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Loughborough study urges courts to speed up cases involving abused children

Dr Harriet Ward

Family justice system professionals should aim to reduce the delays in court proceedings when dealing with abused and neglected children, according to a study by Loughborough academics.

Professor Harriet Ward CBE and Rebecca Brown say it can take nearly two years for children’s services and the courts to decide whether a child should be taken into care or placed for adoption.

And that, according to Dr Ward, is too long when the first two years of life are crucial to a child’s development.

Dr Ward, Professor of Child and Family Research and Director of the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough, said: “It takes on average 14 months for a definitive decision to be made.

“If you identify a six month old child who is being abused, they may be 20 months old before anyone decides that this child is going to be permanently separated, or is going to stay with their birth parents.

“It takes another six months for that decision to be implemented. So if the decision is for a permanent placement somewhere, you might have a temporary placement pending that happening.

“That means the child will be more than two years old before they reach their permanent home, and indeed older if it’s an adopted home, another five months.”

The evidence for more timely action is set out in a paper called ‘Decision-making within a child’s timeframe – An overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and the impact of maltreatment’, which was published in November 2012.

Funded by the Department for Education, the study will be used to help train family justice professionals – judges, magistrates and local authority solicitors – to make informed decisions about a child’s future.

Dr Ward said the first two years of a child’s life are so important in its development that leaving it with abusive parents for all that time can be damaging in the long term.

She gave several examples from a separate Loughborough University study of 57 abused and neglected children who have been followed from birth to the age of five, including a three-year-old who was able to explain how to prepare heroin, and another who would scavenge in dustbins for food.

She said: “The key issue is the timeframe. Abuse and neglect has a major negative impact on childhood development from the time a child is conceived almost.

“And the timeframe for the courts are just completely out of kilter with all of that.

“That was the message we were trying to get across, that the timeframes don’t fit in.

“This is a very strong argument for the courts to… not skimp on judgements but to be aware that they need to act within a child’s timeframe, which has not been the case up until now.

“If you are going to make a decision to separate children from their parents you need to make it early, you can’t delay. Making no decision has adverse consequences, as does making the wrong decision.

“The other issue, which is not widely known, is that abuse and neglect have an impact right from the start. A lot of people think ‘oh, a baby won’t really notice domestic violence’, but there is evidence that it does have an impact on a very small child.”

Dr Ward also recorded a video for Research In Practice which will be screened at seminars with social workers and family justice professionals.

She said that a decision on whether to place young children with adopters needed to be taken before the age of one because then they are more likely to become attached to their carer.

She also said that social workers need to be better trained and that adoption was not necessarily the answer.

She added: “Decisions do need to be made more quickly, particularly with very young children. That can only happen with better training and a better understanding of what the implications are.

“Decisive action needs to be taken. We need to know more about which parents have the capacity to change within a child’s timescale and which don’t.

“Also, the road to go down is not just to increase the number of children placed for adoption. If we could provide better, more effective and timely services for parents we might reduce the need to place children in substitute families.

“But if you have to go down the adoption route you have to make a speedy decision.”

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