Background to the study
The policy and practice framework
Most children who return home from care do so following a period of being accommodated by a Trust on a voluntary basis (Children (NI) Order Article 21). When these children return home, they simultaneously exit the care system. Some children in public care, however, are there as a result of care proceedings, and are subject to a Care Order (Children (NI) Order Article 50). In these circumstances, the Trust shares Parental Responsibility (PR) with the parent(s) of the child, and continues to retain shared PR until the Care Order is discharged.
When these children are returned home, this is done in the context of a plan to ensure that reunification is safe and provides them with adequately care. The first phase of this return home is often regarded as a trial period, hence the term ‘Home on Trial’. Currently, these children are defined as ‘placed with family’ (Northern Ireland) or ‘placed with parents’ (England and Wales).
In the late 1980s children subject to a Care Order (‘Children in Care’) accounted for about 1 in 10 of those returned home (Bullock et al., 1993, p. 27). Whilst the numbers of children in foster care in Northern Ireland fell by 11% between 2000 and 2005, those ‘placed with family’ increased by 43% (DHSSPS, 2007), and on 31st March 2007, 24% of all children in care in Northern Ireland (n=566) were ‘placed’ at home with family (DHSSPS, 2008a). This figure includes both children subject to a Full Care Order and those subject to an Interim Care Order (ie pending a Court decision).
Three studies of Children in Care returned home ‘on trial’ were conducted under earlier legislation. Thoburn’s (1980) small-scale qualitative study of 34 school-age children and their parents drew attention to the lack of clarity on the part of social workers and parents as to the reasons for the continuation of Care Orders in these circumstances. Farmer and Parker (1991, p.185) observed that ‘the status of home on trial, which is commonly regarded as a prelude to permanence, frequently continued for long periods and thus itself created a protracted state of impermanence’. They concluded that although the local authority shared responsibility for the child, Social Services barely had any control over what happened in these placements and provided little support to the 321 participant families, whose children included those in care for abuse or neglect, or as a result of behavioural problems. Pinkerton (1994) surveyed all children and young people (n=557) who were ‘home on trial’ on the 1st November 1988 in Northern Ireland. He concluded that the brief, time-limited and systematically monitored placement suggested by the term ‘home on trial’ did not exist in Northern Ireland. Instead, what existed was ‘home in care’, a family placement monitored for an indefinite period of time, with barely any support provided by Social Services.
Contemporary research reinforces the currency of these concerns. An exploratory study by Broadhurst and Pendleton (2007) found no correlation between placement stability, duration of placements at home and the discharge of Care Orders. In interviews with 7 families, parents reported i) dissatisfaction with social work interventions which typically comprised statutory visits and monitoring; ii) frustration and a sense of intrusion at the continuation of the Care Order for lengthy periods, despite the family offering a stable placement; and iii) feelings of disempowerment because of delayed discharge of Care Orders. In 5 of these families, children had been at home under a Care Order for over 3 years. Birth parents in the ‘Care Pathways and Outcomes Study’ were also unclear about the function of the Care Order in respect of children returned home, and thought it had adverse impacts on the children (McSherry et al., in press).