Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

When should a child go into care?

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Baby P
Baby P suffered 50 injuries before his death last year

A senior social worker wanted to have Baby P put into foster care before he died after months of abuse at home but was overruled, the BBC has learned.

So, how do social services decide when children should be taken away from their parents?

The horrific case of 17-month-old Baby P has led to some to call for a review of the "received wisdom" that children are better off with their parents.

With the NSPCC estimating that one child is killed by a parent every 10 days in the UK, many say it is time to look again at the care system.

Currently, the police have powers to take a child away temporarily if there is deemed to be an immediate risk to the child's safety.

But government guidelines say these should only be used in "exceptional circumstances." Long-term cases require a court order.

'Significant harm'

Most social services referrals result in a series of meetings between the family, teachers, health workers and police, who decide whether a child is at risk of "significant harm" and should be placed on child protection plans.

There were 35,000 such children, some not yet born, as of 31 March this year. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering says a further 64,000 were in local authority care.

But putting a child into care is not straightforward.

"Magistrates look at whether efforts have been made to help parents, through parenting classes, help with finances or ways of playing with their children," said Nick Frost, professor of social work at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Prof Nick Frost
We work in a world where there's a lot of pretty poor parenting and children with bruises and it's difficult to keep perspective
Prof Nick Frost

"If they haven't given the parents that chance, social workers could be quite severely criticised."

The law dictates a child's wishes, background, emotional and educational needs must be considered, alongside the risk of abuse or neglect and the capability of the parents, before a care order can be granted.

So, why is it assumed children are better off with their parents?

Prof Frost said being shifted from one foster home to another can lead to children losing faith in society and falling into crime.

Sue Woolmore, of the NSPCC, said children are more likely to thrive with their own family because they maintain a sense of belonging and identity.

She said a lack of resources meant there was a shortage of skilled foster carers.

"You can't just pick up a child from one environment and put them into another without building bridges," she said.

"Instead, local authorities will look at the extended family to see if they can care for the child.

"Usually it's better for them to go to the same school to maintain friendships."

Most children taken into care are able to return home once the risk is removed, for example if a parent comes off drugs or stops seeing a violent partner.

Supervision 'crucial'

But Prof Frost said deciding when to refer a case to the courts in the first place is not easy. Two people could assess the same case and still come to different conclusions.

"We work in a world where there's a lot of pretty poor parenting and children with bruises and it's difficult to keep perspective," he said.

For this reason, he said, good supervision from managers was crucial.

A government-funded National Children's Bureau report last year said children who were put into hospital because of neglect or abuse were "in danger of falling through the net" because overworked staff were failing to identify those at risk.

But Dr Peter Sidebotham, associate professor in child health at Warwick Medical School, said professionals generally get decisions right.

Baby P
The debate over how to avoid a repeat of the Baby P case will go on

He said in most abuse or neglect cases, the parents still genuinely loved their children but economic or emotional issues made it difficult for them to be good parents.

"Even in adverse circumstances, most children have a built-in resistance and a lot will do well," he said.

The important thing for professionals was to put the child - and not simply the parents' rights - at the centre of decision-making, said Dr Sidebotham.

However, he said professionals felt under pressure because of the "fear of being seen to be labelling abuse when it isn't there" and often held back from doing so until the signs were irrefutable.

Allowing professionals to intervene earlier, while not necessarily taking the child into care, could bring benefits, he added.

Without more resources, this is unlikely to happen.

Around 400m is spent on foster care in Britain, while the Association of Directors of Children's Services says authorities in London spend on average 62,000 per child in care every year.

There is no suggestion finances dictate whether children are taken into care.

Mrs Woolmore said local authorities spend significant sums providing support to children who are subject to protection plans.

Violent incidents

But she said most children who die because of abuse or neglect do not fall into this category.

The extent of the problem was revealed this year by a Cardiff University survey of casualty departments.

It suggested there were 8,067 violent incidents against children under 10 last year, up from 3,805 in 2006.

But because social workers are required to spend time with those on child protection plans, they are often frustrated because a lack of finances means they cannot help those who do not meet that threshold, Mrs Woolmore added.

Most professionals agree in a liberal society you have to leave an element of risk.

But as to how best to manage that risk to ensure there is no repeat of the Baby P case, the debate will go on.

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