In November 2017 Family Rights Group launched an enquiry into the causes of the increasing numbers of children in care and in care proceedings. No doubt there are many such causes. As we noted in September  Fam Law 1048, those causes probably include demographics; case law on misuse of s 20 of the Children Act 1989; the Baby P effect; and Re B-S – and the decline in trust by the public of the state and vice versa.
Those issues of trust are not just issues that exist on an individual level. From our perspective at The Transparency Project it appears that mistrust between families and social workers is endemic. There is an increasing awareness of the extent to which parents vent about social workers via Facebook, Youtube and online petitions. But we think that many of those working within the family justice and child protection systems would be surprised at some of the material that is posted in closed groups on Facebook (and no doubt elsewhere) and what it might tell us about why so many parents are unable to make effective use of services intended to divert their family from care. Postings also provide a different basis for understanding the infuriating and apparently illogical actions of individual parents.
Membership of these groups is carefully guarded because within them frightened, angry and confused parents ask desperately for help from anyone who will offer it. They give names and details of their situation, their fears and lay themselves bare. And some of the advice and guidance they receive is really, really worrying. Some comes from McKenzie friends no doubt hoping to pick up work, but much comes from parents who have had bad experiences themselves and who are genuinely trying to help others avoid their fate – but who in doing so are passing on their own misunderstandings, learnt suspicion and anger to a new generation. On one level these are safe spaces that allow parents to feel they can ask questions that they clearly are not getting answered elsewhere, without social workers or ex-partners spying on them. But they are also places where already vulnerable parents are given guidance that is likely, if accepted, to increase the chances of them losing their children or to reduce the chances of them ever getting them back.
I am a member of a few of these groups. Over time I have become sufficiently trusted to pass the entry test. I do not get on my soapbox, I do not tout, rarely get into arguments and I do not snitch. I cannot help many, but wherever possible I signpost to reliable, impartial information (such as The Transparency Project Guidance Notes), give general legal information (not advice), for example pointing out that someone else (often a McKenzie friend) has got the law wrong, or nudge them back in the direction of their lawyer to ask (again) for an explanation of their position and what they need to do. One of the most alarming aspects of seeing the posts from these groups pop up every few minutes on your Facebook feed is that many of these parents have lawyers but are still utterly baffled and confused, asking questions that display some profound and worrying misunderstanding of what their lawyer has told them – or a difficulty accepting it. But others do not have anyone to turn to but the group. The volume of these pleas for help is a constant reminder of the desperate lived reality of the clients we see a snapshot of in court. As a professional it is emotionally upsetting and exhausting – it would be far easier to switch it off.
Here are some examples from my Facebook feed in the last couple of days:
- A mother reports that she has just been told by her children’s social worker that, ‘I will never have my kids back or ever have unsupervised contact with them. Absolutely raging’. She describes a history as a victim of abuse and exploitation leading to heroin use and appears to be beginning to realise that she needs long term help. Although many comments are sensible, supportive but frank, one commenter tells her that, ‘SS will make up as much shit as they can about you to make you look worse than you are, we all know this, they love to play god with OUR children too, yet they are the ones that are the biggest emotional abusers to our children that walk this planet’.
- Another mother worrying about a s 47 enquiry because her child has been using sexualised language at school is told by one mother that social services cannot do anything without an order, that she should not let social services in, and should refuse to open the door. The same parent then refers the mother to the Forced Adoption site’s notorious ‘10 Golden Rules’ (although fortunately the admins later remove those comments when I politely challenge this and suggest alternative sources of information).
- In another discussion one expectant mother is worried about a legal meeting and is concerned that, ‘they’re not going to give me a chance to prove I’m in a much better place in life now and I want to make things right’. The responses she gets include:
- A mother responds by telling her she is going through a similar experience but has realised that if you don’t register the birth the Government don’t own the child and can do nothing (Posts on the group advising against the registration of births are a recurring theme).
- Another mother says in response: ‘I was pregnant when my son went to live with his grandparents on an SGO and once I had my son 6 months later they took him for an adoption, they use your past against you, they used my mum’s past against me, once your child is born fight the hardest you have ever fought, cuz they are evil people and will do whatever they can to take your child away.’
- The same day a Polish mother posts a picture of a closure letter from a local authority. Although it suggests that the social worker has used google translate, it is written in English. The mother posts it simply asking if it is good or bad news. She doesn’t understand it.
- Another parent reports her children are on an ICO and she wonders if she can move to Scotland with them whilst it’s in place, as her solicitor has apparently told her it’s not illegal. She is given a variety of alarming pieces of advice, most of which would be likely to result in an emergency hearing and possible removal, if followed.
- A mother is due to attend a leave to oppose adoption hearing but the court has changed the venue twice. Each time she has had to cancel and rebook the hotel because the court is 100 miles away from her home, and she is running out of money. She wonders if it’s being done on purpose.
- A mother asks for ‘a bit of advice on how you can “appose” an adoption order?’. From her subsequent explanation, it appears that only the day before she took a ‘neither consenting nor opposing’ position on a placement order but ‘this was only for fear of losing my other children . . . but I didn’t agree either’.
- Today a mother asks for advice – her ex-partner has sex with her repeatedly when she has said no (she doesn’t use the word rape). She is fearful of reporting it in case social services become involved again and her children are taken away for failure to protect or for making it up. From her description she has been subjected to coercive control and emotional abuse. Most responses are supportive and tell her to report and get help. Some are critical of her for not leaving sooner, or query whether it is really rape.
These are not atypical examples. Imagine you are a lonely, confused parent and this stuff was constantly coming up in your Facebook feed. Imagine if it were the best information you have about what you can expect of social workers and the family courts, and of what you should do to protect yourself. It would be difficult to avoid beginning to absorb some of the negative messages that are repeated again and again.
Something is going very wrong somewhere if parents in such desperate positions have to come to strangers to ask these questions. Even those with lawyers seem not to have been given clear advice – or seem not to have absorbed or understood it. It is clear that parents in these situations need emotional support from others who are going through similar experiences, and that a private space to discuss the details of their case without being criticised for breaching privacy rules is important to them; but the feedback they get is often likely to feed and enhance any conspiracy theories or antagonism towards social workers. The support and advice that parents get from these groups may be psychologically far more palatable and easy to accept than the tough words of the lawyers and social workers.
So, next time you encounter a suspicious or apparently paranoid parent, consider what it is that they have been told before they reached your door. Consider that they may be doing their genuine best with the information and support they have, and that they will need support to build trust in you and to unlearn the mistrust and wrong understanding of the law that they have picked up in desperation.
This is a profound problem and it is at a societal rather than an individual level. The Transparency Project is considering how best to gather evidence about the extent of this issue in order to begin to work out how to tackle it. Whatever the detailed answer, it seems likely that better public legal education and information, timely access to legal advice provided in plain English and increased transparency are the places to start rebuilding the public trust that is so evidently lacking.
All the parents quoted in this article gave their consent to being quoted anonymously
Family Law publishes a regular column by The Transparency Project. This blog post originally appeared in the January 2018 issue ( Fam Law 85).
Feature pic (facebook in water) under creative commons licence – thanks to howtostartablogonline.net.