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Looked After Children (LAC)

In this essay I will be focussing on Looked After Children (LAC)as my service user group and identify relevant laws relating to the service user group and then identify recent policies which underpin this aspect of practice, and discuss the values which underpin the law in this area of practice and finally relate these legislation to my placement practice.

Definition of the term 'looked after'?

The term 'looked after' was introduced by the Children Act 1989 and refers to children who are subject to care orders and those who are voluntarily accommodated. Wherever possible, the local authority (LA) will work in partnership with parents (Pierson and Thomson, 2002).

Many children will have been affected by distressing and damaging experiences including physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Some may be in care because of the illness or death of a parent. Others may have disabilities and complex needs. The majority of young people in care come from families who experience difficulties and are separated from them because their family was unable to provide adequate care. Vulnerable unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK may also become looked after (Department of Education and Skills, 2004).

The main pieces of legislation underpinning social services for children and young people are the Children Act 1989, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

Local authorities have specific legal duties in respect of children under the Children Act 1989 including:

To safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need Provided that this is consistent with the child's safety and welfare, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing services appropriate to the child's needs , to make enquiries if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering, or likely to suffer significant harm, to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child's welfare(Brammer, 2007).

Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 places responsibilities on local authorities to provide greater support to young people living in and leaving care. These include:

A duty to assess and meet the needs of young people aged 16 and 17 who qualify for the new arrangements, the provision of a personal adviser and pathway plan for all young people aged 16 to 21, or beyond for those who qualify for the new arrangements ,a duty to assist those leaving care, including with employment, education and training (the duty to assist with education and training and to provide a personal adviser and pathway plan continues for as long as a young person remains in an agreed programme, even beyond the age of 21(Brayne and Carr (2005)).

Adoption and Children Act 2002

This act aligns adoption law with the Children Act 1989 to make the child's welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions to do with adoption. It includes:

Provisions to encourage more people to adopt looked after children by helping to ensure that the support they need is available. A new, clear duty on local authorities to provide an adoption support service and a new right for people affected by adoption to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services .Provisions to enable unmarried couples to apply to adopt jointly, thereby widening the pool of potential adoptive parents .Stronger safeguards for adoption by improving the legal controls on intercountry adoption, arranging adoptions and advertising children for adoption .A new 'special guardianship' order to provide security and permanence for children who cannot return to their birth families, but for whom adoption is not the most suitable option and a duty on local authorities to arrange advocacy services for looked after children and young people leaving care in the context of complaints (Department of Education and Skills,2004).

The other key aspect of the duties of LA's in relation to children looked after by them is the provision of education. Every Child Matters (2000), the Children Act 1989 (s.22) (3)(a) (and amended by section 52 of the Children Act 2004) have stressed and reinforced the importance of the local authority's duty to promote LAC's educational achievements.

In order to do so, a care plan needs to be produced, which would include a Personal Education Plan (PEP). The PEP would look at the child's developmental needs in terms of his/her education and, as states by Every Child Matters (2000), should be reviewed regularly. Here, partnership and inter-professional/agency work is again reinforced in order to meet the child's needs. Further, there is a need for LA's to encourage LACs to have health examinations, particularly regular checks by GP's, dentists and opticians. At the same time to acknowledge that a child can refuse this - having regard to his/her age and understanding (Children Act 1989)(s.38)(6).

The value of the child welfare is incorporated in the every child matters (2003) policy which emphasise that looked after children must be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve in life, make a positive contribution to society and achieve economic well being (Department of Education and Skills,2004).

My second placement was with an organisation who deals with Children and Adolescents who suffer from Mental Health and also have difficulties with their status in UK. The team specifically worked with 'looked after children' (LAC) who were suffering from emotional and psychological behavioral problems.

Whilst on my placement, s31 were used most often. The social workers had to make certain that they had all the necessary documents in place before any action was taken. If a social worker interfered, without authorised documents from the courts, the birth parents could take court action against the local authorities.

Legislation may at times be helpful or unhelpful for LAC. A positive aspect of legislation is that the local authority has a obligatory responsibility to make sure a care plan is in place, in accordance with the 1989 Children Acts, s26 (2) and s31A plan, within ten days of the individual being placed with the local authority. This will make sure that the individuals' needs, views and wishes are taken into consideration when decisions are made. The child's parents or whoever holds parental responsibility, foster careers and an independent advisor may also be present when the care plan is been drawn up. The care plan should include factors such as the individual's education and health needs, how often contact should be made with parent/siblings.

During my placement, I attended a review meeting, to discuss child x who had just been placed in a foster home. The foster carer was discussing the troubles she encountered with him, for example his challenging behavior and him missing his siblings. Following the meeting the social workers decided to speak to child x, to identify reasons for his behaviour.

However, there are certain aspects of the legislation that may at times be harmful to LAC. The Children Act 1989 s22 (3) places an importance towards family stability. This may not always be in the child/young person's best interest. Kinship care may not always be suitable due to factors such as family dynamics, if the child was taken away because of abuse or neglect or there could still be contact with the birth family. The above could have a unfavorable effect on the child/young person's well being.

Section 22(5) of the Children Act 1989 states that all local authority, have a duty, to consider a child's cultural and ethnic background, when placing them with foster carers. However, this may not always be possible, for service users who are from the black and ethnic minorities, due to the lack of black and ethnic minority foster carers (Colton et al, 2001). According to Colton et al (2001) there are a high proportion of black and ethnic minority children and young people, especially dual heritage service users, who are looked after.

In today's society, children who are 'looked after' are considered to be amongst the most at risk (Every child matter, 2004). Numerous having experienced hardship may be naive of their entitlements and therefore may not get their requirements met. The language often used within social work is judge to be very complex and confusing for service users, especially children and young people. Therefore Local authorities and social workers need to work in partnership with LAC, their families and agencies in order to protect and look after service users. Legislation needs to be used fittingly in order to empower service users. Research has shown when local authorities and parents work together the outcomes for the child/young person, have a higher chance of working (Thoburn et al, 1995).

Social workers hold a vast amount of authority when carrying out their work therefore it is vital that they do not misuse this status. Social workers work within the restraints of policy and procedures trying to meet the needs of service users. (Allen, 1998). Good social work practice is working in partnership with all concerned. This may however cause an imbalance between the service users/family and local authority. For example, if the local authority has to remove a child due to abuse, the family may not always agree. By having awareness and working in a reflective manner, with regard to one's own personal prejudices, values and attitudes will enhance safe social work practice with service users. Legislation at times may discriminate either on a personal, cultural or structural level (Thompson, 2001). It is the duty of all social workers to be aware of this and challenge it, on all levels. In the Children Act 1989, s22 (5), tries to support anti discriminatory practice by given 'due consideration to LAC religious and cultural needs, before placing them with foster carers (Allen, 1998).

It is important that social workers, who work with LAC and their families hold fast to the Children Act 1989.Understanding of the law is extremely important. Also social workers need to be alert and be aware of the challenge that they may meet when working within the legal framework. It is of utmost importance that social workers receive regular training to be kept informed with legislation and necessary skills, which will help to improve their current practice. Social workers need to make sure their practice is anti-discriminatory, as to empower service users and promote their autonomy.

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