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

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 [1]." 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 that injustice.

  7.  The homework analogy is further confirmed in analysis of the current list of Chairs of the Local Safeguarding Children Boards [2] 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 board.

  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 process.

  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 and judgements.

  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 [3] 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 denying contact.

  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 urgently needed.

  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 happen—in 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.


[1].  Amphlett, S. 1998. The experience of a watchdog group. In G Hunt (ed) Whistleblowing in the Social Services. London, Arnold

[2].  List of Chairs of Local Safeguarding Children Boards, April 2008. http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/IG00079/

[3].  Councils hit targets with a box of tricks. Estates Gazette, 21 August 2004.

July 2008

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