Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-397)


30 JUNE 2008

  Q380 Chairman: Thanks for those opening remarks, Trevor. Jean Robinson?

  Jean Robinson: I represent the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, which is a UK-wide organisation that has existed for nearly 50 years. We are a totally voluntary group, and we are obviously very experienced in dealing with maternity care. It is only in the past 10 years or so that we have suddenly found ourselves continually being asked for help by pregnant woman and mothers whose babies are to be taken or who are threatened with having their babies taken. We feel that that relates to the Government's policy on increasing adoption. That policy started out as adoption and permanence, because of the adverse effects, which are well known, of children spending a lifetime in care. The idea was—it was a very good idea—that you would find permanent settlement. That was then translated into the crude target, which inspectors put to every local authority, of simply increasing adoption numbers. The target was not to reduce the number of children in long-term care without a settled future, but to increase adoption numbers. The result, which we saw, was the desperate reactions of the women who were threatened, which has had a serious adverse effect. We are now getting calls from pregnant women who have missed one or two antenatal visits—one was ill and could not get there; another telephoned—which can mean referral to social services. In such circumstances, people become terrified, because the stress levels are incredible. There is now very good medical evidence from a large number of studies that shows that such stress adversely affects the foetus and the child afterwards. Behavioural difficulties in children are now proved to be related to stress in pregnancy. We recently received a call from a mother who described how a midwife had said, "You needn't think you're going to get away. We will hunt you down." Midwives and health visitors have been turned into the health police. We have a surveillance system rather than a support system, which is frightening people away from health care. The last confidential inquiry into maternal deaths, which I quoted, showed that mothers at high risk of maternal death are avoiding maternity care for fear that their children will be taken. I cannot tell you how dreadful the material is that we are dealing with. We have gone too far in this country into surveillance, policing and control rather than giving support and help. We have had two families who were absolutely desperate for help. The mother of a disabled child, who had severe post-natal depression and whose husband worked long hours, at first said to social workers, "I'm not coping," but nothing happened and she received no help. Then she said, "I'm afraid I could hurt my child," but nothing happened and she still received no support. Finally, she said, quite untruthfully, "I tried to strangle my child," and immediately the whole state mechanism descended on her, when she got quite the wrong type of help. I know of another family to whom the same thing happened. The mother had severe post-natal depression and was not getting adequate help. A member of the family falsely told social workers that she had hurt the child—I am convinced that it was false; I have gone into the details—in order to get help. Why is money not being spent on help for people who need it? Our paper to you quotes research from SureStart and from Minneapolis. We are talking about high quality research from the States—the gold standard—using randomised trials with long-term follow-up. The research shows that giving support, respecting parents, listening to their needs and wishes and supporting the family—not taking the child out of the family—actually works. You get fewer incidents of abused children and better outcomes in behaviour and education. There is proof that it works, so why are not we using it?

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that opener.

  Q381 Ms Butler: Thank you both for coming and giving evidence. First, let me apologise because I have to leave early. Thank you for your opening remarks. On the triggers for state intervention, what do you think are appropriate and inappropriate care proceedings in the current system?

  Jean Robinson: I am sorry; care for whom?

  Q382 Ms Butler: What do you think are the main causes of inappropriate triggers? For instance, you said that this female had to mention three things and that nothing happened until she said, "I tried to strangle my child." What do you think is the appropriate way of dealing with that?

  Jean Robinson: We should be putting resources into listening to families and supporting families. We should listen to what they see as their needs and giving support instead of policing them. What happened was that all health care workers, teachers, midwives and so on were circulated with orders to report any risk for children. The whole system is concentrated on risk and is very risk averse since the Victoria Climbié report and similar reports of devastating things happening to children. That feeds into the system more and more examples of alleged risk, sometimes on very poor grounds, for example, because of a neighbour's animosity. Everyone then says, "We must prevent risk because we as social workers might get into trouble," rather than saying, "Hey, this family might need help. What kind of help do they need? How can we do it?" If one compares the SureStart areas that got good results with the SureStart areas that did not get good results, the difference is that the ones that work went for empowerment—they respected parents, helped to empower them and gave them confidence in themselves. That had a huge range of very good outcomes, but we go for blame and shame.

  Chairman: Does Trevor want to come in on this question?

  Trevor Jones: I just want to add the backdrop of the figures. There are children in care annual costs of more than £2 billion, and family support services cost £600 million a year. We have always campaigned for balance and equality; if anything, family support costs should be more than the costs of children in care. The message that we hear in case after case from the voices of the service users—the parents—is that they are offered very little support. People who have brought up disabled children say that they were offered very little respite, and people who have brought up children with behavioural problems say that they were given very little educational assistance at nursery level, for example. There are many reasons why parents feel that family support was not given initially, but they soon see the unjust situation as care proceedings commence. They see foster carers receiving respite care and increased support, and they feel that the system is unfair. The message that we get is about the unfairness of it all. Children have been taken care on the flimsiest of allegations. Partly to answer your question, Ms Butler, very often the trigger in cases featuring parents with disabilities or mental health issues is a lack of sensitivity in social services interventions. We have heard time and again about a lack of insight from social workers into the practicalities of parenting and the way in which mental health issues impinge on it. Social services should care for not only vulnerable children, but vulnerable adults, which seems to be a problem that they cannot understand. Anything that helps to balance out that unfairness is welcome—ideally, we are talking about resources. We should push more money into families and less into court and foster care costs.

  Q383 Ms Butler: I want to talk about the system for a moment. If we take the example that you mentioned, Jean, was that child taken into care?

  Jean Robinson: Which one?

  Ms Butler: The child whose parent had said that they had tried to harm the child.

  Jean Robinson: Ah. The first one. The mother had to move out of the house and the father had to give up his work, which was not well paid, to stay at home to look after the children. One of the problems is that perinatal and post-natal mental illness is extremely common. About 10% of women get post-natal depression and a third to a half of those women can have severe depression. These women are not receiving the care that is set out in Government guidelines, so the depression can be prolonged. That gives social workers an opportunity to take the children as adoption targets and we have seen a number of those cases. In the case that I mentioned, the mother moved out and it was a long time. Everything concentrated on the potential risk to the child then, not on support for the family—you know, "Make sure this child's safe so we don't get blamed." Actually, you only had to give good care to the mother and the children would have been safe. In the other case, the child was moved away from the mother and is still in the care of someone else who, in my view, is less satisfactory than the mother; however, that is just my view. We see court documents, I may tell you; we see everything, because we are advocates. There then comes the separation of siblings. We are getting desperate requests from siblings who are separated from children who have been taken. I may also say that we are getting desperate requests from those siblings to say that Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officers, who are supposed to be their guardians and represent them in court, are not representing their views truthfully and they want to go out and get their own lawyer, because their view is not truthfully represented. One of the things that I need to say is that the probity of the evidence that goes into court really worries us. The whole system depends on good-quality social work; it is not there. I worked in a child care department in the early years of my marriage. I have seen good social work and I have seen good social work files. I dealt with the files as they came into the office, so I know what good recording and social work looks like. What I am seeing in files now, since the training was changed after the Seebohm report, really bears no resemblance to that work. I see the way that parents are treated when I accompany them to review meetings. I have dealt with health care complaints for 30 years, but I have never seen such lack of respectfulness in the worst doctors that I have complained about as I have seen in the way in which people are treated by some social workers.

  Q384 Ms Butler: This is my last question, as I think that you have answered the other question. Do you think that the recent reforms of the care proceedings—the public law outline—will have a beneficial impact on the experiences that parents have of the family courts?

  Jean Robinson: No. The cases are supposed to be better prepared before they get into court and to go through more quickly. Well, going through more quickly when the parent is trying to understand what is happening and to prepare a case against it, and is poorly represented by their own lawyer—we have parents who have been through three different lawyers to try to represent them—is not beneficial, because it is being done badly. Speeding it up and doing it more quickly is not beneficial. The quality and the integrity of the data that are going in are poor, and judges are making decisions on the basis of that data.

  Q385 Chairman: Do you agree with that, Trevor?

  Trevor Jones: Yes, I am afraid to say. It is probably too early days, because the new system came into being in April. Certainly the policy in terms of the stressing of kinship care is very much something that we support. Kinship care is really enshrined in the Children Act 1989 anyway, in terms of what that was set up for. We are just a bit concerned that it has always been that members of the wider family should be asked to take care of the children, but in the cases that we have advocated for, certainly in recent years, that just has not happened. Grandparents have said that they were not even asked until way down the line, which creates problems and is part of the reason why some court proceedings drag on. They are very much an afterthought. The public law outline does bring them into the forefront, but it will depend on how that is put into practice in social services around the country.

  Q386 Annette Brooke: It is very much my impression that there is huge variation among local authorities, particularly as far as kinship care is concerned and, indeed, statistically, which is easy to see in terms of family support and the clear inverse relationship between higher levels of such support and fewer children taken into care. Have you actually looked across the board at whether there are particular local authorities that need to address their practices and have the 2008 guidelines pointed out to them? Most of your remarks seem to be broad-brush—about all local authorities.

  Trevor Jones: I suggest that there certainly is a postcode lottery when it comes to, "Are you going to keep your child or not; is he going be moved or not?" In looking at our cases, I am afraid to say that there is a disproportionate number that emanates from the list that was given to Tim Loughton in a written answer on 3 September last year, when he asked for all those councils that had received money for their adoption targets. Going by talking to the people at PAIN we agree; we have not scientifically surveyed it, but in terms of the feeling, there are certainly more cases from those 30 local authorities than the other 123. That is my impression.

  Jean Robinson: There are some areas where our feeling is that this is particularly bad. There are areas where I would almost say to pregnant women, "I would not have my baby there, quite frankly," but there are not any that I would be sure enough about to say, "That would be a good area to go to." I cannot say that our analysis on that is really strong enough to say, but certainly some of the areas that got large payments for their adoption figures have, in our experience, been particularly bad. I could not say it of all of them because I do not have the data.

  Chairman: Annette, I made a slight slip a moment ago and did not call John.

  Q387 Mr Heppell: I am going to have to go in a moment; that is why the Chairman is being good to me and letting me get in with a question quickly. You talk about feeling that the system is too punitive and that what is really needed at the beginning is more family support. How does that stack up with what we saw when we recently visited Denmark, where there are more children in care than there are here? There seems to be something wrong with the analysis. If our system is so punitive, how do we end up with fewer people in care than there are in Denmark?

  Jean Robinson: I am not familiar with the Danish system at all. I know they have done work on a high standard of care for children in residential facilities and that they have very highly trained staff for that, but I do not know what their system is for children getting into care, or what kind of care they get. I only know that with the American randomised trials both from David Olds on home nurse visiting and Anthony Loman and his team at Minneapolis, fewer children end up in care when you have support for parents, and there are fewer adverse incidents with children, and all sorts of things. I am a researcher, so I like hard evidence, and I go for randomised trials with long-term follow-up.

  Chairman: When we went to Copenhagen, we found that the Danish had high levels of quality care and did not believe much in adoption. They have twice the number of children in care as in England, and twice that in Sweden and Norway.

  Jean Robinson: Yes. I think that is true of much of Europe.

  Q388 Chairman: Would it worry you if we had twice as many children in care in our country?

  Jean Robinson: I would like to hear from consumer groups in Denmark. I have seen some stringent consumer criticism of what goes on in Sweden. Until you hear the consumers' voice, you do not know what the underbelly is, do you?

  Q389 Mr Heppell: Leaving aside how people got there, when you get to the care proceedings, what could be done that is not being done to make them less confrontational?

  Trevor Jones: Less confrontational, yes. In this country, they are too adversarial. It is very much us and them, so any idea of support is broken down in the process. It is very much a battle, with social workers going for a win, which really should not be the case. They are not there to win the child. The winner should be the child. I am sure that a less adversarial system would help enormously, and it would assist families to engage with the support that will be, or should be, on offer. Going back to the Danish system, I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that it is based on voluntary care. In this country, the care is involuntary, so there is a major difference, and I am sure that that has an effect.

  Jean Robinson: On the courts system and the fact that the courts are secret, if the public outside knew the yardsticks—the ethical standards—that are being used to remove children, they would be horrified. The standards and grounds by which one takes children should, it seems to me, be something that society as a whole should decide. The ethics of what is being done simply appals me, and because they are secret, the standards are not judged outside. In addition, most local authorities have in-house lawyers, so they please the team that they work for, which may be why some of the illegal activities that judges have picked up on have come about. We had one mother whose child had been in care for nine months, and it was finally discovered that this was totally illegal and that the proper legal process had not been gone through at all. The imbalance in the quality of lawyers that people get is very noticeable. We are used to working with medical negligence lawyers, and they are very bright. Family lawyers are not well paid and family law is not going to attract the brightest and best. To do a family case properly and challenge inaccurate evidence—even dishonest evidence, and I have seen plenty of that, or falsified evidence, which I have also seen evidence of—you must have a lawyer who goes through all the facts, and challenges them in court. People who give false evidence should be prosecuted for perjury. I had a case in which the health visitor had totally falsified the weight chart of a child who had been taken into care. She put the weights in, in the wrong order so that it looked as if the child, who was very young, had gained weight after being put into foster care rather than losing weight. The mother spotted this. I sat in a review meeting with the social workers—everybody was there; it was a large meeting—and pointed it out to the health visitor. She went very pale. She did not deny it. She left the meeting. Nobody else said a word.The awful thing is, whatever is happening in a case, you dare not complain, however serious your complaint. There have been a number of cases where people have pretended to be registered social workers and were not registered, and were allowed by the local authority, which knew, to represent themselves—you dare not complain because it is only going to be worse for the couple. I have dealt with health care complaints for well over 30 years. I am an expert complainer and I have never been so hamstrung in terms of seeing bad, dangerous, dishonest or unsatisfactory practice and not being able to do anything about it while a case is going on—and a case can go on for a couple of years.

  Q390 Mr Heppell: I still have a difficulty. You are pointing out cases where individual things went wrong.

  Jean Robinson: Yes.

  Q391 Mr Heppell: Well, that happens in courts of law all the time; there are always things going wrong. What I am trying to get at is how you want to change the system when people get to court. For instance, one of the things I just thought of when you were talking about the confrontational bit for the social worker was this. The social worker, according to my understanding, would be there as the guardian of the child, but what I am getting from your message is you think they are the guardian of social services. Again, my understanding is that a solicitor is appointed to the child, and you seem to be saying that that solicitor is acting as the solicitor for social services. Am I right in my assumptions?

  Jean Robinson: Well, there is the parents' solicitor, the Cafcass officer's solicitor, who is supposed to be acting for the child, and the local authority solicitor and their barristers. In our experience, parents' solicitors are, sadly, not doing the best job they can, but I think with the decline in legal aid and the reduction in their payments, that is not surprising. Parents are desperate, saying to us, "Do you know a good lawyer?" We know one or two. They are overworked in this field. Members of the Committee may have heard about the recent inspections of Cafcass reports by Ofsted in the east midlands and the south-east. It was highly critical of the quality of Cafcass officers' work—not nearly as strongly as we would be, but there is enough meat in those reports to show the problem. So whatever the lawyer is doing, the information the lawyer is getting is not good enough to work with in the interests of the child. Children's voices are not being represented, but parents' voices are not being represented either. In our view, the best way to look after most children is to nurture the parents—care for the parents, support them, advise them, help them. You will not have a problem with children. You will not have serious problems.

  Q392 Mr Heppell: You are saying, "Listen to the children." Certainly on secrecy, the message that seems to be coming from children is, "We don't want the courts to be opened up to everyone." If we are listening to children there, we are trying to maintain that secrecy.

  Jean Robinson: It is interesting that the studies of children's views by the children's rights director, who has appeared before you, show that children are saying exactly what parents have been saying for a long time—the children could have stayed within the family; they should have more contact with the family if they have to be separated. It is interesting that the children's rights director, since he appeared before you, has done a survey of the views of parents of children in care and has found many things similar to the things that we have been finding. There is a lack of respect for parents within the system. If you humiliate people, shame them, downgrade them, do not listen to them, what do you expect to come out of the system?

  Mr Heppell: I apologise, but I have to go now.

  Q393 Annette Brooke: I hear what you say, Jean, and I have heard of a few cases that have given me cause for concern. However, if we put things into the perspective that the social worker and everyone else has to put the welfare of the child first—that is a very difficult decision—the issue seems to be that we must make sure that there are enough checks and balances in the system. I would therefore like Trevor and Jean to give us their three top checks and balances—what needs to be in the system that is not there now?

  Trevor Jones: On the checks, it would be down to scrutiny. I would certainly advocate greater inclusion of the concept of corporate parenthood in the sense not of local government officers, but of local government members. Local councillors do have a role to play, but, unfortunately, their hands are tied. The new disclosure regulations regarding who can see reports, judgments and orders from the family courts stopped at making disclosures to local councillors, even though social services come under local councils and local councillors represent the community. So I would certainly advocate increased means of disclosing what is actually going on; otherwise, councillors cannot really operate as a corporate parent looking after children in care. That is a crucial move forward. Again on scrutiny, there needs to be more scrutiny in the family courts system.[1]

  Q394 Annette Brooke: By whom?

  Trevor Jones: By opening it up and making it more transparent in some form. That needs to be investigated. I do not mean complete openness for all and sundry, but certainly much more openness, so that not only local councillors, but more advocates and other people can come in and see how the system works—just in case. I have had cases in which allegations have been raised against a person in the family court, but that person has not been allowed to be present in the family court to challenge what has been said about him or her. That is completely wrong. If you are mentioned in court documents or court statements, you should have a right to challenge that—certainly if an allegation is made—in the family court system. At the moment, you are not allowed an automatic right to do so.

  Jean Robinson: Yes, I think there should be openness in the family courts. A red herring was thrown when it was said that things would be public for the children. There is no reason why children's and families' names should not be completely anonymous. I sat on the General Medical Council professional conduct committee when the names of individual patients were mentioned, but these things were never reported and were always respected. We have to have openness because we as a society are responsible for the standards that remove people's children and change their lives. So having openness in the family courts is a priority. The second thing is that we have to have better and different training and stronger discipline among social workers who work on these issues. Thirdly, we have to deal with lawyers who are not representing parents well. I would really like us to scrap the system and start again. We are going in the wrong direction. We can improve the system and tinker with it. However, I would like to give the Clerk to the Committee—if the members of the Committee would like to read it—the letter that we sent to the Chief Medical Officers in the UK last year. We pointed out the serious adverse effects on families of being involved in child protection proceedings.

  Chairman: We have got that in our memorandum.

  Q395 Annette Brooke: May I just ask one small question? Another issue that I have heard about from other groups similar to yours relates to the imbalance of expert witnesses. Can you both make a brief comment on that? I understand that you cannot just keep on bringing in more and more expert witnesses to try to get the right answer, but could more balance be introduced, in your view?

  Chairman: This will have to be a quick one.

  Trevor Jones: We cannot rely on just one expert witness because you cannot remove a child on the basis of one person's expert decision. If there were just one expert witness nominated by the courts, I am afraid I cannot see that working because we have had experience of such bad practice within expert witness reports. It would be very unfortunate if one family happened to get that particular expert witness; it would really not be fair.

  Jean Robinson: Has the Committee heard the phrase, "I sing the song of him whose bread I eat?" There are many expert witnesses whose names appear again and again. The local authority usually nominates the expert witness and the witness knows what it is they want said. Parents find it difficult. Where would you find an expert on Munchausen syndrome by proxy—now called factitious and induced illness disorder—to say, "This parent does not have this problem; this child is not being abused in this way"? The only people who have written papers on it are those who are proselytising for the disease and finding it. Now, of course, that has gone by the board. That problem became too difficult to put to the court because children were turning up with real illnesses and it was very inconvenient. People are now diagnosed with personality disorder. It is not said that you have ever harmed a child or have ever done anything wrong to your child, but that you are thought to have a personality disorder and therefore you may harm the child. The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, wrote an excellent article, or study, on expert witnesses and said that there should be trained teams within each area. There should be a trained team and you should not have people doing it privately just for money.

  Chairman: That is a strong point. Sharon, a quick one from you because we are running out of time.

  Q396 Mrs Hodgson: On children in care who have special educational needs, you say that you do not feel that the council should have the dual responsibility of assessing their needs—I think that is in the report from you, Trevor—because of the funding difficulties that arise

  Trevor Jones: We commented on that, yes.

  Q397 Mrs Hodgson: I was also interested in the training of social workers in identifying conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I know that the Committee will look at teacher training and the children's work force, but how widespread is that problem?

  Trevor Jones: In the cases on which we worked and that we support and advocate for, there is a debateable issue—well, not debateable; rather we see it as bad practice—in relation to social workers classifying families with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) children and families with autistic children as being bad parents. Those particular disorders are treated as a sign of bad parenting when, in fact, research shows that the disorders are genetic and are nothing at all to do with bad parenting. We have come across that issue in case after case. It is a matter of training and social workers being trained in knowing what is happening on a child development level. Again, training in child development needs to be increased.

  Chairman: I am afraid that we have to finish it there. It was an interesting session. Thank you, Trevor and Jean, for your contribution. Please remain in contact with the Committee. If you think that we have missed something or have not asked the right questions, we are open to receiving a letter, e-mail or telephone call from you.

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