Separated parents can stay in hotels to see their children during lockdown

A change in the government’s lockdown rules means that separated parents who live long distances from each other can now stay in hotels to see their children.

Earlier guidance meant that parents who did not live with their children could visit them during lockdown but could not stay overnight.

The amendment enables parents in England and across all tiers to stay overnight in hotels so they can see their children during lockdown.

The push to change the rules was made by Tom De Castella, a former BBC journalist who had been struggling to spend time with his daughter who currently lives several hours away from his home in London.

Mr De Castella told the BBC, “She’s three-years-old and lives in north Norfolk with her mum. I live in south London [and] the drive is about three and a half hours each way. It’s a long day. To do it two days running is a killer.”

Tom De Castella

The Buzz

Welcome to another week.

These are the latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

The Latest

The latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Many thanks to TumTum for alerting us to the first item.

More than 95,000 cases pending inside Britain’s Family Courts

A backlog of family law applications going through the courts in England and Wales has left 95,693 cases — and the children and families involved — in limbo, despite minimal change in the number of cases started in the family courts.

The number of cases pending was revealed yesterday in the House of Lords, after Labour peer Baroness Taylor of Bolton asked the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) how many family cases were outstanding in each month starting with January of last year.

The data shows that as of September 2020, there were 22,881 outstanding public family law (child protection) cases, and 72,812 private family law (children cases) applications outstanding. The last figure does not include applications made under the Family Law Act 1996, including petitions for divorce, which suggests the real figure is likely to be higher.

Data for October through to December 2020 has not yet been published, and could reveal a decrease in pending cases, or an ongoing increase if the courts have not managed to find a way through the logjam.

The written question was answered by Baroness Scott of Bybrook, who reproduced figures produced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service management information which published its latest data set on 10 December, 2020.

While the first Covid-19 lockdown in March is partly to blame for the queue of cases growing inside the family courts, as court houses were forced to close (and then scramble to implement remote hearings and other digital devices to keep cases moving), family courts have been experiencing a heavy backlog for years. Inefficiencies inside the system and poor legal processes not dynamic enough to react fast, and well, to cases and the needs of families lie at the heart of this block.

The Ministry of Justice data set for family court cases, which was updated on 18 December, 2020, offers more concerning revelations. Almost 6,000 children were involved in care proceedings during the months of July to September 2020, though less than 3,000 orders were eventually made.

In that same period, domestic violence (DV) remedy cases were up 26%, a figure which suggests a direct correlation between DV applications and the rise in domestic abuse during the first national lockdown.

In addition, the report offers some interesting reasons for the spike in these cases. The MOJ document refers to a power in use by police forces since 2017, which allow them to release alleged perpetrators without bail conditions, called ‘released under investigation’, and suggests this power could be a factor behind the rise in domestic violence remedy cases, as alleged victims find themselves having to look to protective orders through the courts. 

The document also suggests that the publicity surrounding the Domestic Abuse Bill may also have raised awareness about the remedies available to victims of domestic violence.

And an estimated 71% of care or supervision orders took more than the recommended 26 weeks to complete, with an average completion time of 40 weeks. Adoption orders decreased by 21% when compared to the same period last year, perhaps due to a growing understanding of the need to use these orders sparingly.

Of those who did adopt a child, 63% of all adoption orders were issued to mixed-sex couples, 19% to sole applicants, 13% to same-sex couples and 5% to step-parents.

For the first time since their introduction in 2008, the number of forced marriage protection orders (FMPOs) went down. The researchers found that from July to September 2020, there were 36 applications, the lowest level since the first quarter of 2013 and that, of the applications this quarter, 47% were for people aged 17 and under.

The data also indicates a record-breaking first for deprivation of liberty cases, which is hugely worrying. Applications relating to deprivation of liberty in July to September 2020, were up 29% on the equivalent quarter in 2019 – the highest to date since the series began.

The report offers a snapshot of the impact of the removal of legal aid for private family law cases. The findings estimate that a proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation went from 41% in January to March 2013, to 21% in July to September 2020.

Question It!

Welcome to another year.

As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists schools should reopen across the country, teaching unions, heads of schools, some councils and parents are demanding all schools in the UK remain closed while the Covid-19 pandemic rages on.

Currently only primary schools in the whole of London and in some parts of Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex will remain closed. Some schools across the country have started to re-open, with the first lot of children having their first day back at school, today.

Those in favour of opening schools, including Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, say schools must stay open to ensure children’s education does not fall behind.

They say schools should re-open as long as safety measures are applied and/ or vaccines are rolled out to teachers as a priority. Some experts are also concerned that children exposed to domestic abuse and violence will be hidden from plain sight during another lockdown, placing their lives at risk.

Other experts take a different view.

A paper published on 31 December and prepared by the Children’s Task and Finish Group (TFC) on children, schools and transmission found that “Accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age (high confidence).”

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has told the government to keep all schools closed throughout January as growing evidence confirms that children are not only susceptible to infection, but are able to pass the virus on to others.

Meanwhile, the government has failed to ensure that all children in the UK can have access to computers and high quality online education, after Britain experienced its first lockdown in March of last year. Crucially, it has also not yet come up with a plan to ensure that children experiencing domestic abuse and violence at home have real-world protection during lockdown, including for example, frequent police visits to check up on their welfare.

Our question this week then, is just this: should schools stay open or shut until the virus has been suppressed to lower levels?

Merry Christmas, from Researching Reform

As what we’re calling a grizzly year comes to a close, we wanted to take a moment to wish all of our readers a merry Christmas, and hope you find some joy in the festive season despite the many heavy hearts we know mothers, fathers and children will be carrying this year as they find themselves separated from one another.

We are going to take a short break until the New Year, but we will be back in full force in 2021, shining a light on the challenges and injustices inside the family courts.

We will also continue to share information to help you secure your rights and the rights of your children, and to assist in reuniting families wherever and whenever possible.

Our readers will know that as a project we are dedicated to placing the rights of every child at the heart of the family justice system, while holding government to account to ensure that bad policies and laws affecting children are highlighted and changed.

At this time of the year, our mission is much smaller, but no less important. We choose to remember, and honour, the thousands of parents and family members whose worlds have been torn apart by the removal of a child. This project is and always will be, for you, with our focus on every child who needs us.

We wish you a restful and hopeful festive season, and may 2021 bring about changes our children would be proud of.

With love,

Researching Reform

The Buzz

The latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Virtual Child Protection Conferences Vetoed By Parents

Findings from a survey produced by King’s College London of more than 500 professionals and parents found that while almost 50% of child welfare professionals preferred virtual hearings, all of the parents polled said they preferred physical meetings.

The research was gathered by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, and published on 14 December. Of the total people polled, 492 were child welfare professionals, with just 24 respondents being parents.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Three quarters of parents thought the way the conference had been conducted had adversely affected their ability to contribute;
  • Just over half felt they had been able to express their views and comment on what was being said, while the remainder of parents polled believed they had been denied that opportunity or were not able to comment;
  • Nearly half of professionals thought that a virtual model for conferences was better than being in the same room as it enabled a wider range of professionals to attend and;
  • Some professionals reported better engagement with children, particularly older children, in remote conferences, and also that remote conferences could be less intimidating for parents.

Findings echo existing research in this area, which highlight ongoing barriers for vulnerable parents, particularly those with learning complexities, and outline the current tensions between the need for robust support and tech benefits that arise for professionals looking to cut through their case loads.

As is often the way though, this is, for the moment at least, a case of more haste less speed – and a dose of law breaking thrown in.

And these hearings are breaking the law. A previous report published by the Nuffield Foundation found that mothers were having their children removed from them shortly after birth, through telephone hearings and sometimes without the mother present.

That particular survey, which gathered the views of 1,300 individuals did not include a significant amount of family feedback – only 10% of respondents were parents and family members.

The research also found that 40% of parents did not understand what was happening during their remote hearings, while 66% said their cases had not been dealt with well through the online hearing process. Only 12% of parents and relatives polled said they had no concerns about their remote hearing.

The findings of that survey led to a call to ban telephone hearings by family support group, the Parent, Family and Allies Network (PFAN).

And all of this is happening while government policy continues to allow Covid-safe, face-to-face contact.

Virtual family court hearings are also posing challenges for journalists. A recent case involving Haringey Council and PA Media Group caught the media’s attention after details of the council’s shocking child protection failings were revealed, but what has since come to light thanks to this case, is that the media are not being notified of hearings being held remotely.

When Researching Reform wrote about this development in June, we urged the President of the Family Division to explore this phenomenon, and address it.

The lack of family engagement in these research projects is also concerning. We encourage research bodies to find holistic ways to increase parent and family member engagement in this kind of data collection, otherwise, it is almost useless.

Additional Links:

Interesting Things

A few very interesting publications have popped up, so while we were initially going to write a post about one of them today, we have decided to share all three at once, instead.

The rights of children and young people as family members of prisoners, and as prisoners with family members

Oxford University’s law department website has a good blog post on the topic of children’s rights in relation to imprisoned family members, and their rights as prisoners themselves. The post is a summary of a conference given by Scottish charity Families Outside, and is written by Kirsty Deacon, a post doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. The piece is packed with useful links and the names of organisation offering help and support in this area.

You can access the blog post here.

Coronavirus: Separated Families and Contact with Children in Care FAQs (UK)

By far our favourite government-commissioned series at the moment, the House of Commons Library team’s publications on what the law and policy are for children and families experiencing separation should be core reading for anyone working with families in social care. This latest update offers some interesting reminders, including a good summary of what happens when one parent withholds contact, which now advises that anyone seeking to breach a child contact order on “reasonable excuse” grounds should get legal advice before doing so.

You can access the latest briefing here.

HMCTS event on digital family public law service

An online event launched on 4 November by the courts and tribunals service to update the public on the family courts’ reform programme has been recorded and made available to view. The dedicated page for the event on the Gov. website also includes a PDF summary of the Q&A session. The blurb on the page says, “This event provided detail around the digital service for family public law professionals; explaining how the service works, how to subscribe and how it can help local authorities and legal professionals involved in care and supervision proceedings.”

You can watch the session and read the document here.