Version 3: 9 December 2020 (PDF version)

 

Elaine Dibben, CoramBAAF Adoption Consultant 

The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which came into effect from 24 April 2020 and ended on 25 September 25 2020, amended the requirements on local authorities, fostering providers and adoption agencies to use panels as a part of their decision-making process. The accompanying guidance strongly indicated that the amended regulations should only be used where necessary and the reasons for making any changes be recorded in writing.

On 25 September, The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2020 came into force with Department for Education guidance for local authorities on children’s social care also being updated.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force on 2 December, and set out further details about the tier system operating from this date, but do not have any further impact on the work of panels.

Implications for adoption

There are transitional arrangements for dealing with adoption assessments that started between 24 April 2020 and 25 September 2020. The guidance states that:

Where an adoption agency is in the process of assessing the suitability of a prospective adopter before 25 September 2020 under Part 4 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005, they must continue to assess that individual as though all the amendments in the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, that came into effect from 24 April 2020, to the 2005 Regulations (Adoption Agencies Regulations) remain in force. This means that:

  • an adoption agency can decide if it refers the case to a panel for a recommendation on suitability
  • a panel can still go ahead under reduced quoracy (not having enough members to carry out business and cast votes)
  • an adoption agency can move to Stage 2 of the process while still waiting for medicals and DBS checks. This is to avoid restarting the assessment process from the beginning for assessments in progress when the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 expired on 25 September 2020

Where agencies need to make use of the reduced quoracy, then the minimum number of panel members required to make a recommendation will be three panel members: a Chair/Vice-Chair, a social worker with three years’ qualification and the required experience, and one other independent person.

However, as set out in earlier guidance, the DfE has noted that agencies are utilising technology and holding virtual panels, which are working well, and it encourages the use of virtual panels to continue wherever possible. The guidance is clear that these “flexibilities” should only be used where necessary, and it would be hard to justify using transitional arrangements for some cases when other cases are being successfully considered under the post 25 September arrangements. CoramBAAF believes that the role of panels could not be more important in providing experience and expertise where there is a general sense of uncertainty resulting from the unpredicted changes that result from the pandemic. We are aware that the majority of agencies have continued to hold their panel meetings virtually and would support their continued use during this time of restrictions. These panels have been playing a key role in providing quality assurance of paperwork, independent scrutiny of the evidence, and providing recommendations to the agency decision-maker to assist them in what are life-changing decisions.

Decision-making when a suitability case is not referred to a panel prior to the agency decision-maker decision

If an adoption agency decides not to refer a suitability assessment started before 25 September 2020 to a panel, they will need to be able to justify why that is necessary, and record that reasoning. They will also need to consider what process they put in place and how the agency decision-maker would obtain any additional information they require if they have questions that need to be answered by the social workers responsible for the reports submitted, the medical adviser, or the applicants or carers themselves. The DfE coronavirus guidance suggested that the agency adviser would be used to provide quality assurance of the paperwork, and that medical, legal or professional advice can be provided in writing for the agency decision-maker to approve matches and approvals. It also stated that a record should be kept of all decision making.

Cases to be referred to the adoption panel

All other adoption cases as set out below must now be heard at a panel, under the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005:

  • whether prospective adopters, whose assessment was started after 25 September 2020, are suitable to adopt;
  • a relinquished baby being presented for a recommendation that the child “should be placed for adoption”;
  • a prospective adopter being presented for termination of their suitability to adopt following a negative review; or
  • a match between a child/ren and approved adopters

Health reports

The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 25 September 2020, allow adoption agencies to progress from Stage 1 to Stage 2 and begin their assessment of adopters when the medical report required under AAR Reg 26(b) has not been received, as long as the prospective adopter/s are aware that they will not be able to apply to the IRM if the agency then decides not to complete an assessment as a result of health information received.

The regulations are clear that the medical reports must be obtained and considered by the adoption agency before the agency completes their assessment and makes a decision about the applicant’s suitability. See CoramBAAF's Adult Medical Reports in Family Placement Guidance for further information.

Implications for fostering

There are transitional arrangements for dealing with fostering assessments that started between 24 April 2020 and 25 September 2020. The guidance states that:

Where the fostering service provider has started the assessment process for a new foster carer before 25 September 2020 under regulation 26 of the Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011, it must continue to assess that individual as though all the amendments in the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 that came into effect from 24 April 2020, to the 2011 Regulations remain in force. This means that the service provider can continue to choose whether to refer the case to the fostering panel for a recommendation on suitability. It can still notify the applicant of a decision not to approve them as suitable to foster as soon as is reasonably practical, once all the relevant information has been gathered. This means that:

  • a fostering service provider can continue to decide if it refers the case to a panel for a recommendation on suitability
  • a panel can still go ahead under reduced quoracy (not having enough members to carry out business and cast votes)

Where agencies want to make use of the reduced quoracy, then the minimum number of panel members required to make a recommendation will be three panel members: a Chair/Vice-Chair, a social worker with three years’ qualification and the required experience, and one other independent person.

However, as set out in earlier guidance, the DfE noted that agencies were utilising technology and holding virtual panels, which were working well, and has encouraged the use of virtual panels to continue where possible. The guidance is clear that these “flexibilities” should only be used where necessary, and it would be hard to justify using transitional arrangements for some cases when other cases are being successfully considered under the post 25 September arrangements. CoramBAAF believes that the role of panels could not be more important. We are aware that the majority of agencies have continued to hold their panel meetings virtually and would support their continued use during this time of restrictions. Virtual panels have been playing a key role in providing quality assurance of paperwork, independent scrutiny of the evidence, and providing recommendations to the agency decision-maker to assist them in what are life-changing decisions.

Decision-making when a case is not referred to a panel prior to the agency decision-maker decision

If a fostering provider decides not to refer a suitability assessment started before 25 September 2020 to panel prior to referring the case to the agency decision-maker, they will need to be able to justify why that is necessary, and record that reasoning. They will also need to consider what process they put in place and how the agency decision-maker would obtain any additional information they require if they have questions that need to be answered by the social workers responsible for the reports submitted, the medical adviser or the applicants or carers themselves.

The DfE coronavirus guidance suggested that the agency adviser would be used to provide quality assurance of the paperwork and that medical, legal or professional advice can be provided in writing for the agency decision-maker to approve matches and approvals. It also stated that a record should be kept of all decision making.

Temporary approval as a foster carer under Reg 24

The guidance states that:

Where the responsible authority has started to assess a person as a temporary foster carer under CPPCR Regulation 24, or has approved a person under regulation 24, before 25 September 2020, the responsible authority can continue these assessments and approvals in accordance with the amendments made by the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.

This means that temporary approvals for non-connected persons can continue if the assessment was started before or on 25 September, and that these placements can continue for up to 24 weeks.

The local authority can also request that the temporary approval continues for up to a further eight weeks under CPPCR Reg 25. The agency is required under CPPCR 25(4b) to seek the views of the fostering panel when extending the temporary approval of a connected person carer before this can be agreed by the agency.

Assessments of a connected person foster carer under regulation 24 which started on or after 25 September only allow the temporary approval of a connected person for a maximum of 16 weeks while an assessment of suitability is completed, with a further extension of eight weeks if applied for under Reg 25.

Cases to be referred to the fostering panel

All other fostering cases as set out below must now be heard at a panel under the Fostering Services Regulations 2011:

  • A prospective foster carer whose assessment started after 25 September 2020 for a recommendation that they are suitable to foster and their terms of approval
  • A connected person foster carer whose assessment started after 25 September 2020 for a recommendation that they are suitable to foster, usually a specific child
  • The first annual review of a foster carer and any subsequent reviews referred by the fostering provider, e.g. following an allegation, standards of care or recommendation for deregistration

Health reports

The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2020 which came into force on 25 September 2020 allow fostering agencies ‘to proceed to obtaining the information required under regulation 26(2)(a) of the Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011 without having received medical reports’. They were in fact already permitted to do that under the existing fostering regulations.

Guidance states that these:

…regulations do not remove the need for medical reports as they still must be obtained before the fostering agency can consider the suitability assessment of the prospective foster carer and their household. A final decision cannot be made without a medical report being obtained and considered as part of the suitability assessment. If medical reports are available at the initial stage, they should still be obtained and considered then.

If agencies are aware of medical history that could affect the outcome of the application, they may decide not to progress the application until the relevant information has been received from the GP or other health professional.

See CoramBAAF's Adult Medical Reports in Family Placement Guidance for further information.

 

Next: Factors to consider when setting up a virtual panel