This month, the most senior family judge in the land released a judgment showingthat a mother and father in their mid-20s had given up the fight to get their baby back. In 2012, this couple’s six-week-old infant was removed by children’s services after they took it to hospital, worried it was bleeding from the mouth. Doctors saw bruising and suspected bone fractures; social workers were called. A family court then found, on the balance of probabilities, that the couple had abused their child. The parents did not appeal the findings. The child was later adopted.
The collapse of the couple’s subsequent criminal trial for child cruelty was extensively reported last autumn – the judge threw the case out after medical evidence came to light showing that the baby had a blood disorder that led it to bruise easily, and an expert medical witness for the prosecution said he doubted any fractures existed at all. After the outcome of the criminal trial, the birth parents asked for and were given leave to appeal the family court’s initial findings of abuse. Shortly before the court was due to start hearing their appeal, they withdrew their appeal, principally because they felt it was not in the child’s best interests. (They continued to deny that they had caused any harm to the child.) The anguish they have suffered over the years was plain in the mother’s statement: “This nightmare has been going on now for four-and-a-half years. I cannot take any more,” she said. “We know that [the adoptive parents] will also be suffering. The reasons we had no longer matter. We accept that it would not be right for [X] to be moved.” Despite the parents’ wish not to fight on, the judge said it was in the best interests of the child and the public for the case to continue. A judgment is expected in the new year.
This whole agonising mess serves to highlight a painful question: is the state intervening in family life too harshly and removing children too fast? Essentially, has our child protection system become too risk-averse?
At a recent packed public debate at Bristol’s main family court, two of the country’s most senior children’s social care professionals said that it has. “The number of children in public care is, I would contend, a national disgrace,” said Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). They were especially exercised by what they saw as a postcode lottery. “You can go to many parts of the UK and find local authorities where children who have experienced significant harm are being kept within their families or in their local networks, quite safely, with strong, targeted family support or early help services,” added Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) – while elsewhere, children suffering equivalent chaos are being taken straight into care.
Between local authorities, Hill observed, the rate at which children are removed from their families ranges from 30 per 10,000 to 180 per 10,000. “If these rates pertained to heart disease or cancer care, we would all be marching to protest at the unfairness of the system,” he said. “The fact is, the rates are driven by variable practice, not by risk factors, and that cannot continue.”
Government statistics show that local authority applications to take children into care are rocketing to record levels. August’s figures showed a total of 1,258 care applications – a 34% increase on August last year. The annual rate of increase is also rising: in March 2014 it was 4% up on the year before; March 2015 was 5% up, and it was 15% up again in March this year. The latest figures [pdf download] show that there were a total of 70,440 looked-after childrenin England in March this year.
These figures prompted an unprecedented warning from Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the high court. In a statement entitled Care Cases: The Looming Crisis, Munby describes a “relentless” rise that is stretching the family court system to breaking point, not to mention the care system’s finances – the cost of looking after a child in care is estimated at £35,000 per year. Assuming a conservative yearly increase of 10% in the next three years, Munby calculates that by 2020 annual care applications will have trebled from 2007 levels, to nearly 20,000.
The care system had already been badly shaken by the Victoria Climbié case when 17-month-old Peter Connelly, named at the time only as Baby P, died in 2007 at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and a lodger. The subsequent vilification and scapegoating of Haringey’s social workers, and especially Sharon Shoesmith, its director of children’s services, affected child-protection professionals everywhere. Shoesmith is not alone in believing this has resulted in an overwhelmingly defensive approach to risk. “The current approach is driven by fear rather than by the evidential reality of whether you can predict who will abuse their child,” says Dr Lauren Devine, who researches state power and private rights at the University of the West of England. She argues that detailed assessments of many tens of thousands of families a year based on “risk characteristics” divert thinly stretched budgets away from helping struggling families who don’t intend – though may cause – their children harm.
Studying these assessments, she found that they are very inefficient at predicting who is going to kill or catastrophically hurt their children – they are thus not only a bad use of resources, but may actively put other children in danger. But even if they were substantially more effective than her research shows them to be, failures would still be inevitable. And where this subject is concerned, there is, she notes, “no publicly acceptable margin of error”.
At worst, that margin of error is a dead child. This is more common than most people imagine. According to the Office of National Statistics’ crime and justice figures, parents or carers in this country kill children at a rate of nearly one a week. And when the media demands “never again” and politicians make promises to that effect, it is very difficult for child protection professionals to communicate that it is impossible to make accurate predictions about who will hurt their child without being accused of incompetence, negligence or worse.
Shoesmith says we find it very hard to accept that some mothers can harm and even kill their own children. “We believe so strongly in the natural love of parents, and especially mothers, and we are conditioned to see motherhood and childhood as idyllic,” she says. “This simply isn’t the reality for many mothers and children. But it is a social taboo to admit it. When things go wrong, we would rather blame someone else than face the gruesome reality, and this diverts us from the real task of preventing harm.” Although everyone is desperate to reduce children’s suffering, Devine says, “it would be more honest to admit we cannot eradicate all child abuse, even if we policed every parent”.
In the current climate of fear, opting not to remove children when others might do so requires courageous leadership and the ability to hold your nerve. It also means you need to fundamentally alter your attitude to families, believes Nigel Richardson, who retired from his position as director of children’s services at Leeds city council last month. While in the job, he led a transformation that means Leeds now has 225 fewer children in care than it did in 2011 – a 15.5% reduction, and a saving of £8.2m a year. By contrast, given the 7.5% increase in looked-after children in England between 2011 and 2015, Leeds estimates that other local authorities are spending nearly £180m more annually on children’s care placements than five years ago. Not using the Leeds approach has cost the taxpayer more than half a billion pounds.
Vicky – tiny and elfin, blond hair pulled tightly back – sits in a bare meeting room in a Leeds council building, and starts to explain, speaking fast, how she lost her baby son, Harry, to adoption two and a half years ago – and how she has since managed to keep her seven-month-old daughter, Iris.
Vicky is 32 and, until her current relationship with John, has spent most of her adult life with abusive men. Her left arm is extensively scarred from years of self-harm. She has been reliant on alcohol and sometimes used drugs to get her through the worst times. She has suffered severe bouts of depression, too, during which, she says, she “can go downhill very fast”.
A social worker sent to assess Vicky when she was pregnant with Harry “didn’t like me and I didn’t like her”, Vicky recalls. “She was very brutal to me when we were on our own. She just handled me all wrong.” Unable to cope with the distress caused by repeated court hearings, Vicky voluntarily placed Harry into care – temporarily, she thought – when he was still an infant. But because she kept seeing his violent father, social workers did not think the baby was safe, and so Vicky never got him back.
She could easily have lost Iris, too, when she became pregnant a year later: nationally, the number of babies removed at or near birth rose two-and-a-half times between 2008 and 2013, from 802 to 2,018. Only around one in 10 women whose baby is removed like this ever gets their child back.
The difference for Vicky is that she lives in Leeds. When Iris was born, she was also given a new social worker, Gail, who started by offering a “family group conference”, to which Vicky could invite anyone she felt would be willing to support her and her new partner in their efforts to safely bring up their baby. Based on a New Zealand tradition (which is now a legal entitlement there) of convening extended family meetings to solve family problems, these conferences represent a powerful reversal of the usual dynamic. Typically, distraught and frightened parents sit in a local authority office facing a dozen professionals who dictate decisions about their family’s fate. In Leeds, the parents choose the meeting venue, so they are on home turf, and the family is in the majority. One social worker and one meeting co-ordinator are the only representatives from the council. It is a massive culture shift.
“Initially, you weren’t that keen, were you?” says Gail. Vicky had not seen her family for so long that she didn’t believe anyone would come. As it turned out, her estranged mum and younger brother attended. “So did John’s dad and some of his friends,” remembers Vicky. The local authority’s concerns were set out plainly, and then the group was left alone to make a plan. They focused on practical ways to help if Vicky’s mental health deteriorated. “We really wanted it to work,” said Gail, “but we weren’t certain it was going to.” Iris went home with Vicky, though still on a child protection plan. And “that’s not there any more”, says Vicky, a smile suddenly illuminating her face. Four months ago, Iris came off the child protection register.
“It’s about empathy, not blame,” says Saleem Tariq, Leeds’s chief officer for children’s social work. According to Tariq, 98% of family plans are approved by the council after the conference. Leeds’s change in attitude was prompted by a crisis nearly seven years ago, when Ofsted deemed its child-protection service “inadequate”. Richardson was hired at that time, and urged that Leeds’s ambition should be greater than just hoiking the department rating back up to “good”. “We asked: ‘What’s it like to be a child in Leeds?’” he recalls. “For lots, it’s great. For a worrying number, not so great. Then we asked: ‘What if we put children at the heart of the city’s growth strategy?’”
The council voted to do exactly that, and in 2011, Leeds became a “child-friendly city”, focusing its strategy on raising children’s wellbeing, with a priority, as Richardson carefully puts it, on “safely and appropriately” reducing the need for children to be looked after by the state. “The notion of family,” he insists, “is the most important, but most under-invested-in utility of the 21st century.” Clearly, there are situations in which removing a child is the right thing to do, but crucial to the Leeds approach, says Tariq, is the belief that “building a relationship where you can develop trust with the parents and extended families means you can manage risk in an effective way – and because of the relationship and trust you develop in that process, there is more potential for change for the parents”.
Not everyone believes the child-protection system is too risk-averse. The 2015 Children’s Commissioner’s report into child sexual abuse in the family [pdf download] estimated that just one in eight victims come to the attention of statutory authorities; “the scale of child sexual abuse is therefore much larger than is currently being dealt with”, it said. Given what he refers to as the “abysmally low detection rate of child abuse in this country”, there need to be more, better-quality referrals, not fewer, says Tom Perry. Perry is an abuse survivor and founder of the pressure group Mandate Now, which urges government to introduce an effective mandatory reporting law for professionals working in all regulated activities. These professionals – “who currently make around half of all referrals” – should, he says, be required by law to report if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting abuse. The idea of mandatory reporting is detested across much of the social care sector: the message is that children’s services would be instantly swamped. Indeed, a study of mandatory reporting in Western Australia, Perry says, showed that reporting rates initially tripled. But the detection rate for abuse also rose by a similar proportion.
“There’s a mantra of ‘We can’t have more reporting because we’re overloaded’,” says Perry. “Well, what about the children who are being abused and not reported? Mandatory reporting is a vital component of a functioning child-protection system. If the government declines to introduce it with accompanying investment, then it is telling us that child protection isn’t a priority.” Of course, not all children whose abuse is discovered are removed from their families; Perry’s point is that, if a child is to be helped at all, the authorities need better mechanisms to tell them if harm is taking place.
In Essex, under ADCS president Dave Hill’s tenure as director of children’s services, there are 600 fewer children in care now than there were five years ago. As in Leeds, Essex’s reduction has been achieved by “a conscious policy” of working intensively to support families staying together. This does not preclude swift intervention when children need protection, Hill insists, but in that period, “serious safeguarding issues have reduced”.
High-profile deaths such as that of Peter Connelly, and more recently Ellie Butler, who was returned by the court to live with her abusive family, will sometimes happen, says Hill. But he contends – in common with others working at senior levels in child protection – that “such cases should not and must not drive risk-averse practice”.
There is, Hill said, “a clear moral duty” to ensure that children are able to live within their own families wherever it is safely possible. “We spend too much time and effort in search of perfect families,” he said. “There are mostly, in my experience, imperfect families. Often resilience is built through less-good experiences, rather than good experiences. We need to be more accepting of this.”
Some names have been changed.