Supplementary memorandum submitted by
Parents Against Injustice (PAIN)
1. Further to the oral evidence provided
by Parents Against Injustice (PAIN) on 30 June 2008, we wish to
submit supplementary evidence to address in more detail the question
raised by Annette Brooke on the checks and balances that should
be in place so that children are not taken into care unnecessarily.
2. Ten years ago, PAIN's founder, Sue Amphlett,
wrote that "when a government or its agents undertake an
intrusive action whilst carrying out their duties, it is incumbent
upon them to establish proper checks and balances and to be accountable
for their actions ." Sue remarked then of "an absence
throughout the system of the checks and balances taken for granted
in the delivery of other public services" and it is our belief
that little has changed.
3. PAIN has always understood that the key
to reform lies in persuading government ministers to evaluate
and "safety-check" the child protection system. Increasing
the checks and rectifying the imbalance in the system would ensure
that less children enter care and also prevent the emotional damage
and trauma they experience when removed from, quite often, innocent
parents and carers.
4. Conflicts of interest are endemic in
the system and coupled with the lack of scrutiny there is a pressing
need to address these conflicts.
5. Complaints to social services are seen
by many complainants as being rubber stamped by investigators.
The perception is one of "marking ones own homework"
and the refusal by Directors of Children Services two years ago
to back the transfer of the complaints procedure to Ofsted has
meant the opportunity to improve confidence in the system has
been lost. Further confidence was damaged when the new complaints
regulations ensured that local authorities could choose who could
complain against them.
6. Many parents and carers tell us that
their complaints cannot be acted upon as they are part of current
court proceedings or that they are not part of administrative
procedures. Often these complaints arise from a perception that
they are being treated unfairly and this standard response confirms
7. The homework analogy is further confirmed
in analysis of the current list of Chairs of the Local Safeguarding
Children Boards  which shows that over 50% are either Directors
of Childrens Services or their Assistants. It is encouraging though
that a number of local boards see good practice as being the appointment
of an independent chair but this should be reflected in every
8. A major concern over the years has been
the status of independent family centres instructed to assess
parents. Many parents feel it unfair that some of these centres
are funded by the instructing local authority and therefore cannot
be fully independent. PAIN has also discovered that the fixed
term contracts are renewed to incumbents without any tendering
9. Local councillors are barred from the
disclosure regulations that came into force on 31 October 2005
so parents calling on their help in surgeries are aggrieved that
their elected representatives are not allowed to read court documents
10. The scrutiny of meetings with social
services is in great need of change as a common complaint we hear
is that what was said in a meeting bears little resemblance to
minutes or a report of that meeting. We now always advise parents
to take a witness to these meetings or failing that to ask whether
they can, similar to police interview procedures, record the meeting.
It is illuminating that most requests for recording are refused
by social services.
11. The need to open up the family courts
is imperative for the public's trust and confidence in the system
to return. The vast majority of parents we have dealt with over
the years support this move.
12. The appeal system requires a fairer
approach as the limited deadline to lodge an appeal is far too
short given that the first two weeks after a final hearing parents
are usually still in shock. Parents also find the loss of legal
aid by right at this stage is grossly unfair and consequently
appeals are limited in number. It is apparent elsewhere that a
fair appeal system assists in the scrutiny of a system that is
open to criticism of abuse of power by local government officials.
At the time adoption targets were beginning to cause concern to
organisations such as PAIN, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster
released a report  which showed that linking cash rewards to
targets encouraged abuse in the planning system. The problem only
arose when it was noticed that planning appeals had shot up as
a result of applications being refused outright rather than meriting
careful analysis within the time frame. A fair and inclusive appeals
system can therefore be an effective means of scrutiny to ensure
that adoptions do not lead to inappropriate placements.
13. As perjury by social workers and other
professionals is seldom if ever pursued, scrutiny is essential
at every stage. As the current system lacks transparency, a vigorous
exploration of the facts and conjectures at the earliest possible
opportunity and correct assessment is vital as by the time it
gets to the final hearing the errors have been compounded.
14. The present system of investigating
child abuse is far too adversarial and gives little opportunity
for families to work in partnership with the same people who are
trying to remove their children. To support families to stay together
we suggest that the social work function could be split into family
support workers and child protection workers as the social worker's
mission to empower the service user is compromised in the role
of adversary. It is our opinion that such a functional split could
improve the quality of social work, repair the profession's poor
standing in the community and allow more specialised training
to be implemented where it is needed.
15. Parents and potential kinship carers
often complain to us that their parenting is assessed whilst the
child is looked after elsewhere and that this assessment takes
place in a false environment that is hugely disadvantageous. Often,
social workers employed by the local authority carry out assessments
again generating accusations of bias yet the use of independent
social workers in assessments is becoming increasingly acceptable
to parents and carers and should be available as of right.
16. A particular feature of the imbalance
within proceedings between parent and local authority is the advantage
gained by the latter in failing to release documents. Recurring
themes in our cases either involve obstructions to Data Protection
Act requests for social services files or local authority reports
and other documents not being delivered on time to read.
17. PAIN's caseload historically shows that
around 90% of our cases arise because of "perceived"
abuse rather than any empirical evidence or a direct allegation
from a child. It is this area that reveals the potential for wrong
decisions being made and confirms our belief that the system should
be far more research led and evidence based. Mental illness in
the parent or behavioural disorders in the child, for instance,
often appear in our case reports without any firm evidential base.
18. The imbalance in fairness however is
most noted in contact arrangements whilst the child is in care.
The statutory duty for local authorities to grant "reasonable
contact" is heavily influenced by resources and the need
to control events as minimum contact can be contributory to winning
their case irrespective of the damage it causes to the child in
19. Parents and carers, with very few exceptions,
tell us that dealing with social services is a nightmare as they
make things as difficult as possible. A re-balance is therefore
20. As PAIN deals substantially with parents
and carers who have been falsely accused of child abuse, many
cases fall into the category of the false positive which is impossible
to defend against as it is up to the accused to prove that something
did not happenin effect proving a non existent event. The
checks and balances therefore need to be much more effective to
ensure that children are not removed into care unnecessarily.
. Amphlett, S. 1998. The experience of
a watchdog group. In G Hunt (ed) Whistleblowing in the Social
Services. London, Arnold
. List of Chairs of Local Safeguarding Children
Boards, April 2008. http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/IG00079/
. Councils hit targets with a box of tricks.
Estates Gazette, 21 August 2004.