Author Archives: Sarah Phillimore

Failure

I am grateful for this guest post from a parent.

Failure

Meaning -” lack of success, the neglect or omission of expected or required action.”

It is essential and right that the Care system exists. It represents a failure on very many fronts that it has to.

In most cases if a child enters care there will have been a catastrophic failure in one or more spheres – in a parent’s capacity to safely support their child at home for whatever reason, in services ability to support parents in their parenting role, in the State’s failure to invest in an environment where families (one of the key building blocks of society?) are supported. In most cases the care system is the safety net for children and young people when one or more of these failures have occurred.

In my case, by the time my son entered care I was at my wit’s end. I had tried everything I could to get help for him and the effort brought me closer to my breaking point that anything I’d experienced before or since. I felt as though I was fighting for his life largely unsupported. I’m sure there were those who believe I was too interventionist because of my own fears and those who believe if only I’d been a better mother that there would not have been these problems. What I would say to the people who feel I was too interventionist is “I did not make the decisions by and large. My son and the various professionals who became involved because of my interventions to try and make things better for him, did.”

I do not see my son now nor do I know how he lives, what he lives on, if his hayfever is affecting him at the moment, whether he eats, whether his clothes or shoes fit him, whether he has a dentist or a doctor and who he turns to when he needs help. I’m also aware that his former corporate parent is in the same position. Even if they did, as I was told again and again, they would feel their duties around confidentiality to him would mean that I could not be told anything about his wellbeing. In my dealings with professionals I only met one doctor who unambiguously crossed that ever present red line about sharing. I am very grateful to him for this because it often seemed to me that ‘not sharing’ with me was damaging for my son and needlessly turned into an exercise in inhumanity and cruelty to me.

Is that the price of failure? If so whose?

The thing that gives me comfort when I try to make sense of it all is knowing that I tried to do the right thing at the right time with the resources available to me in each and every situation. I do not have regrets on that front although I know I probably made some wrong moves along the way. I am hopeful that some of these may yet come right. No one knows what the future holds and life is nothing if not unpredictable. It is a better strategy to hope than worry when you cannot affect outcomes.

With my very mixed experiences, I always feel nervous when I hear the case being made, generally by people involved within it in one capacity or another, that the Care system is inherently good. Do we want anyone’s child to have to experience what my son did, what our family did and then call it a good outcome because the Care system was there for him? Do we want any child or young person to face such an uncertain future, essentially alone and unsupported, as he does now that he is a Care Leaver?

I want the best Care system possible for children like my son who enter it because whoever has failed or wherever failures have occurred, children affected pay the highest price and the failures are never theirs. They must never be failed further by a broken safety net nor a cut-price Care system.

It is essential and right that the Care system exists. It represents a failure on very many fronts that it has to.

A little less conversation – a little more action.

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

‘A patient is the  most important person in our hospital. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our hospital, he is part of it. We are doing a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so’

Mahatma Gandhi

I would like to consider a variety of reports that have come to my attention recently. These are

 

The Needs and Challenges of  Adoptive and Special Guardianship Families is a report produced by a group of parents who are either Special Guardians or who have adopted children. Their chair comments:

I can see deep systemic problems that affect adopters, and special guardians, which is why we have joined forces. These same problems seem to impact on families where a child has disabilities and special needs where services are required. Austerity has made support harder to achieve, and whether it is from health, education or social care, it so much more difficult to obtain from cash strapped local authorities looking to save wherever they can. We, who rely on services, bear the brunt of austerity, and at the same time can find ourselves victimised by a blame culture that makes us, and our children, extremely vulnerable when our children have behavioural problems and anxiety issues.

Key points from the report

In summary, the report considers the families needs and challenges and their experiences of working together with professionals.

  • Over 500 parents and carers were involved in providing information. Two surveys were conducted and four cases were chosen from group members where children had re-entered care to look at children and lives in context.
  • Over 700 children were  part of these families, many facing very difficult challenges; a high level of disability, numerous complex trauma related mental health problems and life-long conditions such as autism and FASD.
  • Parenting children with such serious needs can make family life difficult and respite was identified as ‘vital’ but often not available or hard to come by.
  • Parents had mixed experiences of working with professionals. Bad experiences deterred adopters and special guardians from help seeking and made them feel frightened of social services.
  • Parents felt that injustices are not adequately scrutinised by the Family Courts as their limited remit is insufficient for such complex cases. The adversarial court system cannot easily ‘problem solve’ and is unable to compel local authorities who do not allocate professionals with adoption or special guardianship expertise to the support of children and families.

The report identified no models, or good practice guidance to assist the safe rehabilitation and reunification of adopted and special guardianship and concluded that this does not seem to be a priority for local authorities.

The report recommends that

  • more ethical policies can be developed through the proper involvement of those with‘lived experience’ at a decision-making level in future.
  • setting up a Task Force to develop practice guidance for when a child re-enters care to enable relationships between family members to be better supported and develop models for reunification for children where family members are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

The fundamental point, it appears to me is this:

it is certainly time to have dialogue with those who lives are affected by legislation when the courts cannot be ‘problem solving’ as they should be, when problems are very complex.

Report of the Children’s Commissioner

I do not think there is much, if anything, in this report from the Special Guardians and Adopters with which I disagree. I have been commenting for some time now on the particular pressures that come to bear upon the whole system of child protection which render it arguable ‘not fit for purpose’. See for example this post on ‘Forced Adoption’. 

Its broader concerns that the current system does not work well to support vulnerable children and families, are supported by the recent report of the Children’s Commissioner which sets out in stark terms what is being faced by the child protection system. This report found:

The 2.1 million children growing up in families with these complex needs includes:

  • 890,000 children with parents suffering serious mental health problems
  • 825,000 children living in homes with domestic violence
  • 470,000 children whose parents use substances problematically
  • 100,000 children who are living in a family with a “toxic trio” (mental health problems, domestic violence and alcohol and/or substance abuse)
  • 470,000 children living in material deprivation
  • 170,000 children who care for their parents or siblings

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner said

Over a million of the most vulnerable children in England cannot meet their own ambitions because they are being let down by a system that doesn’t recognise or support them – a system that too often leaves them and their families to fend for themselves until crisis point is reached.

“Not every vulnerable child needs state intervention, but this research gives us – in stark detail – the scale of need and the challenges ahead. Meeting them will not be easy or cost-free. It will require additional resources, effectively targeted, so that we move from a system that marginalises vulnerable children to one which helps them.

“Supporting vulnerable children should be the biggest social justice challenge of our time. Every day we see the huge pressures on the family courts, schools and the care systems of failing to take long-term action. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be, and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support can last a lifetime.

“We get the society we choose – and at the moment we are choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.”

About the same time as this report, the revised Working Together guidelines were published – this is a lengthy document of 112 pages. Small wonder its so dense, as it makes the clear point that there are a large number of different agencies/organisations who must be putting the child at the centre of their thinking and are under statutory obligations to do so. Under the heading  ‘Identifying children and families who would benefit from early help’ it says:

Local organisations and agencies should have in place effective ways to identify emerging problems and potential unmet needs of individual children and families. Local authorities should work with organisations and agencies to develop joined-up early help services based on a clear understanding of local needs. This requires all practitioners, including those in universal services and those providing services to adults with children, to understand their role in identifying emerging problems and to share information with other practitioners to support early identification and assessment.

Conclusion

We all know what we need to do. Children need to be at the centre of our thinking, while respecting the principle that children’s welfare must be seen in the context of their families and communities; families ought to be supported to look after their children rather than the first assumption being that they are places of sinister evil from which children must be ‘rescued’.  A stitch in time saves nine, for want of a nail the battle was lost etc etc so we ought to be doing what we can as early as we can because fire fighting is a lot more costly than dealing with problems prior to your house burning down.

But all of this requires time. Time for professionals to build relationships of trust with children and families so they don’t simply become troublesome units to be risk assessed and dealt with in a way that will save agencies from adverse comment down the line. And it requires money. To pay enough professionals to have enough time to be able to identify services and support that could actually help. To devise a coherent strategy of intervention that does not see children and family bounced from a variety of services and individuals.

It is really good that we are talking, and that more efforts are being made to cross professional boundaries. But I am still worried from what I read and hear about the debate around child protection that the compulsion to polarise, to find a ‘gang’ and be part of it remains very strong.  Social workers are either ‘corrupt liars’ or parents are ‘monsters’. I have written on many occasions about the dangers of naive or wilfully misinformed allegiance to a position at the expense of actual fact. See as just one example, Linda Arlig, her hammer and some nails.

But the mess we are currently in is not the product of just one profession or one political persuasion. its been building up over many, many years. It is becoming increasingly urgent to translate talk into action. It is particularly difficult when the court and legal system has become, since the Children and Families Act and the 26 week time limits, part of that framework of potential oppression.

Possibly hypocritically in light of the above, I hope that if you have read this far you will consider joining me and many others on September 15th at the Conway Hall in London to discuss the issue of ‘future emotional harm’ as a justification for removing children from parents. This has been for many years a particular bug bear of parents and not something I think is well understood, even by professionals. The focus of the day will be conversation between what I hope will be a large number of different groups – parents, lawyers, social workers, care leavers – with the aim to turn conversation into action.

 

Further reading

Abuse and neglect – how is it identified and what support is offered? Post from parent October 2017

Care Crisis Review 2018 Family Rights Group

The Adoption Enquiry BASW – their website is down! but you can read my post about it here. 

MP Tim Loughton, a former Tory children’s minister has blamed the government’s “woeful underfunding” of local authorities for a crisis in child protection that is putting the safety of vulnerable young people at risk. vThe Guardian, July 11th 2018.

Storing up Trouble – July 2nd 2018 report from All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) following September 2017  inquiry into the causes and consequences of varying thresholds for children’s social care. The inquiry found:

  • Vulnerable children face a postcode lottery in thresholds of support
  • 4 in 5 Directors of Children’s Services say that vulnerable children facing similar problems get different levels of help depending on where they live.
  • Children often have to reach crisis before social services step in.
  • Decisions over whether to help a child, even in acute cases, are influenced by budget constraints.
  • Children and young people in care and care leavers highlighted the difficulty they faced gaining insight into their personal histories. They called for better support in accessing and understanding information contained in official files.

Summary of the changes to the Working Together Guidance from the NSPCC

 

 

Address by McFarlane LJ to Families Need Fathers

On 25th June McFarlane LJ addressed the national conference of Families need Fathers. You can read the press release here or the full text of the speech here. 

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. I am grateful for and agree with entirely his comments about the need for open dialogue and engagement with a variety of perspectives. He is also entirely right about the need for early fact findings. But I will remain politely sceptical about the ability of any suggestions for reform to make much headway if we fail to grapple with the underlying and serious difficulties that get in the way of resolving parental disputes about children; lack of judicial continuity, lack of legal aid and lack of consistent enforcement of court orders. Underpinnning all of these however, I will continue to maintain is the refusal to accept that courts are inevitably the wrong kind of arena to try and repair a fractured family. 

 

We need to talk

McFarlane LJ began by acknowledging the respect that senior member of the judiciary hold for FnF and the need for dialogue. He recalled his days as part of the legal team working on the Norgrove review into family justice and the recommendations that produced to improve private law disputes:

to ‘make parental responsibility work’ by enabling parents to reach agreements, while ensuring that the child’s welfare remains paramount. We recommended the replacement of the pejorative labels of ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ with ‘child arrangement orders’. We recommended that there should be ‘a coherent process of dispute resolution’ starting with an online information hub to help couples resolve issues, moving mediation, MIAMS, SIPS and then, if necessary, to a tightly controlled court based resolution process conducted by the same judge throughout.

McFarlane LJ recognised that he has been far removed from the ‘coal face’ for some time now and will carry out over the next year vists and consultations at different courts with different groups to gain a proper understanding of the impact of those reforms, recognising of course that the removal of legal aid from many of these cases has brought its own problems.

I will comment here that it is surprising to find ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ labelled ‘pejorative’ although I accept they did tend to support an unhelpful ‘winner takes all’ attitude. Nevertheless, they are 100% less cumbersome and more easy to explain to a parent than a ‘child arrangements order’. However, there is no need for me to worry about nomenclature as it is clear that the media will never move beyond ‘custody’ and ‘visitation’.

The rather larger problem however is just how well on the ground translate such lofty ambitions as ‘making parental responsibility work’ and providing a ‘coherent scheme’ of dispute resolution. I suspect most lawyers and parents participating in the system would say ‘not very well at all’. The reasons for this are many and various and I will look at some in this post.

His address focused on three issues: Domestic abuse, alienation and possible future developments.

Domestic Abuse

McFarlane LJ recommended that all those present read research published by Women’s Aid in May 2018 entitled  “What about my right not to be abused? Domestic abuse, Human Rights and the Family Courts.” He accepted that this report had limitationsnonetheless it was an important piece of work, representing ‘the other side of the coin’ to the arguments sometimes made by or on behalf of fathers about the inherent bias in favour of women in the family justice system (an assertion which I just don’t think is true and have discussed at greater length in this post – Is the Family Court system biased against men?)

I agree it is vital for both sides of the debate to be heard; neither side has the monopoly on facts or truth and both perspectives need airing. I strongly suspect ‘the truth’ will be found more in the middle than at either side of the spectrum and bold assertions about male violence or female manipulation.

 

Alienation

McFarlane LJ rejected a pre-occupation with agreeing a label for bad behaviour by parents. Rathe than debating if ‘alienation’ was the right label or a ‘proper’ mental health condition  it made more sense to focus on the particular behaviour in question.  He referred to the attitude taken towards Fictitious Induced Illness, which should be adopted for ‘alienation’.

If that behaviour was found to be abusive then action was taken, irrespective of whether or not a diagnosis of a particular personality or mental health condition in the parent could be made.

He accepted that ‘parental alienation’ was certainly ‘a thing’- and I agree:

I readily accept that in some cases a parent can, either deliberately or inadvertently, turn the mind of their child against the other parent so that the child holds a wholly negative view of that other parent where such a negative view cannot be justified by reason of any past behaviour or any aspect of the parent-child relationship. Further, where that state of affairs has come to pass, it is likely to be emotionally harmful for the child to grow up in circumstances which maintain an unjustified and wholly negative view of the absent parent.

Where do we go from here?

I was intrigued to see the comment about the importance of findings of fact.

 It is, as I have already observed crucial, both to the interests of the alleged victim and, in fact, to those of the alleged perpetrator, for any significant allegations of domestic abuse to be investigated and determined as matters of fact, similarly any significant allegation of“alienation,” should also be laid out before the court and, if possible, determined on the same basis.

Anecdote from other practitioners and my own experiences, suggest that findings of fact are something the courts now try to avoid, which simply shunts the problem further down the line. If parents are utterly divided about the truth or otherwise of some really serious allegations then it is imperative that the ‘facts’ – in so far as they can ever be determined – are found. This is one of the key suggestions I make for attempting to avoid cases of implacable hostility bedding down over years.

My own recent experience is of yet another case where allegations were first raised in 2013 about issues starting in 2011. Two successive CAFCASS officers raised need for fact finding – no court ever ordered it. The case fizzled out in 2018 with no orders for contact and a child who had not seen his father since 2013. This is sadly not an unusual scenario, at least in my own experience.

 

He also suggests more thought about an ‘Early Intervention’ Strategy

At the core of the EI approach is the need to manage the expectations of parents as to the post-separation arrangements for their child from the earliest point. Key to this approach is the issuing of general guidance on what a court would regard a reasonable amount or pattern of contact to be (in cases where there is no safeguarding risk to the child); to be of weight, such guidance can only come from the judiciary.

EDIT – ‘the new normal’

The Transparency Project commented today about ‘the new normal’  suggested by McFarlane LJ, i.e. investigating possible judicial guidance on what is a ‘normal’ range of contact whilst outcomes are decided. This is an interesting point on which I should have commented.

The Transparency Project say:

This guidance, if agreed, could apparently take the form of ‘standing temporary orders’ which would aim to maintain reasonable amounts of safe contact while issues were being resolved. Such an idea will no doubt raise many questions about the individuality of cases and the welfare of each child, so it sounds like a very useful exercise to consult widely across these topics. If the lower courts are reluctant to follow PD12J and make findings – why is this? And what are the potential effects of new Cafcass guidance sending its practitioners down ‘abuse’ or ‘alienation’ ‘pathways’ before any determination of the facts has been made by a court.

I welcome any initiative to promote more consistent and coherent decision making in the family courts, so that parents can have a better idea of likely outcomes. However, it will be very interesting to see the results of consultation about this because certainly at first blush it appears to offend against the other important consideration – of early decisions about the actual FACTS in each case, to inform a welfare decision about what is best for each individual child. If anyone can identify the ‘one size fits all’ – I would be interested to know what that is!

Conclusions

I am very pleased to learn that McFarlane LJ is to embark on a year long process of consultation and dialogue and his speech marks a welcome beginning. The commitment to talking, listening and understanding is self evident. He is right to press for both sides of the debate to listen to what each other is saying – for too long I have been complaining about the harmful and chilling impact of rhetoric and polarisation in this field. He is also right to recognise the key importance of early fact findings. However, and of course, there are many more issues that need to be addressed and some – possibly the most important ones – will require some financial investment and clout that will not come from simply talking about them. Three of the key issues, in my view, are lack of judicial continuity, lack of legal aid and lack of consistent and rigorous enforcement of orders. This three issues bleed into one another. All will need tackling.

But, at the heart of it all I go back to my now wearily familiar mantra. The family court cannot hope ever to solve the problems of family dysfunction. It isn’t the arena, it doesn’t have the tools and is unlikely to ever get them. The key solution – in my mind – is for better education at the earliest opportunity for our children. What makes a healthy relationship? What discussions and agreements should you be having with your partner before you decide to bring a new life into the world?

The suggestion that we could do more work on ‘early intervention’ would seem to be supporting my views here; expectations need to be managed at the earliest stage, rather than suggesting the family courts can work miracles and render the unreasonable parent reasonable. I would rather have commitment to rigorous and early education/discussion about healthy relationships but this will do for a start.

 

Further reading

Contact – a point of view Lord justice McFarlane March 2018

The Woeful State of Our Debate Part 8: Men versus Women Child Protection Resource Online May 2016

 

 

Adoption and Child Protection Trends in England

I am grateful for this information provided by Andy Bilson and Elizabeth Hunter Munro about the recent study examining two cohorts of children in a variety of local authorities which revealed the startling difference between different areas in the number of children adopted; these differences were not related to contrasts in affluence/deprivation.

The number of children being investigated is on the rise; so too the numbers in the categories of neglect and emotional maltreatment.

Andy will be joining the Panel for the afternoon discussions on September 15th at the Conway Hall, to consider if risk of future emotional harm is really a justifiable reason to remove chlldren from their families. Please see here for more details and how to buy tickets. 

 

Background to the study

In 2000, the government announced its intention to increase adoption and introduce a new form of permanent placement called special guardianship (SG) to reduce the numbers who stay for long periods in care. All subsequent governments have promoted adoption and, more recently, government has called for the number of adoptions to be doubled. A key aim of this policy is to reduce the number of children looked after, especially those who spend long periods in care, and instead to find permanent homes through one of these two means. By 2017 the rate of adoptions had more than doubled since 1999 and when SG is added almost four times as many children left care to these permanent placements . Between 2000 and 2017, 92,610 children left the care system to these permanent placements . Despite the dip in the annual number of children leaving care to be adopted since the 2014-15 financial year, the number of those aged under 18 who have left care to be adopted is higher than at any time this century . Over the same period the number of children in care has increased by 25% and is higher than for over 30 years and more children are spending long periods in care. This has led to Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Judiciary saying that the family court service in England faced a “clear and imminent crisis” because of large increases in the number of care cases (cited in Bowcott, 2016).

The incoming President, Sir Andrew McFarlane confirmed the continuing crisis and its link to reducing support for families saying:

“It may properly be said that we have reached a stage where the threshold for obtaining a public law court order is noticeably low, whereas, no doubt as a result of the current financial climate, the threshold for a family being able to access specialist support services in the community is conversely, very high” (McFarlane 2018)

Underpinning these trends in care and adoption there have been large increases in the number of children who have been investigated under section 47 of the 1989 Children Act (hereafter referred to as child protection investigations) because of concerns that they may have suffered or be likely to suffer significant harm (Bilson and Martin, 2016). The proportion of referrals and children in need that receive an investigative response has grown significantly in recent years and the biggest impact is felt in areas where deprivation is highest. Bilson et al (2017) estimated that, before the age of five, 22% of all children living in the most deprived 10% of communities were classified as having been in need because of abuse or neglect or the related category of family dysfunction.

In order to understand how these trends relate to each other and whether there are differences in practice between local authorities this paper provides an analysis of data from new freedom of information requests to the Department for Education and local authorities in England concerning two cohorts of children and their experience of children’s services before their fifth birthdays in the years ending 31st March 2012 and 2017.

The Study

The study used freedom of information requests with responses from around half of all local authorities to compare involvement with children’s services before their fifth birthday in 2011-12 and 2016-17. The number of children adopted and the number subject of section 47 enquiries increased by 50% in just five years. By 2016-17, 6.4% of all five year-olds, one in every sixteen of the more than 350,000 five-year-olds in these authorities, had been subject of investigations. These changes were not evenly distributed and rates of children who had an adoption decision before the age of five, either being adopted or on a placement order at the age of five, varied significantly across the country with a twelve-fold difference between the highest and lowest rates. These differences were not simply due to differences in deprivation. For example Southampton, which had the highest rate of children adopted or on a placement order at the age of five (1.85% of five-year-olds), had significantly higher rates than its ‘statistical neighbours’ in the study.

The twenty local authorities with the biggest increases in adoption decisions had a 96% increase in the number of children adopted or on placement orders in five years. Across these authorities all aspects of children’s services activity had increased more than in the other 50 local authorities with child protection investigations changing most – they increased by 90% and 7.8% of all children were investigated under section 47 before their fifth birthday. The research thus raises the question of why these authorities had such a large change in concerns about significant harm (child protection plans increased by 52% while investigations increased by 90%) and asks the question of why rates of adoption vary so much between local authorities.

The study confirms earlier findings that 1 in 5 children are referred to children’s services before the age of five but shows rapidly increasing levels of child protection investigation and rapidly growing numbers of children separated from their parents when the cumulative effects of adoptions and special guardianship are taken into account. These trends suggest that the impact of reduced funding for family support and the increasing stress put on families through growing inequality are impacting strongly on children and families.

Neglect and emotional maltreatment

Of particular interest to the discussions at CPConf2018 are the findings about neglect and emotional maltreatment – these were by far the most common reasons for a child protection plan being the key category in three-quarters of plans. Child Protection plans starting because of emotional maltreatment and neglect had increased by 50% from 7,403 children to 11,097 in the five years between these cohorts. Child protection plans thus mostly focussed on these areas rather than physical and sexual maltreatment.

 

Further reading

Risk prediction tools in child welfare contexts: the devil in the detail, Emily Keddell 6th April 2018

The Care Crisis Review  June 2018 The Family Rights Group – A sector-led Review of the rise in applications for care orders and the number of children in care

Postcode Lottery for Adoption June 2018 The Bureau for Investigative Journalism

 

Evidence and Admissions made in the Family Court – what happens if the police are interested?

Section 98 of the Children Act

The purpose of this section is to encourage parents to speak openly and honestly in the family court about what happened to their child. It is supposed to provide them with safeguards against the involvement of the police who might want to prosecute them for criminal offences if they admit to, or the family court finds they have, hurt their children.

However, the situation is very complicated for even experienced lawyers to understand and it seems that it would be risky for any family lawyer to attempt to reassure their client that information or admissions contained in family proceedings will stay there.

98 of the Children Act 1989 provides that:

1. In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under Part IV and V, no person shall be excused from-

A. giving evidence on any matter; or

B. answering any question put to him in the course of his giving evidence, on the ground that doing so might incriminate him or his spouse or civil partner of an offence.

2. A statement or admission made in such proceedings shall not be admissible in evidence against the person making it or his spouse or civil partner in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.

I tried to provide a ‘translation’ of this in this post. 

Attempt at Plain English Version: No guarantees of confidentiality can be given by the family court.

The judge should give a warning in the following terms when a parent is being questioned about causing harm to a child:

  • I need to explain a rule of law to you. Its important you understand this. Your lawyer can explain it further to you, it is their duty to do so.
  • allegations are made against you in these family proceedings. The family court is not involved in any decisions made in the criminal courts about whether you should be found guilty or acquitted of any criminal offence.
  • However, in these family proceedings, the court will have to decide whether or not the allegations made against you are true. If they are found to be true, this would mean you have done something which may also be a criminal offence.
  • in the family proceedings you aren’t allowed to refuse to answer questions or provide evidence in writing on the basis that your answers might show you or your spouse had done something criminally wrong.
  • If you do give evidence that suggests you have done something criminally wrong, this evidence is NOT allowed in any criminal proceedings against you UNLESS you are being prosecuted for perjury (i.e. you have lied on oath in the family court).
  • BUT you must understand that if the family court gives permission that ANYTHING you say or write down for these proceedings may be given to the police for them to use during their investigations into your conduct AND if you did end up in a criminal court, the prosecution might make an application for permission to ask you questions about anything you said in the family court.

The court gave guidance in A Local Authority v PG [2014] EWHC 63 (Fam) about the impact of section 98:

  • when a party to care proceedings is ordered to file and serve a response to threshold and/or to file and serve a narrative statement, that party must comply with that order and must do so by the date set out in the order;
  • the importance of parents or intervenors giving a frank, honest and full account of relevant events and matters cannot be overstated. It is a vital and central component of the family justice system;
  • a legal practitioner is entitled to advise a client of (i) the provisions and import of s.98 of the 1989 CA and (ii) the ability of the police and/or a co-accused to make application for disclosure into the criminal proceedings of statements, reports and documents filed in the care proceedings;
  • it is wholly inappropriate and potentially a contempt of court, however, for a legal practitioner to advise a client not to comply with an order made in care proceedings;
  • It is wholly inappropriate and potentially a contempt of court for a legal practitioner to advise a client not to give a full, accurate and comprehensive response to the findings of fact sought by a local authority in the threshold criteria document. This applies both where that advice is limited in time, eg until after a criminal defence statement has been filed and served and, worse still, the advice is given not to make such a response at all.

Some important points

Automatic disclosure of judgments under Rule 12.73

Rule 12.73 of the FPR 2010 and PD 12G mean any party has an automatic right to disclose to police/CPS whole or part of a judgment in a family case for the purpose of a criminal investigation or to enable the CPS to discharge its functions. BUT neither police nor the CPS can disclose the judgment or the information it contains  to any person without the permission of the family court judge.

Factors set out in Re C 1996

The leading authority remains  Re C sub nom Re EC [1996] 2 FLR 725 CA The court set out the following matters which a judge will consider when deciding to let the police have information from the family court. Each case must be decided on its merits and the importance of these factors will vary from case to case. The case also predates the shift in attitudes towards more openness in family proceedings and the impact of Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998, so will need to be seen in that context.

  • The welfare and interests of the child or children concerned in the care proceedings. If the child is likely to be adversely affected by the order in any serious way, this will be a very important factor.
  • The welfare and interests of other children generally.
  • The maintenance of confidentiality in children’s cases.
  • The importance of encouraging frankness in children’s cases. The underlying purpose of s 98 is to encourage people to tell the truth in cases concerning children, and the incentive is that any admission will not be admissible in evidence in a criminal trial. But the incentive of guaranteed confidentiality is not given by the words of the section.
  • The public interest in the administration of justice. Barriers should not be erected between one branch of the judicature and another because this may be inimical to the overall interests of justice.
  • The public interest in the prosecution of serious crime and the punishment of offenders, including the public interest in convicting those who have been guilty of violent or sexual offences against children. There is a strong public interest in making available material to the police which is relevant to a criminal trial. In many cases, this is likely to be a very important factor.
  • The gravity of the alleged offence and the relevance of the evidence to it. If the evidence has little or no bearing on the investigation or the trial, this will militate against a disclosure order.
  • The desirability of co-operation between various agencies concerned with the welfare of children, including the social services departments, the police service, medical practitioners, health visitors, schools, etc. This is particularly important in cases concerning children.
  • In a case to which s 98(2) applies, the terms of the section itself, namely, that the witness was not excused from answering incriminating questions, and that any statement of admission would not be admissible against him in criminal proceedings. Fairness to the person who has incriminated himself and any others affected by the incriminating statement and any danger of oppression would also be relevant considerations.
  • Any other material disclosure which has already taken place.

 

A parent who confesses

There is also very useful discussion about the operation of section 98(2) and disclosure of documents to the police in the case of Re X and Y (Children: Disclosure of Judgment to Police) [2014]. This case involved a parent who confessed to causing a serious injury to a child. This confession came AFTER a fact finding hearing where the Judge couldn’t decide which parent hurt the child. On giving judgment the Judge commented that it would be possible to rehabilitate the child back to the family if the perpetrator gave a full and frank account.  The father confessed to causing the injury 2 days later and the parents separated. The children went back to their mother and Baker J gave a further judgment, exonerating the mother of causing harm.

The Father then applied for an order to stop any of this information being sent to the police/CPS. The police had by now closed their file on the case. The police cross applied to see the information about the confession so they could decide whether or not to prosecute the father. Baker J allowed the police and CPS to see the judgments but with limits on their use; they could not discuss the contents of the judgments with either parent without the court’s permission.

At para 22, Baker J considered the question of whether the father’s confession could be used in criminal proceedings – was he protected by section 98? It is for the criminal courts to decide if a admission could be used as evidence within the criminal trial or whether section 98(2) provided protection but noted that he knew of no reported case where section 98(2) has been considered by the criminal courts. In the family court, such confessions have been used to ‘shape the nature and range of the inquiries’ the police undertake [Oxfordshire CC v P [1995] 1 FLR 797].

Therefore, the police can ask a suspect about his previous confession in a further interview. If the suspects admits it was truthful, that could be evidence admitted into his criminal trial. However, being questioned in a police interview in this way runs a serious risk that any protection offered by section 98 would be nullified – as recognised by the court in Re M [2001] 2 FLR 1316.

There is – as yet – no judicial answer to the question raised in Re X &Y as to whether a suspect’s confession could be raised in a criminal trial as a ‘previous inconsistent statement’ pursuant to s119 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993.

This seems to be the worst of all worlds. Of course the police are going to be interested in a confession or an adverse judgment. Of course they are going to want to rely on it and ask questions about it. It does seem that the practical use of section 98 has been considerably eroded.

 

Liz Ingham comments:

It seems a shame, particularly in a climate where the police and CPS appear to await the outcomes of fact finding hearings before deciding on whether to prosecute and where there is sometimes inordinate delay in criminal trials being heard, that the laudable aim of section 98(2) to encourage frankness in the family courts is being eroded by the spectre of criminal proceedings waiting in the wings.

The section was put there for a purpose – if it was not to provide a complete shield for parents who are frank in children cases in order to encourage them to be so, what was the point of it? Is it right to leave the amount of protection it provides to a parent to be determined in the criminal courts where there is no necessity to consider the factors which may compete against the criminal jurisdiction’s perception of fairness such as the need to preserve the integrity of the family justice system as a whole in providing swift and child focused justice? Would it not be better to have children returned home to one parent quickly following being injured by the other parent than to be removed from their birth family for months at best (pending a fact finding hearing) and for life at worst (due to both parents remaining in the pool of perpetrators) even if the price for that were that the guilty parent escaped criminal prosecution? For the children in Re X & Y, perhaps it was fortunate that Baker J did not give the warning under section 98(2). It might have discouraged the Father from being frank and the children would have remained separated from both of their parents.

 

 

Further Reading

 

Care Crisis Review

Today, June 13th the Family Rights Group published the Care Crisis Review report. The email sending out the press release states:

The Review confirms there is a crisis in Children’s Social Care and Family Justice Sector, explores the reasons why and sets out 20 options for change.

Over 2000 people and organisations contributed to the Review, including the Local Government Association, Ofsted, Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the All Wales Heads of Children’s Services, third sector organisations and alliances, the Offices of the English and Welsh Children’s Commissioners, members of the judiciary, lawyers, social care practitioners, young people and families.

For further information please contact Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive, Family Rights Group. cashley@frg.org.uk

Read the report here.

The 20 options for change

  • Immediate steps that could be taken to move away from an undue focus on processes and performance indicators, to one where practitioners are able to stay focused on securing the right outcomes for each child.
  • Approaches, including family group conferences, in which families are supported to make safe plans for their child.
  • Suggestions of ways in which statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children, can be changed in order to promote relationship-based practice.
  • Opportunities for revitalising local and national family justice forums and other mechanisms, so that all can become places where challenges within the system are discussed and solutions developed.
  • Proposals for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education, in consultation with the devolved administrations, to examine the impact of benefit rules and policies, and the projected effect of planned benefit reforms, on the numbers of children entering or remaining in care.
  • A call for the Ministry of Justice to undertake an impact assessment of the present lack of accessible, early, free, independent advice and information for parents and wider family members on the number of children subject to care proceedings or entering or remaining in the care system, and the net cost to the public purse.
  • That the National Family Justice Board revises the approach to measuring timescales, including the 26 week timescale for care proceedings.
  • That there are improvements in exploring and assessing potential carers from within the family, when a child cannot live at home, and better support is provided to such carers and children so they do not face severe financial hardship.
  • That Ofsted and Social Care Wales in their inspections and research should take into account the duties on local authorities to support families and to promote children’s upbringing within their family.

The report also notes the £2 billion shortfall in children’s social care service and supports The ADCS and LGA’s call for Government to provide the cash, making the uncontroversial point that “Money and resources matter for families and for services”.

I don’t disagree with any of those 20 points. That there is a crisis in the child protection system is obvious and has been for a long time now. The President of the Family Division agrees.  Lord Justice McFarlane’s speech at the launch of the Review is now available online.

I first wrote this post about ‘Forced adoption’ in 2014. I have long commented upon and decried the frankly woeful state of the debate in our country about these vital issues and I have warned time and time again at the dangerous impact of those who profess to ‘campaign’ for parents.

However, I am sadly very pessimistic that anything is going to change. There can be little doubt what the problems are and little doubt about what is needed to fix them. Social workers who are not struggling under excessive case loads. Who have access to services and support for families who are struggling. That needs money. There isn’t any and there won’t be any because we have shown, collectively, as a society  – when we need to make a choice about the politicians we elect, we chose those who promise to cut taxes and hence services.

However, it goes further and deeper than that I fear. The only value children seem to have in our society is as economic actors; if they aren’t on track to achieve whatever grade is now valued in school exams, they are worthless. If they fail, its because they deserved to. Because they were lazy or didn’t try.  The culture of blame and shame which makes it so difficult for people to own and learn from their mistakes is enthusiastically promoted by politicians and journalists.

Journalists tell me that there is no point in trying to move away from sensationalist reporting and click bait headlines because ‘it’s what people want’. Even with easily available published judgments to the cases they write about, they will not provide their readers with a link to that judgment or even read it themselves.

I note with sadness that, for example, The Times offers a short comment on this review and can’t even be bothered print the correct name of the Family Rights Group.

We are really in a mess.

What’s the way out? Short of a magic money tree and shipping a boatload of politicians and journalists off to some hellish version of Love Island where they can simply rant at each other and leave the rest of us in peace, I have no clue.

All I can do is continue to operate in my sphere of influence. If we cannot make the fundamental changes to the system that I and many others think are needed, we can try and make parents and children have an easier passage through the system, to feel less brutalised by a system they do not understand or which is not well explained.

I think we do that by talking, listening and discussing. To find out what we can achieve to make things better.

The Transparency Project is again supporting #CPConf2018 and we are going to meet in London on 15th September to talk particularly about the issue of removal of children on the basis of future emotional harm. All are welcomed who have an interest – which really, should be all of us.

‘Project Social Work’ – A Risky Business

Red, Orange, Green

I am grateful for this blog post from one of our regular parent contributors about how lack of realistic appraisal of various risk factors is impacting on society and services in general, and social work is of course not exempt from these pressures and failures.

I regularly need to prepare risk registers in my work. For anyone not familiar with these, a risk register is essentially a document that sets outs all your fears/risks about x, the actions that need to be taken to lessen these risks, the impact if the risk materialises and the likelihood of the risk materialising. A risk register should also identify who is managing each risk (ownership). Risk registers are dynamic – each risk gets a numerical score derived from probability and impact ratings and associated colour coding – green (ow risk), orange (medium risk) or red (high risk) to show what risks are the most and least critical at any one time.

It probably says something about me that I like preparing risk registers. For me they are never generic documents. I’m a worrier and the risk register and the associated thinking behind it helps me get perspective on my fears, think holistically and come up with workable strategies to address risks. I also know that it is part of my job to ensure risks are understood when decisions are made, often by people with very competing priorities and different skill sets to mine and a risk register gives a framework for this.

Risk registers used well also evidence good decision-making. If a decision is made to do or not do something, it should be that decisions address risk in an appropriate way when viewed in the round.

I’ve a superficial understanding of social work processes but I believe that understanding and managing risk is key to what social workers do. In my world risk averse management practice means that there needs to be a discussion at board level about whether I can be authorised to use my own initiative to purchase a biro while strategic risks escalate (e.g. reputational, operational, financial ) because they do not get enough focus. In the social work world, risk averse social work practice means splitting families ‘just in case’, without meaningful consideration of the potentially negative intergenerational impact on families affected and /or their ongoing relationship, potentially of disaffection, with the State thereafter. If resources are spent addressing medium or low risk situations, there is less money available to address the needs of those most in need.

Project UK

I know this is sounding like a very ‘dry ‘post but actually I feel like shouting at anyone within earshot that ‘Project UK ’ – the nuts and bolts of how the country is run rather that ‘Project UK Conservative Government” has a risk register that is overwhelmingly red. I realise that many people, brighter and more involved than I am, know this and hope there will be an opportunity to address some of these issues post-Brexit. Until then normal business in Westminster is on-hold. The only Project UK risks that are being managed are ones around cash flow (Austerity). It seems that these are being managed in a way that is equivalent to requiring board approval to purchase a biro with all the problems that brings.

Here are just a few examples of very serious difficulties with Project UK :-

  • There may be 50,000 children excluded from school being ‘home schooled’ I say ‘may’ because there is no register. There is no meaningful policy or additional resources to meet the needs of these children because to address their needs will mean unpicking many of the ‘reforms’ of the Education system based on survival of the fittest of the last decade.
  • 1 in 8 deaths of learning disabled people results from neglect by those whose job it is to care for and provide services for them. Most are indifferent to this.
  • Our justice systems are crumbling relics from an age when people had rights and those rights mattered.
  • Our prison systems, containing some of the most vulnerable people in society, resemble nothing as much as ‘Lord of the Flies’.
  • We have relied on inward immigration in lieu of meaningful education and workforce development strategies for decades. We do not have enough doctors, carers, scientists, social workers, construction professionals to run our services and this inward immigration tap looks like it will be shut off post-Brexit with catastrophic consequences for service and infrastructure delivery.
  • Commercial markets have been created for example between companies caring for children, between schools and types of school, between hospitals etc so that Government no longer has meaningful control of any of the levers of service delivery. Government departments manage markets to a lesser or greater degree, because they pay for them but no-one in Government is looking at who services are for and what their needs are, unless service users vote for the political party in power. (Think about finance made available to increase the number of school places in selective grammar schools in this context)

 

What is a crisis?

I think it is fair to say that the contract between State and individual is in very poor condition. Looking at the newspapers today this headline – Au pair shortage sparks childcare crisis for families made me smile. I realise no-one wants an endless news diet of Grenfell fire, Windrush scandal, Brexit omni-shambles but ‘a crisis’ given all of these..A crisis?

So have we always had:-

– A press that in the main focuses on the priorities of the noisy middle classes, ( you will have to work hard to convince me that the au-pair shortage is not a middle class difficulty) divorced from people who need unambiguous and enforceable rights to meaningful support around their needs? ( A safe place to live, protection from abuse and exploitation if vulnerable, Specialist services.)

– Policy-makers who only look to meeting their needs of their voter demographics – currently the middle class and the old or the male and pale unions?

– Departmental remits with narrow goals often a version of a ‘Carry On Regardless’ around what was included in the Election Mainifesto?

My feeling is some of this was always probably true but not to the extent that it is now plus all the ground rules are changing. Voters may matter but so do twitter users. Powerful countries interests have become subservient to those of big business and our policy-makers seem unsure as to what they can or should do in the circumstances particularly if they have spend the last three decades creating markets for big business where there were none before.

The UK is experiencing the last symptom (and it may yet kill us) of a toxic legacy of Empire and are wearing newly purchased Emperor’s clothes. Ridicule, disbelief and pity to follow…

Project Social Work

‘Project Social Work’ seems to have a similarly red hued risk register -for example:

  • around workforce development (red- a major battle between big business and the university sector in progress),
  • stability (red – no-one seems clear on the role of social work and where this fits in relation to working with families, big business and government )
  • retention in the role, (red,-burnout and churn the norm)
  • resources (red – the Local Govt financial settlement means the rich boroughs get richer and the poor boroughs get poorer and with more and more demand on their services. Interestingly though the first Local Authority, Northamptonshire to go bust was one that reconfigured all services around the needs of big business )

On the positive side ‘individual social worker’s values’ would not be coloured red on my ‘Project Social Work’ register because although it is a dreadful time to have the role of providing help on behalf of the State when the State has little if any interest in the troubles or difficulties of those that need help, it seems to me that there are many good social workers who to their credit, try to put people they are there to help and their needs first.

That is some achievement given the big picture. Social workers like these need all the help and encouragement they can get.

Mothers are more likely to abuse children than fathers. Fact?

I recently had a bit of a heated debate with a anonymous tweeter ‘Preserved by Faith’ who was very sure that 71% of children killed by a family member are killed by their mother. She relied upon statistics provided by Mark Rosenthal’s ‘Breaking the Science’

These appear to be credible and are taken from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Data from U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services “Child Maltreatment” reports, 2001-2006*
Victims by Parental Status of Perpetrators

Child abuse and neglect Child fatalities
2001-2006 2001-2006
Mother Only 1,452,099 1,704
Mother and Other 222,836 565
Mother total (alone or with someone other than the father) 1,674,935 2269
Father Only 661,129 859
Father and Other 37,836 77
Father total (alone or with someone other than the mother) 698,965 936
Both total (Involving one parent acting alone or in concert with someone not the child’s other parent) 2,373,900 3,205
Percent of cases involving one parent acting either alone or in concert with someone other than the child’s other parent
Mother Involved But Not Father 70.6% 70.8%
Father Involved But Not Mother 29.4% 29.2%

What I don’t know because the table doesn’t make it clear, is how many of these mothers and fathers were living together at the time the child died. Is part of the reason that more children are killed by mothers because more women than men are primary carers of children? The vast majority of lone parents are mothers. In the UK in 2014 for example 91% of lone parents were women.

But probably a more interesting percentage that can be gleaned from these figures is that children killed by parents acting alone. I haven’t analysed those figures when a parent ‘acted’ with another because no explanation is given of what that means or what degree of culpability was afforded the parent as opposed to the ‘other’.

1,704 were killed by a mother acting alone. That represents only 0.12% of the1,452,099 children who are neglected by their mother alone.  For fathers, who by themselves neglected 661,129 children, they killed 0.13% (859). So in terms of parents acting alone, fathers kill MORE children than mothers.

She then moved on to assert that mothers were more likely to abuse children than father’s full stop, referring to an Australian article ‘Why aren’t we talking about abusive mums?‘. Again I wonder to what extent this is reflection of the fact that women are overwhelmingly more likely to be lone carers, and considerably more likely to be poor.

Half of all absent fathers in the UK pay nothing towards their children. Women are also more likely than men to be victims of violence and abuse from intimate partners.

Lets look at this article. It has a link to its claim that ‘children are far more likely to suffer abuse or neglect at the hands of mothers – but that link is simply to another article offering the experiences of ‘Sarah’ who was sexually abused by her mother and I couldn’t find any reference to statistics there.

It does however quote this study

The Child Family Community Australia reports, “A British retrospective prevalence study of 2669 young adults aged 18-24 (May-Chahal & Cawson, 2005) found that mothers were more likely than fathers to be responsible for physical abuse 49 per cent of incidents compared to 40 per cent).”

So no 70/30 split in terms of physical abuse.

It then says this, but provides no link to any published statistics in support

DHHS data in the UK shows that of children abused by one parent between 2001 and 2006, 70.6 per cent were abused by their mothers, 29.4 per cent were abused by their fathers.

I wonder if that is actually a reference to the statistic quoted by Mark Rosenthal given the reference to ‘DHHS’ which isn’t a UK body. With such precise statistics quoted, the lack of any link is odd.

‘Preserved by Faith’ also referred to this data from the American Society for the Positive Care of Children. But this doesn’t seem to break down the figures to show what proportion of the abusers were mothers and what proportion fathers or step fathers. However they are a shocking light shone on just how dangerous parents are for children.

NATIONAL CHILD ABUSE STATISTICS

  • 4 million child maltreatment referral reports received.1
  • Child abuse reports involved 7.2 million children.1
  • 3.4 million children received prevention & post-response services.1
  • 207,000 children received foster care services.1
  • 75.3% of victims are neglected.1
  • 17.2% of victims are physically abused.1
  • 8.4% of victims are sexually abused.1
  • 6.9% of victims are psychologically maltreated.1
  • Highest rate of child abuse in children under one (24.2% per 1,000).1
  • Over one-quarter (27.%) of victims are younger than 3 years.1
  • Annual estimate: 1,670 to 1740 children died from abuse and neglect.1,3
  • Almost five children die every day from child abuse.1,2
  • 80% of child fatalities involve at least one parent.1
  • 74.8% of child fatalities are under the age of 3.1
  • 72.9% of the child abuse victims die from neglect.1
  • 43.9% of the child abuse victims die from physical abuse.1
  • 49.4% of children who die from child abuse are under one year.1
  • Almost 60,000 children are sexually abused.1
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator.6
  • Estimated that between 50-60% of maltreatment fatalities are not recorded on death certificates.5
  • Child abuse crosses all socioeconomic and educational levels, religions, ethnic and cultural groups.1

 

But what is the point of all of this?

I don’t think the statistics show that mothers are more evil and more prone to abuse children than fathers. I think the statistics show that mothers are more likely to be in a situation where they will be poor and under stress. I really don’t know what ‘Preserved by Faith’ was trying to argue. She seemed to have a pretty clear animus against her step children’s mother but it wasn’t clear if she was trying to argue that the mother was therefore more likely to murder her children so custody should be given to their dad, now married to ‘Preserved by Faith’.

I could see that ‘Preserved by Faith’ was pretty angry and upset at what she perceived to be the situation. And yes, if its true what she set out, that’s a hard road to travel.

But does the path get any easier by relying on partial statistics to make some general point that as mothers are 70% of child killers, then HER step children should spend 50% of their time with their dad?

The tragedy of these cases is that the adults involved often cannot look beyond their own anger and they fall back on tired generalisations about ‘men’ versus ‘women’. If their rage is palpable to me – a complete stranger they ‘meet’ on the internet, I wonder what is is like for the children in their lives who presumably have a much more immediate and proximate exposure to such negative emotions. Their mother and father are not statistics for them.

Just what is the place of parents in the hierarchy of child protection?

When ‘knowing your rights’ equates to ‘sense of entitlement’ and what this says about child protection practices today.

It is a frequent complaint made to me that parents from poor backgrounds are targeted in care proceedings because they are poor. That the struggles they have in parenting are reflections of their alienation from more affluent society and that they need support for this – not condemnation.  There is very worrying evidence that rates of child protection intervention shoot up in the more deprived areas of the country which certainly demonstrates a link between poverty and increased likelihood that your child will be taken into care.

Can this really all be down to ‘bad’ rather than ‘sad’ parents? Are wealthier parents not exposing their children to any kind of harm worthy of state intervention? Or are they just better able to hide it or to avoid professional scrutiny?

So it was very interesting to read Professor Claudia Bernard’s research An Exploration of How Social Workers Engage Neglectful Parents from Affluent Backgrounds in the Child Protection System’.

This research was commissioned by the City of London to find out what is known about child neglect in affluent families. There is little current research on this issue and Professor Bernard wanted to investigate what factors arise for social workers in responding to child neglect in  affluent families.

 

How is neglect defined?

Working Together to Safeguard Children (2015) definition of neglect is used:

“The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health and development” (DfE 2015).

‘Neglect’ is still the most common reason for child protection proceedings. Most investigations into ‘neglect’ focus on those families already known to the authorities and who are likely to be members of lower socio-economic groups. Issues of neglect in more affluent families is generally off the radar. A child who comes to school dirty and smelly is pretty easy to spot – but the child who lacks emotional attunement with a wealthy and largely absent parent is less immediately visible. Lack of immediately visible harm can flow from those parents who do not spend enough quality time with their children, pressure them to be high achievers and thus create psychological and emotional problems for the children in adulthood.

Such harm is recognised as an ‘ACE’ – an adverse childhood experience. As the study points out:

Adverse childhood experiences refer to physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, being exposed to domestic violence, substance abuse, and other early life stressors (Felitti et al. 1998). While many ACEs are disproportionately found in economically disadvantaged communities, it is important to note that research has identified that ACEs are far from absent in more affluent families (Bellis et al. 2014).

What did the research set out to do and what did it find?

The research posed three specific questions to participants from 12 different and diverse local authorities. The limitations of this work are recognised – it is small scale and exploratory and was not trying to elicit statistical or generalisable data.  

  • How do social workers identify risk factors for vulnerable children in affluent circumstances?
  • Which factors inhibit or enable social workers’ engagement with affluent parents when there are child protection concerns?
  • What kind of skills, knowledge and experience is necessary for frontline social workers to effectively assert their professional authority with affluent parents when there are concerns about abuse and neglect?

Key messages identified

  • The findings revealed that thresholds for neglect are not always understood, which posed challenges for effectively safeguarding children at risk of significant harm in privileged families.
  • The vast majority of the cases described by the participants concerned emotional neglect, although other forms of maltreatment, such as sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation and emotional abuse, were also identified.
  • Commonly-encountered cases involved struggling teenagers in private fee-paying and boarding schools,
  • Participants gave many examples to show how parents had the financial resources to access psychological support through private care providers to address their children’s emotional and behavioural problems; some practitioners viewed this as a positive outcome for the child, but some saw this as a way for the parents to opt out of the statutory child protection system, and to thus slip under the radar of children’s services.
  • Participants consistently cited that highly resistant parents were more likely to use legal advocates or the complaints procedures to challenge social workers.
  • All of the participants also experienced the challenges of inter- agency working with private fee-paying and boarding schools when child protection concerns were raised.
  • Considerable experience, practice wisdom and knowledge of neglect were essential in relation to working with highly resistant parents who had the resources to challenge social workers’ decision-making.
  • Skills, knowledge and competence: all of the participants highlighted the important role that supportive managers and good supervision played in helping them to effectively intervene in affluent families.

 

 

Conclusions and comments

One problem here is that the ‘vast majority’ of cases involving affluent parents involved ’emotional neglect’ – a phrase which almost every parent I have ever spoken to reacts to with baleful suspicion. Unsurprisingly, as the research noted: ‘Participants stressed that the vague and ambiguous nature of emotional neglect was one possible factor making it difficult to interpret and assess indicators of emotional neglect’.

But the much more troubling issue was the apparent assumption that parents’ knowledge of and willingness to act upon their legal rights was a Bad Thing.

The key question identified in the study is how to assess the psychological and emotional availability of parents and when and how the state should intervene, particularly as we are now embedded in a culture of ‘neoliberalism‘, where hierarchies are seen as based on competence and those who do not strive to achieve will fail and be left to fail.  How can we criticise parents for wanting their children to adapt and thrive in this environment?

I am sure many parents would be taken aback at the notion that their wish for their child to do well and their decision to push a child to achieve should be seen in the same category of the child who is not fed or clothed well enough, who has no toothbrush or no clean bed to sleep in. However, while relative affluence may mean it is easy for parents to avoid obvious physical signs of neglect – for example, by paying someone else to take care of their children’s physical needs – it does not mean that their children escape from emotional or psychological harm.

However, if we want parents to get on board with this we have to be able to explain it clearly and engage them to listen. What does the study tell us about this?

The comments I found most interesting were these:

All of the participants described difficulties in maintaining focus on the child because of the way that parents used their status and social capital to resist child protection intervention, and many also displayed a sense of entitlement to do as they pleased and that they know best.

One participant commented:

“Those children are quite hidden, because parents know their rights, they are articulate, and they can be quite avoiding. I would say that social workers are quite often concerned that working with affluent parents rather than with other parents because they are educated and they are very challenging”.

The report notes

in some cases, their obstruction towards social workers manifested in formal complaints to senior managers and elected councillors and the threat of legal action.

And

Participants elaborated the ways that the parents’ class backgrounds gave them an unspoken advantage, which meant that they were generally knowledgeable about the workings of organisations such as children’s social care and the safeguarding process; perhaps more crucially, their sense of entitlement, brought a greater confidence to challenge the child protection decision-making processes.

The point is that the vast majority of parents resist social work intervention when the allegations made about their parenting are serious and are made in a clumsy or belittling way by someone the parent does not know and trust. The vast majority of parents who contest these matters in court will say ‘they know best’ – so, of course they will ‘do as they pleased’ – a revealingly pejorative way of referring to parents acting on what they think is the right thing for their child.

The use of phrase ‘know their rights’ as if this was somehow a criticism – ‘a sense of entitlement’ –  was a chilling echo to my earlier conversations with social workers about the law merely being ‘an aspect’ of what they do and Louise Tickle’s examination of long standing and extremely serious failings on the part of social workers to understand their legal obligations behind the use of section 20 accommodation.  Not all formal complaints are made to ‘obstruct social workers’. I often advise clients to make formal complaints about some piece of bad practice – but of course to parents in the middle of proceedings, how many of them have the time and space to do this? They tell me they are worried what will happen to them if they are seen to complain – it looks like they have a point.

Parents resist intervention because they deliberately wish to evade detection to carry on abusing their children (a small minority) or – much more likely – because they lack the skills or insight to accept that they are in fact doing harm to their children. it is easier to resist intervention or criticism than accept that you might be doing something to hurt the person you love very much.

Rich parents use status and social capital to dodge intervention; poor parents use other blunter techniques. But the common thread to all successful interventions with families must be social workers with the time, space and skill to build relationships of trust. And I am not sure that this time or space exists anymore. Its useful to focus on a group who may be escaping necessary intervention and to ask some questions why – but not if that takes away proper consideration of how the fundamentals of social work are being neglected and degraded.

Its not about money. Its about trust, its about relationships, its about working together. I am not sure how helpful it is to set up another group of parents to potentially demonise for their horrid neglectful ways .

When asked what helped, participants replied:

Participants cite the organisational cultures of support, purposeful informal conversations about the case with colleagues, good supervision, knowledge and confidence and responsive managers, themed learning activities, as key to their ability to work in this complex field.

It is both sad and revealing that ‘building relationships of trust with the parents we work with’ did not feature in that list.

It is high time we grappled with the increasing push in social work to see the child in isolation from family and community and that any indignity heaped on a family can be justified on the basis that the social worker is ‘there for the child’.  Issues of neglect and abuse which do not involve immediate and substantial harm – the broken bone, the sexual assault – are always going to be tricky to identify, define and deal with in the right way at the right time. The key to all of this will be working together.

I leave you with one final comment from the research

For example, some participants spoke of being belittled and humiliated by parents in meetings, leaving them feeling as if they had to prove themselves and establish their credibility

This is what parents tell me they feel in care proceedings. Time and time again. This is what happens when you set each other up in opposition. When the culture is one of blame and shame. It cuts both ways – and it hurts everyone.

Further reading

Communicating with the Home Office in family proceedings.

COMMUNICATING WITH UK VISAS AND IMMIGRATION (UKVI)
IN FAMILY PROCEEDINGS

Protocol agreed between the President of the Family Division and the Home Office issued on 16 May 2018

1 This Protocol enables the family courts (the Family Division of the High Court of Justice and the Family Court) to communicate with UK VISAS AND IMMIGRATION (UKVI), the relevant division of the Home Office, to obtain immigration and visa information for use in family court proceedings. Although it replaces and supersedes the previous guidance issued in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2014, in particular to reflect new UKVI processes and contact details, it does not alter the nature or purpose of the Protocol.

2 There are three parts of the process:

(1) HMCTS form EX660 (rev 04/18), a copy of which is annexed to this Protocol, must be completed by the parties and approved by the judge.

(a) The EX660 must be typed, not handwritten.
(b) The EX660 must be completed in full, specifying the details of the relevant family members and their relationship to the child(ren). Details of both mother and father/adoptive parents if known should be provided, whether or not they are involved in the proceedings, as this enables UKVI to trace the child(ren)’s records.
(c) The EX660 and the order must specify the questions the court wishes to be answered by UKVI.
(d) The EX660 must contain the name and contact details of someone who has agreed and is able to provide further information if needed.
(e) The EX660 must clearly state the time by which the information is required.

Failure to do this may cause delay in the time it takes UKVI to process the request.

(2) An order in the relevant form, a copy of which is annexed to this Protocol, must be drawn up, approved by the judge and sealed by the court.

(a) The order must clearly state the time by which the information is required.
(b) The order must specify any additional information or documents, such as a synopsis, which it wishes UKVI to have and set out in the order that the leave of the court to make disclosure to UKVI has been given. (Note that it may be a contempt of court to disclose this information otherwise.)

(3) The UKVI SVEC pro-forma must be completed by the court staff utilising the information in the EX660 and the order.

(a) All relevant fields in the SVEC pro-forma must be completed:
i. Section A – All fields to be completed if known
ii. Section B – Enquiry Type – Select Standard
iii. Section C – Select Subject 1 and complete all fields.
iv. Section D – Enter “Y” in “Other ” field only.
v. Section E – Enter ” Please refer to court order and EX660″.
vi. For more than one subject, select subject 2 and so on, completing steps C-E for each one.
(b) In Section B there are two fields, “Court date” and “required date”, which must be completed. In both fields the date the information is required should be entered, not the court date. These fields generate the target date on UKVI systems and, as the information ordered by the court will be required before the date of the court hearing, this will ensure that the information is provided in time.

3 The EX660 and the order must contain sufficient information to enable UKVI to understand the nature of the case, to identify whether the case involves an adoption, and to identify whether the immigration issues raised relate to an asylum or a non- asylum application.
4 In order to comply with the agreed four (4) week period for UKVI to provide a response to the court, the sealed order should be available to be sent by the court staff to UKVI on the same day that the order is made. Where that is not possible, the court, when stating the required date of receipt by the court of the information requested, must allow any additional time necessary for the preparation, sealing and sending of the order. This is to ensure that UKVI has four (4) weeks to provide a response from the time it receives the order.
5 The sealed order, completed EX660 and SVEC pro-forma should be sent immediately by the court to ICESSVECWorkflow@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk including EEREQUEST on the subject line of the email. The request for information will be rejected by UKVI if either the sealed order or the SVEC pro-forma is not provided.
6 Where the court wishes to progress a case that may be delayed, it may send an email to SVECManagement@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk
7 The UKVI official will be personally responsible for either:
(i) answering the query themselves, by retrieving the file and preparing a statement for the court; or
(ii) forwarding to a caseworker or relevant official with carriage of the particular file.
8 UKVI will ensure that their information is received by the court in time, as instructed by the judge or court making the request.

James Munby, President of the Family Division