‘It is awful to tell a parent you don’t believe they can care for their child safely’

Social workers don’t receive cash or praise when a plan of adoption is proposed but councils need to lead the way in explaining the process better

adult and child
Photo: Nadezhda1906/Fotolia (posed by models)

by Sophie Ayers

The subject of adoption is one of the most contentious issues within social work. It is crystalized in mystique due to the unspoken nature of care proceedings and the uncomfortable subject matter that leads to a care plan of adoption being proposed.

The Transparency Project has recently identified that local authorities do set adoption targets. They provide a detailed analysis of their findings and are not suggesting that social workers who propose plans of adoption are doing so to meet government targets.

However, there does appear be frustration regarding local authorities’ unwillingness to have a clear and frank discussion regarding why the targets are set.

I am concerned that some people’s interpretation of adoption targets reinforces the view that social workers hold infinite power when planning for a child’s permanence and that a form of social engineering is taking place.

Permanence

Based on my own practice experience, I believe that the targets are in place to ensure that children who cannot return to the care of their birth family have the opportunity to exist in a permanent, secure setting and be part of a family without the potential instability of foster care.

Most members of the public could not begin to contemplate the complex situations that lead to a local authority issuing care proceedings and requesting that a child no longer resides with their birth family. Within every application to the court:  clear, cohesive and evidence based assessments must be completed.

Confidentiality around decision making within the family courts is essential for the rights of a child. It is vital that a child retains anonymity to ensure their very personal information can be shared at a time that is right for their individual needs and also protect their right to a private and family life.

Even as an adult, the prospect of details relating to your personal life being shared in the media would fill most people with a sense of dread.

Secrecy

However, the need for confidentiality appears to have become interchangeable with the word ‘secrecy’. There continues to be countless headlines indicating that decision making within the family court is shrouded in secrecy to prevent justice.

I do not believe that secrecy indicates corruption or poor decisions being made.

Social workers are generally reluctant to discuss their role in the family court due to risk of hostility and abuse. Adoption and care proceedings are such emotive words that it is frightening to even discuss these issue in a public forum.

Restricted

In addition, social workers are often restricted in the way in which they can express their views by the local authorities that they work for. I believe that these conditions lead to information being tightly controlled and the sense of secrecy and injustice exacerbated.

There are a number of public figures that are proponents of the ‘forced adoption” movement. It appears that supporters are vehemently opposed to the country’s use of adoption as a means of permanence.

The widely held view of this movement is that injustices occur on a frequent basis within the family court and corruption is taking place at the highest level.

The adoption process

Clear legislation is in place with regards to the decision making process in adoption. I have summarised the process in generic terms but all local authorities have idiosyncrasies in terms of practice:

  1. A decision is made by senior manager to make an application to court. The application will be considered in a legal planning meeting attended by senior manager manager, social worker and solicitor for the local authority. It often comes following a significant period of involvement through a child in need plan, child protection plan and the public law outline process. A family group conference should routinely be held prior to an application being made to the court to explore all family options for the children. The local authority has a duty to explore all family members and favour a family placement over foster care if this is the right option for the child.
  2. If a viable family member is identified through the family group conference process or other discussions a full viability and sometimes regulation 24 kinship foster carers assessment is completed. A kinship foster placement will enable a child to remain with their family, but their family carers will be supported by the local authority. This will be a short term family placement whilst the child’s permanence is determined.
  3. If a local authority is on the cusp of issuing proceedings, a Public Law Outline meeting will take place. The family will be provided with a formal letter prior to the meeting setting out why the local authority is concerned and what the family can do to reduce the concerns. The family will be invited to attend the meeting with a legal representative and public funding for legal representation is available for all families.
  4. If the local authority is planning to make an application to the court, it is usual for a meeting with parent’s legal representatives to take place so that they are aware of the local authority’s intentions. Sometimes it is not possible to hold a meeting to discuss the local authority’s intentions if an urgent matter arises such as serious concerns regarding non accidental injury or sexual abuse.
  5. If the matter is listed on a non urgent basis, parents will be served with the local authority’s evidence including a statement, care plan and any supporting documents prior to the hearing.
  6. Parents have the ability to contest the local authority’s plans at many junctures. This can be through their legal representatives or a contested hearing. In the contested hearing parents and other parties are entitled to cross examine professionals such as the social worker or guardian.
  7. Prior to the first hearing a guardian from Cafcass will be appointed. Cafcass states that “when a local authority applies to take a child into care, Cafcass’ job is to ensure that decisions are made in the child’s best interest. … The court will then usually request for Cafcass to become involved in the case. When working on care cases the Cafcass worker is known as a ‘children’s guardian”.
  8. It is expected that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks. It is usual for the local authority to use ‘parallel planning’ during care proceedings. This means that the local authority must be open to a range of options for a child’s permanence including rehabilitation into a parent’s care; placement with a family member or adoption.
  9. At the first hearing a date for a case management hearing is set. Within the case management hearing a timetable will be drawn, identifying what evidence is required to determine the child’s permanence plan, whether independent professionals are required to assist the judiciary in making their final decision, when evidence should be filed to court and when the final hearing will take place.
  10. If there is an issue relating to the facts of a case such as an injury to a child a fact finding hearing will be scheduled. The burden is upon the local authority to evidence the findings that they seek. However, the ultimate decision regarding the facts is made by the judiciary.
  11. Throughout the court process, the local authority must continue to assess family members that have been identified. It is usual for viability assessments to be completed and then if the assessment is positive, a full special guardianship assessment of the family member will take place. Family members have the legal right to oppose recommendations by the local authority.
  12. If there are family members who are clearly able to respond appropriately to the child’s needs throughout their childhood and this is considered the best permanence option for the child, family placements will always be favoured.
  13. If no viable family placements have been identified, only then will the local authority look at a plan of adoption. The Re B-S children judgment made it exceptionally clear regarding the the situations when adoption can be considered. It stated that “severance of family ties inherent in an adoption without parental consent is an extremely draconian step and one that requires the highest level of evidence”.
  14. A plan of adoption cannot be considered prior to significant professional oversight within the local authority. A social will always be supervised. During each supervision session the child’s permanence plan will be considered. Only when a team manager agrees that adoption is appropriate will a discussion occur between the team manager and senior manager. A looked after child’s care plan is also overseen by an independent reviewing officer (IRO). Their views are established through a formal looked after review. Legal advice is also sought through the local authority’s own solicitor throughout the course of the proceedings to advise whether correct actions enshrined by the country’s law are being made.
  15. A child permanence report will be completed. This is an extensive, detailed document and must evidence that there really are no other options for the child. There must be evidence that every family member has been contacted and fairly considered to provide permanent care to the child. There must also be extensive analysis and discussion regarding parents’ ability to safely meet their children’s needs.
  16. An agency decision maker (usually an assistant director or head of service) will ratify the plan of adoption if appropriate. If the agency decision maker does not ratify the plan of adoption, the local authority is unable to propose a plan of adoption.
  17. The child’s social worker will provide a final care plan and final evidence document to the court. There are court formats which dictate to local authorities’ information that must be covered. Within this evidence there must be a clear balancing exercise demonstrated where all permanence options have been carefully considered.
  18. A final hearing will take place. Parents are entitled to robustly challenge the local authority’s evidence. Professionals and parents can face grueling cross examinations to ensure that the evidence is cohesive and sound. The judiciary takes into consideration both the written and oral evidence that they have heard.
  19. Prior to the final hearing, a child’s guardian will provide their own independent analysis of the situation in written form. A guardian does not always agree with the local authority’s care plan.
  20. At the final hearing, a judge or magistrates will make a decision about a child’s permanence. The judgement is detailed and provides clarity, detail and furious analysis as to why the decision has been reached. Contrary to popular belief it is not a forgone conclusion that the judiciary will endorse the local authority’s care plan.
  21. Parents have the opportunity to discuss with their legal representative whether there is a basis for appeal through a higher court if they believe that the law has not been followed correctly during care proceedings.
  22. If the plan for a child is for adoption, the local authority will have made an application for a care order and placement order. Parents do not lose their parental rights when a placement order is granted. However, it enables a child to be placed with prospective adopters even if parents do not agree. Once the placement order has been granted, the local authority can start the adoption family finding process for a child.
  23. When a potential match has been identified a ‘matching panel’ will be convened. This panel (members are from a variety of different backgrounds including people who have been adopted) considers whether the prospective adopters identified for the child are suitable and able to meet the child’s individual needs The prospective adopters will need to demonstrate that they understand a child need to understand their history and be aware of their birth family. Every child adopted is provided with a ‘lifestory book’ and ‘later in life letter’ which provides age appropriate information as to why they could not live with their birth family.
  24. Prospective adopters can only apply for an adoption order, 10 weeks after a child has been placed with them. Birth parents are notified of the prospective adopter’s application for an adoption order and can attend the hearing to oppose the making of the adoption order. If the adoption order is made, birth parents’ parents’ parental responsibility is withdrawn.
  25. Social workers do not receive financial renumeration or praise when a plan of adoption is proposed. It is simply awful to shatter the hopes and dreams of parents when you tell them that you do not believe that they can provide safe care to their child.

Somehow we need to find a way for honest discussions to take place regarding the process of adoption. I never want to see children’s lives being exposed within the press. However, I do believe that it is important to open a dialogue which provides illumination into this difficult area.

I believe that local authorities have a duty to start this discourse and enable the wider public to understand that social workers who propose adoption, do so on the basis of valid and clear evidence.

Sensationalist

With this said, I am concerned that the sensationalist nature of some news outlets are not interested in understanding the nuances of the decision making in adoption. In addition, I believe that the subject matter is not accessible to most because it represents such a painful and uncomfortable area of life.

Most significantly, I believe that the government has a duty to become acquainted with the finely balanced decision making process relating to a child’s permanence. It is imperative that the government understands that adoption is not always the idealist nirvana that some believe it to be.

Sophie Ayers is a children’s social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.

9 Responses to ‘It is awful to tell a parent you don’t believe they can care for their child safely’

  1. Ssjjab December 8, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    Finally! A sensible and clear outline of how decisions for adoption and permanence in general is reached. It always feels like an unfair and difficult process as they are usually at the disadvantage in not having been through the process before, but counsel for parents is usually very robust and cross examination can be incredibly aggressive and upsetting. I don’t ever celebrate a child’s care plan being approved …it actually breaks my soul a little but as it means to failed to make a difference with the parents for the sake of the child.

  2. Social Work Tutor December 9, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    A sensitive, thorough and thought-provoking article that captures the anguish and secondary trauma associated with having to deal with this difficult part of practice.

    Thank you Community Care for continuing to give a platform to the voices of those of us, like Sophie, who are out there doing this job on a daily basis.

  3. CT December 9, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    Excellent article which avoids being emotive but does frame the emotional landscape that this work exists within. Whilst being clear about this being a challenging area of work for SW, the focus is on those who are most vulnerable in the child protection system, and I hope the outline of the process will be empowering for those people. The Transparency Project re-tweeted the link, so I also hope it will be widely read, as their readership includes parents and families (as well as others) with an interest in the CP system.

    Government rhetoric is very unhelpful, in my view, and has been for some time. SW practice is enshrined in a legal framework, with case law on adoption appearing in what seems like reams at the moment. The adoption process, as is very clear here, has far more to do with law than what politicians say in speeches. It is very unfortunate for all involved when those soundbites become the headlines and then aren’t analysed in any meaningful way when reported.

    Simplistic media reporting is partly about the lack of funding for investigative journalism, the difficulty in covering court cases (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/20/children-taken-into-care-mother-fighting-to-get-baby-back-louise-tickle) and the lack of court coverage by people who have a specialist knowledge. That isn’t surprising in an environment of declining readership but I think it is fair to say that coverage is also about society being able to tolerate some very difficult narratives. It is far easier for the press to turn people into monsters or heroes than delve into the nuances of, for example, why that woman didn’t leave her partner to protect her child. Most cases are sad rather than bad and it is too easy to frame families with child protection involvement as other. There is a need for transparency without exposure of either children or their families; I would view the whole family as vulnerable, both in terms of social work practice and the family justice system.

    It is also great to see an article with calls LAs to account for clearer information sharing, particularly about targets. Too often on these pages, those discussions about have been qualified by a whole litany of assertions that reassure nobody. I agree with everyone who has said that targets are in regard to known children but frightened parents are able to read a lot in various places about targets being about procuring children for adoption and raising income streams for LA. That narrative is going nowhere fast and it is a barrier to working with families. Unless clarity emerges from a reliable source, that parents can hear it from, those narratives just remain two unsupported positions. It shouldn’t be ignored that one of those positions holds the danger of parents absconding and children being at risk. The ambiguity about targets came from the source, the LAs, I would hope Community Care might be able to weigh in, I would have thought the ADCS would be best placed to send a short list of questions to all ADs.

  4. alexc1202 December 10, 2016 at 6:18 am #

    Sophie, what an excellent article. I support your comments entirely having recently left a child protection social work role to become a guardian. As you rightly state, the plan for adoption is hard on all parties and the wider public, understably, are unaware of the detailed process followed by social workers to arrive at a plan for adoption. Thanks for a most informative read. Alex

  5. londonboy December 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    Can I ask what happens if a parent says -‘ I need help parenting this child, because they has unmet unidentified special needs eg ASD or ADHD etc. I’ve been raising this again and again with my GP and in school but no-one listens to me so I’m not co-operating with you’

    -I’m interested to know specifically what happens in terms of health checks as a matter of course. SEND assessments are usually multi-disciplinary ( so not one expert only) and in the order of 20 weeks.

    My concern is that the needs of the child are met because if the child is assessed and found to have ASD/ADHD or whatever Mum may feel vindicated and begin to work with professionals. Professionals would of course have to offer different support such as respite, anxiety management training etc..

  6. londonboy December 13, 2016 at 7:39 pm #

    Is it churlish of me to ask where the easy read version of this is to be found and the accompanying flow chart so that the process is comprehensible to the many learning disabled parents who lose their children?
    Also where are the terms and conditions as in :-
    ‘we will remove your child but we can promise that in return (s)he will thrive because we will be the best possible ‘Corporate Parent’. We will help your child make sense of their history and identity and quickly identify and support you child around their health needs. We will support their carer ( in ways that we did’ent support you) ‘ ?

  7. Ellie December 14, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    Absolutely excellent article of the sort that is sorely needed. Maybe this should be publicised widely (and not just via the Transparency Project alone), in order that the public may become better informed as to what some types of Social Workers actually do, and what the adoption process is actually about – as opposed to simply being taken in by the usual media drivel claiming that Child Protection Social Workers are “baby snatchers”!

    There remains such a HUGE amount of misinformation out there in respect of Social Work, and what Social Workers do, that it is high time the profession began to effectively combat it. Whilst the general public continue to remain misinformed, and thus retain a falsely negative view of Social Workers, the profession remains at risk. I say this because I believe that the hostility towards Social Workers which results from misinformed views of what Social Workers do is what contributes to Social Work remaining an undermined, under-funded, and under-supported profession. I do not doubt that it is far easier to justify funding cuts, resource cuts, and general lack of support and assistance when it applies to a profession that, like Social Work, is generally “demonized”. It is far harder to justify the same treatment when applied to professions which are in effect glorified. For example… if the public are encouraged to view Firefighters as “heroic”, or Doctors and Nurses as “angelic”, then of course the public is up in arms about cuts to the NHS or to Fire Fighting services. By contrast, if the public is permitted – even persuaded – to view Social Workers as uncaring “baby snatchers” who take innocent children from their “innocent” parents according to nothing other than targets… then it makes sense that the public will not care how such a profession is negatively treated. Hence Social Workers can face funding cuts, recruitment crises, resource restrictions… ALL without public support.

    Misinformation concerning the Social Work profession is regularly presented in media stories, which are often sensationalist in nature, and do not focus upon the real facts of a case. These media stories tend to reflect very much the stereotypical image of Social Workers that may be seen in some television “soap operas” – the Social Worker as intrusive, uncaring, and coming to take a baby away from its distraught parents. Such stories rarely explain the full events that may have lead to consideration of a child’s needing adoption. It does not help that some of the media stories which criticize Social Workers in this way are published by the media on behalf of parents who have had to have their children removed and taken into care.

    I have read the above responses to this article, and agree very much with CT’s extremely well-put and succinct explanation of why Child Protection and adoption proceedings are so little understood, and why there is so much difficulty accurately representing them in the media. However, we should also note that to this may be added the unfortunate fact that some types of “gutter press” favour sensationalism, and therefore “cherry pick” only the most salacious or outrageous stories. Added to this, they “cherry pick” the nature of information to be presented in such stories. Magazines and tabloids with this sort of approach to “journalism” (if that is what it can be called!) will be easily approached by aggrieved or aggressive families who, for whatever reasons, may have had one or more child taken into care by Social Services. Indeed, these magazines and newspapers may even provide such families with a “mouthpiece” via which they may vent their spleen at Social Services. The reason being that sensationalist stories of embittered parents who hate Social Workers because allegedly Social Services “stole” their child HELP SELL papers and magazines! Some people like reading such gory tales, just as some people like watching gory horror films. It may be that sensationalist media stories are the newspaper or magazine equivalent of “B Movies” and explicitly gory horror. Just like these types of movies, sensationalist media stories are filled with shocking assertions, gruesome scenes, titillating gossip… but very little real fact!

    Besides, the “Social Worker as baby stealer” image has become somewhat of an entrenched social stereotype, likely based upon many a word-of-mouth urban myth. Put simply, the adoption process, and Child Protection proceedings are doubtless highly-charged, highly emotive and very stressful proceedings. Irrespective of whether the best interests of a child lie in its being adopted, and irrespective of whether a child’s parents may be genuinely abusive, families involved in such proceedings are likely to experience a huge range of emotions and reactions to the process. Even parents or carers who are undeniably guilty of child abuse or neglect can still experience reactions to Child Protection proceedings that include shock, disbelief, anger, hurt… Despite their knowing, and sometimes even accepting, that there IS a genuine reason for their child’s having to be adopted, some parents, carers or families may still try to place the blame for what has occurred firmly with Social Services. This may be for any number of reasons, ranging from inability to accept, comprehend or process what has occurred; to denial of their own guilt, or a vindictive desire to aggressively “lash out” at those who have held them to account for abusing or neglecting a child. We should not forget that even the most abusive parent or guardian may attempt to maintain (for various reasons) an image of NOT being abusive, and may therefore hold in contempt anyone who threatens to undermine this image. The act of having a child taken into care is also an act that serves to highlight the fact that something has gone very wrong in a family. Families are often at pains to hide what is going wrong. It is important, as CT rightly points out, to note that families who are the subject of Child Protection proceedings are as a whole family vulnerable. Whether a family is sad, or bad, either fact is generally viewed as socially stigmatizing, so it is understandable that families viewed as “other” in this way – families who may be socially stigmatized because the Child Protection process reveals their flaws – may respond with hostility.

    Where misinformation or confusion exists – as to the role of Social Workers, as to processes and procedures – this can only add to the negative experiences of families facing such Social Care interventions as Child Protection proceedings or adoption of a child. Hence, transparency can only be beneficial, as it serves to provide the public with accuracy of information from a known source.

  8. Londonboy December 15, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    ‘Whether a family is sad, or bad, either fact is generally viewed as socially stigmatizing, so it is understandable that families viewed as “other” in this way – families who may be socially stigmatized because the Child Protection process reveals their flaws – may respond with hostility’

    There are many outcasts in society and some are just vulnerable (not bad, nor sad) in a way that reveal all our flaws individually and as a society. In a time where there is just less to go around all round sometimes the vulnerable are treated as a drain on society and a problem. There are almost no ‘quick fixes’.

    Scrutiny should not make social workers feel they should ‘take to the metaphorical bunker’. Why does it?

    • CT December 21, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

      I completely agree that viewing those SW work with as ‘other’ is wrong and would go as far as to say it breaches our code of ethics. I would maintain that most cases are sad not bad, other should be replaced with there by the grace of whatever deity you choose to name quite frankly. In a time of austerity and cuts, where families reach crisis sooner, we are all vulnerable. I don’t think it anyway helps anyone to view others as other but I suspect it is a coping mechanism for most human beings.

      You’ll have to explain the metaphorical bunker.