This exchange began after I read a press release for the documentary The Stolen Children of England (Les Enfants Voles D’Angleterre), that was shown on French TV Canal 5 on 15 November 2016. I commented about how uneasy that made me here.
I was then sent a English language version of the documentary which I transcribed here and made more detailed and critical comments. In brief, I was alarmed by the number of serious misrepresentations and distortions of reality which were permitted unchallenged air time. It was clear that the majority of the contributors had strong and existing links with a number of extreme campaigners against ‘forced adoption’. I have written about my serious concerns about the two most prolific, John Hemming and Ian Josephs, on numerous occasions over many years.
What was interesting however was the appearance of Maggie Mellon, a former senior social worker of many years experience who was introduced as a member of the British Association of Social Workers. I agreed with much of what Maggie said in the documentary but I was concerned that her appearance alongside the other more extreme campaigners could be interpreted by some as providing legitimacy for what they were saying.
I challenged Maggie about this via Twitter and was initially dismayed by her response – which was in effect that I should just ‘get over it’. So I am relieved that she chose to respond at greater length. Her response has been published on the Transparency Project.
I make my response here because I think the issues now being ventilated are going beyond the remit of the Transparency Project which does not exist to toe any particular line about adoption in particular, but to promote clarity and understanding about the family justice system in general.
Enjoy the Silence
I will set out at the end of this post my particular comments on Maggie’s response. Some of which I agreed with and some I did not. I am glad she took the time to respond. I think this is a very serious and important area and the quality of debate so far has been really poor. Vulnerable people are told things which are frightening and untrue and they are encouraged to disengage from both social workers and lawyers.
So what was most interesting for me were the things that Maggie didn’t say. She diminishes the very serious complaints I make about the misrepresentations of Hemming and Josephs and answers none of them. I think the time is long overdue for some collective, considered response from both the social work and the legal profession about the activities of these campaigners and the damage they do. Failure to act is a choice in itself and silence invites complicity.
Towards the end she says:
Until such time as I can make a programme that allows me editorial control of content then I will accept invitations that allow me to offer a challenge to what I believe is a collective failure to protect and promote human rights.
And I reply:
I applaud Maggie’s passion and commitment to speak out against a failure to protect and promote human rights. I remain dismayed and alarmed that she thinks this documentary is a vehicle for either noble ambition. I would ask her again to consider the story of Colin and Clare. Who went into their final hearing unrepresented, save for the ‘advice’ of Ian Josephs. How did they end up in such a parlous position? Who did they listen to and why? Who preyed on their vulnerability and to what end? There are serious problems with the child protection system and we need to deal with them. But this is not the way. If Maggie wishes to continue to sup with the devil, I hope her spoon is long enough.
Maggie Mellon’s response and my comments (in bold and in brackets)
I appeared on this programme on the request of the documentary makers. They had read an article that I had written in 2014 in Professional Social Work, the monthly magazine of the British Association of Social Workers. In this article, I had expressed strong concerns about current policy and practice on adoption, and asked if, in future, this would be recognised as a scandal of the same magnitude as removal of children from care to Australia, Canada, New Zealand in the previous century.
These removals have now been acknowledged by the government, and by the charities who carried them out, to have been very wrong. My plea was for us not to wait forty or fifty years to ask if the current policy and practice on adoption is right. In my view, this is a crucial issue for social work. BASW has now mounted an enquiry into the social work role in adoption which will report in 2017. You can read about this here (https://www.basw.co.uk/adoption-enquiry)
In November Sarah posted up a strong condemnation of the documentary, prior to having watched it. After watching the programme Sarah has now enlarged on this condemnation in a detailed piece on her blog (the Transparency Project is NOT ‘my blog’ – I am simply one of many members of the Transparency Project. We do not necessarily speak with one collective voice) which contests some of the editorial commentary, throws doubt upon the validity of the families’ cases, and generally asserts that it composes a nasty campaign to discredit English courts, and to frighten people unnecessarily. (I don’t simply ‘assert’ and I don’t ‘throw doubt’ – I have provided clear evidence for my criticisms. It is beyond doubt that very important information about some of the people interviewed was simply not shared. Which is a great shame, as that information was very relevant to the arguments being made. Failure to share this information was dishonest and seriously detracts from the credibility of this documentary).
Sarah has asked me to respond to her blog, and whilst she may be disappointed, I am not going to offer a point-by-point commentary on all of the issues that she raises about the documentary’s content. I am instead going to focus on the key issues. (Fair enough. I can’t compel anyone to answer my questions. I can only hope when I raise such serious issues as I do here that people who wish to be a credible voice in this debate will want to respond.)
The documentary had the legitimate aim of exposing what the makers considered to be serious breaches of human rights in the UK, with a particular focus on the number of mothers travelling to France to avoid having their babies taken at birth. (this is asserting that the ‘aim’ of the documentary makers was ‘legitimate’ because they had declared it to be so. The problem with this is that the ‘aim’ was decidedly NOT legitimate as it was based on false or partial information. There was no attempt to provide the missing information, which would have cast an entirely different light on both the mothers who ‘fled’ and the men who facilitated this ‘fleeing’.)
The aim was to draw attention to the policy and practice of forced adoption by UK social services and courts, a practise which is almost unique in Europe, and certainly nowhere so prevalent as in the UK. (I don’t quibble that it is legitimate to raise serious questions about why were are so unique in Europe – not for having a mechanism for non consensual adoption, as every European country has such mechanisms – BUT that we resort to it so often. However, the context in which this documentary chose to raise these questions was on a decided and false assumption about the degree of deliberate corruption in the English system.)
I don’t believe that it is necessary to endorse all the claims or concerns expressed in the documentary in order to believe that it is good that it was made and broadcast. (Maybe not. But you certainly do have to grapple with my central accusation – that much of it was dangerously and deliberately false – before determining that it was a good thing it was broadcast.)
The nature of a documentary is that it features a number of interviews of people with relevant knowledge, points of view and experiences. I do not feel it necessary to defend the nature of independent documentary filmmaking, which is what Sarah seems to be inviting me to do. ( I am not inviting general discourse on ‘independent documentaries’ I am asking for comment on this particular documentary, relying on it does on so many unreliable and dangerous sources.)
I did not make the documentary, so I am neither obliged, nor interested in debating incidental issues such as the programme makers’ assertion that Thatcherism was responsible, or whether case A may not be properly explained, or that person B may have less than pure motives and the other criticisms and allegations that Sarah makes (Fair enough. But the issues of substance I raise about the honesty and credibility of this documentary as a whole are NOT ‘incidental’ and they cannot be simply brushed aside in this way).
The issue for me is whether the programme had legitimate aims and whether it carried these out. This comes down to two crucial criticisms which Sarah seems to hold about the very premises of the documentary’s aim.
One is her belief that the family courts are mostly to be trusted in arriving at their judgements on this issue. (I do indeed hold that belief. It is based on 17 years in practice. That does not mean I am blind to examples of bad practice. I simply don’t accept they are common place. But I fully accept they exist, they have serious consequences and that we need to do as much as we can to stop them occurring. I have written about this many times in many different places. Here is one example).
The other is that forced or non-consensual adoption is a reasonable policy for the UK to have adopted. From everything that Sarah writes, neither of these beliefs was liable to be shaken by any evidence to the contrary that the documentary might present (I do believe that for some children, adoption is the best option. I also believe – and have said so, many times and in many different places – that the ‘push’ for adoption by successive Governments is wrong and unprincipled and risks offence to the rule of law. Sadly, I have also had cause to doubt what respect Maggie’s own profession has for the rule of law in his field. And I agree that the documentary is hardly likely to ‘shake’ any beliefs I hold – because my ‘beliefs’ are forged on experience and on evidence and thus are not liable to any ‘shaking’ from a documentary based on distortion and misrepresentation).
First of all – belief in the family courts:
Here is an exchange between ‘Stacey’ and Sarah in the comments following her initial blog criticising the (then yet unseen) programme:
Stacey “What is going to happen when future generations of children who have had a bad experience in foster care or adoption want answers to why they were removed from their families?”
Sarah “If a child wants answers about why they were removed, they can access all the documents that went before the Judge.”
This is not an acceptable answer to the question. It rests on an assumption that there is a level playing field for families in the courts, and that the wheels of British justice ground slow and smooth. Ultimately Sarah believes that transparency would reveal the worthiness of the British legal system, and that children who have been removed from their parents will be sufficiently comforted and reassured when they are grown, by her confirmation that the process was carried out properly (Maggie reads an awful lot into a short comment. I was not trying to suggest that being able to access papers in the future is the ‘answer’ to any real or perceived inadequacies or injustice in the system. I was simply pointing out that it is not right to suggest that children ‘never’ get the opportunity to find out what happened to them – as was strongly asserted in the documentary. I have commented in many places about what happens when the system goes wrong. I don’t believe transparency will reveal ‘worthiness’ – I believe it will reveal reality. Cases do go wrong and people do make mistakes, but most people try hard and do their best. )
For me, there are a number of flaws in this position. One is that it assumes that if the court made the right decision based on whatever information it was presented to it, then that is just fine and dandy. But it’s not. We know that the civil courts decide on the balance of probability, not beyond reasonable doubt. Sarah herself, in a post on another issue, protests that this test means that ‘truth’ only needs to be 51% probable. The balance of probability is not an objective test, and must often necessarily be decided by what a judge finds the most probable assertion between two competing claims. Is there a level playing field in the struggle to assert what is ‘probable’, if the case is contested between a group of professional social workers, and an understandably distraught and ill-resourced family? (I agree with Maggie that the weight that is placed on the balance of probabilities should make us uneasy. I agree there is debate worth having about the standard of proof in care proceedings and what it is sometimes asked to achieve.)
Social services and the courts are not immune to the prejudices and injustices of the wider world that sustains their existence. This directly challenges any assumption that the best interests of children is as sound a guide for decision making as those who use it to justify their actions and decisions would have us believe. Just because the law and the courts embrace the principle of the best interests of the child, it does not follow that these may be reasonably decided in court. In practice the test of ‘the best interests of children’ is open to many interpretations, and to flagrant abuse. It can be used to justify the ‘rescue’ of children from the problems that their parents are experiencing or are assessed as experiencing to the ‘safe’ world of ‘care’. I discuss the actuality of ‘care’ later, but for now, I want to consider the rapid changes to the notion of ‘best interests’ judgements. (I agree with this)
Not so long ago, homosexuality was illegal, and at best a sign of mental illness or at worst of perversion. Homosexual young people were subject to religious or psychiatric ‘treatment’. Not much longer ago, a woman who left her husband was assumed to have forfeited her right to custody of the children. Within my lifetime unmarried mothers have been locked up in Magdalene laundries, or confined to mother and baby homes, and forced to give up their children – all in the children’s ‘best interests’. Now we are apologising to those mothers and their children – too late for many, who have died without ever being offered contrition. What are the prejudices or convictions today about children’s best interests that future generations may look back on in disbelief and horror? (I agree with this – and have said so)
Aside from these issues of principle and of politics, in any case a court case is at the end of a process, during which the best interests of children are supposed to determine all decisions made in intervening in a child and family’s life. The ‘best interests’ argument in these cases is often deployed to justify the termination or severe restriction and policing of contact between children and their parents, from the point that a child is removed and long before a case comes to court. It is used to prohibit parents from telling their child they love them and are fighting to get them back, it is used to prevent parents showing upset, and to demand that they are cheerful and assure the child that they want them to be happy in ‘care’ and that their social worker is doing the right thing, and it has also been used to forbid the parent talking to the child in their common language of origin. The consequence is quite often the long drawn out destruction of the parent-child relationship, the evidence of which, ironically, is then used as the main reason why the child must be permanently separated from the parent(s) by adoption. These and other social work decisions on contact are not founded on any reliable body of knowledge, and yet are accepted by the courts as the result of ‘expert’ application of knowledge about children’s best interests. (I agree with this. I am particularly troubled by the lack of clear and reliable access to relevant research and how often unevidenced assertions about issues such as ‘attachment’ are made in care proceedings.)
Florence Bellone, a French journalist whom Sarah dismisses in her blog as not credible to comment on the programme, because she has consistently and outspokenly criticised UK adoption law and practice, offers this advice to Sarah (I dismiss Ms Bellone as not credible because of what she says and who she associates with. Being ‘outspoken’ is not a problem for me. Consorting with Sabine McNeill definitely is. If Ms Mellon is not familiar with who Ms Bellone associates with, I suggest she does some reading here).
“The only thing I could say is: ‘follow parents on the field to see the evidence…Don’t rely on what is written in the paperwork…If there is one thing which is covering up real rubbish, it is that mantra of the “BEST interest of the child” which is covering up all possible rubbish.’
Stacey continues with this advice from her knowledge of a case based on the mother’s alleged ‘failure to bond’ with her child. She points out that evidence that points away from this conclusion even if it is presented in court by the mother’s representative, will not weigh against the social workers’ assessment and that ‘… the social worker should have evaluated the evidence before writing the assessment and the mother’s time might be better spent focusing on her infant’s development rather than worrying about having to defend such nonsense in front of a judge, even if she does have a lawyer.’
Giving birth to a baby while the threat or knowledge of its forcible removal hangs over a mother is one of the most likely ways to damage her relationship to her unborn child. The uncertainty, the suspicion, the stress, the knowledge that any love felt might inevitably mean unbearable pain of loss: what could be more likely to make a mother hesitate to commit to a child? And then to find that that very self-preserving distance may be used as justification for removal? I have yet to be persuaded that there are any circumstances beyond psychosis, or other evidence, that the parent represents an imminent physical threat to the child that would make removal at birth necessary or right (I agree, and so does the law, that removal of a child at birth is the most serious of all interferences in family life. It should not be done lightly, and in my experience, it is not done lightly. But it is sad reality that there are sometimes not enough safe and protective mother and baby placements available and thus sometimes hard decisions have to be made. Those cases I have experienced when mother’s lose babies do not involve psychosis but generally involve long standing and serious issues of substance abuse which was on going during pregnancy).
And that brings me to the second part of my disagreement with Sarah; her apparent acceptance of non-consensual adoption as a response to circumstances which are much short of absolutely critical, or where the parent’s consent can’t be sought due to absence or refusal to respond. Other countries in Europe require a far higher standard – if it happens at all. Forced adoption against the explicit opposition of parents is not contemplated as a routine childcare option anywhere in Europe, to the extent that it is here (I agree, as I have said that other European countries do it differently and it would be interesting to know more about why and what are the outcomes for children).
What is peculiar is that Sarah does not even begin to grapple with the contention that ‘failure to bond’ with a child after birth should be advanced as a reason for the removal and adoption of that child. (I don’t grapple with it because I was not aware it was being raised in the documentary. The documentary asserted that children were removed for ‘no reasons’ or reasons that were not explained to the parents – which I don’t accept. I don’t know what Maggie means by ‘failure to bond’. It is not something I have seen asserted in any threshold criteria. If that were the only thing contained in a threshold document, of course I would challenge it. It’s a meaningless assertion on its own. We seem to be moving far away now from the issues which I thought were under discussion).
Apart from any other concern, the child will be first moved to a foster mother, who is being paid to care for the child and has no bond at all with the child, and will not be required to prove one. And from there to a succession of such foster mothers, including ‘respite carers’ offered to give the paid carer a break from the 24/7 demands of a young baby – curious that it is an expensive justifiable for a paid carer, but not for the original mother. Finally, the child will be moved to a placement with adopters who may or may not ‘bond’ to the standard demanded of the birth mother. If they don’t they will be offered post-adoption counselling and support, rather than the child protection assessment and removal offered to the birth mother. It is ironic that such a support structure can be utilised for the paid recipients of the child, but not its birth mother, and callous that the emotional cost, of knowing your child is being passed around such a series of strangers, without your consent or knowledge, is not considered (I agree that frequent moves of placement are generally disastrous for children. But this was not, so far as I recall, an issue raised in the documentary so I am unsure why I am criticised for not dealing with it.)
Over the last couple of years, I have had the privilege and the pain of acting as an independent social worker in a number of adoption cases. Invariably I find major discrepancies between the file records and the reports that are presented to Children’s Hearings and to the Sheriff courts. These are usually the result of a number of either deliberate or accidental misrepresentations. Within these records, I rarely, if ever, see reference to any research by social workers to justify their assessments and their decisions. I often find claims about the damage to infant brains that ‘failure to bond’, or exposure to ‘emotional abuse’ will cause, or that children’s upset after having contact with their mother ‘must be’ a result of ‘re-traumatisation’. These claims are scientifically and intellectually suspect at best, but worse, they are professionally incompetent. (that is really worrying. I have also found misrepresentations and I have challenged them. However, they are not commonplace. If others have found them commonplace, this definitely requires investigation.)
This is at the crux of the issue, there is a dearth of critical thinking, and a dearth of professional robustness in the carrying out of forced adoptions. (This is the ultimate irony for me. This document represents something far worse than a dearth of ‘critical thinking’ or robust analysis. It promotes lies and distortions. It is indefensible, particularly from one who rightly recognises the fundamental importance of proper analysis.)
So, no, I have no regrets about taking part in a programme that addressed the pain of parents separated from their children and their very poor experiences of social services and the courts. (and that’s fine. And important. So far as it goes. But Maggie appeared under the flag of the British Association of Social Workers and thus added a gloss of credibility to some very incredible assertions.)
The programme was worth making and worth watching (no it wasn’t and I have explained precisely why) and deserves more than a litany of complaints about everything and everyone associated with it. (this trivialises, diminishes and demeans the very serious nature of my criticisms.)
Yes, my contribution and that of others was edited – unless a programme is live, editing is inevitable. I have appeared or been quoted in many articles and programmes and there is always editing. (I have agreed with much of what Maggie says in the documentary. My complaints and concerns are not about how her contributions were edited – but that she cannot bring herself to accept that Ian Josephs and John Hemming are not a force for good in this debate).
My own unedited views are clearly expressed in a number of published articles, in Professional Social Work, in The Herald, Scotsman and Guardian newspapers, online in Community Care, Common Space, Scottish Review, Scottish Justice Matters, amongst other places. Until such time as I can make a programme that allows me editorial control of content then I will accept invitations that allow me to offer a challenge to what I believe is a collective failure to protect and promote human rights. (I applaud Maggie’s passion and commitment to speak out against a failure to protect and promote human rights. I remain dismayed and alarmed that she thinks this documentary is a vehicle for either noble ambition. I would ask her again to consider the story of Colin and Clare. Who went into their final hearing unrepresented, save for the ‘advice’ of Ian Josephs. How did they end up in such a parlous position? Who did they listen to and why? Who preyed on their vulnerability and to what end? There are serious problems with the child protection system and we need to deal with them. But this is not the way. If Maggie wishes to continue to sup with the devil, I hope her spoon is long enough).