The woeful state of our debate about child protection, Part II: Hemming and the Latvian case

John Hemmings address to the Press Conference in Riga, Latvia.

On 31st August John Hemming uploaded onto YouTube a video.

I mentioned this on Twitter and expressed the hope the Latvian authorities are getting information from sources other than this. John Hemming has asked me to explain why I am concerned with what he says in his video.

What’s my problem? Summary

What’s wrong with this video? In general, to conduct the debate about the child protection system in this way, using inflammatory language, offering assertions as fact, displaying confirmation bias throughout and simply ignoring anything which might not support your argument simply underlines for me the very sad fact that the state of debate about our child protection system is woeful. It is embarrassing that we cannot do better.

It is all the more tragic because John Hemming does make some good points. He is right to point out that until recently LA were NOT aware of their obligations to inform other States that their citizens were facing care proceedings and the removal of their children. But that has been addressed and dealt with.  John Hemming should get credit for making a fuss about that, because it is important.

However, whatever good he has managed to do has, in my opinion, over many years been sadly submerged under a pile of ill informed and inflammatory assertions.  This does not promote debate or aid greater understanding or help children. Rather it drives proper debate further underground and the children are left to suffer in a system which is arguably not fit for purpose. 

If he is going to set himself up as an expert advising the Latvian authorities, I hope he will take the time to explain further to them his role as a ‘champion’ against the child protection system, and in particular his links with Ian Josephs and the ‘mums on the run’ network. 

I think the Latvian authorities ought to be fully informed about the background and activities of someone who proposing to ‘assist’ them in actions against another State. It is then a matter for the Latvian authorities whether they think they will be helped or hindered. For my part, I would urge them to act with extreme caution before accepting uncritically John Hemming’s views of the child protection system.

Particular problems.

It’s about a 5 minute video. This is what he says just 31 seconds in:

The Government sets targets to destroy families.

Why frame your argument in this way, right at the outset? Is this kind of inflammatory language remotely helpful in promoting debate and understanding between two States? Is this really what he thinks is the purpose of the child protection system in England? If that is what he really thinks, does he accept that he is going to need to provide some pretty clear evidence in support of such an astonishing allegation?

At 36 sections he says that the LAs act wherever possible to remove children from their families’ Again, an inflammatory statement which is not a reflection certainly of the current law that makes it crystal clear that adoption is the option of last resort.

He references a recent case which I won’t identify here as it seems that the whole purpose of this video is to encourage the Latvian authorities to put pressure on the Supreme Court to consider an appeal in this case. An interesting way to mount a legal challenge, using ‘interesting’ in the sense of ‘utterly inappropriate’.

He makes particular assertions about the state of the evidence in this case, claiming that the only real independent evidence was a core assessment, which was ignored because the SW Managers put pressure on to get another child to meet their adoption targets. It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court make of this assertion.

He refers to statistics which show that ‘obviously’ a LA was biased because they have targets to increase adoptions ‘year on year’. Is he going to discuss with the Latvian authorities the efforts made by the Transparency Project to unpick and analyse his statistics? It clearly is not as obvious as he would wish to maintain that the Merton KPIs are irrefutable proof of a Government set target to ‘destroy families’.

I don’t disagree that the current ‘push’ for adoption is concerning – and I note this particular blog post with serious concern – but after years of searching, I haven’t been able to find clear or indeed any proof that the Government is setting out to ‘destroy families’. There are obviously problems in the system which we need to deal with urgently – but deliberate, malign targets of destruction are not one of those problems. See the ‘Forced Adoption’ post for further discussion.

The more time we waste posturing about issues which don’t exist then the less time we have to deal with the problems that clearly do. What does John Hemming have to say for example about the clear and stark regional differences about rates of children taken into care? The Merton rates are tiny; about 12 children a year are adopted or subject to a SGO. You are much more likely to be taken into care if you are a child in Blackpool. Why is this? Why isn’t John Hemming interested in this?

Could it be, a cynical voice inside me utters, that it is just more ‘exciting’ to set oneself up as an advisor to the Latvian government and enjoy the accolades that attach to such campaigning, rather than actually care about and do something about the depressing and mundane realities of inequality in our society? Not as much press interest in the latter I suspect.

The debate at the Transparency Project is here. John Hemming has been asked a number of questions about his statistics which at the time of writing he has failed to answer. I am particularly interested in his assertion that he has statistics from 1995 which will prove that there are ever increasing numbers of young children being taken into care and subsequently adopted. I would like to see this evidence.



As Claire Fenton Glynn commented on Twitter about John Hemming’s video.

Claire Fenton-Glynn ‏@CFentonGlynn
@SVPhillimore A number of fundamental errors of reasoning. There are definitely flaws in English system but this clouds productive debate.

Please. We simply have to do better. We are educated adults. We are surely capable of a debate that reflects all the nuance and complexity of the current problems we face.

I have to believe that but at the moment I am seeing precious little to reassure me from any source.

34 thoughts on “The woeful state of our debate about child protection, Part II: Hemming and the Latvian case

  1. John Hemming

    You say:
    “John Hemming has been asked a number of questions about his statistics which at the time of writing he has failed to answer. I am particularly interested in his assertion that he has statistics from 1995 which will prove that there are ever increasing numbers of young children being taken into care and subsequently adopted. I would like to see this evidence.”

    What questions have I not answered?

    I have emailed you table2 previously and it is on my google docs account. Here:

  2. Sarah Phillimore Post author

    thanks for sending Table 2 again. I will have a proper look when I have more time.

    As far as I can see the following questions remain unanswered from the post on the TP website -

    Who wrote the document?
    Why was it prepared?
    What is your comment about regional inequalities as revealed by number of children being taken into care in different parts of the country?

    1. julie

      I know of 12 parents 2 r my daughters who have had there babys taken 4 adotion one cus ostnatel depression asked 4 he’ll other left her violent partner took him to court asked he’ll to suport her instead they gave baby to dad nd now due to b adopted. Go to contact centerss ask parents it is heart breaking I’m grandmoither nd was told no contact cus I’m nothing to do wiv child

      1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

        It is heartbreaking. It’s awful. It’s miserable and tragic and horrible. It’s horrible that children are hurt by their parents and its horrible that parents have to face being without their children. It’s horrible that we cannot as a society do more or better to help people before things get desperate.

        But what I will not accept, not ever, is that the way to try and make things better is to refuse to face the truth. Or to bend the truth to suit your own agenda. Which is what I say Hemming has repeatedly done in his discussion of the Latvian case.

  3. John Hemming

    >Who wrote the document?
    >Why was it prepared?
    I asked for it.

    >What is your comment about regional inequalities as revealed by number of children being taken into care in different parts of the country?
    There is a form of random approach to care proceedings that is not properly researched or evidenced and often driven by local budgetary controls. One day I hope that people will try to research what is going on in the system before deciding on their conclusions.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Thanks for the reply but not really an answer. Why did you ask for that document, specifically about Merton?
      You haven’t answered the question about regional inequalities. How do the much higher levels of care proceedings in for e.g. Blackpool and Islington equate to ‘random approach to care proceedings’ ? Is it not much more likely that there is a clear link between economic deprivation and higher level of care proceedings?

      Is this something that concerns you?

  4. helenSparkles

    This is all multi nuanced, it is worth looking at the indices of deprivation as you say, also the political ideology of LAs so you can do some research into where early intervention services have been cut, & comparator LAs should be compared so you are looking at like vs. like. That is all before you check thresholds nationwide, judges consistent, the talent of lawyers etc. All those layers before you even start looking at the attitudes of SW and the way some families move around to evade SW intervention… This isn’t conclusive just a few features of the debate we should consider.

  5. angelo granda

    With respect to child-protection professionals,Helen,might it not be a good idea if a glossary were compiled and published on the CPR to make obscure terms,jargon and cliches clear to interested readers? E.g. Multi-nuanced,indices of deprivation,comparator LA’s.

    Then we might publish a glossary of idiomatic words and phrases used by families to make it easier for professionals. E.g.

    There is so much understanding, it’s untrue so I make the suggestion in all earnesty.

    1. Sarah Phillimore

      That’s a really good idea Angelo, I will get onto it. Please send me your examples of words and phrases which you have found cause problems.

    2. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Just in reference to Helen’s point about ‘multi nuance’ – this is the kind of thing I mean about a ‘nuanced debate’.

      John Hemming asserts that the problems in the family justice system are due to the LA having an aim to ‘destroy families.’ We point out that its a bit more complicated than that and if you concentrate on arguing that the LA deliberately set out to ‘destroy families’ then you DON’T look at all the other things that are going wrong and you don’t therefore do anything about them.

      Recent research from UEA about the role of the IRO noted that when there were problems in care planning for children it was wrong to simply blame the IRO – there were many factors that contributed to bad outcomes for children, for example: delays in court decision making, slow or negative responses from other agencies, placement shortages, staff turnover, high workloads and the unpredictability of young people and their families. – See more at:

      A lot of these problems are practical problems within the system itself – slow process, lack of response from different agencies. This needs to improve. But it will never improve if our attention is directed at the argument that LA’s wish to ‘destroy families’.

  6. Sam

    Angelo I am trying to reply to your comment about different types of court but there is no reply tab. There really is nothing magical about the High Court , except any case is binding on the lower courts. In fact there doesn’t practically appear to be any difference other than the advocates forget what to call the judge. The court room is the same, it may be the same judge . It sounds very grand on the news, but reality is different. Cock ups also occur, which is why a number of cases go to the Court of Appeal and onwards.

    1. Sarah Phillimore

      Why? There have been many examples of this happening.

      The parents’ lawyers point out the bias and cross examine on that basis. The Judge listens to the evidence and makes a decision. I have plenty of experience of this. Why do you say it is ‘surreal’?

      Only presumably if you cling to the narrative that the parents’ lawyers are ‘legal aid losers’ in the pocket of the LA and desperate not to upset them otherwise they don’t get paid?

      This may not be your narrative anymore – I hope it is not as it has been a very dangerous and destructive one, operating to scare parents away from engaging with and trusting their legal teams.

      Or are you still urging parents to leave the jurisdiction because they won’t get a fair trial?

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree. Prevention is always better than cure.

      however, it is not ‘surreal’ to say a judge can spot bias and act on it.

      Also, I am not sure why you link this case as an example of ‘bias’. I thought it was an example of medical evidence that was wrong or wrongly interpreted. This is not ‘bias’. This is an error. All systems involving humans will have errors. We need to work to make the least amount of errors possible and to make the consequences of errors less severe.

      this work will not be assisted by accusations of ‘bias’ when there is none.

      1. angelo granda

        Error is error and should never be present in medical evidence particularly in the assessments of medical expert witnesses.

        However, where errors occur, lawyers will have to judge whether they slant in one direction only or in both. If the former then the errors are biased.

        All the CS evidence is biased towards the Local Authority aims ( of litigation). We all know that thanks to Kate Wells, the ex-social worker who made it clear.”There is no such thing as an impartial assessment”.Let us not forget also that subsequent independent assessments made by court experts will be affected by CS evidence to a degree.
        The Judge cannot overcome that unless he or she engages an INDEPENDENT SOCIAL WORKER to make assessments and give impartial evidence.
        Sarah,in serious cases, might it be a good idea for access to an ISO to be automatic? Or if respondent lawyers applied for one on the behalf of a client?

        I have in mind a case going through the courts at this time where the impartial assessments of an ISO are the antithesis of the previous CS assessments.

        1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

          I agree that error SHOULD never be present, just as I SHOULD have won the lottery and be living in a mansion by now.

          But back to the real world. If you can tell me of a system operated by humans that does NOT lead to errors, please tell what this system is because we all desperately need to know how they do that.

          Errors will occur. They will be errors of stupidity, because people are tired, stressed, not sure what they are doing. Or they will be more serious errors arising out of misplaced confidence in one’s abilities, or allegiance to a dogma that prevents one from engaging with reality.

          Yes, in serious cases where I am worried that the LA have a closed mind towards my client I will always ask for an ISW. But even when the court disagrees, I have been able through cross examination to demonstrate that the LA have a closed mind.

          Again, it is so very depressing for me to realise that the lawyers play almost no part in anyone’s narrative about the system; the LA are perceived as all powerful and all controlling. I have to accept that this is how parents must perceive the system which is both sad and frightening. Parents need to engage with and trust their lawyers, otherwise what is the point of us? What can we do to help if our own clients don’t acknowledge that we have any role?

    2. Amber

      John Hemming, can I ask how you are involved in ‘supporting’ the family apart from verbally?
      I have spoken with the Barrister representing the family on a pro bono basis (who is fully aware I am happy to ‘support’ them professionally) & I am therefore interested to know in what capacity that yourself/ JFF are involved in?

  7. angelo granda

    Of course errors occur in the real world.,I never disputed that.
    I said that errors SHOULD NOT occur! Glad you agree.
    If there are several errors and all of them unilateral then they will lead to biased judgments. I pointed out that errors in medical evidence can be caused by misinformation due to biased assessments presented to the medics by the CS.
    I suggested that the involvement of an ISO may help eliminate bias from case evidence and ,if that could not be automatic, I suggested parents work with their lawyers and ask for one.This does not underestimate the role of lawyers or suggest any lack of trust in them!

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Yes but we have had this discussion before and its pretty futile. As I believe it was Beverley Knight who sang ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda are the last words of a fool’. No point getting upset that errors DO happen. They should not. But they will. So lets focus on making the errors less and the consequences less severe. I don’t think this is achieved by constant blaming and finger pointing, particularly when a lot of errors arise out of circumstances beyond the control of individuals.

      I have made a start on your suggested glossary and would be grateful for any other suggestions of words and phrases we need to include.

  8. ian josephs

    [deleted. If Mr Josephs wants to provide any evidence to support his assertions then I am happy to post his comments. But I am not posting any more of his inflammatory, unsupported remarks]I

  9. angelo granda

    You are wrong. I haven’t discussed ISW’s with you before.
    I agree we should focus on making the errors less and the consequences less severe. A lot of errors arise because. CS staff are unable to do their jobs impartially because they are in the employ of the LA.
    I believe Public trust in the Family Court system might be restored were assessments carried out by ISW’s ( in serious cases). I regard that as a possible compromise against my previous opinion that Family Courts should not hear serious cases at all.
    I am sorry but I demand more of ‘professionals’ than you do. Many errors are avoidable and indeed guidelines and procedures are laid out to avoid the possibility of wrong judgments. To eliminate errors. moreless le

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I wasn’t referring to a discussion about ISWs. I was referring to our previous discussions where you appeared to be asserting that only infallability was acceptable and that no mistakes should be made, by anyone, ever. I pointed out that this was naive and never going to be reality. The focus must be on reducing frequency and seriousness of mistakes that are inevitably going to be made. But by all means, make it your goal to ‘eliminate’ error. I simply fear you will be disappointed.

      I am afraid many would disagree with you about ISWs and say they are ‘tainted’ by virtue of their social work training and backgrounds.

      1. angelo granda

        Regarding your last paragraph; particularly,the Local Authorities and their lawyers disagree with any suggestion which may be hostile to the complainant’s case.
        In the case currently going through the courts which I mentioned, they fought against the appointment strongly. The evidence presented by their own ‘expert’ had so many holes in it, the Judge had to agree with the respondent but only on the third time of asking!
        I feel certain the General Public expect enquiries to be impartial because the resultant appraisals are more likely to be realistic and well-informed. Hence,I feel they should be carried out by a person or body independent of the complainant.
        I suppose a lawyers opinion will depend on who he is representing.

        I agree with you that we must reduce the frequency of mistakes and suggest that sw’s should follow guidelines scrupulously in that endeavour.

        I agree with you also that we should reduce the seriousness of errors.To do so ,the errors cannot be allowed to slip by.Lawyers should check whether procedures have been followed or not.

        As regards the serious effects of errors, we can eliminate them by limiting the power of civil courts in the same way as we limit the power of Magistrates.

        If the LA is calling for ‘ final solution’ type care-plans aimed at the permanent liquidation of natural families, the Public might have more trust were matters decided by a jury.What do readers think?
        Please note, Sarah that any sanction imposed by a family court is disproportionate (under Article 8) if it exceeds any which can be dealt out by a criminal court on my reading of the Law.
        Do you agree with me?

  10. Diana

    I came across this sight and got engrossed in reading through some of the articles and interesting discussions. I was not sure if I should comment or not, but there are some interesting viewpoints and I could not help myself. I do not come from a background of law or social work.
    I am a parent of two now grown up boys, who despite having hit crisis point at numerous occasions over the years, has shied away, and refrained asking for help from SS & SW. (Youngest son has a diagnosis of ADHD and other co-morbid condition)
    I support families (living with ADHD, ASD, Asperger’s etc.) who have or still are struggling with similar problems. The topic of accessing help and support comes up quite frequently. Like myself so many years ago, some parents are simply scared to ask for help, or do not know who they should contact, while others fear their child being taken into care, or worry about the stigma and some don’t want strangers to take over their lives.
    In all honesty, I rarely hear about positive experiences, so when attending involvement groups, strategy meetings etc. discussing all kind of issues around hidden impairments, I am often accused of being negative and occasionally even bias against the system. Logically if families can access services and receive the correct support, they will be far less likely to hit crisis point. Therefore the families I meet are often the ones who have been failed and let down by services and the system set up to support them. I know very well that like everything else in life, good and bad often goes hand in hand and errors will continue to happen because no one is infallible. It is how we address those errors and choose to learn and change things that will determine and help prevent them from reoccurring repeatedly.
    As someone who hears mainly bad things, I can totally understand why it would be easy to conclude that the system sets out to destroy families. However, that is a very narrow minded and extremely unhelpful approach.
    I do however think that many errors could be prevented by going back to the very early stages, possibly even prior to SS involvement. Stopping the fragmentation of services, ensuring the whole family receives support when needed, less assumptions and prejudice would be a great start. As would be a more open, honest and easier accessible system of how communication between families and all the professionals involved is recorded. This would help to prevent a multitude of misunderstandings, many of which not only lead to mistrust between families and professionals, but also provide a breeding ground for small mistakes to develop into serious errors.

      1. angelo granda

        Welcome to the CPR, Diana. Your contribution is most interesting and very,well thought out.
        I, too am the parent of two special needs children but have to say that I experienced none of the difficulties you describe as regarding to accessing professional help. However,I agree that many people do have difficulty ( getting diagnoses,statements etc) so you will be interested in why I didn’t.
        My first child was born at 24 weeks, spent five months in hospital at the beginning of life and because of that she was monitored from day one. My second developed hydrocephylus (just before birth) apparently and for that reason was also closely monitored. Of course, the second child was watched more closely as the first had been diagnosed ASD.
        Therefore,I believe the answer lies in closer monitoring for all children at birth.I suppose early tests should be devised by the medical experts and implemented by health visitors at a very early age.Too many children pass through the net , undiagnosed until much too late.
        QUOTE: I know very well that like everything else in life, good and bad often goes hand in hand and errors will continue to happen because no one is infallible. It is how we address those errors and choose to learn and change things that will determine and help prevent them from reoccurring repeatedly: UNQUOTE
        I agree with you aswell. I have to repeat for you one of my own stock opinions which is that legal guidelines and safeguards against them are instituted to stop errors and prevent abuses.
        The best way to help prevent errors reoccurring repeatedly is to ensure the guidelines are followed. When the Social Workers repeatedly fall down on procedures, many parents suspect there may be ulterior motives.
        Obviously, we don’t want them to be right but surely it is incompetence if the CS ride roughshod over correctness due to shortage of staff, time, money and so on.

        1. Diana

          Thank you for the welcome. It is great to hear you had a great experience and you were able to access support. Sadly, mine was the total opposite and consisted of struggling for years trying to access support, being blamed for my son’s failure to reach some of his early developmental & educational milestones on time, not to mention his poor behaviour.

          I won’t bother going into too much detail, (don’t want to bore people to sleep 😀 ) but he was so much more extreme than my oldest son, who although “very active” was polite, helpful, well behaved and according to teachers a “pleasure to teach”. I told the health visitor, nursery, and later school, that I was concerned about my son and felt that something was wrong, but it fell on deaf ears. They wouldn’t listen, refused to believe anything we said and quite obviously felt that it was simply our parenting that was the problem. Unfortunately, our support consisted of continuously being told we needed to spend more time with my son, put rules and consequences in place, be consistent etc. and letter’s from school telling me my son is showing signs of anti-social behaviour.

          Like the majority of people my age, I was brought up to respect professionals, they studied for years and therefore are more knowledgeable about their field of expertise. As parents, we listened and followed their advice to the letter, which eventually resulted in my son becoming suicidal at age 8. I’m not sure where we would have ended up if it had not been for another parent’s pointing us into a different direction. She advised to ask our GP for a referral and 1 and 1/2 years later, my son was finally diagnosed.

          To say it was a horrendous time, would be an understatement. I guess for many it is unimaginable, yet by following the advice given to us by professionals, we inadvertently subjected my son to several years of severe emotional abuse, more importantly and worryingly so had the school. I think one of the questions we need to be asking is where does this leave families, who are following instructions and advice given to them?

          However much in the minority these cases may be, I’ve seen and heard heart breaking stories over the years. Ranging from, professionals giving conflicting advice, parents accused of refusing to engage, without further investigating as to why, to a child’s SW ignoring the parent’s care needs (disability) to be able to continue to parent effectively, which leaves parents not only confused and stressed, but also quite vulnerable.
          I know that there are many circumstances when it is safer for the child to be removed from the family. However, those circumstances should always be assessed on facts and evidence, not assumptions, bias or stigma.

  11. John Hemming

    The idea of systems is that they normally work properly rather than exceptionally. Exceptionally a judge can correct bias in evidence. However, normally this does not happen.

    Why Merton – because of the Latvian case for which I prepared the Supreme Court PTA of which more later.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Please provide the proof for your assertion that ‘normally’ judges do not correct bias in evidence.

      1. Amber

        “Exceptionally a judge can correct bias in evidence. However, normally this does not happen”

        At the Bristol talk, JFF stated they got permission to appeal to Judge Wildblood. If I am correct, they stated they do appeals when there is no hope. Are parents aware there is no hope?

        John Hemming, can you clarify what exactly JFF do- including the statistics of number cases you have ‘won’, the type of cases, how many permissions you have won & how many of those got to full appeal& how many of those won?

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