‘When care proceedings concluded and children were removed, I felt only sadness’

A social worker turned academic talks about the emotional impact of care proceedings and questions whether adoption practice causes social harm

man at office
Photo: Kieferpix/Fotolia

by Simon Haworth

I left the frontline four months ago, and the recent adoption enquiry has prompted me to reflect on the moral and ethical struggles I consistently felt as a court-based social worker.

I relate these experiences to the concept of social harm, which I believe should have more prominence in contemporary social work, where practice is taking place within an increasingly unequal society.

As a court-focussed practitioner my primary role and remit was to work with children and families whose cases were in care proceedings, or in the Public Law Outline, often about to enter care proceedings.

During this time, questions consistently arose around the ethical foundations of child protection practice and dominant approaches within the UK.

I worked with many children and their families, and I felt only sadness and hollowness when care proceedings concluded and the child/children were removed, even though significant – or risk of significant – harm was evidenced.

Shame

It was commented that my practice was fair, compassionate and empathetic; that I adopted a risk-tolerant and relationship-based, as opposed to risk-averse, approach; but this practice was situated within an increasingly authoritarian system seemingly unable to effectively support children within their families.

I was there at the end of a process, and often when authoring chronologies, I would question: ‘If support had been more timely and appropriate would this child and their family have ever reached this stage?’

Feelings of sadness at the conclusion of proceedings increasingly morphed to feelings of guilt and, sometimes, shame.

I found that shame can be a dominant and consuming emotion for children and parents involved with care proceedings, coming from internalising harm and negative messages about themselves, their capacities and hopes. However, at the end of the process we would perhaps all be feeling shame; and we must surely question if this can be justified.

This is where the concept of social harm emerges. Simon Pemberton, in his book Harmful Societies, proposes that within capitalist societies social harm emanates from the dominant relationships, discourses and structures that make up our societies, generate inequalities and serve to deny the needs of people, often those most disadvantaged.

Social work complicit in social harm

He states that many dominant narratives in our society, including the underclass discourse, seek to individualise the causes of harm and blame people for essentially socially derived harms, often stigmatising them in the process.

A question is whether social work is in some ways complicit in social harm. Do we deny the needs of vulnerable people? Or safeguard and promote their needs and challenge such socially-produced harm?

There is probably no singular answer. However, my concern is that in child protection we have veered towards a more socially harmful approach.

Pemberton identifies that poverty is most likely the largest source of social harm, causing myriad suffering, misery and death. Figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveal that 30% of children live in poverty, rising to 36% for children in lone parent families.

Meanwhile, Bywaters et al (2016) suggest that poverty can be viewed as a pervasive factor in child abuse and neglect.

So what are we doing within child protection and care proceedings to combat this unnecessary harm? Are we amplifying or countering the feelings of shame, powerlessness and alienation that often come with poverty? Are we blaming families for enduring social harm, or looking to address their poverty and disadvantage?

Poverty

There are no easy answers to these questions, but Bywaters et al (2016) advocate that child protection practice currently pays insufficient attention to the influence of poverty in child abuse and neglect and that insufficient material assistance is provided under the guises of family support.

At this point, it is worth considering some influential case law from 2007, and requoted by Sir James Munby as recently as 2015:

“society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, while others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done.”

This can make difficult reading for those of us who want the best for all children, but for me is pertinent and perhaps more realistic than some of the standards we expect parents to achieve in deeply difficult circumstances of poverty, disadvantage, alienation and social harm.

We must analyse as a profession whether we are in agreement with significant expenditure on costly care proceedings (over £2000 for an application alone) not being spent earlier to offer support for meaningful change.

Unequal society

We should ask ourselves how many children would have their legal rights to private and family life better protected through supportive and anti-oppressive approaches that address the glaring inequalities in our unequal society.

Some of these questions have been persuasively highlighted in the recent adoption enquiry. These questions of course all take place within the context of significant cuts in services and funding, which are falling disproportionately within the most deprived areas and on early years and help services.

Are we swinging towards social engineering?

Academics argue child protection has become intensely focused upon risk to the exclusion of wider socio-political forces, perhaps most notably poverty and deprivation.

These views are perhaps captured in the fact that once we have removed the child we often cease statutory involvement or supportive work with the parents. At least until they have another child when the process can often start again in a clearly socially harmful system.

I know that I worked as a part of this system, and was made to feel somewhat subversive when parents would come to see me after proceedings had concluded and my remit had effectively ended.

Guilt

It is explicit in government policy that there has been a drive towards more and faster adoption. We must ask whether this is taking place to the detriment of a social work model that favours family support and interventions to keep families together. Can we expect parents to address chronic difficulties within the 26-week time limit?

My feelings of guilt or shame have been consistently amplified by being humbled by the fact that parents have shown me respect and humanity when my work with them has often led to intense loss, grief and anguish.

Perhaps, adoption of a relationship-based approach, predicated on creating safe environments where discussions of difficult, taboo and traumatic subjects can be held, feelings can be explored and stigma can be countered, has gone some small way to promoting trust and care in these working relationships. Even if it has, they have shown significant graciousness in remaining civil with me.

How will social work look back on our current child protection and care proceedings practice, fondly or with disapproval? I worry it will be the latter.

I do not wish to criticise social workers or social work; I remain very passionate about, and dedicated to, social work and the potential it has to offer those considered to be the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

Rather, I wish to advocate for practice within the high stakes world of court-based social work to return to more anti-oppressive and critical approaches.

Simon Haworth has recently moved to academia at the University of Birmingham from frontline children and families practice.

12 Responses to ‘When care proceedings concluded and children were removed, I felt only sadness’

  1. Tom J February 14, 2018 at 10:07 am #

    Great article- sums up how I have been feeling

  2. Surinder February 14, 2018 at 3:33 pm #

    A good reflection, Simon. And so, perhaps we should be thinking about turning the guilt into anger, and anger to action, to galvanize and challenge those that promote inequality as an inevitable ‘truth’ and the only way to live, we could begin to bring change.

  3. Liz D February 15, 2018 at 6:39 pm #

    That is why i worked with children and families just briefly when I qualified years ago. i found removal of children from their families harrowing and oppressive as in my experience it depended on the manager and in some cases the misunderstanding of cultural issues and the role of poverty.

    A well written piece.

  4. Gary irwin February 15, 2018 at 7:24 pm #

    Well said,the removers must not be allowed to win this battle,we need to recognise that this is deliberate gov policy at work.Social work needs to reassert itself and remember our code of ethics.We are not and should not be agents of the state.

  5. Becky February 15, 2018 at 8:46 pm #

    Very interesting article. I would imagine that if I only started working with families at the stage of proceedings or PLO then I would always wonder whether more could have been done with more time. 26 weeks is a short time frame for change to take place, and you need to know that enough has been done to try and change things before entering PLO or court arena. Perhaps a push towards less specialist teams who work across CIN, CP and cases further down the line?

  6. Liz G February 15, 2018 at 9:04 pm #

    A summary of my world reflected in probably one of the most honest and factual articles I’ve read for some time – I’m really not going mad after all !!

  7. Cathy February 16, 2018 at 8:06 am #

    Excellent food for thought. As someone who works in the same field but with parents who have themselves applied to Court I will certainly take up Pemberton’s referenced work.

  8. Fustrated sw February 20, 2018 at 4:38 am #

    Whilst not risk averse there would be many more baby p’s of the world should we not do our job effectivly. I fèel no sadness for parents where children have been bruised battered fractured etc. It is often the case that families have had a lot of imput prior to 26 weeks protacol being implemented. Adoption is nit taken lightly by anyone in my view.

  9. Margaret Dunne February 20, 2018 at 6:15 am #

    In some cases little support is offered and the family are in proceedings within a month of opening. We set families up to fail. In domestic abuse cases when a mother puts her children first and leaves the abuser she is then told she will not be able to manage all her children as a single mum so cannot win.

  10. Anne February 20, 2018 at 6:52 pm #

    Come on, lets get real, I am a social worker of many many years and children are not removed on a whim, the parents have had multiple chances and a great deal of time to put their children before themselves. The 26 weeks follows months, sometimes years of working with the family, intensive family support, mental health support, IDVA support, substance abuse support, I could go on and on, whilst all the time the children are suffering and more damage is being done, making the possibility for future permanence for them more difficult. What social workers are asking from parents is ‘good enough’ parenting, that means warmth, food, education, safety, love and shelter, please do not tell me that this cannot be provided with the benefits available, they may be meagre but it is doable if focussed on priorities. I am not unrealistic, I am from a very large family who had barely any money but my parents would make things like potato and onion soup and bake bread, huge broths with scrag end and even from a bag of bones ‘for the dogs’, anything to feed us. I have never met any social worker who has removed a child without it breaking a bit more of their hearts and without a feeling of failure. But what I do say is that the way things are going now Ofsted and the government have a lot to answer for.

  11. Angela February 20, 2018 at 9:55 pm #

    I begged social services and health visitors to support my daughter look after my two grandchildren. They did one visit and said the children are fine and smiling. Two months later they visited and removed the children. No support given in the intervening months. She was alone, depressed and struggling. What a costly mistake in so many ways. My daughter has lost her children that she adores, I have been looking after them under an SHO for the past 7 years so very costly to me in terms of my freedom etc, very costly to SS financially but mostly very costly to my two grandchildren who have missed being brought up by their mum. With the right support it could all have been prevented. Somebody stop this costly madness!

  12. Dorina February 20, 2018 at 10:08 pm #

    I am doing my final placement within a child in care team specialised mainly in court work and I am aware of the ethical dilemmas revolving around child removal, the extent of state intervention into people’s lives and families’ rights to self determination and to private life. Unfortunately in most of the cases we deal with the parents have substance misuse issues and the children in their care had to be removed because they suffered chronic neglect, some had unexplainable bruises, bite marks, development delays or were themselves parentified children. I remember the famous Munby’s quote from the law module at the uni of bham and it is true that families should receive more support before having the children removed ( which is obviously not in agreement with the current austerity measures). At the same time, we need to be aware that parents’ timescales for change cannot always be the same with childrens’ development timescales. A one year old child with severe development delay cannot wait for mother to become drug free after she has had several relapses. In the end cases like baby P or Victoria Climbié are among the reasons why social workers have become risk averse, but in the end we don t want the history to repeat.
    However the article is an excellent piece of reflection and a signal for the government that cutting the funds for supporting families in need may eventually lead not only to higher costs relatec court proceedings but also to create a fragmented society where state interference in private affairs becomes normality.

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