Linking timescales to developmental crossroads, level of needs and the prospects for reunion
Families come into care proceedings because children are suffering, or likely to suffer significant harm, and this is attributable to parental action or inaction. So the question becomes, how long can these children afford to wait for the situation to improve? The answer depends on the children’s age, developmental stage and level of needs. There are three developmental crossroads that are particularly important:
- Early attachment.
- Late attachment.
- Late integration into a substitute family.
In FDAC the aim will be to have newborn babies permanently placed by their first birthday. This is because of the advantages of ‘early attachment’ to long-term health and life chances. The sensitive period when children naturally form an attachment is between 6 and 18 months, and 12 months is safely inside that sensitive period. The FDAC ethos is always to attempt to keep children with or return children to their parents, but if that is not possible, we regard an early attachment with a member of the extended family or with an adoptive parent as the next best option for children.
The FDAC team will advise the court whether or not the parents are on track to be meeting their babies’ needs by 12 months at around week 18-20 in the proceedings. If reunion is the most likely outcome the team will normally recommend the proceedings are extended beyond 26 weeks. Where babies are placed with a temporary carer who could also become a permanent carer (a relative who would be suitable for a Special Guardianship Order or an adoptive parent under ‘concurrency’ or ‘foster to adopt’ arrangement) children’s timescales can be extended because delay in finding a permanent carer will be avoided. Equally, where FDAC can work with pregnant mothers in pre-proceedings (available in some FDACs) parents have more time to make the necessary changes.
Where children pass through the sensitive period of 6-18 months without forming a healthy attachment, they can still form an attachment if they are placed with a good enough carer, but the quality of that attachment is likely to be impaired. If the child reaches the age of 3-4 years without forming a healthy attachment the risk of developing an attachment disorder rises rapidly (these are children characterised by either emotional withdrawal and failing to seek comfort or indiscriminate friendliness with adult strangers). It follows that time is running out for children aged 2-3 years with attachment difficulties or an attachment disorder, and they urgently need to be placed with long-term carers and can’t wait for their parents to change.
For example a 4-year-old boy who is over-friendly with strangers, eats excessively and is highly emotionally volatile, shows no signs of attachment to his parents or other family members. This is a ‘developmental emergency’. If he is permanently placed with a sensitive carer there is still a chance he can form an attachment and begin to settle, but time is running out!
Late integration into a substitute family
While older children can manage short spells in foster care, after a certain age children find it difficult to put down roots in an unfamiliar substitute family and such placements are much more likely to breakdown. Older children feel a conflict of loyalty and want to protect their vulnerable parents. This means that permanently removing children beyond a certain age is less helpful. It is difficult to say when this age is, but it is somewhere around 8-10 years. Again, a lot depends on the level of children’s needs. Conversely, older children can wait a lot longer, but there is a limit to how long any child can live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not she will be returning home. In FDAC we think that limit is 12 months.
For example, a 12-year-old girl was placed with her maternal aunt at the start of proceedings. By week 18 in the proceedings her mother is making some progress but she is far from ready to have her daughter returned. The girl would prefer to be with her mother, but is happy with her aunt who has had a positive Special Guardianship assessment. In these circumstances, it might be better to bring proceedings to an end with an SGO to the aunt, encourage the mother to give herself another 18 months to work on her recovery, and give some thought on how the aunt, mother and daughter might be supported to review any progress that mother makes and consider whether return to mother is a realistic option at a later date.
How the level of children’s needs and timescales influence outcomes
A previous blog addressed What counts as a success in FDAC cases. Sometimes children’s level of needs and or timescales are not compatible with their parent’s journeys, in which case the best outcome will be ensuring children find alternative long-term placements without undue delay. In such cases, FDAC will also encourage parents to keep trying to overcome their difficulties so they can continue to play a role in their children’s lives and be able to care for future children.
The work of the National Unit and news from the FDAC sites is available at www.fdac.org.
You can follow theFDAC National Unit on Twitter @FDAC_NU
For practical guidance on the FDAC see the Lexis®PSL Family Practice Note: The Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) (subscription required), produced in partnership with the FDAC National Unit, which includes details of the main features and procedure for cases being heard in the FDAC. It also provides information about the FDAC National Unit, the expansion of the FDAC to new sites, research that has been conducted into the FDAC and the challenges that the FDAC approach faces in light of the Public Law Outline 2014 and the changes introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 – the 26-week time limit, and the emphasis on pre-proceedings work and assessment.
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