Challenge of completing care proceedings to hit Government target

Northumberland County Council's HQ in Morpeth.
Northumberland County Council's HQ in Morpeth.

The average time taken to complete the process of taking children into care in Northumberland has dropped significantly, but is still well outside the target.

A report to last Thursday’s meeting of the county council’s family and children’s services committee said that ‘the activity in care proceedings turnover continues to be high and the 26-week target for completion of cases in court is not yet being achieved’.

The average time for proceedings to reach a conclusion in 2018 so far is 33 weeks, an improvement on the 37.5-week average reported to the committee this time last year.

What’s more, the meeting heard that the figure was in the high 40s two or three years ago so there has been a significant improvement.

The authority’s executive director for children’s services, Cath McEvoy, said: “We are working hard to meet that 26-week timeframe.

“It’s a massive challenge for us. We do regularly meet (regionally) to discuss the targets and we have expressed our concerns nationally about the targets.

“It’s not just about the meeting the targets, but about what’s best for the child.

“It’s a really draconian step to remove a child from its parents so we need to be really sure that’s the right decision.”

She added that some of the issues which cause delays are within their control, but others are not, and ‘we are hoping to show progress on the ones within our control next year’.

Factors beyond the control of the council include a lack of availability of court time, which can be further delayed by the availability of witnesses, including experts, or relatives or carers making themselves known at the 11th hour.

But within the local authority’s control are aspects like not providing the right level of detail in assessments or not providing the right resources within the timeframe.

The targets are being missed across the region and Judge Hudson, the chairman of the North East Family Court, undertook a review in July of the all the cases that had exceeded 26 weeks, with the report expected soon.

In Northumberland during 2018 to date, the numbers of children subject to care proceedings has remained fairly steady, between 120 and 130 at any given time.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service