Public discussions about when children should be taken into care are important. This week Shadow Children’s Secretary, Michael Gove, is reported as telling a conference fringe meeting in Manchester that, while not fully supporting Martin Narey’s statements earlier this year, he felt there needed to be a reassessment of the assumption that keeping a child with its birth parents was the “overwhelming default option”.
What discussions of this type often fail to consider are the real world dilemmas that face social workers in making this type of decision. Care proceedings are a high threshold, the more so since the introduction of the Public Law Outline which requires local authorities to explore alternatives to care more thoroughly before entering proceedings. If an application for a Care Order fails, then subsequent work with the family in question can be very difficult, even though the child may continue to be subject to a child protection plan. The parents may not unreasonably refer to the decision of the court as confirming that they are fit people to care for the child. They may feel resentful at the local authority’s unsuccessful recourse to law and be uncooperative with their social workers.
Not surprisingly in marginal situations local authorities may prefer, if at all possible, to continue working with the family without applying for a Care Order, effectively waiting their moment until success in the court is more assured. In the meantime they may be more likely to gain cooperation from the parents, who will, presumably, wish to avoid legal proceedings by working voluntarily with their social worker to improve the child’s situation.
In such circumstances “the best interests of the child” becomes a difficult probability calculation. A lower probability of the most satisfactory outcome (care leading to adoption) has to be balanced against a higher probability of a marginally acceptable, though far from ideal, result (working with the family voluntarily to improve the child’s situation). At the same time account must also be taken of the probabilities of eventualities such as re-abuse or lost contact. It is not surprising that with hindsight it may appear that the wrong decision has been made in a significant number of cases.