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Fostering trust in the care system
By Kurt Barling
There is a crisis brewing in care for vulnerable children. The numbers of people willing to undertake the challenge, from social workers to foster carers are dwindling, whilst the numbers of children in the 'care system' remains stubbornly high.
The story of one family, who have spoken to Kurt Barling, after their children were taken into care, suggests the system is already faltering under the strain.
Sacha (not her real name) lives in North West London. She has cared for a number of her close relative’s children for five years. That close relative was judged to be no longer capable of looking after her own children adequately. The state believed the children were at risk of chronic neglect or harm and so sought alternative care arrangements. Kinship care is an option often explored.
In the days and weeks following the intense publicity surrounding Baby Peter it was reported that a number of London local authorities sought to remove many more children from at risk home environments. Sacha’s young charges were removed from her care. She is deeply traumatised by the situation. She claims she is enduring a painful and lengthy court battle to get the children back. Sacha no longer trusts anyone in authority to protect the welfare of ‘her’ children.
Instead she says she does her best during twice weekly contact visits to instill a sense of hope in the children. But she believes each parting is creating more of a trauma for the children and they blame her for not taking them home.
The level of risk
Sacha’s story and those like hers form part of the largely anecdotal evidence that some authorities are guilty of acting too hastily. It has certainly not been possible to independently assess the level of risk associated with each child being taken into care. Journalists simply cannot get access to that type of information.
Yet still more signs of crisis emerge. Great Ormond’s Street hospital now says it has been trying to recruit specialists in child protection, but after the Baby Peter case those who had accepted jobs decided to withdraw.
The CAFCASS website
In the past week CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) a government sponsored body has released new figures which clarify the numbers, although not the detail, of the demand for care by social services departments. These figures have not been widely available to the public before and are part of an attempt to open the care system up to greater scrutiny.
Keeping the child with the family
The figures show that although the long-term trend for children needing to be removed from their families is down, the surge in demand for alternative care in the wake of the Baby Peter case is significant. It suggests a shift (in light of that case) in attitudes by local authorities as to when a child should be removed from a family.
In the jargon the “threshold for intervention” has shifted. The logic of this observation is that the assessment of chronic neglect (the reason for removing a child) had been allowed to drift too high in the run up to the revelations in the Baby Peter case. We of course now know professionals missed dozens of opportunities to remove him from harm.
The figure for March 2009 of 739 requests by social service departments to courts around the country to place a child in care represents a 37.9 per cent increase over the same month in 2008. It is the largest monthly figure ever recorded by CAFCASS. What does it mean?
CAFCASS Chief Executive, Anthony Douglas, says these figures suggest that more children are being safeguarded who would otherwise be at risk of neglect or harm. He argues that the failsafe is the fact that the family courts have assessed the evidence before any of these 739 children were removed.
Getting inside the system
Of course bald statistics cannot really give us any clarity on whether any of those 739 children have been taken into care needlessly. By and large it has not yet been possible for those outside the “care system” to independently assess whether chronic neglect is the main feature of the cases that come before the family court. For that we have to rely on the judgements of the court and, more importantly, the information that is put before the court by the professionals.
This brings me back to where I started. I am prevented from reporting much about the Sacha’s family because their case is ongoing. It might stay before the courts for several months yet. If I were to reveal even the slightest detail of their case which could identify them I would be in contempt of court. In other words I could be prosecuted.
The state takes the very sensible precaution to protect the privacy of children who already have experienced trauma. But here is a conundrum for all those with an interest in protecting vulnerable children. Where a citizen raises a complaint against the agents of the state, in this case the social services department of a local authority, how can they be confident they will be dealt with fairly if no public scrutiny and accountability is possible.
Victoria Climbie’s parents told me that the system failed their daughter and that it was a great pity that the questions asked in Lord Laming’s public inquiry could not have been asked earlier preventing her death.
In the North West London case Sacha’s extended family believes the children were removed unnecessarily from a loving home. Furthermore they believe the children have not been well treated by a succession of foster carers. The family says the children have lost weight, are anxious, scared and displaying behaviour which shows they are traumatised by separation.
Furthermore social services stand accused of failing to recognise the strong family support network available to care for the children and that the local authority itself is guilty of neglecting the welfare of the children over a period of years by not supporting the principal carers. This is a one-sided view. At present I cannot report anything else.
In fact I am in no position to test the veracity of the family’s claims because I cannot talk to the local authority about the case. I cannot name the local authority in order to hold them to account. I cannot even to talk to the solicitor in this case because they believe it would harm their clients’ credibility in the eyes of the family court.
It does beg the question; how can families ensure they get a fair hearing when they believe that the social services department responsible for their family is incompetent, if the results of that incompetence give the family court an incomplete picture.
If we look at the objective evidence before us of cases like Baby Peter or Victoria Climbie, it is clear that mistakes are made by professionals. However they are only capable of being identified by the public retrospectively, in these cases after the children have endured horrific abuse and death. Then all hell breaks lose and the professionals a subjected to scrutiny and vilification which perpetuates the cycle of secrecy and introspection.
BBC London's Kurt Barling
Hope on the horizon
In all this gloom there is one chink of light at the end of the care crisis tunnel. On April 27th the family courts finally succumbed to longstanding pressure to allow journalists into court to hear evidence. It can be only hoped that greater scrutiny of decisions may actually improve the culture of accountability in the system caring for vulnerable children, by rooting out poor decision-making and poor decision-makers. Good social workers are becoming harder to recruit and retain. They need as much protection from incompetence as vulnerable children.
When Sacha’s case returns to court I should be able to assess the nature of the evidence before the court. I may even be able to report parts of it, depending on how the judge feels about the case. If the local authority is found to be at fault we may be able to scrutinise their decisions. For the moment Sacha must rely on the courts to secure the best interests of the children she is missing in her life.
last updated: 15/05/2009 at 18:34