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Inconsistent quality and practice in undertaking viability
assessments was amongst a range of hot topics discussed at Nagalro’s spring
conference on care proceedings, held on 16 March. Current practice at the initial
stage in assessing potential kinship carers emerged as a major problem in
ensuring that all realistic placement options for children have been explored,
in the spirit of Re B-S ( EWCA Civ 1146,  1 FLR 1035).
Almost 150 lawyers, social workers, expert witnesses and
other family justice practitioners had gathered at St Catherine’s College,
Oxford, to consider the dilemmas posed by the tensions that can arise between
the Family Court’s requirement for a global, holistic evaluation of the options
for placing a child under a care order and the time limit of 26 weeks imposed
on care proceedings under the Children and Families Act 2014. The day
conference was chaired by the President of the Family Division, Sir James
Munby. The speakers were Cyrus Larizadeh, barrister at 4 Paper Buildings; Dr
Karen Broadhurst, University of Manchester; Uma Mehta CBE, Islington Borough
Council; Bridget Lindley OBE, Family Rights Group; and Professor Jonathan
Dickens, University of East Anglia. Their topics included: the principles laid
down in Re B-S and subsequent cases;
research on recurrent proceedings where young mothers experience successive
removal of their babies; the pressures on local authorities to comply with
court deadlines; whether these deadlines allow sufficient time to explore the parents’
capacity to change and suitable options
of family and friends carers; and the role of the independent reviewing officer
during the proceedings and beyond.
Family Rights Group are concerned about the use of viability
assessments and have evidence that some appear to be peremptory. A potential
kinship carer will not know where to turn for advice about their options. It
was not even clear that there was a consistent definition amongst practitioners
of what a viability assessment was. Points raised in the discussion included
how long a typical assessment should take, as it seems that some are just brief
phone calls, with no paper trail. It was noted that when adoption panels’
functions had included the adoption decision, questions would have been asked
about other carers, which may not be asked now. On a show of hands, most
attending thought that it was better practice for a viability assessment to be
undertaken by an independent specialist within the local authority, rather than
by the child’s social worker. However, this could add to delay. There were
differing views about the right entry points in the process for viability
assessments to begin, and who should be responsible for exploring these options
at different stages. It was concluded that confidence in family justice might
be improved if steps could be taken to clarify the rights and responsibilities
of parties and agencies in relation to viability assessments.
Throughout the day, the President reminded the audience of
the value of continuous inter-disciplinary feedback and dialogue, to which
those attending had contributed, in seeking to resolve the ongoing tensions in
the family justice system. A more detailed report
on the conference and papers by the speakers will be published in forthcoming issues
of Seen and Heard.