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Single parent charity Gingerbread has welcomed the new Report from the Public Accounts Committee published on cuts to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. 

The Report shows how plans to slash the budget of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission by £117 million risk undermining plans for a new effective child maintenance service which delivers for children, says Gingerbread.

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has as its primary goal to maximise the number of children in separated families who are receiving regular child maintenance. Yet the Public Accounts Committee Report draws attention to the way cost considerations are taking first priority, leaving many children at greater risk of poverty.

Commenting on the Public Account Committee’s report, Gingerbread’s CEO Fiona Weir said:

“The Commission is under such pressure to achieve cost savings, the worry is that it will move too soon to start closing down existing CSA cases, hoping that fewer parents will choose to apply to the new system, thus saving it money.  Yet parents need the new system and cannot afford for it to fail.” 

A recent poll of divorce lawyers in America has revealed a growth in the number of women paying alimony and child support over the past three years.

The survey, by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), found that 56% of respondents reported seeing an increase in the number of mothers paying child support, while 47% also note a rise in women being responsible for alimony following divorce.

Ken Altshuler, president of the AAML, commented:

"The court system always ends up reflecting changes in our society and this is certainly the case with issues regarding who pays child support and alimony. As more women achieve success on their career paths, they are also finding themselves increasingly responsible for financial obligations during and after the divorce process."

Recent figures released by the Department of Education have revealed that hundreds of children are forced to wait an average of 20 months from entering care to moving in with their adoptive parents – six months slower than the timetable set out in national guidance, according to official figures published today.

The local authority adoption scorecards show that while 80 local authority areas have met the interim thresholds (of 21 months from entering care to adoption and matching a child to a family within seven months of a court order being made), the remaining 72 have failed to meet one or both of these key measures.

The scorecards are a key plank of the Government’s tougher approach to addressing underperformance in the adoption system – set out in the radical Action Plan for Adoption published in March. A new assessment process will reduce bureaucracy and the delays which put off potential adopters and slow down the finding of loving homes for children.

Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:

"Adoption can give vulnerable children the greatest possible chance of a stable, loving and permanent home.

"Hundreds of children are being let down by unacceptable delays right across the country and throughout the adoption process. Every month a child waits to be placed, there is less chance of finding a permanent, stable and loving home. This cannot go on.”

The Government has announced its intention to introduce legislation to speed up the family justice system and reduce delays in the adoption system.

The planned Children and Families Bill would also strengthen the powers of the Children’s Commissioner – to champion children’s rights and hold government to account for legislation and policy.

The key measures affecting the family justice system under the Bill include:

  • Creating a time limit of six months by which care cases must be completed.
  • Making it explicit that case management decisions should be made only after impacts on the child, their needs and timetable have been considered.
  • Focussing the court on those issues which are essential to deciding whether to make a care order.
  • Getting rid of unnecessary processes in family proceedings by removing the requirement for interim care and supervision orders to be renewed every month by the judge and instead allowing the judge to set the length and renewal requirements of interim orders for a period which he or she considers appropriate, up to the expected time limit.
  • Requiring courts to have regard to the impact of delay on the child when commissioning expert evidence and whether the court can obtain information from parties already involved.
  • Requiring parents in dispute to consider mediation as a means of settling that dispute rather than litigation by making attendance at a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting a statutory prerequisite to starting court proceedings.
  • Freeing up judicial time by allowing legal advisers to process uncontested divorce applications.

 

Gingerbread, the single parent charity, has issued a statement in response to the recent publication by the DWP of new quarterly performance data from the Child Support Agency (CSA). The figures show that more than 5,000 past and current CSA cases remain over £50,000 in arrears

Fiona Weir, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, said:

“These new statistics show just what an important role the CSA plays in collecting child maintenance from thousands of parents who simply refuse to pay voluntarily. But it is shocking that, in the future, parents looking after children will lose out when the CSA steps in – facing the deduction of up to 12% of any money they are due to receive for their children.

“In recent years the CSA has failed to halt rising arrears, which have grown from £3,761 million outstanding in March 2010 to £3,799 million in March 2012. While Gingerbread supports a renewed focus on taking all enforcement measures necessary to collect child maintenance, the new collection charges will punish the children whose parents refuse to pay.”

A recent study by the NSPCC has found that hundreds of children currently going into care will be put at risk of further abuse if they are returned home without the support needed to keep them safe from harm.

According to the NSPCC, around half of the abused or neglected children who enter care each year are abused or neglected again when they return home.

The NSPCC’s work shows that local authorities face a range of difficulties including:

  • A lack of evidence used in making decisions about whether a child should return home, resulting in children who face significant risks of harm.
  • Poor support for parents to tackle issues such as drug or alcohol abuse, and mental health difficulties. Many children return home before problems which led to them entering care are addressed.
  • Inadequate monitoring for the child returning home, with cases closed quickly after a child’s return despite the risk of problems reoccurring.


The NSPCC is calling on the Government to:

  • Publish full data on the outcomes of looked after children who are returned home to increase transparency and accountability.
  • Revise the care planning guidance to cover children returning home from care, ensuring that placement decisions are based on the child’s needs, and that the necessary support is provided to children and their families.
  • Improve the support to families to tackle problems such as substance misuse, domestic violence, mental health issues and poor parenting before and during reunification.

 

New research from Oxford University has challenged concerns raised by the Family Justice Review that the use of independent social work (ISW) assessments can hinder family court proceedings by causing duplication and delay.

The research argues that far from detracting from the proposed programme of reform in family justice, ISWs could be of considerable assistance in helping Courts and parties to meet new targets, whilst maintaining the quality of assessments.

The findings to date demonstrate that:

  • There was no evidence that ISW reports cause delay to court hearings.
  • They produce high quality reports to deadlines.
  • ISWs have “added value”: they are independent, highly skilled and experienced.
  • They are child focused and successful in engaging parents with a history of non cooperation with local authorities.
  • There was no evidence of routine duplication with a current local authority core assessment.
  • Appointment of ISWs do not result solely from parents seeking second opinion evidence based on human rights claims.
  • Parents were involved in most instructions but most were joint, involving the local authority and the child/children's guardian.

The Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies, the British Association of Social Workers, Nagalro, the professional association for ISWs and Children's Guardians and many children's organisations are supporting the research. They believe that restricting access to ISWs will lead to poor decision making with more children being exposed to further risk of abuse or being removed unnecessarily from their families.

 

The Government has laid an order in Parliament to bring the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) back under direct Ministerial control.

Work and Pensions Minister Maria Miller said:

“The Government is clear about how important strong family relationships are for children. All children have the right to financial support from both parents, which is why we are reforming the child maintenance service to put children at its heart.

"Bringing the system under direct control of Ministers will help that process."

The move follows a consultation conducted last year by the Government. The matter will be debated in both Houses of Parliament, and assuming it receives Parliamentary approval, CMEC will be abolished, and its current operational units will become a business unit of the Department  for Work and Pensions

Parents will be supported and helped to make their own, family-based child maintenance arrangements, although a new, streamlined and more efficient statutory child maintenance service will be introduced for those who need it.

 

Website, Netmums, has recently carried out a survey of its members to find out more about the current state of relationships in the UK and what factors can place relationships in jeopardy.

The survey found that around 50% of respondents reported their relationship to be “good” or “strong”, but 14% said their relationship was currently “rocky”. A further 25% of respondents were not sure whether they would still be with their current partner in ten years time.

Around two thirds of members polled felt that it was much harder now to maintain a relationship than it was a generation ago. Just under 40% blamed this on the fact that more mums are now going out to work.

Having children was found to put additional strain on a relationship, with around four fifths of respondents saying the resulting exhaustion had a negative effect on their relationship. Money worries and lack of time alone as a couple were also reported as pressure points.

Involving children’s guardians in vulnerable families may avoid the need for care proceedings according to a pilot study from Lancaster University and the University of Bradford.

Stage One of the pilot identified a number of benefits in regard to the Children’s Guardian becoming involved in pre-proceedings.

Applications to take children into care are at record levels, with 10,199 new applications recorded during the last year by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.

In addition, the family courts report extensive delays for children, with case duration now hitting 60 weeks in many cases.

The pilot study, listed in the Family Justice Review and Government response to that review, examined whether earlier involvement of the Children’s Guardian might ensure more cases are prevented from going to court, or where cases go to court, that they are resolved more quickly.

Researchers are following care proceedings in a sample of 27 cases and 30 comparator cases. Stage One has identified positive impacts in regard to the engagement of parents in a number of cases, with some cases now successfully diverted from court. In other cases, discussions between the local authority and the guardian may have narrowed the issues which will come before the court if care proceedings are issued.

The report from the pilot project will go to the Ministry of Justice and the project will now be extended to Liverpool.

The Fostering Network has called on the Government to make further investment in foster care as a matter of urgency. The call comes after the latest figures from Cafcass show that care applications have exceeded 10,000 over the last twelve months for the first time.

Vicki Swain, campaigns manager at the Fostering Network, said: “As the vast majority of children in care are fostered, this rise in applications will put even more pressure on a fostering system already feeling the strain.

“Fostering services have been struggling with a shortage of foster carers for the last few years. This has made it difficult to make sure children and foster carers are well matched, meaning children end up living a long way from home or being repeatedly moved around the system as placements break down.

“We are therefore calling on the Government to provide more funding so that fostering services are able to properly pay and support their foster carers and have the resources to encourage more people to foster. Without this, the system is going to struggle to cope and will fail this very vulnerable group of children.”

 

Ofsted has recently published a report into the causes of delay in the adoption system. The report find that the most significant cause of delay for children needing adoption is the length of time it takes for cases to be completed in court. The average time taken to complete care proceedings in the cases inspectors examined was almost 14 months.

Not intervening early enough, and cases being left to ‘drift’ prior to care proceedings, were also key factors that hindered successful adoption in the cases reviewed. The report found that some children had been known to children’s social care for a considerable length of time prior to care proceedings being initiated.

Typically, these cases were characterised by long-standing concerns about either neglect or emotional abuse, or both. Delays jeopardised good outcomes for children. The children were older when they entered care, and their life experiences had resulted in some significant behavioural challenges for potential adopters.

The report also found many good examples of practice where local authorities worked to minimise delays. Overall, there was good parallel planning when children were taken into care or about to be placed for adoption. Most of the cases tracked showed a clear commitment to early planning for adoption at the same time as rehabilitation was being pursued. This ensured that if children could not go back to their birth family then the process for adoption was already in place.

Of those adopters that were interviewed, the majority were happy with the overall service that they received. Most did not feel that they had experienced significant delay, although nearly all considered that there had been some kind of delay, however minor. Nearly all adopters felt they had received a welcoming and sensitive response when they first enquired about adoption, and that assessment was necessarily thorough.

The report found that processes for matching children with adoptive placements were generally robust and of the authorities surveyed, there was little evidence of delay caused by an unrealistic search for a ‘perfect’ ethnic match.

The Institute of Family Law Arbitrators (IFLA) has held a reception to mark the launch of the new Family Law Arbitration Scheme. 

The Scheme and the IFLA is the result of collaboration between the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb), Family Law Bar Association (FLBA), Resolution, and the Centre for Child and Family Law Reform (CCFLR).

The IFLA developed the arbitration scheme to enable parties to resolve financial disputes more quickly, cheaply and in a more flexible and less formal setting than a court room. It is also expected to save court resources and reduce pressure on the already stretched family courts.

The scheme covers: financial disputes arising from divorce; claims on inheritance from a child, spouse etc; financial claims made in England and Wales after a divorce abroad; claims for child maintenance between unmarried parents; disputes about ownership of a property between cohabiting couples and civil partnership financial claims. Disputes will be resolved exclusively by applying the laws of England and Wales, in the same way as the Family Courts.

Lord Falconer, who chairs the IFLA, said:

“Arbitration has a long history in certain areas. For example, many commercial and construction contracts provide for dispute resolution in this way. Arbitration in family law will be another tool in the box of methods of alternative dispute resolution. At a time when there is a need to find solutions in family disputes outside the courtroom, it is a logical next step to offer arbitration as another means of doing so.”

 

Speaking at the 24th Resolution annual conference in Leeds, the President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall gave a strong backing to Resolution’s position that there should be legal provision for no fault divorce.

In a speech to over 300 delegates, Sir Nicholas said: “My position is very simple. I am a strong believer in marriage. But I see no good arguments against no fault divorce.”

He went on to say, “In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, divorce was a matter of social status – it mattered whether you were divorced or not, and if you were, it was important to demonstrate that you were the “innocent” party. All that, I think, has gone.”

He also expressed concern that Mediation and Information Assessment Meetings are not working, observing that the government had introduced the process without making them compulsory, as this was felt inconsistent with the voluntary nature of mediation. He acknowledged that in some areas, judges are not following rules requiring them to encourage attendance at mediation. In concluding, he told practitioners that their aim “must be to encourage the court to make proper use of these powers".

The Children's Commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, has recently published the report of his first statutory review of independent professional advocacy for looked after children and young people, care leavers and children in need.

The review found that most children are unaware of their statutory right to an independent professional ‘voice’ because of:

  • a lack of clarity and consistency about the way services are commissioned across Wales;
  • a lack of strategic leadership by Welsh Government to make sure eligible children and young people have equal access; and
  • no annual or systematic monitoring inspection or regulation of the service.


Currently, under the Children Act 1989 and Adoption and Children Act 2002, every local authority has a statutory obligation to provide an independent professional ‘voice’, also known as an advocate, for every looked after child and young person, care leaver and child in need. Children and young people should be offered an advocate when decisions are being made about them or if they want to make a complaint.

Over the last seven months, the Commissioner and his team have received evidence from over 500 children and young people across Wales, Welsh Government, all twenty two local authorities, and the principal advocacy services to establish to what extent these current arrangements safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children and young people.

Keith Towler commented:

“It saddens me to say that some of Wales’ most vulnerable children and young people don’t know they’re entitled to have an independent professional advocate to represent their views.”

“Among my 29 recommendations are suggestions of fundamental changes to national structures but of equal importance are the recommendations around ensuring children and young people are made aware of and understand their entitlement to a voice. I should not be hearing of episodes where children had been denied access to an advocate and that assumptions had been made they would not benefit from a professional advocate as they were too young.”

The Welsh Ministers and local authorities covered under the review now have until 22nd June 2012 to respond to these recommendations.

 

The TUC has welcomed the government's consultation on giving lesbian and gay partners the same right to civil marriage as heterosexual couples.

Currently the law only allows civil partnerships for same sex couples while marriage is reserved for heterosexual partners, so the TUC supports the government's decision to review this. 

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Opening up civil marriage to same sex couples would be a welcome step forward on the long journey towards achieving equality for LGBT people.

'However, not including religious ceremonies for same sex couples or civil partnerships to heterosexuals who might want this option in the consultation is very short-sighted - and shows we still have a very long way to go before we can talk about real equality and inclusion.'

The government consultation on equal civil marriage is open until 14th June 2012. The reform would have the force of law in England and Wales, but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.

 

The Government has published an Action Plan for Adoption to overhaul the system for prospective adopters and strengthen the performance regime for local authorities.

The current system is too bureaucratic and takes too long for both potential adopters and children who need a stable, loving home.

The numbers of children adopted from care has been decreasing in recent years. Just 3,050 children found new homes through adoption last year, the lowest since 2001. A recent survey showed that one third of adopters were not satisfied with their experience of the adoption system. Research has shown that with every year that a child waits their chances of being adopted decreased by 20%.

The new action plan will include proposals for:

  • New adoption scorecards, to hold local authorities to account. The first scorecards will be published in the coming weeks.
  • A revised approval process for new adopters, cutting it to six months.
  • A national gateway for adoption, providing a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption.

 

Men like to know when their wife or girlfriend is happy while women really want the man in their life to know when they are upset, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

The study involved a diverse sample of couples and found that men’s and women’s perceptions of their significant other’s empathy, and their abilities to tell when the other is happy or upset, are linked to relationship satisfaction in distinctive ways.

Researchers recruited 156 heterosexual couples for the experiment. Of those, 102 were younger, urban, ethnically and economically diverse and in a committed but not necessarily married relationship. In an effort to find couples who varied in the ways they resolved conflicts and controlled their emotions, they also looked for couples with a history of domestic violence and/or childhood sexual abuse. The remaining participants, were older, suburban and middle-class married couples with strong ties to the community. In all, 71% of couples were white, 56% were married and their average length of relationship was three-and-a-half years.

Relationship satisfaction was found to be directly related to men’s ability to read their female partner’s positive emotions correctly. However, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, women who correctly understood that their partners were upset were much more likely to be satisfied with their relationship than if they correctly understood that their partner was happy. Also, when men understood that their female partner was angry or upset, the women reported being happier, though the men were not. The authors suggest that being empathetic to a partner’s negative emotions may feel threatening to the relationship for men but not for women.

The findings also show that the more men and women try to be empathetic to their partner’s feelings, the happier they are. The authors suggest that this research should encourage couples to better appreciate and communicate one another’s efforts to be empathetic.

 

Peers in the House of Lords have voted through an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which will help ensure that victims of domestic violence continue to receive legal aid on issues around divorce or separation, by extending the evidential criteria required to demonstrate that domestic violence has taken place.

The amendment was proposed by Baroness Scotland and supported by Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division, among others. In one of three votes against the government on the first day of Report stage of the Bill, this amendment was carried by 238 votes to 201.

Speaking in response to the amendment, Resolution’s Chair, David Allison, said:

“We are pleased that Peers voted through an amendment which seeks to ensure victims of domestic violence continue to receive legal aid to assist in resolving issues arising on divorce or separation. The Government and MPs now need to take notice of this sensible move and uphold this important amendment when the Bill returns to the Commons.

“In addition, we were pleased to hear the Government will accept undertakings as evidence of domestic violence for the purposes of providing legal aid, regardless of what changes are made to the Bill. Many women who have been abused seek undertakings from their alleged abuser, with the oversight of the family court, as a way to protect themselves and their children, without needing to go through a traumatic trial.”

 

A recent bulletin from the Office for National Statistics has presented provisional annual statistics on marriages that took place in England and Wales during 2010.

Key findings of the bulletin include:

  • The provisional number of marriages in England and Wales in 2010 increased by 3.7% to 241,100.
  • The highest number of marriages were for men and women aged 25 to 29.
  • The largest percentage increase in numbers from 2009 to 2010 were for men aged 45 to 49 and women aged 30 to 34, both rising by 6%.


Over the past 20 years, there has been a rise in the number of cohabiting adults in England and Wales. The number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families increased significantly between 2001 and 2011, from 2.1 million to 2.9 million (Families and Households, 2011). Attitudes towards cohabitation have also changed. The 2006 British Social Attitudes survey found two thirds of respondents thought there was ‘little difference socially between being married and living together as a couple’ (Beaujouan and Bhrolcháin, 2011).

The Divorces in England and Wales, 2010 release showed that the percentage of marriages ending in divorce has generally increased for those marrying between the 1970s and the early 1990s. For example, 22% of marriages in 1970 had ended in divorce by the 15th wedding anniversary, whereas 33% of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period of time. However, there is some evidence that the proportion of marriages ending in divorce had levelled off for couples married in the most recent years.