A new set of regulations came into force in England on Friday 23 April which have controversially relaxed some local authority duties to children, including disabled children. The changes have been introduced as a temporary measure until 24 September 2020 but the government has the power to amend the regulations so that they can continue to have force past that date if it considers it necessary.
According to the explanatory memorandum which accompanies the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020:
The changes prioritise the needs of children, whilst relaxing some administrative and procedural obligations to support delivery of children’s service but maintaining appropriate safeguards in such extraordinary circumstances. The changes will support services to try and manage the increased pressure on children’s social care and staff and carer shortages who are ill with coronavirus.
However, children’s rights activists and support organisations are very concerned by the changes. Carolyne Willow, Director of Article 39 an organisation which supports children’s rights in institutional settings, said:
The idea that local authorities have been clamouring to remove fundamental legal protections from vulnerable children during the middle of a global pandemic is just not credible. This is deregulation on steroids. It is soul-destroying that so much time and effort has been put into systematically eroding the rights of children… Having spent hours going through the statutory instrument line-by-line, I haven’t been able to find a single new protection for children. The whole document is about taking away, diminishing and undermining what has been built up for children over many decades.
Article 39 has produced an analysis of the new regulations which identifies the following key changes.
- Social worker visits to children in care can now be via a phone call* but clear 6-weekly duty removed
- Six-monthly independent reviews of a child’s care no longer mandatory
- Adoptions to “proceed swiftly”
- Relaxation of notification duties in respect of criminal offences (fostering)
- Placement plans no longer necessary for kinship care
- Care standard weakened in children’s homes
- Twice-yearly Ofsted inspections of children’s homes no longer required
- Monthly independent visits and reports on children’s homes no longer mandatory
- ‘Emergency’ foster care placements to last for nearly 6 months
- Short breaks can last for 75 days without care planning safeguards
- Local authority action in relation to children who are privately fostered becomes “reasonably practicable”
- Adoption agencies no longer required to establish adoption panels, and fostering panels become optional
- Suitability of foster carers can be assessed in the absence of health information and criminal records checks (still have to be obtained though not clear when)
- “Reasonably practicable” caveat added to timings of independent review of children’s social care complaints
- Children’s homes a place of detention for children potentially infected with COVID-19
- Fostering services no longer required to report infectious disease to Ofsted
* In relation to making telephone calls to children, please note that the Social Care Institute for Excellence has issued guidance dated 22 April 2020 ‘for practitioners working to safeguard children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, including social workers and those working in social care settings’ with the following advice for those supporting children with additional needs:
We know that children and young people with additional needs and disabilities are up to three times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children, and less likely to disclose harm due to communication and other difficulties. These children may still be able to access school during the COVID-19 response and this is an important safeguard for them. Families may find increased time at home and additional caring responsibilities, where external support opportunities may be limited, a strain.
Practitioners should consider how they seek the voice of the child during these times, and whether online or telephone contact is enough to ensure their wellbeing and safety. This is especially important where communication difficulties make these means less effective. (Our emphasis.)
To date, these changes have not been made in Wales and the guidance introduced on 21 April, which we recently reported on, remains in place as noted by Sally Holland, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.