Education Committee - Children first: the child protection system in EnglandWritten evidence submitted by Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB)

1. Children and Families Across Borders is the UK branch of the International Social Service Network. We are an independent charity. We work on behalf of UK Local Authorities, private individuals, solicitors and courts when social work issues cross international boundaries. The majority of our work involves child protection, children in care, trafficked children, children privately fostered from overseas, child abduction and contact disputes. We are also involved in policy and practice issues with regard to private fostering, child trafficking, witchcraft/ritualised abuse and FGM. We provide a free national advice line on international social work issues and free training for all Local Authorities which is funded by the DfE.

2. This evidence concerns the significant absence of professional expertise in social work and related professions with regard to the areas above mentioned. In none of the pre or post qualifying social work qualifications are issues such as trafficking or FGM mentioned. Therefore the very people who are charged with protecting these extremely vulnerable children have an almost complete lack of knowledge about these issues. A similar picture is true for police, education and health professionals.

3. Social work education—I submit that the social work curriculum is overhauled to reflect current practice issues. I further submit that the content of the curriculum is made the responsibility of the new College of Social Work in partnership with Universities. In this way the curriculum can be updated to reflect changing practice issues, demands and evidence based practice.

4. I would now like to address concerns in the following areas: children in care, children privately fostered from overseas, trafficked children, FGM and witchcraft/ritualised abuse. We will also comment on regional variations in practice.

Children in Care

5. There are an increasing number of Children in Care in England who have relatives overseas. CFAB are concerned that placement options overseas for children looked after are not properly investigated and promoted for these children. It is our experience that often information about these relatives is limited. If information is available, assessments are not always procured despite the child having the right to family life. We organise around 100 such assessments each year. A further concern is that assessment’s format and scope vary across jurisdictions. English courts can reject positive assessments as they do not match the format and approach of UK reports. UK Local Authorities and courts often still send UK social workers overseas despite overseas jurisdictions resenting this, it being illegal in many jurisdictions, and the MOJ and DfE advising against it. We would welcome this inquiry asking that placements overseas be more robustly promoted and that UK courts issue explicit guidance on evidence from social work professionals overseas in public law family cases.

Children Privately Fostered from Overseas

6. There may be over 10,000 such children in the UK illegally. The current regulations are wholly inadequate in that they demand the private foster carer to contact the Local Authority and make themselves known. Given that the overwhelming majority of children privately fostered from overseas are overstayers on visitor visas the carers are unlikely to make themselves known. These children are generally accessing schools and health services despite being visa overstayers. There are two issues here: firstly UKBA do not track visitor visa overstayers. If you overstay there are no immediate consequences, we have no exit checks and, as a country, we do not know how many children have overstayed. Secondly, Children’s Services do not look for these children, schools do not check immigration status and Local Authorities do not proactively seek out these children. We have experience of children being in extremely unsafe placements and entering the care system when they have been left with “aunts” by their parents, or whichever adult bought them to the UK. The current regulation does not require aunt and uncles to be assessed and this has led to the “ubiquitous aunt” looking after children and places these children at greater risk because the arrangement is not monitored by social services. CFAB ask that the inquiry should satisfy itself that the present arrangements satisfactorily identify and protect this cohort of children and, if they do not, ask the Home Office and DfE to work together to effectively count these young people and then change the regulations in order to protect these children.

Trafficked Children

7. Some of the children brought in as privately fostered are trafficked. Others enter the UK via a variety of means for sexual, domestic, labour and other criminal exploitation. The abuse of the visitor visa process detailed above and the absence of exit checks means it is relatively easy to traffic children into the UK. Given that frontline professionals do not have the tools to identify such children the fact that they have been trafficked often goes unnoticed by social workers even if they become known to social services for other reasons. Even when trafficking is suspected financial constraints mean social work managers can be reluctant to accept children have been trafficked despite strong evidence to the contrary. Care placements do not protect trafficked children as they are likely to try to return to their traffickers (out of fear) or be picked up by their traffickers. Specialist placements are few (Barnardos are running a pilot) as foster parents need to remove mobile phones, monitor who the child is contacting and accompany the child outside the house for at least the first month in order to prevent them going missing. If potentially trafficked children do go missing the likelihood is that they have been taken back by the traffickers. However they are treated the same as other children who go missing from care, and although they are reported missing very little is done in terms of proactively looking for them. Another issue is the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as the vast majority of social workers have never heard of it, despite it being a duty to refer suspected trafficked children to it. Many that are aware of the NRM appear to assume that referring to it is a role for the police or UK Border Agency. The other issue is that the NRM currently sits in the Home Office and the variance in NRM decision statistics suggest that decisions on whether a child is accepted as being trafficked is as much an immigration decision as a child welfare decision. CFAB suggest the inquiry insist new practice guidelines on trafficked children be issued by the DfE. This needs to also include new guidelines on identification, placements and that the NRM be transferred to the DfE in respect of children.

Female Genital Mutilation

8. The critical issue with FGM is that victims are unlikely to come to the attention of child protection services for other reasons. There were estimated to be 66,000 adults in the UK who had been subjected to FGM in 2001, and this number is now likely to be much higher (DH study). These are not children who are otherwise neglected or abused. Therefore the key issue is identification. In order for potential victims of FGM to be identified then work has to be done at the borders. Often victims are taken overseas to be mutilated during school holidays, so schools are unlikely to be aware they have gone, (even if they do not go in school holidays it is optimistic to believe that schools can identify potential victims). Legislation introduced in 2005 to prosecute those adults who took children overseas to be mutilated has not been used. This is entirely due to a lack of proactive efforts to identify victims and perpetrators. There is no equivalent to the Forced Marriage Unit for FGM. CFAB are pushing for a project at Heathrow in 2012 whereby potential victims are identified at embarkation and leaflets detailing the 2005 legislation are given to adults accompanying potential victims. These travellers are then flagged so their return to the UK is picked up and the Local Authorities they live in are notified of their return and undertake a S.47 investigation. If there is sufficient evidence or suspicion that FGM has occurred, a child protection medical is undertaken and this will establish if FGM has taken place. Though this may not be a workable long term solution it will lead to prosecutions which can then be used in awareness raising regarding this issue. Longer term, an FGM unit alongside the forced marriage unity would be welcome with a remit to raise awareness in schools, health services and amongst community groups. CFAB ask that the inquiry satisfy itself that the 2005 legislation has been ineffective. If so, ask the DfE, Home Office and FCO to work together to establish an FGM unit and that these agencies work together to implement the project suggested above.

Witchcraft/Ritualised Abuse

9. Incidences of this type of abuse are thankfully rare but children branded as possessed or witches are at significant risk of severe physical and emotional abuse and of death. As with the issues above, the lack of knowledge amongst the child protection workforce is an issue that needs addressing. In regard to this particular area it is vital that if one child is found to be at risk then it is likely that other children exposed to the informal place of worship the branded child attends will also be at risk. It is therefore important that police and Local Authorities work together to identify all the potential victims, and that a S.47 investigation is undertaken on all children thus exposed. The most infamous UK case was the torso in the Thames case but the case of Victoria Climbié included elements of this issue and there is a current child murder case which involves this issue. CFAB ask that the inquiry consider the statutory response to this issue and recommend research and guidance to include compulsory multi agency S.47 investigations whenever this issue is suspected, that includes not only the identified child but any children who may have been exposed to the informal faith setting used by the alleged perpetrators.

Regional Variations

10. CFAB offer services to Local Authorities throughout the UK, therefore we get a good overview of practice across the country. Approaches to the same issues vary markedly, as does the quality of care planning and social work practice. A useful comparison maybe the NHS where treatment pathways for given diseases are the same country wide even if the application can vary. In social work the service pathways for the same issue, trafficking, domestic violence etc, can vary widely. The organisational difference between social work and medicine is that social work falls under Local Authorities. It would be very welcome if the inquiry asked the question which Munro did not, namely; is child protection best placed as a duty of Local Authorities? It may be that child protection services are better placed in an NHS like structure where evidence based practice and service responses can be effectively implemented and will not be subject to local political variations. It is not clear that children at risk and the child protection system benefit from local political control. One would not put critical health care under the control of Local Authorities so it seems strange that this critical protective service is so placed. CFAB ask that the structure of child protection services is considered in relation to who should provide said services.

Conclusion

11. CFAB would welcome the opportunity to give further evidence on these subjects to the inquiry and can provide detailed case studies if required. International issues are an increasing element of the UK’s child protection services and CFAB are concerned that training, practice, legislation, guidance and structures keep pace with this.

October 2011

Prepared 16th November 2012