Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University are set to investigate a “worrying phenomenon” in the North West of England that is seeing increasing numbers of vulnerable children placed into local authority care yet remain living at home.
Working with partners at Edge Hill University and local authorities in the North West, the study will examine the challenges facing front line social workers who act as ‘corporate parents’ for children while they remain living with their birth parents under the direction of the family court.
Under the Children Act 1989, a council can apply for a care order if it believes a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm.
The number of urgent care proceedings has risen significantly over the last 10 years, with a sharp increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic which has been attributed to factors such as money worries and families being forced to spend most of their time together, often in confined spaces.
'One hand tied behind back'
However, many experts are concerned about the growing number of children that have been placed under local authority care, only to be returned to live with their parents or guardians.
Dr Ciaran Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Edge Hill, described the situation as local authorities having “one hand tied behind their back.”
He said: “To issue a care order, a family court must agree with the local authority that there is a parenting deficiency that is placing a child at risk of harm, or a child is beyond parental control. Yet, the increasing trend we are seeing is a child being subject to a care order and then placed back into the care of their family, while the local authority is responsible for the child and has very limited access to them.
“Local authorities are in an unenvious position of having parental responsibility for a child who they’re concerned is not being cared for satisfactorily at home – it’s like having one hand tied behind their back. It’s a worrying phenomenon, it’s making practitioners very anxious, and we want to know what challenges it is creating for front line social workers.”
Researchers believe the study will be the first of its kind to investigate this growing phenomenon facing social workers and hope to produce findings that will better articulate the challenges it is creating for the practitioners involved and the impact it is having on the wider system.
Dr Noreen Maguiness of Liverpool John Moores University's Nursing and Allied Health department, said: “This research could not be more timely – children and families should be provided with support without recourse to children living with their families while subject to a care order.”
The study is being funded by the Cheshire and Merseyside Social Work Teaching Partnership (CMSWTP) and data collection will begin in May 2021.
Researchers are hoping to eventually extend the study to all 10 partners in the CMSWTP partnership and are encouraging local authorities to share their statistical data to help them understand how far the issue extends across the North West.
Nicola Whiteside, Partnership Manager at CMSWTP, said: “The Cheshire and Merseyside Social Work Teaching Partnership is currently funding eight practitioner research projects, including the Care Orders at Home project. It has been driven by our Principal Social Workers’ Network, in conjunction with Edge Hill University and Liverpool John Moores University. The partnership is committed to supporting practitioner research projects, making and building relationships between our higher education and local authority partners, for the benefit of the whole of Cheshire and Merseyside teaching partnership.”