Myth Busting

The Particular Dangers of Conspiracy Theories for Parents

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

‘Conspiracy theories/theorists’ is a phrase often used on this site by me. Sometimes I slip into rather coarser language and refer to ‘conspiraloons’, which reflects the degree of exasperation I often feel for those who promote narratives about the child protection system that I think bear very little resemblance to the reality but instead promote fear and distrust.

I accept that it isn’t helpful if I let these feelings take over and lead me into dismissive language – and dismissive thinking. I can’t possibly know the truth about everything. But I do have some pretty good ideas about the truth of many things – based on my own direct experiences as well as wider reading/thinking about issues. So if you want me to accept a different truth, it will help if you can demonstrate by something other than mere assertion that my ‘truth’ is wrong.

So that is my individual perspective. But why I worry about conspiracy theories, and get impatient and testy with those who promote them, goes much deeper than simply my own personal annoyances.

Conspiracy theories about the child protection system have a real and immediate danger for parents caught up in care proceedings. I have often stated this but not clearly articulated exactly why. I found some very useful exposition in ‘Rising Strong’ by Brene Brown who defines a ‘conspiracy theory’ in this way in Chapter Five of her book:

What do we call a story that is based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.

She refers to the research of Jonanthan Gottschall who examines our human need to tell a satisfying story in ‘The Storytelling Animal’ and that this need is not confined to those with intellectual limitations or posters of David Icke in their bedrooms; it is a need that drives us all.

So why is this so dangerous for parents in care proceedings? Brene Brown explains it in this way:

Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self protection and our intolerance for uncertainty. When we depend on self-protecting narratives often enough, they become our default stories. And we must not forgot that storytelling is a powerful integration tool. We start weaving these hidden, false stories into our lives and they eventually distort who we are and how we relate to others.

When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships – we’ve got the story on repeat.

A real example – the Latvian case.

I was prompted to write this post by some email correspondence with a journalist who was concerned that a mother could not obtain a transcript of their care proceedings in 2012. There was a new baby on the way and clearly the local authority were investigating because the mother’s two elder children were removed from her care. I was immediately concerned that the focus of this mother appeared to be wishing to challenge the veracity or integrity of the 2012 proceedings. This would mean her energies would be directed to an almost certainly futile aim of attempting to challenge a court decision now four years old. What she needed to do was engage with a lawyer or a social worker, not a journalist.

A further worrying and practical example of the dangers of such diverted energies, which was ultimately destructive of the mother’s wish to be reunited with her child is in the CB Latvian case, which I discuss in more detail here. It is worth reminding ourselves of the situation in which this child was found:

I then heard a whimpering sound from a door directly in front of me. Once I had opened the door, I saw a room. In the left-hand corner of the room was a wardrobe and there were toys all over the floor. In the right-hand corner of the room against the window was a double bed that looked very soiled. On the wall beside the bed was a large area of damp and the wallpaper was coming away. There was a very strong and overpowering smell of urine and faeces in the room. I saw the child curled in an almost foetal position on the bed lying on a pillow. She sat up when we came into the room and she was holding an empty pink bottle. I went towards the child and she stood up and came towards me. I saw that her clothes were wet and that she was wearing a nappy that was falling off between her legs. Once in a different room, I could see that the child’s clothes were wet and she was shivering. The strong smell was coming from her and it was clear that she had not been changed or cleaned all day. I removed the child’s nappy to find dried and fresh faeces. The nappy was so swollen with urine that the child was unable to walk properly. There were also dried faeces on the child’s body and her skin was soaked in urine that had leaked from her nappy and gone through her clothes.

However, this case was taken up by John Hemming as an example of the ‘conspiracy theory’ that  local authorities are driven to remove children to meet ‘targets’ for adoption and that there had never actually been anything wrong with this mother’s parenting. From his discussions on Twitter it was clear that he wished to minimise the harm caused to this child and refer to it as a case about ‘not changing a nappy’ or simply the mother leaving home before her babysitter.

It is unsurprising that mother found this version of events both coherent and satisfying. Rather than address the consequences of the choices she made, which lead to her child suffering significant harm, she could instead be a ‘victim’ of a corrupt state that wanted to steal her child.

But not being able to accept what had in reality happened to her child meant that she could never show that she understood what had gone wrong and what support she needed to make things better. Her fight was always doomed because it wasn’t based on what the majority of people in her case saw as the reality.

Even more worryingly, Hemming asserts that politicians are also seduced by this ‘coherent and satisfying’ narrative.

 

EDIT – Following Discussions with Readers

I am grateful to everyone who commented. It made me think, which is the whole point. I agree that it must be very frustrating for a parent who has actually been the victim of professionals who lied or did a very sloppy job to hear me say that their dissatisfaction with the system is down to their own false internal narrative.

Of course I accept that professionals (as fellow humans) can and do behave badly. I have commented about that on this site; a particularly horrible example is the social workers who were found to have lied to the court but who then went on to get promoted! The Rotherham scandal is a clear example of what happens when assumption and prejudice harden into ‘facts’  and families and children are dismissed.

However, this post was born out of frustration with what is my now frequent experiences in court and on-line – parents for whom their are demonstrable, tangible concerns: police reports, drug and alcohol tests, scene of crime photographs of their houses, children with injuries, worried schools, doctors and members of the public who make referrals. And very often, I will find these parents will not or cannot engage with me to represent them. I hear from these parents phrases which are worryingly familiar – ‘lambs to the slaughter’ ‘no punishment without crime’. It is quite obvious who they are talking to.  I have had several clients tell me that the social worker will be paid a cash bonus if she ‘gets’ their child.

And by refusing to engage, the system just rolls on over them. They lose their children and are reduced to on line petitions or Facebook raging, in a desperate and miserable fury. But an on line petition is meaningless against a court ruling. If parents don’t engage with their case WHEN IT IS HAPPENING then they will lose.

A clear example from my own practice: I had a client who had been an alcoholic for many years and when care proceedings started had been evicted for rent arrears. The child was removed. An adoption order was sought. The client resisted because – amazingly – they had managed to stop drinking and get a new tenancy. The court was interested. This was real and serious change. Then the client said they wanted to read from a pre-prepared statement in court. It was part of Ian Joseph’s manifesto and referred to the child being stolen by the State and of social workers who got bonuses. I saw the interest draining from the Judge’s eyes. The court could not now believe the client had any real insight into the previous problems and thus the sustainability of the changes made was in real doubt. The adoption order was made.

So I am not going to apologise for pointing out to parents the very real dangers of not being brutally honest about the ‘story’ you are telling – to yourself and to others. And of course, the stories we tell ourselves are the most difficult to challenge.

But I accept it must be hard for parents who know they have been the victims of really poor professional practice to feel that their concerns are dismissed. I hope they accept that I don’t – but it might be the subject for another post.

 

Further reading/watching

An excellent study of the whys and hows of conspiracy theories by Rob Brotherton ‘Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Consipracy Theories’

Academic study about how social media provides perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories: Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation [2015].

For those who doubt the malign reach and impact of conspiracy theories, see what Melanie Shaw has to say about it  and the problems they cause for investigations of real problems and abuse.