Here John Hemming MP responds in full to a selection of comments and questions readers sent in to us about his views.
I suggested to Community Care that rather than me simply write an opinion piece that I should offer to answer questions raised by those people who work in Children’s Social Services. I am making relatively fundamental criticisms of the system and, therefore, it is my responsibility to justify and evidence the case being put forward.
One point to emphasise, however, is that in all professions there are people who are better and those that are worse. One difficulty I have identified is that of dealing with bad behaviour from individual practitioners or indeed from management or politicians. I am aware of a number of individual situations where complaints from individual staff have resulted in false allegations being made against the staff complaining. This management style can create a climate of fear in which the usual checks and balances do not operate.
Because the information about individual cases is kept to a relatively small number of people it is entirely possible to have very good people working properly in one part of a local authority and others who are abusing procedures elsewhere. My criticisms should, therefore, be seen as ones relating to the system as a whole rather than a generalised criticism of “social workers”.
Mr Hemming produces no evidence for the allegations he makes. All my colleagues and everyone involved in Child Protection / Adoption take these difficult decisions extremely seriously and practice based on evidence.
JH: I have two sources of evidence statistical evidence that demonstrates that the trend in care proceedings has been to take increasing numbers of young healthy white babies into care whilst no substantial shift has occurred with older children. I have also the source of individual cases where I act as a lay advisor in accordance with Family Proceedings Amendment (no 4) Regulation a statutory instrument agreed in 2005.
Mr Hemming doesn’t know what he’s talking about but why let that get in the way of old fashioned Social Worker bashing as you climb the greasy pole?
JH: This ad hominem style attack trying to allocate an ulterior motive to me is the sort of statement that causes me concern as to the understanding of argument and evidence gathering, but does not deserve a response.
As a an ex child protection Social Worker, who worked in a hospital social work team, I find the MP’s statement outrageous, professionally insulting and above all so completely untrue and based on ‘urban myth’ that I am shocked that he has aired the view.
JH: Figures as anyone knows, but politicians certainly do know, can be interpreted in any manner of ways, particularly if you have a bias or slant in mind when you review such things.
I was never under pressure to meet government targets, nor to hurry through adoptions of white children under 5 to the ‘army of adopters’ waiting.
JH: One aspect of the system is to determine where the adoption targets can have an effect. The targets are those for local authorities and, therefore, would be expected to have an effect on the decisions taken in gateway meetings. The strict legal position which can be checked in many legal textbooks (I recommend Michael Fordham’s Book on Judicial Review section 62 on bias) indicates that decisions that are biased by a management pressure should be discounted. However, the gateway decisions are not discounted.
It particularly causes me concern when managers change the recommendations of individual social workers where the individual social worker recommends that a child remains with his/her mother. The manager cannot be expected to have as much knowledge about the individual case. This action, in fact, is unlawful.
I find the suggestion that anyone working in social care would consider targets before a child’s welfare, insulting, unrealistic and contrary to our profession’s Code of Conduct. Furthermore, social workers do not ‘snatch’ any child or make decisions about adoption. These are made by a court based upon evidence, professional opinions and assessments provided by people from a range of disciplines. Yes, young white healthy babies are adopted more easily, but this does not signify a correlation between this fact and their placement for adoption.
Funding should not be related to targets either, but rather to need
JH: Sadly people are affected by their own financial and management concerns. A social worker visited me recently and told me that in his experience there is a climate of fear in a number of Local Authorities with the pressures on individual professionals being unreasonable. There was evidence in a recent case of inappropriate pressure being placed on individuals to change their professional view. This is, in fact, unlawful.
The courts rely on the opinions of the professionals. When courts refuse second opinions, which is frequently the case, then this cases a bias in the system against birth parents. Readers should study the judgment in the case OLDHAM MBC v (1) GW (2) PW (3) KPW (A CHILD BY HIS GUARDIAN JACQUELINE COULTRIDGE) & FORBES (Intervenor) (2007).
I accept entirely the argument that the way in which the Family Court operates is a substantial part of the problem. The lax approach to evidence and the way in which the Family Courts frequently rush to judgment has created an environment in which proper procedures are frequently not followed. The reason why more scrutiny is needed in the family courts (not necessarily publicity, but independent scrutiny) is that is where things go particularly wrong.
I would tend to agree that funding should be related to need.
If Mr Hemming really thinks that the Courts are making Orders to allow the removal of children on grounds that the ‘mother might get post-natal depression’ or that the child ‘is at risk of emotional abuse in the future’ then he is catastrophically ill-informed. Is he perhaps a Daily Mail reader who believes that social workers can waltz into someone’s home and remove a child on a whim (or to meet the adoption targets he refers to)? Does Mr Hemming realise that social workers need to meet the threshold laid down in the Children Act 1989 before a Court considers making an Order? Is he aware that the primary goal of Children and Family Services departments is to keep families together and that children are removed, on the Order of a Court, as a last resort? That even when children have been removed the social worker is obliged to consider rehabilitation plans?
JH: I am a lay advisor and have appeared in the family courts as a Mackenzie Friend. I am quite surprised at the low bar that some courts accept for the Section 31 threshold. One of the difficulties is that there is a closed shop for legal advisors that receive legal aid for work in Public Family Law. I am aware of a number of legal advisors (solicitors) that are paid both by the Local Authority and also by legal aid acting for parents against the local authority. This creates a conflict of interest. In my view this should not happen. The rules changed on 1st July 2007 and I have written to find out whether this is still permissible.
I am also aware of situations in which the legal advisors have informed the court that the parents accept an interim care order when the parents wish to contest it. Furthermore I am aware of situations where the legal advisors have informed the court that parents accept the S31 threshold when the parents do not. To a certain extent these situations have caused some of the lower bar tests such as likely emotional abuse and neglect to result in Interim Care Orders being passed by the courts.
I am aware that there are various legal requirements in various codes. However, the emphasis previously from CSCI and now Ofsted is on adoption. Theoretically practitioners are subject to judicial review for failing to act in accordance with the law. That is, however, a theory. In practise they are subject to a management kicking if they don’t hit the adoption targets. You cannot blame individuals for a system that forces them into bad behaviour.
I am a social worker of 21 years experience working with children and families in statutory agencies. I currently work in the Family Courts where the final decisions to adopt a child, are made. I find your comments quite astounding, and I do not find that they match my experience in any way. Have you based your views on a good body of evidence, or just a handful of anecdotal information? Do you accept how much more difficult it could make an already extremely complex job, if views such as these are publicised without first being tested against the reality of the situation?
JH: I have looked at the statistical evidence (mainly SSDA903) and also around 130 cases where I would argue that the system has misbehaved in some form or other.
Never have I read such ridiculous comments as those in this article. Clearly the author is not a practising social worker out there in the field. Could it not be the case that the increase in adoptions from care is as a direct result of clearer social work practices under the provisions of the new Children Act? Further, the New act places a significant emphasis on retaining children permanently within their families of origin even when parents are unable to provide direct care or safety. Certainly in my direct experience this is the case and Local Authorities are increasingly supporting children young people permanently within their extended families via Residence Orders and Special Guardianship arrangements. It is my opinion that this article expounds a biassed and uninformed view of children, particularly very young in the care system.
JH: The statistical evidence remains that there is an increase in adoptions outside the birth family. Targets do skew decision making. That is why they have an effect. However, the use of special guardianship as an alternative to adoption is sensible.
The proposal that social workers are literally ‘tearing new born babies from their mothers arms’ is preposterous. As an Adoption manager in a local authority who do indeed have a high percentage of Looked After children placed for adoption, I can assure you that in each case we have tried extremely hard to re-unite the child with its birth parents or in its extended family. Social workers assessments are also examined carefully by the courts – we do not and indeed cannot simply place children for adoption without clear evidence.
Where is John Hemmings evidence to the contrary?
A childs birth parents have many opportunities to put forward their evidence and it is not uncommon for numerous assessments to be carried out within the extended family – to ensure that all possibilities are considered.
Often young children are difficult to place for adoption – as there are frequently uncertain prognosis about their health or development and the issues in relation to their birth family history is the same whatever the childs age.
I would be grateful if these comments could be forwarded
JH: I have dealt with a number of these issues above. The Judge in the case of X Council V B & Ors which dealt with the issue of Emergency Protection Order was Justice Munby.
In this case the local authority made an ex parte application for an Emergency Protection Order for older children. This followed, of course, the case of P, C and S v The United Kingdom which related to the use of an EPO for a newborn baby.
Is John Hemming familiar with the Working Together To Safeguard Children (HM Government 2006)
Why oh why does an MP not know that social workers do not have the power to “snatch” children. He is only fuelling the public perception that this is what we do.
JH: It is the Local Authority Children’s Social Workers that apply for court orders for EPOs, ICOs or at times ask the police for to act to take a child into care. To that extent it is not reasonable for social workers to hide behind the courts. Particularly if an EPO ex-parte is applied for or the police are asked to act by a social worker then a Social Worker should not try to make the courts responsible for what is in essence an action initiated by Social Workers without any chance that parents can defend the situation.
Any applications that are put before the courts by local authorities are based on multi-agency decisions decisions ( as per working together) and it is the courts that decide if children can be removed from their parents. Social workers can only make recommendations.
One of the most worrying aspects of some cases is the bullying of professionals to make them change their professional opinion. There is clear evidence that this form of bullying goes on. It may not appear in “working together”, but that does not mean that it does not happen.
As a social worker of over 20 years standing, who has removed children permanently from their families, can you supply me with the research information which allows you to make such certain statements about how and why social workers remove children inappropriately from their families in order to meet adoption targets?
JH: See above and statistics at http://john.hemming.name/national/familylaw/stats/index.html
In all cases decisions to remove children permanently are made by a multi professional process, have you ‘shadowed’ a social work or CAFCASS team? What have you to say about other agencies roles in the decision making process?
JH: The problems rest with a number of cases which are wrong. Clearly intervention is needed in some circumstances. The argument I am putting forward is that the decision making processes are skewed and causing both interventions to occur when they shouldn’t and also interventions to not occur when they should.
Do you know that in many instances, social workers are often faced with pressure to leave children at home in abusive situations, in order to meet the targets of reducing the numbers of ‘looked after’ children?
JH: Whereas there are budgetary constraints there are no central government targets relating to the number of “looked after” children or “children in care”
Perhaps you would like to meet front line workers face to face to explore this subject more fully, if so I would be only too pleased to attend.
JH: I have met a number of front line workers. I would be willing to have an exploration session in the future at which we could discuss how the system should be changed. Perhaps Community Care would be willing to facilitate this.
I completely support your recent comments and i think clear investigation is needed.I am a practising social worker primarily with physical impairments however adults with Physical Impairments are an extreme target with regards to babies and small children and it is becoming a little concerning.An example i recently went out on a community care assessment friday, to a young family, mother is 22 with Cerebral Paslsy and slight learning difficulty however college educated with prospects a husband and 12 week old baby, a child care worker had been into the care environment and deemed that the way in which the family were living and taking care of the baby was not to HER standards and therefore the continuing care team started care proceedings, i was asked to go out and see if before it got to this to see if could provide a parenting package to assist them… when in reality the couple are managing just fine, the baby was clean, well fed, happy and a bundle of joy – the parents were coping had engaged in their own support networks with surestart amongst other groups and i identifed no risk at all.
JH: Thank you for your supportive comments. Many social workers are frightened to speak out about what is going on. We need an honest open debate to take the situation forward so that we are protecting children, but also supporting families.
I am glad you are willing to stand up and argue the case for parents.
There are some easily identifiable targets that make it easier to obtain ‘adoptable commodities’ to hit the adoption targets.
I think a point to be made is that practitioners today are self analysing situations based on their own living, their own opinions on how others should live, yes there is a clear line between good care and bad care but i think some of us are forgetting our normal is not the normal in which we are supposed to be assessing upon. we are suppose to assist family units to remain together not take away at any given opportunity!
This is why the system need to be changed to ensure that the simplistic approach of simply taking children into care and getting them adopted is not seen as the only way forwards.
I do not agree that children are being removed without good cause. I left front line children and families because I was refused permission to remove when clearly there was significant risk to the baby/child. I do agree that focus of protection is placed on younger children and those over 5 get left at risk and yes that is due to the government targets of preventing children from being in long term foster care. However I do agree that not enough is being done for parents who are not providing their children with good enough parenting. Also no money is being placed in preventative service and all the money is held in fostering and adoption to meet the targets. High case loads prevent practitioners from being able to work alongside parents to improve parenting and families power is being taken from them we need to utilise the skills of extended family members. Too much emphasis is placed on statistics.
JH: It is clear that some children are removed without good cause. Where the argument rests is how many wrongful adoptions occur. I argue that it is of the order of 1000 a year say some 20 per week.
However, I am pleased to note that you agree with me as to the effect of the targets and the fact that all the money has gone into this route. Money after all does have an effect on what happens and the Public Sector Agreements have corrupted Social Work in putting pressures on departments to behave inappropriately.
I have tried to answer the questions asked and am pleased that some practitioners are willing to put their heads above the parapet and say that I am right. Many more tell me that I am right, but understandably do not wish to be quoted by name.
The system is badly broken. This wrongly reflects on everyone working in public family law. There are many good people working hard to protect children. They are, however, being put at risk by the bad behaviour of a few driven by the financial rewards.
We need to look forward as to how to resolve the problems that we face. It is not acceptable to allow the gradual slide into a culture of management bullying and fear driven by financial targets.
The Family Courts have to accept responsibility for their part of the problem. It is wrong to simply see Social Workers are the whipping post of the problems in society. Many lawyers have made a good living whilst undermining their own clients’ cases. There are experts who earn a lot of money simply repeating unproven theories. In the mean time children and families suffer and also real child abuse happens without action being taken.
Please do not think that I am the only MP concerned about this issue. There is cross party concern and a demand to see the system change.
I am happy to work with the profession to work out how changes should be made and if Community Care are willing to facilitate a meeting at some stage I would be willing to engage with professionals at a meeting.