COVID-19 changes to Family Law - Children's services and Adoption

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04 May, 2020

There have been changes to Family Law which have recently come in to force which include The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/445) effective from the 24th April 2020. They provide temporary changes to local authority duties in relation to children's services and adoption under various regulations.

In response to the added pressures on local authority resources from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government urgently undertook informal consultations, which reported staffing shortages and an increase in demand for services because of the stay at home rules. Consequently, the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/445) (Amendment Regulations) came into force. The purpose of the Amendment Regulations is to allow for flexibility and ease the administrative and procedural duties on children's services, while maintaining safeguards and the stability of children's social care. The temporary amendments apply to England only and ends on the 25th September 2020. There is a provision for the Secretary of State to extend these amendments should the pandemic continue.

The amendment covers deprivation of a child's liberty for social isolation purposes. If a child is either infectious or suspected to be infectious of COVID-19, a children's home may deprive that child of their liberty for social isolation purposes without a Court Order, if directed to do so by a Public Health Officer (regulation 11(4), Amendment Regulations).

The amendment also covers contact with a child in a children's home. Where a children's home is unable to provide a safe private meeting area for a child to have contact with their parents, a private telephone or video link should be provided for contact (regulation 11(5), Amendment Regulations).

The regulations have reviewed adoption panels. Adoption agencies are no longer required to constitute an adoption panel, but have the power to do so. If they choose to constitute an adoption panel, only three (instead of five) panel members, of which one is an independent person, are required for it to be quorate. The requirement to refer relinquished children cases to the adoption panel is removed. However, an adoption agency has the option to continue referring these cases to their adoption panel if they wish to do so (regulation 4, Amendment Regulations). Adoption agencies are required to undertake reviews of cases where they have authorisation to place a child for adoption, but the child has not been placed (regulation 36, Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 (SI 2005/389)). The Amendment Regulations insert paragraphs A1 and B1, which remove the requirement to carry out reviews if it is not reasonably practicable to do so. However, an adoption agency must carry out a review if one is necessary to safeguard and promote the child's welfare.

The temporary approval as a foster carer under regulation 24 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/959) (CPPCRR 2010) has been expanded to allow any person, not only relatives, friends and connected persons, to be approved. The length of the temporary approval has also been extended from 16 weeks to 24 weeks (regulation 8, Amendment Regulations). The timescale for notifying an applicant wishing to be a foster carer that they have been unsuccessful has been relaxed. They must normally be notified within ten working days of the local authority gathering the information required for an assessment and deciding that they are unsuitable to foster. This has been temporarily relaxed so that they may be notified as soon as is reasonably practicable. Where an assessment of a prospective foster carer takes place, the local authority is not required to refer the application to the fostering panel. An assessment can proceed to the panel or decision stage even if the health checks or the DBS checks are not available. In relation to the health checks, the applicant's self-report will be acceptable. Annual foster carer approval review requirements have also been relaxed, allowing them to take place as soon as reasonably practicable (regulation 9, Amendment Regulations).

The requirement to have looked after children (LAC) reviews at least every six months has been relaxed. LAC reviews should still be at least every six months where this is reasonably practicable (regulation 8, Amendment Regulations).

The definition of a short-break placement has been altered. There is no longer the requirement that a short break is not intended to last more than 17 days (regulation 48(2)(c), CPPCRR 2010). It is sufficient that the placement does not last more than 75 days in a year (regulation 8, Amendment Regulations).

The Amendment Regulations take into account the social distancing rules, amending regulation 28 of the CPPCRR 2020 and allowing for visits to a child in a foster placement to take place by telephone, video link or other electronic means. The timescales in which visits must take place have also been relaxed to as soon as is reasonably practicable (regulation 8, Amendment Regulations). All requirements to visit children and their carers in a private fostering arrangement have been relaxed to allow visits to be made when reasonably practicable (regulation 5, Amendment Regulations).

Finally, the Amendment Regulations relax the timescale requirements under the Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/1738) (CARPR 2006), which allow a complainant to require a review by a review panel of the LA's internal investigation into a complaint about services to children and young people. All required actions under regulations 18, 19 and 20 of the CARPR 2006 should be completed within the statutory timescales or as soon as practicable.

At Forbes Solicitors our family department is available to assist with any queries regarding changes in the law.

For more information contact Gill Carr in our Family/Divorce department via email or phone on 01254 580000. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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