Dossier indicates drive to increase adoptions is punitive for low-income families and alternatives exist

This was the headline and strapline last week in the Guardian. The article announces the publication of a “dossier” by Legal Action for Women.

The dossier is based upon a number of sources, including the reports and experiences of services users of LAfW and the forthcoming research of Dr Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Care and Community at the University of Central Lancashire which is said to show a significant increase in the numbers of children in care, arising from pro-adoption policies.

We’ll take a walk through the dossier, highlighting interesting or illustrative features as we go.

Dr June Thoburn CBE, Emeritus Professor of Social Work is reported as saying that:

The promotion of adoption sets up an adversarial dynamic that can seriously undermine social workers’ ability to develop trusting relationships with families needing help, as distrust and suspicion permeate the system.

Here at the Transparency Project we definitely recognise that phenomenon and have commented on it in the context of our adoption targets work.

There is a section complaining about the targeting of muslim children through the government’s Prevent strategy and radicalisation family court cases. Included is a quote from solicitor Gareth Pierce, which is difficult to follow, we think because it appears to have been heavily edited. The information in this section of the dossier seems to be entirely anecdotal and based on newspaper reports, so it’s difficult to draw much from this as it is largely un-evidenced assertion. This doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue, just that the dossier probably doesn’t advance the debate much.

In a section entitled “Social workers are encouraged to use their powers to remove children” it is said that :

Mothers describe social workers as biased and judgemental. Many make judgements about whether a mother is “good enough” or not according to: 1) prejudiced middle class standards which may have little or nothing to do with the mother and her background; 2) how compliant the mother is. A mother who stands up for herself and objects to what is being imposed on her with good reason, is likely to be targeted as difficult and uncooperative.

We recognise this complaint from exchanges we have with parents through The Transparency Project and (those of us who are in practice) from our own practices.

This section also highlights the phenomenon of parents failing to ask for help when it is needed, and allowing problems to escalate, because they are fearful that if they ask for help their children will be removed. Once again, this is very familiar to The Transparency Project.

The tone of the dossier is in places highly emotive :

Despite this increased state intrusion into family life, horrific cases of child murder, rape and other violence, continue to come to public attention…what emerges is a catalogue of neglect, carelessness, prejudice and complicity by the authorities, beginning with social workers, police and other professionals who have done little or nothing to protect the children in the state’s “care”.

While social workers are quick to intervene to take children away from their parents, they seem to care far less when the violence happens in care. Institutions which have been shown to be negligent or complicit in the widespread sexual and other abuse of children continue to be promoted as preferable.

Whilst the report cites well known examples of egregious conduct on the part of social workers, we are not sure how helpful it is to talk in such generalised terms about widespread corruption and basic inhumanity.

In reminding us that care is not always safe and that there is insufficient challenge of the view that care is a good and safe option for children, the report says that

Many children suffer greatly from having been in care. They are four times more likely to attempt suicide and experience mental health difficulties.

but the authors makes no attempt to acknowledge that for some children their mental health difficulties will be caused by their experiences prior to coming into foster care, rather than necessarily being caused by the care system itself.

the whole report is focused on women, understandably as the group writing it represent exclusively women – but many of the issues raised apply as much to men as they do to women (although perhaps in different ways), although their perspective and experience is not represented in the report.

So, for example, the report also touches upon legal aid and the difficulties for mothers acting in person. Many of the points they make would be equally applicable to male litigants in person. One striking passage offers some food for thought for lawyers representing male and female parents in private law disputes :

Even when women do have solicitors, they often end up being represented by a barrister they met for the first time just before entering the hearing. There is limited opportunity to make sure the barrister is familiar with the facts and understands how the mother wants to be represented – that is for the barrister to take instruction. Mothers report that their lawyer, irrespective of gender, seemed too intimidated to stand up to the judge and the “experts”, again irrespective of gender, and consequently advised what they thought the judge and/or the other side would accept, rather than speaking up for the mother. This is even truer in smaller towns and communities where lawyers for both sides almost certainly know each other and the judge, whom they may be anxious not to offend for the sake of future relations. Mothers don’t know they can stick to their guns and argue for what they want, especially if their barrister advises them to accept something else.

Many lawyers would probably retort that these clients have misunderstood the role of a lawyer, but the question is whether the system or individual lawyers allow space for a proper explanation of the advisory role of a lawyer, and the quite separate role to then go on and argue the case based on whatever instructions are given. The important point is that parents are reporting they don’t feel their lawyers are fighting for them, and doing it in some numbers (this sort of comment is reported by other support organisations who have surveyed service users) so something is clearly going wrong. Clients need to feel empowered to disagree with advice and then go on to give informed instructions to their lawyers to proceed down a different route. This is a phenomenon reported in care proceedings too, where parents’ lawyers are described as “professional losers”. Perhaps it isn’t good enough to say “well, they could have disagreed with me”?

We don’t think passages like the one that follows, that insinuate that a judge is not a “real” feminist, are particularly helpful and rather detract from the serious points the report is trying to make :

Although the baby had flourished in her mother’s care, the judge, Ms Justice Russell (who insists on the feminist “Ms” in her title), decided that because of the mother’s possible future hostility towards the father and his partner, the child would be harmed.

There are a number of other rather impolitely worded remarks about this judge and this case which suggest that the organisation probably supported the mother in it and have information they are aggrieved they cannot impart. Again, whilst it is important to hear from organisations working “at the coal face” who understand and really care about the practical impact on clients of how the courts are operating, the tone of this report suggests a lack of objectivity which perhaps detracts from the force of their arguments.

The report also complains in general terms about the secrecy of the family court and lack of effective public scrutiny because of the absence of reporters and the restriction on mothers discussing their cases publicly.

On domestic violence, the report asserts that :

nearly three quarters of mothers fighting for their children had been subject to domestic violence is confirmed by other research showing that domestic abuse features in 70-90% of cases going to family court and in 70% of CAFCASS cases

We think this must mean 3/4 of the women with whom LAfW work (or surveyed?) identified as victims of domestic violence, rather than 3/4 of ALL women involved in all court proceedings. The “other research” cited does not support the proposition that 70% of women were victims, although CAFCASS statistics do show that domestic abuse is raised as an issue in a high percentage of cases (this might be by a father or a mother and it might be substantiated or not).
The report goes on to discuss the difficulty for victims of domestic abuse in leaving their abuser due to factors like financial control, a lack of support from agencies such as the police and social services, and the tendency to respond to domestic violence with child protection interventions and removal of children.
There is some tart criticism of the sexist approach of some family judges, and the poor facilities at court for vulnerable witnesses. Again, we think the emotive tone detracts from some perfectly valid points :

In this context it is not surprising that mothers are frequently disbelieved, accused of being vindictive or manipulative. You know how hysterical women can be! So violent men who are known to be masters at manipulation and coercion (how else could they control their victim for so long?) are able to put their best face forward in court, often appearing considerate and reasonable, convincing judges time and again of their “good” intentions.

The report draws heavily in this area from Women’s Aid material such as the 19 Child Homicides report. It is strongly critical of both social workers and CAFCASS officers’ understanding of domestic abuse.
The dossier goes on to give examples of inappropriate remarks made by judges in cases involving rape or domestic abuse. We think that arguably the publication of such remarks is a breach of s12 AJA.
There is a lengthy passage complaining that fathers get preferential treatment in family courts. For example :

The raised profile of groups like Fathers4Justice and Families Need Fathers has given the false impression, encouraged by much of the media, that mothers get preferential treatment in the family courts while fathers are hard done by. The facts contradict this. Child contact with the non-resident parent is only refused in less than 1% of cases; the majority of non- resident parents, usually fathers, who take their cases to court were given the type and amount of contact they had asked for.

It’s worth noting that in 90% of cases, residence and contact are agreed between the separating parents.It is most likely to be fathers who have motives unrelated to the wellbeing of the child who pursue court cases. [our emphasis]

We can’t see any evidential basis for this last assertion. Those fathers who come to court because they have been unable to agree matters might be unreasonable and have malign motivation, but on the other hand they might have been forced to come to court because the other parent has been unreasonable.

It is only when one arrives at section 8 that one reaches the issue that made the Guardian headline – the assertion that children are removed because of parental poverty, in a form of social cleansing (the phrase social cleansing appears in the report, it is not our wording). There seems to be a background of particular anxiety about the privatisation of childrens services and child protection services, which it is felt may exacerbate this problem – and given the fact that this dossier was apparently prepared for presentation to Parliament we wonder to what extent it has been driven by or informed by a campaign to affect the controversial provisions of the Children & Social Work Bill which are currently in Parliament.

The authors of the report frame the issue this way :

The state pays out huge amounts to keep children away from their families: more than £200,000 per year to keep a young person in a secure children’s home and £60,000 a year in a young offenders institution. Yet it is not prepared to pay to keep families together even though that is far cheaper. We must ask why.

If these are the finances of removing children from their families, then the purpose of the policy is to remove children rather than to help them.

This seems to be making a huge leap from an economically nonsensical position to the conclusion that it must be the result of an intentional policy with some ulterior motive (implicitly social cleansing), as opposed to political inertia, system complexity or dysfunction, inefficiency etc.

The report makes a number of perfectly sensible recommendations about reform, funding and other matters. Of particular interest to The Transparency Project is the recommendation that :

Family courts must open their doors to public scrutiny while protecting children’s anonymity. Once the courts are open the standards are bound to rise.

It is interesting to see an organisation that represents vulnerable women who are the victims of intimate violence advocating for the public to be permitted to be present whilst those victims give accounts of the violence they have suffered but in doing so they adopt the same position that Women’s Aid have recently adopted.

In fact, as the report is structured, Dr Bilson’s research is used to show that more children are entering care as a result of the government’s adoption policy, but the assertion that children are being removed into care in order to satisfy a social cleansing policy is set out quite separately and not explicitly connected in the dossier itself. It’s not quite clear whether the merging of the two issues in the Guardian article is supported by Dr Bilson’s (unpublished) research or has been introduced by the writers of the dossier.

The Guardian article includes the following passage :

Anne Neale, one of the report’s authors, said: “Charges of neglect are used to punish, especially single-mother families, for their unbearably low incomes.

“The fundamental relationship between mother and child is dismissed as irrelevant to a child’s wellbeing and development, and the trauma of separation, and its lifelong consequences, are ignored. 

“Mothers who are victims of domestic violence are refused help, blamed for ‘failing to protect’ their children, and punished with their removal.”

The report highlights the secrecy of family courts, where adoption decisions are made in private hearings, in which mothers are prevented by law from talking about the loss of their children.

In a letter to The Guardian in response to the article and the suggestion that there is “a link between increasing levels of poverty and increasing numbers of children being adopted without the consent of their parents”, John Simmonds, Director of Coram BAAF raised (unspecified) queries about “the data and data analysis at the heart of this set of findings”, said :

…the suggestion that there is an explicit policy to address poverty through adoption is crude and not supported by other robust studies. Local authorities and the courts must comply with the strictest of rules embedded in law when deciding on the future of children. 

Although the report raises some concerning issues, and makes some sensible recommendations, it is difficult to understand the evidence base for the assertion that child protection is being used as a punishment for poverty or for being a victim of domestic violence. Neither the article nor the dossier appears to draw the distinction between cause and effect. The effect on poor families may well be punitive. But where is the evidence it is designed to be so?

Both the dossier and Dr Bilson in the report call for greater investment in support for families in poverty as an alternative to removal into care (a call that has been made repeatedly by many others elsewhere).

[Update : There are a number of interesting letters in the Guardian today on this topic (see here), one from Andy Bilson (confirming he makes “no claim that there is an explicit policy to address poverty through adoption”, one from Dr Nigel Thomas, one from a former magistrate and one from the authors of the “Suffer Little Children” report which reassert claims about the links between poverty and adoption and suggests the privatisation proposals in the Children & Social Work bill would exacerbate the problem. They give further anecdotal snippets, one of which simply can’t be accurate : “a young couple who asked for advice about a mark on one of their children’s faces ended up in the high court without a lawyer unable to stop their adoption”. That is to say, one doesn’t just go from enquiring about a mark on a face to adoption without being granted free legal aid as of right, so that you can be properly represented. If the family in question were unrepresented it was by choice. The other snippets are so brief that they don’t really advance anything.]

Feature pic courtesy of Frederick Bisson on Flickr – thanks!