Counting the Costs: The Children (Northern Ireland) Order (1995), Social Work and the Courts

Author(s): Dominic McSherry, Dorota Iwaniec and Emma Larkin
Commissioned by: Eastern Health and Social Services Board, South and East Belfast Trust and Foyle Trust
Document Type: Report
Year: 2004
Publisher: Institute of Child Care Research
Place of Publication: Queen's University Belfast
ISBN: 1 900 725 27 4
Subject Area(s): Child Care, Alternative Care, Family Life, Family Law
Client Group(s) : Looked after Children

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland

Background to the Research

  • 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.

Research Approach

  • 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 of children.

Main Findings

  • 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 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.

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