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Runaway train, never going back

The British Association of Social Workers, BASW, commissioned an independent report to look at adoption. The report has just been published.

There’s a summary piece at the Guardian about it

In summary of the summary, concerns about a lack of ethics and human rights approach, concerns that adoption has been politically pushed and dominates thinking, concerns about lack of support for families and adopters, concerns that there’s rigidity in thinking about contact (and the report compares the English approach of an assumption of no direct contact with Northern Ireland where the assumption is that there should be direct contact four to six times per year) and critically that there’s not enough attention being paid to poverty (and austerity) being the driving force behind children being removed from families.

The impact of austerity was raised by all respondents to different extents but was a particular
concern for social workers. Cuts to family support and social work services were a recurring
theme, with the decreasing availability of early help highlighted. Very costly resources are being
used in care proceedings. As a result, less is available for earlier interventions that could support
children to stay at home safely.
Most respondents wanted a better balance between support and assessment, with families
currently too often subject to repeated assessments rather than actually helped. A number felt
social work had become increasingly risk averse and fearful of blame, with the high rates of care
applications one key example given of the impact this has on practice.
A lack of resources once children had come into care or been adopted was similarly seen as
impacting on the effectiveness of services. There were many observations about decision-making
being impacted by the lack of resources and examples given of the results, such as siblings not
being placed together.

Having read the report, I think the summary is a fair one – the report does raise all of those issues. The report is careful to say that just as treating adoption as a perfect solution for all families is not realistic or helpful, demonising all social workers is not realistic or helpful either. Adoption is the right outcome for some children, and some adoptive families thrive and prosper. But there needs to be a genuine debate about whether it is being sought too frequently.

The report is here

I’m not going to attempt to critique it or deconstruct it – it’s a long and thoughtful piece, taking on board views of a wide variety of people involved in the process, notably hearing from both birth parents and adoptive parents who had very similar viewpoints on some issues. I have had the opportunity to read it twice, but I honestly feel I want more time with it and to reflect on it. So I don’t know whether I agree with it all, but it says things that I genuinely think needed to be said and need to be discussed and thought about. And I wanted to alert people to its existence and hopefully get people to read it and have those conversations.

Nothing in family justice ever exists in a vacuum though – for every person who reads the report and agrees with it, there will be ten who think it doesn’t go far enough and that adoption should be burned to the ground, and ten who think it is ridiculously anti-adoption and goes far too far. That polarisation about adoption is, itself, part of the problem. The stakes are so high, the emotional devastation caused to those on the wrong side of adoption so great, the political capital invested in it, that it is hard to have the conversations that need to be had.

A particular issue that comes up within the report is the self-labelling by the social work system of social workers being ‘the social worker for the child’ rather than a social worker for the family.

The definition of the social worker role as being ‘the social worker for the child’ was a source of
concern, as it often led to a lack of support for birth parents:
‘Children are part of families – a social worker cannot only be the child’s social worker.’ (birth mother)

A lot of the respondents talked about the importance of the relationship that existed between the social worker and the family – and how the quality of that relationship can transform cases (for good or ill)

Repeatedly, across the range of family members, the importance of the relationship that was
developed with a social worker was stressed.
Birth family members gave accounts of both poor and good relationships. They related experiences of feeling deceived by social workers who they considered had not been honest with them. They described not understanding or being helped to understand why their child(ren) were
permanently removed; being unfairly judged/ labelled (‘the report said I was ‘hostile’ so he could not stay, but I was not hostile – I am ‘loud’’ – birth grandmother from a traveller background); and
generally being treated in what they perceived were inhumane ways.
Birth family members emphasised the importance of social workers listening to their views, being
respectful and honest, recognising strengths and displaying acts of kindness. It was considered
that the nature of the relationship could influence what happened with the child. Examples were
given of differing outcomes for children in the same family (i.e. adoption or remaining with the
parents) and these were, at least in part, attributed to the quality of the relationship with the
individual social worker. It was considered vital that social workers have the time to get to know
and work with the family in non-judgmental ways.

Many of the responses from adoptive parents repeated the themes found in the birth parents’
accounts. The relationship between the social worker and adoptive parents was considered to be
key, with the importance of professional but caring social workers highlighted. Adoptive parents
and adopted people also spoke about the importance of good communication, honesty, being
listened to and treated as an individual human being.

The use and misuse of power was a key issue

Families stressed that social workers have a great deal of power in relation to assessment, the
provision of help and decision-making. There were many examples given by birth families,
adoptive parents and adopted people of how they had experienced the exercise of social workers’
power, both positive and negative.
Birth family members repeatedly mentioned the lack of attention by social workers to the social
contexts in which they lived. A number of respondents reported that housing, or the lack of it,
was used as evidence against them in assessments.
The importance of practical support was stressed; ‘a washing machine for example would have made a big difference’ (birth parent). One birth mother spoke of the lack of adequate interpreting facilities in her contact with social workers and legal professionals. Other birth family members also felt discriminated against because of their cultural practices (e.g. a traveller background) or for being working class or having a lack of secure immigration status.
There were many examples provided by birth parents of feeling powerless in a climate that was
seen as very risk averse. Risk of future emotional harm was described as being frequently used,
and was seen as a particularly unjust basis for permanent separation. Birth mothers reported high
levels of domestic abuse and suggested they were being punished for having a violent partner
and/or having experienced domestic abuse in childhood.
Fear of an unsympathetic and punitive response was seen as inhibiting families from asking for
help when it was needed. Parents with mental and physical health problems and learning
difficulties all reported concerns about asking for help because of the emphasis on risk. They
reported receiving an assessment rather than support and feeling they were being scrutinised
rather than helped.
Being judged and stigmatised simply for having a history of care and/or abuse was an issue. Care
proceedings, involving newborn babies, were identified as being particularly traumatic, with a
lack of attention, in particular, to the impact of having just given birth on the mother. Residential
settings were described as being too often focused on monitoring risk rather than providing help
or therapeutic support. Women with disabilities highlighted the disabling environments in which
assessments were carried out.

The report concludes with recommendations (I suggest reading them in detail, but I’ll just put the bullet points here, for reasons of space)

Recommendation 1: The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context
of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
Recommendation 2: UK governments should collect and publish data on the economic
and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
Recommendation 3: The current model of adoption should be reviewed, and the
potential for a more open approach considered
Recommendation 4: There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and
its relationship to other permanence options.
Recommendation 5: BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker
in adoption and the human rights and ethics involved


Cheshire West fallout

There’s an excellent piece of investigative work by Community Care about the escalation in the number of Deprivation of Liberty cases since the Supreme Court made a substantial change to the law in Cheshire West.


If you have a chance to read the full thing, I heartily recommend it.  (the remainder of this article is my extraction and citation of what I considered to be the main issues)


Half of Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (Dols) cases are breaching legal timescales for completion after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in March triggered a nine-fold rise in monthly referrals to councils, a Community Care investigation has found


In 2013-14 councils received 8,455 requests for Dols assessments; since April this year they’ve already had 32,988 referrals. The figures mean average monthly referrals have risen from 713 in 2013-14 to 6,643 in 2014-15. The effect of the dramatic rise in cases is clear. Last year 2.2% of cases breached timescales; so far this year 50% of cases were not completed in time.


Councils have also seen more legal challenges to deprivations of liberty and one local authority has sent a ‘systemic abuse alert’ to an adult safeguarding board warning that it could not meet the ‘Supreme Court challenge’ due to a shortage of resources.



The court ruling has also intensified a shortage of best interests assessors (BIAs), whose role is to determine whether a person is, or will be, deprived of their liberty and, if so, and whether this is in the person’s best interests. Councils are scrambling to train up more social workers as BIAs in a bid to boost assessor numbers, but many training courses are oversubscribed and, even if a place is secured, training can take months.


We found that the shortage of trained staff in councils means local authorities have already spent £1.4m on independent BIAs in 2014-15. That’s almost three times the £550,000 spent across 12 months in 2013-14.



  • Legal challenges are rising: In the first five months of 2014-15 local authorities had 61 legal challenges brought over deprivation of liberty cases. In the 12 months of 2013-14 the councils had received a total of 49 legal challenges.


  • Safeguarding concerns have been raised: Cornwall council raised a ‘systemic abuse’ alert with the local safeguarding adults board over the council’s inability to safeguard people under Dols, due to a lack of resources to meet the post ‘Supreme Court challenge’. The council said it wanted to ensure there was independent scrutiny of its response to the judgement. The councils said its “principal difficulty is one of resources and the availability of suitably trained staff to implement the DoLS for the greatly increased numbers. The council referred its concerns into the adult safeguarding process while it took urgent steps to address problem.”


  • Stacks of referrals have been held back: Evidence from council reports shows that the referrals received so far are only likely to be a fraction of those that could meet the Supreme Court test as care homes and hospitals are delaying applications. In some cases, council reports say this is due to them ‘ignoring’ or not understanding the implication of the Supreme Court judgement. In other cases it is deliberate:

We found one example of a council agreeing with a care provider to delay sending in 30 referrals to help with ‘backlog avoidance’.

In a second case, a council report showed that some homes had delayed in sending in referrals as they were ‘sympathetic’ to the pressures on the local authority. In the report, the council’s Dols lead said that this was often happening ‘to the detriment’ of the person. The report shows that the Dols lead contacted the homes and told them to make the applications.

◦A third council report we obtained showed that a local acute hospital had still to send in applications. The hospital had conducted an initial scoping exercise and identified a potential 35,000 referrals. This alone would lead to the Dols team facing a 350-fold increase in cases, the report showed.


Bloody hell.


Information drawn from the Health and Social Care Information Centre  from 130 of 152 councils make the point even more vividly.

A 600% increase in monthly referrals is a terrifying amount. There is simply no way that social workers, local authority lawyers, best interest assessors, lawyers for families, the Official Solicitor or the Courts can cope with that sort of increase.


The councils received 21,600 Dols applications from April to June 2014, compared with 12,400 in the whole of 2013-14, a 597% increase in monthly referrals;

  • of these, 51% were authorised, 12% were not authorised, and 36% had not been withdrawn or not signed off by the council as of September 2014.


(I’m really impressed with the work that Community Care have done on this, and I hope that everyone in the field reads their piece, hence my bigging it up here)

Research and stats round-up


A few important reports on statistics / research documents have come out in the last two weeks. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time to write about each in depth, but I’ll give you the headlines and a link to each and if that whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing.
1. Serious case reviews

Ofsted have published statistics showing that the number of Serious Case Reviews have dramatically increased

A 53% increase on Serious Case Reviews since 2012.

You might think, as I immediately did – is this evidence that the new methods of working aren’t working and that children are paying a heavy price?

It may be much more prosaic than that. The real chance in Serious Case Review policy is that they went from being internal documents to published documents in 2011, and the numbers went down as a result. Public bodies that had been using them to learn lessons and discuss failings were less keen on doing so in published documents – the “washing your dirty linen in public” effect. And then last year as a result of that decline an independent board was set up to scrutinise decisions as to whether or not to hold a Serious Case Review. So the dramatic rise is just that independent board restoring normality.

However, the number of referrals of “serious incidents” to Ofsted did go up. “Serious incidents” can cover incidents that would warrant a Serious Case Review or that are likely to attract media attention. So a greater media interest in family justice might account for the increase.
2. Ministry of Justice Statistics show a 19% reduction in family cases
Private law cases dropped by 41% from the same quarter last year, as those cases that had got in just before LASPO have now all just about ended.

The MOJ say that numbers of public law cases has been fairly stable since 2011 (so the figures earlier this year showing a decline was really just the effect of everyone pausing in new cases to make sense of the new PLO requirements rather than any real downturn in demand)

What is interesting is that despite the huge Government push on mediation being the way forward, the number of mediations in the last year decreased by 50% from the level that it was when parents could go and see a lawyer for free advice who would explain the benefits of mediation to them. That’s pretty damning, that a compulsory mediation service has lower take up than when it was voluntary.
3. CAFCASS research on care proceedings
This is an annual follow-up since the death of Peter Connolly, in which Guardians in public law cases are surveyed after the conclusion of the care proceedings and asked some general questions about whether they feel the LA was right to bring the proceedings, the quality of the evidence and whether the proceedings were brought too soon, too late or about right.

The headline from that is that “social workers are taking the right actions to keep children safe”

And that in 84% of proceedings, the Guardian felt that there had been no other choice than to issue proceedings. [Of course, the other way of looking at that is that 16% of proceedings are being issued when they didn’t need to be]

It probably isn’t the most impartial measure either – although Guardians are independent of social workers, the ethos of CAFCASS has been fairly obviously “safeguarding” as a priority over family preservation for a few years now.

If you were to ask parents whether the case should have been brought to Court I suspect 84% or higher would say no.  So it rather depends on who you are asking.

The really interesting research would be if you could get Judges to do this survey, keeping it all anonymised.

Cafcass note that the proportion of Guardians feeling that cases were being issued too late rose from 26% to 39% – they fairly note that this could be that delays are getting worse, or that cases have moved to pre-proceedings or that the greater focus on timescales and targets have made Guardians more sensitised to the issue and more critical of delays that would have been tolerable a year ago.



4. The Children’s Rights Commissioner says that legal aid cuts have detrimentally affected children
To which the MoJ have replied “Well it isn’t meant to”

So that’s all fine then.
“Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation,” Atkinson said. “This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice. We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people.

“The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need … Short-term savings to one part of the legal system – legal aid – are simply shifting costs to another, because judges direct that representation has to be funded.”
5. NSPCC research suggests that spending a bit more on family support where children are rehabilitated would be far cheaper than our present arrangement

Over 10,000 children are returned home from care every year, however it is estimated that 30-60% of these reunifications fail, meaning children are then moved back to care, at great human and financial cost.

This process costs an estimated £300m, according to a study by the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University, commissioned by the NSPCC. The costs include social work costs, legal costs, decision-making and placement costs.

However, the researchers found that a £56m investment in providing effective support for families when a child returns from care could reduce the number of reunification breakdowns.
This is an interesting piece of research, and I know that sign up for the pilot scheme was very fast, with it being oversubscribed. If a new approach for support for children being returned home meant that more of them could stay there.

Quick caveat – I think some of the underlying maths is iffy. These are social scientists, not acountants. For example, there are some underlying assumptions that are weak

(i) That it covers s20 not just care
(ii) That a child who comes back into care will remain in care and the costs can be worked out on that basis (whereas some children in s20 might come back into care for a short period)
(iii) That it is fair to work into the costings of the child coming back into care that some children are in residential care (the most expensive type and frankly the ones who are in residential care are likely to be the ones least likely to get turned into successful permanent rehabs)
(iv) That for some reason the estimated legal costs of proceedings is calculated as being less than just the Court issue fee. If a Local Authority can manage to run the whole care proceedings for less than it costs to get the Court to start them off, that’s some wonder economics there
(v) That the figure for failed rehabs is 47%, which is something of a finger in the air taking an average of two other studies   (the headline numbers in those studies look extreme, but if a child is in care, goes home, and comes back into care, the “going back into care” might include a short respite period rather than permanent placement away from the family)


But my criticisms are really that the figures are slightly cooked to make the scheme seem even more desirable – I don’t think they needed to do it, the case for better support services is well made out in the body of the report.

This bit some people might find useful – we hear so much about “a low level of support” or “this family need a high level of support” – what does it mean in practice?

The report shows the real actual numbers

This comprises 6 months at a high level (8 hours 15 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month);

3 months at medium level (5 hours and 45 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month);

and 3 months at a low level (2 hours and 35 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month). These activity figures are taken from Holmes and McDermid (2012).
From that – high level of support is just over 2 hours a week of social work time. Medium level is about 1 ½ hours a week of social work time and low level is about 40 minutes a week.

Anything more than that would be accurately described as ‘exceptionally high levels of support’ although when you see the numbers it might not seem to be.


I absolutely welcome anyone trying to find out what the best way to make rehabilitation of children back home work better, and credit to the NSPCC for funding this sort of research. I hope that it makes a difference and that if so it is rolled out nationally.

Adoption breakdown research


A lot of people, including the House of Lords when they asked questions about the rate of adoption breakdown and found that there was no clear answer, have been wanting to see some good research on adoption breakdowns.

This is a piece of research on that very issue, commissioned by the Department for Education and conducted by Bristol university. I think it is solid.

The report opens by saying that there hasn’t previously been a national study on adoption disruptions – the previous studies have been with narrow subsets of children, leading to “rates of disruption having been quoted as ranging between 2% and 50%” (To paraphrase Paddy Power “I hear you” – I have heard over many years in Court, a wide variety of numbers being given as to how likely an adoptive placement is to break down, usually thirty seconds before a Jedi handwave and “the research is well known” – though not capable of ever being named)

There’s a LOT of it, and my summary isn’t going to be a substitute for reading it.

There’s a decent summary over at Children and Young People Now

The headline there relates to the difference between the prediction Local Authorities made of the chance of a placement breaking down before the age of 18 (3.4%) and that reported by surveys of adoptive parents (which was 9%)

So, is the adoption breakdown rate about 9%? Well, maybe not. [Actually, when you sit and read the report carefully, their conclusion is that adoption breakdown rates are somewhere between 2 % and 9%. Why is the number so wide-ranging? Well, ultimately because there are actually substantial variations between Local Authorities – where Erehwon has a breakdown rate of 2% and Llareggub has 9% – is the breakdown rate between the middle, or is it more accurate to say that nationally it is BETWEEN those figures?]

The research is looking at adoptions where an order has been made, and whether the placement continued until the child was 18, or ended (which is then classed as a breakdown or disruption, for whatever reason)

It looks at the previous research – Rushton 2003 which cited a breakdown rate of 20%, but that covered placements pre order, and obviously had a number where the placement ended after a very short period because the ‘fit’ wasn’t right , and Rushton and Dance 2006 (Although no lawyer actually knows the name of it or what it really says, this is the piece of research that gives the figure that has been bandied about and exaggerated over the last few years) that gave a figure of 19% – the study had been entirely of children who had been placed for adoption later in life than the norm.
An interesting aspect, to me, is the comparison the research does of 3 types of placements and their stability (frustratingly for me, there isn’t the comparison of stability of adoption v long-term foster care, which would now be extremely helpful to know)

The research says that they looked at:-


•37,314 Adoption Orders of which 565 were known to have disrupted
5,921 Special Guardianship Orders of which 121 were known to have disrupted
• 5,771 Residence Orders of which 415 were known to have disrupted
Peculiarly, although the research highlights that SGOs were anticipated to largely replace Residence Orders, the number of Residence Orders doesn’t seem to have gone down since their introduction.

I did my own number crunching on that, which worked out as a breakdown rate of 1.5% for adoptions, 2% for SGOs and 7% for residence orders.
So is THAT the breakdown rate?

Well no, it gets a bit more complicated (because the individual cases they were looking at were at different ages – to exaggerate wildly – if you imagine the residence orders were mostly dealing with teenagers and the adoptions mostly with pre-schoolers, then of course one group has had more chance to break down. Wild exaggeration, just so that you get the underlying concept, that some complicated maths has to be done to smooth out the differences)

Breakdown (or disruption) rate
The research says that over a 5 year period
•147 in 1,000 ROs would have disrupted (14.7%)

57 in 1,000 SGOs would have disrupted (5.7%)

•7 in 1,000 adoptions would have disrupted (0.7%)

And that over a five year period, the most stable form of placement was comfortably an adoptive placement.
But of course, a five year period isn’t necessarily it for adoptions – the research demonstrates that the most precarious time in an adoptive placement is in the teenage years , and that over a 12 year period the disruption rate went up to 3.2%.

The researchers suggest that by the time 1000 children who have been adopted reach the age of 18, those placements will have been disrupted or broken down for between 2 and 9% of them (i.e between 20 and 90 children – the corollary of that, obviously is that for every 1000 children placed for adoption somewhere between 910 and 980 of them will have placements that endure for their childhood)

Of those disruptions, nearly two thirds will be during the child’s secondary school years, with the average age of a child whose placement breaks down being 12 ½.

When looking at what influences a disruption, the research found that for children placed with adopters before the age of 4, only 1% of those placements had broken down. For children aged over 4 at the time of the placement, that went up to 5%. Three quarters of the children who had an adoption breakdown had been placed after the age of four.

Additionally, the more moves a child had had prior to the adoptive placement, the higher the chance of disruption. And the longer a child waited for a placement, the higher the chance of disruption – of the children whose placements had broken down, three quarters of them had waited for more than two years for a placement.


There is no real difference in terms of gender of the child as to whether a disruption is more or less likely (1.4% of all males placed had breakdowns, 1.7% of all females – a slight difference, but not statistically important – anecdotally it is mildly surprising that this is not the other way around). Nor was ethnicity a relevant factor in breakdown rates.

The reason for the child coming into care makes very little difference to the breakdown rates either.

Looking at the types of carer, the research SUGGESTS that single carers had a higher proportion of disruptions than would be predicted by pure averages, but are cautious about this because the data isn’t as full (the information about whether an adopter is married or in a civil partnership has only been collected since 2006)

The research also suggests that foster carers who go on to adopt the child don’t have (as many professionals would suspect or believe) lower disruption rates than stranger adoptions – if anything, it is slightly the other way. [The research points out that it may be more likely that foster carers who adopt are taking more damaged children than the statistical norm, that children have usually waited longer to be adopted if their foster carers adopt them and that foster carers who adopt might suffer more than stranger adopters when the LA backs off]
The percentage of adoption disruptions varied significantly between the Local Authorities sampled – from 0.7% to 7.4% (it is figure 20, page 55 of the research if you want to look at it).

Really hard, obviously, to unpick whether that is because of something that the LA’s are doing (picking adopters, supporting them, managing dramas) or whether it is that in any particular LA one has a higher proportion of older children, who wait longer in care. If it is the former, then we really want to get all of the Local Authorities learning from the best ones, because every single breakdown is a human tragedy for all involved.


•Between April 1st 2000 and 31st March 2011, 37,335 children were adopted and of these 565 were known to have disrupted post order and information was available in the database.
• Nearly two thirds of disruptions occurred during the teenage years.
• Gender and ethnicity were not associated with greater risk of disruption.
• The children whose adoptions had disrupted were significantly older at entry to care (average 3 years old) in comparison with children (average 1 year old) whose adoptions were intact. Nearly three-quarters of all the children had been abused or neglected.
• Children who had experienced a disruption also had significantly more moves whilst looked after and waited longer to be placed with their adoptive family compared with those children whose placements were intact.
• Children who were no longer living with their adoptive families were significantly more likely to have lengthier adoption processes compared with the children whose adoptions were intact. This was the case for those who entered care under the age of 4 years old and those who entered over 4 years of age.
• Three-quarters of the children who experienced a disruption were older than 4 years of age at placement with their adoptive family and a quarter were younger than 4 years of age. In comparison, 70% of children in intact placements were under the age of four.
• Children whose foster carers became their adoptive parents entered care at a similarly young age to those who were adopted by stranger adoptive parents. However, they waited on average two years before their foster placement was confirmed as an adoptive placement and were on average 5.2 years old at the time of the Adoption Order. In comparison, those adopted by strangers were only 3.8 years old at the time of the Order.
• Foster carer adoptions were not more stable than adoptions by stranger adoptive parents.
• The proportion of adoptions that disrupted varied by local authority


This is a bit that is fairly low key and probably won’t be picked up by the press reports, but I think is very important


“We asked adoptive parents whether there had ever been any difficulties with birth family contact through SMS, email or Facebook. Whilst 20% said this had been the case, many more feared that they would be facing these problems in the future”


If you wanted to find a person in the 1980s, you had to hire a private detective. Now, if you spend an hour on the net, you’ll know more about them than their own mother.

I think there are really good bits in the research dealing with how various local authorities dealt with requests for help from adopters, and some very honest and raw interviews where things that are normally unspoken were said out loud – the shame, the guilt, how hard it is to ask for help, and on the other side, how social workers can sometimes present as being very intolerant of the need for help and that the adopters took this child on and they just had to make it work. Many requests for help ended up being managed as s47 investigations, which escalated things badly.

There are some major criticisms of life story work (particularly about these books not being moved forward and age-appropriate for much older children, at the point where they really want to know more about their identity)

We began this study knowing very little about adoption disruption. To our knowledge, there had never been a funded study in the UK whose focus was on disruptions post order. The disruption rate was lower than we expected. The reasons for that became obvious when we met the families. The commitment and tenacity of adoptive parents was remarkable. Most parents, even those whose children had left, still saw themselves as the child’s parents and were supporting their children from a distance. An adoption manager who was interviewed for this study suggested that perhaps a revolving door approach was needed for some adopted adolescents, whereby they could spend time away from their families without it being seen as a failure. Instead, most of the families we interviewed spoke of an ‘all or nothing’ social work approach that blamed and judged parents when relationships were just not working, and parents needed respite or young people wanted to leave. A key value150 of social work in professional practice is compassion and respect for individuals. It is probably easier to practice if there is a clear duality of victim and abuser. Who was the victim and who was the abuser was unclear in families where there was child to parent violence. Splits and conflicts between children’s social workers and post adoption social workers then emerged. It left adoptive parents feeling blamed, demoralised and unsupported. It was apparent that many had lost faith in professionals of all kinds and felt betrayed.

The research makes a number of recommendations – they cover 6 pages in the report, starting at page 284, so I won’t rehearse them, but they are well worth reading, particularly for any professional involved in adoption work.




The Ofsted, and Action for Children research on neglect

You may have heard that Ofsted this week published some research on neglect, the over-arching theme being that some children are being left in neglectful situations for too long


On the same day, Action for Children published their research into neglect

“Child Neglect : The Scandal that never breaks”


the over-arching theme there being that neglect is happening to far more children than you might expect – their headline figures being


73% of UK children know another child who is suffering from neglect. Urgent action is needed to help children and families get the help they need.


  • Since 2011, around a third (32% in 2013) of professionals have felt powerless to intervene when they have concerns about child neglect
  • 35% of professionals say Government spending cuts have made it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect. In particular, 65% of social workers said cuts impeded their ability to intervene in cases
  • 94% of the public agree people should do something when they are worried about a child but 45% want more information on where to get help


Of course, the big headline really depends on (a) how you define the term neglect and (b) whether you think children are the best people to identify neglect in other children that they know


Their major demand, that the Government ought to produce a national coherent strategy on child neglect, is a worthwhile one. Perhaps the one two punch of Ofsted and Action for Children saying similar things on the same day will have an impact. (I suspect that Ofsted have much more clout, because they don’t need to scare Government into action, they just have to scare Local Authorities that if they don’t have a Neglect Policy, they’ll get a bad Ofsted review)


There’s a bit in the Action for Children research that made me scratch my head. The researchers asked professionals what the barriers were that stopped them intervening on child neglect.



There are the usual suspects – lack of resources, gaps in services, the point at which intervention can take place being too high. But then there’s “It’s not my job to intervene”


10% of the social workers asked gave that as their answer. 10%….


That is very worrying to me. It’s at page 18 if you don’t believe me



The Ofsted research then. They looked at 124 cases, drawn from eleven local authorities. Those local authorities were a spread of inner-city and rural counties, from the North, the South, the East and the West   (though the heaviest proportion was the North West – Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, Wigan). They looked at the records, spoke to professionals, to children, to parents and to carers.

 The key findings :-


      The quality of professional practice in cases of neglect overall was found to be too variable, although in some of the cases examined at this inspection, children were making progress.

      Nearly half of assessments in the cases seen either did not take sufficient account of the family history, or did not adequately convey or consider the impact of neglect on the child. Some assessments focused almost exclusively on the parents’ needs rather than analysing the impact of adult behaviours on children.In a small number of cases this delayed the action local agencies took to protect children from suffering further harm.

      While the quality of written plans was found to be too variable, there was evidence of some very good support for children that was meeting the short-term needs of the family. However, there was very little evidence of longer-term support being provided to enable sustained change in the care given to the children.

      Some authorities are using effective methods to map and measure the impact of neglect on children over time and to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. This results in timely and improved decision-making in some cases. However, not all local authorities have such systems in place to support social workers in monitoring the impact of neglect on children and the effectiveness of their interventions.

      Non-compliance and disguised compliance by parents were common features in cases reviewed. Although some multi-agency groups adopted clear strategies to manage such behaviour, this was not evident in all cases. Where parents were not engaging with plans, and outcomes for children were not improving, professionals did not consistently challenge parents.

      Drift was identified at some stage in the child’s journey in a third of all long-term cases examined, delaying appropriate action to meet the needs of children and to protect them from further harm. Drift was caused by a range of factors, including inadequate assessments, poor planning, parents failing to engage and in a small number of cases, lack of understanding by professionals of the cumulative impact of neglect on children’s health and development. Drift and delay have serious consequences for children, resulting in them continuing to be exposed to neglect.

      Front-line social workers and managers have access to research findings in relation to neglect, although the extent to which this is incorporated into practice varies. It is by exception that front-line social workers use specific research to support their work. The impact of training on professional practice with regard to neglect is neither systematically evident nor routinely evaluated.

      Routine performance monitoring and reporting arrangements to LSCBs infrequently profile neglect. Therefore most boards do not receive or collect neglect data except in respect of the number of child protection plans where the category is recorded as neglect. Most boards were not able to provide robust evidence of their evaluation and challenge about the effectiveness of multi-agency working to tackle neglect.

      Those local authorities providing the strongest evidence of the most comprehensive action to tackle neglect were more likely to have a neglect strategy and/or a systematic improvement programme across policy and practice, involving the development of specific approaches to neglect.

      The challenge for local authorities and their partners is to ensure that best practice in cases of neglect is shared in order to drive improvement.



They make a series of recommendations for Government (to review social work training to have mandatory material on neglect, to require Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards to have a strategy on neglect for their local area) ,

for Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (to gather data on neglect and assess and monitor it in their area, to ensure front-line training on neglect for professionals, to get agencies working together on the issues, to ensure that all staff know how to escalate concerns, to ensure that all training represents best practice and contemporary research)

and on Local Authorities (robust management oversight of neglect cases to avoid drift, better methods of assessment, proper child protection plans for neglect cases, specialist training in neglect, consistent levels of threshold for intervention, a shift in focus on written evidence presented to Courts so that it is clear, concise and explicitly describes the cumulative impact of neglect on the daily life of the child)


The last is interesting, as we brace ourselves for the standardised model of social work reports (having seen the version that went out to consultation, I have serious doubts that this model is going to deliver what Ofsted are recommending)


The body of the report picks up as a theme that social work reports and assessments focused on the adults and the parents issues rather than analysis of the impact of this on the children. “Are children getting lost in the assessment in the same way in which they are lost within their own families?”

 and a later quotation  (from a Director of Children’s Services)

“social workers and schools may become desensitised to neglect”



The headline that was grabbed by the Press (they toss a coin, I think, to decide on any individual day whether social workers are jackbooted child-snatching fascists, or clueless Mavis-Reilly-esque do-gooders who are hopelessly ineffectual)   was that parents were given too many chances


66. In the cohort of cases where progress for children was not being achieved, a common feature was parental non-compliance or ‘disguised compliance’. Professionals did not consistently demonstrate clear strategies to manage this behaviour. For example in a small number of cases, the Public Law Outline (PLO) was used to address non-compliance and while this was effective in the majority of cases, where parents breached PLO agreements subsequent action was not always taken. This apparent reluctance by professionals to act assertively and in line with written agreements meant that cases were not escalated at the right time for children and there was a delay in action to protect them.

67. In some of the multi-agency meetings held during the thematic inspection professionals reflected on their practice and accepted, with hindsight, that they had been manipulated by parents. For example, in one case when a mother and father had a new baby, the child was made subject to a child protection plan because the parents both had a history of drug misuse and had had previous children removed due to neglect. When the mother tested positive for cocaine use and the father positive for heroin use, the case was escalated to PLO, but stepped down again very quickly when the parents appeared to cooperate with the plan. The child was removed from the parents some months later due to further evidence of parental drug misuse. The child protection chair told the inspector that they should have been more challenging of the lack of progress at a much earlier stage in the case, and described the parents as ‘very plausible’, ‘always coming up with a reason for not completing tasks that were required of them’.

68. In other cases parents were given too many chances because professionals had not fully recognised or assessed the level of non-compliance and were carrying on regardless. Overall, the evidence in these longer-term cases is of a failure by professionals and their managers to be consistent in identifying non-compliance and disguised compliance, and in some cases failing to assertively challenge parents who were not engaging with plans.


For local authority lawyers, Ofsted makes comments about their role in the process too (not particularly flattering comments)


74 . Further delays were apparent in some cases because of inconsistency in decisions about whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. A small minority of local authority legal advisers held the view that some courts were not giving enough consideration to the family history when making decisions as to whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. However, most legal advisers reported that the courts and Cafcass were well-informed about research findings and the significance of a history of parental neglect. In a further small minority of cases local authorities appeared too ready to accept legal advice that the threshold for proceedings had not been met. This suggests there was some lack of clarity as to who holds responsibility for making decisions to initiate court proceedings to protect children from significant harm.

75. The general view of legal representatives was that the quality of written and verbal evidence provided by childcare professionals in legal proceedings was not consistently robust. This resulted in some cases failing to progress to proceedings or, when cases did reach the court arena, not achieving the required outcome. Evidence needed to be gathered more effectively, risks and protective factors expressed more clearly, and the impact or potential impact of neglect on children identified. Partner agencies needed to collate evidence of the impact of neglect, including the impact on children’s behaviour and emotional development, from a very early stage.On the basis of this thematic inspection the lack of clarity around thresholds for legal proceedings is a signficiant concern, given that as a result of this some children remain in situations of neglect for too long


Of course, one of the issues on ‘threshold’ is that we are talking about two different things – the s38 or s31 ‘threshold’ of significant harm is very easy to identify, we all know that when we see it. But the ‘threshold’ of “If you go to Court and ask for these children to be removed will you succeed?”   is much more dependent on local Courts, local Guardians, knowing how your Courts view neglect, knowing how bad it has to be before you would meet that test, knowing whether your social worker’s evidence will be compelling in the witness box or tentative. How old are the children, how will they be affected, are you going to find foster placements to meet their needs? Of course the answer to the second question varies greatly from case to case, there is never a one-size fits all answer.

It is, of course, very important not to conflate the two questions


  1. Is the threshold met
  2. Is the evidence strong enough to persuade a Court to do anything about it



Neglect is always the hardest type of case to make decisions about – almost always you have missed the right time to issue the proceedings. Neglect is very rarely a steady downward slope, it is more of an undulation, a series of peaks and troughs – little improvements as support is provided, dips as the family struggles. And it always feels that the impact on the children of neglect is viewed less significantly by Courts than a broken leg, an allegation of sexual abuse. Even though the long-term impact of neglect can be very corrosive, there’s a feeling that it isn’t that bad, or that it has to get very bad indeed before anyone is willing to draw a line and say “no more”

As local authorities come under pressure to drop their numbers of looked after children (and they are doing, and a large part of that pressure is from Ofsted themselves), neglect represents the soft target for that reduction.


Not many local authorities are going to increase their tolerance for physical abuse at home, or sexual abuse at home. Which leaves, if you want to raise your threshold and lower your number of court proceedings and looked after children, tolerating more neglect at home.

Unless you’re going to put in services and support to change neglectful care into good enough care, but that’s a big ask at a time of cuts and reduction in services.


[It might, of course, be a good thing that there’s a recalibration of what is ‘good enough’ care where the State should support but not intervene, and what requires care proceedings and separation – one can’t argue with the fact that the number of children coming into court proceedings has gone up massively over the last ten years, and how do we know whether we are now at the right number and we used to be leaving too many children at home, or whether we were right ten years ago and over-reacting now?  ]

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave, as a result of subsection 9(b) (iv) (a)”


Another little thought experiment, on Judges this time. Now, clearly Judges at first instance have to very carefully assess the evidence, and the nuances and tone and demeanour of witnesses and attribute weight and balance to a variety of factors. The higher up the Court hierarchy you go, the less important that becomes, to the point where by the time of the Supreme Court, what a witness said or did not say in the box is almost neither here nor there.


In fact, what is very often happening in the Supreme Court is drawing together from a variety of sources – the legislation, the guidance and existing principles derived from authority, applying it to the legal dilemma in the case and achieving a decision that ends up being consistent with all of those decisions and perhaps extending the existing principles in a slightly new (yet consistent) direction.


Now, it occurs to me that as we reach the point of artificial intelligence, it would be theoretically possible to have all the legislation, all of the guidance, all of the previous authorities, held by a computerised mind, who could then just trace a path through them to reach the decision.  If all that one is doing is looking at the precedent decisions and seeing where they would logically take you in deciding the legal dilemma, a sufficiently wonderful computer can solve that logical problem.


Instead of seven law lords, what one would have is a dazzlingly brilliant super computer  S.U.P.R.E.M.E   and the legal dilemma would be inputted and a judgment would come out.

 If you’re like me, then you are probably shifting a little nervously in your seat at this point, and feeling that this is just uncomfortable. There’s more to Supreme Court decisions than just deriving the answer from the principles.

 But that in itself takes us into interesting areas.

 There seems to me to be some sort of qualitative difference between these two questions :-


(a)   What is 53,209 divided by 7.33 




(b)   Is a school’s admission policy to give preference to Orthodox Jewish children, looking for evidence that the mother of the child is Jewish by birth or by Orthodox conversion, discriminatory under the Race Relations Act 1976


It is not simply a matter of complexity – of course the latter question is more complex, since one can solve the first question in a matter of seconds with a calculator, and the second at the very least is going to involve reading the Race Relations Act and the school’s policy, and any decisions that help clarify how either ought to be interpreted.


But there’s still more to it than just complexity, otherwise S.U.P.R.E.M.E could answer both, given the right information (or access to Google to find it for itself)


Isn’t one of the differences between the two questions that the answer to (a) exists already – it is out there to be found, and it is utterly replicable. Anyone who does the calculations will arrive at the same answer, regardless of who they are.   (The same would be true if you swapped (a) for “What is the capital of Guina Bissau?”  – it is a factual question, and the answer is out there to be found)


The answer to (b) – maybe it doesn’t exist   (well, it does now, because the Supreme Court decided it  in R (on the application of E) v JFS : Governing Body 2009 UKSC 15) and it only exists ONCE the question is asked and answered. The answer is CREATED, not found.

 If question (a) is more like maths, or physics or geography – there’s a factual answer that is true for whoever answers it, then maybe (b) is more like history or english literature – there are certain things within it  “In which Shakespeare play does Ophelia appear?” which are definitive, factual answers (like cases which squarely correspond with precedent) and there are others which the person answering the question creates  “What is the nature of the character Hamlet?”


Once we start thinking in those terms though, we inevitably bump into the peculiar wrinkle that the highest legal authorities in the land, which bind future courts and cases and will in turn influence future legal authorities at the highest level are not OBJECTIVE TRUTHS found by the Court, but SUBJECTIVE decisions created by the Court.  And in turn that the Judges who sit on these cases bring something of themselves to that process; that’s why the concept of S.U.P.R.E.M.E deciding it makes us feel a bit edgy.


That must intrinsically be right, because all of the Judges in the Supreme Court hear the same arguments, have the same facts, have access to the same precedent authorities. Yet there are dissenting judgments. So what causes that must be that there’s an element, even in the rarefied air of the Supreme Court, of subjectivity to deciding how the legal dilemma should be resolved.  


[You may recall my previous blog about the impact of extraneous circumstances, such as proximity to lunchtime on judicial decisions   ]


This piece derives from another interesting piece of research, which takes as an example the  UK Supreme Court’s decision in the Jewish Free School’s admission policy.

 My attention was recently drawn to this study, which is available in the Journal of Law and Society  (I’m afraid that it is behind a paywall, and as such I can’t let you peep at it, and I have to be limited in how much I can quote out of it)


The study was written by Rachel J Cahill-O’Callaghan of CardiffUniversityLawSchool  (which frankly is becoming a hot-bed of brainy talent, and one day I must try to visit and have my mind blown. Perhaps during the Six Nations…)

 It opens with a lovely quotation from Lord Reid, in which he manages in four lines to say everything I’ve been fumbling in the dark for, and does so beautifully to boot.

 “Those with a taste for fairy tales seem to have thought that in some Aladdin’s cave there is hidden the Common Law in all its splendour and that on a judge’s appointment there descends on him knowledge of the magic words Open Sesame… But we do not believe in fairy tales anymore”


 There has been a long debate about the make-up of the Supreme Court and whether it reflects the diversity of our society (hint, no, it doesn’t) but this research goes further than that, and analyses how a person’s position on Values is brought to bear on judgments and decisions.


“In reaching a decision, at least one not governed by precedent, a judge will support one or more values above another…. Although the law provides the basis for framing and constraining judicial discretion, in difficult cases at least, it is the personal values of an individual judge that influences how that judicial discretion is exercised and that, in turn, can influence the way in which the law develops”


The way that the research tests this is interesting, and involves  firstly identifying a series of values and defining those so that one knows exactly what to look for in relation to each value, then looking at the judgment in the authority, and analysing each line of it, looking at the emphasis that the individual judge places on particular values, which may compete (for example “flexibility in the law” v “Transparency in the law, Corporate responsibility v individual responsibility, freedom v responsibility).  


On a case such as this, where the Supreme Court was divided in its opinion, that analysis can then be used to see whether the judges who reached a particular conclusion (there was a breach of Race Relations Act) appeared to place similar emphasis on similar values, and do the same exercise with those who reached the opposite conclusion.


On looking at that, there are really stark differences between the values emphasised by the majority judgments and the minority judgments.


The author of the report acknowledges that what was not possible was to go back to the individual Supreme Court judges after the judgment, with that analysis, and ask them whether the analysis of the values that each judge “appeared” to prioritise accords with their own view of where their own values sit, but the research uses some clever techniques to try to fill in this gap.


 There’s an interesting conclusion that if personal values play a role in judicial decision-making and the framing of the law, then in order for the Supreme Court to represent society one doesn’t merely have to look at the very visible aspects of diversity  (gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background) but also diversity of personal values.