The Government’s response to COVID-19: Impact on human rights

PFAN’s submission to the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights 

  1. The Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN) is a new UK wide group aiming to promote natural justice and procedural fairness in children’s social care including the right of parents and children to fully participate in all decisions that affect their lives. It was launched in October 2019 at a conference in York hosted by  The Open Nest Charity. It has grown rapidly and currently has over a hundred members including parents whose children have been involved with children’s social care and their kin along with a range of allies ranging from concerned staff of children’s services to professors of social work and representatives of ATD 4th World.

  2. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) makes clear the centrality of the child’s parents in achieving and maintaining child rights. According to Article 5 the state has a duty to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents.  The CRC also stresses the importance of a family environment; the focus on preventing unnecessary separation and supporting parents and other caregivers to care appropriately. 

  3. The UN Assembly Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children are particularly relevant to the response to Covid-19. They provide a key resource for considering the ‘desirable orientations for policy and practice’ to enhance the implementation of the CRC as well as other international instruments relevant to the protection and well-being of children deprived of parental care or who are at risk of being so deprived. They reassert that parents have the key duty with regard to bringing up children and indicate that the state’s efforts should primarily be directed towards supporting families and thereby enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his or her parents or, where appropriate, to other close family members. While they recognise that there are situations in which the child’s best interests are served by being placed outside of family care, this should only be where ‘the child’s own family is unable, even with appropriate support, to provide adequate care‘ and ‘should be seen as a measure of last resort and should, wherever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration‘.

  4. Actions taken by government as well as failures to offer extra protection in the challenging circumstances of the pandemic have led to human rights violations.  It has not been feasible to carry out research for this consultation, so examples are illustrative based on families who are PFAN members or known to them through advocacy work and from a small on-line survey of 22 families involved with children’s services during lock-down.

Impact of specific measures taken by Government

5. Impact on right to due and fair process in court proceedings and other decision-making meetings

Covid-19 arrangements have severely limited parents’ involvement in care proceedings, children’s hearings and other decision-making meetings:

a mother with brain damage caused by severe epilepsy was discharged from hospital two days after a Caesarean not understanding that her child wouldn’t be allowed to return with her. That afternoon she was involved in telephone conference care proceedings with no-one by her side. Unsurprisingly she was distraught and unable to effectively participate.

In other cases links to virtual care planning meetings were not shared or the links were not functioning. Unstable and poor internet connection has resulted in parents being cut off from a meeting or hearing and many not readmitted.

Parents say that councils are refusing to email meeting minutes and reports, and parents are not receiving these by post. Parents are not being given access to the information that will be discussed at their children’s meetings.

6. Dilution of safeguards and speeding up adoption

Statutory Instrument SI 445 has significantly undermined protections of children’s rights and was introduced without adequate consultation. Measures to speed up adoption have impacted on rights discussed in paragraph 3. Removing the need to ensure an adoption panel has sufficient members (Regulation 4), forgoing the advice and necessity of complete and appropriate reports to be given to the adoption panel (Regulation 17), making appropriate checks and reviews optional (Regulation 36). In particular removing the requirements that only a nominated officer can approve a  placement with foster carers who are also prospective adoptive parents and that such a placement can only be made after the local authority has prepared a placement plan for the child reduces a parents ability to be reunited with their child.

7. Problems with contact with children

Many parents report that court-ordered contact has been cut for numerous weeks. Face to face contact has been replaced with short voice calls in some cases and video calls in others.

I have 2 children in care who were separated in April 92 miles apart, I also have a 13m at home. My older children 7&8 have a 10 min call every 2 weeks, they’ve seen there baby sibling once since he was 9m old. Both beg for video calls to see him but both foster carers refuse saying that it’s an invasion of their privacy.

Parents are reporting difficulties meeting their children’s needs through voice calls and have concerns this will impact on assessments of their relationships with their children. For example, a two-year girl loses interest in the telephone after a few minutes, this was reported to social workers as she doesn’t benefit from contact with her mother despite face to face contact having been very good.

Groups disproportionately affected by measures

8. Families involved in proceedings

In addition to problems with fair process, already existing challenges to rights have been exacerbated such as problems parents have in accessing services and demonstrating their ability to care for their child within the timescale for care proceedings.  

… we have reached a stage where the threshold for obtaining a public law court order is noticeably low, whereas …  the threshold for a family being able to access specialist support services in the community is conversely, very high – Sir Andrew Macfarlane President of the Family Division[1]

Parents are reporting that they are being penalised for their inability to participate in course and assessments within the given timeline due to the challenges of Covid-19. This Is leading to high risk of loss of children to care and adoption.

9. Families in added difficulty who come under scrutiny for concerns about child protection

The unprecedented job loss, economic instability, poor housing impacts on mental health, domestic violence or addiction problems.  Normal support has evaporated. Anxiety and stress is further increased for those separated from their children including parents whose children have been adopted who worry about their safety. It is important that these needs are met through the supports for parents envisaged in the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children rather than through care and adoption.

10. Deprived and poor families

“Children in the most deprived 10% of small neighbourhoods in the UK are over 10 times more likely to be in foster or residential care or on protection plans than children in the least deprived 10%.”[2] This inequality is already a rights issue and the increasing inequality that is resulting from the economic shock will increase the numbers likely to lose children to adoption and care.[3]

What steps need to be taken

11. Strengthen safeguards on adoption and care

 The problems outlined above will mean that families involved in proceedings during the pandemic are at increased risk of wrongly losing children to care and adoption.  Whilst the annual number of adoptions are low, the background trend is a 56% increase in the number of children separated from birth families in just 10 years (see diagram for child placements on 31st March 2008 and 2018). This trend will be exacerbated by the impact of Covid. Safeguards to account for the problems in fair legal process during the pandemic need to be introduced.

Source: Bilson, A., & Munro, E. H. (2019). Adoption and child protection trends for children aged under five in England: Increasing investigations and hidden separation of children from their parents. Children and Youth Services Review96, 204-211.

12. Introduce parent advocacy

Parents are facing unprecedented communication challenges with professionals with whom they have a significant power imbalance. Parent Advocacy in which parents provide peer support is proven to help parents work more effectively and efficiently with professionals, reduces the need for children to be taken into the care system and creates better outcomes for children.[4] In New York it has contributed to a decrease from 50,000 children in care to just 10,000.[5] Independent Parent Advocacy would be hugely beneficial to parents involved in child protection including where children are currently looked after.[6] Children need their parents and even if those parents are facing challenges that makes it difficult for their children to be in their care, the children benefit from their parents being supported to be involved and children’s rights are protected. Parent Advocacy is a long term, sustainable investment that would help parents and their children better navigate not only COVID 19, but the. next crisis and the one after that.

PFAN would be happy to provide further evidence on this.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/jun/13/legal-system-of-child-protection-is-in-crisis-says-senior-judge

[2] Child Welfare Inequalities Project https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/cacs/projects/child_welfare_inequalities/   

[3] See We can’t afford child protection https://www.pfan.uk/we-cant-afford-child-protection/

[4] https://www.casey.org/parent-partner-program/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/profile/david-tobis

[6] https://www.pfan.uk/why-we-need-advocacy/