Project dates: September 2015-July 2018


Research team: Professor Jonathan Dickens and Julie Young, with colleagues from the University of Bristol: Professor Judith Masson, Dr Ludivine Garside and Kay Bader.


Funder: Economic and Social Research Council



Care proceedings have changed dramatically since 2013. The number of care cases has risen considerably, the average duration has fallen by about a half, and the pattern of orders has changed substantially, with far fewer cases ending in adoption plans and more in kinship care. At the heart of these changes are major reforms to care proceedings introduced in 2013-14, and a series of high profile court case judgments. This study built on the UEA-Bristol team’s earlier work on care proceedings to examine the impact of the reforms and the outcomes for children.



The aims of the study were to compare care proceedings and outcomes before and after the reforms of 2013-14; and to evaluate the quality and usefulness of administrative data for tracking and evaluating outcomes for children.



The pre-reform sample was the children who were included in the team’s earlier ‘edge of care’ study, who became subject to care proceedings in 2009-10 (170 cases with 290 children). The post-reform sample was drawn from proceedings taken in 2014-15 in the same six local authorities (five in England, one in Wales). This comprised 203 cases with 326 children, giving a total sample of 616 children.  

Court data was used to compare the care proceedings on the two samples. The national ‘looked after children’ and ‘child in need’ databases were used for the information on outcomes, together with detailed case file data on a sub-sample of 118 children. Interviews with 56 key professionals across the six areas were undertaken to get a picture of policy and practice issues, and two focus groups with judges.  



Key findings include:

  • There were very few differences between the two samples as a whole in terms of age, gender, ethnic origin, and the circumstances giving cause for concern. Nearly all the children came from extremely troubled backgrounds. There was no evidence that the threshold for care proceedings had got lower over the time period. 


  • The 26 week time limit was not promoted as a way of changing the pattern of court orders, but there had been substantial changes. The proportion of cases ending in care and placement orders halved (30% to 15%). The proportion ending in special guardianship orders (kinship care) about doubled (13% to 24%). The proportion returning to or remaining with their parent(s) increased from a quarter to just under a third. 


  • In terms of longer-term outcomes, many of the children come with considerable needs, and the case file study showed the challenges they and their carers face. Most children in foster care showed good or improved well-being over the research period. Nearly all the special guardianship placements which could be tracked were continuing, but many of the carers were facing challenges, such as health, finances, the relationship with the child’s parents, or the child’s behaviour. The placements least likely to do well were with parents. About a quarter of children placed with parents under supervision orders returned to care within the follow-up period. 



The study is important given the extent of the 2013-14 changes to care proceedings. Local authorities and courts both require knowledge of outcomes and understanding of practice to inform the plans and orders they make and approve. 



The full research was published in November 2019, and is available free of charge: Child Protection in Court: Outcomes for Children.

An executive summary  is also available without charge.

The research team have produced four short research briefings, all available for free: one about the court proceedings, one about the longer-term outcomes and one about the challenges and benefits of linking court data and DfE data. The fourth one updates the findings from their earlier study of the pre-proceedings process, in the light of the new findings about care proceedings and outcomes.

The following paper in Child and Family Social Work is also available for free download from the journal’s website:

Dickens, J., Masson, J., Bader, K., Garside, L. and Young, J. (2019) ‘Courts, care proceedings and outcomes uncertainty: the challenges of achieving and assessing ‘good outcomes’ for children after child protection proceedings ’, Child and Family Social Work, 24(4): 574-581.