Trying to meet a proposed six-month deadline on dealing with childcare cases is “unrealistic”, Somerset social services believe.
County authorities already take two months longer than the national average of a year, in putting care proceedings through the family courts.
However, the government is backing the Family Justice Review, which has recommended the new limit, because to a child a year is a “very, very long time”.
“For children to live with uncertainty and anxiety of who’s going to look after them, where they’re going to live… that’s not acceptable,” Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz said.
But Linda Barnett, head of children’s services in Somerset, believes dealing with cases this quickly risks a child’s long-term future, especially because delays are often caused through developing an understanding the relationship they have with their parents.
If you conclude a case quickly and the decision is wrong, that’s not fair on the child or on the family”
End Quote Rebecca Stevens Family solicitor
“We had a situation where we had a child being taken to Bristol everyday from a foster carer at the age of nine months to be placed with her mother who was in a psychiatric unit to see what the bonding could be over a period of four months,” she said.
“Those kinds of things are really difficult in terms of the child’s attachment to their primary care givers.”
She believes bringing cases down to a six-month turnaround is “unrealistic but a gradual reduction to under 60 weeks is more achievable”.
“I think it’s a case of all agencies working together with nobody losing sight of the welfare of the child,” said Ms Berelowitz.
Her concern has been echoed by Bath-based family solicitor, Rebecca Stevens.
“If you conclude a case quickly and the decision is wrong, that’s not fair on the child or on the family,” said Ms Stevens.
Another fear for social services is over-assessment, which they believe is not beneficial for the child and also drains the budget.
“I want to spend money wisely where we need an assessment in residential care but I don’t want to have 12 weeks assessment, and then another 16 weeks assessment,” she said.
“There are examples in the Norgrove Report of £300,000 being spent for one child – to me that is not a good use of money… if judges are more prepared to accept really high quality social workers’ reports and really high quality guardians’ reports, then that would cost less not more.”
Authorities in Somerset have welcomed other areas of the report, which recommend things like developing closer working relationships with other agencies involved in proceedings.
But for the local courts there are other pressures such as a shortage in court space and resources.
Magistrate, Philippa Hawks, said: “We’re very pushed on court space, we have two legal advisors who lead on the family court and they are very overworked because the work is piling up, and this is why things are taking longer than they should.”
“I’m not over-optimistic of the future but I think in two year’s time I’m hoping it will be better [the length of time a case takes] but everybody is working as hard as they can to achieve it.”