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No-one involved in child welfare could question the intention of reducing harmful delay for children in the family justice system. But there are unintended dangers to the proposed six month time limit in the forthcoming Children and Families Bill for all care proceedings, save in exceptional cases. The timescale will reduce the time available for parents to demonstrate their parenting abilities and will potentially squeeze out wider family members who want to take on the care of a child who cannot live with their parents because there may simply not be enough time for them to be assessed and considered once proceedings are underway. At a time when care order applications are at a record high and there is a severe shortage of foster carers, there is a risk that some children will therefore end up subject to a series of temporary unrelated placements, in many cases split up even from their siblings, when they could have lived securely within their family network.
At the moment extended family placements are frequently not explored sufficiently early pre proceedings (Hunt, J (2001) Scoping paper prepared for the Department of Health London: DoH), despite there being clear evidence about the protective impact of the wider family (Farmer, E and Moyers, S (2008) Kinship Care: Fostering Effective Family and Friends Placements London: Jessica Kingsley). In part, this is because social workers do not routinely seek out potential carers in the wider family, particularly amongst paternal relatives, prior to proceedings starting. Farmers and Moyers, for example, found only 4 per cent of family and friends care placements had been initiated by the social worker. But as importantly, many family and friends carers refrain from offering to care for the child whilst there is still a chance that the parents (who are typically their son, daughter, brother, sister or even own parent) may be able to care for the child long term. In some cases this is because they are unaware of the depth or totality of concerns, in others cases because they don't want to undermine the parents and/or are fearful of reprisals from the parents if they step forward early. Therefore, many wait until there is a finding of fact against a parent/s, before putting themselves forward as alternative carers.
Mr Justice Ryder in his update on The modernisation of the family justice system rightly points out local authorities were "much more likely to" explore the potential for a child to return home and the feasibility of children living with their wider family "where family group conferencing or similar early engagement with family have occurred to identify alternative placements for the child."
Family group conferences, a family-led approach to making plans for children at risk, have the great advantage of identifying early on all those who may be important in the child's life and allowing contingency planning so that relatives can put themselves forward and be assessed as potential carers, in the eventuality that a child not be able to live with their parents. However, at the moment only a small minority of families are offered a family group conference and around a third (three in 10) of local authorities in England and Wales have no family group conference service at all.
Unfortunately Justice Ryder makes no mention of the importance of advice and advocacy for such family members. Family Rights Group advises 7,000 families a year whose children are involved with, or require children's services. We help parents to understand their legal rights, but also to get real about their situation. Moreover, we also assist family members wishing to step in and raise a child to understand their options, including applying for a residence or special guardianship order, for example, to avoid care proceedings and provide the child with permanence. Department for Education funding for our advice service ends in March 2013 and so far there has been no announcement been made about any future funding regime. Moreover, legal aid reforms mean many more family and friends carers will have to represent themselves in court in such circumstance. It is urgent that the courts are geared up to addressing this.
It is critical that we act now to avoid a situation where a process that is theoretically designed to meet children's best interests, ends up infringing their right to respect for family life, by denying them the chance of being loved and living safely within their family.
Family Rights Group advises 7,000 families a year whose children are involved with, or require children's services. www.frg.org.uk
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