Author Archives: Sarah Phillimore

Mind your language – whats the problem with ‘disclosure’?

There has been a great deal of talk recently about police investigations which start from a premise of ‘believing’ the ‘victim’ and a great deal of reasonable concern about what happens to those investigations if they begin from the premise that the ‘victim’ is telling the truth.

See for example the independent review carried out by Sir Richard Henriques in October 2016 of the Met’s investigations into ‘non-recent sexual abuse allegations against persons of public prominence’ . He is clear that use of the word ‘victim’ to describe a complainant at the outset of an investigation should cease. This terminology arose out of the stated policy of the College of Policing in 2016 that when someone makes an allegation of crime, “the police should believe the account given”.

As the review makes clear – this is a nonsense. To begin an investigation from a starting point of ‘belief’ is to corrupt the investigative process itself. How can any investigation that follows a commitment to ‘believe’ a ‘victim’ be carried out fearlessly and impartially? A botched investigation into serious allegations has very significant consequences for not merely the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator but for society as a whole.

The impact of ‘I believe’ on family cases

It is clear the the culture of ‘I believe’ is not confined to criminal investigations but still operating in family cases. The consequences here are no less severe, as while family cases may not involve a loss of liberty they often involve what many would perceive as a far worse punishment – the loss of one’s children.

An interesting Twitter conversation was started by David Burrows on February 1st 2018, responding to a request to complete a survey for the NSCPCC to ‘inform a new resource to help professionals deal with disclosure’. David pointed out that it was shame the word ‘disclosure’ was used in this context, given the lessons we all should have learned by now from history.

Paragraph 33 of the judgment in AS v TH (False Allegations of Abuse) (Rev 1) [2016] EWHC 532 (Fam) (11 March 2016) says this:

  I have in this case heard extensive evidence from those professionals to whom the children made allegations and from those professionals who subsequently assessed the children and/or investigated those allegations (I pause to note that despite the fact that the use of the term “disclosure” to describe a statement or allegation of abuse made by a child has been deprecated since the Cleveland Report due to it precluding the notion that the abuse might not have occurred (see para 12.34(1)), every professional who gave evidence in this case (except the Children’s Guardian) used the term “disclosure” to describe what the children had said to them).

Those of us old enough to dimly remember the Cleveland and Orkneys scandals of 1987 and 1991 respectively, can remember the horrible consequences of pursuing allegations of sexual abuse from a starting point of ‘well, they MUST be true” – children sobbing in interviews, being told they would be allowed to go ‘when you tell us what daddy did to you’.

But the twitter conversation was a sobering reminder for me that I am a lot older than I care to remember – these events are now nearly 30 years old and for the new generation of social workers are now part of history. We weren’t even sure if it now formed part of the social work training

This is concerning on so many levels. What does ‘disclosure’ mean?  It is ‘the act of making new or secret information known’ . To call allegations or comments by a child ‘disclosure’ means you start the investigation from a perspective of ‘belief’ – exactly the position decried in the Henriques report.

And are children any safer because of this? Quite the reverse. Botched investigations in family cases risk allowing dangerous adults remaining as carers for vulnerable children and/or innocent adults being found as a matter of fact on the balance of probabilities. that they are a child abuser.  Either way, the truth of a child’s experience becomes obscured when interviews of a child become no more than a forum for getting the child to repeat ‘the truth’,  rather than an opportunity to test the credibility of what is alleged. Children, just like adults, can be subject to outside pressure, can get confused, make mistakes, exaggerate  – or even outright lie. Children are more susceptible than most adults to pressure from an interviewer and often have more of a desire to ‘please’ their interrogator by saying what they believe the adult wants to hear. See for example with regard to children’s suggestibility,  the work of Professor Ceci.

It seems that use of ‘disclosure’ to describe allegations is a persistent and serious problem.

I considered further the judgment in AS v TH:

David throws down the gauntlet – time to grapple with this issue?

All of us who are involved in investigations of abuse against children will have horror stories to tell of the botched ABE interview, the assumptions that were made at the very outset of investigations that set the course of proceedings very badly awry. It is high time that we tackled firmly any approach to any investigation that commences on a subjective assessment of ‘belief’. Because – if your investigator can ‘believe’ you – they can also ‘disbelieve’ you. The dangers are apparent. Children rely on us to keep them safe. And to be kept safe they need efficient and effective investigation into the behaviour of adults who have hurt them.

As Judi Evans put it

Families who need support and the language of ‘casual disrespect’

 

I WANT TO SPEAK

Thanks for this guest post from a parent who is concerned about the priorities for those making  high-level decisions about funding around healthcare, and the impact this may have on families who need support in the age of austerity. She also raises important questions about the language we use; for example how does it feel to be called a ‘challenging family’ in the context of support that might be offered? Her central point is stark – the only fixed point in a shifting landscape of support provision is to see the families who need it as ‘incompetent’ and requiring ‘intervention’. 

I had a strange day recently. I left work at lunchtime to attend a NHS Transforming Care meeting where transfer of funds ( ‘dowries’ ) from the NHS, accompanying people with learning disabilities transferred from secure accommodation to homes within the local community arranged by and paid for by local area Clinical Commissioning Groups, was discussed.

There were a number of ‘Experts by Experience’ present. One tabled a list of acronyms that he asked not be used during the meeting. This list included ‘spec. com’ (short for ‘Specialised Commissioning’). He also asked that those speaking refer to ‘people’ not ‘patients’. His request was assented to by all before the meeting started.

During the meeting as people around the table made presentations, a person from NHS Specialised Commissioning repeatedly referred to ‘spec. com’ and ‘patients’ throughout his presentation. The Transforming Care programme will succeed or fail in large part depending on whether funding follows people. If I understood the presentation correctly, it appears that except in very limited circumstances it won’t. It is hard to know how to react to this in the context of a meeting when none of the decision-makers are present.

It seems as though the impact of the Winterbourne View scandal is fading and there are new priorities for those making high-level funding decisions around healthcare. I know that for many local Clinical Commissioning Group commissioners charged with delivering the Transforming Care programme, who will have to compete for funding at a local level to deliver a programme that will incur considerable additional costs for local areas if delivered, it is very difficult to accept. For people with learning disabilities in long stay institutions (over five years) and for people whose cause of death can be listed as ‘Leaning Disability’ on their death certificate when they die of constipation it will be felt in ways, you and I cannot even begin to imagine.

What hope to deliver a programme for systemic change as complex as the Transforming Care one is, if professionals cannot even keep to rules they agreed to about the use of language that respects the wishes of those they hope to help?

It really was a strange day because I then went on to another meeting where the great and the good and the well-intentioned were listening to care experienced young people sharing their thoughts about the system they spent many of their childhood years within, some with no clear idea why or where their siblings that had been adopted, were.

Social workers also spoke about being asked to ‘do much more with much less’ and how it was impossible to deliver a service where everything from what services are provided by what agency to the social work workforce itself is in flux. Teachers also reported that they were now doing social work in schools, well beyond their capability and training. It was summed up as ‘Challenging Families were being passed between services without getting the early intervention they needed’.

The language of ‘casual disrespect’

I have to say this was a depressingly familiar story to me, so again I chose to reflect on language. Would anyone have thought it OK to refer to my family in a one-to-one conversation with me as a ‘challenging family’ needing ‘Intervention’ and if most would not, then why is it OK to refer families like mine, in this casually disrespectful way? Is it OK because parents of children in need of services are not meant to be listening into this intense conversation or is it that our opinions just do not matter or that we are not expected to have anything of value to contribute unlike the great and the good and the well-intentioned? Or is it that people are afraid of what we might say? Are we that much of a challenge and to whom and what exactly? The only fixed point in this shifting landscape of service provision seems to be to regard families in need of services as, at best, incompetent and in need of an ‘intervention’.

If I’ve understood correctly then what chance do families ( those groups of people – not systems – that in normal circumstances, nurture children and prepare them well for adulthood because of bonds of love ) have of ever being heard when asking for help, not intervention, when we ask for it for ourselves or our children and indeed what chance have the great and the good and the well-intentioned of improving the life chances of young people like my son, without respectful engagement with us, their family members?

The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption

 

The social work profession has shown itself willing to grapple with the issues of concern arising out of current practices around adoption and its consequences.

The British Association of Social Workers launched the results of its Enquiry into the role of the social worker in Adoption on January 18th 2018.

BASW set the parameters of its enquiry in this way:

  • As the professional association representing social work and social workers it is incumbent on us to ask how should our professional values and ethics guide us in this work? How should our understanding of the unique and equal worth and human rights of everyone involved in an adoption guide us in working in an area where rights are contested and perhaps in conflict?
  • This enquiry will examine the role of the social worker in adoption, with a particular focus on how ethical issues and human rights legislation are understood and inform practice, and how these relate to pursuing good long-term outcomes for children and their families. It will gather evidence from families and young people involved in the adoption process, social workers and managers, family justice professionals, policy makers and academics using a variety of methods.
  • The enquiry is about ensuring the best outcomes and experiences for children in care and their families, not just today, but for generations to come.

 

The findings of the Enquiry were presented by Professor Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta followed by a response from Ruth Allen of BASW and Martha Cover of Coram Chambers. A panel discussion followed including representatives from parents, adopters and adoptive children. Have a look at the hashtags #adoptionEnquiry and #adoption to see some of the discussions on Twitter that night.

The Enquiry made 6 recommendations

  • The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
  • UK Governments should collect and publish data on the economic and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
  • The current model of adoption should be reviewed and the potential for a more open approach considered
  • There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and its relation to other permanence options
  • BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker in adoption and human rights and the ethics involved.

In essence, the Enquiry noted that although it was clear social workers tried to operate within an ethical framework, there was a question mark over whether or not they had the time and space to do so. Codes of Ethics that sit on a bookshelf are little use; ethics must be incorporated into a day to day value system of ‘ethical literacy’. However, many elements of the current system were operating to impede this – the ‘runaway train’ of care proceedings where adoption considered the best outcome at an early stage; the fixing of the child protection social worker as ‘here for the child’, thus losing sight of the fact that children are located in families.

Martha Cover reflected on her 25 years of practice and found much that resonated with her. She gave probably the most well received comment of the night when asking herself if she had a magic wand – what would she do? Give social workers their job back. Give them the time, space and support to do what they want to do – which is help people.

There were powerful contributions from birth parents, adopted parents and an adult adopted child. The issue of contact came up repeatedly. The adopted child posed the question – would it be ethical to suddenly remove from any of us in the audience, everyone we had ever known? Why do we support this sudden and stark severance of the child from his or her past? Why couldn’t she still write to her foster carers and why couldn’t they tell her they loved her?

She worried that there was a feeling that by controlling the words that could be used to a child, this would mean the child’s thinking and understanding could be similarly controlled – which is of course a nonsense. The child is left alone and confused – along with the adults.

The tweet below was probably the key point of the night. Adoption is a massive issue, with life long consequences for all involved. It was sobering to hear again that social workers are not supported or encouraged to attend events like this – those who do come often have to take annual leave and fund their own transport. The culture of ‘blame and shame’ around social work that has arisen over the years seems to have only entrenched more hunkering down into silo working and not being able to engage openly with the necessary debate.

I hope that the BASW Enquiry can shine more light on these very important issues which have been obscured for far too long.

Speaking to student social workers about the Law – and some other stuff

 

On Monday 27th November 2017 I went to talk to some student social workers about the law around care proceedings  – how important it was for them to understand what the law demands. Without that understanding, social workers cannot analyse their cases effectively and they may not appreciate what kind of evidence they need to present to the court.

I have often wondered if it is lack of proper understanding of the burden and standard of proof which explains why so many care cases go off the rails. I spoke to the students for about an hour, largely exploring areas I discuss in this post about the importance of the rule of law and this post about achieving best evidence in Children Act cases.

“Whats the point in doing the job?”

But – for me at least – the most interesting part of the day was the discussion that followed afterwards. We spoke about the importance of discussion between the different professions to enable us to understand the parameters and limits of our different roles.

I spoke about how social media was still on balance a very positive force in my life as it had enabled me to meet and talk to people I would otherwise never have met. It also allows information to be widely shared.

I asked the students what their perception now was of the role of social worker. The answer was immediate and very sad:

We started the year excited but the constant social work bashing makes us think ‘what’s the point… there is no one who talks about us doing a ‘cracking job’.

The students explained that they were receiving negative messages from all sides – from the parents who visited the college to speak and even from representatives of their own profession.

Of particular note to the students was the way the profession was portrayed by Social Work Tutor. The students confirmed that the discussion on the Facebook groups could be really helpful but they were rightly wary and quite shocked by some of the discussion which involved revealing identifying details about families or encouraging a mocking attitude towards them.

This was a very timely discussion for me – only the previous evening I had engaged in lengthy discussion with a number of others on Twitter about our concerns about Social Work Tutor – which have been fairly and comprehensively assessed on Pink Tape here.

For those who haven’t been following the debate, there have been long standing concerns raised by many that Social Work Tutor promotes a message about the profession that is fundamentally unhelpful and really quite damaging – disseminating a view of social work as a dangerous and draining profession where parents are to be either feared or laughed at.

The alternative view is that SWT has provided a useful forum via his Facebook groups that allow aspiring social workers to exchange ideas and resources and that is reliance on humourous ‘memes’ was just typical officer worker banter.

The students were unanimous in their condemnation of use of ‘banter’ as a shield to poke fun at parents, pointing out that to the recipient of ‘banter’ it usually feels like abuse. There is a fine line between banter and bullying.

The students were also very concerned about the frequent use of memes to underscore just what a horrible job social work is – this was a very demoralising message for the students to receive. They also questioned why there couldn’t be more of a positive message about what social workers aspired to do, other than the ‘social worker as super hero’ message. The students recognised this as inherently unhelpful – not merely enforcing dividing lines between them and parents but as simply unrealistic in a culture of austerity and reduced resources.

This led to an interesting discussion about how difficult it is for the social work profession to celebrate their positive achievements, owing to various laws which prohibit dissemination of information about care cases. The recent Tower Hamlets Muslim foster carer row being one of the worst examples of this.

This was an interesting afternoon but also sad. What can we do to stop the initial excitement of these students draining away in the face of persistent negative messages about their profession? Social work is an essential profession in any civilised society and it is very sobering to think that the students did not feel they could be proud of wanting to be a part of this.

My only answer is that we continue to have honest, open conversations and we keep the bantering memes to a minimum.

 

Section 98 Children Act self incrimination warning

What is this? What does it mean?

If you are involved in a fact finding hearing in care proceedings, that is because the court needs to find out as clearly as possible ‘the truth’ in order to move on to the next stage which is making decisions about where a child should live and who should look after the child.

You can read more about the legal principles that apply in a finding of fact hearing in this post. 

The ‘truth’ in care proceedings is ascertained on the civil standard of proof – i.e. NOT beyond reasonable doubt but on the balance of probabilities.

Often, findings of fact hearings involve injuries to a child. This is also of interest to the police and CPS who need to consider whether criminal charges should be bought against any adult who harms a child. The criminal and family courts work at different speeds, deal with different principles and have very different ways of collecting evidence. So it is not at all unusual for a family fact finding to take place BEFORE a criminal trial or even any charging decision.

When that happens the court will need to give any adult in the care proceedings a ‘section 98 warning’.

The police may be very interested to know about the decision made by the family judge and the reasoning behind it, and will often ask for copies of any written judgment from the family court.

Section 98 reads

Self-incrimination.

(1)In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under Part IV or 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 [F1or 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 [F1or civil partner] in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.

Which is really no help at all, particularly as the impact of this part of the Children Act has been changed by legislation and cases that followed – see discussions in Lucy Reed’s article below in Pink Tape for more detail.

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.

Further reading

From Pink Tape – section 98, Bad or Just Misunderstood? 

 

H (A Child – Hair Strand Testing) [2017] EWFC 64

Note on: H (A Child – Hair Strand Testing) [2017] EWFC 64

I am grateful for this very helpful note from Sophie Smith Holland, currently a pupil at St Johns Chambers in Bristol. 
This judgment considers the science of hair-strand testing for cocaine and provides practitioners with a useful guide of the process. Further, it considers the way in which expert reports are presented and makes suggestions as to how things could be improved.

Background

The case concerns care proceedings issued in respect of “Holly”. M had a long history of drug misuse and her 3 older children had previously been removed from her care. Holly was removed from M at birth but was later returned. It was agreed that threshold was crossed but M had turned her life around such that she was capable of looking after Holly with support. The only question was whether this arrangement should be underpinned by a care order or a supervision order.

There was also an underlying factual issue: had M been using drugs, albeit at a low level, during the past two years? M accepted that up to July 2015 she had used cannabis daily and cocaine less frequently. She was adamant that she had not used drugs since and all the evidence supported her, except for hair strand tests taken over the two-year period which were showed low-level cocaine use for at least some of the time.

The HSTs were carried out by Alere Toxicology, Lextox and DNA Legal and they were all invited to intervene in the proceedings. Evidence was heard from each of them, an expert for M and a jointly instructed expert.

On 3 March it was ordered that Holly be returned to her mother’s care under an ISO. The issue about the validity of the HST results was transferred to the High Court.

Following Holly’s return, M was seen regularly by her drug support worker who gave her random drug/urine tests. These would detect significant (as opposed to slight) drug use in the previous 3 days or so. 57 tests were carried out between March and July and all were negative.

On 17 July all three testing organisations took a sample to cover a 6 month period. The results showed the presence of very small amounts of cocaine and low levels of BE. The LA argued that complete abstinence had not been achieved (which raised the level of risk that Holly would get caught up in future drug use) and that the results showed that M had not been telling the truth and consequently could not be fully trusted (their plan was for Holly to be placed for adoption but this was changed two days before the hearing(!) to a plan to return to with M under either a care or supervision order).

The Judge’s approach

Mr Justice Jackson started by saying: “Hair strand tests can provide important information, but in order for that to be of real use, the expert must (a) describe the process, (b) record the results, and (c) explain their possible significance, all in a way that can be clearly understood by those likely to rely on the information. If these important requirements are not met, there is a risk that the results will acquire a pseudo-certainty, particularly because they appear as numbers.” [para 25]

He then referred to several cases in which hair strand testing has been considered to assist him in approaching the issues in the case. In brief, the passages referred to say that:
• HST reports should present the analysis in clear language suitable for a lay person
• PD12B applies to hair strand test reports as they are opinion evidence despite being essentially factual
• HST results should be used only as part of the evidential picture. High levels might form a significant part of that picture but the tests should not be used to reach evidential conclusions by themselves in isolation of other evidence
• The science involved in hair strand testing for drug use is now well-established and not controversial, a positive identification of a drug at a quantity above the cut-off level is reliable as evidence that the donor has been exposed to the drug in question, sequential testing of sections is a good guide to the pattern of use revealed and the quantity of drug in any given section is not proof of the quantity actually used in that period but is a good guide to the relative level of use (low, medium, high) over time.

Next, he set out 12 propositions agreed between the expert witnesses, which provides a useful guide for practitioners to refer to:
1. Normal hair growth comprises a cycle of three stages: active growing (anagen), transition (catagen) and resting (telogen). In the telogen stage can remain on the scalp for 3-4 (or even 5 or 6) months before being shed. Approximately 15% of hair is not actively growing; this percentage can decrease during pregnancy.
2. Human head hair grows at a relatively constant rate, ranging as between individuals from 0.6 cm (or, in extreme cases, as low as 0.5 cm) to 1.4 cm (or, in extreme cases, up to 2.2 cm) per month. If the donor has a growth rate significantly quicker or slower than this, there is scope both for inaccuracy in the approximate dates attributed to each 1 cm sample and for confusion if overlaying supposedly corresponding samples harvested significant periods apart.
3. The hair follicle is located approximately 3-5 mm beneath the surface of the skin; hence it takes approximately 5-7 days for the growing hair to appear above the scalp and can take approximately 2-3 weeks to have grown sufficiently to be included in a cut hair sample.
4. After a drug enters the human body, it is metabolised into its derivative metabolites. The parent drug and the metabolites are present in the bloodstream, in sebaceous secretions and in sweat. These are thought to be three mechanisms whereby drugs and their metabolites are incorporated into human scalp.
5. The fact that a portion of the hair is in a telogen stage means that even after achieving abstinence, a donor’s hair may continue to test positive for drugs and/or their metabolites for a 3-6 month period thereafter.
6. Hair can become externally contaminated (e.g. through passive smoking or drug handling). Means of seeking to differentiate between drug ingestion and external contamination include:
(i) washing hair samples before testing to remove surface contamination
(ii) analysing the washes
(iii) testing for the presence of the relevant metabolites and establishing the ratio between the parent drug and the metabolite
(iv) setting threshold levels.
7. Decontamination can produce variable results as it depends upon the decontamination solvent used.
8. The Society of Hair Testing (SoHT) has set recommended cut-offs of cocaine and its metabolites in hair to identify use:
(i) cocaine: 0.5 ng/mg
(ii) metabolites BE, AEME, CE and NCOC: 0.05 ng/mg
9. Cocaine (COC) is metabolized into benzoylecgonine (BE or BZE), norcocaine (NCOC) and, if consumed, together with alcohol (ethanol), cocaethylene (CE). The presence of anydroecgonine methyl ester (AEME) in hair is indicative of the use of crack smoke cocaine.
10. Cocaine is quickly metabolised in the body: therefore, in the bloodstream the concentration of cocaine is usually lower than that of BE. However, cocaine is incorporated into hair to a greater degree than BE: therefore, the concentration of cocaine in the hair typically exceeds that of BE. Norcocaine is a minor metabolite and its concentration in both blood and hair is usually much lower than either cocaine or BE.
11. Some metabolites can be produced outside the human body. In particular, cocaine will hydrolyse to BE on exposure to moisture to variable degree, although high levels of BE as a proportion of cocaine would not be expected. It is very unlikely that NCOC will be found in the environment. The fact that cocaine metabolites can be produced outside the body raises the possibility that their presence is due to exposure: this is not the case with cannabis, whose metabolite is produced only inside the body.
12. Having washed the hair before testing, analysis of the wash sample can allow for comparison with the hair testing results. There have been various studies aimed at creating formulae to assist in differentiating between active use and external contamination. In particular:
(i) Tsanaclis et al. propose that if the ratio of cocaine in the washing to that in the hair is less than 1:10, this indicates drug use.
(ii) Schaffer proposed “correcting” the hair level for cocaine concentration by subtracting five times the level detected in the wash.
The underlying fundamentals are that if external contamination has occurred (and therefore a risk of migration into the hair giving results that would appear to be positive) this is likely to be apparent from the amount of cocaine identified in the wash relative to that extracted from the hair.

The test results

• The range of results obtained vary quite considerably. The DNA Legal results for 2016 were in some cases two or three times higher than those found by the other organisations. They reported findings in the low to medium range whereas the rest reported low findings.
• Direct comparison is confounded somewhat by the fact that hair was taken at different times, and that the assumed 1 cm growth rate may not be correct.
• Results may be affected by differences in laboratory equipment and differences in the way the hair is washed before analysis.
• Even when the hair was taken by each testing company at the same time, two labs showed a cocaine result relating to April which was well below the cut-off, whilst the DNA Legal result was just about the cut-off.

Variability of findings from HST doesn’t call into question the underlying science, but underlines the need to treat numerical data with proper caution. The test is only part of the evidence. A very high result may amount of compelling evidence, but in the lower range numerical information must be set alongside evidence of other kinds.

Test results are reported as being within a “range”; low, medium or high. The danger is that the report is too easily taken to be conclusive proof of high/medium/low use, when the actual level of use may be lower or higher than the description. There are physiological variables in relation to hair colour, race, hair condition, pregnancy and body size. There are also variables inherent in the testing process (e.g. different washing practices). Further, the testing companies set out their ranges differently:
Cocaine Low Medium High
DNA Legal 0.5 – 0.89 0.89 – 18.9 18.9<
Lextox 0.5 – 1.23 1.23 – 10.19 10.19<
Alere 0.5 – 1.69 1.69 – 6.14 6.14<

How should reports be written in future?

The Judge made 7 suggestions to help the nine accredited hair strand testing organisations working in the family law arena:
(1) Use of high/medium/low descriptor:
This is in my view useful, provided it is accompanied by:
• A numerical description of the boundaries between high/medium/low, with an explanation of the manner in which the boundaries are set should be stated.

• A clear statement that the description is of the level of substance found and not of the level of use, though there may a broad correlation.

• A reminder that the finding from the test must always be set alongside other sources of information, particularly where the results are in the low range.

(2) Reporting of data below the cut-off range:
There is currently inconsistency as between organisations on reporting substances detected between the lower limit of detection (LLoD) and the lower limit of quantification (LLoQ), and those between the LLoQ and the cut-off point.

I would suggest that reports record all findings, so that:
• a finding below the LLoQ is described as “detected, but so low that it is not quantifiable”

• A result falling below the cut-off level is given in numerical form
and that this data is accompanied by a clear explanation of the reason for the cut-off point and the need for particular caution in relation to data that falls below it.

(3) Terminology
Efforts to understand the significance of tests are hampered by the lack of a common vocabulary to describe results in the very low ranges, Descriptions such as “positive”, “negative”, “indicates that” and “not detected” can be used and understood vaguely or incorrectly. The creation of a common vocabulary across the industry could only be achieved by a body such as the SoHT. In the absence of uniformity, reporters should define their terms precisely so that they can be accurately understood.

(4) Expressions of probability:
The Family Court works on the civil standard of proof, namely the balance of probabilities. It would therefore help if opinions about testing results could be expressed in that way. For example:
“Taken in isolation, these findings are in my opinion more likely than not to indicate ingestion of [drug].”

“Taken in isolation, these findings are in my opinion more likely than not to indicate that [drug] has not been ingested because….”

“Taken in isolation, these findings are in my opinion more likely to indicate exposure to [drug] than ingestion.”

(5) Where there is reason to believe that environmental contamination may be an issue, this should be fully described, together with an analysis of any factors that may help the reader to distinguish between the possibilities.

(6) The FAQ sheet accompanying the report (which might better be described as “Essential Information”), might be tailored to give information relevant to the particular report, and thereby make it easier to assimilate.

(7) When it is known that testing has been carried out by more than one organisation, the report should explain that the findings may be variable as between organisations.
Judge’s conclusion

The latter part of 2015 and during 2016

M used cocaine at relatively low and infrequent level and has therefore not told the truth. Although there is evidence of M’s attempts to rid herself of drugs, the almost continuous array of results significantly above the threshold cannot adequately be explained by inadvertent exposure. The pattern is much more consistent with use, although exposure could have been a contributor. Also, the results were not too dissimilar to those from August 2015 when M admitted using drugs.

The period after Holly’s birth

There was weaker scientific evidence in relation to the period after Holly’s birth and given the finding in relation to earlier use, the possibility that M is not telling the truth about the later period cannot be discounted. There have been very regular urine testing and continuous face-to-face contact with professionals and no one has noticed the slightest suggestion of drug use and the interpretations of the toxicologists vary. Taking the evidence as a whole, I am not satisfied that it has made out its case in relation to recent use of cocaine and on balance I am prepared to accept M’s evidence that she has been free of drugs since Holly’s birth.
Holly remained with M, under a supervision order.

Children Across the Justice Systems

 

 

Thanks to our regular contributor Looked After Child for her thought provoking comment about policies and who pays, following the President’s recent speech. Fragmentation of services is causing increasing harm and inefficiency. Whatever your view of the market, don’t we still need good governance?

This post takes as its starting point Sir James Mumby, President of the Family Division’s speech on 30 October 2017:- Children Across the Justice Systems, The 2017 Parmoor Lecture

Sir James discusses seven serious problems preventing the courts working effectively to make the best decisions possible for children when called upon to do so. This post focuses on the fifth identified problem – The division of responsibilities across Whitehall between different Departments and Ministers in matters affecting families and children

Thanks to the Howard League for Penal Reform for organising this lecture series as part of its wide ranging, essential work with and for children in the Secure Estate.

Magic Money Tree

There is no ‘magic money tree’ apparently. Even with my very superficial acquaintance with economics I’m not sure economics students would entirely agree with that statement (Remember Quantitative Easing and Keynesian economics?) but let’s take it at face value.

There is no magic money tree so we have to figure out how to use the resources we have to best effect. Our government and the Treasury seems to think this entails Government Departments giving ever smaller, sometimes one-off, pots of money to agencies and organisations with the mantra ‘Spend it well and show how spending this money will save money in other areas that our Department has responsibility for’.

No one is really sure who should be prioritised when it comes to spending money – should it be the most in-need or the most powerful or the most important to policymakers if they are to retain their policy-making powers or…?

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

What are the advantages of this approach to policymakers?

We end up with a small government with a policy-making role in the main. Agencies can go out to a market of ‘providers’ with their pot of money and buy in the services they need showing ‘best value’. They compete with each other for services and using various mechanisms the Government creates the environment where the market is encouraged to flourish. People with money can buy in their own services if they choose to so reducing the burden on the taxpayer.

Policymakers can make policy without having responsibility for delivery so policy can in itself ‘have a kind face’. Charities can be included as ‘suppliers of services’ so the market has as wide a supplier base as possible. Peer-to-peer learning can be encouraged as can self-certification so we need few expensive ‘compliance checkers’ – Health and Safety Officers, Building Control Officers, School Inspectors etc. Where these are needed then whoever has need of the service should pay so where possible even compliance checking contracts can be marketed and have revenue generating potential.

 

What are the disadvantages of this approach to everyone?

I have a son with vulnerabilities so it matters to me more than most that because of these policies people in need are in many cases being left behind often in dreadful circumstances. The vulnerable including children are also often painted as the agents of their own misfortunes to justify the inhumanity that those that need services are often treated with. Many have rights, enshrined from a kinder age, that are seen as optional extras or something that unfunded charities, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, should meet.

Good health of the market becomes the driver for policy. Regulation is seen as a ‘drag on the market’, just ‘red tape’. The Grenfell Tower fire is likely to show where this can ultimately lead – hollowed out enforcement services for out-of-date regulations. Self-certification that ticked a box but did’ent meet a need. It is also worth pointing out that 18- year old building apprentices would still be shoveling asbestos if left to the construction industry to figure out what it should be doing in response to the extreme dangers posed by asbestos fibres. The market clearly needs direction and regulation and government has a role beyond that of ensuring the health of the market. It has a role in ensuring the health of the people and of communities. It has a role in ensuring we live in a just and fair society.

There are also issues of sustainability. As a country we own less year-on-year in terms of our national assets and we often have no real idea of who is actually carrying out contracted-out services, how well they are trained, what they are doing at a ‘fine grain level’ and what the implications are for our ‘tax take’ or the loss to individual communities in terms of employment security and nett wealth of individuals within those communities. Surely this cannot be sustainable long term?

There is also a danger of disconnect of policymakers from policy delivery. ‘Teflon coated’ policymakers may point to one or two good things happening somewhere in their particular area of influence and then say ‘our policy is working’ even though it is clear that there is systemic failures of whatever kind – around fragmentation, resources being used to address complexity rather than meeting need, underfunding, gaps in provision, inadequate data collection, analysis and reporting as just some examples. At what point does this become unethical misdirection, eroding belief in Government itself?

Fragmentation is highly inefficient if not unworkable. Take one example – our son’s school is in one LA, his doctor another, we live in a third. He needed specialist medical support in a fourth, was discharged from the hospital to a fifth so who is responsible for the package of social care support that he needs, particularly if our LA was not even aware that he had difficulties? If that were not crazy enough geographic footprints for LAs do not match geographic footprints for clinical commissioning groups for healthcare.

Footprints for specialist services may be at semi-regional level, footprints for other services at a local level. All are so busy looking after their own budgets that there is a disconnect between “making sure you can justify spending the money from this budget” with “what needs to happen to provide an effective service?” It is hard to explain how byzantine this is to negotiate on the ground and no-one seems to be logging un-met need just tightening the criteria to access their service. We are encouraged to accept injustice on the grounds of pragmatism. ”There is no magic money tree”.

I don’t believe in markets in the ways policymakers seem to. You can have any number of people employed trying to procure services but if you have no service providers there is no service but there is still a cost. Suppliers cherry pick lucrative work and have no values other than to make profit. I have no idea why anyone would think it could be otherwise when dealing in a marketplace.

 

What needs to change?

The service landscape resembles nothing as much as the parish council system of the 1840’s before the great reforms of public health and services that gathered momentum in the 1950’s. I for one never signed up for this.

If indeed there is no magic money tree then we need consensus on how we prioritise where we spend money. The views of people who have need of services should be central to that debate. Should we be locking children up if they are less safe in our prisons than in their community? Should we be taking children into Care when we are now seeing grandmothers who were in Care lose their grandchildren to the Care system and we don’t know why? What kind of society are we? Do we choose to blame, punish or help those who need services? If we help, do we only do so in a punitive way to deter people from asking for help? How much help is enough and how should that help be provided? Policymakers may not like some of the answers to these questions but they really have to engage – that is the job of Government.

Government Departments need to change from being provider focussed to service user led.

If you need a school or children’s services’ input into your (child’s) care, the Department for Education currently has responsibility for putting in place polices for delivery of education and for children’s social care. They do not control all policies relating to children including when children get health support or if they go to prison. The policies that apply and costs associated come from different Department’s budgets. There are bizarre situations where the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for example have responsibility for Drug and Alcohol courts (possibly because gaming can lead to addiction???).

The territorial nature of Departmental remits matters to us all because we need our services to work seamlessly. Instead Departments each look to different experts to give direction on policy, have different initiatives that run over different timescales, different cultures (imagine how co-production of services now widely promoted by the Department of Health would impact the Care system?) and each work largely in silos.

I think Departments might be better defined by user groups – Department for Families, Department for the Third Age etc so that each department knows who they are delivering services for and produce coordinated policy for their user group. As an example a new Department for Families could have as its focus health, education, care and justice for children/young people, parenting support where needed, poverty reduction, secure housing for families.

 

What happens if we keep going as we are?

It isn’t working on so many levels that many people just want a ‘reset button’. Brexit is a symptom of this.

Talk about ‘the magic money tree’ should not blind people to the fact that we need good government. It is essential particularly when money is tight. Bad government has consequences for us all and these consequences are sometimes neither foreseeable nor controllable. Good governance is in all our interests.

Happy Families – The conversations we are not having about adoption – Feedback from London Event

 

On Saturday October 28th 2017 we gathered again, this time in London, for the ‘oral installation performance’ about adoption and the problems caused by lack of honest and open conversation about its meaning and consequences.

The main questions Pamela and I hoped to pose were these:

  • Can we make happy families?
  • Can we impose identity on a child?
  • Do we need to ‘rescue’ children or should we be trying to support unhappy families?
  • What is really at the heart of our child protection system and adoption and why aren’t we talking about this?

Again, I was really pleased that the audience seemed keen to talk and the conversation was lively and wide ranging. It was also great to finally meet in person some of those I have been ‘talking’ to on line for some time now. 

I hope that the conversations we started in Bristol on September 23rd and in London on October 28th can carry on elsewhere. If anyone reading this would like us to come and perform in your area, let me or Pamela know!

Themes emerging

A member of the audience recorded the following as those issues which attracted her attention:

  • Is there another side to the issue? The talk seemed to imply that adoption is negative, but if so, what’s the alternative?
  • Who is going to do the research into outcomes? How is it to be funded?
  • Adoption seems to involve ideological judgement and even social engineering, and is used as a solution to problems within the care system generally. Why isn’t there conversation about all the possible consequences, good and bad, short and long-term, for everyone involved?
  • Why isn’t there legal and financial help for, say, the parents of split siblings, to enable a sense of family to persist?
  • Social media has raised the profile and voice of adopters, but again, it is usually the articulate middle classes who benefit. How can this be made more of a level platform?
  • How successful is the assessment process at preparing adopters to be parents?
  • Are support services adequate in the era of austerity, particularly in view of the needs that may arise in adopted children from different backgrounds?
  • What qualifies a parent for serious intervention such as psychotherapy? There is no clinical criteria, and the distribution of these resources seems to depend on how wealthy and/or how vocal you are.
  • Is the problem that research may be carried out but is unheeded by policy makers? If so, is it because of (lack of) money? Or prevailing ideology? Or lack of belief in public discourse by the general public?
  • The UK concept of ‘childhood’ is adult-led, which is behind the times compared to much European thinking. Should the UK widen its perspective?I]
  • Is it worth saying that you can’t prevent the death of every child deemed to be at risk, regardless of any external circumstances? There would and will always be cases like Baby P, leading to knee-jerk reactions by the media, and potentially causing as much harm as good.
  • How do you counteract false narratives that are propagated by sections of the media for political ends?
  • Should there be a set timeline for adoption or not? If yes, what should it be? If no, how do you set parameters?
  • Is there a wider question about the way society undervalues diversity and views disadvantage?
  • How can we stop money being wasted by the government on high-profile, ‘scattergun’ interventions which are often shown to have achieved nothing when they are evaluated by practitioners?
  • How big a problem is trafficking of children? Can we believe the narratives in the media?

Comments from the audience

I have just started my MA in Social Work and this has made me aware of some disturbing elephants in the room and what sort of actions I need to think about supporting.

I found the method of presentation simple, powerful, effective. I thought Your performance Sarah was excellent. It was gripping. I think you didn’t need to try and answer the q’s ( except the first that was framed firmly as a q to you).

It didn’t make me think afresh about adoption as i already do but it was good to be able to ‘come out’ on those views in a public debate. My sense is that there has been a big shift in recent years to voices accepted as credible (rather than othered as disgruntled or extremists – some of course, being actually so) being able to question current adoption policy & practice.

I think you could have done even more to engage w evidence in support of adoption & eg the idea that it was precisely because Jobs was removed & adopted that he developed capacity & opportunity to have such an impact. Tho u said u had no views the choices about what material used & ansa’s given suggested u had strong views that much is broken & dysfunctional, just not on how to achieve change & what good wld like.

Abuse on line: What are we going to do about it?

In April 2017  I wrote at length about my experiences of being harassed on-line. How my photograph was repeatedly published, how accusations were made about my intelligence, my appearance, my sexuality. All of this designed to terrifying me into shutting up.  I sought help from a number of agencies and received very little. For some reason, this kind of behaviour is still shrugged off as childish or inconsequential.

It isn’t.

I have more than usual resilience and an atypically combative nature. Even I have been shocked and frightened by what has been aimed at me. Particularly when my child is targeted.

I foolishly stated in April that this would be my ‘last word’ on the topic. I was fed up of so much of my time and energy being distracted by contemplating the ugly behaviour of some very disturbed people.

But they didn’t stop. They started publishing my address. They started to try and use outside agencies such as the Information Commissioners Office, as a vehicle for their harassment. They continued to make bogus and malicious complaints to my Chambers (it seems in the mistaken belief that I am employed by my Chambers and could thus be sacked).

I kept hearing more and more accounts of people -usually women – forced off social medial because of persistent and malicious abuse directed at them.

I made nearly 50 reports to Twitter about the people who were violating its terms of service; Twitter responded to agree that yes they had! then did nothing. The abuse continues.

On my Twitter feed this morning I see the following post from another woman driven off social media by intimidation and others publishing her private details.

 

 

Enough surely is enough?

If Twitter won’t act – maybe we can.  I am fed up of moaning about this, of nothing ever changing, of almost every day finding that I had to deal with insults, abuse and attempts at intimidation. This is particularly depressing when the main offender is a member of a regulated and protected profession – yet the profession takes an entirely relaxed approach to what has been persistently disgraceful and public behaviour for well over a year now.

So I have started this crowd funding project. How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. Lets start at the beginning. Lets get the groundwork  sorted for a clear legal challenge to either the failure of platforms such as Twitter to enforce their own terms of Service or against the individuals who so blatantly abuse the freedoms, privileges and responsibilities of having a voice.

Please donate if you can. But please do it anonymously – or you will run the risk of being targeted if seen to support this campaign.

 

Myths and Monsters of Child Protection

 

On Monday October 16th I attended the conference organised by the charity The Open Nest at the Foundling Museum in London, which had invited a group of speakers to investigate the ‘myths and monsters’ around child protection.

For more of the discussion on the day, follow the Twitter hashtags #NAW2017 and #mythsandmonsters.

The speakers were:

  • Lemn Sissay: Poet, writer, speaker, actor.
  • Professor Brigid Featherstone: Author of The Adoption Enquiry BASW
  • Professor Anna Gupta: Author of The Adoption Enquiry BASW
  • Footsteps Group: Birth Mums peer support group, Leeds
  • Catt Peace: Social enterprise manager, advocate, blogger, adopted person
  • Anneghem Wall: Therapist, writer, adopted person
  • Rebekah Ubuntu: Musician, multi media performance artist, care leaver.
  • Dr Sue Robson: Special Guardian, community development practitioner.
  • Fran Proctor: Life coach, writer, adopted person
  • Ali Redford: Author, Adoptive parent
  • Amanda Boorman: Founder of The Open Nest Charity, adoptive parent.
  • Georgia Cooper: Therapist, artist, charity professional.
  • Lizzie Coombes: Photographer, community arts.

A key theme of the conference was how in general the reporting about child protection issues had become divorced from the realities – in particular the danger of the opinion that hardens into ‘fact’, recorded in professional records that then becomes the story of a child for the rest of their lives.  As the organisers commented:

Without due care and attention the information given and held on file about a families history can give a ‘fake news’ version of the bigger picture around events that caused child protection interventions. This in turn may hamper an individual’s human rights to accurate life story, individual and family identity and the maintaining of important connections and relationships.

Many speakers showed the importance of poetry in delivering a message far more effectively and powerfully than can ever be achieved by a dry lecture and a powerpoint. Those who illuminated their own childhood experiences echoed the uncomfortable discussions at the recent Nagalro conference ‘What about the children’, which highlighted the invisibility of children in the child protection system, even when it is ostensibly designed for their benefit.

Professor Bridgid Featherstone acknowledged the importance of stories and how we needed to now be taking control of the narrative – sadly, merely holding out ‘facts’ for inspection has historically made little impact.  Both she and Anna Gupta are concerned by what research reveals about the impact of poverty and social inequality on decisions made in child protection, although this is rarely acknowledged as a reason children are taken into care.  Hopefully the conclusions of their recent Inquiry into Adoption will be released shortly and will make for interesting and probably sobering reading.

Again, the importance of siblings was emphasised. This is the problem with a system of child protection that focuses on the rescue of the individual child and thus sees them in isolation from their families and communities.

Siblings become the ‘collateral damage’ of the child protection process. Fran Proctor spoke about being removed from her mother but her sister was returned and was killed. She was made to feel a ‘nuisance’ for wanting to know about her sister, for wanting to know her own story.

 

Both adopted children and adoptive parents spoke of one of the most pernicious myths of the whole system – that a ‘loving family’ is all that is needed to heal the trauma of a troubled child.

Sue Robson – now the Special Guardian of her grandson – praised the work of The Open Nest in providing a therapeutic space to heal her family’s trauma and loss which had lain there for 25 years. She felt that asking for help from Social Services had been one of the worst decisions she had ever made. There was nothing she could do to prove she wasn’t a ‘bad mother’ – if she was compliant she was deemed passive, if she was assertive, she was deemed aggressive.

 

Another theme was the need for professionals to remember that they are human beings, to talk to parents and children and recognise their humanity.  I have considered the dangers of jargon and cliche in a previous post here.

Lemn Sissay reminded us that the first thing he needed when he went into care, was the last thing he got – ‘a hug’. Children need to be touched. To ban touching out of fear that adults would sexually abuse children, Lemn Sissay reminded us, is a complete nonsense. Abusers will abuse anyway – that is what they do, they break the rules. To deprive a child of human touch is a terrible thing and he reminded us just how resilient children in care have to be to endure this.

 

But not only is the child deprived of physical comfort, they are denied the truth of their own history. The importance of family is that we share memories or we argue over who is right! Lemn Sissay realised when he left care that he now knew nobody who had known him for more than a year. The name he had grown up with was a lie, so to the story that his mother hadn’t cared. He finally got to read the letters she had written when he was a child and knew that he had been loved.

 

But the speakers also recognised that some children do need to be ‘rescued’ from their birth families. And for some, being adopted will indeed be the best thing that happened, But the theme running through the conference was a plea for truth  – even painful truths can be comforting, once we are allowed to know and tell our own stories.

I was very grateful to Amanda Boorman for letting me speak for 5 minutes about my performance on October 28th. The themes of that performance are echoed so strongly by what the speakers said at this conference. There is never anything dangerous or unsatisfying about being closer to the truth.