Other thoughts

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

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

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

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

The impact of ‘I believe’ on family cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I considered further the judgment in AS v TH:

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

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

As Judi Evans put it

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

 

I WANT TO SPEAK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The language of ‘casual disrespect’

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

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

The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption

 

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

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

BASW set the parameters of its enquiry in this way:

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

 

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

The Enquiry made 6 recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 98 Children Act self incrimination warning

What is this? What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 98 reads

Self-incrimination.

(1)In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under Part IV or V, no person shall be excused from—

(a) giving evidence on any matter; or

(b) answering any question put to him in the course of his giving evidence,

on the ground that doing so might incriminate him or his spouse [F1or civil partner] of an offence.

(2)A statement or admission made in such proceedings shall not be admissible in evidence against the person making it or his spouse [F1or civil partner] in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.

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

Attempt at Plain English Version

No guarantees of confidentiality can be given by the family court.

The judge should give a warning in the following terms when a parent is being questioned about causing harm to a child:

  • I need to explain a rule of law to you. Its important you understand this. Your lawyer can explain it further to you, it is their duty to do so.
  • allegations are made against you in these family proceedings. The family court is not involved in any decisions made in the criminal courts about whether you should be found guilty or acquitted of any criminal offence.
  • However, in these family proceedings, the court will have to decide whether or not the allegations made against you are true. If they are found to be true, this would mean you have done something which may also be a criminal offence.
  • in the family proceedings you aren’t allowed to refuse to answer questions or provide evidence in writing on the basis that your answers might show you or your spouse had done something criminally wrong.
  • If you do give evidence that suggests you have done something criminally wrong, this evidence is NOT allowed in any criminal proceedings against you UNLESS you are being prosecuted for perjury (i.e. you have lied on oath in the family court).
  • BUT you must understand that if the family court gives permission that ANYTHING you say or write down for these proceedings may be given to the police for them to use during their investigations into your conduct AND if you did end up in a criminal court, the prosecution might make an application for permission to ask you questions about anything you said in the family court.

Further reading

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

 

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Judge’s approach

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

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

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

The test results

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

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

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

How should reports be written in future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The latter part of 2015 and during 2016

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

The period after Holly’s birth

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

Abuse and ‘neglect’ – how is this identified? And what support is offered?

 

I am grateful to this post from one of CPR’s readers, who is parent to an autistic child. She writes about her difficulties in getting help and support for her son and the problems families experience in a system which does not seem set up to identify difficulties and offer support. What happens when children with difficulties arising out of their undiagnosed disabilities are mis-identified as children suffering from parental neglect or abuse?

As she comments:
As it stands, the Child Protection system is a blunt and sometimes cruel instrument often used without much prospect of bringing about positive change because it can only ever work as one part of a system of support for families, and this system of support is largely absent.

Not having met a social worker in our local authority until the day my son with an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis entered Care under section 20 of the Children’s Act 1989, I began to read anything I could find about children with his profile who enter Care. That was the day I accepted that having tried everything else, Care was the only option available to get an integrated package of support for him, something we and he had needed by any measure for some time. He was not going to be someone ‘who didn’t fit within our services’ remit’ nor just another statistic of a disabled young person living rough with poor mental health or worse, something that seemed almost inevitable at that time, without trying everything including Care.

As part of my coping mechanism for the immense grief and desolation I was experiencing, I read report after report to learn about the Care system. Eventually, to cut down on my reading, I’d open reports and papers in pdf format and search within the document with the search facility using terms like ‘disabled, disability, autism, neuro-developmental, ASD, ASC’ and might get one ‘hit’. What I did notice was that if I carried out the same search using ‘neglect’ as a search term I’d get scores of ‘hits’ within the same document. I concluded that for social workers ‘neglect’ was ‘sexy’ and disability anything but. Children like mine, with an autism diagnosis but without an obvious learning disability were a bit of a side show while all the action in Child Protection was around ‘abuse and neglect’ and that didn’t seem to be up for discussion. There were a few reports like the excellent ‘Unprotected, Overprotected’  that made links between disability and core child protection issues but generally these reports were few and far between.

If one looked a little wider to the family unit with an autistic or learning disabled family member there seemed to be almost nothing in terms of research into how to support families with complex difficulties around neuro-disability including poor mental health, different ways of thinking and processing information, mental inflexibility and the need for extreme control to manage anxiety as just some examples.

I came to loathe the word ‘neglect’, surely the reasons why children enter care are multi-faceted yet this word is so un-nuanced and brings with it a mountain of stigma, shame and blame for parents.

One of the things that also became apparent to me, was that there seemed to be a lot of children with extreme difficulties within Care. When I asked why our son hadn’t a social worker from The Children with Disabilities Team I was told they only took on cases of children with multiple and complex disabilities and they had a very full caseload. Similarly when I asked why his case did not have clinical oversight, (something that eventually did come) I was told ‘’All our children have the same kinds of difficulties’. My response was ‘’well, are they being given autism assessments?’’ The answer to that question ( yet more reading..) was that ‘no, children who enter Care are not assessed or even screened for autism – all their difficulties (they are most commonly described as having developmental delay not disability and/or traumatised with poor mental health) unquestionably stem from ‘’neglect and/or abuse by parents prior to entering Care’’. Well that is not my experience so..?

I eventually came to the conclusion that assessments and healthcare for children in Care are not remotely up to the task of meeting the needs of a sizable number of children who are in Care, many with undiagnosed hidden disabilities. There is almost no data collected on children in Care with disabilities and we do not know how many are diagnosed as being autistic before they enter Care or within Care although we know from 2017 Freedom of Information requests there is considerable local variation in their numbers from 0% (Calderdale) -to 12.7% (Walsall). Surely this is Corporate Neglect and why were Child Protection professionals / CQC / Ofsted not making that point? Obviously some types of neglect are more ’sexy’ for professionals working in Child Protection than others.

There are some other troublesome issues around ‘neglect’

I’ve recently being made aware of this project. Identifying and Understanding Inequalities in Child Welfare Intervention Rates. It is worth watching the You tube video associated with the link as it identifies that in a poor neighbourhood within a wealthy borough there are a lot more children on child protection plans than in a poor neighbourhood in a poor borough. Surely ‘abuse is abuse’ and ‘neglect is neglect’ so how to explain this? Assuming ‘abuse’ is an absolute, maybe the concept of ‘neglect’ is a relative one, so one person’s/team’s idea of neglect is not another’s? I’ve a working lifetime of experience where I’ve learned to never ask anyone in a local authority whether they would like to be involved in decision making unless it falls within their strictly defined statutory remit and I check that myself first rather than asking. This is because I have found that many are tempted to try and control things they have no statutory remit for and ‘it is best not to invite trouble’. This is certainly not unique to people who work in Local Authorities just that when asked for our opinions, most of us have difficulties not telling people what they should be doing based on our own likes/dislikes/perspectives. When it comes to Child Protection, where there is a huge power imbalance and a very diffuse remit, I think this can enter some really dangerous territory.

Take this situation where there are concerns about abuse and neglect by parents of their autistic children :-
‘’ Some families may feel that they accept their child for who they are and allow them to withdraw from the world. Is that neglect? Many people with autism need to have structure and routine in their lives to cope with an unpredictable world. Some parents may allow this to take over and dictate the lives of the whole family, others may rally against it, believing it’s in the child’s best interest for them not to give way to the structure. Is this abuse?

There are many different therapies and interventions available which claim to cure autism. Some of these practices can in themselves ‘appear’ abusive. Some parents pursue these out of desperation and when the claims for some of these therapies and interventions are far from clear, it can be difficult for parents to know what to believe’’

http://www.autismeurope.org/activities/projects/speak-up-publications/guide-for-the-protection-of-children-and-young-people-with-autism-from-violence-and-abuse.html

If social workers working with children have little training about autism, are they really able to make decisions about what constitutes ‘neglect’ when it comes to this group? What if an autistic child doesn’t t have a diagnosis because clinicians do not have resources to carry out specialist assessments? If they do not have very good multi-disciplinary working arrangements that can quickly identify the reasons for a child’s difficulties and help build the child’s capacity, ,not just focus on questions about the parent’s fitness to parent, are they likely to get this right?
Where is the discussion about this in Child Protection circles and if decision-making is wrong why is that not abuse? It is absolutely foreseeable and mostly preventable with good training and good multi-disciplinary working arrangements around diagnosis.

Which brings me to ‘Edge of Care’ support for autistic children.

Autism is a spectrum condition and a child’s difficulties can present in many ways. One of the most difficult to explain is that a child who is very bright and no trouble in school can have extreme difficulties in processing what is happening around them and may develop very poor mental health particularly around anxiety. See this National Autism Society video  explaining how autistic children who have acute difficulties such as these, may end up in secure or forensic settings.

The tone is very much ” Their parents never taught them and because of this..” My response to that would be ”Give parents the tools to help their autistic children and most will.” Autistic children need an autism diagnosis (my son got his at 16 in the most horrendous circumstances) and parents need support (we got none). I also believe billions of pounds of cuts are purposefully being made to Children’s Services, legal aid and the NHS with an unspoken acceptance that naive carers/parents in desperate circumstances will find it almost impossible to access support for themselves and their children. Many pathways to support exist in name only, are supposed to be provided by the market via brokerage or self-funding or unfunded charities, are initiatives or time limited programmes that quietly disappear, unlike the fanfare around their introduction. Services where they exist are understaffed and complaints/appeals processes so difficult to negotiate that only the most committed, resourceful and able persist. All, including professionals who have to somehow work in this environment whilst retaining their own humanity, understand this, so is this the ‘neglect and abuse’ that Child Protection Professionals are concerned about? Maybe.

I could go on and on..

As you will have gathered my own ‘special interest’ is around children who are autistic. See this piece http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41345647
”About 20,000 children have been harmed by valproate medicines in the UK since the 1970s. The medicines regulator said the drug had been kept under constant review. Babies exposed to the drug in the womb have a 40% risk of developing autism, low IQ and learning disabilities.” —Almost 70% of women surveyed about a powerful epilepsy drug have not received new safety warnings about the dangers of taking it during pregnancy.”

Anyone interested in the law may already know that a number of years ago, legal aid was withdrawn to families trying to take a case against the drug’s manufacturer and it could not proceed. Since then children continued to be born with abnormalities and some died, as a result of their mothers taking this drug without being aware of the risks, causing unimaginable and completely preventable suffering to children. Is that ‘neglect’ by the State? Can it get any more serious if so?

Or is this the kind of ‘neglect and abuse’ that the United Nations has called for action on, United Nations criticises treatment of disabled children in the UK  that concerns Child Protection professionals?

These are rhetorical questions in the main because although Child Protection professionals refer to preventing ‘abuse’ and ‘neglect’ of children what they really mean is intervening in families that are experiencing difficulties with the mind-set that children’s difficulties stem from neglectful or abusive parenting. The reality is that it isn’t possible for parents or professionals to nurture children particularly children with high needs, without the State taking an active role in supporting and protecting families.

As it stands, the Child Protection system is a blunt and sometimes cruel instrument often used without much prospect of bringing about positive change because it can only ever work as one part of a system of support for families, and this system of support is largely absent. I think families are a huge resource – painting us as incompetent, neglectful, not to be trusted, ignorant etc. is just so damaging for our children. My son didn’t need rescuing. We needed to be listened to and we needed help. That our son had to enter Care to get it is my idea of what constitutes ‘neglect’.

 

Further Reading

NHS (2017) Developing Support and Services for Children and Young People with a learning disability, autism or both  ”The Department for Education supports the development of the work undertaken in the Transforming Care Partnership Boards and encourages local authorities to pay regard to this guidance”

Tizard, Challenging Behaviour Foundation (2017) Developing Better Commissioning for Individuals with behaviour that challenges services – A scoping exercise.
The Children Act 1989 – deeply flawed legislation?

PRACTICE DIRECTION 12J – CHILD ARRANGEMENTS AND CONTACT ORDERS: DOMESTIC ABUSE AND HARM

This Practice Direction supplements FPR Part 12, and incorporates and supersedes the President’s Guidance in Relation to Split Hearings (May 2010) as it applies to proceedings for child arrangements orders.

This is the updated PD12J from 2017. For a more general discussion of issues around violence in family proceedings see this post “Reporting Domestic Violence” Comments from the President of the Family Division about what the amended PD hopes to achieve are set out below in his ‘circular’ of September 2017. 

Summary

1. This Practice Direction applies to any family proceedings in the Family Court or the High Court under the relevant parts of the Children Act 1989 or the relevant parts of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 in which an application is made for a child arrangements order, or in which any question arises about where a child should live, or about contact between a child and a parent or other family member, where the court considers that an order should be made.
2. The purpose of this Practice Direction is to set out what the Family Court or the High Court is required to do in any case in which it is alleged or admitted, or there is other reason to believe, that the child or a party has experienced domestic abuse perpetrated by another party or that there is a risk of such abuse.
3. For the purpose of this Practice Direction –
“domestic abuse” includes any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. Domestic abuse also includes culturally specific forms of abuse including, but not limited to, forced marriage, honour-based violence, dowry-related abuse and transnational marriage abandonment;
“abandonment” refers to the practice whereby a husband, in England and Wales, deliberately abandons or “strands” his foreign national wife abroad, usually without financial resources, in order to prevent her from asserting matrimonial and/or residence rights in England and Wales. It may involve children who are either abandoned with, or separated from, their mother;
“coercive behaviour” means an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim;
“controlling behaviour” means an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour;
“development” means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development;
“harm” means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another, by domestic abuse or otherwise;
“health” means physical or mental health;
“ill-treatment” includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical; and
“judge” includes salaried and fee-paid judges and lay justices sitting in the Family Court and, where the context permits, can include a justices’ clerk or assistant to a justices’ clerk in the Family Court.

General principles

4. Domestic abuse is harmful to children, and/or puts children at risk of harm, whether they are subjected to domestic abuse, or witness one of their parents being violent or abusive to the other parent, or live in a home in which domestic abuse is perpetrated (even if the child is too young to be conscious of the behaviour). Children may suffer direct physical, psychological and/or emotional harm from living with domestic abuse, and may also suffer harm indirectly where the domestic abuse impairs the parenting capacity of either or both of their parents.
5. The court must, at all stages of the proceedings, and specifically at the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (‘FHDRA’), consider whether domestic abuse is raised as an issue, either by the parties or by Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru or otherwise, and if so must –
• identify at the earliest opportunity (usually at the FHDRA) the factual and welfare issues involved;
• consider the nature of any allegation, admission or evidence of domestic abuse, and the extent to which it would be likely to be relevant in deciding whether to make a child arrangements order and, if so, in what terms;
• give directions to enable contested relevant factual and welfare issues to be tried as soon as possible and fairly;
• ensure that where domestic abuse is admitted or proven, any child arrangements order in place protects the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with whom the child is living, and does not expose either of them to the risk of further harm; and
• ensure that any interim child arrangements order (i.e. considered by the court before determination of the facts, and in the absence of admission) is only made having followed the guidance in paragraphs 25–27 below.
In particular, the court must be satisfied that any contact ordered with a parent who has perpetrated domestic abuse does not expose the child and/or other parent to the risk of harm and is in the best interests of the child.
6. In all cases it is for the court to decide whether a child arrangements order accords with Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989; any proposed child arrangements order, whether to be made by agreement between the parties or otherwise must be carefully scrutinised by the court accordingly. The court must not make a child arrangements order by consent or give permission for an application for a child arrangements order to be withdrawn, unless the parties are present in court, all initial safeguarding checks have been obtained by the court, and an officer of Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru has spoken to the parties separately, except where it is satisfied that there is no risk of harm to the child and/or the other parent in so doing.
7. In proceedings relating to a child arrangements order, the court presumes that the involvement of a parent in a child’s life will further the child’s welfare, unless there is evidence to the contrary. The court must in every case consider carefully whether the statutory presumption applies, having particular regard to any allegation or admission of harm by domestic abuse to the child or parent or any evidence indicating such harm or risk of harm.
8. In considering, on an application for a child arrangements order by consent, whether there is any risk of harm to the child, the court must consider all the evidence and information available. The court may direct a report under Section 7 of the Children Act 1989 to be provided either orally or in writing, before it makes its decision; in such a case, the court must ask for information about any advice given by the officer preparing the report to the parties and whether they, or the child, have been referred to any other agency, including local authority children’s services. If the report is not in writing, the court must make a note of its substance on the court file and a summary of the same shall be set out in a Schedule to the relevant order.

Before the FHDRA

9. Where any information provided to the court before the FHDRA or other first hearing (whether as a result of initial safeguarding enquiries by Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru or on form C1A or otherwise) indicates that there are issues of domestic abuse which may be relevant to the court’s determination, the court must ensure that the issues are addressed at the hearing, and that the parties are not expected to engage in conciliation or other forms of dispute resolution which are not suitable and/or safe.
10. If at any stage the court is advised by any party (in the application form, or otherwise), by Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru or otherwise that there is a need for special arrangements to protect the party or child attending any hearing, the court must ensure so far as practicable that appropriate arrangements are made for the hearing (including the waiting arrangements at court prior to the hearing, and arrangements for entering and exiting the court building) and for all subsequent hearings in the case, unless it is advised and considers that these are no longer necessary. Where practicable, the court should enquire of the alleged victim of domestic abuse how best she/he wishes to participate.

First hearing / FHDRA

11. At the FHDRA, if the parties have not been provided with the safeguarding letter/report by Cafcass/CAFCASS Cymru, the court must inform the parties of the content of any safeguarding letter or report or other information which has been provided by Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru, unless it considers that to do so would create a risk of harm to a party or the child.
12. Where the results of Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru safeguarding checks are not available at the FHDRA, and no other reliable safeguarding information is available, the court must adjourn the FHDRA until the results of safeguarding checks are available. The court must not generally make an interim child arrangements order, or orders for contact, in the absence of safeguarding information, unless it is to protect the safety of the child, and/or safeguard the child from harm (see further paragraphs 25-27 below).
13. There is a continuing duty on the Cafcass Officer/Welsh FPO which requires them to provide a risk assessment for the court under section 16A Children Act 1989 if they are given cause to suspect that the child concerned is at risk of harm. Specific provision about service of a risk assessment under section 16A of the 1989 Act is made by rule 12.34 of the FPR 2010.
14. The court must ascertain at the earliest opportunity, and record on the face of its order, whether domestic abuse is raised as an issue which is likely to be relevant to any decision of the court relating to the welfare of the child, and specifically whether the child and/or parent would be at risk of harm in the making of any child arrangements order.

Admissions

15. Where at any hearing an admission of domestic abuse toward another person or the child is made by a party, the admission must be recorded in writing by the judge and set out as a Schedule to the relevant order. The court office must arrange for a copy of any order containing a record of admissions to be made available as soon as possible to any Cafcass officer or officer of CAFCASS Cymru or local authority officer preparing a report under section 7 of the Children Act 1989.

Directions for a fact-finding hearing

16. The court should determine as soon as possible whether it is necessary to conduct a fact-finding hearing in relation to any disputed allegation of domestic abuse –
(a) in order to provide a factual basis for any welfare report or for assessment of the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below;
(b) in order to provide a basis for an accurate assessment of risk;
(c) before it can consider any final welfare-based order(s) in relation to child arrangements; or
(d) before it considers the need for a domestic abuse-related Activity (such as a Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme (DVPP)).
17. In determining whether it is necessary to conduct a fact-finding hearing, the court should consider –
(a) the views of the parties and of Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru;
(b) whether there are admissions by a party which provide a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(c) if a party is in receipt of legal aid, whether the evidence required to be provided to obtain legal aid provides a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(d) whether there is other evidence available to the court that provides a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(e) whether the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below can be determined without a fact-finding hearing;
(f) the nature of the evidence required to resolve disputed allegations;
(g) whether the nature and extent of the allegations, if proved, would be relevant to the issue before the court; and
(h) whether a separate fact-finding hearing would be necessary and proportionate in all the circumstances of the case.
18. Where the court determines that a finding of fact hearing is not necessary, the order must record the reasons for that decision.
19. Where the court considers that a fact-finding hearing is necessary, it must give directions as to how the proceedings are to be conducted to ensure that the matters in issue are determined as soon as possible, fairly and proportionately, and within the capabilities of the parties. In particular it should consider –
(a) what are the key facts in dispute;
(b) whether it is necessary for the fact-finding to take place at a separate (and earlier) hearing than the welfare hearing;
(c) whether the key facts in dispute can be contained in a schedule or a table (known as a Scott Schedule) which sets out what the applicant complains of or alleges, what the respondent says in relation to each individual allegation or complaint; the allegations in the schedule should be focused on the factual issues to be tried; and if so, whether it is practicable for this schedule to be completed at the first hearing, with the assistance of the judge;
(d) what evidence is required in order to determine the existence of coercive, controlling or threatening behaviour, or of any other form of domestic abuse;
(e) directing the parties to file written statements giving details of such behaviour and of any response;
(f) whether documents are required from third parties such as the police, health services or domestic abuse support services and giving directions for those documents to be obtained;
(g) whether oral evidence may be required from third parties and if so, giving directions for the filing of written statements from such third parties;
(h) where (for example in cases of abandonment) third parties from whom documents are to be obtained are abroad, how to obtain those documents in good time for the hearing, and who should be responsible for the costs of obtaining those documents;
(i) whether any other evidence is required to enable the court to decide the key issues and giving directions for that evidence to be provided;
(j) what evidence the alleged victim of domestic abuse is able to give and what support the alleged victim may require at the fact-finding hearing in order to give that evidence;
(k) in cases where the alleged victim of domestic abuse is unable for reasons beyond their control to be present at the hearing (for example, abandonment cases where the abandoned spouse remains abroad), what measures should be taken to ensure that that person’s best evidence can be put before the court. Where video-link is not available, the court should consider alternative technological or other methods which may be utilised to allow that person to participate in the proceedings;
(l) what support the alleged perpetrator may need in order to have a reasonable opportunity to challenge the evidence; and
(m) whether a pre-hearing review would be useful prior to the fact-finding hearing to ensure directions have been complied with and all the required evidence is available.
20. Where the court fixes a fact-finding hearing, it must at the same time fix a Dispute Resolution Appointment to follow. Subject to the exception in paragraph 31 below, the hearings should be arranged in such a way that they are conducted by the same judge or, wherever possible, by the same panel of lay justices; where it is not possible to assemble the same panel of justices, the resumed hearing should be listed before at least the same chairperson of the lay justices. Judicial continuity is important.

Reports under Section 7

21. In any case where a risk of harm to a child resulting from domestic abuse is raised as an issue, the court should consider directing that a report on the question of contact, or any other matters relating to the welfare of the child, be prepared under section 7 of the Children Act 1989 by an Officer of Cafcass or a Welsh family proceedings officer (or local authority officer if appropriate), unless the court is satisfied that it is not necessary to do so in order to safeguard the child’s interests.
22. If the court directs that there shall be a fact-finding hearing on the issue of domestic abuse, the court will not usually request a section 7 report until after that hearing. In that event, the court should direct that any judgment is provided to Cafcass/CAFCASS Cymru; if there is no transcribed judgment, an agreed list of findings should be provided, as set out at paragraph 29.
23. Any request for a section 7 report should set out clearly the matters the court considers need to be addressed.

Representation of the child

24. Subject to the seriousness of the allegations made and the difficulty of the case, the court must consider whether it is appropriate for the child who is the subject of the application to be made a party to the proceedings and be separately represented. If the court considers that the child should be so represented, it must review the allocation decision so that it is satisfied that the case proceeds before the correct level of judge in the Family Court or High Court.

Interim orders before determination of relevant facts

25. Where the court gives directions for a fact-finding hearing, or where disputed allegations of domestic abuse are otherwise undetermined, the court should not make an interim child arrangements order unless it is satisfied that it is in the interests of the child to do so and that the order would not expose the child or the other parent to an unmanageable risk of harm (bearing in mind the impact which domestic abuse against a parent can have on the emotional well-being of the child, the safety of the other parent and the need to protect against domestic abuse including controlling or coercive behaviour).
26. In deciding any interim child arrangements question the court should–
(a) take into account the matters set out in section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989 or section 1(4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (‘the welfare check-list’), as appropriate; and
(b) give particular consideration to the likely effect on the child, and on the care given to the child by the parent who has made the allegation of domestic abuse, of any contact and any risk of harm, whether physical, emotional or psychological, which the child and that parent is likely to suffer as a consequence of making or declining to make an order.
27. Where the court is considering whether to make an order for interim contact, it should in addition consider –
(a) the arrangements required to ensure, as far as possible, that any risk of harm to the child and the parent who is at any time caring for the child is minimised and that the safety of the child and the parties is secured; and in particular:
(i) whether the contact should be supervised or supported, and if so, where and by whom; and
(ii) the availability of appropriate facilities for that purpose;
(b) if direct contact is not appropriate, whether it is in the best interests of the child to make an order for indirect contact; and
(c) whether contact will be beneficial for the child.
The fact-finding hearing or other hearing of the facts where domestic abuse is alleged
28. While ensuring that the allegations are properly put and responded to, the fact-finding hearing or other hearing can be an inquisitorial (or investigative) process, which at all times must protect the interests of all involved. At the fact-finding hearing or other hearing –
• each party can be asked to identify what questions they wish to ask of the other party, and to set out or confirm in sworn evidence their version of the disputed key facts; and
• the judge should be prepared where necessary and appropriate to conduct the questioning of the witnesses on behalf of the parties, focusing on the key issues in the case.
29. The court should, wherever practicable, make findings of fact as to the nature and degree of any domestic abuse which is established and its effect on the child, the child’s parents and any other relevant person. The court must record its findings in writing in a Schedule to the relevant order, and the court office must serve a copy of this order on the parties. A copy of any record of findings of fact or of admissions must be sent by the court office to any officer preparing a report under Section 7 of the 1989 Act.
30. At the conclusion of any fact-finding hearing, the court must consider, notwithstanding any earlier direction for a section 7 report, whether it is in the best interests of the child for the court to give further directions about the preparation or scope of any report under section 7; where necessary, it may adjourn the proceedings for a brief period to enable the officer to make representations about the preparation or scope of any further enquiries. Any section 7 report should address the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below, unless the court directs otherwise.
31. Where the court has made findings of fact on disputed allegations, any subsequent hearing in the proceedings should be conducted by the same judge or by at least the same chairperson of the justices. Exceptions may be made only where observing this requirement would result in delay to the planned timetable and the judge or chairperson is satisfied, for reasons which must be recorded in writing, that the detriment to the welfare of the child would outweigh the detriment to the fair trial of the proceedings.

 

In all cases where domestic abuse has occurred

32. The court should take steps to obtain (or direct the parties or an Officer of Cafcass or a Welsh family proceedings officer to obtain) information about the facilities available locally (to include local domestic abuse support services) to assist any party or the child in cases where domestic abuse has occurred.
33. Following any determination of the nature and extent of domestic abuse, whether or not following a fact-finding hearing, the court must, if considering any form of contact or involvement of the parent in the child’s life, consider-
(a) whether it would be assisted by any social work, psychiatric, psychological or other assessment (including an expert safety and risk assessment) of any party or the child and if so (subject to any necessary consent) make directions for such assessment to be undertaken and for the filing of any consequent report. Any such report should address the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below, unless the court directs otherwise;
(b) whether any party should seek advice, treatment or other intervention as a precondition to any child arrangements order being made, and may (with the consent of that party) give directions for such attendance.
34. Further or as an alternative to the advice, treatment or other intervention referred to in paragraph 33(b) above, the court may make an Activity Direction under section 11A and 11B Children Act 1989. Any intervention directed pursuant to this provision should be one commissioned and approved by Cafcass. It is acknowledged that acceptance on a DVPP is subject to a suitability assessment by the service provider, and that completion of a DVPP will take time in order to achieve the aim of risk-reduction for the long-term benefit of the child and the parent with whom the child is living.

Factors to be taken into account when determining whether to make child arrangements orders in all cases where domestic abuse has occurred

35. When deciding the issue of child arrangements the court should ensure that any order for contact will not expose the child to an unmanageable risk of harm and will be in the best interests of the child.
36. In the light of any findings of fact or admissions or where domestic abuse is otherwise established, the court should apply the individual matters in the welfare checklist with reference to the domestic abuse which has occurred and any expert risk assessment obtained. In particular, the court should in every case consider any harm which the child and the parent with whom the child is living has suffered as a consequence of that domestic abuse, and any harm which the child and the parent with whom the child is living is at risk of suffering, if a child arrangements order is made. The court should make an order for contact only if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent.
37. In every case where a finding or admission of domestic abuse is made, or where domestic abuse is otherwise established, the court should consider the conduct of both parents towards each other and towards the child and the impact of the same. In particular, the court should consider –
(a) the effect of the domestic abuse on the child and on the arrangements for where the child is living;
(b) the effect of the domestic abuse on the child and its effect on the child’s relationship with the parents;
(c) whether the parent is motivated by a desire to promote the best interests of the child or is using the process to continue a form of domestic abuse against the other parent;
(d) the likely behaviour during contact of the parent against whom findings are made and its effect on the child; and
(e) the capacity of the parents to appreciate the effect of past domestic abuse and the potential for future domestic abuse.

Directions as to how contact is to proceed

38. Where any domestic abuse has occurred but the court, having considered any expert risk assessment and having applied the welfare checklist, nonetheless considers that direct contact is safe and beneficial for the child, the court should consider what, if any, directions or conditions are required to enable the order to be carried into effect and in particular should consider –
(a) whether or not contact should be supervised, and if so, where and by whom;
(b) whether to impose any conditions to be complied with by the party in whose favour the order for contact has been made and if so, the nature of those conditions, for example by way of seeking intervention (subject to any necessary consent);
(c) whether such contact should be for a specified period or should contain provisions which are to have effect for a specified period; and
(d) whether it will be necessary, in the child’s best interests, to review the operation of the order; if so the court should set a date for the review consistent with the timetable for the child, and must give directions to ensure that at the review the court has full information about the operation of the order.

Where a risk assessment has concluded that a parent poses a risk to a child or to the other parent, contact via a supported contact centre, or contact supported by a parent or relative, is not appropriate.

39. Where the court does not consider direct contact to be appropriate, it must consider whether it is safe and beneficial for the child to make an order for indirect contact.

The reasons of the court

40. In its judgment or reasons the court should always make clear how its findings on the issue of domestic abuse have influenced its decision on the issue of arrangements for the child. In particular, where the court has found domestic abuse proved but nonetheless makes an order which results in the child having future contact with the perpetrator of domestic abuse, the court must always explain, whether by way of reference to the welfare check-list, the factors in paragraphs 36 and 37 or otherwise, why it takes the view that the order which it has made will not expose the child to the risk of harm and is beneficial for the child.

 

PRESIDENT’S CIRCULAR : 14 September 2017
DOMESTIC ABUSE : PD12J

In the summer of 2016 I asked Mr Justice Cobb, who had chaired the Working Group which drew up the Child Arrangements Programme in 2014, to review Practice Direction 12J, to examine whether further amendment was needed in the light of the recommendations made by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence in its briefing dated 29 April 2016 and by Women’s Aid Federation of England (WAFE) in its ‘Nineteen Child Homicides’ report published in February 2016, and to produce recommendations. His Report, accompanied by a draft amended PD12J, was dated 18 November 2016. I published it in January 2017: [2017] Fam Law 225. At the same time, in my 16th View from the Presidents Chambers, [2017] Fam Law 151, 160-161, I indicated that, with one important exception, I accepted all his recommendations.

As I had hoped, the publication of the draft amended PD12J generated comments and helpful suggestions, including from Families Need Fathers and, following a presentation they gave at the President’s Conference in May 2017, from Southall Black Sisters.

Although final responsibility for any amendment to PD12J rests with me as President of the Family Division, I thought it appropriate to consult both the Family Justice Council and the Family Procedure Rule Committee. The draft amended PD12J has accordingly been considered by the Family Justice Council and, at a number of its meetings when various iterations of the draft were considered, by the Family Procedure Rule Committee, most recently on 10 July 2017. Following this, a final revised draft amended PD12 was prepared by officials, for whose assistance I am grateful, incorporating the various amendments agreed by me and by the Committee and helpfully identifying a few additional issues (none of major significance) for my consideration. I should add that, throughout this process, I have benefited greatly from Mr Justice Cobb’s continuing advice, for which I am most grateful.

On 7 September 2017 I made the new PD12J, annexed to this Circular. It has since been approved by the Minister of State and will come into force on 2 October 2017. It applies (see paras 1, 3) to all judges, including lay justices, whether sitting in the Family Court or in the High Court.

PD12J will require further adjustment if and when the proposed legislation restricting cross-examination of alleged victims by alleged perpetrators is enacted. We cannot await that. Hence my decision to proceed without further delay.

The new PD12J contains numerous amendments, many of important substance. Here, I highlight only two:
1 There is (see para 3) a new and much expanded definition of what is now referred to as “domestic abuse”, rather than, as before, “domestic violence”.
2 There are mandatory requirements (see paras 8, 14, 15, 18, 22, 29) for inclusion of certain specified matters in the court’s order. I appreciate the additional burden that this may impose on judges and court staff, but there is good reason for making these requirements mandatory and they must be complied with.

There have been recurring complaints in Parliament and elsewhere of inadequate compliance with PD12J. I am unable to assess to what extent, if at all, such complaints are justified. However, I urge all judges to familiarise themselves with the new PD12J and to do everything possible to ensure that it is properly complied with on every occasion and without fail by everyone to whom it applies.

The Judicial College plays a vitally important role in providing appropriate training on the new PD12J to all family judges. As I have said previously, “I would expect the judiciary to receive high quality and up-to-date training in domestic violence and it is the responsibility of the Judicial College to deliver this.” The Judicial College has risen to the challenge, as many judges will already have experienced, and I am confident that it will continue to do so.
Domestic abuse in all its many forms, and whether directed at women, at men, or at children, continues, more than forty years after the enactment of the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976, to be a scourge on our society. Judges and everyone else in the family system need to be alert to the problems and appropriately focused on the available remedies. PD12J plays a vital part.

James Munby, President of the Family Division
14 September 2017

The Karpman Drama Triangle – What is it?

Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own good—only /they/ were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop?

Ralph Ellison

I am grateful for this guest post from a long time contributor and supporter of this site. She tweets as @DVHurts and has her own blog which you should visit. She writes here about the Karpman Drama Triangle

The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction – the triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis.

 

Conflict, power and the roles we play

I am a parent who has been through care proceedings and I want to talk about something that was an eye opener for me, with apologies to those who are less of a nerd. My specialist subject today is the Karpman Drama Triangle and how it applies to interactions with professionals. The what?!

Basically ,there was this bloke, Stephen Karpman M.D. American of course, who as a student constructed a theory of social interaction encompassing conflict , power and the shifting roles people play. Why I first became interested in it was as a domestic violence victim , I could not understand how professionals did not see past the perpetrators immediate morphing into the victim every time the police were called. That victim status got him sympathy and belief that he was the injured party.

The Drama Triangle consists of three roles; two at the top of an inverted triangle, the persecutor and the rescuer at the top and one at the bottom is the victim. Although the roles are not static , people often have a natural leaning towards one of them initially in a relationship whether personal or professional. These are learnt roles from childhood.

I am a natural rescuer, though of course I have played of three roles at times. The reason why, is I had too much responsibility as a child and so learnt that my worth is consistent with how much I can help someone. Many caring professionals are also rescuers, but a significant minority can also spend some of their time as persecutors and victims. One such was my children’s social worker. I hope I am now not turning into the persecutor but rather pointing out bad social work practice. I will not name her, lets call her Susan.

Susan was actually a little bit younger than me, she had like many come to social work late in her late 30’s . I got to know her well, too well, as she used to slot me in as the last visit of the day and sit and talk about herself. She told me about her strained relationship with her mum, the split with her ex, all the jobs she had prior to becoming a social worker,her son, a difficult removal of a new born baby, her problems with her job….. I listened. What I didn’t realise at the time was that she was playing the victim and I was playing the rescuer, when in fact I was an actual victim whose needs she should have been attempting to find resources for. For instance we were supposed to have a family group conference and I should have had a carer’s assessment. When my situation worsened she of course then shifted roles again to be the persecutor.

We all get payback from the roles we play. Susan initially got me to confirm her victim status, she sat on the pity pot and I said the appropriate responses. Remember on the whole I am a rescuer and it was a role I was very familiar with. It was extremely unhelpful to the situation though, by rescuing , I could stay in denial about my problems and by Susan maintaining her victim status she was telling me that she was helpless to make changes to her life let alone enable me to make changes to mine. We were both trapped on the merry go round.

Act 2
Whilst Susan continued to play out her victim role , the situation worsened and our positions on the triangle shifted. She became the rescuer of my children and my ex, plus my persecutor. I then felt like a victim, when no one would acknowledge that, I in turn became her persecutor , if she had done her job properly would we have reached crisis?

Social Work in particular

I have every empathy for social workers, heavy case loads, working conditions and the undoubted trauma they face every day. However, and you knew there had to be a however, they are not victims. They are middle class , from social classification, and have far more choice and advantages than their clients. Including the ability to move jobs, if they really cannot stand the position they are in.

Their client group, if it involves child protection or mental health has multiple disadvantages. Yes some of clients problems are inter generational, but you can’t actually be blamed for your parents. Clients live very different lives,with very few options; some days just living is a miracle.

 

What is in it for me?

This is the single most helpful tool I have found in breaking the drama triangle. Not being over analytical, but simply working out what payback that both you and the person you are in any relationship with are getting. Is one helping the other , giving too much time , money, sympathy without any return.

Do you know absolutely nothing about your friend but they know your complete history? Healthy relationships benefit both parties, I’m alright, your alright. that includes relationships with professionals as well.

What are the nature of and limits to parents’ rights?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

Parents versus the state

The question of ‘parents rights’ has been bought into very stark focus by the court hearings around Charlie Gard. There has been an enormous wealth of comment, blogs and articles which demonstrates the strong emotional reactions of many to these proceedings; a stark illustration of the tensions around balancing completing ‘rights’ and interests of parent and child – particularly when the child is an unconscious baby.

A thoughtful article in the Independent summarised the key issues well – decisions over Charlie Gard’s future encapsulated a clash between medical opinion and parental instinct. The law is clear; where doctors and parents disagree over what treatment is in the ‘best interests’ of a child, neither parents nor doctors are able to demand or veto certain treatment. Any dispute must come before a court where a Judge will decide. The court had to operate on the fundamental principle of the Children Act 1989; that Charlie’s welfare would be the ‘paramount’ consideration.

Parents versus parents

Parents ‘rights’ when they argue between themselves about what is best for their child, are utterly subsumed into the idea of the ‘welfare of the child’. This principle was firmly and clearly restated by the Supreme Court in B (A Child) [2009] UKSC. See the judgment of  Lord Kerr at para 37 :

… All consideration of the importance of parenthood in private law disputes about residence must be firmly rooted in an examination of what is in the child’s best interests. This is the paramount consideration. It is only as a contributor to the child’s welfare that parenthood assumes any significance. In common with all other factors bearing on what is in the best interests of the child, it must be examined for its potential to fulfil that aim.

There is an immediate and obvious distinction between public law (cases involving the local authority and parents) and private law (cases involving disputes between family members). Where the state wishes to intervene in the sanctity of family life, it has to satisfy the test under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 and show the child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm. Nothing less will justify state intervention and this high threshold will mean that some children grow up in less than ideal situations. The risks and impracticality of any policy of deliberate ‘social engineering’ determine this outcome.

But in private law cases, it is different. The focus there is on which parent or which place would promote the child’s best interests and ‘parents’ rights’ are clearly subsumed as relevant only insofar as the parents claim a right to promote those best interests.

There are some who are critical of this approach and worry that the pendulum may have swung too far away from considering ‘parents rights’ or the rights of the family as a whole.

However, the emphasis on the welfare of the child is explained by the problems that arise when individual family members have very different views about what constitutes a child’s best interests. A stark example is found in the case of Gibbs v Gibbs in 2017 where the mother was eventually sent to prison for refusing to end her campaign to publicise the father as abusive towards their children. To attempt to resolve a dispute about a child by identifying, analysing and weighing in the balance the ‘rights’ of all adult disputants would take time and energy away from identifying what the child needs.

Some areas of concern

Why does the test to over rule a parents’ rights differ according to who or what wants to prevail? 

The question for the court, in deciding a clash between parents and a state agency that happened to be a hospital was not whether Charlie Gard would suffer ‘significant harm’ if further treatment was carried out. The issue was whether or not the treatment was in his ‘best interests’ – his welfare was paramount. 

Some commentators expressed concern about this. If social workers decide that a child should be removed from his or her parents’ care, they have to bring this to a court and satisfy the test under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. That children would ‘do better’ in another environment is never a justification – as Baroness Hale commented in Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35

In a totalitarian society, uniformity and conformity are valued. Hence the totalitarian state tries to separate the child from her family and mould her to its own design. Families in all their subversive variety are the breeding ground of diversity and individuality. In a free and democratic society we value diversity and individuality. Hence the family is given special protection in all the modern human rights instruments…

Already, it isn’t clear what weight is afforded to the views of parents who clash with the decisions preferred by a state agency. Why should a decision whether or not to end medical treatment for a child be subject to a different test to the decision whether or not to remove a child from the parents’ care?

No one has doubted that Charlie Gard’s parents were acting out of anything other than love for their son and wish to secure him the best possible treatment. If there was no evidence before the court that their decisions risked causing him significant harm, why should the court interfere? No doubt, Charlie Gard’s parents have found the process by which their wish to make decisions for their son was overruled by the courts, similar to the misery and bafflement of a parent who faces the adoption of their child, without their consent.

If there is no legal aid, what are the implications for access to justice?

A further anomaly is the automatic availability of legal aid to parents in care cases – but not parents facing applications by an NHS trust, or wishing to argue against an adoption order, or parents arguing between themselves – unless one can show evidence of domestic violence.

Charlie Gard’s parents did not have legal aid and could not afford to pay for a lawyer. They were fortunate to find lawyers prepared to act for nothing. Francis J commented at para 17 of his judgment:

it does seem to me that when Parliament changed the law in relation to legal aid and significantly restricted the availability of legal aid, yet continued to make legal aid available in care cases where the state is seeking orders against parents, it cannot have intended that parents in the position that these parents have been in should have no access to legal advice or representation. To most like-minded people, a National Health Service trust is as much an arm of the state as is a local authority. I can think of few more profound cases than ones where a trust is applying to the court for a declaration that a life- support machine should be switched off in respect of a child.

‘Rights’ which cannot be enforced in court because the parents can’t afford legal representation and don’t understand complicated law, are no rights at all.

The adversarial system and the standard of proof

An enormous problem – and one which I think firmly underpins most of the criticism and distrust of the family law system – is that an adversarial process which relies on oral evidence and cross examination may work tolerably well in circumstances where the disputed facts are often backed up by contemporaneous written documents. But it is often very difficult to test ‘evidence’ that is no more than the assertions of two people. Particularly when these people are giving an account of their relationship, built up over many years and which may have been experienced/witnessed by only them.

In cases where parents make allegations against each other of sexual or violent abuse, it is my view that waters have been seriously and dangerously muddied by the requirement that police forces were to commence investigations into sexual assaults on the basis that they ‘believe’ the complainant (who is usually described as the ‘victim’ ).To have as a ‘starting point’ a belief that one person is telling the truth fundamentally poisons the integrity of any investigative process. See the 2016 report of Sir Richard Henriques into the failures of the investigations of the Metropolitan police in ‘Operation Midland’.

Parents in care proceedings have raised serious criticisms about the standard of proof in care cases being on the ‘balance of probabilities’ – pointing out that removing a child from an unwilling parent is every bit as horrible as sentencing a parent to a prison sentence and the standard of proof should therefore meet the criminal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

What are rights worth if they can be discarded by the state on a low standard of proof?

Enforcement of established rights

However even a ‘blameless’ parent who is vindicated at the conclusion of a finding of fact may not find that their ‘rights’ translate into any kind of action by the courts, because of the likely impact of such action on the emotional well being of the child.

This is often the argument used against removing a child from an adoptive placement to return to birth parents – but the UK has been criticised for failing to give sufficient recognition to the child’s right to be brought up by his or her birth parents.

What are ‘rights’ worth if they are not even considered, because ‘paramount’ is interpreted as ‘exclusive’ or ‘overwhelming’ ?

 

How do we establish what is in a child’s best interest if parents don’t have the ‘right’ to determine this?

This brief discussion above about the limits of parental autonomy to determine outcomes for their children highlights that as a society we have agreed that parents do not have the right to subject their children to whatever indignity they wish in the name of ‘family life’ or ‘respect for parents’.  The court will therefore have to hear evidence and make a decision based on the evidence before it.  The court is faced with a truly difficult job when before it come two parents who argue from entirely different perspectives about the fitness of the other to parent.

I have always supported the need for the state to intervene to protect the most vulnerable members of its society. Children are not the chattels of their parents; some children do need to be ‘rescued’.

But the state and its officers have to tread carefully around the ‘family’ and how they chose to intervene in its structures. The emotion and interest in the ‘rights’ of parents in the aftermath of proceedings around Charlie Gard demonstrate a clear need for further discussion and exploration of the nature and extent of parents rights. A system that appears to horrify a large proportion of the population subject to it, has either not been well explained or should not be defended.

 

‘Adoption by Stealth’ – the dangers of rhetoric and the law of unintended consequences

 

On July 10th the Family Rights Group launched their report ‘Co-operation or Coercion? Children coming into the care system under voluntary arrangements’ .

I wrote a brief summary of the speakers’ contributions and the report’s recommendations for The Transparency Project.

I commented that this was a very important report, with very sobering findings and it demanded an immediate call to action. It was very clear that parents were finding themselves subject to ‘soft coercion’ when agreeing to have their children accommodated under section 20; that no one took the time to explain to them what was going on and they didn’t realise that they kept their parental responsibility and could remove their children at any time.

This is a particular problem when looking at ‘foster to adopt’ placements. The aim of such placements is to ensure that more children are placed with their permanent carers as soon as possible on a fostering basis while the LA seeks a placement order from the courts.  This is a key example of the tensions inherent in protecting both parents’ and children’s rights.

Parents have a ‘right’ to a fair hearing under both Articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR; an opportunity to make their case and show evidence to the court that they can parent their child. But children have a ‘right’ not to suffer the harm that almost inevitably follows frequent placement between parents, foster carers and adoptive parents.

How do we balance those rights? I agree, to ask parents to ‘give up’ their babies via section 20 into a foster to adopt placement means they are signing up for something very significant, at a time when they are very vulnerable and without any scrutiny from the court or any real access to legal help. It may well be very difficult to ‘unpick’ such a placement as the months go by.

Parents who are involved in care proceedings have autotmatic access to fully funded legal representation, regardless of their wealth or the perceived merits of their case – which is absolutely how it should be. Parents whose children are accommodated under section 20 however, are most likely to only get independent legal advice if they can afford to pay for it, or if they can access help from a charity such as the Family Rights Group. Sometimes a LA can be prevailed upon to pay for a few hours chat with a solicitor but its easy to see how this could be insufficient as a real help to parents. The courts have been quick to condemn what they see as abuse and bad practice around use of section 20 as it removes decisions about where children live from any kind of court scrutiny.

Thus, the lack of understanding about section 20 is clearly a real and significant problem, as detailed by the report’s findings. Articles published in the Guardian on the day of the launch categorised this as ‘adoption by stealth’ and that parents were ‘tricked’ into handing over their children.

I understand that this is the reality of the problem as many parents will see it. I appreciate that journalists have to write in compelling and punchy language to engage their readers. But this rhetoric around such a sensitive issue troubles me.

What is the law about making an adoption order?

The articles did not make any mention of section 21 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which sets out clearly that ‘adoption by stealth’ is not a creature known to our law.  A child cannot be placed for adoption unless a placement order is made. There must be court scrutiny of this process and the parents will be involved in this court scrutiny.

The court cannot make a placement order unless:

  • the child is subject to a care order OR
  • the court is satisfied that the conditions in section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 are met OR
  • the child has no parent or guardian

The conditions set out in section 31(2) are those required to exist before a court can make a care or supervision order:

  • that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
  • that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—
    • the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
    • the child’s being beyond parental control.

This is a high threshold – for obvious reasons. Taking children away from their families is recognised as the most serious interference with people’s family and private lives; it has life long consequences for all concerned.

Section 22 of the Adoption and Children Act sets out that a local authority must apply to the court for a placement order in respect of a child if:

  • the child is placed for adoption by them or is being provided with accommodation by them,
  • no adoption agency is authorised to place the child for adoption,
  • the child has no parent or guardian or the authority consider that the conditions in section 31(2) of the 1989 Act are met, and
  • the authority are satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption.

EDIT 13/07/17 – I am grateful for the contributions of Tom Perkins, via Twitter

And its not just the ACA that operates as a fetter to arbitrary State interference or ‘stealthy’ social workers. As Tom points out, the SW profession itself is very alive to these issues of concern :

I feel the FRG review was a missed opportunity to promote the growing movement toward ‘Co Design + Co Production with young people and their parents … I was disappointed there was no reference in the FRG report to the DFE funded Guidance produced by BAAF in June 2013 which provides a very clear and easy to understand guide to the entire Foster to Adopt process. For example, compare P 9 of the FRG report and P8 of the BAAF guidance…..there is a world of difference. 

Tom points out that there is now a ‘very high level’ of scrutiny around section 20 which makes it very difficult for social workers to act ‘dishonestly’. Not only have individual Judges issued guidance on these of section 20 in their areas (see for e.g HHJ Bellamy and HHJ Wildblood QC) some have gone even further and have requested information about the LA’s section 20 population. Tom comments:

[The Judges] demanded and have been given access to the entire S20 population and demanded the following: Details of all new S20 admissions; what are the LA plans at 6 weeks? A detailed report from the LA if there is not a plan to come to Court. A detailed plan for each child who has been S20 longer than 6 weeks. 

This has forced those LAs to look hard and long at their S20 population and the reasons for the original admission. It would be hard to imagine that all aspects of the S20 admission – placement – assessment – outcome – long term plan – parental involvement / agreement / permissions etc., have not been scrutinised. Similarly, a number of LA’s have been revoking PO’s that have reached 12 months and the child not placed for adoption. The Care Plan has been changed to CO + LTF. Similarly, OFSTED routinely examine the S20 population during their monitoring visits / inspections. There is no mention within OFSTED reports of any concerns about parents not knowing / not signing S20 agreements….

For further discussion about the law and practice around adoption see these posts about when adoption is considered necessary. 

Why do I worry?

It would have been reassuring to have had at least some recognition of and discussion of this legal framework in both the Guardian articles and in discussions at the launch of the FRG report. Because without it, and resorting to such phrases as ‘adoption by stealth’ and ‘tricked’, there is a risk that the very dangerous narrative promoted by John Hemming and others gains traction and parents continue to be vulnerable to the bad (and expensive) advice they offer.

Hemming and his acolytes routinely dismiss family lawyers as ‘legal aid losers’ or ‘in the pocket of the LA’ and parents are advised (quite literally) to ‘flee’ the country rather than engage, thus ensuring they are denied access to help and representation that could keep their families intact.

The Family Rights Group is to be applauded for the work they have done and continue to do for parents and children. However, they cannot take the place – and I imagine would never suggest they could – of fully instructed, fully funded lawyers for whom the court arena is a second home.

I am glad that such issues are being discussed, that a brighter light is being shone on bad practice and historic failings. I hope to encourage these kind of discussions with the performance on September 23rd at the Arnolfini in Bristol ‘Happy Families – the conversations we are not having about adoption’

But it would be an enormous shame if one unintended consequence of this debate was to create even deeper distrust and fear of the legal system which remains the only true safeguard against the arbitrary interference of the State.

As Sir James Munby commented at the launch of the report on July 10th