‘Social workers are experts’: John Hemming MP responds to Community Care readers

MP explains his controversial comments on the family courts and says his criticisms are of the government and systems, not social workers

John Hemming MP
John Hemming MP (Credit: John Lawrence/REX)

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.

Government pressure

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.

Adoption targets

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.

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9 Responses to ‘Social workers are experts’: John Hemming MP responds to Community Care readers

  1. Sarah Phillimore January 23, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    I am very concerned to read that again Mr Hemming is relying on employment tribunal proceedings concerning Leicester City Council to prove some sort of point about the ‘culture’ in child protection proceedings.

    You should know that he thought it appropriate to email me part of the response to the Claimant relating to this, without redacting the Manager’s name. It showed quite clearly – to me – that the SW had been disclipined for failing to follow her manager’s instructions not to recommend reunification without further assessment.

    I do not think this document remotely supported what Mr Hemming’s asserts and it is a matter of significant concern to me that he thinks it appropriate to send via email to a ‘random lawyer on the internet’ parts of other people’s legal documents. Particularly without redacting people’s names.

    I think this is an abuse of his position as a MP.

  2. Gillian Dalley January 23, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    John Hemmings’s article is full of unevidenced assertions and non sequiturs and, most importantly, it does not properly address the three concerns he lists at the beginning which are supposed to be central to his argument – that too many young children are being taken into care, the family courts are not operating fairly and effectively and a culture of bullying prevails in local authorities. Citing one example of a social worker being bullied (though yet to be proved or disproved by an employment tribunal) doesn’t substantiate his claim of ‘a culture’. Taking a baby into care isn’t done in order to prevent the child from being starved at aged 7 (as he infers) – it’s to protect the child in the here and now. He needs to provide statistics on whether taking babies into care is ‘raising the threshold’ for older children – particularly in relation to the implied causal relationship in the association (claimed by him) between the number of babies being taken into care and the rise in the number of child deaths. His scattered examples of people going abroad, court failures, foreign authorities making better judgements than those here in the UK, and mention of one particular family, do nothing to further our understanding of his reasons for taking it upon himself to advise people to emigrate in order to avoid assessment of their parenting capacity. As for the issue of adoption targets, the coalition government has been pressing for more adoptions since it took office (isn’t John Hemmings a LibDem?). He has had the opportunity to explain his motives/actions and wasted it. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have a defence for his position.

  3. Katy Carr January 23, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    As usual, Mr Hemming is ignoring the facts.

    It is appropriate to have targets for adoption because there are far too many children who stay in the care system for years when they would be much better off with adoptive parents. None of that means that social workers are incentivised to target more children for adoption. I am aware that Mr Hemming points to the fact that it is easier to find adoptive parents for younger children, but there is simply no evidence that children who are not in danger are being taken into care without cause. Equally there is no incentive for this. The costs of dealing with a contested adoption are so great that no council would conceivably do this for a financial incentive.

    In relation to the Leicester case, Mr Hemming artistically leaves out the fact that the instruction to the social worker was that she should not produce a report recommending the child be returned to its parents before further assessments had been carried out. She seems to have ignored that highly important caveat. Therefore what she was dismissed for was disobeying a direct instruction from her manager, which for someone working in that very sensitive and important field is clearly a serious matter.

    It is incredibly irresponsible to advise parents to go abroad if they are worried about child protection action. In effect it signals to the authority that they have something to hide, and if the reality is that one parent is abusing the child, that simply allows the abuse to continue. If in fact the child’s apparent injuries are due to illness or a genetic problem, parents who take the child abroad are likely to delay or prevent appropriate treatment.

    The system is certainly far from perfect, but as an MP John Hemming could work much more effectively to improve it by using his position to promote adequate funding for support for parents from social workers and others. The fact that he chooses not to do so speaks volumes about whether he genuinely cares about parents and children rather than his own career.

  4. John Hemming January 23, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    On Sarah Phillimore’s point. Indeed it was that management had instructed a social worker what to say in court (which they are not supposed to do) and she did not say that. Her duty is to the court not the local authority. Hence she should not be instructed as to what to say.

    In fact the child remained in care and no further assessments were performed. Hence the assessment issue was misleading.

    Gillian Dalley misses the point in my article in which I blame the government’s policy for the current situation. This was, however, a policy of the previous government as well. It arises from an error in the calculation of the statistics on adoption. The fact that I am a coalition backbencher does not mean that I agree with everything the government is doing.

  5. Philip Measures January 23, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    This is not a good response by John Hemming – in order to make valid assertions there needs to be a substantial body of evidence gathered rather than anecdotal and perhaps isolated (who knows) events.

    What greatly concerns me is that I am unaware of any long-term studies into the positives and negatives of adoption – we make life changing decisions with little or no long-term facts to substantiate its strengths and weaknesses.

    I take the view that social work is predominantly about Attachment, Separation and Loss – most of our interventions see those elements vividly displayed. So in the recent Panorama Programme the 4 foster-home moves by Sarah and Paul Ashley’s 4-year-old son, prior to placement for adoption and the on-going Contacts with his parents and grandparents must give rise to what emotional repercussions that will have on him longer-term.

    The nature v nurture debate also indicates that our genetic inheritance also plays a large part in our future character development – to legally sever the blood ties (as adoption does) does not sever the genetic ones and the longer children experience unsettled care the greater the level of Attachment difficulties arise – such as insecure attachments.

    We also must ensure that there are high levels of intensive early support for children and families – I remember the residential support and assessment facilities that used to exist where quite intensive parenting help was provided and so greater observably direct evidence obtained as to what exactly social work concerns were.

    John Hemming is correct that in Britain we are out-of-step with most other countries in forced (parental disagreement) adoptions and we may yet come to realise that we just might have caused more harm than good – but, again, good quality long-term research is required.

    Social workers will always need to take heed of medical advice (and other inputs from partner agencies) but they have the quite unique and heavy burden of also assessing the ‘wider’ implications of substitute care and seeking to balance frequently conflicting pressures but to go down the advocated route of CAFCASS’s CEO Anthony Douglas of “zero tolerance” would seem to have grave potential dangers – social work and Safeguarding has always carried risks – and always will — but we must always be alert to the dangers of the ‘Care’ System as well.

    It is not easy and it demands that only the most skilled and experienced workers practise within this area of work.

    Philip J Measures
    Registered Social Worker
    Philip.measures@gmail.com

  6. Katy Carr January 24, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    The social worker was not instructed what to say in court. She was told that she should not come to conclusions about whether the child should be returned until further assessments had been performed.

    As Mr Hemming is coy about producing all the relevant documents, we don’t know why further assessments weren’t carried out. It could have been that they became irrelevant because the parents gave up their case, or because something else happened which put returning the child out of the question. If, as Mr Hemming says, the child remains in care despite the social worker’s recommendation, it appears that there was strong evidence going against it. But the point is that the social worker was given a direct instruction by her manager and disobeyed it, and that was why she was dismissed, not because she recommended the child’s return.

    His response to these comments is curiously selective, and his silence on a number of very important points is highly revealing.

  7. Sarah Phillimore January 25, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    At least something good is going to come out of the years I have spent on internet fora trying to point out the danger of Mr Hemming’s continued false assertions – which he makes to very vulnerable people when they are frightened and anxious.

    A group of us have now started a site to bring together the experiences of everyone involved in the child protection system – lawyers, social workers, birth parents etc. We want this to be a long term source of support and reliable, safe information.

    We will welcome debate about what goes wrong and what goes right in the system and what we can all do to improve things

    We will do what we can to counter the dangerous myths of baby snatching for cash bonuses paid to SW and the appalling advice from a serving MP that people should leave the country rather than engage with SW.

    I would be very grateful if there is anyone reading this who would like to comment or be involved. You can contact me via my chambers address.

    thanks to Mr Hemming and the Daily Mail my identity is now known far and wide…

  8. Dee February 3, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

    Social work is a never ending debate and has been for many many years and will continue to be so..

    I am a social worker with considerable experience and whist my own colleagues may wish to throw rotten eggs at me, I feel that we also need to be more balanced in our response.

    My natural urge to is to come out fighting our corner, but, when I stop, look around me and consider it, I have to say there are times I am astounded at attitudes and practices of some social workers irrelevant of their “academic abilities” which doesn’t on its own make them good practitioners.

    We do get it wrong and we cannot always be right.. time and time again I hear social work colleagues say “the courts must give us an ICO surely” and they seem to fail
    to understand the need to evidence abuse and not assume the courts will simply take your word for it. It further astounds me that they simply fail to understand the enormity of their decision making and the impact this has on families and the immense lack of compassion that it shown at times.

    I am not of course condoning child abuse, it is horrific at all levels, but, there are some parents that acknowledge their behaviour has harmed a child and we need to work harder at working with them, not failing them with a poor, judgemental, and dismissive attitude that some do. Look around you and with your hand on your heart, can you honestly say there is no one in your office that have no faith in?

    We also need to be better at gathering evidence but that includes risks and protective factors and presenting it in a balanced way. Added to that, I also feel that particularly with hospitals and paediatric Doctors that they also need to be held to account for their evidence that lead to an original referral to CS in the first place and called to court to give evidence of a first account.

    We are experts, but exerts make mistakes too, only in this line of work, the consequences are devastating.

  9. Jane Benanti February 5, 2014 at 9:41 am #

    I am a consultant chartered psychologist and expert witness in child care proceedings. My work has been greatly reduced over the past 4-5 months and we have just had yet another 25% cut in fees. I agree that there have been abuses of legal aid by avaricious and not too competent experts in the past but the current situation leaves children at risk as not all social workers have the expertise in assessing vulnerable people’s mental health, past trauma and substance misuse. Few social workers have the time to follow through with the psychological services required (when they are available) to help the parent make the required changes.This usually has to happen before the final hearing in a very short space of time- usually about 10 weeks- if they have engaged with no services prior to the psychological assessment. (Drug and Alcohol Courts are mainly available to London not to the rest of us.)
    Personally, I do not believe from my many years of experience in this field and in spite of what Sir James Munby says, that overall social workers (though certainly not all) have the psychological understanding of some of the very emotionally damaged parents whose children are in care, particularly when they are adept at manipulating the system. There will be more Baby Peters and Daniel Pelkas and more apologies from Local Authorites and more serious case reviews over the coming year until someone decides: THIS ISN’T WORKING; WE HAVE GONE TOO FAR.