In November 2017, the Polish government communicated its decision to bar UK-based social workers from family assessment work on Polish territory. Though the justification for this remains unclear, the consequences of such a move are likely to have far-reaching and detrimental impact on Polish children and families involved in care proceedings in England and Wales.
The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, due to huge legal, systemic and practice differences, Polish practitioners significantly struggle to produce assessment reports which comply with British evidential and welfare checklist standards. In addition, children placed with family members in Poland under British Special Guardianship Orders, or in fact any Family Court Orders, are not guaranteed stability and permanency of care as understood within the UK legal framework. The Polish child welfare/legal system is not based on that principle; it is family-centred and works on the premise that efforts should be made – for years if necessary – to rehabilitate the child back to the parents’ care whenever possible. Adoption is the only way to ensure a child’s permanency of care, though adoptions in Poland are possible only with the parents’ consent, or where the court has completely ‘removed’ their parental rights (which is not common). In effect, British courts will now contend with the dilemma of whether to place a Polish child into an unstable placement, based on a prospective carer assessment process that is simplistic and insufficiently evidence-based compared to UK standards, or whether to secure the child’s permanency and long-term interests in through permanence provisions within the UK.
We hope that this article will serve as a guide for British professionals to best practice when dealing with a kinship care/Special Guardianship assessment of family members in Poland. This advice is based on nearly a decade of our significant experience of assessment work in Poland and liaison with Polish authorities.
Once the need for a full assessment is identified, it is expected of British professionals to request that the Polish Central Authority instruct local social workers or a court guardian to complete their own assessment of that particular family. This request must be communicated via the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit (ICACU), which is the Central Authority for England and Wales.
Assuming that Poland indeed produces such a report within available timescales, the report will almost certainly be problematic on a number of fronts. For instance, it will be written in a way that complies with Polish evidential and child protection threshold requirements, not British ones. This means that it will typically be between one and three pages long, will rely solely on the family member’s self-reporting (i.e. pertaining to their finances, home ownership and living arrangements), and will not include agency checks (such as DBS, schools or health) or referee interviews. The report would also likely be absent of analysis of the family members' understanding of professional concerns about the child and the parents, the applicant’s capacity to meet the child’s needs in the long term, or his/her ability to promote meaningful contact with the child’s significant others. By UK standards, that might be just about acceptable for a viability enquiry, but certainly not as a full kinship/Special Guardianship carer assessment.
In our experience, even when Polish practitioners have been provided with a British assessment template, their reports have still fallen short of UK expectations. This, in our view, is because those reports would still not have been child-centred, contained a robust risk assessment or analysis of the applicant’s long-term parenting capacity.
This situation requires UK-based professionals to strategically approach assessment needs on their Polish cases. We would suggest that a robust telephone/Skype viability assessment, based on British practice standards, is completed first. Such an assessment can be carried out from the UK by a Polish-speaking social worker or via an interpreter. If the outcome is positive, the local authority should then make their request for a full assessment by Polish professionals. British professionals would be well advised to specifically request that their Polish colleagues follow a British assessment template as closely as they are able. This should include:
- interviews with three referees (guiding questions must be provided by the UK professionals)
- whether the family is known to local Children’s Services, and if so, in what capacity
- the family’s history of involvement with their local Civil and Family Courts, and in what capacity
- agency checks in cases where Polish assessing professionals feel inclined to do this, against their usual practice.
However, parallel to that request, British- based professionals would be well advised to ask the person being assessed to comply with the following expectations, as part of their Viability Assessment enquiry:
- to obtain a Polish DBS certificate from their local District Court (which costs the equivalent of £8 and can be issued on the spot, upon the family member attending the Court’s DBS office and filing a single-page, standard application).
- to obtain a medical assessment report from their GP, based on the format supplied by the British assessor (in Polish), which should include an explanation as to the context of the request and a range of questions about the applicant’s health history. The request letter should be addressed to the applicant, not the GP. The letter should also state that the report is to be compiled on the applicant’s explicit request and passed on to the applicant themselves. This helps avoid potential complications stemming from Poland’s strict data protection laws, and the applicant would then be at liberty to share the report with the assessing social worker in the UK (AGFS has a tried and tested template for use in this context).
- to obtain their workplace reference, if in employment, based on a UK format as produced by the UK assessor.
- to obtain a school reference regarding any dependent children in education, based on a UK format as produced by the UK assessor.
In theory, then, there is a good chance that the UK-generated viability assessment, with its supporting evidence obtained by the applicant family member, alongside an assessment report produced in Poland, should provide the UK assessor and the court with a wide enough range of evidence to support professional analysis and recommendations as to the potential transfer of the subject child to the care of a family member in Poland. Some local authorities in the UK have also opted for bringing the SGO applicants (or parents) to the UK in order to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, including observing contact dynamics.
However, another important issue would remain unresolved: the fact that a child cannot be guaranteed permanency of care within their kinship placement in Poland. This is because the concept of permanency of care is not imbedded in either Polish family law or professional practice, except for adoption.
In Poland, there is no order equivalent to a British SGO. Instead, Polish courts routinely replace British SGOs with Polish Kinship Foster Carer Orders; these are underpinned by the premise that the placement is temporary and serves to support parental efforts to work through their own problems (for a number of years if needed) and hopefully, at some point, have the child placed back in their care. In such situations, the parents retain their Parental Responsibility to such an extent that kinship carers have to consult with them on medical and health matters, school admissions, etc. If the parent is non-cooperative and obstructive, the kinship carer is then forced to go back to court for a decision on issues on which an agreement with the parent cannot be reached. Similarly, on matters of child contact with the parents, the kinship carer has to revert back to court when they feel contact arrangements need to be varied, supervised or suspended to better match the child’s needs. Polish local authority does not share PR with the parents at any time during or after care proceedings; only the court can share it.
There are a number of other risks and complications when it comes to child placement with relatives in Poland. One of them is illustrated in the following scenario: The UK court considers SGO assessments of two sets of the child’s grandparents. It then decides that the maternal grandparents (MGPs) are suitable carers, but the paternal grandparents (PGPs) are not. The court then issues the SGO to the MGPs and orders child transfer to their care in Poland. However, the PGPs do not accept this and make an application to the Polish court to be re-assessed as the child’s carers. In such an event, the Polish court must order a re-assessment, even though it has been provided with evidence from the UK to say that the PGPs are unsuitable. Then, should the PGPs successfully complete their assessment (based on Polish assessment standards), the Polish court would be expected to arrive at its own decision as to which set of grandparents is best placed to care for the child, regardless of the orders already made by the British court.
Another significant issue relates to child-parent contact. Polish courts often determine that such contact should be significant (by its definition, as understood by Polish professionals) and often unsupervised, despite the British court clearly stipulating contact limitations and boundaries, as well as known risks. This enables disgruntled parents and other family members to actively undermine the existing placement permanency and to engage with the subject child in a way that places their emotional welfare at risk.
All things considered, it is now more important than ever for British child care professionals to plan for carer assessments of family members in Poland in a way that helps enhance an already compromised process.