Other thoughts

Failure

I am grateful for this guest post from a parent.

Failure

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

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

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

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

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

Is that the price of failure? If so whose?

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

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

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

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

A little less conversation – a little more action.

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

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

Mahatma Gandhi

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

 

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

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

Key points from the report

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

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

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

The report recommends that

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

The fundamental point, it appears to me is this:

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

Report of the Children’s Commissioner

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

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

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

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

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner said

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further reading

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

Care Crisis Review 2018 Family Rights Group

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Address by McFarlane LJ to Families Need Fathers

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

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

 

We need to talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic Abuse

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

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

 

Alienation

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

EDIT – ‘the new normal’

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

The Transparency Project say:

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

 

Further reading

Contact – a point of view Lord justice McFarlane March 2018

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

 

 

‘Project Social Work’ – A Risky Business

Red, Orange, Green

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

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

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

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

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

Project UK

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

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

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

 

What is a crisis?

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

So have we always had:-

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

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

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

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

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

Project Social Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does however quote this study

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATIONAL CHILD ABUSE STATISTICS

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

 

But what is the point of all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How is neglect defined?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key messages identified

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

 

 

Conclusions and comments

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

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

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

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

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

The comments I found most interesting were these:

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

One participant commented:

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

The report notes

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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

When asked what helped, participants replied:

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

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

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

I leave you with one final comment from the research

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

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

Further reading

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.
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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,