Although I have been recommending – to a limited number of people over five years – that there are circumstances in which people should emigrate if they wish to have a family life, this gained substantial press coverage after a BBC Panorama programme last week.
There was also a radio programme produced by Face the Facts last Wednesday, and the issue was covered by Channel 4 in 2012. This is not, in fact, the first time these views have appeared in the public domain.
On this occasion, however, there has been more of a response and the letter by Esther Clarke and the associated comments on Community Care have expressed a critical view. This article has been written to respond to that.
Culture of bullying
Obviously I believe we need a child protection system. My concerns are three-fold. The first is that the system is concentrating too much on very young children. This is a managerial pressure not driven by practitioners on the ground, but instead very much from central government and management. Secondly, the checks and balances that are supposed to operate in the family courts do not operate effectively. Thirdly, there is a culture of bullying in many local authorities.
It only really takes one example to highlight the bullying that goes on. A social worker was fired in December 2012 by Leicester City council. She had 25 years’ experience and in her professional view a baby should be returned to its parents. However, the management had a different view and instructed her not to report this to the court. She resisted and was fired. There is now an employment tribunal going on to consider the lawfulness of this.
Social workers are, in fact, experts. If their reports to the courts are driven essentially by management priorities then they are subject to inappropriate pressures, and the courts should be looking for properly independent assessments from people like independent social workers. There is a European Court of Human Rights Case, Lashin v Russia (Application no. 33117/02), which is very clear on this point. This, however, does not always happen.
When a child is born it is really very difficult to work out whether they are at risk of being starved to death aged seven (as happened to Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham). Local authorities have responded to government pressure by increasing the number of babies under one month old taken into care – from 1,400 in 2010 to 2,013 in 2013 (years to 31 March).
However, at the same time, the crown prosecution service has reported an increase in prosecutions as a result of child deaths – from 16 in 2011 to 34 in 2013 (calendar years). And Ofsted are currently refusing to provide the list of suspected child deaths from abuse and neglect – something they have given me in previous years.
From this it appears clear that there are more particularly tragic incidents of death from abuse and neglect, and that the growth in children being taken into care is not acting to reduce the number of deaths from abuse and neglect.
I do not blame the profession for this. I blame government policy and the failure of courts to operate an adequate quality control on care proceedings. The threshold for babies to be placed on interim care orders is too low, creating a higher threshold for older children.
One of the cases where I advised a family to emigrate was that of Dale and Lorraine Coote and their daughter Megan who has mild learning difficulties. Dale and Lorraine were told Suffolk council would not assess them as grandparents prior to the birth of their granddaughter, so the baby would have to go into foster care.
They went to live in Spain where the authorities (who I advised them to talk to and be upfront about the situation, providing copies of paperwork) decided to allow them to go home with the baby without any legal proceedings.
Emigrating to keep a family together is really difficult. There are people to whom I have explained the problems who have remained in the UK, and there was a pregnant English woman sleeping on the streets in Ireland because she had not been properly advised.
It remains, however, that local authorities are under substantial pressure to increase adoption numbers and all those I have looked at recently still have local adoption targets. Councils deny the adoption targets have any effect on decisions about children’s welfare. So I ask a simple question, therefore: Why have adoption targets if they have no effect on decision-making?
There are quite a few social workers who have raised concerns with me about how the system is working. However, they know that they would be subject to disciplinary action were they to make the same points publicly.
Checks and balances
One of the proposals I made in my private members bill in 2012 was to have more academic study of care proceedings. Good academic social workers such as Sue White and Liz Davies could add value to the decisions being made today. Questions need to be asked as to whether attachment disorders are caused at times by the treatment of children in care.
The judgment of the Italian family court in respect of the Essex case is something people in England should read. This court, and a number of foreign governments, agree with me that the decisions in English courts are often at variance with international standards.
I have never said, however, that all decisions made by the system are wrong. There are some really excellent practitioners doing a good job. The problem is that the checks and balances that are supposed to ensure high quality decision making fail to do that.
I welcome the proposal to have greater scrutiny of care proceedings. It remains that unless the family courts operate as an effective quality control mechanism, management priorities will predominate. That is not good for children, parents or social workers.