Why is the Children Act so significant?
The current child protection system is based on the Children Act 1989, which was introduced in an effort to reform and clarify the existing plethora of laws affecting children.
The Children Act 1989 gave every child the right to protection from abuse and exploitation and the right to inquiries to safeguard their welfare. Its central tenet was that children are usually best looked after within their family. The act came into force in England and Wales in 1991 and - with some differences - in Northern Ireland in 1996.
The cardinal principle of the Act is that the welfare of the child is paramount when an issue concerning the upbringing of a child has to be decided by a court under this legislation. This means that it is more important than either parent's views or the views of any other adult involved in the child's life.
What are the key principles of the Act?
At the heart of the Children Act is a belief that:
- The best place for children to be looked after is within their own homes.
- The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.
- Parents should continue to be involved with their children and any legal proceedings that may concern them, and that legal proceedings should be unnecessary in most instances.
- The welfare of children should be promoted by partnership between the family and the Local Authority.
- Children should not be removed from their family, or contact terminated, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
- The child's needs arising from race, culture, religion and language must be taken into account.
A court must also ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child and shall not make an Order unless this is 'better for the child than making no Order at all'. Every effort should be made to preserve the child’s home and family links.
The Act introduced the concept of parental responsibility which is defined as 'the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child.' This replaced the old idea that parents have 'custody' of a child,
What duties does the Act place on local authorities?
It sets out in detail what local authorities and the courts should do to protect the welfare of children. It charges local authorities with the 'duty to investigate … if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.'
'Harm' is defined as ill-treatment, including sexual abuse and non-physical forms of ill-treatment, or the impairment of health (physical or mental) or development (physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural.)
Local authorities are also charged with a duty to provide services for children in need, their families and others.
Why was the Children Act 2004 introduced?
Following the tragic death of eight-year old Victoria Climbié in 2000, the Government asked Lord Laming to conduct an inquiry to help decide whether it needed to introduce new legislation and guidance to improve the child protection system in England.
Lord Laming's damning report found massive failings on the part of as many as 12 agencies with a role to play in protecting children. It led to recommendations for a radical reform of services, particularly in the areas of better joined up working and information sharing.
The result was the Keeping children safe report (DfES, 2003) and the Every child matters green paper (DfES, 2003), which in turn led to the Children Act 2004
The Children Act 2004 does not replace or even amend much of the Children Act 1989. Instead it sets out the process for integrating services to children and created the post of Children's Commissioner for England.
The Act places a duty on local authorities and their partners (including the police, health service providers and the youth justice system) to co-operate in promoting the wellbeing of children and young people and to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
What has happened since then?
In June 2010 the new government appointed Professor Eileen Munro to conduct an independent review of children’s social work and child protection practice in England. Her report called for a more child-focused system and a reduction in prescriptive timescales and targets from central government, Ministers accepted her findings and committed to implementing all but one of her recommendations.