Many parent’s hearts will have skipped a little to learn that Mark and Nicky Webster were being allowed to keep their son Brandon with them, after their first 3 children had been adopted, primarily because one of the 3 children, known publicly as Child B, had been diagnosed with multiple fractures, thought at the time to be caused by either Mark or Nicky. Since then, doubt has been cast on that received medical opinion, with a new set of paediatric experts suggesting the fractures were most likely caused by multi-nutrient deficiency, or even good old-fashioned scurvy.
Sections of the press and the family’s solicitor are claiming the case is a miscarriage of justice along similar lines to the cases of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings. Unpopular though they may be, alternative explanations are equally important to shout about.
In cases where children may need safeguarding, there are often few clear-cut facts. A ‘finding of fact’ court hearing is itself only usually able to establish what is most likely to have happened, rather than to be able to reach a definitive conclusion. Many parents refuse to tell the truth, and many children for one reason or another are too young or unable to communicate exactly what has gone on when they present at a hospital or school with serious unexplained injuries. This is why family courts have to operate on the balance of probabilities, rather than to the criminal standard of proof which is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It is unacceptable to take undue risks with children’s safety. Where risks are taken and go wrong, when children are seriously abused when professionals have known about the risks, it could equally be said those children are the victims of a serious miscarriage of justice. Few campaigners take up these cases with the same vigour they do the cases of parents who may have been wronged.
Over the years, many children have been left at home in situations of grave and constant danger because professionals were gripped by the ‘rule of optimism’, wanting to believe parent’s protestations of innocence, desperate to believe children would be safe because they wanted to keep children out of the care system at any cost, and as a result, not facing up to the dangers that were staring them in the face.
Campaigning journalists are now suggesting the Webster’s first 3 children could have been taken into care through a callous pursuit by Norfolk County Council of Government-set adoption targets back in 2004/5. This really is conspiracy theory running away with itself. The primary reason local councils were seeking to increase the number of adoptions was to do something about the scandalous situation of children released by courts for permanent care outside the family, for whom no adoptive parents or long-term foster carers could be identified. These children waited, and some still wait, in a disgraceful limbo. The babies who do need to come into care are frequently born to parents with a track record of extreme danger to children, or increasingly they may be addicted to opiates in the womb through their mother’s drug-taking, with few immediate growth prospects. We need to get real about this.
No system of justice is foolproof. The most that can be achieved is a percentage of successful cases upwards of 95%. That is the real world. Of the 75,000 children in the UK care systems (Scotland’s system uses slightly different thresholds to those in England Wales and Northern Ireland), most are there for good reason according to researchers. There are likely to be more children living unsafely in the community who should be in care than the other way round. Only Poland and Italy take fewer children into care in Europe than we do. The UK public service is not a serial child-snatcher.
Campaigners point to the Webster case as evidence of why the family courts need to be opened up to the media, to prevent future miscarriages of justice. But there are other ways of increasing the percentage of accurately diagnosed cases. The Chief Medical Officer has proposed that expert witness services should become a mainstream NHS service for the first time, and that medical expert witnesses are better trained and supported in what can be a lonely, unnerving and isolating profession. An accreditation system and access to a national knowledge service may be developed, which will decrease the risk of flawed diagnosis in highly specialised areas like paediatrics and child mental health.
More specialist family judges would increase the likelihood of judicial decision-takers getting it right first time. More specialist family solicitors, especially in those parts of the UK where they are in short supply, would ensure that a child, and parent’s legal advocates, spotted areas of doubt when cases are bought and focus earlier on the key issues. A revised public law protocol, being introduced from April 2008, will place stricter controls on the cases local authorities bring before a family court, to ensure all assessments have been carried out before the case is accepted fully into the court system.
Parents whose children are taken into care need tremendous support and backing, both to cope with events, and to be given a fair chance to turn their lives around for their child or children to be returned home safely. Two key elements of a professional social work assessment are the capacity of parents to change, and the capacity of parents to work constructively with the professionals charged with both helping them and protecting their children. Whilst this is a complex and difficult area for parents, it is for professionals too. Much change can be achieved through positive working relationships, and it takes a lot of courage and trust to work together well – yet many parents and professionals up and down the country do just that. It is good that Mark and Nicky Webster acknowledge the help and support they have had from their social worker, and from other professionals, in caring for Brandon. This is just as accurate an image of social workers and child protection professionals, as is the less wholesome image of professionals assessing parents negatively for gratuitous reasons.
In relationships, there is rarely a simple truth, and any attempt to reduce a complex set of explanations to a single set of politicised issues risks misunderstanding an area of public service that is tough to get right at the best of times.
Anthony Douglas is Chief Executive of Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
Responses to the John Hemming comments
Thank you for your invitation for readers to comment. I am only too glad to contribute.
I am totally outraged by what is happening in the community. Mr Hemmings is totally correct and it is time the British Public woke up and smelt the stench that this country is wallowing in. Family Courts? Huh, Kangaroo Courts more like. Dangerous, corrupt, covert and disgraceful.
I am disgusted, enraged and desperately saddened by what I see and witness with my very own eyes. There for the grace of God go I. Not only am I witnessing a mum struggling to save her child (due for removal next week) but I myself went through similar.
Sadly this situation is not restricted to babies but to older children with special needs. Want proof? I can supply EVERYTHING you need.
Thank goodness Mr Hemmings has the courage of his convictions and has spoken up. Now let the rest of us talk about the disgraceful association known as SOCIAL SERVICES/FAMILY COURTS or should we rename them the DOMESTIC POLICE. Trouble is when you come into contact with them, there is no fair trial for any offence. Abuse the children, abuse the parents, abuse society, but who cares as long as targets are being met and COMMON PURPOSE is in place. Shut the parents up, scare them so much they have noone to turn to and then kill their spirit and their souls.
What place is the world becoming? ‘Every Child Matters’? I think not.
A social worker:
In response to your views, I would like to point out that social services uses the service of other professionals i.e. psychiatrists, guardians et litum, family support workers health professionals to assess the capability of a parent to be just that, a parent.
Social workers do not make the ultimate decision as to whether a child remains with their family. So therefore your comment which attacks social workers does very little for the plights of social workers who are faced with weighing the difficult decision to remove a child or not. Also a judge makes the final decision based on evidence from all sides and I have witnessed judges going in favour of the family against the LA’s recommendations.
As a social worker who is doing research at this unforesaken time in order to carry out a pre-birth and support plan to ensure that a unborn child is able to remain with their parent with all the available support possible. I find your comments appalling and surely shows your ignorance of past and recent enquiries into child deaths about the previous failings of all professionals who work within this field. Maybe if some of those dead children were removed, either fostered or adopted we would not have the issues that we are facing today.
The decision to keep children with their families, who clearly with all the support in the world will never manage to win prizes for being the best parent they can be, has resulted in a society where young people feel failed by the system that had the opportunity and power to help but failed to do so.
Your comments also do very little to help build some much needed bridges between social workers and the families that we work with.
I don’t accept much from an MP who belongs to a party that supports cuts and fails to make any positive impact on those in society who are less fortunate. Take for example your party’s record in Lambeth – its been left in shambles due to your overspending and ignorance and scaremongering instead of doing the job you said you could do better than others.
Please stick to bad mouthing your oppennts in the political arena and leave us social workers alone.
(senior mental health worker for looked-after children)
I have worked as a social worker for many years and currently sit on an adoption panel. In all my years as a social worker I have never once felt pressurised to remove a child from its family in order to meet targets – if anything there was at times a pressure to leave children at home when the potential harm to the child was unacceptable.
Whilst sitting on the adoption panel I have heard many cases of children who have been returned to the care of their parents time & time again – only to suffer further neglect and abuse and to end up back in the care system when they are older, more damaged by their experiences and harder to place. The courts often seem to be biased in terms of the rights of the adults (especially the right to a family life), when surely the right of the child to grow up without experiencing abuse should be paramount.
The case referred to in the story where the cause of multiple fractures to a child was questionable is very hard to balance. As a social worker I have been involved in similar cases and we do examine all the evidence very carefully and seek expert advice from medical professionals. We do not remove children from their families lightly but we do have to consider the likelihood that the child may suffer harm, and also the potential seriousness of that harm. I do feel for parents who have had their children wrongly removed but I do feel that there are few genuine cases of this in Britain. As someone who has to be involved in these decisions and then has to go home and sleep at night I have always been concious that a wrong decision could lead to the death of a child, or them suffering years of abuse. This leads me to ensure that I have as much evidence as possible before making such decisions. Where there is a small element of doubt however, I will happily admit that I would rather err on the side of caution.
I wonder if Mr Hemming would leave his child in the care of a babysitter if the previous three children they had cared for had suffered serious injuries. Although there may be reasonable explanations for the injuries I suspect he would opt to protect his child from potential harm. He should think carefully before he criticises social workers & ensure that he fully understands the task we do. His suggestion that social workers are encouraged to remove young babies in order to meet adoption targets is ludicrous! The actual reason why children are now being removed at an earlier age is because we are increasingly aware of the long-term damage that can be done to very young babies and are seeking to prevent such damage occuring, rather than trying to fix it later.
Paul Martin, team manager, Parkside Child Care Team
In order for an MP to make such a serious allegation, they must have put a considerable amount of time into understanding the processes of scrutiny that take place within a social services department and the court process in each and every care proceedings case. Can you describe these processes for the ‘layperson’ reader please?
Whilst I do understand Mr Hemming acting on behalf of his constituents it is a huge leap from saying that as one child may have been wrongly removed from their birth parents then it must be the case that this is happening to more children because the numbers of children being adopted are rising. Mr Hemming also needs to act responsibly – what I mean by this that he should have researched the nationally published information on adoption before making such claims. If he had done so he would have found that the numbers of children dropped from over 27,000 at the beginning of the 70’s to under 3000 at the end of the 90’s. They started to increase as a result of the ‘Quality Protects’ initiative before the Government introduced national targets. A key objective of ‘Quality Protects’ was to ensure that children should be securely attached to an adult(s) and that if this was not their birth parent(s) or birth family then it should be through adoption. Mr Hemming also needs to be aware that there are many checks and balances in the child welfare system to ensure that children’s welfare is safeguarded and promoted – other professionals (eg designated doctors and independent experts), independent reviewing officers, adoption panels, CAFCASS officers, and courts (magistrates and judges). Are they incapable of making independent and informed decisions?
The national adoption statistics for 31/3/2006 show that 3700 children were adopted from care and that this was 3% less than the previous year. Additionally the average age of children at adoption was 4 years 1 month in 2005/06 and the commentary states that this has remained stable over the last 5 years. This is hardly an indication that babies are being snatched to meet adoption targets!
Mr Hemming is also wrong in fact, as now there is no national adoption targets in terms of the Government stating that ‘x’ numbers of children should be adopted from care or that an increase in ‘x’ % of children adopted from care should be achieved.
I have been in children’s social work in this country and the US for 36 years and for the last 15 years have managed adoption teams. Even though I have a passion for adoption I have an even greater passion to ensure that children’s welfare is safeguarded and promoted and this is usually best done by ensuring children are securely attached to their birth parents or birth family members.[I would add that this is a very strongly held value in social work and most social workers actively carry this out]. In making successful adoption placements it is important that adopters can be assured that everything has been done has been done to keep children with birth parents/birth family be feel that they are entitled to the child(ren). Social workers also know how vital this is as well to the adopted child as they grow up and for them as adopted adults.
If Mr Hemming wants to know more I am sure that myself and a number of social work practitioners would happily meet with him.
Sarah Prince, social worker:
Perhaps Mr Hemming would like to resign as an MP, complete his social work training and show us just where we are going wrong… It is outrageous that someone in public service is able to make such an ill- judged emotive statement that will serve the interests of no child. I suggest that Mr Hemming evidences his statement with clear methodology and undisputable facts rather than spurious attempts at cause and effect or issues a public apology.
I am replying to John Hemming. The case referred to in the press and on TV re fractures due to bone defficeny was very traumatising. However, I have been a social worker for twenty years and have sleepless nights as to other colleagues across social care worrying about children who remain at home as we do not have evidence to proceed and so to say SW’s snatch babies to meet targets is proposterous and it does not help the view of Sw’s held by those who we have to engsage with in an attempt to protect children. It seems important to publicise all figures so that the general public are aware of the amount of children who do come in to care due to abuse etc and perhaps this would help others to come forward to foster. There is Nationally a lack of foster-carers and programmes like the above without a balance of programmes and information in the press and media referring to the number of children removed due to abuse etc does not help the situation and will not encourage others to come forward.
I have voted liberal democrat as I was not going to vote Labourt after the Irag war but with comments likes this I will not be doing that again. Such comments are socially irresponsible. I do not have the time to do what I need to do let alone look to take children away from familes. Moreovoer, children removed have to go to foster care first. If i was Mr Hemmings I would be concerned what happens to those children as we have a lack of placements. Judegs tend to view the situation that we leave children with their familes to long and again comments like Mr Hemmings will not change this situation.
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