Summary of the Children and Families Act 2014
What is the Children and Families Act 2014?
The Children and Families Act 2014 obtained royal assent and became law on 13 March 2014. This is a landmark and wide-ranging act designed to fully reform services for vulnerable children, by giving them greater protection, paying special attention to those with additional needs, and also helping parents and the family as a whole.
This summary outlines the key changes the Act made to the safeguarding and child protection system and services for children and families. Although incorporated into one single Act, due to the extent of the changes made, many elements came into force at different times, with most by the end of 2015. This Act is mainly concerned with England; however, some measures are applicable to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There are nine important parts to the Act, each of which makes substantial changes and new provisions to various areas of child welfare and family law. We’re going to go through each one below.
PART 1: Adoption
The act made several changes to the adoption system, most of which were designed to generally streamline the process, making it easier for adoptions to happen, while ensuring child safety and welfare. Some of the key points of this part of the Act are as follows:
- Promotes 'fostering for adoption,' in which approved adopters are allowed to foster children during the wait for formal court approval.
- Adoption agencies will no longer have to search for a perfect or even a partial ethnic match between potential adopters and children. This is designed to reduce delays in finding adopters for vulnerable children.
- Gives potential adopters access to the adoption register so they can search the database themselves (subject to safeguarding checks), again removing delays and reducing the time spent on adoption registers.
- Introduced personal budgets for adoptive parents, allowing them to choose the type of support and how it is provided.
- Adoptive parents receive the same rights to leave and pay as birth parents.
PART 2: Family justice
The family justice review was set up in 2010, with the aim of considering and recommending major reforms to the way that the courts worked in relation to family justice. Many of the recommendations of this independant panel were implemented in the Children and Families Act, and were designed to improve child welfare and make the court processes more effective and crucially, quicker than they were before. Key points from section two include:
- A 26 week deadline for the family court to rule on care proceedings was established. This can be expanded by a maximum of eight weeks in exceptional cases.
- Expert evidence will only be considered in family proceedings if it will not have a negative impact on the child's welfare and resolves the case justly.
- Provided that it is safe and in the child's best interests, the courts are required to take the view that after separation, both parents should be involved in their children's lives.
- Replaces contact and residence orders with a single order called a child arrangements order.
PART 3: Children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities
The largest part of the Act deals with laws and provisions relating to children who have special educational needs or disabilities. It was determined that the existing system simply did not perform well enough for these particularly vulnerable groups of people, and that a new approach was required, following reports and green papers published by the Department of Education in years preceding the Act. Major changes revolved around giving families better control over the welfare of their child. New provisions put in place by the Act included the following:
- A new Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan based on a single assessment process will replace special education statements. EHC plans are documents that support children, young people and their families from birth to 25.
- The commissioning and planning of services for children, young people and families is now run jointly by health services and local authorities as a result of the Act.
- Extends the rights to a personal budget for the support to children, young people and families
- Local services available to children and families must be made available in a clear, easy to read manner.
- Local authorities must involve families and children in discussions and decisions relating to their care and education; and provide impartial advice, support and mediation services.
PART 4: Childcare
The Act established and registered childminder agencies, which provide child-minders with training and business advice, to help increase the provision and quality of childcare across the country, though individual childminders do not have to register with or be inspected by Ofsted under the Act. In addition, schools were given more flexibility in respect of offering childcare to pupils.
PART 5: Child welfare
Part 5 is a broad-ranging section of the Act, which deals with the importance of fostering, having the right living environment, as well as various other issues relating to child welfare. Under this section, the following key points were put into force:
- Formalised 'staying put' arrangements designed to enable children in care to remain with foster families until the age of 21 if they choose to do so, and it is agreed with the foster family.
- Measures designed to improve the quality of care provided by children's residential homes, whilst also improving security.
- Councils must inform young people and parent carers of the support they are entitled to.
- Free school lunches must be provided on request for all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 at state-funded schools.
- The education of all looked-after children in each local authority, will be championed by virtual school heads.
- Increased support to be provided by schools to children with medical conditions.
- Started the process of banning smoking in a car containing passengers under the age of 18 years.
PART 6: The Children’s Commissioner
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England was set up in 2005 with the aim of championing the interests of children in the country. In the Children and Families Act 2014, the Children's Commissioner's role was increased from simply representing the views and interests of children to focusing on, and promoting and protecting the rights of children. It should be noted that the Commissioner has a duty to all non-devolved aspects of children’s rights in the UK, which means immigration in Scotland, Wales and NI is covered too.
PARTS 7, 8, 9: Working Rights to Leave and Pay
It was recognised that it’s very important for families to strike the right balance between work and life, which meant strengthening and expanding on various laws pertaining to the right to time off, as well as receiving benefit payments. The Act made several important changes in this regard, which are split into three parts; statutory rights, time off, and flexible working. The major changes were as follows:
- Mothers, fathers and adopters can opt to share parental leave around their child's birth or placement.
- Fathers or a mother's partner can take unpaid leave to attend up to two antenatal appointments.
- Adopters have the right to unpaid time off to attend meetings before a child is placed with them.
- Parents or carers in any role have the right to apply for flexible working hours, and the previous rules whereby there was a statutory process for this, were removed.
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