December 2, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I often criticize The Guardian and rightly so. Indeed, if the liberal paper’s circulation continues as it has for the past six years, it’ll close its doors entirely in the not-too-distant future. Apparently I’m not alone in my criticism.
Still, on those infrequent occasions when The Guardian gets it right, it’s only just to say so, and this is one of those times (Guardian, 11//16).
The article wonders if British children are being taken into care to often and too easily. The answer is that, just as in the United States, they are.
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).
And, as we so often see in many aspects of the state’s approach to child well-being, where the child is located has a tremendous bearing on how he/she is treated.
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.
In Great Britain, as here, the question is the usual one – to take a child from its parents or not? And there, as here, bad cases make for bad practice. If a child is seriously injured or killed by a parent, the cry goes up for “greater safety” for kids which in practice means taking more of them from their parents. Social workers and the agencies for which they work want to be seen as “pro-active” and that means whisking kids out of their homes and placing them in foster care.
Of course the notion that foster care is safer than parental care is a shibboleth. As a rule, the opposite is true. Yes, there are parents who need to lose their children and yes, there are excellent, kind, nurturing foster parents. But we should never lose sight of the fact that, on average, kids suffer greater rates of abuse and neglect in foster care than they do in parental care. And that holds true even when the parents are moderately abusive. Even compared to those parents, foster care comes in second when it comes to children’s welfare.
But still, a bad, public case of abuse by parents can be counted on to get a reaction from local CPS agencies.
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.
And sure enough, rates of taking children into care are skyrocketing.
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 children in 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.
But for some, even those shocking increases, together with their unsustainable costs and insufficient resources, aren’t enough.
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.
What Perry fails to mention is that, here in the U.S., we have a mandatory system of reporting suspected abuse or neglect. We know what it looks like and what its consequences are. In 2014, over 3.2 million reports of suspected abuse and neglect came into local CPS offices. Of those, a whopping 80% were unfounded, i.e. there was no abuse or neglect. In the process, an untold number of actual cases of harm went uninvestigated due to social workers’ attention to those 2.4 million unnecessary reports.
Under a mandated reporting system, huge numbers of unfounded reports are inevitable. After all, when you tell a police officer, a teacher, a nurse that his/her job is on the line if a potential case goes unreported, then the default position will be to make a report just in case.
Plus, parents’ reactions to contact by CPS agencies is understandably one of alarm verging on terror. Child welfare agencies wield tremendous power and it is largely unchecked by any meaningful oversight by legislative, judicial or administrative bodies. So what are the chances that parents will feel free to report to a doctor, nurse or mental health professional their concern that they may have the potential for abuse or neglect? My guess is that there is none for the good and sufficient reason that those parents know that, if they tell someone, the next sound they’ll hear is a knock on their door.
If CPS agencies took a less confrontational and more helpful and treatment-oriented approach to parents, there might be less need for CPS, less need for foster care and more healthy, well cared-for children. In Leeds, something like that is happening.
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…
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…
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.”
Allow me to suggest that that last quotation should be branded on the forehead of every public official in the English-speaking world.
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