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Child development research highlights need to reduce delays in family justice system

Date:19 NOV 2012

Decision-Making-In-Family-Justice-System-ResearchA new research paper commissioned by Department of Education warns that the family justice system needs to reduce delays in making decisions  regarding the welfare of children in order to prevent long-term damage to their development.

The paper was prepared by Rebecca Brown and Harriet Ward from the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre and brings together key research evidence to facilitate understanding among professionals working in the family justice system.

It was commissioned in response to the Family Justice Review recommendation for consistent training and development for family justice professionals, including a greater emphasis on child development. The paper, Decision-making within a child's timeframe: an overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and the impact of maltreatment, brings together key research evidence relating to:

  • neuroscience perspectives on children's cognitive, social and emotional development;
  • the implications of maltreatment on childhood and adulthood wellbeing;
  • evidence concerning the outcomes of interventions by the courts and children's social care; and
  • time frames for intervening and why they are out of kilter with those for children.

The paper reviews research on the types of relationships required between parents and children to create healthy child development. It examines the importance of early bonding between parents and their children as a key factor in the development of a broad range of a child's abilities and competencies.

The review includes an overview of the development of the brain, focussing on regions which are particularly vulnerable to the impact of childhood neglect and abuse. It is written for family justice professionals to provide sufficient understanding of brain development to support further reading of evidential material.

The paper stresses the risk to child development by delayed actions by local authorities and family courts. It warns that the longer children are left inadequately protected from all forms of maltreatment the greater the chance that their long-term wellbeing will be compromised.

The authors conclude that there is "a relatively short window of opportunity in which decisive actions can be taken to ensure that children are adequately safeguarded. Delays close off these opportunities. If children are to remain at home, proactive engagement with social workers needs to begin early, particularly in view of evidence that case management becomes less active after they reach their sixth birthdays. There is a body of research evidence to show that if abuse and neglect are not adequately addressed at an early stage, as children grow older they may benefit less both from specialist interventions to address its consequences and from separation to prevent its recurrence. Early intervention is also urgently necessary where there are concerns that a child might need to be placed for adoption, for not only do children become increasingly difficult to place as the consequences of long-term exposure to abuse and neglect become more entrenched, but also adoptive carers are harder to find for older children."