This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.
Imagine you have landed on an alien planet. The locals speak a completely different language. Their customs and culture are completely different to anything you know. There is no one available to translate for you. No one to explain. What happens?
Since starting this site in 2014 I have become more and more aware that many parents simply do not understand what is going on in care proceedings. Sadly, this group often comprises my own clients; after I have patted myself on the back about my great skills at establishing rapport and explaining things in simple terms, it becomes clear a few weeks or months later that they didn’t really understand at all. And by then it is often too late.
This was brought home to me with particular force recently. I was asked by a parent to look at the final judgment in her case and advise her if there was any way at all she could resist the making of an adoption order. With a terrible poignancy she sent me photographs of each page of the final judgment, laid out on her floor. The pages were in random order; some were missing. She clearly had no understanding at all of what had gone on. She emailed me:
I wish I did right, from the beginning. But I guess it’s to late for me. My sw called me in today, to say they found a family for E, breaks my heart. To even hear her say that. I just dont know what I can do. I probably, will just have to accept it, and concentrate on my two kids who’s also placed in long-term care. Thank you so so much I appreciate your time. I’m sorry if somethings i wrote didnt make sense. English is not my first language and I do struggle with this.
In the narrative of many parents, often their lawyer is entirely absent. The social worker is afforded a God like power to make all decisions.
Quite rightly as a society we endorse non-means non-merits tested legal aid for parents in care proceedings – but without some kind of bridge between parents and their lawyers, is this a benefit that we are squandering? I do not think this lack of understanding comes about because parents are stupid – but mainly because they are afraid and confused. Language barriers of course, do not help but these problems of lack of understanding are not restricted to those who do not have English as a first language.
We know advocates for parents can help – David Tobis has shown how it works in the USA. There are also pockets of good work around the country – see what New Beginnings are doing and individuals such as Surviving Safeguarding – but the lack of nationwide standards means that there are many dangerous people and organisations who purport to ‘help and advise’ very vulnerable parents.
I asked another parent for her views about the benefits of advocacy in child protection cases and her post is below. It is clearly not only the relationships with lawyers that parents need help with.
Advocacy in Child Protection Interventions – guest post from a parent
Imagine you have landed on an alien planet. The locals speak a completely different language. Their customs and culture are completely different to anything you know. There is no one available to translate for you. No one to explain. What happens? You find yourself stumbling along, learning only by experience, by trial and error. Even if you do happen upon someone who does speak your language, they are incredibly busy and have little time to truly sit down with you. Time goes on and you do your best to muddle along but make mistakes in the form of misinterpreting or being unable to make your communication clear. You attempt to use their customs and communication styles but because you don’t have the cypher to the code they speak in your attempts are often misinterpreted, or even ignored because they simply don’t have the time to move at your pace. Wouldn’t it be incredibly useful if there was someone to act as a bridge and help you to understand better?
I am the mother of two children. One whom I have not seen and spoken to in nearly two years, the other who lives with me for a substantial amount of each week. There was a time when all three of us lived together, unfortunately that came to an end when I experienced a crisis. I had experienced domestic abuse, the result of which left my ex-partner with a conviction. I had experienced his wrath in the subsequent months leading from his arrest and conviction in the form of family court proceedings I weathered the storm, fought nearly 12 months through court, moved areas and tried my best to continue as a single mother of a child with a disability and a toddler. I had no family support. It would be wrong of me to say that I sailed through the whole process because things like this take its toll and with the best will in the world, co-parenting with someone who holds a grudge and who has made it very clear that they believe you are an incompetent parent is no easy task.
I asked for support, for a carer’s assessment so I could have a modicum of time to myself, to regroup and recharge, unfortunately that assessment was not forthcoming and a few short months later I reached crisis point. At that point social services became heavily involved and I was shoved onto what felt very much like a conveyer belt moving at great speed the controls for which were written in a foreign language.
My children’s case has been closed to my local authority now for a little over 6 months. I however am left with many questions, the result of which has led to an ongoing complaint. I am 18 months into that complaint with no resolution in sight. In an attempt to understand and find answers I have taken to Twitter and much online reading and have come to an understanding that there are many parents out there who simply do not understand the process they have gone through, have lingering doubts they were treated fairly and want answers. I count myself as one of those parents.
There seems to be a common theme amongst those of us who talk online, and also from many professionals (social workers, adopters, foster carers, barristers) who also spend their free time sharing their views, practices and experiences within the child protections system: parents are frequently not adequately supported.
This is where good advocacy could help. A good advocate tasked solely with the job of understanding you and your ‘planet’ whilst having plenty of knowledge of the ‘planet’ you find yourself on and finding a way to help you, and the ‘locals’ navigate your way through. Time would not be wasted. Misunderstandings may not happen, and if they did they could be cleared up. All the while keeping the goal at the centre of the process: safe and happy children. This is the position parents potentially find themselves in when they enter the planet of child protection. Parents and social workers often want the same things: for the children at the centre to be safe, to thrive, to be happy. A common goal. It was certainly my goal. Unfortunately somehow, and I take responsibility in this for I am not the best communicator when afraid and feeling very much alone, it was a goal that seemed to become lost amongst much alien talk of me being ‘disengaged’, ‘mentally unwell’, ‘abusive’, ‘neglectful’, ‘unaware’, ‘robotic’, ‘alcohol dependant ’etc etc etc.
From a purely personal point of view, I struggle to assimilate and understand lots of information at once unless I can refer back to it. I asked repeatedly if I could communicate via email (except in meetings of course). These requests were largely ignored. I took to initially politely emailing LA employees with questions or clarifications of my understanding. I sent information I had gathered over the years to refute some of the claims that were being made of me. I was also aware though that social workers have huge caseloads – I was frightened of annoying them, or of coming across as ‘unhinged’ – this is a left-over of years of dv.
It was only after a I had met someone now close to me who just happened to work within the system that I realised I should have continued to keep pressing my point home, I should have continued to ask questions – by that time the damage had already been done. I did manage to assert myself enough to now have a meaningful relationship with my youngest child, but my eldest is not lost not only to me but also to their sibling. Things could have been so different. A good advocate would have spoken up, would have helped me understand, would have helped point out the poor process that was taking place (and it was poor – that is becoming more evident). Very little of what I experienced could truly be seen as ‘child centred’ – and much of that, I now firmly believe, was because there was not someone who could help me to see into the culture of the alien planet I was on and could help the ‘locals’ see me rather than the preconceived ideas they had of me based on my inability (within the child protection arena, since, whether intended or not, the treatment I received was unfortunately quite similar to the tactics of my abusers, and probably unbeknownst to the social workers involved, only served to silence me) to advocate for myself and my children.