Vulnerable children trapped in court limbo, says charity

9 August 2010 by

A leading children’s charity has said that vulnerable children are trapped in an unnecessary limbo of court delays, with courts taking up to 65 weeks to decide whether it is safe for a child to remain with its parents.

Barnardo’s has based its research (see press release) on ‘court data’ although the data itself is not published on their website. On the face of it, the figures are worrying:

Vulnerable children are waiting on average more than a year (57 weeks) in unstable family homes or emergency foster placements before a county court decides if they will be taken into care. In the family proceedings (magistrates) court the average time is 45 weeks – more than 10 months.

It is not made clear what happens during that 57 week delay; if this is simply the time it takes to arrange a court hearing and nothing is happening in the interim, then this seems unacceptable. The Guardian also report that:

The courts are clogging up with cases. Figures show that at the end of 2009 there were 12,994 open care cases in the courts. This is almost 50% more than at the end of 2008, when there were 8,677 cases open.

The huge increase in cases may be as a direct result of the Baby Peter scandal, with social workers and medical professionals referring children to the courts more quickly. The Fostering Network, a children’s charity, has recently released a report claiming that the care system is under unprecedented pressure due to the continuing rise in children needing foster homes following the death of Baby Peter and the chronic shortage of foster carer.

Meanwhile, in a leaked letter to family judges Sir Nicholas Wall, the President of the Family Division, has told the Chief Executive of the Legal Services Commission that there is a “a grave danger that the system will simply implode.” His comments relate to the controversial and possibly botched award of contracts in publicly funded child and family work. Sir Nicholas’ predecessor, Sir Mark Potter, also warned that the system “is becoming overwhelmed in the face of an increasing workload and inadequate resources”.

The timing of the warnings from the charity and the head of the Family Division is unsurprising, given that the court services are probably be in line for budget cuts along with most other government departments. By showing that the system is already crumbling under its current budget, the Family Division will be hoping that it will escape the cuts.

The courts have managed to avoid censure for recent child protection scandals, notably Baby P, with the blame falling on medical professionals and social workers. But it is not difficult to predict a similar scandal erupting where the courts are seen to have failed to protect a vulnerable child, and at that point the Government will be told that it had been well warned.

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