“Baby taken from womb by social services”, so read the headline of a report in the Sunday Telegraph, which has led to outcries across the world. I am not surprised at the response.
To make matters worse, the mother in this case allegedly has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and is now fine, but social workers won’t give her baby back. It’s no wonder we social workers are constantly vilified when we apparently behave like this. In the words of some spewing venom on social media sites: “Social workers do the work of the devil”.
24 hours later we hear from Essex council and the facts, as always, are rather different.
It is unusual to have a case that combines the legal framework of working with vulnerable adults and the legal framework of child protection. Let us be absolutely clear that these are two completely separate systems, guided by different laws.
In the first instance, if there are grave concerns about a mother’s mental capacity and her physical and/or mental health, professionals will act. Just as in child protection, decisions are never made lightly and a decision for a birth to be enforced by caesarean section will be made by the High Court.
In this case, after the mother had been looked after under the Mental Health Act for five weeks, the application was made to the court because of concerns about the well being of the mother and the unborn baby.
The child protection process
It’s also important to be clear that mental ill health does not equal child protection concerns.There are many parents and carers who have a mental health diagnosis who care for their children perfectly well. When child protection becomes involved it’s because a parent is unwilling or unable to accept they suffer from an illness and will not accept the treatment needed to keep them stable and safe.
If the order is granted, that’s when child protection processes commence. It remains the case that an unborn baby has no legal status and therefore child protection social workers cannot go to court until a baby is born.
One would hope adult mental health services would have alerted social care to this situation when the mother was detained, because of the concerns about her mental ill-health and her ability to care for her baby.
There should be a pre-birth child protection conference to ascertain what needs to happen to keep the baby safe. In a situation where there are such grave concerns, the plan is usually that the hospital will alert children’s social care when the mother goes into labour and then when the baby is born. Social care will then go straight to court to apply for a court order, which gives the local authority shared parental responsibility, with the parents. That’s what happened in this case.
The mother took part in the proceedings, despite it being reported that all this happened without her knowing. Care proceedings are not heard “ex parte”, i.e. without the parents knowing, unless there’s a very good reason – usually if there are concerns a family is likely to disappear if they know social care is going to court and the authority can evidence that pattern of behaviour. Parents may be banned from the courtroom, but that will usually be because of their behaviour in the court.
This case is also unusual because the mother lived abroad. Best practice would dictate that professionals in the UK should look to family carers first, regardless of where they live.
‘It’s time to speak out’
Generally, councils do not comment on individual cases.The predicament they have is that if they do not they are usually left looking as though their actions have been draconian, or lax.
Those of us working in this field know there is always much more to a story than has been reported, but irresponsible reporting is not going to end. Therefore we need to be more robust in our response and not wait until we have been vilified to give a little reality to a situation.
In this case, one would hope that now we know the mother has two other children she was unable to care for, and Italian courts ruled this child should remain in England, there might be a slightly different reaction to the case. (Sadly, I doubt that bit will get reported).
It is time for local authorities to reconsider their position of not commenting on individual cases. Information such as Essex has given identifies no one but may increase understanding of how and why local authorities act. It is honourable that local authorities put the right of the service user to privacy first, but if that service user then speaks to the media they relinquish their right to complete privacy.
If we really value our most vulnerable children and we want good people to come into child protection we need to protect those professionals too and speak out about what they do and why decisions are made.
So, I commend Essex council for their braveness and hope that others will follow suit. Let us hear more often why local authorities and courts have made the decisions they have.
- Joanna Nicolas is a social worker and child protection consultant