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Care proceedings: Prevention is best

In the last month there have been two interesting reports on care proceedings. These are the proceedings in family courts which make legal orders about children being placed into care settings.

The first was the report by a research team led by Professor Karen Broadhurst of Lancaster University into repeat care proceedings. By using data held by the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), they were able to provide evidence about repeat care proceedings, where babies or children are placed into care from families whose children have been previously removed. This is a sad process well known to social workers, lawyers and judges but about which we have had little researched evidence. In the latest findings from this ongoing study they showed that the numbers of new-born babies being removed from their mothers has increased enormously in the last 7 years.

This is an absolute tragedy for children and parents alike. It is hard to imagine the pain of having several children removed at birth or in infancy, one after the other. Some of the children will go on to have happy lives with adopters or long term carers from their wider family, but many will be separated from siblings due to size of the family and the sequential nature of their removal. Some parents are receiving specialist help after a child is removed so that they can tackle whatever problems have led to the baby being removed before they go on to have more children. This is very welcome and I think should be a standard offer to parents.

This report covers care proceedings in England only. I am aware that there are many such similar cases in Wales and I hope that the same analysis can be done here, so that we know how many families need specialist help, and appropriate support services can be developed.

The second report shows that care proceedings in Wales are being carried out much more speedily, with final decisions being made within six months in the majority of cases. In the past they often dragged on for much longer, leaving children and parents uncertain about their futures and delaying permanent plans for children. There is also some anecdotal evidence that more care solutions are being found within wider family networks before care proceedings begin. This is, therefore, good news.

So, we seem to be removing children at an earlier stage of concern and making court decisions more quickly. For individual children both these trends can be good for their longer term chances if staying at home puts them at risk of significant harm. However, we need to be sure that prevention and early intervention is in place to support as many children as possible to stay with their birth families.

The UNCRC says that parents should be supported by the State in caring for their children and children should have special support if they cannot live at home. In Wales we have much higher rates of looked after children than in England. This may be because we are protecting children better but other contributing factors could be less effective family support services, more risk averse professionals and legal teams and higher child poverty levels. I welcome the current Welsh Government emphasis on reducing looked after children numbers. This must be accompanied by effective support for children and their families whether they are living at home or with alternative carers. We must also get effective help to those parents left behind when their children are removed, not forgetting that some of these are teenage parents who are still legally children themselves.