- The key focus of the research
was essentially upon the 'cost to children' of using the courts to
resolve issues about the care of children between Social Services
and families. These costs are both 'indirect' and 'direct'. Indirect
costs are understood in terms of the amount of hours that social workers
commit to court work, which takes them away from child and family
support services and also in terms of the drain on Social Service
finances due to the necessity to seek legal advice on these matters.
Direct costs are understood in terms of the impact that the legal
process has upon the child or young person's life, particularly the
impact upon the children achieving a permanent placement with birth
or substitute parents.
- This study began on 1st
September 2002 and was completed on the 31st November 2003 and involved
a review of the use of the courts to resolve issues about the care
- Care Order work was found to be the largest
drain on social work time, accounting for 35% of all Social Work time
but only 27% of all applications. Social workers averaged 47 hours
per case and two cases each. This is equivalent to 94 hours of court
work out of a possible 444 (12 times 37 hour week) over the three-month
period under review, which represents 20% of their time, or one full
day per week. As was the case in relation to social work time, Care
Order work was by far the largest drain on senior social work time,
accounting for almost 50% of all time spent on court work, in spite
of only representing 27% of all applications.
- Senior social workers spent an average
of 47 hours on each case but averaged seven cases each. This is equivalent
to 308 hours of court work out of a possible 444 (12 times 37 hour
week) over the three-month period, which represents 70% of their time.
These findings suggest that this work is a significant drain on social
work time and resources, particularly in relation to care proceedings.
Senior social worker time appears to be spent almost exclusively (70%)
on court work.
- It was estimated that an annual legal bill
across all 11 Trusts in NI of over 1 ¼ million pounds. In terms of
understanding what this means as an indirect cost to children, this
figure is equivalent to having an extra 50 social workers full-time
for a year working across NI. These findings illustrate that the indirect
costs of this work are substantial.
- Analysis of case file data for the 33 Care
Orders cases that were in our sample suggested that the placement
of the child and how early the issue of permanency is addressed may
be more important in determining direct costs to children than the
actual length of the proceedings. However, where placement is not
within the family and permanency for the child has not been secured
either with birth or substitute parents then the length of proceedings
will be crucial because the longer the situation remains uncertain
for the child the less chance there is of obtaining a suitable permanent
placement for that child. Furthermore, there is an increased risk
of creating attachment problems with current short-term carers as
well as future long-term carers.
- The findings suggest that the relationship
between length of proceedings and direct costs to children, unlike
that between case length and indirect costs, is not directly proportional,
i.e. it does not hold that the longer the case the greater the direct
cost will be. What appears to be more important is the child's placement
during the proceedings and when permanency is established. However,
where placement is not within the family and permanence has not been
secured, length of proceedings is critical.