Children left in danger by court delays

Children are being damaged by unprecedented delays in the family courts in England and Wales, where judges can now take up to 65 weeks to decide whether it is safe for them to remain with their parents, Britain’s largest children’s charity says today.

Government data obtained by Barnardo’s shows that vulnerable children are waiting for an average of 57 weeks – more than a year – in unstable family homes or emergency foster placements before a county court decides whether they will be taken into care permanently. Even for those cases deemed less complex, magistrates in the family proceedings court take on average 45 weeks, which is more than 10 months.

The result is that children are either left in danger with unsuitable parents or bounced around the foster care system, which is especially damaging for the very young. Jonathan Ewen, Barnardo’s director of fostering and adoption, said the problem had built up over years and was largely due to the declining status of social workers.

“It is an atrophy in respect for social workers,” said Ewen. “Judges will ask for independent assessments rather than accepting social workers’ assessments. These take time. Before you know it a child is waiting months. If they are lucky, they get just one foster family.”

In one case highlighted by the charity, a boy aged just under two was removed from home on an emergency protection order, and a full care order was not made until more than two years later, when he was four years and four months old.

It was another year and a half before he was placed with an adoptive family, after seven placements involving five sets of carers. “The problem is that without a stable and secure upbringing you get effects all through life,” said Ewen.

The charity says its own research has found that the longer a case goes on, the more likely it is that children will be subject to placement changes, multiple assessments, change of social workers and complex family contact arrangements.

Not only will the child be emotionally harmed, Barnardo’s says, there is evidence that it damages their ability to form stable relationships.

Publicity over the death of Baby Peter has led to many people turning away from key parts of the service. The tragedy has led to a “chronic shortage” of foster carers, and nearly six in 10 local authorities are reported to be having difficulty finding the right homes for children. Only one-third said they had been able to find appropriate placements.

There is also a postcode lottery in seeking removals. In the county court, where the more complex cases are heard, only three out of 18 regions completed care proceedings in less than a year: East Midlands (50 weeks), Mid and West Wales (47 weeks) and Humber and South Yorkshire (46 weeks). In London it took 65 weeks.

Barnardo’s is calling for a radical culture shift in court practice, with a “legal guillotine” to ensure all cases are dealt with in less than 30 weeks, and a “tiered, fast track” target of 12 weeks for children under 18 months.”In 1989 the target set for these cases was 12 weeks. It’s just got worse and worse,” said Ewen.

The courts are clogging up with cases. Figures show that at the end of 2009 there were 12,994 open care cases in the courts. This is almost 50% more than at the end of 2008, when there were 8,677 cases open.

The work has been echoed by senior judges.Sir Mark Potter, who stood down this year after nearly five years as president of the family division in England and Wales, told the Guardian in June: “Delays are causing children to be left for a considerable proportion of their early lives in atmospheres of violence, high emotion and parental dispute which, if prolonged, is bound to interfere with their longterm development and give rise to problems in adolescence and later life.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The government is committed to reducing unnecessary delay in care proceedings.

“A family justice review is currently under way gathering evidence on problems in the current system and proposals for change. The panel leading the review shares Barnardo’s concerns and has met their representatives to discuss suggestions for reform.

“4,000 extra sitting days were added to the family courts earlier in 2010 to deal with care cases and the government will continue to monitor the situation.

“We are also exploring proposals to make better use of local performance groups to give local decision makers more ownership of the system, empowering them to tackle the local causes of delay.”

“The government is clear that every child’s case should be dealt with as
quickly as possible to minimise trauma and keep young people safe from