The Discharge of Care Orders – a study of England and Wales

By Jessica Roy, Lecturer in child and family welfare and Jo Staines, Associate Professor in youth justice and child welfare

One of the most significant state sanctioned interventions in England and Wales is removing a child from the care of their parents. When children are placed on a care order, it limits the powers a parent has to make decisions about their child and may mean that the child moves to live with foster or kinship carers, or to a residential children’s home.  Placing a child on a care order has a lasting impact on the child and their family and is rightly the subject of much political and social debate.

In terms of research, a great deal is known about the process, experiences and outcomes for children who are in care. However, we know very little about how, when and why care orders are ended – a process known as discharge (ie the discharging of the care order). Whether a care order remains in place or is discharged is a crucial decision: discharging a care order too early means that a child may not get the support and protection they need.  Not discharging the care order means that families may experience unwarranted social work intervention and feel stigmatised or labelled.  Keeping a child in care unnecessarily also uses up social workers’ time and resources, which could be better used supporting other children.

This study set out to shed light on the discharge of care orders in England and Wales and is the first national study of its kind. The study draws three data sources together:  anonymised national data on discharge applications; in-depth analysis of court casefile records; and interviews with professionals including social workers, judges and guardians.

The study found that the number of discharge applications has increased significantly since 2010 in both England and Wales. While the number of care orders has also increased, proportionately the increase in discharge applications is much higher. We found that about three quarters of all discharge applications are successful – and the care order is discharged. The local authority was the most common applicant to discharge a care order, with parents making about a third of all applications. Notably, there were very few applications made by children themselves. Local authority applications were much more likely to be successful when compared with parental applications. Evidence from court records and interviews indicated that parents often did not have legal advice or representation, and this impacted on their applications for discharge.

From the analysis, it was evident that there were different types of discharge application – based on the motivation and outcome of the application. To reflect this, we developed a typology to describe these different types of application based on the reasons why the application was made and the likely outcome. The typology clearly shows that not all applications are equal – with parents using the discharge process to highlight issues with the local authorities care plan or not receiving adequate legal aid or support. It is also troubling that some care orders were discharged because the local authority felt they could not enforce it and keep the child safe.

The study’s recommendations aim to make the discharge applications quicker, easier and fairer for everyone involved.  The recommendations call for improved national guidance, clarity on thresholds for decisions to be made, and better sharing of expertise.  The recommendations – if implemented – will help to improve professional decision-making, reduce unwarranted variation (which means that children and their families can be treated differently or unfairly), and provide the basis for high quality advice to parents and children.

Critically, research is needed that asks parents, carers and children about their experiences of the discharge process, their involvement with different professionals involved, and the support they do (or do not) receive. The insights and experiences of parents, carers and children is vital to further understanding and improving the discharge process.

The authors and project team are very grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding the research.

Read the full report here

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