Permanence is ‘a framework of emotional, physical and legal conditions that gives a child a sense of security, continuity, commitment and identity’ (The Department of Education and Skills 2004). Permanency is important, as too many placement changes are unsettling and detrimental to children; damage is caused to their social, emotional, and cognitive development through failure to provide a place where the child knows they will remain for any length of time (Jackson and Thomas 1999). There are currently over 65,000 children in England whom local authorities are looking after, either with the agreement of their parents, or because the local authority has satisfied the family court that it is in the best interests of the child for them to be taken into care (DoE 2012). 80 percent of children come into care because of abuse, neglect or family dysfunction (NICE 2011).
Studies show that delays in every stage of the placement process reduce long term positive outcomes for children, including permanency, in both adoption and fostering (Biehal 2010).The Children’s Act in 1989 first raised concerns about delays in care proceedings for children, since then, this has been an ongoing concern (Brammer 2010). If birth parents cannot provide, or develop, the capacity to provide good enough care, early separation and timely placement in a permanent form of care are likely to offer the best chance of a full recovery from early trauma or attachment deficits, as delays have significant implications on the outcomes for children (DoE 2012). Despite these research findings indicating that delay can be detrimental to the child, it is evident that delays are still occurring (Ryan 1998). In fact, some looked after children can experience up to three placements in a year (DfES 2006)
What is being done?
Some progress is being made, for instance, family group conferences are being used at an early stage of safeguarding proceedings and involve immediate and extended families of children, to help planning and decision making. Such conferences enable social workers to begin to assess whether other family members might be suitable to look after children and in addition, to enable clear explanation to family members about the importance of permanency plans.
The Children’s Act 2003 now stipulates that care proceedings should not exceed 40 weeks and a permanency plan should be made within 4 months (Brammer 2010). Barnardo’s, the UK’s largest children’s charity, is calling for all cases to be dealt with in less than 30 weeks, with a fast track target of 12 weeks for children under 18 months (Barnado’s 2010).
‘An Action plan for Adoption: Tackling delay 2012’ identified the need to speed up the adoption process and overhaul the services for potential adopters, including strengthening local accountability for the timeliness process, in order to give children permanency and stability (DoE 2012). Twin tracking and parallel planning have also been introduced, which aim to plan alternatives in case the child cannot return to their birth parents, also ensuring no delay for them if rehabilitation to their parents is unsuccessful (Monck et al 2004).
Ofsted have made recommendations in 2012 around achieving timely outcomes for children who require adoption. They indicated a need for: an holistic approach by all key stakeholders; timely planning and decision-making about removing children from the care of their birth family; swift commencement of family finding; a recruitment strategy to ensure that the pool of available adopters matched as closely as possible the needs of children requiring adoption; sufficient capacity within services to prioritise adoption work; and finally, systematic monitoring of adoption plans, with clear timescales for implementation and contingency planning, involving senior managers and independent reviewing officers (Ofsted 2012).
Key findings from research
A study by Biehal N (2010) called ‘Belonging and Permanence: Outcomes in long-term foster care and adoption’ suggested the longer a child had to wait for a permanent placement, the lower were the chances that their emotional and behavioural problems would improve.
Triseliotis J (2002) in ‘Long-term Foster Care or Adoption: The Evidence Examined’, compared the breakdown rates of adopted children and children in foster care. It showed that before 1990, there were significantly higher break down rates for children in foster care. However, studies carried out since 1990, show that although foster care breakdown rates are still higher than adoption breakdown rates, the gap is narrowing.
A study by Monck et al (2004) entitled ‘Using concurrent planning to establish permanency for children who are looked after’ compared children on concurrent planning route and children following normal adoption routes. They found that concurrent planning carers reported high levels of anxiety, but that concurrent planning achieved earlier permanency and fewer moves for children.
A study by Munro (2001) called ‘Empowering looked after children’ found that frequent changes of social worker, lack of an effective voice at reviews, lack of confidentiality where the main criticism from Looked after Children. It also found that uniform objectives and performance criteria; seem to restrict the freedom of the local authority and social workers to respond to individual children’s preferences, or to consider what the children themselves consider to be in their best interest.
Baker (2007) in his study ‘Disabled Children’s Experience of Permanency in the Looked after System’, considered the experiences of disabled foster-children compared to non-disabled foster-children. It found that all disabled children were less likely to return home and therefore remained in foster-care for longer. Disabled children who were adopted, or who returned home, did so after a greater delay, compared to non-disabled children. However, children who were ‘clearly disabled’ achieved a greater degree of permanence within the care system.
There are several areas in which present research into placement planning and permanency appears limited. There currently appears to be little research around the reasons for multiple placement moves. In addition, Biehal (2010) indicates there is a lack of information on the needs of particular groups in the looked after care system. NICE (2011) suggested that here is a lack of UK research on how best to target services to meet the needs of these particular groups. In the same report, NICE also state that the child’s voice should be at the centre of decision making and their wishes and feelings should be considered throughout the placement process, as this is not strongly evident in research findings.
Furthermore, research does not always take individual cases into account: as some placement options are not suitable for particular children. Selwyn et al (2006) suggests that children can make or break a placement, so on-going discussions with the child are vital when planning for them. Research does not often consider permanency option for older children, boys, children with disabilities and those in sibling groups (Lowe and Murch 2002). Research also often forgets to mention permanency and/or delay for those from different cultures or ethnic minorities (Thoburn et al 2000).
It is evident that improving placement planning and permanency for children is of great importance. Delays for looked after children can affect not only the outcome of placements, but also adversely impact on attachment, emotional and behavioral problems as well as educational achievement. The government has already put in place many strategies and recommendations to help looked after children achieve permanency. These include co-current planning, family group conferences, permanency plans, speeding up of the adoption process and time limits for care proceedings. Research suggests that permanency is of vital importance to improve outcomes for looked after children, and also highlights the importance and effectiveness of co-current planning on achieving permanency. Research indicates that the most permanent long term option for looked after children is adoption. However, although the adoption process should be quicker, the hastening of the process should not be at the expense of the thorough assessment of children’s needs, and those of potential adopters (Ofsted 2012)
Recommendations for a local authority to consider that would improve placement planning, including permanency, also reduce delays for their looked after children, should include:
Use co-current planning wherever possible, to avoid delay and achieve higher rates of permanency
Consider adoption in all care proceedings to increase permanency and stability for children
Where this may not be possible, consider long term fostering as the next best option for achieving permanency in placement planning
Where possible ensure continuity for the looked after child by keep the social worker the same for as long as possible.
Include the wishes and feelings of children at all stages in the placement planning process, remembering that children can make or break their placement.
Avoid delay in all stages of care proceedings wherever possible all cases to be dealt with in less than 30 weeks, with a fast track target of 12 weeks for children under 18 months.
Do not hasten any care proceedings or adoption proceedings at the expense of thorough assessment, review, or gathering of information.
All these recommendations should be consider alongside the best interest of the Looked after Children, the current