Thin red lines or clear blue water – the child protection labyrinth
Child protection is an issue both of paramount importance and complexity. Understandably, it is rarely out of the news.
Child protection is an issue both of paramount importance and complexity. Understandably, it is rarely out of the news. We now have further erudite comment on the rising number of care applications in the form of a report from Isabelle Trowler, the Government’s Chief Social Worker, entitled “Care Proceedings in England: the case for clear blue water” and a speech by the President of the Family Division (Sir Andrew McFarlane) to the Association of Lawyers for Children Conference 2018.
As the title suggests, the core message of the Trowler report is that; “Families subject to thin, red line decisions, where the decision to remove a child from his or her parents could go either way, should be diverted away from court. There should be clear blue water between children brought into care proceedings and other children considered to be at risk of significant harm”. In support of this proposition, the report highlights that 25% of children remained within their own family networks at the end of proceedings.
The report argues; “The principles of the Children Act 1989: the primacy of family, the principle of partnership with parents, the use of voluntary accommodation and the concept of No Order, should be reasserted in policy by Government, upheld in practice by local authorities and examined for impact through inspection, by the Regulator”.
Sir Andrew particularly endorses the report’s findings in relation to the pre-proceedings period. This, he says, is a time when the social work focus should be upon trying to prevent care proceedings but, as the report concludes, this primary focus has become “somewhat lost and it is now used as a process to prepare for court proceedings” (our emphasis).
Both the report and the speech provide an informative and undoubtedly expert insight into the current state of child protection in England, both generally, and specifically in relation to care proceedings. As the Trowler report correctly makes clear; “Where permanence for children can clearly not be secured within family networks, swift and skilful practice must lead to court action without delay.” In this regard however, she noted that whilst the “vast majority of decisions taken to initiate care proceedings were reasonable, the question is whether or not they were always necessary.”
Sir Andrew’s speech makes reference to the recent Care Crisis Review, since which the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education have jointly commenced a “deep dive” review of some 10 or so local authorities to identify distinctions and differences in behaviour in and around the decision to issue care proceedings. The final report is due in December. The Care Crisis Review highlighted the harmful impact of “a culture of blame, shame and fear” on professionals working in the child welfare system, noting that a risk-averse culture undermines the partnership working between families and professionals. It will be interesting to see whether the final report from central government also touches on these issues and, if so, the extent to which it chimes with the awaited judgment of the Supreme Court in CN & GN v Poole BC  which is expected to confirm whether there is any potential civil liability in negligence on social workers in relation to their child protection functions.
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