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14 August 2015

In child protection cases, healthy scepticism too often turns to dangerous distrust

Media-fuelled narratives on both sides are making parents and social workers mutually suspicious. We need to break the cycle.

By Lucy Reed

After the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connolley, social workers were cautioned to adopt a mindset of “healthy scepticism” and “respectful uncertainty”. Healthy scepticism is a concept equally relevant for journalists and lawyers; in my experience most clients are honest, but few are objective, reliable historians. The good lawyer continuously recalibrates the case by being alert to the impact of emerging evidence and weaknesses in it.

However, not all scepticism is healthy. In the midst of the still-tense, febrile, atmosphere since baby Peter’s death, it can become distorted and manifest as profound suspicion and distrust. When things go wrong and children are harmed or killed there is an inevitable clamour for social workers to be named, shamed and sacked. Social workers are more fearful of not spotting abuse or neglect than of almost anything else – and so they see it everywhere.

Parents, in contrast, are expected to uncritically accept and act upon concerns raised by professionals. Here, healthy scepticism is frowned upon and a parent who questions the “concerns” may find themselves described as “unable to work with professionals”. Lawyers too, are likely to advise their clients against challenging the account of social workers for fear of making things worse. This is fine when social workers have got it right, but difficult when they have not.

Of course, the truth is that social workers, like other human beings, do not always get it right – be it through human error, overwork or incompetence. There are significant numbers of people, however, who believe that social workers and the professionals working in the “secret” family courts are all corrupt. Whilst there is a spectrum of beliefs ranging from moderately skeptical to extreme conspiracy theory, the basic “corrupt social workers / secret family court” narrative is widespread and normalised by writers like Christopher Booker of the Telegraph.

Parents have probably read these horror stories long before they ever speak to a lawyer or arrive at court. They soak them up like sponges, and subsequently see everything through the lens of corruption. In the same way that the social worker’s “healthy scepticism” can become a presumptively negative way of approaching parents, so a parent can easily be primed by their newspaper and internet exposure to see everything as yet more evidence of what they fear.

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The sad truth is that it is sometimes easier for a vulnerable parent to believe that the threat of removal of their children is the result of a conspiracy than it is to acknowledge their own role in events.

A current, and particularly shocking, example of how pervasive the belief in conspiracy can become is a recent case called P and Q, where the mother alleged, along with her supporters, that the children had been victims of widespread satanic ritual abuse. She sacked her lawyers and relied upon home videos of the children, detailing horrendous allegations. In her judgment after hearing the evidence, the judge said that both children had “suffered significantly. Their innocence was invaded. Their minds were scrambled. Their grip on reality was imperilled. They were introduced to sexual practices of which they had no real understanding. . .” So deep runs the belief that there is some conspiracy at work that the mother now alleges publicly that her own former supporters are M15 counter-intelligence operatives aiming to have her imprisoned.

Journalists reporting in this field often rely on the account of the parents as their sole source, failing to attend court hearing and ignoring, or not citing, published judgments. This habit demonstrates a surprisingly underdeveloped sense of “healthy scepticism” for professionals who pride themselves as being truth tellers and guardians of the public interest. Legal inaccuracies and misunderstandings are commonplace and often go uncorrected. Take for example the “Italian C-Section case”, where headlines included “Child taken from womb by social services”, and where reports condemning the corrupt family court” suggested that the precipitating event was the mother having “something of a panic attack”. In fact, the mother had been so unwell that she had been sectioned, and it was the Health Authority detaining her who had applied to the Court of Protection (not the Family Court) for orders based upon the need to protect the welfare of the mother.

In other cases, judges have directly and publicly criticised inaccurate reporting of the facts. You will find them on the pages of the legal bloggers, but not usually in the mainstream press. In one case Judge Bellamy chastised Booker for his “inaccurate and tendentious” reporting: in articles complaining of the removal of a child following “mild bruising”, he had neglected to mention the spiral fracture to the arm or the six other fractures also suffered by that child.

While there are practical and economic barriers to reporting of family cases, these ought not to override a journalist’s commitment to accuracy and fairness and to differentiate between fact and opinion.

Some family lawyers and judges remain anxious about press involvement. As the examples perhaps illustrate, there is some basis for such anxieties – but it is too easy a solution to turn inwards and retreat behind the curtain of privacy. It is tragic to watch social worker and parent diverge, driven down separate trajectories by their unhealthy skepticism of one another. It is frustrating to be unable to counter the narratives that are the seedbed for such tragedies because of the restrictions on reporting cases that demonstrate good social work, returns of children to their parents, and the righting of wrongs done.

Professionals are generally poor at helping parents build trust and see their own failings, and can often shut down when a parent brings out their conspiracy theories. Yet there is a real risk that actual failures, errors, misconduct or dishonesty may be missed because a parent’s scepticism masks the reality, and professionals need to do better at listening to what parents are saying about their own experiences. In a shocking case recently, a learning disabled mother had tried repeatedly to tell professionals that the foster carer with whom she and her baby were living had been racially abusive and hostile to her on a regular basis. They did not listen. It was only as a result of her recording one incident that the professionals, and the court, were made to sit up and take notice.

For my part as a lawyer, I don’t see systemic corruption; but I do see a system – and individuals – under huge and relentless resource pressure from multiple angles, with good social work practice (and sometimes ethics) regularly corroded as a result. I have occasionally seen downright dishonesty (more often sloppiness with facts). But most of the time when I successfully challenge a case brought by social services for a parent, it is because the social workers have not analysed the case sufficiently closely, or have closed their mind to a particular outcome or option (confirmation bias affects social workers too). This is all depressing enough – but it is not corruption.

In 2013 the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal handed down two judgments in cases called Re B and Re B-S, demanding greater evidential rigour and analysis in cases involving non-consensual adoption. Since then, I sense a view amongst some social workers and managers that the court process is working against them and that it is an inconvenient barrier to the protection of children. Whilst there is a place for adoption as an option of last resort for children, one senses on occasion the development of a narrative of child rescue – embattled social workers fighting to surmount bureaucratic and judicial hurdles in order to achieve a virtuous aim. And so one occasionally sees cases in which social workers reach conclusions as to what is best for a child, and then work back from those conclusions, selecting and de-selecting evidence to suit the objective (typically adoption, or removal from parents to foster care) – presenting their reverse workings in place of the analysis that ought to have informed their decision making along the way. The end does not justify the means when it comes to a decision as grave as the permanent removal of a child from her family, and the lack of analysis en route to a decision can lead social workers disregarding viable options for keeping a child in the family. Such cases are not the norm — but neither are they an exceptionally rare feature of the landscape.

In this context is it any wonder that so many parents believe the system is corrupt, that the state is out to take their cute, adoptable babies, for the sake of an economically driven adoption industry? These are self-fulfilling prophecies of the saddest kind.

We need to break this cycle of distrust. We need to break it by telling the stories of what goes on in our family courts – the successes, the failures, the good and the bad practice. There are inadequate, manipulative and dishonest social workers – those stories should be told. But there are sadly also inadequate, manipulative and dishonest parents. And (we should not forget) there are fantastic, dedicated and competent parents and social workers alike, as well as those who just need a little support and guidance to do their jobs better.

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