The grandparents of a baby wrongly put on the "at risk" register are calling for mandatory taping of interviews with people subjected to child protection enquiries. They argue that evidence submitted to courts by social workers is "inherently unsafe".
The couple, who cannot be named, believe child protection social workers should be required to carry out interviews and gather evidence to standards used by police. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (see below), interviews are taped, statements are agreed and vulnerable adults under investigation have the right to a supporter.
The family has chosen to speak out following recent concerns over the way child protection enquiries are carried out raised by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming.
Their grandchild was put on the child protection register by Norfolk Council's social services, for likelihood of emotional abuse, just weeks before the birth in November 2004. Their daughter was recovering from dissociative identity disorder, a mental health condition featuring multiple personalities, when she became pregnant.
At the case conference, nine of the 12 professionals voted against registration but the chair used her exceptional powers, which are normally used when the vote is split, to ensure the baby was registered.
The mother appealed against the decision to register and the family lodged complaints about the way the case was handled.
An independent review, led by Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board chair Dr Caroline Ball, published in May 2006, revealed a catalogue of errors in the handling of the case. The couple also discovered that vital notes had been destroyed.
The review said that the woman had been discriminated against because she had a mental health condition, that the social worker's report for the child protection conference should be destroyed to prevent its future use, and that the decision to register the child under the category of emotional abuse was "plainly wrong". The appeal against registration was allowed.
The woman was given an ex-gratia payment of £1,000 and 31 actions to improve procedures were implemented in Norfolk (see below). They include reviewing guidance on training on assessing risk factors, differentiating between fact, observation, allegation and opinion and recording these distinctions. A complete review of the complaints system was also undertaken.
The child's grandmother said: "The child protection system is cloaked in secrecy and is difficult to penetrate or challenge. A vulnerable person accused of even a minor criminal offence has a legal right to a supporter at an interview, and a taped interview. Why then should a parent faced with their child being taken away from them not be afforded the same right? Also when stress in pregnancy is known to cause harm to the baby surely there must be a duty of care to any expectant mother during the assessment process."
The council's then chief executive, Tim Byles, later wrote to the couple offering an unreserved apology and acknowledging there had been "poor standards of service in our dealings with you that I find completely unacceptable".
Among the complaints upheld were that the interview process was oppressive and that the woman was denied her rights as a vulnerable person by the social worker's refusal to allow her to be accompanied during an interview. The review upheld the complaints that the social worker treated hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations as fact and she had put forward a case of non-cooperation without carrying out a proper and fair assessment.
The mother, who has no involvement with social services now and is mentally well, said: "I have two beautiful children that mean the world to me. I am sure that if my parents had not been able to help me fight this injustice I would not have a family. The fear caused by this overshadowed the birth of my children. But I owe it to myself and to my family not to let it affect our future."
Norfolk director of children's services Lisa Christensen said: "We acknowledge that mistakes were made in this case, for which we are extremely sorry. We have taken robust action, reviewed our processes and made a number of changes. We will continue to monitor, review and improve our practice wherever necessary."
Police and Social Work Comparison
Criminal Evidence Act 1984 guidelines (Pace)
Code C: Someone who is mentally disordered or mentally vulnerable is entitled to have an "appropriate adult," who may be a relative, guardian or someone trained in mental health issues, present during interviews.
Code E: The recording of interviews will be done openly to "instill confidence in its reliability as an impartial and accurate record". A master copy will be sealed in the suspect's presence to "show the recording's integrity is preserved".
National child protection guidance
Decisions should be made with the agreement of the parents or carers, whenever possible, unless to do so would place the child at risk of significant harm. Concerns about a child's welfare should always be recorded in writing whether or not further action is taken. Good-record keeping is an important part of the accountability of professionals to service users.
➔ Working Together to Safeguard Children from www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/workingtogether
Related articleExpert View - Liz DaviesThe Child Minder Blog: "Let's start a debate about child protection"Norfolk Baby Case: The TimelinePolice style investigations needed
Action taken by Norfolk
● Training for social workers and multi-agency staff involved in assessments to ensure practitioners adhere to the Working Together guidance.
● Guidance to be revised to ensure that handwritten notes must not be destroyed until any complaints or appeals processes have been completed.
● Training on assessment processes to be revised to ensure that it provides guidance on the needs of parents and the use of research findings.
● Procedures for chairing case conferences to be revised to ensure chairs explain voting and decision-making process when using exceptional powers.
● Chairs to keep records of discussions about registration that take place before conferences.
- have your say on our Discussion ForumContact the authorSally Gillen