As we enter week six of lockdown, most of us have had direct experience of the stark difficulties the ongoing Covid-19 crisis is presenting for vulnerable families. Whether it is lack of access to basic support services, increased exposure to domestic abuse, or an inability to participate in a remote court hearing, it is clear that it is society’s most vulnerable who are suffering the greatest.
Social workers are expressing understandable anxiety and frustration at the limited extent to which they are able to support families, due to the present restrictions. We are hearing of statutory visits being undertaken from gardens, children being spoken to through skylights, and contact between children and their families being facilitated on local-authority smartphones.
The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendments) Regulations 2020 were published on 23 April 2020, and came into force on 24 April 2020.
The statutory instrument temporarily amends ten sets of regulations, related to children’s social care. These changes aim to provide local authorities, providers and services with additional flexibility in meeting statutory obligations whilst still maintaining appropriate safeguards. The key changes include:
- A removal of the requirement for a social worker to visit a child in care every six weeks, and any such visit can be carried out by telephone;
- A removal of the mandatory requirement for six monthly reviews of the arrangements for children in care (LAC reviews);
- Adoptions to ‘proceed swiftly’;
- Placement plans no longer necessary for kinship care;
- Suitability of foster carers can be assessed in the absence of health information and criminal records checks (still have to be obtained though not clear when);
- A number of changes in relation to the regulation and inspection of children’s homes.
The extent of the changes has cause considerable concern in the child-protection sphere, where there is a fear that this apparent erosion of basic safeguarding, however temporary, leaves children more vulnerable than ever. The full extent of the changes, and consideration of their impact is set out in this article published by Article 39.
What do the changes mean in reality for care practitioners and their clients?
For parents with children in care, whether by agreement under s.20, on an interim basis during proceedings, or under full care orders, the changes will inevitably bring added anxiety. This comes at a time where they are likely to only be spending time with their children remotely, as despite guidance from the Department for Education urging local authorities to consider the feasibility of direct family contact on a case by case basis, the reality is, at present, that is not happening.
Those with concerns about the nature of their child’s placement, will be anxious that their child may only be ‘visited’ by way of an occasional telephone call. Those who hope for the nature or frequency of their contact arrangements to be reviewed through the LAC process will have to accept that, for the time being, those reviews will not take place as frequently as they were previously led to understand. Those facing the possibility of a placement application will be very anxious to hear that adoption proceedings are urged to ‘proceed swiftly’ when hearings are being conducted remotely, and there are very real questions as to the article 6 compliance of such hearings.
Practitioners may wish to press the local authority for a commitment to timescales for visits or reviews, in the hope of offering their clients some reassurance.
The stark reality of the present public health crisis, and resulting restrictions, is that many more families will find themselves in a time of crisis, and steps may be taken to remove their children into care. For those children, it is clear that there will be less oversight in the coming weeks, as a direct result of the new regulations.