CAFCASS escape with the Jedi hand-wave of ‘we represent children in general, just not in this particular case, and at a time that suits us’

 

The Court did not find that such a statutory construction could be derived, and that the earlier decision of Mr Justice Charles in R v CAFCASS 2003

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2003/235.html  remained the correct expression of the law, that there was no duty on CAFCASS in any individual case to appoint a Guardian.

 

 

 

There was then an attempt to argue that the failure of CAFCASS to appoint a Guardian ‘immediately’ on the commencement of proceedings or on direction from the Court led to a breach of Human Rights, variously on articles 6 or 8.  This did not succeed either.

 

 

  1. It may well be that in one or more individual cases where there has been failure by  CAFCASS  to appoint a children’s guardian in a timely manner, or at all, it will be possible to conclude that there has been a breach of the Art 6 and/or Art 8 rights of the individual child before the court. Such a conclusion would, in my view, only be achievable after the completion of the trial process and after it had been evaluated as a whole so as to determine whether or not a violation of these Convention rights had taken place. We are not invited in respect of the four cases before the court to conclude that in any one of them there was an actual breach of Convention rights. It is of note that in none of the four cases did the trial court hold (or was, I suspect, invited to hold) that a breach of Arts 6 or 8 had occurred.
  1. To hold that, of itself, a failure to appoint a children’s guardian immediately upon being directed to do so amounts to a breach of Convention rights, would involve assuming that the judge, the other parties and, in particular, the solicitor for the child (who, we understand, is likely to have been appointed promptly) would have failed to act in a manner which, to some degree, accommodated the lack of guardian and protected the child’s rights. In proceedings under CA 1989, Part 4, the family court itself has a primary duty under the HRA 1998 to conduct its process in a manner which is compatible with the Convention. To hold, as Mr Geekie asks us to do, that a failure to appoint a guardian immediately is sufficient to establish that the proceedings as a whole are bound to be conducted in breach of Art 6 or 8 must involve the assumption that it will be beyond the capacity of the trial judge to ensure a fair trial in the absence of a guardian for any stages of the proceedings.
  1. The issues involved in public child care proceedings are often of the utmost importance to the parents, to the state and above all to the subject child. No one involved in these cases should be under any misapprehension that rights under ECHR Arts 6(1) and 8 will be ‘engaged’ at every stage of the process. There is a duty upon public bodies, of which  CAFCASS , the local authority and the court are three, to act at all times in a manner which is compatible with the convention (HRA 1998, s 6(1)). It is against that background that  CAFCASS  readily accepts the duty that Charles J found lay within s 12 of the 2000 Act to appoint a children’s guardian as soon as practicable after the request is made. Although not expressly argued before him, the ECHR arguments that we have heard support the conclusion to which Charles J arrived, just as they support the conclusion of the court below in the present case. It is, however, just not possible to hold that the Appellants’ human rights arguments support the conclusion for which Mr Geekie now argues which would involve holding that in every case a failure to appoint a guardian immediately upon request would inevitably amount to a breach of Convention rights. HRA 1998, s 3 will only give this court jurisdiction to read text into a provision where the provision is not otherwise compatible with the Convention rights. Nothing short of a finding on the level I have described would make it permissible for this court to ‘read in’ to s 12 of the 2000 Act a requirement for immediate appointment which, as Charles J has held, is not otherwise present.
  1. Even if, contrary to the foregoing, the effect of Arts. 6 and 8 were to require the immediate appointment of a guardian in every case, it would not justify the court adopting, pursuant to HRA 1998 s.3, a different interpretation of s.12 from that which otherwise be adopted in accordance with the normal principles of statutory construction under domestic law. That is because the CJCSA 2000 contains its own mechanism for the laying down of any appropriate time limits, by means of directions under paragraph 9 of schedule 2, and any requirement as to immediate appointment of a guardian could be imposed by such directions. Compatibility with the Convention could therefore be achieved within the terms of the Act without any need to adopt a different interpretation of s.12 in order to produce such a result. The fact that the statutory mechanism would call for action by the Lord Chancellor in making the relevant directions would not be a good reason for the court to adopt a different interpretation of s.12.
  1. Despite fully acknowledging the very real importance of achieving the appointment of a children’s guardian for a child who is the subject of care proceedings at an early stage in every case, I am entirely satisfied that the decisions of Charles J in R v  CAFCASS  and of the Divisional Court in the present case are sound and correctly describe the duty upon  CAFCASS  under CJCSA 2000, s 12.

 

 

The battle-weary amongst you may be saying, so what?  These cases were all 2009 and we know that CAFCASS were having huge problems now and that these are conquered.

 

I, however, am feeling uncomfortable that this case is a continuation of the green light for CAFCASS should workloads increase or staff numbers decrease in the future, to run what I’ve described in the past as a homeopathic Guardian service, where the active ingredient of a Guardian actually being involved in the case talking, reading, listening and observing becomes so dilute that there is barely any of it.  It imports the ability for CAFCASS to run a sort of ‘triage’ service where they determine which cases need a Guardian straight away, and which can potter along on their own until the work-load crisis ameliorates a little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also feel uncomfortable than in the last two months, the family Courts have decided that family Court judges have no sway, influence, or jurisdiction over :-

 

(a)  CAFCASS if they drag their heels appointing a Guardian, or

(b)  The Legal Services Commission if they decide they don’t want to pay the costs of an assessment or want to quibble over the bill to an extent where the proceedings are catastrophically delayed whilst that is resolved, and where it is apparently okay for them to tell the President of the Family Division that they don’t come to Court when they are ordered to and just ignore those orders.

 

And leaving the remedy for both being judicial review for Wednesbury unreasonable individual examples  (ignoring the difficulties in funding, proving, litigating and timely resolution of this, and that what is needed is general principles, not individual case resolution piece by piece, and that almost certainly the judicial review courts will quickly stamp on these sorts of cases because they are already swamped in ongoing JRs)

 

Although we haven’t had a case about whether the Court can make the Official Solicitor move more quickly in representing the most vulnerable in our society, I have little doubt that the outcome on that would be the same; we’re already inviting them in more and more courteous terms to do the job that they are charged with.

 

Whilst in the same broad period of time decided that their judicial muscles can be flexed in making LA’s pay the costs of intervenors who happen to triumph in their cases.

 

Is the LA now the only body who can be cheerfully pushed around by the Court? It begins to look that way.

 

And Justice Ryder’s recent speech on modernisation points that way too (my underlining)  :-

 

There is a place for independent social work and forensic experts to advise on discrete issues that are outside the skill and expertise of the court or to provide an overview of different professional elements in the most complex cases but regard must be had to why those who are already witnesses before the court have not provided the evidence that is necessary and who should pay for it when it is missing.

 

Who on earth could he mean? Are the Courts going to order CAFCASS to pay when a report needs to be commissioned because Guardians are no longer the independent active ‘Court’s eyes and ears on the ground’ that they used to be?   Or are they just going to make the LA pay for everything and blame it on poor quality social work reports? I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

I suggest that the Government take half the money that is currently spent on psychologists and Independent Social Workers, and put the Guardian service back the way it was, with staff given caseloads and time to actually be the independent social work check and balance and voice of the child they were intended to be. The reason for the proliferation of experts is because we no longer allow Guardians to do the job they signed up to do and that very very many of them were extremely good at doing.

 

As a footnote on my snarky comments about mission statements, the best advice I ever read about them is to imagine that they say the opposite. If that becomes ridiculous then the mission statement is meaningless.  (i.e This Organisation wants to please its customers – the reverse is not something that would be true of any business, thus the mission statement is redundant nonsense. If nobody could possibly disagree with it, it isn’t meaningful. For example  “We’re against nuclear war” is meaningless, “We’re against nuclear power” is not – there’s a degree of choice and standpoint with the latter – you could agree or disagree, whereas really nobody is in favour of nuclear war)

 

 

Oh Ofsted, you’re such a, you’re such a hot temptation…

 

(A summary of the Right on Time Ofsted report into delays in adoptions)

 

 

 

 

Ofsted have prepared a report about the adoption process, which is an interesting read, particularly in conjunction with the Government’s own independent look at this, and the groundswell of political and media opinion that something has to be done.

 

I would not describe myself as an uncritical admirer of Ofsted, but this does actually read like a good solid piece of work, and they have examined the process and inspected those well-known saws about adoption panels causing delay, politically correct social workers delaying things to look for ethnic matches, and considered whether there is in reality any truth to it.

 

The report is available here  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/right-time-exploring-delays-adoption

 

 

They visited nine Local Authorities, with a good geographical spread. I have the advantage of having worked at one of those authorities, which is always nice to see.

 

The report outlines some helpful local initiatives – I particularly liked Norfolk’s “Family Law Summit”  and a few of the authorities had appointed professionals to perform a liaison job between the social work and family finding tasks and the Court process  (what you might call the “Claude Makele role of social work”  – okay, you might not, but I just did)

 

 

Adoption Panels

 

 

I think often Adoption Panels are an unwitting scapegoat in delays, with under pressure and beleaguered social workers, questioned about why their final evidence is late find themselves throwing out the “I couldn’t get a Panel date” excuse, which is too often accepted uncritically.  (And when did you first ASK for a Panel date, and when were you told you couldn’t get one, being the supplementary questions that never get asked)

 

And so we have a culture nationally that the judiciary and family lawyers generally think that Adoption Panels are nothing but a blight on the process, delaying matters whilst they drink tea and eat warm curled-up potted meat sandwiches in an airless room.

 

Ofsted haven’t actually bought into that myth….  (bolding here is mine)

 

71. Inspectors found no evidence of adoption panels contributing to delay, either in their responses to cases or in their capacity to meet the fluctuating but generally increasing number of cases presented to the panel.

72. All adoption panels made efforts to meet these demands by convening additional meetings when necessary. One panel had held four extraordinary meetings in the last 12 months to ensure that recommendations were made on time. Another had increased the number of regular panel meetings; yet another had already met three times in the month that inspectors visited. Elsewhere, a panel had used the opportunity to hear a case during their recent panel training day. Three additional panel dates were arranged as a contingency by one local authority, although they had not been required.

73. Effective arrangements were made to ensure that panels were quorate. One agency had recruited additional panel members to increase flexibility. Another had two panels but members could sit on either panel as required. Vice chairs stood in for panel chairs as necessary.

74. Inspectors saw several examples of the flexibility of panels in reducing delay in cases they were tracking. In two cases, the approval of adopters and the matching of those adopters with children were recommended on the same day. This was done to ensure that introductions and placement could commence more promptly. In one of the cases, this avoided the further delay of having to wait for the placement to commence until after the sensitive period of Christmas.

75. In one local authority, the variable quality of reports and the perceived lack of management oversight of these reports prior to panel meetings were identified as significant problems which caused delays in the progression of some cases. Nearly all panel chairs, however, reported that the quality of paperwork was uniformly high.

76. The Family Justice Review made a recommendation, accepted by the government that the requirement that local authority adoption panels must consider the suitability of an adoption plan for a child should be removed. There were mixed views about this. Some, mainly court or Cafcass representatives, felt that as adoption was a legal process, this was an unnecessary duplication of the court’s task. Panel chairs in particular felt that the panel discussions brought a range of perspectives and areas of expertise that added rigour to the decision-making process. Inspectors did not, however, find that the panel’s scrutiny of the case added delay for children. There was no evidence in the tracked cases that panel decision-making about the suitability of adoption delayed final hearings.

 

Politically correct yoghurt-knitting social workers insisting on ethnic matches

 

Ofsted did not consider that this crude stereotype, much beloved of the popular press was accurate.   (I recall vividly having had to search through Hansard on the debates on the Adoption and Children Bill, to see if they had addressed a particularly quirky lacunae, and the debate was 98% about same-sex adopters and unmarried adopters, and 2% sheer drivel, much of that drivel being hackneyed clichéd garbage about whether all social workers wear corduroy trousers. It was incredibly demoralising to see that MPs charged with delivering a legal framework for some of the most vulnerable in our society were so utterly out of touch with the real world)

 

11. Careful consideration was seen to be given to how the ethnic and cultural needs of children could be met. As in the wish to keep siblings together, the objective of seeking to meet these needs had to be balanced against other demands, such as the need to avoid delay. There was no evidence that local authorities were only looking for the ‘perfect’ or exact ethnic match, reflecting stated policies regarding adopter recruitment and permanence.

12. While local authorities paid due attention to ethnic or cultural needs, decisions to look for a ‘best fit’ were generally made promptly. In nearly all the cases seen by inspectors, ethnic and cultural issues did not cause delays. There were several examples where minority ethnic children had been placed with adopters from a similar background, with no delay. In those cases where it proved hard to find suitable adopters who could meet children’s needs in those areas, but were not necessarily from the same background, delays typically ranged between one and six months.

 

 

 

 

Court proceedings and assessments

 

The finger does get well and truly pointed at the plethora of assessments and the often sequential nature of such assessments, being the main factor in delay, however.

 

[I am reminded here of my all-time hero, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who stung by a series of letters to The Times about what varying things were making our great country go to the dogs, wrote his own pithy letter. Dear Sirs, I know exactly what is wrong with this country. It is me. Yours faithfully, G K Chesterton]

26. The most significant cause of delay in tracked cases was the length of time taken for care proceedings to be concluded before an adoption plan could be confirmed. The average duration of completed care proceedings in tracked cases was slightly under 14 months. The individual local authority area average for these cases ranged from 11 months to 20 months.

29. Additional and repeat assessments during care proceedings, generally occurring sequentially, were found by inspectors to contribute to the delay in achieving permanence for children in 20 (38%) of the cases tracked. This figure does not include those cases where the ability of parents and extended family members to care for children was quite properly assessed as part of proceedings in a timely manner. The 20 cases were cases where repeat or late assessments had a measurable and adverse impact on the timely granting of a placement order. Delay for these children was measured in months, or in some cases, years.

 

Now, one has to be careful here, because the Inspectors were looking back at cases which ultimately had unsuccessful outcomes (in that the child/children were adopted, rather than could be placed within the family), so there is a danger in drawing inferences about cases generally; since obviously all cases that end in adoption did not have assessments which made the positive difference and ended up with rehabilitation.

 

I happen to think that it is probably right that in 75% of cases, those second opinion assessments, when you’ve already done one thorough assessment, tell you nothing at all and make no difference.  The trick is, in determining whether the instant case before you is one of the 75% or the 25%.

 

32. There was a common perception that the courts’ anxieties about upholding the Human Rights Act[1] often overrode the ‘no delay’ principle of the Children Act 1989. There was a general consensus that the court process was adult-centred. One social worker said that children get ‘sucked into court’, without sufficient consideration of the impact on the children’s emotional well-being.

33. In eight cases, the commissioning of independent social work assessments essentially duplicated the task of the allocated local authority social worker and prolonged care proceedings. These assessments generally arose due to a disagreement about the proposed plan between the guardian for the child and the local authority or as a result of effective advocacy on behalf of the parents. In a number of the cases examined, repeat assessments, often ordered late in the process, ended up confirming the outcome of the original assessments but added months to the delay before the child’s future could be determined. In one case, a potential adoptive match was lost, leading to further delay.

 

It is hard to say if this is right; it certainly appears that there’s a correlation between the duration of care proceedings going up  and the introduction of the Human Rights Act  (and I noted from a recent analysis that prior to introducing a 40 week time limit, the average duration of proceedings was below that, and after the 40 week limit the average just went up and up and up  – why? Because once you set a time limit, it is assumed that the run of the mill case will take that limit, and then you add all of the longer ones on top, skewing the average, whereas before there was a time limit, the shorter cases would end earlier)

 

But correlation is not causation.  It could well be that the decisions of the Court of Appeal, quashing Judge’s decisions when they had tried to resist independent assessments had more to do with the proliferation of second opinion expert reports than the HRA  – or it could of course be that it was thinking about the HRA that led to those assessments.

I would suggest that in a considerable number of cases, assessments are commissioned not because there is the gap in the evidence envisaged by the Court of Appeal in TL v (1) LONDON BOROUGH OF HAMMERSMITH AND FULHAM (2) ED (3) S (BY A CHILDREN’S GUARDIAN (2011) [2011] EWCA Civ 812  but through fear that if you get to final hearing without a psychological, or an independent social work assessment, or a culturally appropriate expert, that the whole of the final hearing will be spent bemoaning that fact and trying to persuade a Court that it would be unfair to make final decisions without one; so acqueisance to the instruction of an expert is often with a view to it being worse to reach a final hearing in four months time and then have the Court decide to adjourn for a further four-five months to get a psychological assessment rather than get one now, and have the final hearing in six months time.

 

That’s not going to change until the Courts who determine that a further assessment isn’t needed and apply the principles in TL V London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham get the backing for that decision by the Court of Appeal.  It may come on its own, it may require the FJR to be put into statute, it may still not come, but one can’t be surprised that professionals and the Court play cautiously when there’s such a risk of being overturned when robust case management decisions are implemented.

 

This also feeds into the next issue that Ofsted considered, which was the relative weight that social workers evidence gets, compared to that of other professionals.

37. In nearly all local authorities, social workers reported that they lacked credibility and status in the court arena. They believed that the lack of confidence in the quality of local social work assessment resulted in a reliance on independent ‘expert’ assessments, and therefore an increase in the duration of care proceedings. Several representatives from Cafcass and the courts, including senior judges, shared this view.

38. Social workers in several local authority areas were frustrated by a sense that they were not perceived as ‘experts’ in their own right and they felt that independent assessments were not often of superior quality to their own. Managers and social workers in some of these local authorities felt that the implied criticism was unfair, and based on an historical reputation that was no longer warranted.

39. In some areas, Cafcass and the court representatives accepted that the general view of social workers may in part be based on an out-of-date stereotype, but nearly all stressed that the uneven quality of local authority social work assessment remained a problem and was the main factor in the high number of repeat and independent assessments.

40. Senior managers in four local authorities openly expressed their concern that too many social workers responsible for cases in care proceedings did not yet have the necessary expertise and experience to undertake the work well. In particular, they believed that some social workers struggled to consider permanence issues adequately among all the immediate demands of court work including undertaking family assessments, managing contact arrangements and carrying out the myriad responsibilities associated with looked after children.

It is a particular bugbear of mine that Courts continue to give Guardian’s evidence the same weight as they did in the early days of the Children Act 1989, when Guardians really were the independent eyes and ears and a check and balance that the Act envisaged, rather than the Diet-Diet-Diet Guardian we currently have, as a result of CAFCASS trying to manage the service within budget by diluting the service. The next dilution of the service will result, I think, in homeopathic Guardians, where they are so dilute that there is no longer any actual connection with the child in question at all. No doubt they will still have a placebo effect…  Ofsted acknowledge that this gap between a social worker’s opinion and that of the Guardian exists.

 

 

 

43. There was a general perception within local authorities that children’s guardians were likely to be more experienced than the local authority social workers and that their views, as a result, carried more weight. Several Cafcass and court representatives acknowledged that this perception may, however generalised or mistaken, have sometimes affected courts’ decision-making.

44. In one case, the local authority had a firm plan for adoption but at a directions hearing as part of the ongoing care proceedings, it was agreed that the plan should be changed to reunification with the child’s mother. Both the social worker and the senior manager reflected that the local authority had been ‘railroaded’ into this change of plan; in their view the social worker’s low status in court compared with that of the guardian, who supported the change in plan, was a key contributing factor. The social worker did not feel equipped to challenge the court’s position and the local authority acknowledged that its own legal advice was insufficiently robust. The plan for a return home was not successfully implemented and there was now likely to be a delay of over a year for the child to be adopted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local Authority legal representation

 

It would be wrong of me, as a local authority lawyer, to gloss over the complaints and issues identified in the Ofsted report about people like me across the country.

45. Views varied on the quality of local authority legal advice. Social workers and managers did not always feel that legal representatives robustly challenged parents’ solicitors or guardians. One authority had recently altered its commissioning arrangements for obtaining legal advice, and each consultation now incurred a fee. This was designed to discourage a previous over-reliance on legal advice, but there was a general consensus that access to legal advice was now actively discouraged by managers and, consequently, was sometimes delayed.

 

Working relationships between Local Authorities, CAFCASS and the Courts

 

50. Inspectors found that the relationship between the main participants in the court process was often marked by mistrust – ‘There is an inherent tension here between social workers and guardians,’ said one senior Cafcass manager – and it appeared at times to be adversarial, with each often blaming the other for faults in the system. This tension, however, was less evident in areas where more regular meetings between key agencies were held to address shared concerns and had promoted the development of more constructive and mutually understanding relationships.

51. In all local authority areas, inspectors heard that key court stakeholders met on a regular basis, but often those meetings concentrated on business issues of the court and were acknowledged to lack focus on outcomes for children. Other examples of joint working included regional away days, training, and development work as part of a local performance improvement group. Too often, however, these meetings were erratically attended or had ceased to be convened and most of the professionals spoken to by inspectors felt that they had not had a measurable impact. There was often a lack of consistency in reports about joint activity across local areas, reflecting a low awareness among professionals of how the different partners worked together.

 

 

These are much the same concerns as highlighted in the Family Justice Review, that there is mutual suspicion, distrust and blame, between the different organisations who are trying to deliver family justice. This clearly is a problem, and the bit I have put in bold above is something telling, but the first time that I’ve seen someone brave enough to put it into writing.

 

Maybe Norfolk’s idea of (peace) Summits is a good one.  I for one look forward to being involved in such talks, and perhaps we should introduce the UN Model of simultaneous translation too, since Local Authorities, Cafcass and the Courts all seem to be speaking slightly different languages.


 

 

 

sound the action klaxon, summon action jackson…

It is all go today, good job it is my non-working day. My bits will be in bold, on this piece – the non-bold stuff is directly from the report.

The much-vaunted Government Adoption Action Plan is finally published. No longer will we have to rely on scraps on information leaked by Ofsted or behind paid firewalls at the Times (just a little gripe that if you are going to launch far-reaching policy guidance on vulnerable children, maybe making people pay Rupert Murdoch if they want to read it isn’t the greatest plan)

Here’s where it is  (in usual government style, it takes a while to find by searching, so I’ll save people the trouble)

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/a/an%20action%20plan%20for%20adoption.pdf

Firstly, tackling delay in adoption is a laudable aim, as is trying to do something about the disparity of time that children of different ethnicity have to wait, and promoting the concept that adoption might be something that more people want to try and removing some of the more unnecessary barriers to good-hearted people coming forward are all good things. 

Let’s see if they’ve accidentally thrown the baby out with the bathwater, however. The headlines flying around suggest that the report is yet more micro-management and exactly the sort of Tony-Blair target-setting that has (a) worked so badly in the NHS and (b) Munro thought so little of.  Are those headlines reflective of the report as a whole, or have the Government just done a press-release for the media that’s all “tough on lazy social workers, tough on political correctness gone mad” but with a report that is actually much more nuanced and thoughtful?

A shocking statistic early on  (albeit from 2004) – that 42% of looked after children aged between 5-10 had a mental disorder of some kind – this being five times the figure for children of that age-group generally.

The current number of looked after children under five is 15,680 and growing quickly.

.Delays in the adoption system cause lasting harm for vulnerable children, and may rob them of their best chance of the love and stability of a new family.  Based on an in-depth study of the case histories of 130 older looked after children for whom adoption had been identified as the best option, Dr Julie Selwyn concluded that: ‘delay in decision making and action has an unacceptable price in terms of the reduction in children’s life chances
and the financial costs to local authorities, the emotional and financial burden later placed on adoptive families and future costs to society’. We must not and will not allow unnecessary delay to continue

There’s a nice recognition of both the important role that social workers have, and the risks of breakdown – it is pleasing to see some proper research being commissioned into adoption breakdowns  (I’m sure we’ve all heard different figures bandied about, to suit various agendas, as to what proportion of adoptions break down and it will be good to get a definitive answer, and hopefully some better understanding of the factors that lead to this and how we can address them.)

32.Social workers have an extremely sensitive, challenging, and important job to do.  We expect them to make decisions which change lives, on what can only ever be imperfect evidence.  We owe them a great deal of gratitude.
33.When a social worker is considering a decision about adoption, the risks of getting it wrong are all too evident in terms of the impact on vulnerable children, birth parents and adoptive parents.  What can be less obvious is the harm done to the child by delaying adecision in order to allay all remaining doubts.
34.Social workers need time to gather the necessary evidence, work with birth parents and provide the basis for a robust decision.  Some argue that efforts to speed up adoption will lead to an increase in adoption breakdown, by forcing social workers and local authorities to make rushed and therefore lower quality decisions.  Adoption breakdown is of course an important issue and we currently have too little data and evidence about it.  Estimateshave tended to put it at around 20%, but in his recent report, Martin Narey convincingly argued that the true figure was much lower – around ten percent for children adopted under the age of five, and just three percent for those adopted under the age of one.  He cited a study which followed a high risk group of children – adopted between the ages of five and eleven – until their fourteenth birthday. It found that 23% of the adoptions had broken down by that age, which would suggest a much lower rate for adopted children overall.  We have commissioned the University of Bristol to undertake further research into the rate of and reasons for breakdown
35.But it is too simplistic to argue that speedier adoption will lead to more adoption breakdown.  First, it is wrong to suggest that unnecessary delay in the system is all down to social worker decision-making – the causes are much more widespread and include the regulatory and accountability frameworks, the supply of prospective adopters and issues in the family justice system. Second, as we have seen, taking longer to make decisions is in itself harmful to children and reduces the chance of successful adoption

This also sounds like a sensible proposal

.Currently, the generic degree for social workers contains limited content on child development, attachment theory and other relevant research from neuroscience, and very little on adoption.  The Government is asking that universities address these gaps as a matter of urgency
43.The Family Justice Review identified a similar issue and suggested that a better understanding of child development and the negative impacts of delay for children was an absolute requirement for all family judges.  It recommended that the Judicial College, the provider of training for judicial office-holders, reflect this in its training for family law work.  The Government accepted this recommendation and will work with the JudicialCollege to take it forward.
44.At present, there is no readily accessible reference material for family justice professionals, such as judges, magistrates and lawyers, on the impact of delay on a child’s development. To address this, the Government has commissioned Professor Harriet Ward to produce some concise but authoritative guidance which summarises the key research evidence in the context of care proceedings.  The Government will make this guidance available later this year

Best-practice – they were taken with the involvement of Coram in adoption, and particularly this model 

We spoke to a number of local authorities who had rigorous case management systems, which were effective in tackling delay.  The London Borough of Harrow, which works with the voluntary adoption agency Coram, holds monthly meetings chaired by a Coram senior manager at which the progress of every child is tracked.  These meetings help social workers to balance the demands on their time and give due regard to the child’s pressing timetable in their decision-making. They provide a forum for delay to be escalated and tackled – for example by widening the search for a family to other agencies.  They can also offer a useful mechanism for the
Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to monitor the local authority’s performance of its functions.  Every looked after child has an IRO, who is appointed by the local authority to quality-assure care planning.
48. Our fieldwork showed that these simple but effective approaches are not yet standard practice.  The Government will therefore work with the Children’s Improvement Board – the consortium of local government representatives responsible for supporting local authorities in improving children’s services – to gather and disseminate best practice in establishing management systems that help ensure swifter high-quality decision-making.

Ethnicity – the big hot potato of a political issue  – the italics are mine here, to show plans for new primary legislation

52.That is not to say that ethnicity can never be a consideration.  Where there are two sets  of suitable parents available then those with a similar ethnicity to the child may be the better match for the child.  Sometimes an ethnic match will be in a child’s best interests, for example where an older child expresses strong wishes.  However, it is not in the best interests of children for social workers to introduce any delay at all into the adoption process in the search for a perfect or even partial ethnic match when parents who are otherwise suitable are available and able to provide a loving and caring home for the child.
53.Similarly, there are approved adopters who are ready and able to offer loving homes but who are too readily disregarded because they are single, or considered too old.  These can, of course, be relevant factors, but we know that in most cases delay and the instability associated with it will be the greater potential cause of damage to the child.
54.The Government will bring forward primary legislation at the next available opportunity to  address these issues.  The overriding principle in finding a match for a child will remain what is in the child’s best interests throughout their life

National register – requirement to search on this register after 3 months if child not placed

56. It also proposes a legislative requirement on all adoption agencies to refer to the Adoption Register all prospective adopters who are not being matched to a child within three months of being approved (provided the adopters agree).

58 .We are also considering other ways of promoting earlier and wider efforts in family finding.  Over the last decade, about 20% of children who have been adopted were placed with adopters recruited and approved by voluntary adoption agencies, but voluntary adoption agencies tell us they could do more.  One of the reasons that many local authorities do not make more use of them is that they think the inter-agency fee is   too high. In fact, Dr Julie Selwyn has found that inter-agency placements cost virtually the same as in-house placements when overheads are taken into account. As part of our work for the summer children in care publication, we intend to review the effectiveness of local authority commissioning arrangements for adoption, and consider whether further action should be taken to increase the role of voluntary adoption agencies in the system.

(I have to confess that this bit makes me apprehensive, and thinking that when some people hear the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ they might possibly be hearing something different to when I hear it. My fear prior to reading this report is that it would be setting up a system that public authorities couldn’t comply with, in order to smuggle in private practice taking over the role of adoption agencies – this being a political belief that private=better than public always, which has served us so well in IT, security guards, the NHS, construction of schools, hospitals etc over the years. This was the first bit that made me shudder, as I am very aware of the gulf that currently exists between in-house and inter-agency placement fees/costs)

Concurrent placements, and make it more easy to convert from fostering to adoption

.We would like the principles behind concurrent planning to be used more widely and for children as well as infants.  Whilst there can be no question of pre-empting a court decision, we want to see local authorities working with family-finding teams as early as possible to find potential permanent carers for children, and children with families who may, if the court agrees, go on to adopt them.  Where a child’s case is still in court and no placement order has been made, these placements are foster placements under the Children Act 1989.
62.While such practice is consistent with the current legislative framework, the Government believes that it should be easier for local authorities to approve prospective adopters as foster carers as this would enable more children to benefit from a greater continuity of care.  We will therefore consult on changes to legislation to enable a more stream-lined process for prospective adopters to be approved as foster carers in appropriate cases. This will enable vulnerable children, for whom there is little likelihood of a return home, tobe placed with their potential permanent carers as early as possible.  Local authorities will make sure that carers have the necessary skills, training and ongoing support to meet the needs of the child who is being fostered whilst allowing full consideration of the placement order application by the courts, and the birth family will continue to be supported.

I’m very excited about the idea of concurrent placements and think that it has potential to really transform outcomes for children. I was very excited when I first came to my area that it was something they did, but in three years, I’ve not done a single one, and the distrust of it amongst other family justice practitioners has made it unworkable. I can see a real and genuine fear amongst those acting for parents that foster carers (who often are a source of primary evidence about say, how the children react to contact or missed contacts) might find themselves in a conflict of interest if they are at the same time hoping to adopt the child AND providing the Local Authority with evidence about the children.

Recruitment and training of adopters   (all seems sensible – though I’m not sure four months gives the time both for a robust assessent and for the prospective adopters to have really undergone the rigorous self-examination that is required)

76.At the heart of the proposals is a radically redesigned two stage training and assessment process.  For the majority of prospective adopters the first stage (pre-qualification) will be completed within two months and the second (full assessment) within four.  There will be a fast-track process for people who have adopted before, or who are already approved foster-carers who wish to adopt a child in their care.
77.The pre-qualification phase will involve initial training and preparation – clearly separated from the full assessment phase.  During this stage, prospective adopters will use initial training sessions and online training materials to develop their understanding of adoption and to reflect on what they have to offer before progressing with their application.  The full assessment stage will consist of more intensive preparation and training and a new more streamlined and analytical assessment process. Adoption agencies will sign up to assessment agreements with prospective adopters setting out what will be involved and what the timetable will be, given their particular circumstances.
78.We think this new process has the potential to improve significantly the quality of the service that prospective adopters receive from the adoption system and to begin to increase the numbers that enter and complete the assessment process while providing the appropriate rigour. This in turn will improve its reputation and attract greater numbers of prospective adopters.  We accept these proposals outright.  Implementing them fully will require changes to regulations, statutory guidance and the National Minimum Standards. The Government will consult on the necessary changes later this year, with aview to implementing them as early as possible next year.  In the meantime, theGovernment will work with the national and local agencies represented on the WorkingGroup to prepare for successful implementation of the new system.   BAAF has produced a draft new assessment form and intends to pilot this over the coming months.  We agree in principle with the proposal that the government develop new online training materials,and will consider further how they can best be developed.
A new national gateway to the adoption system  – again, seems sensible that adopters can get a secondary route into the process and not be solely reliant on their own LA

79.The Working Group’s second key proposal is the creation of a new national gateway to the adoption system.  This would complement adoption agencies by providing a central point of contact for anyone interested in adoption.  Through a telephone helpline and website, it would provide independent advice and information about adoption and how to apply to become an adopter.  In particular, it would make sure those interested in adoption knew they were not obliged to adopt through their local authority, and help them to choose the right agency for them in their local area.  It would also assess management  information about how prospective adopters are treated and support a national customer service charter.
80.We think the proposal for a new national gateway could dramatically improve the experience of those who enquire about adoption.  We think it could also help prospective adopters to exercise greater choice and so encourage improvement by adoption agencies.  We accept the proposal in principle but before we begin to implement it, we want to consider whether the gateway’s remit should extend further.  Should it for example have a role in supporting prospective adopters to hold local authorities, voluntary agencies and consortia to account for the quality of their service?  Should it be linked to the Adoption Register – the other national element in what is primarily a local system?  Should we seek to encourage all prospective adopters to use it as a first point of contact to ensure it has a comprehensive national picture of the supply of adopters? We will explore these questions and others, with the help of the Working Group, in order to develop a final proposal in time for the summer children in care publication.  We welcome the proposal for a customer service charter and we have asked the WorkingGroup to develop its contents, as we consider the proposal for a national adoption gateway

There’s also discussion of an “adopter’s passport” which will be a transparent guarantee of the support adopters will get – sounds very sensible (silent as to whether there will be more funds for adoption support, and silence speaks volumes, as we all know)

The adoption scorecard  (this is where the ghosts of Tony Blair and John Major’s cones hotline came in and rested cold skeletal hands on my shoulder, but I don’t think it is necessarily as bad as the truly awful name suggests – it might actually be a way of getting some quality information as to where the problems exist so that they can be targeted – and I mean where in the system more than where in the country)

A new adoption scorecard
94.All of this will make a difference, but we need to go further if we are to get the system from where it is now to where it needs to be to best serve children in need of adoption.
95.Generally, the Government does not believe in managing the performance of local authorities from the centre by reference to a large and comprehensive set of targets and indicators. In most circumstances, we think it is more effective for local authorities to be held accountable by their local residents through democratic means.  However, where necessary, we continue to take action ourselves to ensure adequate services are provided to the vulnerable. Looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society and they are not in a strong position to hold the local authority – who acts as their parent – to account.  It is clear that the current inspection and accountability frameworks have not secured the improvements needed to maximise their chances of being placed quickly in a safe and loving home.
96.At present, all but a small handful of local authorities fail on average to meet the timescales that statutory guidance sets out for the different parts of the assessment process.  And there is huge variation between local authorities.  Large numbers of them fall short by a significant margin, with the very slowest local authorities taking an average of nearly three years for a child to go from entering care to being placed for adoption.  As this Action Plan has made clear there are a variety of reasons for this, but for the sake of children whose best future depends on timely adoption, we need to increase the focus of the adoption system on eradicating unnecessary delay.
97.In the coming weeks, the Government will therefore publish new adoption scorecards for each local authority, which will then be updated annually when new data become available.  The scorecards will highlight key indicators for how swiftly local authorities place children in need of adoption and how swiftly they and adoption agencies deal with prospective adopters.  They will allow local authorities and other adoption agencies to monitor their own performance and compare it with that of others.  Because comprehensive national data on timeliness for prospective adopters will not be available until autumn 2014, the scorecard will focus initially on local authorities and the adoption process for children.  In the interim, we will assess the timeliness of the prospective adopter’s journey in a cross-section of adoption agencies as they prepare to implement
the new training and assessment process. From 2014, the scorecards will include data on prospective adopters and will be published for all adoption agencies so that they can
compare their performance in relation to timeliness with each other (see figure 1 below).

98.The first key indicator will relate to the overall experience of a child who is adopted. It will measure the average time it takes for a child who goes on to be adopted from enteringcare to moving in with his or her adoptive family.  The local authority leads this process, working with the child, the birth parents and the prospective adopters, but they share the responsibility for parts of this process with the other agencies in the family justice system,  including the courts and Cafcass.  Where this indicator signals weaknesses in the family justice system in a local area, this will be tackled both through the work of the Family Justice Board at national level and the Local Family Justice Operational Boards.
99.The second key indicator will look at the same period, but identify the proportion of  children who wait longer for adoption than they should.  It will help ensure the scorecard takes account of children still waiting, as well as those who have already been adopted – and allow us to act quickly if a large number of children seem to be stuck in the system in a particular local area.
100. The third key indicator will test the speed and effectiveness of family-finding.  It will measure the average time it takes for a local authority to match a child to an adoptive family once the court has formally decided that adoption is the best option.  Family finding is a part of the adoption process which is the sole responsibility of the local authority so this indicator will always give an undiluted picture of their performance.  We will measure the time it takes to match a child, rather than for the child to move in with their new family because we recognise that a smooth introductory phase is vital and will be different for each child. As we set out in chapter one, family-finding should begin as soon as a child is identified as needing adoption, and run in parallel with other parts of the adoption process. In many cases, prospective adopters should be ready and waiting
for the child when the placement order is made.
102. The introduction of the scorecard does not mean that we are asking adoption agencies to focus on the timeliness of adoption to the exclusion of everything else that makes a difference to a child’s adoption.  It is designed to incentivise the adoption system to give timeliness greater attention than it previously has.  We don’t want it to distort local authority decisions about whether adoption is the best option for children, for example by discouraging them from placing some children for adoption – such as older children, those in sibling groups or those with complex needs.  Both the Department, in looking at local authority performance in relation to the scorecards, and Ofsted in their inspections, will take account of and give credit to local authority efforts to place childrenfor whom it is difficult to find a family.  We will therefore include amongst the additional
information the numbers of older children being adopted, and the numbers of children where the local authority initially decides adoption is the best option, but revisits and changes that decision before the child is adopted

The overall target – there’s a recognition that one can’t make immediate dramatic transformations, and it is more stepped

. Initially, our performance threshold for the child’s journey overall will be twenty one months.  Within four years, it will be fourteen months. The threshold for the family finding indicator will be seven months initially, moving down to four months within four years. We will keep these thresholds under review as we develop and implement the changes to the adoption system set out in this Action Plan and elsewhere.  Achieving this level of transformation will help protect thousands of children from the harm associated with delay and instability

What’s at the end of the stick, Vic ?   (as usual, it is Ofsted, the paragon of good practice everywhere. Sorry, my SARCASMLOCK button got pressed accidentally there) Note the really big stick in my italics at the end.

105. In line with our general approach to local government, we expect the sector to lead efforts to ensure local authorities and the family justice system improve in line with these minimum expectations through its own improvement mechanisms.  However, given the vulnerability of these children and the current levels of under performance, central Government can and will intervene where necessary.  The indicators alone do not give a full and authoritative picture of local authority performance so there will be no automatic link between the performance thresholds and intervention. Where local authorities are below one or both of the thresholds, we will look at further information from the performance tables and from Ofsted reports to get a fuller sense of the results they achieve for the children in their care. We will, for example, look at whether poorperformance against the indicators reflects the complex needs of the children being placed for adoption, as opposed to failings in the local authority’s family finding.  We will also consider to what extent a local authority’s performance is already showing signs of improvement, even if the threshold has not yet been met.  Where this exercise substantiates performance concerns triggered by the scorecard indicator, we will have conversations with local authorities about their performance. Ultimately, we will consider where we may need to intervene in order to ensure that local authorities are providing an adequate service to children in need of adoption.
106. Where we need to intervene in the interests of children, we will use improvementnotices to require authorities to take specific action to improve their performance within set timescales. Where performance remains poor and the evidence suggests an authority will be unable to improve its own performance sufficiently, we will not hesitate to use our statutory powers of intervention.  This might involve, for example, directing local authorities to outsource all or part of their adoption service to another higher performing local authority or voluntary adoption agency with a strong record

My overall impressions – not as bad as I had feared – the document has clearly had input from people who have actually had something to do with adoption, rather than being a top-down this is what the Daily Mail will like hatchet job, and whilst I don’t necessarily embrace all of how they want to achieve their goals, the goals themselves are laudable. This reads to me like a genuine attempt to address problems, rather than the Politicians Syllogism  (1. We must do SOMETHING. 2. THIS is SOMETHING. 3. Therefore we must do THIS)

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