Care Proceedings and the Baby P Effect

We are all too familiar with the case of Peter Connelly who died in Tottenham at the age of 17 months in August 2007.  Baby Peter had been seen by social services and health professionals 60 times before he was found dead with more than 50 injuries.  His mother Tracey Connelly aged 28 and her partner Steven Barker were sentenced to indefinite jail terms with minimum time to be served of 5 and 12 years.

Following Baby Peter’s death, there was an independent report which gave a damming verdict on Haringey Council.  The report highlighted how Haringey had failed to identify children at immediate risk of harm, that there was poor information gathering, recording and sharing of information, that there was inadequate supervision of junior staff, poor child protection plans and that the Council had failed to implement the recommendations of the Climbie enquiry.  Additionally it was identified that there was no effective co-ordination of all the child protection agencies. 

Peter Connelly died in August 2007.  There was not an immediate increase in applications for care proceedings until after the court case in November 2008 uncovered the scale of Peter’s neglect and abuse and the full circumstances of his death.  A report by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service found that care applications went up by more than a third due to the effect of the case.  In the year from April 2008 to 2009, there were 6,488 applications and in the following year, there were 8,694 applications. 

However according to CAFCASS, there is no evidence that children are being taken into care needlessly.  It seems that the increase in care cases, has meant that more children are being safeguarded, particularly in chronic neglect cases.  In the majority of cases the parents have multiple problems including domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems.  All of these make for chronic instability and inadequate care for the children involved.  The impression is that social services departments, mindful of the Baby Peter case are starting to put vulnerable children before the rights of parents, whereas in the past they have concentrated on fixing families even when there is little hope of the family circumstances improving.  Indeed Lord Laming’s report into child protection following the Baby Peter case indicated that councils should always err on the side of caution when deciding whether to begin court proceedings or not, so as ensure that children are properly protected. 

It seems that the number of referrals to children’s services and the applications for taking children into care have risen steadily in recent years.  This has had an impact on the family court system with children waiting on average 57 weeks, sometimes in abusive homes, for county courts to make care or supervision orders.  In family courts, the delay is 45 weeks.  This is a very long time for a child to have their life in limbo and possibly at risk of harm.

The family courts are clearly having difficulties coping with the increase in care cases and so too is the guardian system.  Guardians in care proceedings are independent experts usually from a social work background who get to know the child, investigate their circumstances, stand up for them in court and give the child a voice separate from their parents and from the local authority.  It has been reported that at least a thousand children presently are only represented by duty guardians and there are delays in getting guardians appointed to cases.  This has invoked some criticisms from judges who worry that children in care proceedings without guardians will be sold short.

The other concern about the increase in care proceedings is the chronic shortage of foster carers which has been reported by the Fostering Network.  It has long been thought that foster care is a sensible solution to children who need to be looked after, as it places a child back into a family setting rather than the old traditional model of group homes.  It appears that there is a chronic shortage of foster carers at the moment which may well add to the delays in getting children into suitable homes and away from neglectful or abusive parents.

In summary, it appears that following the public release of the Baby Peter Serious Case Review executive summary, there was a substantial increase in care order applications by local authorities which, although a response to the Baby Peter case, has led to appropriate action being taken by local authorities.  There is no evidence that children are needlessly being taken into care but instead a larger number of children are being safeguarded.  This however has had an impact upon the court system in which children can face substantial delays, an impact on guardian services with children being left without guardians during the care proceedings and also a shortage of good foster care placements for children to be received into.  This is of some concern particularly in today’s climate of budget cuts, as children escaping violent, abusive or neglectful circumstances should expect far better care when they become looked after in the care system, than when they were at home. 

Tracey Storey – Partner, London