Cuts to services have “essentially betrayed the legacy of the Children Act 1989” by piling pressure on families and social workers, driving the current rise in care proceedings, a leading family lawyer told a debate yesterday.
Sarah Phillimore, a barrister at St John’s Chambers, told an audience in Bristol that she believed “the outcome of proceedings is moving ever further away from what was hoped for by those who framed the Children Act”.
Quoting from a recent lecture by Professor Jo Delahunty QC commemorating the Act’s 30th birthday, Phillimore added that it was meant to cover “community as well as court procedures with access to services, advice and support being embraced within its composite parts”.
But lack of community access to services and legal aid had compounded an “overwhelmed and overwhelming” environment staffed by under-resourced and under-respected social workers.
“The worry from many is that we have created a voracious and possibly unstoppable ‘risk monster’,” Phillimore said of the child protection system.
The debate, which was hosted by Bristol’s senior family court judge, Stephen Wildblood, sought to explore whether the system makes unnecessary use of care proceedings.
Judge Wildblood noted that in Bristol, the number of cases had risen by 9% in the last 12 months alone and that court lists were “packed for months”, with his own schedule already full until the autumn.
The judge added that issues raised by recent research by the chief children’s social worker Isabelle Trowler, which called for more effort and new “sophisticated interventions” to divert families from court, needed urgent exploration.
He called for resources to be “poured in” to prevent the need for court proceedings, and said he was looking into establishing a charity offering therapeutic early intervention to families.
‘Like asking a junior doctor to do open-heart surgery’
The debate also heard from Clive Diaz, a former children’s social worker and independent reviewing officer, now an academic at Cardiff University.
Diaz noted that when he had been practising during the New Labour years, the job, while “emotionally gruelling”, had mostly enabled him to leave work on time in order to rest and have a personal life.
For many social workers that was now impossible, Diaz said, with too many decisions being taken by practitioners under extreme pressure.
Services that had previously enabled a range of specific interventions in multi-agency settings were simply no longer there, he said.
“Students are working on cases that are much too complex,” Diaz said. “It’s like asking a junior doctor to carry out open-heart surgery, which would take a senior consultant eight hours, in 45 minutes.”
Diaz, who argued that significant unnecessary use of proceedings was happening, added the wider system was broken and that the evidence base for child protection conferences had not been advanced by any recent research.
“They are an oppressive practice, highlighting that you are a poor parent,” he said. “Families feel eviscerated, scapegoated and blamed.” The results of a study carried out in Camden, published last week, highlighted the benefits of learning from families who had experienced child protection.
Diaz said that families too frequently had to deal with a changing cast of social workers within an “adversarial” system that was often driven by the consideration; “What’s the worst that could happen if I go to court too early?”
He said research at Cardiff was exploring social workers’ ability to forecast the outcomes that might befall families, which early indications suggested was “no better than someone throwing a dice”.
“Judges are being asked to make orders based on guesswork,” Diaz said.
But Phillimore added that it was important to recognise that the polarised debate on social media and elsewhere about state intervention had got out of control, with some families in denial about the need for social workers to step in. Too often, heated arguments meant the voice of the child was lost, she said.
“What we need is a better balance between risk and harm,” Phillimore said. “Most parents, if offered help at the right time, would be good enough.”
‘We need to be able to look families in the eye’
An example of the benefit of alternative interventions was provided by Hannah Shead, chief executive at Plymouth’s Trevi House, which enables children to remain with their mothers – rather than entering care – as they detox in a residential setting.
Shead told the debate that while Trevi House’s services had in years past been used as an early intervention, families these days tended to be in crisis. Too often they were only being referred by social workers from a select group of councils.
Around 95% of women who stay at the unique facility complete their detox, Shead said, and six in 10 leave with their child.
‘Helen’, a mother who completed treatment at Trevi House and now supports residents, told the audience that “the fear of social services and the courts hangs over women” who too often are not offered access to services that might help them resolve their family’s problems.
“We need to be able to look adults and children in the eye, even if [an intervention] does not succeed, and say, ‘We gave you the best chance’,” Shead said.