Other thoughts

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

Are you sitting comfortably? The Art of Story Telling

As a species we appear to be primed to impose a narrative on our experiences. We love stories and we need them. As Adam Gopnik commented in 2012, looking at the science behind storytelling:

Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

The book ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories’ is described thus:

This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.

It is of course a bitter irony that its author is Christopher Booker, one of the chief proponents over many years of the narrative of the ‘evil and secret’ family courts that do untold harm to ‘innocent’ families for no reason other than caprice and cruelty. See this post for how he wrote about the case of Marie Black, a convicted paedophile in the criminal courts but to Booker simply another in a long line of victims of the family courts.

So I can conclude that stories are important to our psychological make up as a species and that there are only a limited number of ‘basic stories’ . I can also conclude that the family justice system has not been able to grapple with this narrative drive for some very obvious reasons. Predominantly this is the operation of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act which prohibits publication of details of proceedings held in private – as most proceedings under the Children Act are.

This insistence on privacy is to protect the identity of the children involved becoming widely known – a perfectly proper endeavour. Children did not ask to be born and they certainly did not ask to become involved in public airing of the family’s dirty secrets.

But this has lead to silence from those who know best about how cases are argued, how judges make decisions, why and how families are separated and children adopted. Into that silence, over the years, has come the noise and chatter of many groups and individuals who for a variety of reasons have a strong and appealing narrative about the family justice system. Many of these narratives bear no resemblance to reality but to counter them is next to impossible because of course responsible commentators cannot refer to the details of actual court proceedings involving children.

This has all come to a head recently with the death of Alfie Evans on 28th April 2018. The ‘compassionate’ judgments in this case have been published. But how many are reading them?

 

Its always interesting to apply a Dunning Fog index test to published text.This is

a weighted average of the number of words per sentence, and the number of long words per word. An interpretation is that the text can be understood by someone who left full-time education at a later age than the index.

To be ‘universally accessible’ the text needs to score no more than 8. To be ‘widely accessible’ no more than 12. Looking at the first judgment in Alfie Evan’s case in February 2018, a random paragraph scores 18.61. The Church Militant article, pictured above, scored 13.29 and of course was accompanied by heart wrending photographs of a little boy and a far more instantly accessible and emotional narrative than that provided by the court judgments.

Many lawyers commented on social media that they could not understand why so many appeared to be by-passing the compassion and legal wisdom of the published judgments and preferring instead to share the more lurid and fantastical stories playing out around Alfie’s life and death. Perhaps this discussion may give them a clue.

Why does this matter? The difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ transparency

It matters because those who peddle the strong but wrong narratives have a reach and influence far beyond comments on a screen. No sadder and clearer example can be found than in the Alfie Evans case where hundreds of people marched on a children’s hospital to shout abuse at doctors and nurses. The comments of the Court of Appeal in the final court judgment in April 2018 make for troubling reading:

  1. We were reminded that in the past leading counsel, Mr Stephen Knafler QC, acting then on behalf of both of the parents, deprecated the involvement of legally qualified but not practising lawyers who introduced (to use Mr Knafler’s phrase) a “darker side” to what was otherwise valuable support. It has become apparent to this court, and we referred to it in the postscript to the judgment that we gave on 6 March 2018 in relation to the first appeal, that there was some coordinated organisation of potential medical experts in relation to more than one of these vulnerable families, the same expert being covertly introduced to Kings College Hospital to examine secretly one child in the paediatric intensive care unit there and the next day to go to Alder Hey, again covertly and secretly, to purport to examine Alfie there.

  2. It is not the function of this court now to embark upon an investigation of these matters, but it has become apparent, in particular in terms of the information we have been given about the instruction of the new legal team for the mother today and the drafting of the grounds of appeal upon which Mr Coppel purported to rely at the start of his submissions, (with its unhappy emphasis on prospective criminal proceedings against the staff at Alder Hey) that the representation of the parents may have been infiltrated or compromised by others who purport to act on their behalf. I say no more, but I have in mind the tenuous nature of the direct contact that Mr Coppel and his instructing solicitors had with the mother and yet the clear grounds of appeal that he was instructed to put forward on her behalf, which were, it now transpires, drafted by a lawyer who is not before the court. It may be that some investigation of whether, in this country, at this time, parents who find themselves in these awful circumstances, and are therefore desperate for help and vulnerable to engaging with people whose interests may not in fact assist the parents’ case, needs some wider investigation, but I do no more than draw attention to the concern that this court has at what seems to be an unhelpful development which may, in reality, be contrary to the interests of such parents.

There are many other examples of this kind of attack on the rule of law and the erosion of public trust and confidence in the family justice system. The same names crop up over and over again – Sabine McNeil, John Hemming, Ian Josephs and Christopher Booker for example. They all promote the narrative that parents would be better off leaving the jurisdiction than facing the UK family court system. Josephs and Hemming provide money and accommodation for mothers they persuade to ‘flee’. For many, this proves a disastrous decision.

Sabine McNeil was one of those ‘campaigners’ responsible for promoting the ‘Hampstead Hoax’ which even now continues to cause anxiety to local parents who find themselves branded satanic abusers. The judgment in the fact finding hearing sets out the truth but that judgment can make no inroads into the deluded certainties of those who are convinced that a primary school in Hampstead routinely organised the murder of babies and the wearing of their skin as shoes.

Although Sabine McNeil is now in prison, it is sobering to remember that only in 2014 she was presenting a petition to the European Parliament about the UK family courts, which lead to a visit to London by a European delegation in November of that year.

Also in 2014 the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby made it clear that things had to change, saying:

I am determined to take steps to improve access to and reporting of family proceedings. I am determined that the new Family Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice.’

The President issued guidelines for the publication of judgments and the last four years have seen a significant increase in the number published – however, there appears no clear or coherent strategy behind this. Some judges publish a lot, some none at all. Publishing a judgment, as I have commented, doesn’t mean that anyone will read it or that it can stand up to a much more immediate and ‘sexy’ narrative.

So what’s the solution?

Family lawyers and the family justice system need to understand the difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ transparency and need to be more willing to promote the first. ‘Transparency’ is about so much more than just allowing passive public scrutiny of processes and outcomes: we must generate a far greater understanding amongst the public about what is behind the decisions made. This becomes an increasingly urgent project as distrust between parents and professionals apparently hardens and increases. For example, in 2017 McFarlane LJ noted with disquiet in the first Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture:

‘From what I have been told from a range of sources, and from my own exposure on a daily basis to litigants in person seeking to appeal child care decisions, there is a significant and growing distrust shown by some parents in child care lawyers and judges. This is deeply worrying and needs to be addressed if it is not to lead to yet more parents disengaging from working with professionals and the process in a way which can, in my view, only damage their interests rather than enhance them.’

This worrying evidence of growing distrust between parents and professionals was also highlighted by the journalist and Transparency Project member Louise Tickle who delivered the second BLM lecture on March 13th in Birmingham. Louise is an example of the benefits of a particular type of ‘active’ transparency – encouraging intelligent outsiders to examine our current closed systems and highlight where practice and procedure that to family lawyers seems normal, may appear bizarre and even frightening to those on the outside. Her clear conclusion was that the secrecy of the family courts was a disgrace and led to bad practice escaping scrutiny and censure. When writing about family cases her inbox became ‘one long scream of pain’.

Little wonder then that the narratives about the ‘evil secret family courts’ take such firm grasp and no doubt at all about the damage they do – not just to individuals who find themselves taking some very bad advice, but to society as a whole, for respect for the rule of law.

All of us involved in the family justice system have to start getting better at telling our story.

 

Further Reading

 

  • Note in particular this article Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation: ‘the World Wide Web has changed the dynamics of information transmission as well as the agenda-setting process [1]. Relevance of facts, in particular when related to social relevant issues, mingle with half-truths and untruths to create informational blends [2, 3]. In such a scenario, as pointed out by [4], individuals can be uninformed or misinformed and the role of corrections in the diffusion and formation of biased beliefs are not effective. In particular, in [5] online debunking campaigns have been shown to create a reinforcement effect in usual consumers of conspiracy stories.’

 

Keep on Running

On 12th April 2018 Mr Justice Francis gave judgment in the case of CFA (Ireland) v F [2018] EWHC 939 (Fam) (12 April 2018).

This is a case about parents ‘fleeing’ from the UK to Ireland in an attempt to avoid child protection proceedings here. I have written before about this phenomenon and the dangers it can pose to parents and children. See  ‘Helping Parents leave the Jurisdiction’ first published in September 2015 and ‘Mums on the Run’ first published in September 2016.

This current is case is another illustration of the futility of this strategy.

I would be interested to know who helped the parents in this case leave the jurisdiction and what interest or investigation – if any – they made into what is described as the ‘extremely complicated’ background of the mother.

If previous cases are any guide, they made none because they don’t see this as relevant – the only goal is to get parents out of the ‘clutches’ of the evil child snatchers. It seems that the issue of ‘mums on the run’ is gaining increasing prominence. The influence of certain individuals such as John Hemming and Ian Josephs in the continued encouragement of this often futile endeavour, needs to be taken much more seriously by all those charged with securing the welfare of children.

Josephs is quite clear that he gives money to parents without any check or even concern about what challenges and traumas they have faced which might impact on their ability to provide safe care for a child. The most notorious example of this is of course Marie Black – a convicted paedophile who Josephs helped travel to France before her trial and conviction.

I have commented over the years that it is going to take a child to die before anyone takes this seriously. I really hope I am wrong about that.

 

Facts of this case and the court’s decision

CFA involved a child F, who was born in late 2017 and at the time of the court hearings was living in foster care in Ireland. Her parents had travelled from the UK to Ireland when the mother was pregnant with F and another sibling was in the care of an English local authority. The issue was now which country should decide where F should live as she was growing up.

Article 15 of the Brussels II regulations sets out the procedure the courts need to follow when transferring these cases.

Article 15(1) provides:

“By way of exception, the courts of a Member State having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter may, if they consider that a court of another Member State, with which the child has a particular connection, would be better placed to hear the case, or a specific part thereof, and where this is in the best interests of the child:

The matter had first come before Judge O’Leary in Ireland on 8 January 2018 and she granted the Article 15 request to transfer. The parents appealed and it came before HHJ Donnabháin on 6 February 2018 who confirmed that earlier decision. The matter then came before the English courts. In February 2018 MacDonald J agreed with the Irish courts.

MacDonald J allowed the mother and father the chance to argue about why this shouldn’t happen and the parents put their arguments in writing and appeared before Francis J. After some confusion about whether the parents were physically in Ireland and attempting to challenge decisions made there, the hearing got underway but required considerably more time than the hour which it had optimistically been allowed.

Francis J was clear that factual background of the parents ‘fleeing’ was not relevant to the decision he was now making and he didn’t hold it against the parents ‘as a black mark’. He recognised that the Irish judgments contained some very important information and he cited it at some length. He found that the Irish courts had give very clear reasons as to why F’s case should be transferred.

HHJ Donnabháin had found that F has ‘a UK nationality and identity.’ Further, the mother’s circumstances also raised concern. At para 5 he said:

This lady’s background [by which he means the mother] is extremely complicated and requires the fullest access to all the medical, psychiatric, and social work reports which exist. These reports can only be ultimately relied upon to be produced in the United Kingdom and they are of fundamental importance to informing any court decision regarding the child’s welfare.”

And at para 13 he said:

I should say that it is obvious to me from the background that I have read about this case that the mother is entitled to the court’s greatest sympathy and understanding for she has had, it is undoubtedly true, an extremely difficult, troubled, and traumatic time. I need say no more about that for the purposes of this judgment but it is important to her that she knows that it is acknowledged by me when giving this judgment.

Francis J reminded himself of the observations of the President of the Family Division in Re HJ (A Child) [2013] EWHC 1867 (Fam) which commented that transfer requests were effectively a ‘summary process’ – to go into the merits of the case in any great detail would risk protracted and costly battles as to which is the correct jurisdiction. So the transfer decision must be made swiftly and what really matters in this case is the decision that will be made in due course by the court deciding where F should live as she grows up.

The proposed transfer must be in the best interests of the child and Francis J found that the  Irish courts had already made that assessment and found the transfer would be positively beneficial.

The parents’ arguments against transfer

The parents argued they are settled in Ireland and want to be assessed there. However the Judge responded that transferring the case to England would not prevent the parents being assessed in what they say is now their home country and he did not see this as a determinative feature.

Of more importance was their argument that if F came to England that would make it more difficult for them to see her. However, the Judge commented that there was nothing to stop the local authority, if they obtained an interim care order for F, to allow her to stay in the interim care of her current foster carers in Ireland: ‘There is nothing particularly unusual about that. Indeed, Schedule 2 of the Children Act 1989 specifically provides for such placement’.

F’s guardian in Ireland made it clear shat F should not be moved in the interim and Francis J agreed.

…I am not saying that it would mean that there could not ever be a change of interim care, but it seems to me that a change of interim care is almost always to be avoided in these cases if the interim care is satisfactory. As far as I can see here, it is not just satisfactory but extremely good interim care that F is currently enjoying. However, there is no reason for me to think that the acceptance of a transfer request would alter the possibility of F continuing to be with her Irish foster carers.

The Judge however rejected the parents’ arguments that it would be contrary to F’s best interests to endure a short journey from Ireland to England and further comments that if F did end up living in England then the parents could be helped to travel to see her, at least in the short term.

 

He concluded at para 33:

I am completely satisfied that it is in F’s best interests for this case to be transferred to England. Moreover, the principles of comity require that I should have very considerable respect and regard for the Irish order, which I do, albeit that I am of course not bound to accept the request. However, having applied, I hope properly, the test which is set out in Article 15(5) and its interpretation by recent case law, I am completely satisfied that this court should accept the request and I now do so.

 

‘Consent’ and its importance

I am grateful for this post written by a parent about the practical and emotions impacts on parents around the issue of consent. This is particularly relevant in the context of much of the concern arising over use of section 20 accommodation under the Children Act 1989. For more detailed discussion about the impact of section 20, see this post.  

noun

permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.

“no change may be made without the consent of all the partners”

synonyms: agreement, assent, concurrence, accord; More

verb

give permission for something to happen.

“he consented to a search by a detective”

synonyms: agree to, assent to, allow, give permission for, sanction, accept, approve, acquiesce in, go along with, accede to, concede to, yield to, give in to, submit to, comply with, abide by, concur with, conform to

“all the patients consented to surgery”

 

Pretty clear isn’t it, yet speaking as one of any number of parents who have been duped by having their children removed under S20 , the term consent does not seem that easy to understand by all social workers.
This  short post is not about the legal implications, I am not a lawyer, but the practical and emotional effect on parents by dispensing with their consent. Consent is important , it is normally needed when someone or something could invade your privacy or potentially cause you harm. For instance we all have to consent to cookies on various website’s which store our browsing history, more seriously all sex must be between consenting adults if not it is a crime. Having you child removed from you without your consent is a violation, it feels as emotionally harmful as rape and that is no exaggeration. You are completely powerless, nobody will listen and you are as frightened as hell. You don’t know were to turn  and you believe the social worker because they sound knowledgeable. It is the power imbalance at its worst.
If you then find out your child has been removed unlawfully, you ricochet into the grief cycle starting with anger, which plays straight into the hands of the local authority who will deem you as mentally unstable and /or non compliant. You will feel guilt for not knowing that what happened was wrong and that you have let your children down. Closely followed by shame that you were taken in. Night terrors , can become the norm from the resulting PTSD.
Practically , parents are encouraged to break the law with regard to the benefits system . I remember asking whether I should still receive child benefit and was told to do so. Yet if a child lives elsewhere for more than 8 weeks the parent is supposed to stop claiming https://www.gov.uk/child-benefit-child-lives-with-someone-else .
Many parents actually then up in debt , on top of their other problems whilst they are having to downsize. They may be unlawfully placed on supervised contact, so on top of their grief, their life has to revolve around getting to contact. Jobs and other commitments  are disrupted leading to added strain.  Local Authorities may pay out of pocket expenses for travel to contact , but these are normally  a  minimum and paid late.  Plus most parents will have no say as contact is  gradually whittled down. Contact may very well be supervised despite being unlawful. All of this is likely to have occurred without the benefit of legal advice.
Could you imagine going for an operation without the possible implications explained to you or even buy a car on a loan and you signing to say you understood. Consent matters, especially in removal of something more precious to you than anything in the world. Lack of consent leaves open wounds for years after, I know mine are still festering, that’s why I had to write this post. I hope it helps to stop the coercion of parents happening.

Stereotypes

 

I am grateful for this guest post from a parent who wishes to remain anonymous. She considers  the dangers inherent in a stereotyped ‘one size fits all’ package of ‘intervention’ to meet the needs of ‘troubled families. They give a sense that difficulties are being addressed when in fact, they may not even be understood. Presenting service users as crude stereotypes gets in the way of ‘good’ working with families which requires engagement and relationship building. 

When my son entered Care it sometimes felt as though we have got him on the last transport out of a very dangerous city in a time of war. We, the adults, had been left behind to face a regime focussed on our ‘re-education’ while he had been rescued to a place where we could never go.

One of the most surreal moments I experienced during my re-education (Troubled Families Parenting Programme – 30 hours plus etc.) was sitting facing a panel of police officers while they explained the concept of ‘joint enterprise’. I was surrounded by parents of babies, tots, school refusing adolescents, young men beyond parental control and young women with extremely poor mental health. My peers appeared to be reasonable parents although we all had difficulties – mostly around poor mental health and violence if I had to guess. I’m not sure if telling us about one of the dangers of ‘gang’ membership could ever do anything more than frighten us and we were all frightened enough already.
.
I can only imagine that someone had an idea in their head of what our families needed and had developed a ‘one size fits all’ programme to address these stereotypical needs.

Presumably someone had decided it would be good for us to attend this session on the basis that we were all parents in need of social care who lived in an urban mixed ethnicity area. On our parenting course no one ever talked about the impact of poor mental health, poverty or domestic violence – all problems that were discussed were framed in terms of poor parenting/relationship skills and failure to take our place in and contribute to our communities. These omissions were not explained and no one seemed to consider this a lost opportunity or that courses such as these could even be harmful if they gave all a sense that difficulties were being addressed when, for many, they had not been understood. This is not to denigrate these courses but to use an analogy It was as if before the doctor in a NHS hospital would see us we were prescribed antibiotics and measured for a shroud by a private company with a contract to measure for shrouds and prescribe antibiotics only.

The reality is that families may have any number of difficulties that cause a rift between parent and child and indeed children may enter Care for lots of reasons including death of a parent, abuse, risks that adults in their lives pose, violence or addiction in the home, illness of parent or child and lack of resources to address difficulties. This lack of resources puts parents in poverty at most risk of losing their children although for each child and family there are likely to be a unique set of circumstances that can lead to the same outcome.

Working with Families

Good social work I believe, although I’m not a social worker, involves engaging families with an open mind, responding to all as individuals and engaging with the reality of their needs and circumstances. By contrast popular culture presents service users as crude stereotypes – feckless, drawn to crime, poorly educated, brutal and above all ‘less’. It is if all believe that it is not ‘morally acceptable’ to need services in and off themselves. The Victorians took the same stance. They gave the destitute ‘moral instruction’ via the pulpit. Church attendance was required if anyone needed to access parish relief. Parish councils gave way to local government. Eventually the welfare state was born. Those involved in its birth were incredibly proud of their achievement. Those now dismantling it seem very pleased with themselves too.

Children that enter Care

When a child enters Care it is almost inevitable they will experience difficulties within Care and beyond as a result of their experiences although with good support, the effect may be minimised and the child may thrive. That is what all hope for and should be working towards. Any way to help carers and others to understand why life might be difficult for a child in/from Care and how to help them has to be positive. There are ethical ways of presenting personal narratives to educate others about the impact of action/inaction, abuse, neglect using first person narratives possibly illustrated in cartoon form. Similarly if an abused child enters Care and in turn loses her own child to the State she too could give a first person narrative of how her abuse affected her and how her own corporate parent could have helped and prepared her for parenthood. If an adoptive parent wishes to give an account of how their previously abused child is struggling coming to terms with what happened to them and how it negatively impacts family life, than that is a first person account that can be taken at face value. These are all powerful, ethical ways to explain the impact of abuse and neglect and life experiences.

Why would we need to paint anyone as a demon before we can care about their child – even though that is the job all take on?

I have heard looked after children speak about foster carers in the most positive terms possible – about love and care given and received well into adulthood and beyond. It is good that all are prepared to understand children who enter Care who may not be able to name their complex emotions particularly if they have been badly neglected, physically or sexually abused.

Unfortunately some information provided to social workers, foster carers and adopters portrays a picture of birth families as universally neglectful and abusive and in the most extreme terms. One company in the business of selling their services promote what is described as ‘virtual reality’ to explain the impact of poor early caregiving on a child including virtual reality from the perspective of a fetus.

This material does not make clear what are beliefs, what is known and what is disputed. This is one of the worst portrayals of families who have need of services that I’ve seen but I’ve seen lots more that come from the same perspective much of it from big players in the market like the NSPCC. These are crude exercises in selling services and raising income and there appear to be no critical examination of their extremist nature and the harm they cause in and of themselves.

So what is the harm in material like this?

Simplistic portrayals of people who have need of children’s services, packaged as ‘virtual reality’ are not in anyone’s interest particularly a child’s. I question if suitable carers and adopters should need to be told birth parents are stereotypically abusive, emotionally detached and poor before they can understand how to love a child and try to reach a child irrespective of how unlovable they may first appear because they are hurting so much.

It is also questionable whether social workers who have considerable power to intervene in families are helped to view each situation on its own merits when exposed to material such as this. Shared parental responsibility when it applies, is hard for all and takes commitment to work through in a child’s best interest. Any carer or social worker is very unlikely to show any commitment to it after being exposed to educational material that presents parents as universally dangerous and neglectful .

The most disturbing aspect of material that reduces people to crude stereotypes is not that it is out there being used by local authorities day in, day out but that few people seem to question why this might be a problem even though if it were produced about any other group, much of it or so I believe, would be a hate crime. Is this an almost inevitable consequence of the ‘privitisation’ of care and adoption where many of the big players are slaves to their balance sheet – No examination of methods, no checks, no balances, no scrutiny, no control and hate packaged as love.

Stereotypes,  are used to avoid genuine engagement with social and economic problems and to justify widening inequality. The construction of neglect in contemporary discourse needs to be seen in the context of increasing public and media discourse fuelled by political ideology that stigmatises and demonises people living in poverty and holds them responsible for their children’s neglect because of their behaviour and poor choices.

Anna Gupta (2017) Poverty and child neglect – the elephant in the room?
Royal Holloway, University of London,

 

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.

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.