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Reunification (Returning Home) Policy for Children and Young People who are Accommodated

SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER

This chapter highlights the importance of ensuring (where this is safe and appropriate) that a child can return home to live with their family, and seeks to detail the circumstances where this should be considered and the actions required. This process may be called Reunification; young people have indicated that a better phrase to use is "return home".

This chapter should be read in conjunction with the section relating to Placement with Parents.

RELATED CHAPTERS

Family and Friends Care Procedure

Placements with Parents Procedure

Decisions to Look After and Care Planning Procedure

RELEVANT GUIDANCE

Returning Children Home from Care - Guidance Note

SCIE Research briefing 42: Returning children home from public care

Reunification: an evidence-informed framework for return home practice

1. Background

Research indicates that best outcomes for children and young people are achieved when they are cared for by their parents or other family members. It is also recognised that most young people return home when they become care leavers at 18. Between April 2018 and March 2019, 142 children ceased to be Looked After in Wiltshire, excluding those who left care at 18 years of age (there are no available national comparator figures). Of those children, 14 (9.86%) returned home to live with their parents or other family members. This indicates that a relatively small number of children return to the care of their families; given the best outcome scenario, above, there should be an aspiration to reunify more children, where it is safe and right to do so as the likelihood is that they will go on to achieve better outcomes. This policy outlines best practice and the steps which will be required to support children and young people to successfully return home.

National research continues to suggest that in almost half of children who returned home were readmitted to care (47%). Two thirds of children who returned home experienced at least one failed return and a third had oscillated in and out of care. Children who returned home are the largest single group of children who ceased to be looked after in any year [1]. Research shows that careful assessment of needs, evidence of improvement in parenting capacity, a slow and well-managed returned home and the provision of services to support children and their families were associated with a positive experience of reunification, which lasted.

For many children permanence is achieved through a successful return home. This is particularly true of children who were subject to Care Orders prior to returning home. Statute and regulations are already in place, which require Local Authorities to carefully assess any plans for a return home. Within the Placement with Parent Regulations there are established systems which support robust care planning in the statutory review framework. Furthermore, children subject to Care Orders are not discharged from care until this has been agreed at the Statutory Review and an assessment has been undertaken which positively reflects the parent's ability to meet the needs of the child. This has not always been the case for children who were accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

[1] Improving permanence for Looked After Children DfE Consultation document 30 September 2013

2. Accommodated Children Returning Home on a Planned Basis

The question of whether it is safe and appropriate for an accommodated child or young person to return home, and therefore if it is in their best interest, should always be “live” during the time that a child is looked after. There are natural points when the question should be asked of the child, their family, and those working with them:

At every Child in Care Review (recognising that the review is a process and not a single meeting).

When any Single Assessment is completed

For some children and young people, where the agreement is that the period of accommodation will be brief and time limited, the plan will clearly state that the aim is a return home within a specified time. Foe=r these children, it will not always be necessary to complete a separate Single Assessment addressing the safety of a return home or for there to be a separate plan; actions will be described in the care plan and the Placement Plan. It is important that a proportionate plan is made and the social worker should agree this with their manager.

For accommodated children returning home on a planned basis, the expectation will be that a Single Assessment is completed prior to the child returning home unless the period of accommodation is brief and a recently completed assessment indicates the plan. This will identify parental capacity to care for the child, the changes that have occurred since the child left the care of the parents or family, the strengths and vulnerabilities in the child's situation, and the support and services required to support the child returning home. It is important that the voice of the child or young person is clear and the opinions and wishes of the child's parents or holders of Parental Responsibility. There should also be proportionate consultation with others such as the Independent Reviewing Officer, the child's school, and so on. The social worker will also need to consider sibling relationships and any potential impact on family dynamics. A return plan should then be written by the social worker, which specifies the agencies who will be involved in supporting the child and their family, along with the nature of the support required and being offered. Agencies should agree the plan along with the family and child or young person.

When the child or young person has returned home, they will no longer be deemed to be accommodated; they may be subject to a child protection plan, be a Child in Need or be in receipt of support from the local authority.

If the child or young person is subject to a Care Order, Placements with Parents regulations must be followed and the arrangement agreed by the appropriate senior manager before actual return home occurs.

3. Services to be Considered

The assessment recommending the return home will have indicated any support needs. There are a range of services, including universal services, which may be suitable to assist in this task. Parents may require help initially in re-establishing routines and may benefit from referral to a Family Key Worker. Equally, with older children, parents may need support in negotiating ground rules and boundaries, with direct work being offered to the young person, to help them re-establish themselves in the family home. The family's extended network can also be of great value to the child and use of the family group conferences is encouraged. A multi-agency approach should be taken to optimise the chances of the return home being successfully sustained over time. The plan should be written and shared with all parties and should include specific comment from the child or young person and their parents, where appropriate.

4. Visits to the Child

It is expected that visits to the child will be agreed with the person who has care of the child and in accord with Practice Standards for a child of a given status. The plan should specify that the first visit will take place within one week of the child returning home. This is to consider whether any modifications are required to the return plan.

The child's social worker must initially visit the child in the home within one week of the return home and thereafter in accord with Practice Standards.

It is expected that the person completing the first visit will be a social worker. They will be required to assess the parents' capacity to continue to care safely for the child, how the child is adjusting to life with their family and whether the agreed support is adequate or further support, advice, or assistance is needed. Following the visit, case recording should indicate:

  • The child or young person's wishes and feelings about the return home;
  • The parent or carer's view of how the return home is progressing and any views of siblings particularly in relation to changed dynamics in the home;
  • The situation regarding the child or young person's school, college or work arrangements and any specific health considerations;
  • Whether any additional support or services are required to enable the child or young person to remain safely at home; and
  • Whether the child or young person's welfare is being adequately safeguarded and promoted.

In the event of concern regarding the child's welfare, the social worker should report this to their line manager, who will in turn discuss this with their Team Manager. A decision should be taken and recorded indicating if the return home should still be supported or if another course of action is needed; i.e. a return to care or a move to another carer.

5. Reviewing the Plan

The plan that supports the return home should be reviewed in line with Practice Standards for the status of the child or young person at a given time. The voice of the child or young person should be clearly recorded along with comments from the parent or carer and others who were consulted at the outset of the return home, as appropriate.

The review should indicate if any changes to the support arrangements are needed.

Children and young people who have been subject to a return home plan will usually be considered Children in Need, have an allocated worker as required, and will benefit from ongoing support. The frequency of reviews will be determined by progress in settling the child within the family. In the usual way, decisions will also need to be made as to when it is appropriate to step down support to the family.

The support being offered to the child and their family is voluntary and families may choose not to engage at any point in the process. The CAF can however continue until such time as the child's needs have been fully understood and intervention provided until the child's needs can be met through universal services.

6. Accommodated Children Returning Home on an Unplanned Basis

Children who are voluntarily accommodated can be removed from care at any time by a person with Parental Responsibility and sometimes at short notice; young people aged 16 or 17 can also leave care without notice if it is to return home, but otherwise now require the permission of the Director. (Children's Homes and Looked After Children (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2103).

Young people and older children may create their own arrangement to return home by leaving their foster carers' home or children's home without permission or agreement.

Children may also return home following a placement breakdown.

It is these groups who are considered to be most at risk of further periods of accommodation and for whom further planning and support needs to be identified. In these situations, a return plan should be completed, before the child returns home if possible and considered at a Review, chaired by the child's IRO. The plan should include the arrangement for services and support to be provided prior to and on return home. The Review should be convened and held within 20 days of the child returning home and should consider the return plan, supports and services which might be offered and any other additional action which is felt necessary, in order to safeguard the welfare of the child or young person.

The voice of the child, including their reason for returning home where available, should be clearly recorded along with the view of their parents or carers and others who are involved with the child or young person, as appropriate.

Visits to the child or young person should be carried out as above, in the same way as when the return home has been planned.

7. Ratifying the Decision

When an accommodated child or young person returns home on a planned basis, it will be in accord with the care plan as an agreed outcome which will have been endorsed by the Team Manager who signed-off the plan.

When a child or young person returns home, from section 20 accommodation, on an unplanned basis, the decision requires the oversight and agreement of a senior manager, as is the case with Placement with Parent regulations. [2]. As well as considering any assessments, the nominated officer, usually Service Manager or Head of Service, will wish to be satisfied that the child's wishes and feelings had been considered and that appropriate consultation (where possible before the return) had taken place with the key adults in the child's life such as IRO, the child's relatives (where appropriate) and other appropriate persons such as the foster carer or registered manager of the children's home.

[2] Nominated officer is defined in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2012 as a senior officer of the responsible authority nominated in writing by the director of children's services for the purposes of these Regulations

8. The Return Home of Children in Care

It is important that children and young people in care are also given the opportunity to return home when it is safe and appropriate to do so and it is in accordance with their wishes. The question about whether a planned return home is in the child or young person's best interest should be asked in the same way as for a child who is accommodated. A child in care may also return home due to a placement breakdown or because they choose to leave, or not return, to their designated place.

In these situations, please refer to the chapter relating to Placements with Parents which includes the process to be followed for planned and immediate arrangements.

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