The average duration of care proceedings in England and Wales has dropped from 56 weeks in 2011 to an average of 28 weeks, between January and March 2016.
According to a study published by the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF), 60% of care cases are ending within the new 26-week schedule, as set down by The Children and Families Act 2014.
The study is a follow-up to the Care Proceedings Pilot in the Tri-borough area of London (Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster) and was funded by the Department for Education and Cafcass.
Court delay is not just an issue that concerns professionals, but is an important one for children and parents involved in care proceedings, as long periods of uncertainty can be difficult and worrying.
Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in adopted children, for example, are associated with delays in decision making during care proceedings, as well as the extent of adversity they face before entry to care.
The study showed that the new, speedier decision making process does not necessarily lead to less stable placements for children. The number of ‘serious problem indicators’ in children cases, such as breakdowns in permanent placements or renewed child protection concerns, actually declined following the family justice reforms of 2013-2014.
The claim of overall reduction in the average length of care proceedings comes despite a substantial increase in the volume of care proceedings and in other areas of work for local authority children services.
This news follows a host of major reforms made to care proceedings across England and Wales under The Children and Families Act 2014, which made it a legal requirement that all but ‘exceptional’ care cases should be completed within 26 weeks.
The study released this month compared a database of 180 cases, involving 256 children.
A pre-pilot group, comprising 90 care proceedings cases which had started under the old approach in 2011-13, was compared with 90 cases under the new, more focused and explicitly delay-conscious regime (the pilot year).
In the pilot year, 5% more children were already in their planned permanent placement when proceedings ended (60 – 65%).
For children who needed to move to a permanent placement at the end of proceedings, the time they had to wait decreased by 50% from the final hearing to placement, from 30 weeks to 14.
Another key finding was that shorter care proceedings did not result in more children living away from their families.
The most frequent type of final placement for children in both groups was with their parent(s), followed by placements with a relative or a friend. There was an increase in family and kinship placements, a drop in the number of care proceedings ending in adoption plans and an increase in those children placed with ‘connected persons’ under a special guardianship order.
Study leader, Prof Jonathan Dickens, who conducted the research alongside colleagues Dr Chris Beckett and Sue Bailey, said:
“Care proceedings are one of the most intrusive state interventions into the lives of children and families and this was a unique opportunity to track and compare the outcomes for children and assess the impact of such a major system change.
“There is widespread interest in ensuring that proceedings are brought in appropriate cases, conducted in a fair, thorough and timely manner, and that the outcomes are as beneficial as possible for the children.”
However critics of the report point out that the research was based on cases taking place in the three wealthiest boroughs in London. The Tri-Borough holds an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating and, critics claim, significantly better resources. The report does not necessarily reflect the experience of poorer London boroughs or nationally.
Whilst of course it is important for decisions for children to be made as soon as possible, the view among practitioners including Goodman Ray is that speed should not be at the expense of fair outcomes for families and their children.
Goodman Ray is a leader in the field of public family law, and specialises in acting for children, young people and parents involved in care proceedings.
The full report, Outcomes for children of shorter court decision-making processes: A follow-up study of the Tri-borough care proceedings pilot, is available here.