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Are written agreements in Child Protection Cases worth the paper they are written on?
It has been common practice for Social Workers and other professionals working with families where there are child protection concerns to ask them to sign up to a written agreement to set out what is expected of them to improve the situation. Recent serious case reviews after children have died or been seriously injured have raised concerns about the reliance on such agreements as a protective measure, particularly in domestic abuse cases.
A written agreement can ask the parents to sign up to a number of expectations, considered to be necessary to safeguard the children. These expectations can include not to consume alcohol when looking after the children, to ensure the children attend school regularly, and in the cases of abusive relationships not to have contact with that abusive partner.
It is this latter requirement; that to keep away from an abusive partner, which has come under much criticism, as unrealistic and placing the burden on the victim of abuse rather than on the abuser, without offering support to the victim to keep themselves and their children safe.
In a recent survey of Social Workers undertaken by Community Care, 68% of responders felt that the agreements were used more to protect the Local Authority than to support families, although two thirds felt that they could be successful as often as not, provided the expectations were clear and the parents were working towards the same goals.
What a written agreement can offer is clear guidance to families about what is expected of them, what the Local Authority concerns are and what needs to happen to address those concerns. The important thing is to ensure that the required targets are achievable, that the parents understand what they have to do, and that they understand the consequences if they don’t. And such an agreement has absolutely no force at all if the Local Authority don’t step in and take further protective action if it isn’t complied with, as this not only places the children at risk but also leads the parents to think that the concerns aren’t as bad as first made out.
It is important that the Local Authority ensures that in addition to the written agreement they undertake any substantive work necessary with the families, such as parenting courses, domestic abuse courses, drug and alcohol support. The agreement should be used as a framework for that support, and if used in that way there is no denying it can be a useful tool, and can be successful.
In order to help parents understand those written agreements, they should be given the opportunity to take advice about what it means for them and what their rights and responsibilities are. While Legal Aid is more limited than it used to be, it is still available to advise on Social Services involvement, provided the parents are financially eligible. The better parents understand what is expected of them the more effective the agreements will be.