Working together to support disabled parents
The policy and legislative frameworks - The responsibilities of children’s services
- Services to children in need and their families
- Protection of children from significant harm
The Children Act 1989/Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 requires local authorities to publish information about services available to children in need and their families and to take steps to ensure that families know about services (including those provided by the voluntary sector). Part three of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 gives disabled individuals the right to 'reasonable adjustments’ to be made in the way information is provided so that it is accessible to them. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005/Northern Ireland Act 1998 places a responsibility on public bodies to take action to ensure that disabled people have equal access to their services (including the provision of information).
- to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need
- so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of children by their families by providing a
- range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.
A child is 'in need’ if they are unlikely to experience a reasonable standard of health or development without assistance or if they are disabled. When a child is or may be 'in need’ an assessment should be carried out (in England and Wales) using the Framework for assessment of children in need and their families. Assessments should cover three areas:
- the child’s developmental needs
- the capacities of parents/carers to respond to those needs
- the impact of wider family and environmental factors on parenting capacity and on children.(46)
The framework recognises that there are situations where children and parents do not reach services eligibility criteria and yet support is necessary to prevent problems from arising: 'For example, a mother with a mild learning disability may not reach the criteria for help from an adults’ services team and her child’s standard of care may not be sufficiently poor to meet the criteria for children’s services intervention. However, the failure to recognise the need for early intervention to provide support to the child and family on a planned basis from children’s and adults’ services may result in the child’s current and future development being impaired.’(47)
In these kinds of situations, the statutory guidance says children’s services should:
- recognise the cumulative effect of lower levels of needs
- ensure a high degree of cooperation and coordination between staff in different agencies
- take extra care to ensure that '… there is an holistic view of the child and that the child does not become lost between the agencies involved and their different systems and procedures’.(48)
The guidance also stresses that children '… should not be expected to carry inappropriate levels of caring which have an adverse impact on their development and life chances …’ and where there is a danger of this happening, '… services should be provided to parents to enhance their ability to fulfil their parenting responsibilities’.(49) Children and young people who are taking on a caring role are entitled to an assessment under section 1(1) of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 and this assessment must be taken into account when a decision is made about what services to provide to the parent. Children’s services should consider whether a child’s welfare or development might suffer if support is not provided to the child or family. 'Services should be provided to promote the health and development of young carers while not undermining the parent.’(50)
Where parents have particular needs relating to learning disability and/or mental health or other specific needs, a specialist assessment may need to be commissioned while carrying out an assessment using the Framework for assessment of children in need and their families.(51)
Where a child is assessed as needing services to achieve a reasonable standard of health and development, a 'child in need’ plan should be drawn up with the agreement of the child and key family members, detailing the services to be put in place and the aims to be achieved.(52) The objectives should be '… reasonable and timescales not too short or unachievable …’ and the plan should not '… be dependent on resources which are known to be scarce or unavailable …’(53)
Direct payments can be made to parents and to 16- and 17-year-olds in lieu of services provided under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989/Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (as amended by the Health and Social Care Act 2001/ Carers and Direct Payments (Northern Ireland) Act 2002).
Where a children’s services authority has cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering or is at risk of suffering significant harm, it has a duty to make enquiries to establish whether action is required to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare and a right to compulsorily intervene if such concerns are substantiated.(54)
Detailed statutory guidance about responsibilities and procedures is laid down in Chapter 5 of Working together to safeguard children.(55) Children may be provided with alternative accommodation (with their parents’ consent) to safeguard their welfare or, where considered necessary, the local authority may apply to the court for an Emergency Protection Order so that a child can be removed to a place of safety.(56) Where parents/caregivers are unwilling to cooperate with an assessment, the court can be asked to grant a Child Assessment Order.(57)
An initial assessment must be carried out using the guidance in the Framework for assessment of children in need and their families. If there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm a strategy discussion should be held and a decision made about whether to initiate enquiries under Section 47 of the Children Act. A core assessment led by children’s social care but involving all relevant agencies is the means by which a Section 47 enquiry should be carried out.
Core assessments and Section 47 enquiries should:
- build a picture of the child’s situation using information from a range of sources
- always involve separate interviews with the child (as long as their age/understanding allows this)
- usually involve interviews with parents/caregivers, and observation of the interactions between parents and child(ren)
- include interviews with those who are personally or professionally connected with the child and parents/caregivers
- draw on assessments by other professionals.(58)
Working together to safeguard children also makes clear that 'Individuals should always be enabled to participate fully in the enquiry process. Where a child or parent is disabled, it may be necessary to provide help with communication to enable the child or parent to express him/herself to the best of his or her ability.’ It also states that 'If the child is unable to take part in an interview because of age or understanding, alternative means of understanding the child’s wishes or feelings should be used, including observation where children are very young or where they have communication impairments.’(59)
Where it is decided that the child is not at risk or is no longer at risk of significant harm, children’s social care and other relevant agencies should always consider whether services are required to prevent problems arising in the future.(60)
Where enquiries confirm that a child is suffering or is at risk of significant harm then a child protection conference should be convened with all relevant agencies. If the outcome of the conference is that the child is at continuing risk of significant harm then an outline child protection plan should be drawn up. A key worker, who is a qualified experienced social worker, should be designated to coordinate inter-agency responses. The key worker will have responsibility for ascertaining the child’s wishes and feelings. A core group of professionals should be identified who will develop a detailed child protection plan and ensure that it is implemented.
The overall aim of a child protection plan is to:
- '…ensure the child is safe and prevent him or her from suffering further harm
- promote the child’s health and development i.e. his or her welfare
- provided it is in the best interests of the child, to support the family and wider family members to safeguard and promote the welfare of their child.’(61)
The guidance sets out the procedures and responsibilities for reviewing the impact of service interventions. Where it is considered necessary, a local authority may apply to the court for a care order (committing the child to the care of the local authority) or supervision order (putting the child under the supervision of a social worker, or a probation officer).