New Adoption Laws
Head of Family Law Simon Mortimer examines the potential impact of the Children and Social Work Bill which aims to improve the outcomes for young people for whom the care system is not cuurently working,
One in four prisoners has been in care says the Government and 70% of sex workers have also been in care. These are appalling statistics but it is important to understand they are not because these people have been in care but rather they are usually because the care system has not been able to make up for the deficits these people have experienced before they were taken into care. The Government is now aiming to improve the care system to try to remedy this shortcoming with the new law which is currently going through Parliament.
Before going much further it is important to remember there are many highly skilled and thoroughly committed social workers and foster carers to whom many young people are deeply indebted when they leave the care system for rebuilding their lives but the new law known as the Children and Social Work Bill aims to improve the outcomes for all those young people for whom currently the care system is simply not delivering.
The Bill is aimed to “tip the balance in favour of adoption” when local authorities and courts are planning children’s futures. The suggestion however that courts do not do this already is debatable when they already have a duty to prioritise the welfare of children “throughout their lifetime” when considering adoption applications and they have to approve long-term care plans when making care orders.
One way the Bill aims to favour adoption is by encouraging the assessment of the child’s current carers, typically foster carers as prospective adopters. Whilst this may be desirable for the individual children, the unintended consequence of promoting the “fostering to adopt” policy, could well be reducing the pool of experienced foster carers. Fostering is a highly skilled and demanding commitment but rarely recognised as such. Foster carers are often the first “port in a storm” for children who have been removed from abusing or neglectful parents or “carers” and they have to care for children who are often deeply disturbed by their experiences. If the pool of such foster carers is going to be reduced consistently by their becoming adopters, there will need to be significant resources put into recruiting, training and retaining new foster carers.
Children in the care system sometimes appear to lose any priority for local authority children’s services and instead resources are focused on frontline child protection. Children can sometimes wait months or even years to be adopted with multiple placements often miles apart and changes of schools and social workers. This can lead to their care plans not being delivered and in the worst cases can simply reinforce rather than remedy the neglect or abuse they have suffered before entering the care system. The Children and Social Work Bill aims to remedy this by imposing standards on local authorities which they must achieve to ensure children in their care receive high quality services and they will also have to ensure the children are made aware of the services which should be available to them.
When children leave the care system in their late teens they are often at their most vulnerable and this is the stage where they can frequently enter the criminal system or become sex workers. “Pathway planning” as it is known for children leaving the care system is notoriously patchy and difficult to deliver as the ties between young adults and the local authorities are loosened. The new Bill aims to ensure there is better support for these young people up to the age of 25. One of the biggest problems for these young people is the switchover from children’s services to adult services and ensuring there is a smooth and supportive transition. It might have been helpful if the Bill had specifically required local authorities to ensure cooperation between children’s and adult services when providing services for care leavers.
So much of the Bill’s success will rely on the quality of the social workers who have to deliver it and to ensure they deliver the highest standards there will be a new social work “regulator”. The Bill is sketchy about just how this is going to work and given there are 27,000 social workers in children’s services and about another 60,000 social workers across adult services, some of whom will be involved with care leavers, it could take some significant time to develop and put into action and effective service to regulate all these social workers. The Bill does not promise extra resources to train and support such social workers which could ultimately be its failure.
This Bill tackles an often neglected area and is welcome for that reason but it will require very substantial resourcing at a time when all local authorities are still being expected to trim their budgets radically. There are almost 70,000 children in care in England and Wales and roughly 10,000 children leave care each year. Each one of them requires and is entitled to appropriate support which for most of them will have to come from local authority resources and if adequate resources are not provided then the numbers of children who have been in care and end up as the most disadvantaged people in society will not be reduced.
About the author
Simon is a partner and leads the Family Law team at Burnetts.