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Foibles and Fortunes of a Written Text. Social work practice and pre-proceedings work under the Public Law Outline. Ka PowerPoint Presentation
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Foibles and Fortunes of a Written Text. Social work practice and pre-proceedings work under the Public Law Outline. Karen Broadhurst and Kim Holt. The Public Law Outline. Introduced in April 2008, the PLO aims to improve judicial case management of Public Law Children Act cases by:

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Foibles and Fortunes of a Written Text.

Social work practice and pre-proceedings work under the Public Law Outline.

Karen Broadhurst and Kim Holt

the public law outline
The Public Law Outline

Introduced in April 2008, the PLO aims to improve judicial case management of Public Law Children Act cases by:

  • Reducing delay in achieving permanence for children
  • Improving general efficiency (costs)
  • Ensuring that only those cases which really need the court’s involvement come before the court - better use of kinship care and family group conferences to enable children to remain within their own extended families wherever possible.

The PLO conjoins with the policy agenda Care Matters – raising the profile of ‘edge of care’ cases/possibility of diversion, and reinforcing the ‘no order’ principle within the CA 1989.

parental engagement co operation
Parental Engagement/Co-operation
  • Review of care proceedings drew attention to the issue of parental engagement- this observation a central consideration within PLO:

‘It is also clear that children suffer because parents and families are insufficiently engaged in the process both pre-proceedings and during the progress of the case’ (Foreword to the Public Law Outline, MOJ, 2008).

  • The PLO places greater demands on local authorities with respect to assessment, family support and the preparation of families
partnership with parents
Partnership with Parents
  • Explicit within the new protocol is a vision of more effective work with parents and extended family, both to divert children from proceedings, or where proceedings are instigated, to reduce delay/increase efficiency through improved co-operation
  • Here we might see echoes of the guidance associated with the CA 1989- in terms of emphasis on partnership working


closer partnership working through
Closer partnership working through:

Emphasis on pre-proceedings engagement, assessment, diversion, preparation:

  • The core assessment must be in place (previously, in a high % of applications, no core assessment presented with application)
  • Records of discussion with families
  • Parents are to be provided with a ‘Letter Before Proceedings’ – a final attempt to divert the case from proceedings and engage the family in positive change (‘How to avoid going to court’)
  • Pre-proceedings meeting- legal representatives present
  • Dispute resolution/mediation to narrow the issues brought before the courts
  • Document why co-operation has not been achieved
  • Where proceedings cannot be avoided – families to be assisted to access legal support

(Para 19.1 of PLO: sets out ‘co-operation’ requirements)

  • NW Local Authorities
  • Interviews & focus groups with professionals
  • Non-participant observation (office talk, legal gateway meetings)
  • Study of documents /case files
  • Tracking a small sample of cases

(May, 2009 – May, 2010)

  • ‘People are fully aware of the PLO forms. They know what to do, when things have to be done. They know what is the social worker’s remit and what is for legal’
  • ‘The PLO has certainly helped us to think more clearly, it provides a structure, a set of step-by-step procedures’

Findings organised around three themes:

1. Worker-Family Engagement

2. Quality of Assessment

3. Diversion/further use of ‘family and friends’ care

varied picture
Varied Picture
  • Research is on-going
  • Varied Picture, both within and between local authorities
  • Widespread complaint about admin and negative impact on workers’ ability to engage with parents and undertake effective preventative work
  • Quality of Assessment work –numerous barriers to undertaking quality assessments are reported
  • But, some examples of very significant attempts to divert children from care proceedings... that raise a whole host of other issues.
1 worker family engagement
1. Worker – Family Engagement

A nodding acquaintance:

  • “If you didn’t have all the procedures and all the admin, you could devote your time to working with families, but the way things have gone, it’s less and less that you spend time with families. Even in child protection you are doing assessments and writing reports and making recommendations with only a nodding acquaintance with the family very often”
1 worker family engagement12
1. Worker - Family Engagement

Second or third-hand information:

  • ‘ workers do not have time to work with families, lucky if we get out to do 3 visits a week, the rest is admin’
  • ‘How can we engage with families, all our information is either second or third hand? I am concerned that if challenged there’s no credibility to my knowledge...I don’t know the family first hand’
1 worker family engagement13
1. Worker- Family Engagement

Making judgements... But do you know them?

  • “There is very little on a personal or therapeutic basis that you can establish with families or are required to sum them up and make judgements, but you can’t really say that you know them that well and the timescales don’t help either. I can see the reason for the timescales, but with the competition of other demands on your time, it is very difficult to spend any time with families in the way that you would have done”
1 worker family engagement14
1. Worker- Family Engagement

Knowledge of the family and advocacy:

  • “In terms of newly qualified workers, I wonder what they understand about the nature of working with families, they think this is normal, but also the system encourages people to think, if change isn’t happening quick enough, then move it on to the next stage, that’s what’s happening to child protection to a great degree”
  • “You don’t have the knowledge of the family to put up any resistance- I’m putting up the fight now for one family but I will probably lose it”
1 worker family engagement15
1. Worker - Family Engagement

Worker transience and turnover:

  • “Are agency workers committed to local children and families?... They come and go... A higher salary is offered and they leave... They don’t have the necessary investment to work with ‘hard to reach’ families”
  • Widespread reports of worker turnover/staff shortages/inexperience
2 quality of assessment
2. Quality of Assessment

Thin Assessments:

  • “You can be sitting there at the computer wondering what the hell is going on out there (with the family), but in a sense you don’t have the time or the permission to do much about it because the emphasis is on turning over the assessments”
  • “It feels like what we are doing is compiling some sort of big data-base based on very thin assessments which don’t actually say very much”
3 quality of assessment
3. Quality of Assessment

Shoe-horning family history into the assessment form:

  • “We work to a prescribed formula, a lot of which isn’t relevant to a particular family,- it’s very pre-prescribed - what they think you ought to be looking for - there are other things that you want to put in that need to be in, but the forms are designed to let you include them”
  • “I’ve been just getting a detailed history on a boy and a detailed history on his mother and then trying to shoe-horn it into the assessment form – somewhere - and there’s nowhere for that- then you stick the forms in front of the family and they say what the hell is this - it makes no sense”
2 quality of assessment18
2. Quality of Assessment

PLO - Opening a can of worms – so many documents:

  • It’s mad. It’s a mad-house. People are falling ill, they call in sick at the last minute –
  • You are doing an assessment on one family, but have another in mind - people are migrating information from one document to the other, right? Sometimes they forget. I had a phone call from one mother and she said ‘well, half of it relates to my children, but then there are names and details of children in the documents, that I don’t recognise... these children are not in my family’.
  • “So, that gives you a flavour of the conditions in which we are working- it’s not that these people are buffoons - they’re very hard-working - they just don’t know whether they’re coming or going... There are so many documents...the minute you trigger public law proceedings, you open a can of worms”
3 diversion
3. Diversion

Threat of care proceedings motivates family, but too late:

  • Quality of pre-proceedings work meeting?
  • Although the PLO emphasises pre-proceedings work and diversion from care, workers reported that it is ‘the threat’ of care proceedings, that more often than not, motivates parents to engage with the local authority... Workers don’t have the time to reach the ‘hard to reach’ before this...This can mean that problems are fairly entrenched and intervention comes too late to prevent initiation of care proceedings
related findings
Related Findings
  • ‘the expectations of local authority practice in preparation for care proceedings under the PLO far exceed what was undertaken or could have been undertaken before action to protect the child in most of the sample cases’ (Masson et al., 2008:2)
3 diversion21
3. Diversion

BUT in other teams:

  • Very clear attempts to divert families from care in some teams
  • Very clear attempts to use ‘family and friends’ care
  • Influenced by PLO- avoiding demands of courts, paper-work, assessment and planning
  • Seen as least adversarial option – pro-family stance
  • Influenced by placement shortages and costs
3 diversion22
3. Diversion

Some foibles of diversion (well-intentioned):

  • Parents presented with an ‘either /or’ –s.20 accommodation or care proceedings;
  • E. G. Lonemother – not ‘happy’ to be separated from the children but consents to s.20, as alternative is presented as worse – no alternative perspective available for the mother because legal rep not in place at Legal Gateway meeting –
  • Posed as a ‘trial’ but with no promise of the return of the children –
  • Children separated and placed with relatives;
  • Contact plans not in place prior to removal of children;
  • Relatives quietly encouraged to seek their own legal representation/seed is planted re their pursuit of Residence Orders;
  • Team manager states that ‘CAFCASS would not approve the plan’
  • Viability assessments done after children are placed with relatives
3 diversion23
3. Diversion

Legal representation:

  • Parents’ solicitors present – but no contribution
  • Even when parents appear distressed and local authority is suggesting the possibility that the children will living away from parents’ care on a longer-term basis- no questions raised by the parents’ legal representatives
  • The ‘informal’ plan/lack of contact arrangements are not queried by the legal reps
  • No Request for copy of viability assessments
  • No independent representation for the children
related findings24
Related Findings:
  • ‘There was concern that the PLO (amongst other factors) was not enhancing parents’ capacity to benefit from legal advice and interventions prior to proceedings and during the early stages of proceedings.’
  • Early Process Evaluation of the PLO in family courts (MoJ, 2009)
3 diversion25
3. Diversion


  • Standards for the assessment/quality of the kin carers is definitely much lower than for foster carers
  • Viability assessment? Speed of movement of children to carers who are ‘unknown’ – other members of the household?
  • Review and support seems minimal
  • Contact plan is thrown back to relatives
  • No PR?

Feels very ‘Make-shift’

3 diversion26
3. Diversion

More foibles: ‘back-door’ care

Social workers report significant increase in use of s.20 - used to buy the LA more time:

  • ‘I took the chronologies to my manager and I said this can’t go on...the oldest girl had disclosed sexual we started PLO, in fact we pre-empted PLO and got the parents to agree to voluntary care..’
  • But: families agree to accommodation without knowing their legal rights or consequences
3 diversion27
3. Diversion
  • Clearly, where there are placement shortages, concerns about costs and a strong moral mandate to avoid adversarial court processes – very well motivated workers seek ‘informal’ arrangements, which are given further impetus under PLO
  • But – do these protect children? Are they ‘just’ with respect to rights of parents? Are arrangements sustainable? What support for kin re contact etc... Tracking of cases is on-going.
  • Question? Well motivated workers but feels like decisions need to be better informed- research/evidence base
related research
Related research
  • Kin carers can often receive less support than foster carers – particularly re contact .
  • Farmer, E. (2009) What Factors Relate to Good Placement Outcomes in Kinship Care, British Journal of Social Work , Advanced Access, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp007, pp. 1–19.
analytic distance the legislator s foil
Analytic Distance: the legislator’s foil
  • Earlier discussion paper (Broadhurst and Holt, 2010), we raised questions about the limits of procedure, drawing attention to the policy-maker’s/legislator’s analytic distance.
  • This is a particular issue in regard to the PLO. Social workers are key stakeholders in the implementation of the new protocol, but were not widely consulted during the Review of Care Proceedings or in the design of the PLO. Rather, a consultation was issued with the launch of the draft revised version of Volume 1, Children Act 1989 Guidanceand Regulations, DfES, 2007) - (c.f. Masson, 2010, forthcoming for a fuller discussion).
nuts and bolts
Nuts and Bolts
  • So, PLO is a ‘written text’ (another)
  • Constitutes new procedures and protocols
  • Underscores certain practices and technologies already in place – e.g. core assessment
  • Introduces additional practices and technologies: ‘Letter before proceedings’
  • Over-arching aspiration: standardisation and central ‘control’ (e.g. 40 Weeks).
  • Appears to have intended and unintended effects and/or no impact at all
foibles and fortunes of the plo
Foibles and Fortunes of the PLO
  • Centred managerialism although well intentioned, is almost certainly both too simple and too hierarchical for work with Public Law Children Act Cases;
  • The PLO is what governance theorists describe as a ‘minor instrumentality’- a series of largely remedial procedural steps – that appear to fall short in attempting to re-order social work practices;
  • Importance of close ethnographic engagement with practice to understand intended/unintended effects;
  • Attempts to standardise may be counter-productive.
  • Broadhurst, K. and Holt, K.E. (2010) Partnership and the limits of procedure: prospects for relationships between parents and professionals under the new Public Law Outline, Child and Family Social Work, Vol. 15 Issue 1, p97-106).
  • Jessiman, P. Keogh, P. & Brophy, J. (2009) Early Process Evalution of the Public Law Outline in Family Courts, Ministry of Justice, Research Series, 10/09, July 2009.
  • Masson, J., Pearce, J. & Bader, K. (with Joyner, O., Marsden, J. & Westlake, D. (2008) Care Profiling Study, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Masson, J. (2008) A new approach to care proceedings, Child and Family Social Work, forthcoming.