The Government has relaxed local authorities’ statutory duties to children in response to the difficulties caused by COVID-19. A new statutory instrument (“SI”) was implemented on 24 April 2020 and will remain in force until 25 September 2020. However, it may be extended by further SI.

The changes are deemed necessary by the government due to higher demand for care and staff shortages. They are intended to enable local authorities to prioritise the most vulnerable and in need.

The following key changes have been made by the SI:

  • Children in local authority care can be made to self-isolate through deprivations of liberty by public health officials without a court order, which was previously required.

  • Temporary foster carers do not need to have a connection to the child, as previously required. The maximum time period in which a child can be placed in an “emergency foster placement” has been extended from sixteen weeks to twenty four weeks.

  • Fostering panels no longer need to assess prospective foster carers before a child is placed in a foster placement. Fostering Providers can approve foster carers based on their own assessment.

  • Adoption agencies are no longer required to establish panels to assess the suitability of prospective adopters and less stringent checks on prospective adopters are now required.

  • Social workers who cannot visit children one week after they start a new placement and thereafter at six-weekly intervals may visit children “as soon as reasonably practicable”. The visits may be made by telephone or electronically.

  • Reviews of Looked-After children used to occur every six months (after the first two reviews). Now they need only occur where “reasonably practicable”.
  • Formerly, children in local authority care who needed (non-NHS) developmental or health-related attention would have this care provided by skilled staff who are supervised by skilled and qualified supervisors. Now, care by suitably qualified staff need only be provided where “reasonably practicable”.

These changes may pose serious risk to a local authority’s ability to safeguard children in its care. Relaxed scrutiny of care staff and foster parents coupled with reduced access to social workers by children, increases risks that children may suffer abuse in their placements without being able to disclose the same to or seek help from their social workers.

The broad requirement that local authorities uphold their duties “where reasonably practicable” raises questions as to the extent to which local authorities will endeavour to meet the previously high standards of care required of them. It is concerning that local authorities may be able to use the COVID-19 as an excuse for failing to protect children from harm.

In 2016, the government proposed to allow councils to seek exemptions from certain duties for up to six years. Several changes which have been included in the new SI were proposed at this time. However, mass criticism resulted in the proposals being dropped.

Carolyne Willow, Director of children’s rights charity, Article 39, has stated that Coronavirus has been used to “destroy children’s safeguards” and that the SI constitutes “deregulation on steroids”.

Barnardo’s, the NSPCC and the Children’s Society, the National Children’s Bureau and Action for Children have drafted a joint report stating that the Coronavirus will worsen existing problems for local authorities, which are already underfunded. The Report indicates that it is likely that the demand for children’s services will only rise after the pandemic subsides.

Therefore, even if the new SI is not extended on 26 September 2020, there is a risk that the relaxed approach to statutory duties by local authorities will endure and vulnerable children will suffer the consequences of the same.

Chief Executive of Become, Katharine Sacks-Jones, has called for the government to “routinely assess and publish the impact of any changes over the next six months”. She also states that where the changes increase the risk of harm to children, the government should “reconsider its approach as soon as possible”.

If you have been or are affected by the legislative changes caused by COVID-19 or someone you know has been a victim of abuse at the hands of a person in a position of trust such as a care worker, foster carer or indeed any other person and you would like confidential advice on making a claim, our team at Farleys are specialised, experienced and dedicated in discussing matters relating to this area of law. It can often be extremely difficult to make that first call but our sensitive and highly confidential approach can help you to try and make sense of your options. Contact our Abuse Team on 0330 134 6430 or alternatively send us an email.