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First national report on discharge of care orders

Press release issued: 5 May 2023

The first national report on the discharge of care orders for children in England and Wales has been published today.

The study, by researchers from the University of Bristol, provides a baseline and in-depth understanding of discharge process and outcomes in England and Wales. It demonstrates key issues and inconsistency in applications for discharge and the use of the discharge process.

The typology of discharge applications presents clear evidence for the need for changes in procedure and practice. The recommendations for practice could be relatively easy to implement and would lead to improvements for children, their parents and carers, and the professionals involved in discharge applications.

The study has showcased the research capabilities of the Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru data held within the SAIL databank and has provided a solid foundation for future research with children, parents and carers on their experiences of discharge

Applications for discharge have increased substantially over the last decade, according to the report, from 71 applications in England in 2010 to 1589 in 2019, and from 61 in Wales in 2012 to 138 in 2019.

The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by researchers in the University’s School for Policy Studies, identified key issues and inconsistency in applications for discharge and in the use of the process.

The issues identified in the report included:

  • Safeguarding priorities and lack of resources could lead to children who were considered 'safe' languishing on care orders.
  • Some parents were using the discharge process as a way of challenging the local authority’s plans for the child rather than to apply for a care order discharge, especially when the complaints process was seen as inadequate.
  • The process can be lengthy and may involve a number of hearings even for applications that are not contested.
  • Typically, parents have limited access to legal advice in making an application, which might mean applications by parents are not well prepared and may prevent parents applying in the first place.
  • A number of geographical variations in process were identified, such as whether fast track or accelerated procedures were used.

Lead researcher on the project Dr Jo Staines, Associate Professor in youth justice and child welfare, said:

“Making a child subject to a care order, and potentially removing them from the care of their parents, is one of the most significant state-sanctioned interventions in England and Wales. Whether the care order then remains in place or is discharged is similarly a crucial decision.

“However, while there is much research about the process and outcomes of care proceedings, there is little known about the discharge of those care orders – particularly how, why and when care orders are ended and the differences between applications that are granted and those that are not.

“Understanding what happens when a care order is discharged is vital to improving experiences and outcomes for children and families.”

Based on the report’s findings, the research team propose a new typology of discharge applications and a series of recommendations that aim to make the discharge applications more timely, inclusive and effective for everyone involved.

Ash Patel, Programme Head for Justice at the Nuffield Foundation said: “We are pleased to fund this important study. Little is known about the process of applying for a discharge of care order despite the significant implications associated with whether an order is discharged, or not. This research shows that the timely discharge of an order is critical to minimise the lasting consequences for families, while safeguarding children from harm. It highlights the stark disparity in successful applications bought by Local Authorities and parents, and points to a number of recommendations to improve procedural fairness in the discharge process.”

Read the full report:

Further information

About the research
The study draws three data sources together: newly available anonymised national data on discharge applications; in-depth analysis of 220 court e-casefile records; and interviews and a focus group with 41 professionals including social workers, judges and guardians.

Research Team
Dr Jo Staines (Principal Investigator), Dr Jessica Roy, Professor Judith Masson, Dr Ludivine Garside, Dr Gillian Macdonald, Dr Beth Stone, Dr Helen Hodges

About the funder
The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

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