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We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me… (or “Beware of the leopard” )

 An analysis of the Government’s consultation on placement of siblings and contact post placement

 

The Government, as is their usual way, published consultation documents on a Saturday, and gave everyone just over a month to respond. [This is becoming closer and closer to Douglas Adam’s jaded viewpoint on planning consultations]

 

” But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard

 

But I digress…

The consultation on sibling placements can be found here:-

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/s/placing%20children%20in%20sibling%20groups%20for%20adoption%20a%20call%20for%20views.pdf

and the one on contact arrangements for children can be found here:-

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/r/contact%20arrangements%20for%20children%20a%20call%20for%20views.pdf

and Martin Narey’s interview about these consultations is here:-

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/doc/m/martin%20narey%20transcript%20on%20adoption.doc

Now, if you were in two minds about whether you wanted to be involved in yet another consultation document, particularly where minds have probably already been made up, as is traditional with government consultations, let me take you to Martin Narey’s interview and his views about the benefits of contact :-

 

The evidence shows, actually, that contact does not necessarily encourage reconciliation with the birth family. More broadly, the evidence is mixed. I think the most famous piece of research is from Mackaskill, which showed that contact was of benefit to children in 12%, and had positive and negative aspects in more than 50% of cases, but had a very negative effect on the child in 25% of cases. In short, contact is more likely to be damaging than beneficial to a child. The key is to make a decision on each individual case. My view, and this is a view on which Ministers have yet to make a decision, is that we’ve got to look carefully at the presumption in the 1989 Children’s Act, which says that local authorities must endeavour to promote contact between a child in care and their birth family.

Now before people are alarmed, I am not suggesting that in the overwhelming number of cases when a child first comes into care that there won’t be contact. It would be ridiculous to suggest so. But we just need to make sure that on every occasion, we grant contact because it is in the interests of the child. That’s the absolute, exclusive priority we have and sometimes, practitioners have told me frequently, we make decisions on contact which aren’t in the interests of the child. Sometimes that’s about the amount of contact. I have met so many practitioners who are, the word I would use carefully, is ‘horrified’, they are horrified at the amount of contact that infants have to undergo. Sometimes having contact every day of the week, two or more hours, preceded and followed by a long journey across town, it’s traumatic for them.

If you disagree with that, and I suspect there may be people on every single side of the family justice system who DO disagree, you’re going to need to say so, otherwise some important things are going to flow from this.

[I have little doubt that for some children, contact is bloody awful, but I think it is incumbent on the LA and the Court to determine that with evidence contact is not in a particular child’s interests, rather than any shift about the general presumption that contact is a good thing]

I actually think, to let you know that I’m not just knee-jerk against any idea of change, that the consultation document on sibling placements talks a lot of sense.

Whilst in an ideal world, we might want to keep siblings together if they can’t go home (and I have blogged about this before), that simply isn’t the world we are living in. We are walking into a  McDonalds with a shiny pound coin in hand  and expecting to have a Michelin starred experience.

Julie Selwyn (2010)7 found that sibling groups of three or more children were placed, on average, a year later than most children who are placed for adoption in England.8 Analysis of prospective adopters and children on the national Adoption Register shows few adopters willing to consider adopting more than one child at a time. This means that children in sibling groups are less likely to find a secure future home quickly, and may suffer harm as a result.

And This is only part of the picture. It is also genuinely difficult to find adopters who will take sibling groups of three children or more. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) has indicated that as demand for potential adopters increases, some are pulling back from the more challenging children, including sibling groups. Data from the Adoption Register in 2011/12 shows that of the 2536 children referred to the Register from England, 1318 (52%) were single children placements; there were 349 groups of two siblings, 71 groups of three siblings, four groups of four siblings, and there was one group of five siblings. There were 270 people on the register able to adopt groups of 2 children and 21 able to consider groups of 3 children. Some adopters do go on to adopt a sibling born later thus achieving placement of siblings.

 

Yes, you read that right. There are 21 carers on the national register who have expressed an interest in adopting a sibling group of 3 or more. I think I could genuinely take half of those with just my current batch of cases; and I’m just a small portion of one Local Authority.

The consultation document wants to tackle it from both sides, what might be deemed ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ – how can we attract more potential carers who are amenable to sibling groups, how can we convert more people who want to adopt 1 child into adopting a larger group, and is it sensible to cut down the amount of cases that are coming into the system hoping for an adoptive placement of 3 siblings together when that is just unfeasible? And part of that is tackling the general assumption that sibling groups should always be placed together and getting into the nuts and bolts of whether that is right for this family.

Narey talks about the distance between the numbers of children looking for sibling placements and the number of placements available as ‘a gulf’ and I absolutely agree.

The document identifies the problems and throws the doors open to sensible solutions and practical proposals – it seems to me to be a genuine attempt at consultation and to ventilate this very difficult issue with a view to coming up with some ideas. It doesn’t seem to start with a fixed plan with which people are invited to enthusiastically agree or else shut the hell up.

The contact consultation document, I respectfully suggest, is a little further down the route of “we have already got a good idea what we want to do, but we’re obliged to consult with the great unwashed about it”

This is up front and centre at paragraph 3 of the consultation:-

The Government thinks that it is time to review practice and the law relating to contact to make sure that arrangements are always driven by a thorough assessment of what is in the child’s best interests. There is growing concern that contact arrangements are being made that are inappropriate for the child, badly planned and badly monitored. These are being driven by view that contact should take place, rather than on the basis of the individual needs, circumstances, views and wishes of the child. As the number of children in care rises, so the burden and negative impact of poor contact becomes more pressing.

 

Which even I, as a hard-bitten Local Authority hack, driven to distraction about fights over contact taking place five days a week when the parent then only turns up for two; think is somewhat less than neutral in a consultation document  and smacks of an opinion already being formed.

Contact for infants can be particularly problematic. There is pressing evidence that high intensity contact for this group can be stressful and disruptive. Of particular concern is the exposure to multiple carers and the constant disruption to a daily routine. Contact for infants may be arranged for several hours a day for three to five (or more) days a week. Kenrick (2009)14 studied the effect of contact on infants involved in Coram’s concurrent planning project. The study showed that the babies displayed distress before, during and following contact sessions, and that the requirement for frequent contact was experienced as disruptive by the child and carers. The concurrent carers who reported distress and anxiety, described the need for a resting or recovery time of 24 hours to “settle” the child, something which is impossible with such frequent contact arrangements. For infants who have been abused or neglected, the distress from frequent and unsatisfactory contact can make it more difficult for them to recover.

 

I don’t necessarily disagree with this; it’s been a schism between what the family justice system thinks is right level of contact for infants and what the research thinks is right for some time, and it is worth trying to thrash this out, to come to a sensible balance between preserving/building a relationship between child and parent and stability for the child. I think we have probably drifted too far one way on that, and I welcome an attempt to actually pull together the evidence and come to a proper conclusion about where the welfare paramountcy principle should stand on contact for infants (on the Justice Munby end of the scales – five times per week of four-five hours, or on the Kenrick end of the scales, or somewhere between). I just wish it had been couched as a debate, rather than a declaration of war.

Statutory guidance can be strengthened to ensure more consideration is particularly given to the purpose of contact for infants. Ensuring that arrangements are appropriate to their age and stage of development and they are not, for example, subject to long journeys. Each case will need to be decided on an individual basis, however we should like to propose that a good starting point might be that children under two are rarely exposed to contact more than 2 or 3 times a week and for sessions of no more than 2 hours

 

I wonder if the Government have thought through the inevitable consequence of this that there will be a far greater clamour from parents, Guardians and Courts for less separations (since the impact of separation appears far greater with 4-6 hours contact a week than it is with 20-25 hours contact per week) and thus a huge increase in risks being managed at home, parent and baby placements and residential assessments. I’ve spoken before about the law of unintended consequences and I think this is a massive one.

 

22. We also plan to look again at the duties on local authorities in primary legislation to allow children in care reasonable contact with their birth parents and to promote contact for looked after children. We think that these duties may encourage a focus on the existence and frequency of contact arrangements, rather than on whether they safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. This could remove the perceived presumption of contact in all cases and help local authorities to take a case-by-case decision about the best contact arrangements for the individual child. We recognise that these duties were introduced because some local authorities did not previously make adequate arrangements for contact, and we do not want to see a return to contact being exceptional rather than the norm.

23. Alternatively we could look at replacing the duties with a new requirement that local authorities consider contact arrangements that have a clear purpose documented in the child’s care plan and are in the child’s best interests. The intention would be to ensure that arrangements are made in the child’s best interests, taking account of views and wishes of all concerned, and aligned with the longer term plans for the child.

And on post-Placement contact

36. We need to ensure that contact arrangements change as a child’s circumstances change and that they are consistent with plans for the child’s future. We also want to discourage the practice of making informal arrangements or ‘deals’ outside of the court process. In order that contact arrangements are, and remain, fit for purpose, we could look at existing provisions for reviewing contact and ensure a formal review and decision making process takes place at each of the points set out above. We could look at existing guidance and regulations and consider where and how these can be strengthened.

37. There could be particular scope for this at the point of placement order. At present, there is no presumption for or against contact with the birth family at this stage. We could introduce a presumption of ‘no contact’ unless the local authority is satisfied that contact would be in the best interests of the child. For example, this might be the case where an older child, with the backing of his or her adoptive parents, expresses a wish to meet his or her birth parents.

And specifically on post-adoption contact

 

49. One option may be to provide that the court can on application for an adoption order make an order for no contact. This would give adoptive parents recourse where informal contact arrangements were causing difficulties, but this would only take effect once an adoption order has been made. Post-adoption contact should be exceptional but in a minority of cases it may be appropriate, for example in the case of an older child. What should govern such contact arrangements is what is in the best interests of the child.

50. In addition to introducing a “no contact” order, we could amend legislation to create a new more demanding ‘permission filter’. This would raise the bar for any birth parent to make an application for a contact order. Criteria for granting permission already exists therefore we could explore how this might be strengthened.

If you don’t speak up, you can’t complain and whinge when this agenda gets pushed through into legislation and binding guidance. You have until the 31st August. Good job nobody who will want to reply would be on holiday during any of that time…

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

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