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8 May 2024

Teresa Thornhill: “The system keeps some children safe, but fails others”

The former child protection lawyer on how overstretched social services endanger families.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Chelsea K was a homeless 18-year-old who grew up in and out of foster care. She was pregnant and unsure of the father’s identity; the likeliest candidate was someone known to authorities as a violent and mentally unstable man. She didn’t access antenatal care until eight months into her pregnancy. When asked where she and her baby – known in social services documentation as “Unborn K” – would live, she suggested they would move in with her mother, who had a drinking problem.

“Unborn K” became “Baby K” just after 2pm on a Thursday, weighing 6 pounds and 2 ounces. The following morning, Chelsea was pulled out of hospital in tracksuit bottoms and with matted hair – without her baby – for a 9am start at the local family court. Teresa Thornhill, a child protection barrister arguing her case, first encountered her in the court toilets. She was still bleeding, and collapsed on the bathroom floor. She hadn’t even eaten since giving birth.

It is a shocking story, but a common one. “I’ve seen it more than once, it definitely happens – it’s probably happening right now,” Thornhill told me. The cases she recounts in her new book In Harm’s Way, which blows the whistle on a dangerous and dysfunctional child protection system, are ordinary. “I considered inventing some really complicated sagas, and I thought, ‘Actually, no,’ because my purpose is partly for people who don’t know this world to get a rough idea of what happens in a bog-standard case.”

A lawyer of 35 years, Thornhill has seen all sides of the system. She has worked for councils, protecting and rehoming children, and represented parents fighting to keep their families together. She laments what she described to me as a distant and bureaucratic “industrial system” hampered by institutional timidity, poor resources and blind process, and with little space for the best interests of parents and children. She argued that Chelsea K, for example, should have been allowed to stay in hospital bonding with and breastfeeding her newborn baby, rather than being rushed to court. “It’s like a factory, at its worst.”

When Thornhill, 66, and I met at the Seven Stars, a Tudor pub in central London and a legal-land institution frequented by judges and barristers, earlier this year, she had recently finished her last hearing and retired from the law. “I’m just so glad to be out of it,” she told me, her blue eyes and cropped reddish hair catching the light through the pub’s lace curtains. She wore a severe purple velvet jacket and an expression of tired relief. Everybody working in child protection is exhausted, she told me. “It’s completely dangerous.” She had even considered that, if she came across an abused child in her personal life, she wouldn’t contact social services. “Nothing like that’s happened, but yes I’ve frequently thought that – I’ve worried about some of the children whose cases I’ve dealt with, that the social worker doesn’t have the level of insight and skill that’s needed.”

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A veteran social worker and friend of Thornhill’s shared this view. “She said: ‘I know if I found out that one of my children was being abused, the last place I’d go to is social services.’ She didn’t mean she wouldn’t do something about it; she just wouldn’t have confidence that it would be dealt with properly.”

Why? With lawyerly care, Thornhill methodically lays out the reasons. Neglected by overstretched social services, troubled families are left until crisis point before any intervention. Rather than investing in therapy, addiction and domestic abuse services, and rallying other relatives in the attempt to prevent family fracture, inexperienced and overworked social workers snap towards proceedings to remove a child into care. “Mostly it’s crisis management – none of the preventative work is being done because the resources just aren’t there. Social services are much more inclined to rush into court because, in a way, that’s all they can do.”

The number of children in care in England rose by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2023, and 37 per cent in Wales over a similar period. Councils, which administer children’s services, have had 60 per cent of their real-terms spending power cut by central government since 2010.

“So many social workers are young, inexperienced, in my view not always adequately trained, and don’t get the support they need from managers,” Thornhill reflected. “If you’re… a 23-year-old social worker and you’ve seen a bruise on a child, you may possibly overreact. I think it’s understandable, but it’s why we massively need to upskill social work.”

One of her recommendations is to pay social workers (who earn £27,000-£50,000 depending on experience) salaries closer to those of GPs, and to offer paid sabbaticals to ease the stress of the work. It’s an unlikely uplift. Two years ago, a landmark independent review into children’s social care, which focused on keeping children in their families or communities wherever possible, identified a £2.6bn funding gap. The government only pledged an extra £200m.

Funding for courts, too, has been drastically cut, creating dehumanising conditions. Court cafés closed, and even jugs of water and cups are no longer provided for parents in family courts. “They can’t even be supplied with water by the state – it’s really offensive actually, and just so brutal.”

Scant state provision leads to poor outcomes for families. Thornhill writes about the Kafkaesque case of Kylie G, a depressed 21-year-old mother of two, who had been ordered that she must have therapy in order to have a chance of keeping her sons. She promptly referred herself, but a six-month NHS waiting list meant she could not meet the arbitrary court deadline. Her sons, aged three and 18 months, respectively, were permanently taken into care.

Thornhill despairs of magistrates, whom she depicts in her book as reactionary retirees with little understanding of the complexities of child development. “I would like to just abolish the magistrates,” she told me. “There are some good ones, but the stakes are too high for the children for it to be acceptable that we use lay magistrates who aren’t properly trained to make these decisions.”

Thornhill has raised her now 24-year-old son as a lone parent since he was five, and herself has an “emotionally chaotic family background”. Born to middle-class artists in an unhappy marriage, she grew up under the shadow of her parents’ long, drawn-out separation, which culminated in divorce when she was 16. Her father, a potter, was abusive, and she recalls the strain of supporting her mother, a portrait artist, through the turmoil. “I didn’t plan to [go into] child protection, but I think [my] insight into what family trauma is like has got a lot to do with it” – that, and how “in the Eighties, young women barristers were channelled towards family law”.

The class divide between the professionals making child protection decisions and the parents on the receiving end preoccupies Thornhill: “It’s very uncomfortable.” Every lawyer in her field, she said, looks through family case reports and thinks, “Oh my God, I’ve done that!” The difference, Thornhill said, is that she and her colleagues can afford therapy and know how to navigate processes that are inaccessible to the families they work with.

“To a large extent, it’s cheap justice for parents who don’t vote, and for the children of parents who don’t vote. I know that sounds cynical, but it is a very crude, very blunt system. It keeps some children safe, but fails others.”

[See also: George Robertson: Why Russia fears the European Union]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll