Examining discharge of care orders in England and Wales

Published: 09/11/2023

Author: Jo Staines

A research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by the University of Bristol provides the first in-depth study of the discharge of care orders in England and Wales.

The ending of a care order – a process known as discharge - is a significant event for children, parents and carers and can be life-changing. More children and families than ever before are experiencing discharge, yet we know very little about how, when or why care orders are ended.

The importance of the discharge decision cannot be underestimated. Discharging a care order prematurely risks the child and family not receiving necessary support and the child’s welfare not being safeguarded; not discharging the order risks the over-surveillance of families and uses resources unnecessarily.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, our research analysed national data on discharge applications, a randomised sample of 220 e-records relating to children subject to care proceedings, and data from interviews with 41 professionals including social workers, judges and children’s guardians.

The research found that:

  • The number of discharge applications made across England and Wales has increased significantly over the past decade, and has increased at a proportionately greater rate than the increase in care orders.
  • Two-thirds of applications for discharge are made by local authorities.
  • Despite the right to do so, very few children made their own application for discharge.
  • Local authority applications for discharge are far more likely to be granted than those made by parents or other applicants.
  • Parents sometimes used the discharge process to challenge aspects of the care plan for their child or force the local authority to re-examine decisions made.
  • The opinion of the children’s guardian was the most influential factor in predicting the outcome of the application.
  • Children were often not spoken to by children’s guardians about their views on discharge.
  • There were disagreements between children’s guardians and social workers about the thresholds for ‘good enough’ care to discharge a care order.
  • Parents were reported to have limited access to legal advice or representation and to feel re-traumatised by the discharge process.

A typology of discharge

The researchers identified six different ‘types’ of discharge proceedings, taking into account the family circumstance and the motivation for, and outcome of, the discharge application. Developing different legal and procedural processes to manage these different types, rather than using a one size fits all approach, may help to improve the discharge process. For example:

  • Fast-tracking or accelerated processes for straightforward and uncontested discharge applications could help to simplify and shorten proceedings. Currently, some local authorities have these processes in place, but they are not consistently used.
  • A pre-proceedings process, modelled on that for care proceedings, could help to address concerns and disagreements prior to court hearings, to shorten proceedings and to divert cases to alternative mechanisms.

Recommendations for practice

Other recommendations include:

  • Developing national guidance on thresholds for the discharge of care orders, to reduce regional variation and improve consistency in decisions.
  • Enabling knowledge exchange within and between local authorities, and between England and Wales.
  • Improving the information and support available to children, parents and carers before, during and after discharge applications are submitted – whatever the final outcome.
  • Providing free legal advice and, where appropriate, legal representation for children, parents and carers involved in the discharge process.
  • Ensuring that children are involved (where appropriate) in discharge assessments.
  • Removing disincentives to discharge, for example ensuring that Special Guardians are not disadvantaged by the discharge of a care order, or that children’s entitlement to leaving care support is not affected by discharge.

What next?

Our study was the first in-depth examination of the discharge of care orders in England and Wales. However, the views and experiences of parents, carers and children who go through discharge proceedings are needed to develop a fuller understanding of discharge proceedings and to ensure that recommendations for practice and policy are meaningful and appropriate for all involved in discharge proceedings. The project team are developing a new project to focus on parents, carers and children’s experiences. If you are interested in finding out more, contact the project lead Dr Jessica Roy.

The team would like to thank the Nuffield Foundation for funding the research. This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation

Jo Staines

Jo Staines is Associate Professor in Youth Justice and Child Welfare at the University of Bristol. The full research team included Jo Staines, Beth Stone, Jessica Roy, Judith Masson, Gillian Macdonald, Ludivine Garside and Helen Hodges.