Assessing children's needs – good practice just as important as speed
The Association of Directors of Childrens Services and Cafcass have released guidance in relation to the making of special guardianship orders in care proceedings. The guidance arises out of their concern about the inappropriate use of special guardianship orders in some care cases, in circumstances where insufficient consideration has been given to the suitability and longterm viability of a placement.
The concerns may be seen in the context of the time limit on the duration of care proceedings introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014. The rule is that care proceedings must take no more than 26 weeks, from the issue of proceedings to a final decision being taken, save in exceptional circumstances. This rule was introduced to minimise delay for children. The merit or otherwise of this rule continues to be the subject of debate but practitioners will be aware that it is, for the most part, being stringently applied by the courts.
Most practitioners will have experience of a case where family members come forward to be assessed late in the proceedings. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Some family members may not have full information regarding the involvement of the local authority, and the prospect of the child being placed outside of the family. Others may not want to involve themselves with social services before it is evident to them that it is necessary. In such cases there may be tension between the need to carry out a thorough assessment and the need to conclude proceedings within the 26 week timeframe.
The guidance cautions that when a special guardianship order is being considered, care must be taken to ensure that the assessment of the prospective special guardians is sufficiently thorough and addresses any potential issues with the placement. The guidance also recommends that no special guardianship orders are made before the criminal record and medical checks have been completed. If this work cannot be done within the 26 week period, the recommendation is that practitioners should seek an extension in the court timetable to allow for the assessment to be done properly.
This guidance is to be welcomed. If a child cannot be with his or her parents, a good family placement can be extremely positive and should be encouraged. However, it is not the case that the family placement is automatically the best one. One can only be satisfied that it is if a full and proper assessment is undertaken. It is right that this should consider the ability of the prospective special guardians to meet the needs of the child in the long-term, as well as the short-term. This is essential for the welfare of the child. It is also being fair to the prospective special guardians. Such an assessment can and should look at any support that can be put in place to minimise risks of a placement breakdown. Placement breakdowns are not only damaging for the child involved, but can take a real toll on the special guardians. Whilst it is important that decisions for a child should be taken in a timely manner, caution must be exercised that good practice is not sacrificed in favour of speed.