Data protection, adoption targets and cryonics: The last week in family law

The London Borough of Ealing has signed up to a series of measures to improve its data protection practices after a breach involving the loss of a set of court documents. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigated the council after personal information, some of which was said to be sensitive, related to 27 people including 14 children, was lost. The incident happened in February this year when a social worker accidentally left a bundle of court documents on top of her car. They were never recovered. Sally-Anne Poole, enforcement manager at the ICO, said: “This council failed to follow our previous advice that it needed to improve training to make sure staff know how to look after personal information. Many of us have no choice but to take work out of the office. But when that work includes personal data, there is an obligation to ensure it’s kept safe. People have a right to expect that will happen. Losing personal data – especially sensitive data – can cause damage and distress to the people involved.”

A research study has found that shorter care proceedings improve outcomes for children. The study, into a pilot conducted before the introduction of the 26 week time limit for care proceedings, found that more children ended up in stable placements, and those still needing one faced less of a wait. Professor Jonathan Dickens, who conducted the study with colleagues Dr Chris Beckett and Sue Bailey, said: “Care proceedings are one of the most intrusive state interventions into the lives of children and families and this was a unique opportunity to track and compare the outcomes for children and assess the impact of such a major system change. There is widespread interest in ensuring that proceedings are brought in appropriate cases, conducted in a fair, thorough and timely manner, and that the outcomes are as beneficial as possible for the children. It is not easy to satisfy all these requirements but our findings show that is it possible to reconcile these demands. Shorter care proceedings do not necessarily mean that delay is squeezed to either side of the proceedings.”

Several English councils have confirmed that they set targets for the number of children to be adopted. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the charity The Transparency Project to 172 councils, 12 English councils have confirmed, sent or published documents showing that they use numerical targets for adoption. Some councils provided an actual number of children in care they aimed to have had adopted annually, and some provided a percentage figure. The Transparency Project takes the view that there is a risk that ‘targets’ and ‘key performance indicators’ could come to drive or contaminate decision making which becomes divorced from the needs of the individual child. Even if this is not happening in practice, it is still important that families are not given the impression that it could be happening.

The High Court has granted an application by a 14-year old girl suffering from a rare form of terminal cancer for orders to secure her wish to be cryo-preserved upon death. The application was supported by the girl’s mother. Her father initially objected to it, then later agreed to it subject to certain conditions. The girl wrote to the judge, Mr Justice Peter Jackson, explaining that she wanted “to live longer” and did not want “to be buried underground”. She died in October and her body has since been taken to the US and preserved there. In his judgment Mr Justice Jackson emphasised that the duty of the court was not to decide or approve what should happen after the girl’s death, but to select ‘the person best placed to make those decisions’. He said that the court was not approving or encouraging cryonics, still less ordering that the girl’s body should be cryonically preserved. The orders he made included an order permitting the mother to continue to make arrangements during the girl’s lifetime for the preservation of her body after death.

And finally, new research by the Early Intervention Foundation charity has found that the cost of dealing with problems affecting children, young people and families such as domestic violence, mental health, child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime remains almost £17 billion a year. While the estimated total is as before, the research shows that the profile has changed. For example, the cost due to domestic violence has risen, while the cost due to young people who are not in employment, education or training has fallen. The largest individual costs are £5.3 billion spent on Looked After Children, £5.2 billion associated with cases of domestic violence and £2.7 billion spent on benefits for young people who are not in education, employment or training.