The importance of children's representation after care proceedings


A new report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has called for more government guidance on children forced back to abusive homes.

child support

The report, 'Returning Home from Care: what's best for children', warns that hundreds of children presently in care will be returned to abusive family homes lacking essential protective support.

According to the charity, some 50% of the neglected or abused children who enter care every year are similarly mistreated on returning home, while 33% suffer repeated but failed attempts to reintegrate them into their families.

The NSPCC's findings follow new statistics showing that care applications to courts have exceeded 10,000 for the first time.

Such figures are a cause for worry, says the NSPCC, given the high incidence of children in care returning to their original family environments. The findings are also a concern for legal experts, who believe there should be greater scrutiny of how local authorities act on behalf of abused children.

The NSPCC has welcomed a determination in some quarters to secure completely new family environments. However, adoption is an outcome denied to all but 5% of children in care, according to the charity.

Since the NSPCC believes that to concentrate equally on the larger proportion who are returned home could significantly lower repeated abuse, it has called for the government to issue new child-centred guidance to local authorities on the issue.

Tom Rahilly, the NSPCC's Head of Strategy & Development for Looked After Children, notes that councils are required to make challenging decisions daily.

"Care does provide a safe and supportive environment for some of our most vulnerable children and can be the right option in many cases," said Mr Rahilly. "The trauma caused to children who are abused, go into care, and are then abused again when they return home is unimaginable. Their trust in adults and their motivation to speak out is shattered."

"Evidence shows that the wrong decision is being made in far too many cases. So it's vital that decisions to return a child home are taken cautiously and the risks to the child are assessed carefully."

Adding that the child should remain in care if parents still have problems, Mr Rahilly said the issues for which they were originally removed must be addressed before any return.

However, there remains the matter of how efficiently councils take on board any proposed child-centred guidance in order to ensure adequate support.

Simpson Millar LLP's Emma Hopkins, a specialist in family law, notes that some measure of legal protection for families is of fundamental importance.

"Local authorities will need to implement guidelines that, while well-intentioned, could fall off the radar unless they are closely monitored," said Emma. "No matter their age or circumstances, the disadvantaged already struggle to receive the care to which they are entitled from cash-strapped councils."

"For this reason it's important that parents and children have effective legal representation, to ensure that local authority care plans are properly scrutinised and that adequate support for families is provided after reunification."

The NSPCC has various requests of the government. To increase accountability, the charity is calling for publication of full details of the outcomes of children who have been returned home from care.

Care planning guidance should also be revised to cover returning children, ensuring that placement decisions are based on their needs, with all necessary support for children and their families in place.

The NSPCC also wants to see support for families improved, before and during reunification, to fight problems such as substance misuse, domestic violence, mental health issues and poor parenting.

"Without the right checks and parental support, most children go back to square one and can suffer significant long-term harm," concluded Tom Rahilly. "Returning home must only be seen as the start of a process where the needs of the child come first and the situation is monitored closely on a continuing and long-term basis."

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