Mutual suspicion can cause parents and social workers to distrust each other - to the detriment of children. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
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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.

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.

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.

Lucy Reed is a family law barrister who blogs at pinktape.co.uk and tweets as @familoo.

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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk