Coronavirus: Separated Families and Contact with Children in Care FAQs
Coronavirus has continued to raise several questions in the context of Family Law. In particular, with children in separated families and also children in care. On 1 July 2020 the House of Commons Library published a useful report (‘the Report’) answering some of the most asked questions at the moment.
The report addresses 6 questions:
- Can children move between the homes of separated parents?
- How should parents comply with a court order for contact?
- How are child maintenance payments impacted?
- Can parents/relatives visit children in care/residential units?
- What are the alternatives to contact centres?
- What help and advice is available?
Below is a short summary of each question answered in the Report.
Can children move between the homes of separated parents?
This is a question that was raised at the outset of the pandemic in March. The guidance was clear that ‘where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes’. However, the guidance was also clear that just because they could, does not mean they must. The Report states that this guidance has not been updated.
How should parents comply with a court order?
The Report gives a thorough background to the importance of complying with Court orders in more normal times and the law surrounding enforcement. However, it then repeats the guidance given by the President of the Family Division of what to do if parents cannot agree on arrangements in these times. The Report reiterates that the key message of the President’s guidance is that the spirit of the order should be followed, even if the letter of the Order can’t. That means there is an expectation that safe alternative arrangements for the Child should be made.
Helpfully, the Report also then addresses the issue in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The message and the expectations are similar in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Despite there being multiple ways in which maintenance can be paid, the Report focuses primarily on that of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). It highlights the practices which the CMS are carrying out currently and what changes should be reported to the CMS, for example, job losses and/or a temporary suspension of income.
Children in Care/Residential Units
The Report addresses this question by highlighting the Local Authority’s duty under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 to allow ‘reasonable contact’ between a child and their parents.
The Report goes on to discuss the Guidance for Children’s Social Care which was released by the Department of Education and updated on 1 July 2020.
(Found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-childrens-social-care-services/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-local-authorities-on-childrens-social-care#residential-provision-childrens-homes-residential-schools-registered-as-childrens-homes-and-foster-care).
The expectation is that contact will continue, recognising that children may be at risk of being traumatised should they not have the contact they are used to with their relatives. Cases should be looked at individually and a range of factors need to be taken into account such as the social distancing guidance and the needs of the individual child. Should contact have to take place virtually, and it is accepted that it might have to, then social workers are encouraged to reassure children that this is only a temporary measure. Foster carers should also be consulted on how to balance facilitating contact with keeping safe, especially if they are shielding or considered vulnerable.
In relation to residential units, there should be suitable facilities within the home for contact to happen, although it is recognised that this may not be possible in the current circumstances. If that is not possible, there needs to be access to communication via telephone, video-link or other electronic method.
The Report states that the National Association of Child Contact Centres issued guidance in late June. The guidance recommends that each contact centre makes their own decision about whether they can re-open their services but emphasises that ‘no centre should consider opening their services if they do not feel fully prepared or if doing so contravenes any local advice.’
For Help and Advice
The Report concludes with a list of services that can assist families should they need advice.
It therefore appears that Coronavirus continues to affect our family life and may well do for some time. For a copy of the full report, click here https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8901/