This column originally featured in the Wigan Observer on June 11th 2013.
To quote the Department of Education “The Children and Families Bill takes forward the Coalition Government’s commitments to improve services for vulnerable children and support strong families. It underpins wider reforms to ensure that all children and young people can succeed, no matter what their background. The Bill will reform the systems for adoption, looked after children, family justice and special educational needs. It will encourage growth in the childcare sector, introduce a new system of shared parental leave and ensure children in England have a strong advocate for their rights.”
Introduced into Parliament in February of this year, some intentions of the Children and Families Bill are to support and encourage families through shared parental leave and flexible working, as well as ensuring an appropriate level of care for all children and young people, through Childcare and Special Educational Needs provision. Whilst in legal terms the Bill has brought with it a renewed emphasis on promoting the “rights” of the child rather than the “rights” of the parent, there are concerns in some quarters that some of the proposals are simply a cover for cutting costs, with limited, if any practical impact of the welfare of vulnerable children.
Under the guise of making the legal system work better for vulnerable children a couple of the more headline grabbing aims of the Government is to see more children being adopted by loving families with less delay, stating that there is an average of almost two years between a child entering local authority care and moving in with an adoptive family, with the result that the Bill “supports the reforms set out in An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay including by promoting fostering for adoption and improving support for adoptive families”.
As part of the plan to “cut delay” the Government is “also intending reforming the family justice system so that it can deliver better for children and families who go to court after family separation or where children may be taken into care... and will implement commitments the Government made in response to the Family Justice Review including by introducing a time limit of 26 weeks when courts are considering whether a child should be taken into care…”
It would be hard to find anyone involved with such cases on a regular basis who doesn’t think such intentions are laudable ones, particularly if children are the winners. As always however the reality of the situation is always a little more complex and less clear cut. There’s no doubt that the less delay the better as far as children are concerned, but having an arbitrary “cut off” point for child care cases may well result in outcomes that actually have a much greater “cost” in both financial and human terms.
For instance, if a parent suffers from an addiction but is committed to “getting clean” in order to be able to look after their child, the six month fixed period is generally not long enough for this to be done effectively. In such circumstances there are fears that despite parent’s best efforts, their child could ultimately be placed for adoption as legal proceedings are “rushed through” to meet a 26 week limit. The debate is ongoing whether this really is children’s “best interests” ?
One unintended consequence is that the legislation might actually lead to more delay, despite “care proceedings” being concluded within 26 weeks. In order for a child to be placed in a forever Adoptive family, the court will need to make a Placement Order, which could run on for much longer and be extended due to appeals.
The downside to this is that a child is might be waiting in long-term foster care, which is not only ultimately more expensive to the state (at hundreds of pounds per week per child) but, most importantly, can have a damaging impact on the child. The risk is that without the oversight or input of the courts, such delays may go on “un-noticed” and children left in limbo.
One positive effect of the Children and Families Bill is that it provides lawyers with the leverage to ensure that some clients know the urgency of the childcare application process and realise the importance of their behaviour towards their child. It is never wise to assume that the outcome of a case is guaranteed, and now more than ever time is of the essence. If for whatever reason your children have come to the intention of the Local Authority Social Services, you need to listen carefully to their concerns and co-operate. Social Services have a duty to ensure that children within their local area are being properly looked after. If not, they will be required to step in and take court action if matters cannot be sorted out. Do not delay in getting legal advice, as an experienced Children and Family Lawyer may be able to discuss matters with the local authority and work out a plan to make things better.
If you’re looking to adopt a child then there would seem to be plenty of children to help as unfortunately, as evidenced by a nationwide push to recruit potential adopters, there are simply not enough to meet current need and according to a recent Government “Adoption Map” as of 31st March 2012 the Wigan area was one of the “worst” in England with over 11 children per adopter waiting for a placement with a new family. One of the reasons for this is no doubt the current financial climate and potential adopters being put off by the financial and emotional costs, although the proposals may make it easier for children to be adopted, it won’t necessarily make it easier to adopt! But help is available and you should not hesitate to enquire of your local authority or a charity such as British Association for Adoption and Fostering for advice about becoming an adopter, a child out there just may be waiting for you?
By family associate & solicitor, Chris Fairhurst