Other thoughts

#CPConf2018 – putting ‘future emotional harm’ in context

On Saturday 15th September The Transparency Project supported the third Child Protection Conference and Bath Publishing kindly sponsored, thus ensuring those attending had some biscuits and some reading materials. 

I will publish here below my presentation at the conference and will shortly publish a summary of what was said by all the speakers and the audience. As ever, thanks go to those who came to speak and also those who were prepared to listen. In honour of Lady Hale – the one dissenting voice in the Supreme Court in judgement of Re B – I wore her face on my chest for the day. 

The aim of #CPConf2018 was not only to launch The Transparency Project’s Guidance note on the use of experts in family proceedings, but to begin the discussion on what would be needed for a further Guidance Note about how risk assessments are carried out, and how we can best understand them and challenge them if needed. 

 

The Children Act 1989 and the introduction of ‘risk of future emotional harm’.

1. The 1989 Act was born following:
(1) a review by the Law Commission of England and Wales of the private law relating to the guardianship and upbringing of children (culminating in Law Com No 172, [1988] EWLC 172, Review of Child Law: Guardianship and Custody, 1988) and
(2) an interdepartmental review, led by the Department of Health and Social Security, into the public law relating to child care and children’s services (Review of Child Care Law: Report to ministers of an interdepartmental working party, 1985, HMSO).
2. The aim was to replace the existing ‘complicated and incoherent system’ with “a simplified and coherent body of law comprehensible not only to those operating it but also to those affected by its operation” (Second Report, Session 1983-84, Children in Care, HC 360).
3. It was considered to be a benefit to the new legislation that it was prepared to look to the future and protect children against a serious risk that they would suffer future harm, rather than waiting until actual harm had occurred until taking action.
4. However, it is clear we still have serious problems;
(1) identifying emotional harm,
(2) agreeing how serious it is and
(3) assessing the risk of it happening in the future.
5. There is no doubt that ‘emotional harm’ has been found to have really serious impact on children as they grow. Note for e.g. N. Hickey, E. Vizard, E. McCrory et al., Links between juvenile sexually abusive behaviour and emerging severe personality disorder traits in childhood, (Home Office, Department of Health and National Offender Management Service, 2006).
6. However, there are infinite number of variables about people’s behaviour and their reactions to it. We can agree that somethings are generally bad all of the time – for example, hitting or shouting at a child on a day to day basis. But some children grow up ok, possibly due to having other safeguards in place, supportive school or grandparents etc. It is simply not possible to provide a catch all definition of ‘Emotional harm’ and predict with much certainty what impact will be born by each individual child.
7. the concept of emotional harm, let alone future emotional harm, seems to cause a lot of people unease and disquiet. Either they don’t understand it or they think it misused – I suspect both. I recall the French documentary makers of ‘England’s Stolen Children’ were utterly horrified by it, calling it a concept ‘unknown’ to legislation elsewhere.
8. To me this is the crucial point – law must exist to serve the people, not impose shadowy misunderstood and misapplied concepts upon them. Professor Devine and many others make the point that our current system of child protection is seen through a lens of risk which clearly impacts on how social workers will assess the situation before them. There is abundant evidence that the language we use impacts on the way we think about a situation – note the work of Professor Kelly at the Harvard Medical School who experimented with two different descriptions of someone addicted to drugs. One was “substance abuser,” the other described as having “substance use disorder. When testing these phrases with both doctors and the general public, both groups displayed much more punitive attitudes towards to the ‘substance abuser’.
9. I also note that ‘emotional abuse’ of children is NOT currently covered in the criminal law, for example. See Children and Young Person’s Act 1933. There were calls for reform in 2013 stating this law was not fit for purpose as based on historic and outdated understanding – see ‘The criminal law and child neglect, independent analysis and proposals for reform’ Action for Children 2013. But I don’t know what if anything is happening – I suspect not.
10. The amount of care cases involving emotional harm is clearly growing so there is an urgent need to be clear about how it is identified and how we make decisions about how serious it is or could be. NSPCC statistics show neglect cases rising from 17,930 in 2013 to 24,590 in 2017; emotional abuse from 13,640 to 17,280.
11. All of this I hope we can discuss today. I would like to touch briefly on what happened in the Supreme Court decision of Re B in 2013 as this is such an important decision that sets the scene for the current law and practice. Lucy Reed is going to discuss further the lawyer’s perspective about how the current law is operating.

FUTURE EMOTIONAL HARM – the SUPREME COURT PERSPECTIVE

12. Guidance from Re B 2013 UKSC
13. ‘Amelia’ was born in April 2010 and immediately removed from her parents’ care. This case is described by Julie Doughty (rightly) as:
‘A remarkable case where a child is to be adopted although she has not suffered any harm attributable to her parents, both of whom have established and maintained positive contact with her for more than 2 years since she was removed at birth’.
Julie Doughty (2013) Re B (A Child) (Care Order) (2013) UKSC 33, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law
14. The concerns about the parents and particularly the mother were based on their past behaviours. The mother had been involved in a dysfunctional relationship with her domineering step-father who started having sex with her when she was only 15, resulting in 6 abortions and one child, who was also taken into care in 2011. She had several criminal convictions for offences of dishonesty. She had been diagnosed as having somatisation disorder, a psychiatric illness in which the sufferer makes multiple complaints to medical professionals for which no physical explanation can be found. She was found to be a ‘pathological liar’ and continued making serious false allegations against a variety of people even when no longer under the malign influence of her step father.
15. The father had 52 criminal convictions dating from when he was 13 and was very unwilling to co-operate. For example, rather than agreeing to take a drugs test in 2010, he told the LA to ‘kiss my arse’ until eventually agreeing in July 2011 – thus contributing to a year’s delay for decisions about his daughter. (This could not happen now of course – the 26 week timetable would have meant the final care order being made no later than October 2010!).
16. The court decided in 2012 after a 15 day hearing, with evidence from a variety of experts, that Amelia should be adopted. This was on the basis that although Amelia had suffered no actual harm in care of her parents and they had been able to maintain a positive and loving relationship with her over 2 years of supervised contact, if she went to live with them, there was a serious risk that neither parent could create and maintain a safe environment for her as she was growing up.
17. There are obvious worries about this case – any case that gets to the Supreme Court is raising clear and serious issues of general public importance. Although the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the first judge on the basis that his judgment was ‘long, detailed and careful’, they found the case ‘troubling’ as an example of state intervention regarding a ‘much loved child’ in the subjective area of moral and emotional risk, rather than physical abuse. The famous statement of Hedley J is relevant again; Re L (Care Threshold Conditions) [2007] 1 FLR 2050 para 50
Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent… it is not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting’.
18. So the case continued to the Supreme Court. The appeal was dismissed but it is important to note both that this was not unanimous and the dissenting Judge was Lady Hale. She agreed, with some reluctance that threshold was crossed but regretted that the first Judge had not explicitly identified what exactly tipped this case over the threshold. It has to be something of character or significance to justify the compulsory intervention of the state.

This case raises squarely the problem of how should courts assess risks that are ‘conditional’ or unrealised?

19. There is a clear worry here that not enough attention was paid to the impact on the parents of the system itself on what worried the judges most about them – their unwillingness or inability to co-operate with professionals.
20. As Julie Doughty comments, Lady Hale was the only judge to refer to facts that made the parents anxieties about Amelia’s health and their distrust of professionals less irrational. For example, that Ameila was born prematurely at 32 weeks and was initially cared for in intensive care. The parents received no ‘pre proceedings letter’ . The mother in particular had escaped a horrifically abusive relationship with her own step father.
21. Lady Hale did not accept that Amelia being adopted was a ‘proportionate’ response to the risk of harm identified. She was concerned that the most drastic option for a child (closed adoption) was the choice in a case where even the first Judge had not found threshold crossed ‘in the most extreme way’.
22. What is also interesting is that the commentary on this case on the Supreme Court’s own website is critical. I note:
As Lady Hale highlighted in her dissenting opinion, this case brings into stark relief another difficult question. When should the state take away a child, not because physical abuse or neglect is feared, but because the character of the parents is such that they cannot help but be deficient parents? What was remarkable about this case is that, though the parents clearly had significant problems, their care of their daughter was held to be highly satisfactory. As parents, they appeared to be competent; as people, apparently less so.
The decision made here is problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, it is based wholly on future harm. The risks identified may never materialise. Further, it is enough that such harm is “possible”; it need not even be “probable”. It is not a perfect comparison, because the one deals with the past whilst the other deals with the future, but it is worth noting that we do not convict people of crimes unless we are “certain so that we are sure” that they have committed them: in contrast, we will take children away from their parents on the basis of a “real possibility”.
Secondly, even if the harm identified does materialise, is it enough? We have decided as a society that, as a general rule, it is more important for children to be brought up in their own families than to be brought up in “better” families. Does the effect of the parents’ dishonesty and mother’s psychiatric illnesses justify removing Amelia permanently from their care? As Hedley J observed in Re L (Care: Threshold Criteria) [2007] 1 FLR 2050, 2063: “Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent”.

23. I am not confident that one can so neatly make a distinction between who we are as ‘people’ and how we are as ‘parents’ – if we are rude, impatient or violent as ‘people’ we are highly likely to display similar traits when wearing our parent hats. ‘How you do anything is how you do everything’
24. However, if more cases are going to be determined on the basis of a risk of something that hasn’t happened yet, and that something is as potentially nebulous as ‘emotional harm’ then we do need to take more seriously the fact that parents appear to be increasingly alienated and confused by care proceedings. This problem is compounded by the very bad advice I have often seen on line about refusing to co-operate. The likely consequences of that refusal is to increase concerns and escalate the probability of serious action being taken, or pessimism about the parents’ abilities to change. Lucy Reed will look at this problem in more detail.

25. Guidance on threshold from the Supreme Court.

(1) Court’s task is not to secure for every child a happy and fulfilled life but to be satisfied the statutory threshold are crossed
(2) This requires the court to identify as precisely as possible the nature of the harm which the child is suffering or is likely to suffer.
(3) This is particularly important where the child has not yet suffered any, or any significant, harm and where the harm which is feared is the impairment of intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.
(4) Significant harm is harm which is “considerable, noteworthy or important”. The court should identify why and in what respects the harm is significant.
(5) The harm has to be attributable to a lack, or likely lack, of reasonable parental care, not simply to the characters and personalities of both the child and her parents.
(6) Finally, where harm has not yet been suffered, the court must consider the degree of likelihood that it will be suffered in the future. This will entail considering the degree of likelihood that the parents’ future behaviour will amount to a lack of reasonable parental care. It will also entail considering the relationship between the significance of the harmed feared and the likelihood that it will occur. Simply to state that there is a “risk” is not enough, the harm must be ‘likely’.

Further guidance S & H-S (Children), Re [2018] EWCA Civ 1282 (06 June 2018)

(7) It is good practice to distil findings into one or two short and carefully structured paragraphs which spell out the court’s finding on threshold identifying whether the finding is that the child ‘is suffering’ and/or ‘is likely to suffer’ significant harm, specifying the category of harm and the basic finding(s) as to causation.
(8) When making a finding of harm, it is important to identify whether the finding is of ‘significant harm’ or simply ‘harm’.
(9) A finding that the child ‘has suffered significant harm’ is not a relevant finding for s 31, which looks to the ‘relevant date’ and the need to determine whether the child ‘is suffering’ or ‘is likely to suffer’ significant harm.
(10) Where findings have been made in previous proceedings, a judgment in subsequent proceedings should make reference to any relevant earlier findings and identify which, if any, are specifically relied upon in support of a finding that the threshold criteria are satisfied in the later proceedings as at the ‘relevant date’.
(11) At the conclusion of the hearing, after judgment has been given, there is a duty on counsel for the local authority and for the child, together with the judge, to ensure that any findings as to the threshold criteria are sufficiently clear.
(12) The court order that records the making of a care order should include within it, or have annexed to it, a clear statement of the basis upon which the s 31 threshold criteria have been established.

If a parent has parental responsibility and no one cares, what remedies do they have?

 

I am very grateful to the mother of Shayla for giving me permission to post this. I shall call the child murdered by Matthew Scully Hicks (MSH) by the name her mother gave to her at birth. It is one of the sad and poignant features of many in this case that at the time of her death Shayla was known by at least four different names, which made it difficult to find relevant records about her short life. Page 15 of the Review notes that ‘at the point of her death it was difficult to get the information about when she had seen medical professionals. This was due in part to a number of different IT systems and that S was known by four different combinations of her birth and adopted name.’

Another more poignant issue is her mother’s belief that, had she been told of Shayla’s injuries when in the care of MSH before the making of the adoption order and when she still had parental responsibility, her baby would still be alive. The mother may or may not be right in that belief. But now, sadly, we shall never know. 

What rights do parents have to know their child has been hurt? Even if the parent isn’t caring for their child? Even if there is no chance the parent ever will?

In brief, S was injured on several occasions in the care of MSH before the adoption order was made. Shortly after the adoption order was made he assaulted her again and this time she died. The mother was never told about any of these injuries despite retaining parental responsibility until it was extinguished by the making of an adoption order. She remains of the belief that had she known, there would have been something she could have done to stop her daughter’s death.

Other parents have told me online, and in person, that the same thing has happened to them. That their children suffered sometimes really serious injuries whilst in foster care but they were never told. Just what is going on here? Why is parental responsibility apparently so carelessly ignored when children are looked after? The clue is found in the Review at page 15:

the child while still legally a child looked after, was considered an adopted child and so this shaped the way professionals shared information.’

I suspect what we are seeing here is the logical conclusion of the mantra that ‘adoption is best’ and that ‘children need to be rescued’.  If a child is seen entirely in isolation from his or her parents, if those parents are seen as unsuitable or undesirable then it is hardly surprising that their legal rights are not seen as something worthy of much attention. But this is wrong. It hurts both parents and children.

Even if parents cannot care for their children, by reason of circumstances within or without their control, it is rare to find a parent who doesn’t care about them, who doesn’t have knowledge about their child. Even the very ‘worst’ ‘monster parent’ still has something to offer, even if it is only some sense of identity or history.

I do not think what appears to be widespread negation of parental responsibility when children are looked after is acceptable and it says profoundly ugly things about our society.

 

The review of Shayla’s death.

The only written document I have seen relating to these proceedings is the Extended Child Practice Review C&V CPR 04/2016 (‘the Review’) which was commissioned by the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Regional Safeguarding Board on the recommendation of the Child and Adult Practice Review Subgroup in accordance with the Social Services and Well Being (Wales) Act 2014 Part 7.

What happened between September 2014 and S’s death in 2016.

At page 4 the Review sets out what it is has done and who has been seen in order to complete the work. I note that both the mother and the maternal grandmother were interviewed and the Review explicitly recognises how difficult and emotional it has been for both.

S was placed in foster care in November 2014. A care and placement order were made in May 2015 and S was placed with MSH and his husband in September 2015. The adoption order was made in May 2016 and she died shortly afterwards. MSH was convicted of her murder in November 2017.

The Review sets out the care planning for S at page 6 and concludes it was appropriate; all the evidence suggested that adoption would be in S’s best interests.

MSH and his husband were first approved as adoptive parents in August 2013 and had their first child placed with them in October 2013. The first child was adopted by them in April 2014. They were assessed again in February 2015 and approved in July 2015. In September 2015 the Agency Decision Maker approved the match between S and the adoptive parents and she moved to live with them.

The Review sets out at page 7 that they had access to key documents about this assessment process and considered it was ‘robust, detailed and comprehensive’. All the evidence suggested this would be a positive outcome for the child. There is no mention here of any member of the assessment process or any social worker being related to MSH’s husband. If this is true, I would expect comment.

The Review then considers S’s placement with the adopters. In November 2015 she is taken to the GP by one parent, it is not clear which (reference is made to ‘dad’ or ‘father’ rather than ‘primary carer’ which would have clearly identified MSH) and found to have a fracture to the bone at the end of her left leg. However she is seen only by a Registrar who was not overseen by a consultant; in fact she had two fractures of two different bones in her left leg and this was not discovered until after her death. The doctors, unaware of the second fracture, find the parents’ description of what happened to fit with the injuries found and a cast was put on S’s leg.

In December 2015 MSH texts the Adoption SW to say S has a large bruise on her forehead. The Adoption Review makes no reference to that bruise. Five days later a health professional notes (presumably) another bruise to her forehead and eye. The health professional does not tell anyone else.

In March 2016 MSH telephones 999 to say S has fallen though the stair gate at the top of the stairs, does not lose consciousness but vomits. S goes to hospital for 4 days. Medical professionals accept MSH’s explanation. S is then seen by a GP for a ‘unilateral squint’. A referral is made but she dies before this can take place.

In May 2016 S is seen by consultant neonatologist for routine follow up and no concerns identified. Later than month MSH calls 999 to say S is limp, floppy and unresponsive. He gives different explanations about what happened. S never regains consciousness and died in hospital with bleeding on her brain. The police arrest MSH.

The Review does identify some serious flaws in these procedures:
a. The bruise(s) to S was not recorded and not considered at the Adoption Review
b. S was not taken to the GP until 5 days after the ‘accident’ that led to the fracture of her left leg and in fact a second fracture to the top of her left leg was identified after she died. It was considered highly unlikely for any child to break two separate bones in one accident and had the second fracture been found at the time, ‘concerns would have undoubtedly been raised and child protection procedures instigated’.

The Review notes that immediate organisational changes were made.. I note at page 15 the Review comments ‘the child while still legally a child looked after, was considered an adopted child and so this shaped the way professionals shared information.’

The Review comments on the mother’s views in the following terms:

The Birth Mother shared her concern that it was several months before she was informed of her child’s death. She indicated that she would have preferred to have been informed of her child’s death by somebody that was known to her. Following being informed, she felt she received information from several sources in an ad hoc fashion. Understandably the emotional impact of the child’s death on the birth family has been very significant.’

However the Review does not appear to make any substantive comment on these issues and how they could be dealt with better in the future. I would have liked to see at least some discussion of that.

At page 12 the Review identifies what they have learned from S’s death. A key point appears to be that although MSH, his husband and some of the extended family knew that MSH was under stress caring for two children, this information wasn’t shared with any professionals and only became clear in the criminal proceedings. The Review notes that ‘the overall presentation to the agencies was one of a happy and united family’.

It is clear that MSH was viewed through a ‘positive’ lens and there was nothing throughout the adoption assessment process that could have indicated MSH would injure and kill S. However, as the Review concedes, this ‘positive lens’ led to a minimisation of concerns about S’s injuries, 2 incidences of delay in getting medical treatment to her and MSH informing the HV he had sought GP advice about a bruise when he had not. The Review comments that ‘… with the benefit of hindsight, the monitoring and review of children placed for adoption can be strengthened by ensuring that safeguarding responsibilities are given due emphasis’.

The mother would have liked to have been part of that process to ensure that S was safe. But she was never given any opportunity.

The ‘Key Learning’ identified is set out at pages 14-15 – no discussion of failure to provide information to those who hold PR

  • When children are seen at hospital, Paediatricians are key professionals in recognising the possibility of injuries being caused deliberately
  • Professional judgements should be based upon consideration of all the evidence available rather than individual events
  • Professionals need to ensure the details of a child’s injuries are recorded as significant events.
  • Each agency has a professional responsibility to ensure that they are aware of all the significant events in a child’s life. – no one agency or worker held all the relevant information about S.
  • Adoption reviews should provide opportunities for robust professional scrutiny and challenge – a holistic understanding of the child’s story was not gained
  • The recording and retention of information received via text and other messaging services are an increasingly important source of information.
  • Learning after S’s death – this was made more difficult by the fact that it was difficult to gather all the relevant information due to different IT systems in use and S being known by up to four different names.

 

I note again a failure to refer to the lack of provision of information to those who have PR.

The overall conclusion of the Review is that some systems and practices should be improved but that there was no information during the assessment stages of the parents that could or would have predicted what happened to this child.

This is true but rather skates over the concerns in the body of the Review that the significance of some of this information was missed; either because it was unknown (the second fracture) or because it was not seen in its proper context – serious bruising and delays in taking S to the GP for example. The reason for this is given as that the adoptive parents would inevitably be seen through a positive lens, as adoption is inevitably seen as a positive thing for a child. Thus as the Review concedes there was a ‘lack of professional curiosity’ regarding S’s experiences.

I am concerned about this.  There were two categories of information that were not given to the mother.
a. information that S had been injured and suffered a fractured leg in the care of the adoptive parents prior to the making of an adoption order and while the mother still had parental responsibility (PR).
b. Information about S’s death which occurred after the making of the adoption order, thus extinguishing the mother’s PR.

Information withheld while the mother had PR

The mother was never told about her daughter’s injuries. The failure to inform her was a breach of her continuing Article 8 rights as a holder of parental responsibility. The local authority may argue that this breach would be seen as proportionate and lawful given regulation 45 of the Adoption Agency Regulations 2005, which disapplies section 22 of the Children Act 1989 and thus removes the local authority’s duties to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the parent and take them into account when coming to any decision about the child who is subject to a placement order. However, asking about wishes and feelings is not the same as providing information.

I do have to accept that it is likely that even if the mother had been told about S’s fractured leg, I do not think this would have made any difference to the LA approach as the significance of that injury was that there were in fact two fractures and the second was not found until after S died. I can speculate that if the mother had been told about the bruising and raised complaint, this might have pushed the various agencies into looking more closely at the overall picture painted by the bruising and late presentation to the GP. However, I suspect that absent any information that MSH was struggling to cope – which was not shared by MSH or his husband with any agency – that the mother’s intervention would have made little difference as there was no evidence before the LA to challenged the ‘positive lens’ though which the adoptive family were seen.

However, whether or not the mother could have ‘done’ anything with the information, I do not think is the relevant point here. She still had PR. She should have been told. Parents in this situation should have a remedy pursuant to the Human Rights Act for ‘just satisfaction’.

Is Article 8 ECHR extinguished after adoption? I don’t think so

After S’s adoption, the convention wisdom of the family courts is that all Article 8 rights fall away and thus the mother was no longer seen as anyone with any relevant interest in S’s life or death. This may be the current view of the courts –see Seddon v Oldham MBC (Adoption Human Rights) [2015] EWHC 2609 (Fam) but in my view it is based on a misunderstanding of what is actually protected by Article 8 – protection of family and private life encompasses protection of psychological integrity.

A sound mental state is an important factor for the possibility to enjoy the right to private life (Bensaid v UK para 47). Measures which affect the physical integrity or mental health have to reach a certain degree of severity to qualify as an interference with the right to private life under Article 8 (Ben-said v UK, para 46).

I imagine that the mother’s distress arising out the circumstances of her daughter’s death and the failure of other agencies to provide her with any timely information, would bring this case into the necessary degree of severity of harm.  An adoption order did not change the fact that S was the mother’s daughter and at some point in the future, had she lived, may have sought her out. The pull of biology is recognised as strong and important for most and is reflected in such initiatives as life story work and the Adoption Contact Register.

If the law does says that the mother had no right to learn of her daughter’s death because an adoption order ‘wiped out’ her Article 8 rights, then in my view the law is wrong and should be challenged.

It is my very firm view that no law should be permitted to stand that is capable of imposing such a cruel situation upon any parent, no matter their previous failings and no matter that their child has been adopted. I suspect the problem here is what was identified by the Review at page 15:  ‘the child while still legally a child looked after, was considered an adopted child and so this shaped the way professionals shared information.’

 

Shame

Thank you for this post to a parent who wishes to remain anonymous.

“I will be back on Monday, you see, I just need a loan to get a van on the road” I happened to be a spectator as a man vented his rage . I gathered that he had been ordered to attend a basic skills course as part of the jumping hoops that goes hand in hand with claiming job seekers allowance.

At one time I would have just dismissed this man as bad tempered and full of pride. Today I recognise the primary driver of his rage as shame. In part of his diatribe he announced he was a time served painter and decorator, he had plenty of work just waiting for him.

Shame is the brother of guilt and the two are often confused. Put simply guilt tells us that we have done something bad whereas shame informs us that we are bad. Guilt can be a positive emotion, it regulates our behaviour. Shame tends to escalate behaviour, rage, irrationality, increase of mental health problems, even suicidal thoughts can all arise out of shame.

We are all guilty of using shame to control others, it increases our power and diminishes theirs. It is also a useful short cut when we are lacking time or stressed ourselves. It is wrong though. Shame eats away at pride, self esteem and dignity of the victim. It isolates and makes any chance of a fruitful relationship almost impossible.

So back to our decorator, the trainer was a woman in her thirties, he was certainly nearer sixty. Of the generation when a school leaver could finish school without any formal qualifications on a Friday and walk into an apprenticeship on a Monday. He  was now being faced with having his literacy and maths  assessed after years of employment, he would have felt humilated. It was not the trainer’s fault, but nevertheless he reacted out of shame.

The Care Crisis Review http://childprotectionresource.online/care-crisis-review/identified a culture of blame and shame within child protection. Shame is dishonouring, it tells a person that they are less than, not good enough, it shatters  self esteem and sets up a cycle of conflict.

It can be intentional, just as matter of unfortunate circumstances or it can be intentionally built into a system. I would suggest that  in some Government schemes such as benefit sanctions shame is embedded into system. I can also see that within the child protection system ,children can exhibit shame based behaviours after intervention and family members certainly do.

Certainly some shaming is deliberate, it is one of the prime tools of bullying, as it gives power . When used personally , it is also a sign of immaturity, small children use it to regulate each others behaviour. Shaming is also widely used in social media, probably more so than in “real life”.

Families often come into child protection because of problems of domestic violence, addiction or mental health impairments; all of which are to some extent shame based. Domestic violence certainly can be fuelled by shame, a perpetrators  need to control and shame their victim may arise out of their own feelings of inadequacy. The victim in turn, feels too ashamed to get help. Addiction and mental illness, which are often intertwined can often be traced back to childhood trauma, sometimes inter generational trauma, which is shame based.

Those of us who live with shame on a daily basis learn the shame game, we react rather than act. Interventions in our lives our perceived as personal threats whether they are or not and we defend ourselves, by shaming back and/ or avoidance.  In other words the classic fight or flight response. Parents aggressively  shame social workers and judges on social media and withdraw from working with professionals. There seems to be too much at stake as any intervention seems targeted at undermining the very person we perceive ourselves to be, making us feel small.

It’s ugly. What encourages me though it is certainly no more gross than the apartheid in South Africa which came peacefully to an end through reconciliation. To some extent , the regular contributors on this forum have demonstrated this willingness to listen and respect each others viewpoint and it has worked , we have found common ground despite our diverse backgrounds. We have said ” I hear you” , even if I don’t like what you do I will see you as a human being with something valuable to contribute to the debate. Not always, but for a very good percentage of the time.

As I  said, it happened in South Africa, it was not about forgiveness, though that sometimes was the outcome, it was about having space and safety to have the injured parties story told. If you think I have gone off on a tangent , I haven’t; people were imprisoned , killed and segregated for being non white. They were shamed for being born the wrong colour. As Helen Sparkles says parents are mainly sad not bad, they may have been brought up in care themselves or have a combination of the problems already mentioned. They can be shamed through the system, for a variety of reasons, some of which relate to lack of resources. I am not saying they are all victims , but some are. The power imbalance is enormous and shaming is related to power.

When working with parents displaying shame based behaviours, I would suggest trying to build them up rather than taking them apart. Assertion training is excellent and gives woman in particular options other than passive /aggressive behaviour.  She can then model these learned skills to her children. I am not being condescending, just writing from experience. When I was treated with respect by a social worker, I relaxed, he relaxed and we formed a working relationship. I do recognise that social workers themselves are often working in shame based environments, for instance is not disrespectful to expect them to hot desk, what does this actually say about what their employer thinks about them?

I would like all those involved in what ever capacity in the child protection system to consider the following:

  1. Become aware of how and why you shame people in your relationships.
  2. Notice your payback through shaming
  3. Work through the implications of the damage that occurs to others and yourself through shaming.
  4. If you do need to confront someone, try and accomplish this with respect.

This is a huge subject, I have in this blog post just tackled the tip of the iceberg. It is important as it is such a negative feeling, endemic on all sides in child protection and never leads to a positive outcome.

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