Why services need to understand the financial impact of care proceedings on parents

A mother who has gone through care proceedings shares her experience of trying to survive the process and the impact it has on benefits

Photo: Bacho Foto/Fotolia (posed by model)
Photo: Bacho Foto/Fotolia (posed by model)

by Surviving Safeguarding

This time of year is an expensive one, undoubtedly so if you’re a parent. Bombarded by television adverts from at least October, Christmas infests every part of our lives, and parents feel it keenly.

The pressure to provide a sack full of presents is compounded by media saturation of smiling children receiving the latest noisy/lighty up/shooty toy and no-one wants to let their little ones down.

Imagine then, if you’re a parent with children in the care system at Christmas. To my knowledge, all local authorities provide their foster carers with a specific amount to be put aside for Christmas gifts. In my local authority, North Tyneside, this is £150.

I know this because my children, still in the system, tell me. My research however indicates this amount can be as high as £247.67 (Somerset). Residential homes are afforded around the same amount, and presents for children in the care system are also donated from members of the public and businesses through initiatives such as my local Metro Radio’s “Cash for Kids”.

Entitlements

All of this is wonderful and richly deserved. No child should go without, particularly not the most vulnerable in our society and I am glad systems are in place.

However, for the vast majority of parents who have children in the system, for whatever reason, this can add another layer of stress and anxiety.

When your child is removed from your care, or when your child is voluntarily accommodated by the local authority, you lose all entitlements to benefits for that child. Child benefit is retained for eight weeks; however, child tax credit is removed the day your child leaves your home.

If you are in receipt of housing benefit or council tax support, the amount you receive will decrease. If you live in a local authority property, you may now be considered under occupied and your eligible rent covered by housing benefit will again decrease by up to 25% thanks to the controversial “bedroom tax”.

Extremely stressful

You can ask children’s services to make a payment under s17 CA89 to help you pay your rent during proceedings, but this is not widely known, nor advertised.

If you claim Income Support as a lone parent, when your children are no longer in your care, temporarily or permanently, you lose your entitlement to claim as a parent and must claim Job Seekers Allowance instead. This means you must be “available for work”.

If you are going through care proceedings and have meetings, conferences, assessment appointments, court hearings and supervised contacts to attend, this makes being “available for work” very difficult indeed.

Add the expectation of Christmas gifts into the mix and it makes for an extremely stressful situation during what is unquestionably the worst period of your life.

Poverty and care applications

Professor Brid Featherstone, a social work lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, sees poverty as being inextricably linked to rising care applications.

“Unfortunately, since 2010 poverty has been increasing and we are now in the middle of a perfect storm. Years of cuts to family income and council services have devastated family capacities and support services such as children’s services.”

She says this means cash-strapped councils are increasingly spending their resources on expensive care proceedings, while their support and preventive services become increasingly “hollowed out”.

“There is now robust evidence on the systematic link between poverty and a child’s chances of becoming looked after. Tackling poverty is central to protecting children and supporting families – this government has committed itself to reforming child protection but has failed to grasp there is a contradiction at the heart of its policies.”

Harsh

I know how harsh the bite of losing supportive benefits, at the same time as going through care proceedings, can be because I have been through it twice.

In June 2012, the first set of proceedings were issued.

I was single, living in a local authority property after spending four months in a women’s refuge. I had fled domestic violence, and was in receipt of benefits because my mental health had been in crisis and I was unable to work. The instability of my mental health was also the trigger for the local authority issuing proceedings.

I was pregnant with my youngest child and had three children in the care system and one with their father. My eldest son came back to live with me on his 16th birthday after five months in foster care. This meant I could apply for Child Tax Credit as he was in full time education undertaking GCSE’s and then A Levels.

Living on £51 a week

However, I had been unable to claim Income Support whilst in the refuge because I had no children with me and was advised by the DWP to claim Employment Support Allowance. Upon a work capability assessment, it was deemed my mental health was stable enough for me to work and I was no longer eligible for ESA.

There was simply no other benefit to claim, I was pregnant and in the middle of care proceedings.

From November 2012 until May 2013, when I reached 29 weeks pregnant and could access Income Support for the reminder of my pregnancy, me and my teenage son lived on his child tax credit alone; a total of £51 per week.

Breakfast became a luxury. Lunch and tea became 15p noodles, sometimes with a bit of “Savers” sauce, from the local supermarket. We couldn’t afford fruit or vegetables. Through a chilly winter, we went without gas and, consequently, heating. We got used to freezing showers and sat with blankets and hot water bottles. If we ran out of electricity on the meter before we had money to top it up, we did without.

Competing with the local authority

It was like both our birthdays had come at once when the food bank delivered us packages. I remember crying when the gentleman delivering it offered me a kind word.

But my son still went to school. He still studied for, sat and passed his GCSEs. My unborn son was still provided for. I sold my underwear online to afford his crib and second-hand blankets. I felt overwhelming shame.

Christmas 2012 still had to be paid for, and I was now “competing” with the local authority, who could provide my children’s foster carers with enough money to cover the items on “Santa’s List”. I remember one of my children wanting an expensive Lego set. I begged and borrowed to afford it.

When you’re eight, these things matter, and I was desperately trying to overcompensate for the mistakes I had made which had led to him being placed in care. Our family “Christmas” took place in a cold, clinical, contact centre. I had done my best to provide what I could for everyone.

Second set of proceedings

The first proceedings concluded, the second were issued upon my new-born son’s removal at 6 days old. I was informed by the DWP I was no longer entitled to Income Support because my child was not with me and again could live only on my eldest son’s child tax credit.

I could not pay rent, nor council tax and ended up owing thousands of pounds of debt to the same local authority who had taken my baby and was fighting to have him adopted. Some days I could not afford the train fare to get to court.

None of this was taken into account by the local authority when assessing me and, in fact, my need to use a food bank was then presented as evidence of a “chaotic lifestyle”.

This issue is not unique to me and my circumstances. Children are subject to care proceedings for a variety of different reasons, but often money plays a factor.

The damage of austerity measures

Research carried out by the Nuffield Foundation suggests children in deprived areas are more likely to be on a child protection plan or looked after, while children in more affluent local authorities were more likely to get support from social services.

Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, Shadow Minister for Children and Families and an ex-child protection social worker, says the government has “continued to obsess” with adoption, while disregarding the impact budget cuts are having on early help support for families.

“Their closure of Sure Start units and removal of early years help in family support centers, and the disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most deprived areas have taken their toll.

“They have continued to show complete ignorance of the fact that their austerity measures and punitive welfare policies are causing untold damage. All this government seems to be doing for desperate families is turning the screw tighter and tighter, year on year, until they break,” Lewell-Buck says.

Capacity to change

As a mum with children in the care system, and one who has survived multiple sets of proceedings, it is my intention to campaign for more joined up thinking in this area. Perhaps benefits and bedroom tax should be frozen during care proceedings.

Perhaps local authorities could work in collaboration with parents around the financial aspects of special occasions like Christmas and birthdays.

Only by supporting people do you gain their trust and reinforce belief in their own capacity to change.

Surviving Safeguarding is a social work trainer and mother who has gone through care proceedings. She tweets @survivecourt.

26 Responses to Why services need to understand the financial impact of care proceedings on parents

  1. HelenSparkles December 19, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    Excellent article.

  2. Hels December 19, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

    Two sets of of proceedings, talks volumes !!

    • Ben Glass December 20, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      What a pathetically spiteful comment.

      • Surviving Safeguarding December 20, 2016 at 6:01 pm #

        Thank you Ben, and Sophie.

        • Ben Glass December 21, 2016 at 11:09 am #

          Not at all.

          Thank you for the insightful article.

          Hope you have a lovely Christmas.

    • Sophie December 20, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

      How does it talk volumes? Are you indicating that being involved in two sets of proceedings takes away somebody’s right to talk about the system.

      This is an impressive piece with lots of introspection. We can all learn from this article. I think the most important learning is that we should not judge someone on the basis of whether they have been involved in proceedings.

      We don’t know the situation or circumstances around the proceedings and I for one am happy to learn from everyone’s experiences.

    • Surviving Safeguarding December 20, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

      Yes, it does. I wasn’t very good at being a parent and I failed my children. But thank you for pointing that out as a response to an article which took immense bravery to write. Merry Christmas.

  3. SW 111 December 19, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

    This article provides excellent insight into the plight of the parents who are battered from all directions. A brave effort on part of the writer.

    • Surviving Safeguarding December 20, 2016 at 6:02 pm #

      Thank you SW111, it does take bravery, especially when faced with responses like the above. I appreciate your comments.

  4. Londonboy December 20, 2016 at 10:56 am #

    One of the hardest things I ever had to do was phone the people who administer the Child Benefit system and explain that our child no longer lived with us as he had entered care. (s20)

    To the credit of the person on the other end of the phone, he treated me with immense sensitivity and kindness. In our case it was’ent about the money.

    I cannot imagine how hard it must be trying to cope with poor mental health, make sense of an abusive relationship, experience the loss of one’s children and have to cope with a financially punitive regime in the way that Surviving Safeguarding has. It requires huge personal resources not to be ‘broken’ by a system that needs a comprehensive overhaul. I hope SW’s will play a part In this because you are needed.

    • Surviving Safeguarding December 20, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

      London Boy, your comment is very much appreciated. It is an extremely difficult thing to do to make that call to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit and I’m so glad you were treated with sensitivity and kindness. In many ways I am stronger than I was as a result of the system, but my ability to trust my local authority has been broken – more so in the last 8 months since my story has been reported in the media than during proceedings. I hope you have good support around you in respect of your child, and thank you again for your comment.

  5. Concerned December 21, 2016 at 7:49 am #

    Where is the child’s voice here? Where is the evidence of the Local Authority as to why taking legal action (twice!) was a necessity? (and why no family members were assessed as suitable to take the children into their care)

    I am becoming increasingly concerned that Communtiy Care is pushing such one-sided views as these and adding to the bad press that our profession already faces. Are we going to end up with more of these stories and turn into Daily Mail readers?

    Annie’s story is undoubtedly tragic, but it is noticeable to see the focus is on her and not the children. Community Care should know better than to accept such a one sided story.

    • Ben Glass December 21, 2016 at 11:07 am #

      The article relates to the brutality of the benefits system (during care proceedings).

      Oddly enough, I can’t imagine the Daily Mail running with it. They’re not the most vociferous proponents of the welfare state.

    • Surviving Safeguarding December 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

      For goodness sake. This is an article, as Ben has pointed out, about the financial impact of care proceedings on parents. It is not about the reasons why my local authority acted as they did. If you wish to read that, please feel free to access my website where you will find an incredibly honest and balanced version of events. Yes, during this article the focus was on me, for a change. But I think you would find, in my training, in my public speaking and in the content of my website I am nothing but child-focused.
      As for your comment about “one-sided views”, I am frankly disappointed. Why should service users not be given the opportunity to give their views? Or is Community Care only for social workers to give their views? Comments like these stop service users speaking out. Fortuitously, I am not one to be shamed by comments like yours and will continue to offer articles like the above to Community Care. You can, “Concerned”, choose not to read them and instead seek out articles more suited to your views. It is a two-way street.

  6. Hels December 21, 2016 at 8:37 am #

    Thank you concerned, you have illustrated my point well.

  7. Chris Martin December 22, 2016 at 5:18 pm #

    What an interesting and brave article to write.

    To those that have been critical and condemning of this article, shame on you!

    You do not know this woman’s circumstances or the reasons behind the local authority issuing proceedings. Furthermore, she openly accepts that she has made mistakes, but this article is looking at how the system does not help parents, and as a consequence the children in this situation.

    The starting pointing as highlighted in S17 Children Act, is that the local authority should prompt the upbringing of children by their families. How can taking away a parent’s financial support during a period of assessment promote that aim; it simply adds fuel to the fire nor does it accurately show how a parent would manage if the children were in their care, as in the case above it was used as evidence of a chaotic lifestyle. No, it simply shows that a parent who is struggling to parent is now going to struggle further to demonstrate their ability to CHANGE and successfully parent.

  8. TS December 26, 2016 at 10:34 pm #

    Many thanks for this article. It was both interesting, informative and insightful. As a profession we need to look at things deeper, not having a great deal of money does not equate to poor parenting. We also need to look at a more balanced approach when looking at or indeed, considering the return of children home. For those of us that work in Long Term, we know that as children post 18, where safe and proper, they need better relationships,with parents and family members.
    As part of the assessments we need to consider the financial implications for return, we spend hundreds of thousands on residential placements, thousands on taxi’s, but frown when a parent asks for a bed so that they can have overnight contact with their child. Or, go through an inquisition when a care leaver when they ask for £10 so that they electricity!

  9. Liz December 29, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    What a truly honest and informative article you have written. As a social worker and a single parent who has survived domestic abuse, and struggled with parenting, and financially over the years I think so many people are so quick to judge….with little real insight into how unsupportive ‘the system’ can be. I hope life has become better for you and applaud your bravery and insight.
    Regards

  10. Tom J January 3, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

    Surviving Safeguarding – as always thank you for your insight.

    I’m saddened by some of the negative comments above. I’ve been worried for a long time that ‘putting the child first’ has been mistaken to mean that workers should be ‘anti- parent’.

  11. LF January 4, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

    I will share this article with all C&F SWs in the authority I work for – we need to understand more about the lives of families we work with and listen to them.

    As for ‘Concerned’ and ‘Hels’ – shame on you

  12. GF January 4, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

    Just read this article.

    Ive not been in the child care area of social work since my very early days in social work – back in the 1980’s. But I didn’t read this article as being specifically about the child care system, although it says a lot about that as well (and is no doubt written from that perspective) and the current political agenda regarding the provision of welfare.

    I saw in it something which took me back to my roots It says to me a lot about the impact that social work decisions can have upon people who are already vulnerable and how we rarely if ever fully think through or are even aware of how those decisions impact upon other family members. Maybe the local authority did take the right decision for the children, I don’t know; but did the authority even consider the situation of the author and the impact that the decisions around the children would have on her. I know back in the 80’s I didn’t in not dissimilar circumstances, and on reflection 30 years on I ashamed of that.

    So thank you for a very moving, and powerful article. And to all the negative respondents, we need as a profession to listen (and therefore encourage) more real feedback of how our decisions and actions do impact on others. I think its called empowerment; the problem with empowerment is of course that people may say things that professionals may not like or agree with…..oh dear!!!

  13. Safeguarding sw January 4, 2017 at 8:00 pm #

    I’ve had the pleasure of attending one of this lady’s events and I have to say nothing suprises me when I hear professionals (not just S/W) getting defensive. For me as a safeguarding S W it was a time to reflect and make changes to my practice.

    I agree the child’s welfare is paramount but having read the article I like a majority who have read and commented took it for what it was, the financial plight and struggle of a parent going through one of the most stressful time of their life.

    I don’t think anyone here would condone any form of abuse or neglect of children, but isn’t this government just as guilty for placing more stress on parents by cutting services to disadvantaged family’s and children

    This article makes it clear the author isn’t looking for sympathy just wants professionals to be less judgemental and a little more compassionate.

  14. Pearlene Webb January 5, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    Thank you for a very thought provoking article it certainly highlights some important issues that are often ignored during care proceedings. I for one will keep in mind the issues you have raised when working with parents claiming benefits during proceedings. I think sometimes we forget the minute details and parents are often blamed for things that are totally out of their control, e.g. not having enough money for fares to attend court hearings.

  15. colsey January 12, 2017 at 11:04 am #

    Well it is about money but it is not the LA that supplies it, it is the taxpayer and the pot is not infinite. My mother was widowed at 28 with 5 children in the sixties when there was no benefit system as such, she had an illness herself and managed to keep us clothed, fed and loved. She had 4 part time jobs to fit in with school times. This just reads to me as “victim” of LA and Gov. My sympathy/empathy is nil

  16. Londonboy January 12, 2017 at 1:50 pm #

    Your mother sounds fantastic Colsey. Do you think she would take the same stance or do you think perhaps her life experience would have shown her the need to be kind to each other as much as possible?

  17. Jan January 12, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

    I find the lack of personal responsibility of this author astounding. Benefits are not a way of life, it is up to each of us to find work, contribute to society and take responsibility for our own decisions. Having children when already leading a chaotic lifestyle involving social workers and care proceedings does not appear very responsible, let alone doing so when living on benefits. And the lack of mention towards father (s) or family is telling, as is two care proceedings. Despite all this, the author has the nerve to complain her benefits have been cut when her children have been taken into care and as such incurring yet more expense to the tax payer. No gratitude for providing for her children (to the extent of buying them Christmas presents), no gratitude for everything else which is provided by society with nothing in return, simply a moaning article that she should continue to draw benefits. My advice would be, stop having children until you’re in a better position financially and emotionally, and use this free time you have while society is bringing up your children, to get a job and be in a position to provide for yourself and your children. Perhaps then you may find your children returning.