14 August 2019

Tortoise Case file • State V Family

Lessons of love

Tortoise has spent the year investigating why so many children are going into care. What have we learned so far?

By Polly Curtis

1 Too many children are being removed from their families

There were 75,000 children in care last year in England and Wales – more than at any point since current records began in the early 1990s. No one planned this and no one really agrees on why it has happened. Some point to societal changes: changing definitions of domestic violence; the rise of gang violence; sexual exploitation; and immigration. But it’s clear that we are making decisions differently as well. The increases are not in cases of sexual and physical abuse, but in neglect and emotional abuse. Decisions are made to mitigate the risk of these things rather than in response to evidence of them having happened.

Many experts point to the fact that society has become more unequal precisely as austerity kicked in. Social workers told us they were taking families to court because they have no other resources to help families. Services to support families with mental health problems, drug addictions or experiencing domestic violence have been cut.

The 26-week target on making decisions on children’s future is a fraction of most waiting times for the mental health services some families desperately need to help them stay together. The chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler says too many children are now in care – she cut the numbers by 40% when she led services in Hackney. The children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi also admitted that in some areas the decision to remove a child is too “knee-jerk”.

2 …but abused and neglected children are still being missed

The debate about when the state decides to intervene and separate families can be very binary: there are those who say it happens too much and those who say it doesn’t happen often enough. The truth is so much harder to grasp: too many children are being removed, but some are still being missed.

If social workers are intervening later, with fewer services to offer families, the families can be left to reach a crisis point. This creates a risky period without support for families where children can suffer from abuse or neglect.

Some argue that some children should be removed sooner, and others would never have to be removed at all if they got the support they needed earlier.

We went to New York where one of the city’s most senior family lawyers, Marcia Lowry, told us:

“Are we separating too many? Yes, but also too few.”

What this means, and what we’ve witnessed in the UK, is that some children are having the wrong decisions made at the wrong times. Too many children are being separated where they are not receiving services to support their families to improve. But too few may also be removed because without those services and interventions, signs of serious abuse and neglect could be missed at an earlier stage.

3 We make these decisions badly

Social workers make recommendations and family court judges decide on removals. Judge James Munby, the former head of the family court, told us these decisions were made without access to detailed evidence of the typical outcomes for children, and without truly considering what the impact of separating children from families can be.

In other words, courts consider the risk of abuse of a child is left with their family, but not the risk of the damage caused by separation.

In the US family courts, there is a moment when judges have to weigh up the potential risk to the child of staying with their family compared with the potential risk of separating them. That doesn’t routinely happen in England and Wales.

Judges rarely find out what happens to the children they make these huge decisions for, so they can never reflect on their actions or learn from them. Meanwhile, the research basis is out of date: Where lawyers do refer to it to support their arguments, it’s often the attachment theory written by the psychologist John Bowlby based on research from the post-war period in the UK. Bowlby was born in 1907.

4 We make these decisions unfairly

There is a huge geographical difference in the rates of children in care.

Some of this can be explained by differences in populations and the challenges they face – some areas are more deprived. But some of it cannot. Different areas have different rules but different social work teams have different cultures influencing how quickly they intervene. Social workers who work between authorities described their experiences of arriving in new local authorities and trying to gauge the bar for intervention. Meanwhile, there is also inconsistency between the decision-making of judges. Ultimately it means that in some areas of the country, children are being removed for reasons that wouldn’t prompt the same outcome if they lived elsewhere. This nature of variation can’t be fair.

5 The class dimension of this story cannot be ignored

This map demonstrates the correlation between poverty and rates of children in care. It’s for the North East of England, where the rates of family separation are high, but the pattern is repeated nationally.

Parents talk about an “othering” they feel when they talk to social services, the sense that they are being considered as alien or fundamentally  different. Munby told us he had never seen middle-class parents in court on neglect charges. When the lines between poverty and neglect can be tenuous and the stakes are so high, do we want to be a society that separates families rather than improves living standards?

6 The systems do not join up

We’ve seen no evidence that decisions are being made about children in bad faith. Everyone we’ve spoken to for this series desperately wants to improve children and families’ lives, and do their jobs because they want to help. But there is something about the structure of the way the state works with families that doesn’t join up. One lawyer told me about a15-year-old girl in care because her stepfather had abused her. The stepfather was now out of the picture but she was stuck in care – at the cost of thousands of pounds a week – because there was no provision for the therapy she and her mother needed to help them overcome the trauma.

Another mother described not being able to get a job because she needed to attend contact sessions with her children while they were in care. She had no income and when she asked for a referral to a food bank it was taken as a sign that she wasn’t managing their lives. A grandmother we met in a northern city described how she had to forfeit her legal responsibility for her granddaughter because doing so would have meant her support payments decreasing. As a special guardian she would assume legal responsibility and the council would no longer be involved; but she would also lose the foster care allowance she lived on.

The welfare, housing and health systems are not aligned with the social workers’ to best support families. Where budgets are tight, services designed to support families are cut before the statutory budgets to rescue children and take them into care. Since government-imposed austerity began in 2010, statutory spending has increased, and preventative services decreased. It’s not joined up.

7 Blame doesn’t help – we are all responsible

When something goes wrong we look for someone to blame. We revisited the tragic case of Peter Connelly, the toddler initially known as Baby P, who was murdered more than a decade ago by his family despite repeated contact with the authorities. The case sent fear through the system, triggering a huge spike in the numbers of children in care as social workers became risk-averse in the face of intense scrutiny. The media and politicians bore a huge responsibility for that as they embarked on a witch-hunt for those responsible. Social workers don’t work in isolation, they are affected by society’s expectations, the political climate and media commentary. Carol Homden, chief executive of Coram told one ThinkIn we held:

“Social work doesn’t happen in isolation. We all have collective responsibility for social work.”

 

8 No one thinks the current situation is sustainable

The current head of the family court, Andrew McFarlane, has warned that “corners may have to be cut” because the workload in courts is so high. Councils have cut services that support families and might help them avoid crisis point, but at the same time the number of children going into care has increased. Councils are busting their budgets on children’s social care. Last year, 88% of councils overspent on children’s social care.

9 There are some solutions on the horizon

In the national debate, it feels like these problems have been ignored. But on the ground, in councils and in courts around the country, attempts are being made to fix the problems locally. The government is has put some additional funding into an “innovation programme” to support these efforts, and hopefully start to roll improvements out across the country.

Critics say that that this innovation funding is not particularly innovative, it just allows councils to stop fire-fighting and to start to do proper, in-depth social work to support families, namely by reintroducing some of the support services that were cut by austerity.

There is enthusiasm for the work done in Leeds, where they have shifted from removing children at the point of emergency to a more preventative system that supports families. As a result, they’ve reduced the numbers of children in care – and the financial bill for them. Prevention saves money, the Leeds case proves.

In Camden, north London, the council is focusing on how to improve the relationships between families and social workers so they can be given better support. In the courts system, Bristol family court, led by Justice Stephen Wildblood, is working hard to get out into the community, and to explain what they do so that if families do reach court, it is a less bewildering and disempowering process.

10 But the system is delicate and precarious

Eileen Munro, emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, who conducted a report for the government on social work, told us:

“There are examples of really good work happening, but now it’s about getting enough of it to have the momentum for it to become the norm. We’re still very fragile. Another Peter Connelly would knock the whole system back.”

There’s also the question of what happens next in the economy. A global economic downturn, or an economic shock like a no-deal Brexit, could have the consequence of putting ever more pressures on council budgets at exactly the point where families might need them most.

• Read the full case file, Separated, here