|Who Cares ?|
Looked after children are children looked after by their local authority. They may be living with foster parents, at home under a supervision order, in a residential home or secure unit.
Many children in the care system are moved frequently between these various living arrangements and so in recent times there has been an effort to prevent children drifting in local authority care.
Toward this end, CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, has made "achieving permanence one of the central planks of its philosophy". Achieving permanence for a looked after child could mean a `permanence order`, adoption, the end of a supervision order or a return home. At that point the local authority is free to walk away. It is as well to remember that.
The Scottish Government commissioned CELCIS to deliver a "transformational permanence improvement programme". Not all children can be adopted so really there was a drive to achieve other types of permanent placements. According to CELCIS the main cause of delay in achieving permanence for looked after children was the formal systems and decision-making processes. There were consultations with social care, local authority legal advisors and legal professionals in Hearings and Courts in order to improve communication and understanding about the importance of permanence.
"In addition, PaCT, together with partners in Scottish Government and BAAF [British Association of Adoption and Fostering], reviewed legal issues related to permanence and discussed with the Government whether changes to court rules and processes could speed up permanence. "
"Similarly, written and oral evidence was given to the Scottish Parliament Education and Culture Committee to inform the Inquiry into decision-making on taking children into care."At one time removing children permanently from their parents was considered to be a last resort. The ethos of the Children`s Hearing system was to support children so that they could remain safely within their families. The transformation that the Scottish Government asked for turns that idea on its head.
One of the theories which can be used to justify breaking the bonds between children and their parents, in order to pursue a permanent arrangement in another placement, is attachment theory. This theory, which is not uncontested, suggests that for some children there never was a strong attachment in the first place.
To bring forward the transformation in permanency provision, learning and development sessions about attachment were delivered to local authority staff, NHS staff, Children’s Hearings Scotland, voluntary agencies, legal professionals and policy makers. This included current learning on child development, brain development and issues around contact.
It should be noted that if attachment theory is flawed - which I believe it is - then every decision made with that as its premise will be a flawed decision.
But according to CELCIS: "The impact of this work has been to change practice, improve children`s experiences and increase knowledge and confidence, as well as raising awareness and changing attitudes." This work certainly has all parts of the system collaborating to change their practice and attitudes but whether that actually improves children`s experiences is another matter. For one thing, children`s contact with their parents can be seen as getting in the way of permanence. The drive is to reduce contact or cut it out altogether so that children are forced to attach to their new carers. As a senior manager reflects:
The Panel made direct reference to the [CELCIS attachment] training. The Social worker thought that she might have a job to convince Panel Members, but they set contact themselves. The parents saw Panel Members and Social Workers thinking in the same way, which reinforced for the parents that it was the right decision.I do not believe that for one moment. Parents are more likely to perceive the system as being loaded against them, which it is, and it has just got worse.
...the Locality Reporter Manager came back and said that they made a decision to stop contact because they’d thought about that question [put forward in the learning and development session], ‘why are we having contact? Where is the, you know, in what way is this contact supporting the child’s emotional welfare, development and self-esteem?’ And they couldn’t answer that it was. So they terminated the contact (PaCT consultant).Notice, it is not the child or the family who decides to terminate contact. It is the establishment who has grown in confidence due to attachment training.
CELCIS adopted the Plan/Do/Study/Act model for service improvement which actually produces a `one size fits all` strategy to speed up permanence for all children going through the care system. For that reason alone, it will fail many children.
The few cases that I know about have never produced anything other than trauma for children. I am sure there are success stories but I not aware of them.
Two families had their children removed and placed in alternative care. At each hearing social workers produced glowing reports that the children were `thriving` in their placement and it would be disruptive for the children to have them return home. Panel members who make the decisions find it difficult to question the authority of social workers but the reports were false.
This all came out after more than three years when it was no longer possible to hide the fact that each placement was failing the children. At that point the children were returned home where they always wanted to be. The children, who have been changed by their experiences, are beginning the journey to recovery with their parents.
When permanency is processed more speedily so that it takes place in 6 months, say, situations like those above could remain hidden forever because permanency takes away parental rights. Parents will then have no more contact or knowledge about their children and no means to contest decisions at a hearing. (Similar to adoption)
Although it was an uphill struggle, fortunately for those families who regained their children they were dealing with the system before it transformed itself.