‘Commonplace’ care tragedies warning

By Rebecca Burns

Children are being “damaged” by “unnecessary delays” in the court system according to a leading children’s charity, increasing the risk of tragedies like the Baby P case.

Barnardo’s claims children can face a wait of up to 65 weeks before a court rules whether it is safe for them to remain with their parents.

Helen, an emergency foster carer for Barnardo’s, described the difficulties of the care system: “I can’t answer Tom’s questions. He wants me to make him promises about what is going to happen but I can’t, it’s very difficult to know what to tell him.

“He has such little concept of time it’s hard to explain that we have to wait and see because a week feels like a lifetime to him.”

Barnardo’s has called for the government to reduce the average 57-week wait to a 30-week maximum.

Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive, said: “An insecurity has spread through the family courts with additional, sequential expert assessments being routinely ordered.

“This, paired with the evident lack of credence given to social workers, is causing unnecessary delay.

“The courts need urgently to reflect on the damage these delays are having on extremely vulnerable children. A year of a child’s life is an inordinate amount of time for them to be trapped in desperate limbo, unclear of their future and very possibly at risk.”

Mr Narey warned children may be subjected to “neglectful or abusive birth families” during the delay.

He added: “At a time when stable relationships and secure attachments are vital for a child, they are instead engulfed in a period of uncertainty and confusion.”

But the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), responsible for representing children in court, also came under fire.

Family lawyer Christina Blacklaws told the BBC: “Due to the chaos which is in Cafcass at the moment… they are not able to provide children’s guardians. This is leading to huge delays – hundreds of children waiting for allocation.”

Ms Blacklaws said Cafcass are capable of doing only “the bare minimum” for children in court, claiming the system would only get worse as 46% of children’s family’s solicitors firms who offer the service are not going to be able to do so from October 2010.

Ms Blacklaws warned cases such as Baby P “may become commonplace” if the government doesn’t put more resources into the family justice system.

“I’m afraid if we don’t actually look instead of to cuts but to putting more resources into the family justice system these tragedies may become commonplace,” she said.

The comments come in the wake of warnings of a “chronic shortage” in foster services and calls for increased investment rather than cuts in the service.