The Children Act 1989 came into force in October 1991 and provides a wide-ranging framework of responsibilities and duties for parents, Local Authorities and the courts for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.

The central principle of the Act is that children are best looked after within their own families with participation from both parents. The Act places a primary duty on Local Authorities to promote the upbringing of children by their families providing that it is consistent with their welfare.

Local Authorities are therefore required by the Act to identify children in need within their area and to provide a range of support services such as nursery places, childminding places, in exceptional cases financial help. These measures were designed to prevent a child being taken into Local Authority care and such a measure would only be considered as a last resort unless there are concerns about the child’s welfare which would mean that no taking such action could harm the child. Biehal and Whiteside (2002), have shown that UK studies in the 1980s and 1990s found that admissions to care were often unplanned and that families had received little help prior to admission. Other studies identified a lack of planning for children in the care system. Admission to care often did little to change children’s troubled and troublesome behaviour and frequently resulted in poor outcomes for care leavers.

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In this assignment, a research project will be designed which will attempt to discover if the Act is actually achieving its aims and principles. The focus will be on one particular Local Authority and the results will be both qualitative and quantitative due to the fact that I will require data relating to the numbers of families referred to the authority and the numbers of children who were accommodated and placed on care orders. I will also be seeking information on the kind of projects that have been set up to offer support to families and their children and how effective they are.

The area that I have chosen is particularly relevant to my practice as a Social Worker as I will be working within the framework of the Children Act 1989, The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (2000) and the Guidance and Regulations, Vol 2 (DOH, 1991). It is therefore imperative that Local Authorities are utilising the powers that they have to support and assist families with whom they come into contact in order to promote the upbringing of children by their own families and to prevent unnecessary removal of children and family breakup. It is also important for me to be able to identify good practice within social work offices and what service provision has been successful and what has been less effective.

Considering other research findings over recent years, I would expect to see a decline in the numbers of children being looked after in the years immediately following implementation of the Act, but a rise in numbers more recently. George (2000, cited in Society Guardian, 2000), reports that the number of children in care has risen sharply in recent years which has led to many Local Authorities experiencing a crisis. Salford City Council for example has reported a 75% increase in numbers over the past six years and Rochdale, Bury and Wigan have also experienced considerable overspends and the Department of Health reported an increase of 4% overall in 2000 (ibid).

The Children Act Report 2002 (DfES, 2002) has however, contradicted this, stating that the number of children who are entering the care system is decreasing. Their graph showing the numbers of children in public care between 1995 and 2002 however, shows a rise in the numbers of children who are remaining in care for longer periods (see fig. 1). The graph shows the figures for the whole of each year, and the figures as of 31st March (the end of the financial year) for each year. However, the figures omit children who were looked after for agreed short-term placements which also contribute largely to referrals and caseloads dealt with by Social Services Departments and so effectively the information provided is not necessarily accurate.

fig 1 source: DFeS The Children Act Report 2002

My research would attempt to focus on one particular Local Authorities approach to the implementation of the Act and the effectiveness of their service provision to keep families together and reduce the need for care admissions.

My sample would include Social Workers and Principle Social Workers from each office within the locality and therefore would be easy to target. This method is known as ‘purposive’ sampling (McNeill, 1992:39) as it involves a particular group and place of study. Addresses and telephone numbers of each Children and Families office within a town or city are easily obtainable from council offices or from telephone books and local services directories. Residential establishments for young people could also be approached.

In order to contact my sample, a telephone call would be made to the manager of each office to ask if it would be possible to conduct the research with an explanation that it is for academic purposes. A brief explanation of the research would be offered. Once permission was granted by the manager, I would arrange a date with them to visit the office to explain the research to potential participants, and hopefully make dates to begin the interviews. A letter would then be sent to the office thanking them for agreeing to take part with the date and time of my visit.

There would be an emphasis on the importance of confidentiality with each participant remaining completely anonymous. If promises of confidentiality are given, they should be kept as the Research Mindedness website reinforces (rminded, 2003). The participants would also be made aware of their right to withdraw from the research at any time.

Because of the fact that participation would be voluntary, I would be unable to pre-determine the levels of male or female respondents, or those from ethnic minority groups, factors which can also affect the responses given (McNeill, 1992:40) however, I would hope that I would obtain a fairly representative sample of participants by interviewing Social Workers from each office in the city rather than just one. The Research Mindedness website (2003), suggests taking action to overcome the risk of ethnic minorities from being excluded from research, and that by excluding these groups, the results of the project could be distorted because a bias is introduced. Participation of ethnic minority groups in the research project could be encouraged when I contact the Principle Social Worker at the outset. Factors such as convenience or availability may also determine the sample (Shipman, 1988:53).

It may be possible to obtain statistics on the numbers of children who have been looked after directly from the council themselves. Their statistics are usually used to compile reports such as the annual Children Act Report and this would enable me to have some preliminary data to analyze and present to the research participants. Collecting this data could effectively answer the question which I am asking and would save time, I could then carry out the research on a wider scale by asking several local authorities for their figures; however the data would be the product of someone else’s research and would not offer any insight into each authorities service provision or their approach to the legislation. As McNeill (1992:15) explains, the data collected may not be a true picture of what is being studied; it may merely be a product of the research method used and the evidence presented may not really be what it claims to be evidence of.

McNeill (1992: 22), states that some researchers, aware of the problems of forming hunches and hypothesis, spend time conducting preliminary research. It could be that the Local Authorities statistics show that the numbers have decreased, but that the number of short term placements is omitted as in the case of the DfES statistics, thus giving an inaccurate picture of the situation. Social Workers themselves may also have different views and opinions which contradict ‘official’ data as identified in George’s (2000) report. The principle Social Worker interviewed felt that her staff were being asked to cope with much broader changes in society and children with more complex needs, therefore the numbers of children becoming looked after were increasing within her authority.

With these issues in mind, I feel that a semi-structured interview approach with each worker would be more appropriate than devising a questionnaire with set questions where each worker is asked the same questions in the same order. The interview would consist of two parts; the first would include questions which are asked of each interviewee relating to their social work experience. This ‘structured’ part may provide useful comparable data which could shed light on their qualitative responses in the second part of the interview (UCE, 2001). A sample of the questionnaire for part one is included in appendix 1.

The second part of the interview would consist of a more spontaneous exploration of particular issues relating to their practice in terms of the legislation, how they work with families, their knowledge of and involvement with agencies that provide support to children and their families and the dilemmas that they face when deciding whether or not to remove children from their homes. Within this, I would seek to address the issues that have been brought up by George’s (2000) report that issues such as multiple cycles of depravation, poor health, substance misuse and the increase in young parents, are contributing to an unavoidable rise in the number of children being looked after.

George (2000) also mentions that authorities’ difficulties are compounded by the increase in use of care orders, especially for emergency admissions, as opposed to voluntary arrangements agreed with parents. The neglect or other damage suffered by children is often quite severe, and is then followed by a traumatic separation and a hunt by the authority for an appropriate placement.

Thompson (2000) has highlighted the problem of there being too few services for black and ethnic minority children, despite there being a duty for Local Authorities to provide appropriate services for children who are looked after. She has also addressed the issue of black children being over represented within the care system. It would be interesting to find out from Social Workers, whether or not their interventions with ethnic minority families are carried out from an anti-discriminatory perspective.

The method for recording the data would be audio cassette. This is because the method requires a largely conversational approach and transcribing the interview by hand would be both time consuming and impractical in terms of a free-flowing interview.

Before initiating the second part, I would present the statistical data relating to the numbers of children in care within the authority to the interviewee, and those published by the DfES in The Children Act 1989 Report 2002, to the interviewee and state that we would be discussing whether or not from a professional point of view, they agreed with the statistics and why.

In order for the discussion to flow, the workers opinions to the topics mentioned above will be sought in the following order, but of course, if subjects were already covered in the respondents answers to other questions, those areas would be systematically eliminated:

* Knowledge of current legislation, Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families and how it affects their working practice. (For workers who worked under previous legislation, what did the change mean for them?)

* Extent of individual social work input with families and knowledge/utilisation of support/preventative resources within their locality.

* Removal of children from their homes. When do they consider that it is the only option available? Have all alternatives been explored?

* Circumstances which may affect the numbers of children being looked after – over-use of care orders and Emergency Protection Orders, increased social pressures, children of asylum seekers/children who are abandoned by rejected asylum seekers. Can current legislation help to deal with such matters effectively?

* Discussion around children from ethnic minority groups being over represented within the care system. Do they agree/disagree with this? Are they using anti-discriminatory practices during assessments?

* Discussion of statistical data and its reflection of the real situation from their point of view.

The quality of the discussion in the second part of the interview may depend on the answers provided in the first part. Experience, knowledge, individual interests and specialisms in social work may affect the interviewees responses to the topics raised. For instance, a newly qualified worker who may only have been working in the office for a short time may only have information available to them from previous study which they are able to discuss, whereas a qualified worker who has been practicing for twenty years within the same city, would have more practical experience to draw upon and would be able to compare their working practices before the Children Act 1989 came into force.

I would anticipate that each interview would last for forty five minutes.

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