TV investigation aims to highlight trauma faced by families from wrongful child protection action

Journalist Louise Tickle says her BBC Panorama investigation illustrates the adverse impact of an over-stretched child protection system on families

Louise Tickle
Journalist Louise Tickle (credit: Louise Tickle/True Vision)

Story updated 17 May 2022

A BBC Panorama investigation has sought to highlight the “traumatic” effect on families when the state intervenes badly in their lives.

The half-hour film, broadcast on 16 May, focused on a series of court judgments that severely criticised practice and management at Herefordshire council, as well as two other cases of families who felt failed by the authority when it took their children into care.

Journalist Louise Tickle said her programme – for which she was given court approval to name individual social workers and families – focused on how the cases affected the children and their relatives.

“It absolutely does blight children’s lives.” she said. “Many of them will never recover from the intervention of the state into their families when it is done badly.”

She said she also wanted the programme – for which she spoke to social work experts and practitioners who used to work for Herefordshire – to shine a light on a severely overstretched family justice and child protection system and the extent to which it militates against good practice.

Damning judgments

A High Court ruling last year found social work teams at Herefordshire council ignored the concerns of a senior judge and the advice of a psychiatrist in pursuing a plan for special guardianship orders (SGOs) for four children who had made false allegations of sexual abuse against their parents.

The children did not see their parents for eight years, during which time one child died of a serious illness. Giving judgment, Mr Justice Keehan said the decision making in the case called into question the “fitness for purpose” of the council’s children’s services, prompting the Department for Education to issue an improvement notice on Herefordshire.

The local authority was previously criticised by the same judge in three court judgments in 2018. In one case, Mr Justice Keehan said that 14 children in Herefordshire had “wrongly and abusively” been in section 20 care arrangements for a “wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time”, and should have been the subject of legal planning meetings or care proceedings much earlier.

In a second judgment that year, he condemned social workers who had misrepresented and failed to disclose evidence during adoption proceedings that separated twins. This case was featured in the Panorama programme, for which Tickle interviewed the adoptive parents for each twin; their words were spoken by actors in the programme.

The programme also featured the other case from 2018, in which Mr Justice Keehan criticised Herefordshire’s “woeful” treatment of two half-sisters who suffered emotional and psychological harm as a result of chaotic care planning over a period of years. Tickle interviewed one of the sisters, whose words were also spoken by an actor.

Council: ‘We failed children’

Paul Walker, chief executive of Herefordshire council, said the authority “failed children in our care over a number of years”.

“We are acutely aware of the impact these failings had, and continue to have, on children and their families in Herefordshire,” he said.

“I am sorry this happened. We have made heartfelt apologies to all those affected and we urge anyone who has concerns to raise them with us so we can investigate further.

“I have made it my top priority to make sure we deliver the changes required so that children and families in Herefordshire get the support they need now and in the future. We have a new management team in place, under new leadership and our social workers continue to do their best, often in very difficult circumstances.

“This is a long journey, we are one year into a three year improvement plan and we know there are challenges ahead. But we are committed to change.”

Darryl Freeman, corporate director for children and young people, said: “Each day there are children in Herefordshire who need to be protected, and families who need our support. Alongside other agencies we want to be able to offer the right help at the right time, and families should be able to trust that we will get it right for them.

“Through our improvement activity over the past year we have reduced caseloads for our social workers and now provide better managerial support and supervision. We are working hard to make improvements so that we support all children and young people and their families during their time of need.

“We will continue to listen to families and ensure our staff have the support they need as we make significant and lasting improvements to Herefordshire children’s services.”

Challenging reporting restrictions

Tickle first planned to investigate Herefordshire council’s children’s services in 2018 after the three damning judgments of that year, but she was prevented by legal restrictions designed to protect the identity of families involved. Specifically, section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 (s12) prevents the publication of information relating to proceedings under the Children Act 1989 or Adoption and Children Act 2002, where a court sits in private, as is invariably the case.

But after the High Court ruling last year, Tickle said she was “so aghast at what this local authority had seen fit to do”, she applied for permission to challenge the application of s12 in these cases, on public interest grounds.

Tickle obtained an order last year from Mr Justice Keehan enabling her to speak to and quote, with their consent, anyone involved in the four cases. She could also name and film them if they agreed, except in the one ongoing case.

“I have found out some pretty awful stuff,” she said. “[The 2021] case has very severely traumatised the children and the mother involved.”

Earlier this month, she also obtained court permission to name and film a mother in a separate case, who had three children placed in Herefordshire’s care in 2018 because of allegations of fabricated and induced illness before she successfully had the care order discharged in 2020. The woman, Angeline, was featured in the programme.

Permission to name social workers

In that judgment, the High Court also granted Tickle permission to name social workers involved in the case despite the local authority arguing that doing so could impede their ability to recruit practitioners.

Mrs Justice Lieven said was “extremely aware of the problems with the recruitment of social workers nationally and in the Midlands” and that the “role of a social worker is an enormously difficult one”.

But she said the provisions of s12 were to protect the “best interests of the children”, not the local authority.

She also said that social workers in the Herefordshire cases “[were] not being made subject to a campaign of harassment” and were therefore “no different to any individual who may be commented upon or criticised in a public broadcast”.

“Ms Tickle and the BBC are undertaking a documentary programme with all the journalistic standards that are applicable,” she said. “For those reasons I do not conclude that there is a justification for anonymity.”

Tickle said: “We fought against the idea that a local authority, an arm of the state, could prevent the press from naming people who were not currently involved with a family or had done something wrong, or indeed who were currently involved with the family but were senior members of the council.”

However, the programme did not name individual social workers or managers.

Arthur and Star review ‘may trigger more risk-averse practice’

Tickle’s programme comes ahead of the publication of the national review into Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’s deaths.

Tickle said she expected the review to “make social workers feel absolutely as if they must be risk averse at all costs”, potentially leading to a spike in child protection investigations and children being taken into care, as followed the reviews in the wake of the Baby P case.

The number of children in care in England reached a record high of 80,850 in 2020-21, according to Department for Education figures, although the number of children entering care was at its lowest in nine years, the high care population being driven by fewer children leaving care.

According to figures from the annual children in need census, child protection enquiries in England under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 increased by 126.7% from 2009-10 levels to 198,790 in 2020-21, though this total was lower than for the previous two years.

Tickle said a culture of risk aversion was preventing good social work with children and families.

“Senior social workers have told me that that actually prevents them from doing good, targeted social work with families that need it because everybody is so incredibly petrified that they are busy doing investigations, of which many go nowhere,” said Tickle.

Tickle’s programme also highlighted staffing pressures in Herefordshire including high turnover, a lack of experience and high use of agency staff and interim managers. She also identified that there were 10 senior managers who had moved from one struggling authority to another, often in interim roles, over the past eight years.

Use of interim manaers ‘no way to build a service’

On the programme, she asked Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, whether this was a good use of public money.

“No, not at all,” said Jones, who is currently leading a review into children’s services in Northern Ireland and has previously supported struggling authorities to improve. “Partly because you can’t do the job you’re here to do if you’re here today, gone tomorrow. I think people see them as a source of expertise, a source of holding things together at that point in time, and both of those points are right. But it’s not a way of building a service that will be strong for the future.”

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Tickle told Community Care that the family courts were also “completely overstretched” and that overall “the seams have gone” from the children’s social care system “and there are people just desperately trying to sew them up”.

“In the middle of this there are families who are deeply traumatised by the kinds of interventions that are not helpful. Meanwhile, families who need help and support are not getting it and children who desperately need to be removed, social workers don’t have time to make those assessments accurately. It is a horrible mess,” she said.

‘The state is doing harm’

Tickle’s programme also comes ahead of the publication of the government-commissioned children’s social care review’s final report.

She was unable to speak to review lead Josh MacAlister for the programme about his potential recommendations, but she said, “something has to change in the way children’s social care is both funded and in how they approach their work with families because whatever is happening now, it is not working”.

She said the practice of children in care “being sent from pillar to post around the country to different foster carers and residential children’s homes” was leading to them being “hugely traumatised”.

“Their links with their families and particularly with their siblings are being broken, and the state is doing harm,” she said.

Tickle said everyone was “understandably horrified” by child deaths but that there was a “less obvious trauma”, of social care intervening wrongly in people’s lives, that will “blight” children’s and families’ futures.

“I have seen the results of this by talking to the people involved in these cases. It is not as easy to understand and not as easy to talk about and not as easy to quantify,” she said.

BBC Panorama’s Protecting Our Children: A Balancing Act was screened on Monday 16 May 2022 and is now available on iPlayer

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18 Responses to TV investigation aims to highlight trauma faced by families from wrongful child protection action

  1. Karen May 16, 2022 at 4:15 pm #

    Damned if you do and damned if you dont

    • Jonathan May 17, 2022 at 6:45 am #

      First do no harm.

    • Edwards May 19, 2022 at 10:45 am #

      I was orphaned in the 80s I had a terrible time in care resulting in me moving out two weeks after my 16th birthday in to Dr Barnardo’s.
      I’ve tried to bring Justice only to be told I’m statue barred because of the time limitations. My traumas live on with. I was told that I should have brought legal action within three years, I was not told this at the age of 14. Furthermore I did not realise that what had happened would cause a lifetime of trauma.

      • Anne May 22, 2022 at 11:00 am #

        Historical abuse is not time bound if there is a specific individual and specific events. So it will depend on what your trauma is. If it’s constant moving in care for example this will not be a police prosecution case and would be a complaint.

    • Edwards May 19, 2022 at 10:51 am #

      I was orphaned at the age of 14. I had a terrible time whilst in the system resulting in a near death experience after an overdose. I was given no psychiatric intervention furthermore the reasons why I did that to myself were never investigated despite the police knowing about the situation the authorities did not press charges or ask for an investigation. I have managed to obtain all of my records from the authorities who were my legal guardians and I have tried to bring Justice who have told me that I am statue bared because I should have done something about it when I was 14 years old and within 3 years of it happening. My trauma has never left me.

  2. Frances Sweeney May 16, 2022 at 11:43 pm #

    You are not damned if you do, damned if don’t. Children lack the ability to protect themselves,it’s down to social services and the family courts to get it right. Common sense is a good part of child protection. For example, Arthur and Star were both murdered by unrelated partners. When a parent is cohabiting with a partner,the risk of abuse goes 40 times, add other stressors such as problems at work,toxic relationships. The perfect storm.

    • Tee May 17, 2022 at 8:52 pm #

      Well it’s never black and white decision making. There are a lot of nuances, for example, good parenting practices can coexist with abuse. So I disagree, common sense does not always cut it. With complex family dynamics social workers (and other professionals) are utilising difficult decision making processes where they are balancing the needs of the child with the rights of the parents to care for their own child without state intervention. No easy task.

  3. Kely May 17, 2022 at 10:15 am #

    Time when social workers were encouraged to train, learn, read, look for empirical evidence is long gone. Our job is to validate everyones personal ” truth” now. Want to see patterns that may lead to harm? Cleanse yourself of your assumption: every situation is unique, every adult impeccably trustworthy. We are beyond the “facts” narrative of the privileged, see the person not the behaviour. There was a bruise? The care giver swore a toddler? Don’t be judgemental. Always see “the parenting skill” in its individual context. Be empowering, everyone has a right to validate their own parenting. Don’t like what you hear? Step back, you are forgetting that idiosyncrasies are what makes us human. Value them. Don’t impose yourself, reflection can be discriminatory. Own that your training, experience, skills and knowledge can be experienced as controlling and authoritarian. We are beyond the patronising “professional aptitude” arrogance now. Act, don’t act, that’s OK. As long as what you decide is a collaboration, how you act is “co-produced”. The child you say. Haven’t seen them yet.

  4. adarynefoedd May 17, 2022 at 11:07 am #

    I think Louise Tickle did a good job in highlighting the rising numbers of children in care and whether it is really in the interests of children and young people to go on this route. Although politicians will always play safe, the damage to families of over intervention and removal is incalculable. She also reflected on the fact that the number of child deaths is relatively stable ie about 1 a week regardless of any policy intervention. What I thought was less than fair was pillorying one particular rural social services department. It is very difficult to run these services successfully, due to problems of recruitment and retention, high house prices, lack of resources/support to do effective preventative work,travelling times and conservative attitudes in the community. There are many rural departments in a similar state and it only takes a few factors eg the retirement of experienced social workers / team managers to push it into a spiral of decline.

    The other weakness is the lack of focus on the multi agency network, several of the cases highlighted would have relied on their reports (eg police, health) and also the poor quality of legal advice (again a very small department might only have a couple of child care solicitors and if they are weak this plunges staff into further turmoil. The role of the Adoption Panel is also another area not examined. Separating twins? What kind of Adoption Panel authorised this action? Often the multi agency network is as weak and fragile as the children’s services.

    The answer to these problems in part is to return to larger well resourced departments and reverse local government reorganisation.

  5. Sue Little May 17, 2022 at 2:25 pm #

    I have complained to the BBC as I felt this 30 minute programme which focused on one LA was entirely negative. It referred to the complex and serious problems impacting social work, but completely failed to acknowledge that despite the challenges there is a great deal of good work being done by social workers. Nor did it make the multi agency nature of the work clear eg reliance on health, courts and police.

  6. Carol May 17, 2022 at 7:49 pm #

    I write from personal experience and in my case our grandchild was taken into care and he was never harmed. In the court papers the social worker described him as being a ‘happy and settled’ child who had a close bond with his mum and us, no health visitor had any concerns but my daughter had been a victim of domestic abuse and also a victim of child sexual exploitation.

    As far as Children’s Services were concerned it was a closed case for care from the very beginning. We were completely shut out of the process to care for our grandchild. No support. It was a case based on assumptions, prejudice and lies which our barrister proved in court but it was too late, we had no social worker on our side so our grandchild was taken into care on ‘future risk of significant harm’.

    All our lives have changed forever but especially our grandchild’s. The domestic abuser’s life never changed, he has got away with everything and is still able to see his other children.

    Care is not the answer for all children, there should be a lot more care, thought, common sense and support given to victims of sexual and domestic abuse and their families.

    Louise Tickle is ‘our voice’ and is speaking up to highlight the terrible wrongs done to so many children and families by the Child Protection system in this country.

    • frustrated May 20, 2022 at 9:34 pm #

      I am sorry for your experiences. I would be devastated to lose my grandchild.

    • julia May 21, 2022 at 8:11 am #

      The law is that the birth family is assessed for viable carers. Did this not happen in your case?

  7. Anna May 18, 2022 at 4:30 pm #

    This is such a hard one, as i have been on both sides of the fence – as a child/young parent in the ‘system’ and later as a social worker.

    I think, as professionals, we have to be able to be open to a change in our narrative, our initial beliefs and assumptions about a child, young person or family. First impressions or what we read about a family are not always correct and accurate.

    I have, all too often, seen practices such as managers saying from the offset – this “one will just close to us” or “yep, this one will definitely end up in court” right from the offset. Often a NQSW will then just do the assessment/information gathering and write up the assessment with the outcome outlined by the manager. This is not good enough. We need to be able to advocate for, and challenge higher up, without fear of retribution.

    We trained hard for many years, often with many years of personal and work experience; we need to find our own voice and realise the power of words and our analysis in making decisions for children. The level of manager oversight needs to be meaningful and not based on a tick box approach. They need to nurture and support experienced workers, instead of focusing on the next cohort of newly qualified. They need managers with more than 2-3 years of ‘experience’.
    We need to stop being so defensive and be able to take on board learning and, yes….criticism at times when we do wrong.

    Working with families is not an exact science and sometimes we will make mistakes but we need to own that. How can we expect parents to learn from their mistakes and change their ways, if often we cannot do it ourselves?

  8. Tahin May 19, 2022 at 12:02 pm #

    This was a programme based on a legal judgement. Actually the judge has been far more “damning” than the programme. Had they been out to ‘get’ social workers the programme could have named the social worker the judge was allowing. They did not. None of us want to constantly read/see us castigated but this programme was not a rant. We should be accountable, we should be under scrutiny, we should acknowledge that the system in which we work, with its underfunding, weak to authoritarian management, political interference and more, is not always a positive one. We get it wrong fewer times than we get it right. Ofcourse we do. But our job is to get it right. As is to understand why when we don’t. Television may not be the forum for that but public scrutiny is. Lawyers do what lawyers do, journalists do what journalists do, aggrieved families do what they do. If they are wrong, if they are vindictive it’s on us to fight our corner. Why expect journalists to emote the positive vibes about social workers? Shouldn’t SWE, ADCS, ADASS, BASW try a bit harder to control the narrative ? Person kisses dog on the nose is not news, dog bites persons nose is.

  9. jim blake May 19, 2022 at 6:54 pm #

    Where were the childrens’ Cafcass Guardians and the appointed solicitors for the children in these cases, did they fight for the childrens’ rights in the Family Court arena?

  10. Anne May 22, 2022 at 11:17 am #

    Having worked 35 years in child protection I have seen the best and worst of it. At best helped families changed improve and stay together, case closed. Have protected some children through family placement or adoption when necessary. Worst side is having children remain to suffer further abuse and those pillar to post in foster care. It happens too often which I hate. There’s little stability in foster care and even harder to keep siblings together. I don’t think it works and many have psychological harm from ‘care’. We don’t as children’s social workers get to choose, and get what we are given which is not good enough or tailored to the individual due to limited resources.

  11. Chris Sterry May 22, 2022 at 2:05 pm #

    Social Care who in their right mind who would venture into social care in this day and age, but persons with a willingness to protect and having a ‘Duty of Care’ do, but social care both children and adult are in crisis for a number of reasons.

    1. very severe lack of resources including sufficient social workers, sufficient trained and experienced staff,
    2. workload very over burdening what staff there
    3. lack of supervisors and managers to supervise and conduct appraisals of staff
    distrust of authorities by parents and families
    4. very severe lack of finance due to insufficient delivery of grants from Government for well over 12 years and many years before that
    5. ‘Duty of care’ to social care staff be they frontline or not.

    Bringing children into care could be a very fine point in judgement, due to the ‘dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t’.

    There is also too much Government interventions, especially by those who have little comprehension of social care, either by design or ignorance.

    In years gone by recommended approaches being the flavour of the day, to be reversed when the flavour of choice changes from one extreme to the opposite rather than looking what is working well within one flavour and others. Even reversing back to one such flavour which went out of favour to reappear without any changes to what was not working previously, so no ‘lessons learnt’.

    To a very large extent there is no respect for ‘person-centre care’ as care should be based on an individual not on a theory, for what works in one instance may not in another .Children are individuals as are parents, they are not ‘objects’ and should never be treated so, but by ease of operations objects are better to deal with as object have no opinions or choices and are devoid of feelings and emotion.

    Everything needs to be relooked at and certainly finance is a very major factor, but with this Government and every Government previously finance for social care as never been on their agenda and if it was or is, or put back for when the time is right, when the time is always right and should be a main priority within every Government and not sidestepped when there are other priorities.

    Lives are important and no life should be ignored, no matter what the system says, for when individuals are not named, the system is always the backup to blame, rather than changing whatever is wrong in the system. Systems should not and ever be so sacrosanct.