Project dates: January 2015-October 2016

 

Research team: Professor Jonathan Dickens, Dr Chris Beckett, Sue Bailey.

 

Funders: The Department for Education and Cafcass

 

 

Context

 Long-standing concerns about unnecessary delay in care proceedings led to major reforms in 2013-14, intended to reduce the normal duration to 26 weeks. Prior to those national changes, the Tri-borough authorities in London (Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea) launched a pilot project to try to hit the 26 week target. It ran from April 2012 to March 2013. The project was evaluated by a team from the CRCF. They were subsequently commissioned to undertake a follow-up study to track and evaluate the longer-term outcomes for the children.

 

Aims

The original evaluation compared the timings and outcomes of care proceedings in the pre-pilot year (2011-12) and the pilot year (2012-13). This gives a combined database of 180 cases (256 children), and a unique opportunity to track and compare longer-term progress and outcomes for the children.  

The follow-up study aimed to assess whether or not delay had shifted to the post-court stage, and whether the new regime led to different long-term outcomes. The research tracked what had happened to the children in the two years after their proceedings ended. It measured the time to reach their planned permanent placement, whether placements endure (at home, kinship care or foster care), and the children’s well-being.

 

Methods

There was a file survey to track the progress of all the children who had been involved in care proceedings in the pre-pilot and pilot years. There was also a questionnaire for parents and carers of the children, to get their views on the child’s progress and the support they received, and interviews with social workers in the Tri-borough authorities on how they perceived the new approach to court proceedings to be working, four years on.

 

Findings

 The original evaluation found that the Tri-borough pilot succeeded in its key aim of reducing the length of care proceedings. The median duration of care proceedings was 27 weeks compared to 49 weeks the year before, a reduction of 45%. The pattern of final orders was broadly the same for cases in the pilot year as in the year before, suggesting that the drive to speed up proceedings does not result in significantly different court outcomes.

The follow up study had four main findings. First, reducing the duration of care proceedings did not mean that more children were left waiting for a permanent placement at the end of the proceedings. On the contrary, a slightly higher proportion of children in the pilot year were already in their planned permanent placement at the end of the proceedings (65% compared to 60% the year before).

Second, for those who did need to move to a permanent placement afterwards, the focus on shorter care proceedings did not lead to extra delay here. In fact, the average duration fell from 30 weeks to 14, a reduction of over 50%.

Third, the incidence of ‘serious problem indicators’ (e.g. breakdowns in permanent placements, renewed child protection concerns) declined for children from the pilot cohort compared to the pre-pilot cohort. This suggests that quicker decision-making processes do not necessarily lead to less stable placements for children. Rather, the focus on good decision-making can lead to more secure outcomes.

And fourth, shorter care proceedings did not result in more children living away from their families. The most frequent type of final placement for children in both cohorts was with their parent(s) followed by placements with relatives or friends.

Impact

The original evaluation was widely quoted and circulated, because it showed that the 26 week target could be achieved without compromising justice and thoroughness, as long as there is proper regard for flexibility. The researchers have continued to disseminate the key messages through publications and presentations at professional and academic conferences.

The researchers now aim to disseminate the information about what happens after proceedings.

The full report is available here: Outcomes for children of shorter court decision-making processes: A follow-up study of the Tri-borough care proceedings pilot 

The report of the original evaluation is available here