11 APR 2017

New entrants and repeat children: continuity and change in care demand over time

New entrants and repeat children: continuity and change in care demand over time

Professor Judith Harwin and Dr Bachar Alrouh, Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University 

This article and ‘Women in recurrent care proceedings in England (2007-2016) at p 412 below are based on presentations given at a seminar ‘Disrupting the care cases crisis’ co-hosted by the Nuffield Foundation and Cafcass, held on 23 February 2017. The seminar was prompted by the concerns over the escalation in care demand highlighted by Sir James Munby in his 15th View from the President’s Chambers (see October [2016] Fam Law 1227) and the need for a strategic response to tackle it. The Nuffield Foundation brought together policy-makers, experts across the family justice system, Whitehall and academics to hear and discuss latest research evidence, analyses by the DfE and MoJ and innovative practice by children’s services. The overall aim of the seminar was to consider how the crisis might be addressed and to identify gaps in knowledge. Baroness Claire Tyler of Enfield, Chair of the Cafcass Board provided the concluding speech and Sir James Munby outlined his reflections on the day and what questions remained.

The relentless rise in care proceedings is one of the most troubling developments in family justice today. It has major consequences for the children and families and poses an immense strain on local authorities and the courts. The President of the Family Division has described this trend as a ‘looming crisis’ and additional funds to meet expanding need are considered to be unlikely. Whilst acknowledging that the causes of the rise are likely to be multifactorial, the President has drawn up a list of questions which focus on the use of the family justice system to see if they can illuminate some of the drivers of the increase in care demand.

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In this article we present brand new information on three questions posed by the President. Have there been changes over time in the number of children in each care case? Have there been changes in their age and gender profiles? Have there been changes in the number of ‘repeat children’? These are defined as children who return to court following placement breakdown. We also include an analysis of trends over time in the use of different types of legal order made at the end of the s 31 proceedings. This analysis is important in order to understand the relationship between return to court and order type and captures more broadly shifts in policy and decision-making about permanency planning and how the child’s best interests are met. In this way we are able to map out patterns of stability and change in the case from the start of the proceedings, through to final order, and subsequent disruptions that lead to return to court. 

To address these questions we draw on our ongoing national study of supervision orders and special guardianship funded by the Nuffield Foundation (2015–2018). Our answers are derived from analysis of the Cafcass national electronic case management database which allows us to generate national data and therefore to be confident that our results are robust. Policy-makers in the socio-legal field are increasingly seeking evidence based on national data to underpin and inform strategy. 

In this article we use the period 2008/09–2016/17 as our observational window to provide the crucial longitudinal perspective. The primary unit of analysis in our study is the child’s s 31 set of proceedings. This includes a s 31 application (care, supervision and extension of supervision) and may include other additional applications such as residence/child arrangement orders (live with), special guardianship or placement and which leads to one or more final orders. By using the child’s set of proceedings as the main unit of analysis we are able to track individual legal outcomes for singleton children and those who are part of a sibling group and to track their individual pathways over time. We have used return to court as a proxy of disruption as s 31 proceedings always indicate risk or actual significant harm. 

The full version of this article appears in the April 2017 issue of Family Law. 

Online subscribers can access the article 
here.

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