Relationships are described by The Care Inquiry as “the golden thread in children’s lives”. Unfortunately, this thread is not always protected where it should be. Although, thankfully, the importance of these relationships is increasingly being recognised, there are still some issues in this area.
The principle of children’s views being listened to and acted upon is well established, but practice must always be encouraged to match the guidance. Children know who is important to them and should be encouraged to express this. Wherever possible, they should be actively enabled and encouraged to preserve those relationships.
Children’s relationships must always be considered on their merits, rather their legal status or convenience. A court or Local Authority changing the status or plan for a child should not be used as a reason for breaking relationships, unless there are specific and substantial reasons to do so.
Many Local Authorities have excellent policies and procedures in place to ensure the continuation of a young person’s relationships. Effective care plans should be in place for any child and these should be considering the need for contact with any individual able to play a positive role in the child’s life. Unfortunately, there are some authorities who do not, or who fail to follow these in all instances. Local Authorities need to be consistently applying good practice.
It is an often used mantra that we should all be ‘child led’. This is an excellent and important principle, although, obviously, this does not mean that a child should always be able to get everything they want (sweets for breakfast!). When it comes to relationships, however, they know who is important in their lives and unless there is an overwhelming protection issue, we must not be selective about when we listen regarding relationships – just because a relationship was not perfect does not mean that it does not have value or can not be positive. To support this, it follows that we must make an effort to all be positive about their relationships as children will pick up on any negative attitudes.
It is important that the views of all parties are sought and welcomed. Social workers are often under great pressure with a large case-load and can not possibly spend enough time with the child to make fully-informed decisions. Foster carers, including past foster carers should be involved with decision making as they are likely to know the child best. At the moment, foster carers are too often excluded where important decisions are made.
Where decisions are made, they should always be communicated clearly and promptly to all parties. As there is a time-limit on most applications to court, some Local Authorities have been known to delay communications with the result of compromising other parties legal recourse.
Local Authority children’s services are seriously underfunded. Workloads have increased, particularly in the light of recent highly publicised cases. High workloads can lead to frustration for social workers who feel that they are not able to give the time or meet the needs of the children. This contributes to a high turnover of staff, which, in turn, leads to a lack of continuity. We should value our children in care and the childcare services who look after them.
There is also an increased tendency to to blame social services when things go wrong. Although it is important to identify where mistakes may have been made, or opportunities missed, this should be done in an atmosphere where the emphasis is on what can be improved for the young people in care. To promote a blame culture within social services would only serve to create a hostile, secretive and fearful service.
Sadly, all too often we have heard social workers gauge a child’s wishes regarding contact as not being worth consideration because the child has not run away to see that person. This is clearly an attitude that has no place in modern social work. Even when a child has run away, they are too often not listened to, despite there being no reason to prevent contact.
Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) are usually hired and paid by the Local Authority which they are reviewing cases for. The government has recognised and acknowledged this conflict of interests and issued new statutory guidance in March 2010. This was intended to increase the interventions by IROs on behalf of the child. However, they have so far stopped short of changing the system to make IROs truly independent. We are aware of cases where IROs have fallen short of their statutory duties to the child, and we would like to see changes to the current situation.
The National Minimum Standards (NMS) lays out the standards which can be expected by people using social care, including when fostered. This contains a number of positive things about supporting children’s relationships. It also contains caveats that everything should be done where it is in their ‘best interests’. This is clearly a very important principle and is often heard from social workers and other professionals. Sadly, this has also become a too commonly used way of dismissing something that the Local Authority does not want to deal with. It is often used with no explanation of what factors influence this ‘best interest’. Indeed, we have even heard it used in court. The Judge was displeased when the social worker involved could offer no elaboration on the position of the Local Authority. It is of the utmost importance that “the child’s best interests”, in place to protect children, is not abused. Any use should be clearly backed up with a reasoned argument and, if possible, evidence.
As it stands at the moment, the law usually limits people other than birth parents to a three month period from the last contact in which to apply for a Contact Order. Contacts are often spaced by three months anyway. If a contact were cancelled at the last minute, this could leave no opportunity for an application. A period of six months from the last contact would give opportunity for the situation to become clear before the courts are involved.