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 wasit was a very
good ideathat 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 visitsone was ill and could not get there;
another telephonedwhich 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 childI am convinced that it was false;
I have gone into the detailsin 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 Statesthe
gold standardusing randomised trials with long-term follow-up.
The research shows that giving support, respecting parents, listening
to their needs and wishes and supporting the familynot
taking the child out of the familyactually 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
Chairman: Thank you very much for that
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
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 empowermentthey 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 usersthe
parentsis 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 welcomeideally, we are talking about resources. We should
push more money into families and less into court and foster care
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 familyyou
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 proceedingsthe
public law outlinewill 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 lawyerwe
have parents who have been through three different lawyers to
try to represent themis 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
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-brushabout 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
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 yardsticksthe ethical standardsthat 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 evidenceeven dishonest
evidence, and I have seen plenty of that, or falsified evidence,
which I have also seen evidence ofyou 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 workerseverybody
was there; it was a large meetingand 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 themselvesyou 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 onand
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
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' worknot 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 parentscare
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 timethe
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
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 firstthat is a very difficult decisionthe
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 balanceswhat
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.
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 worksjust 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 thatcertainly if an
allegation is madein 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 Committeeif the members
of the Committee would like to read itthe 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
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 proxynow
called factitious and induced illness disorderto 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 needsI think that is in the report from
you, Trevorbecause of the funding difficulties that arise
Trevor Jones: We commented on
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 issuewell, not debateable; rather we see it
as bad practicein 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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