Parents Invited To Give Feedback on Family Courts – HM Courts & Tribunals

HMCTS, the official body overseeing the law courts for England and Wales has invited service users to give feedback about the organisation and its reform programme in a survey published yesterday. Respondents can also give specific feedback about the family courts.

This site completed the survey and  invited HMCTS to incorporate family court service users’ experiences and advice into their reform programme. User engagement was a central theme running through all of our answers. The survey can also be answered by legal professionals.

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There are over 25 questions, some of which ask for personal information about respondents completing the survey – these questions don’t have to be answered.

Interesting questions inside the survey include queries about trust levels around HMCTS and which news outlets respondents feel offer impartial, trustworthy updates. While the survey is an effort at gauging the organisation’s success, it also reads like an evaluation of its new head Susan Acland-Hood, who was brought in to try to improve the court system.

We’ve added the main questions below so you can get a feel for the survey. (Some of the potential answers offered may not show up in full).

You can take the survey here. Deadline for submissions is 10th May, 2019.

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Government Publishes Controversial Child Protection Toolkit

A newly published government guide on how to disrupt child exploitation in the UK highlights the many problems with our child protection system.

The guidance, which was published on 15th April, offers a summary of the law and policy addressing child exploitation so that frontline workers can make the most of the powers available to them to prevent children from being trafficked and abused.

But the 78 page document, arguably decent for its pit-stop guide on legislative powers tackling exploitation, only serves to outline concerning gaps inside the child protection system and the failure of the law to properly define forms of exploitation.

While the press release says the toolkit is an attempt at safeguarding children from exploitation, most of the measures focus on available actions after a child has gone missing. The toolkit also offers no guidance on how to report or record details of missing children, nor does it encourage local authorities and child welfare bodies to ensure that robust details about these episodes are formally lodged.

As a bare minimum councils should be advised to record as much detail as possible about missing children, particularly why they go missing, where they go, who they go to, or with, what they engage in during their absence and how their initial escape was enabled. This information is crucial to understanding exploitation and stopping it. And all these details should be set down in records which should be made available to the public while maintaining the anonymity of every child involved.

The toolkit highlights another worrying area in child protection – the Child Abduction Warrant Notice (CAWN). These notices are not regulated by legislation or statute and effectively allow the government to threaten a suspect with arrest if they fail to comply with the Notice which can include not communicating with a child, without any tangible evidence.

Researching Reform wrote about similar Notices called C5s last year after finding a Notice online being used by police which revealed that suspects being issued with these leaflets were not told of their rights in relation to signing and agreeing to the documents. A police force slide show we found online about the C5 even calls suspects ‘perpetrators’, a term which should only be used for someone who has been found guilty of a crime. Another concern with these types of Notices includes police powers to monitor a suspect indefinitely.

The guide also explains that there are currently no legal definitions for child sexual exploitation or child criminal exploitation, making it a great deal harder to bring in suspects.

The need to engage with an exploited child’s parents should also be a priority for the child protection sector, instead the toolkit dedicates five small bullet points to parental involvement.

There is no sensitivity in the guide either on how to approach and engage with vulnerable children, which is likely to make any action selected by child protection workers fraught with complications.

The Best Practice section at the bottom of the toolkit is a nice touch, though in reality it doesn’t offer best practice guidelines so much as additional information on various topics covered by the guide.

If you’ve read the guide we’d love to hear what you think.

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“Working with families means collaborating with rather than controlling them.” – New Research

Many social workers and their managers believe so strongly that an authoritarian approach to child protection is right that they not only feel comfortable trying to control families going through child welfare proceedings but also advocate strongly for such practices, according to research published by Dr David Wilkins, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Cardiff University, Assistant Director of CASCADE, and project lead at the What Works Centre which assists regulatory body Social Work England. 

The paper argues for an inclusive form of social work, where families feel empowered and safe. Dr Wilkins explains, “Working in a participatory way with families means, at the least, seeking to collaborate with rather than control or unduly influence them.” 

The research, which was published in 2017 in the British Journal of Social Work has been uploaded onto free research site Academia, and was co-produced with Charlotte Whittaker, the curriculum lead at social work training school The Frontline.

Charlotte is responsible for developing the teaching, learning and assessment of a practice model called motivational interviewing (MI), which Psychology Today describes as a practical, empathetic, short-term counselling method which helps people find the internal motivation they need to change their behaviour while taking into account how difficult it is to make life changes. It is this form of counselling that the research paper focuses on.

Dr Wilkins’ research highlights positive social work practices using MI which have made a difference to families’ lives while also pointing out the dangers of trying to control and coerce parents during child protection proceedings. The research also calls for ground-level reform within social work as well as structural reform to make sure that social workers can put children and families at the heart of their practice.

Parents reacted to the research on social media. One mother told Researching Reform:

“My Cafcass officer doesn’t collaborate on any level. She won’t even contact me directly. She does it through my solicitor costing me more money. Having been in a controlling relationship I definitely feel I have stepped straight into another with her.”

It’s incredibly important to point out that we don’t tolerate coercive behaviour in almost any other context – all we need to do is look at current legislation which prohibits people from using controlling behaviour in a relationship to get what they want from each other. We call that kind of conduct abusive because we know it damages adults, and children.

The paper is a must-read for anyone working with families in a child protection setting, and for families too who have either experienced the child welfare system or are going through it at the moment.

The research is also an important reminder that coercion never resolves an issue as families are never fully on board with an idea they haven’t engaged with or feel any agency towards. It traps families inside a cycle which sees them return to the child protection system over and over again.

This kind of control also creates a deep and lasting mistrust of social workers and the sector.

The research makes several interesting observations about social work practice:

“Participatory principles such as collaboration, empathy and the right to self-determination are embedded in many of the codes of ethics that underpin professional social work practice (BASW, 2012; Levin andWeiss-Gal, 2009). Unsurprisingly, almost all the workers we spoke to believed they embodied these principles in their work (or said they aspired to even if they were not always able to achieve them). And yet our analysis of observed practice suggests that many workers find it hard to acknowledge parents’ feelings, to respect their choices or to draw on their expertise. In discussion with these workers, we found that, whilst they could explain what principles such as collaboration and empathy meant in theory, they found it more challenging to describe how they might be shown in practice.”

Dr Wilkins is part of a growing group of social workers who believe that working collaboratively with families is essential to excellent social work practice and that the system is there to serve families and children. Researching Reform agrees with this view.

You can follow David over on Twitter at @David82Wilkins.

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Parental Alienation Allegations Sway Family Court Judges Into Enabling Contact With Abusive Parents – Research

New research suggests that family court judges are more likely to award custody of a child to a parent after they make an allegation of parental alienation in cases where the other parent brings up an allegation of child sexual abuse.

Professor Joan Meier’s and Sean Dickson’s research published in 2017 found that family courts only believe a mother’s claim of a child’s sexual abuse 1 out of 51 times (approximately 2%) when the accused father alleges parental alienation.

The investigation also discovered that in cases where alienation is not mentioned, family courts only believe mothers’ claims about child sexual abuse 15% of the time.

Professor Meier, who is a nationally recognised expert in the US on domestic violence and the law told Forbes in August 2018 that a lack of belief in mothers’ claims impacted the way custody decisions were made.

Meier noted that mothers lost custody of their children 28% of the time when they alleged child sexual abuse, with mothers losing custody of their children more than half the time (56%) when alienation was mentioned in the decision.

Meier told Forbes, “Once again we have found that child sexual abuse allegations brought by mothers and children against fathers are almost never credited… In addition, the data confirms what we have seen in the courts — that rates of mothers losing custody to alleged abusers are at their highest when the mothers allege child sexual abuse.”

A report from Court Watch in 2014 also highlighted concerning practices around domestic violence cases in Montgomery County, which Forbes also mentions. The report notes that judges “sometimes appeared to second guess the mother’s description of risk to herself and her children… At times, the manner of these judges appeared highly skeptical, incredulous, even trivializing of the petitioner’s claims.”

Professor Meier has been the national lead on several domestic violence projects in the US, has co-written several important pieces of federal and state legislation, and also trains attorneys, judges and a range of professional organisations.

Sean Dickson is the Senior Manager of Health Systems Integration at the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.

Useful links:

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Government Plan To Keep Children Out of Care Fails to Target Inadequate Councils

The government has launched a project which aims to keep children out of the care system. The £84 million initiative will target councils with the highest numbers of children in care across the country, but will not include bids from failing councils.

The project comes at a time when the child protection sector is seeing unprecedented levels of children in care.

Up to twenty councils will receive a share of the £84m set aside for the “Strengthening Families, Protecting Children” project over a period of five years. The project offers three programmes designed to improve the safety and stability of vulnerable children and to reduce the need for families to access services. Selected councils will implement one of the three featured programmes.

Three ‘early adopters’ have already been chosen to test the project and will begin implementing the programmes in the Spring. The selected councils are Darlington, Cambridgeshire and Middlesbrough.

Only councils with an Ofsted rating of ‘requires improvement to be good’ can make bids for the funding and take part in the project, making the project’s aims questionable. The current ratings offered by Ofsted are Oustanding, Good, Requires Improvement and Inadequate.

The What Works Centre for children’s social care will evaluate the success of the project sometime after 2024, but as the project will not be allowing councils with an inadequate rating to join the programme, arguably councils in most need of the support, it is unclear what use the evaluation will be in assessing the viability of the programmes in the project.

The Department for Education’s press release offers more detail on the programmes being offered:

  • Leeds Family Valued: working with the whole family unit and any support network to encourage long term changes at home that keep children safe, working with families rather than imposing measures on them. Independent evaluation of the project’s impact on the target population shows that between 2011 and 2017, Leeds reduced the number of children on children’s services Protection Plans by nearly 50% (974 in 2011 down to 515 in 2017).
  • Hertfordshire Family Safeguarding: creates teams consisting of mental health practitioners, domestic abuse workers, probation officers and children’s social workers to strengthen the bond between couples, support fathers and male partners to prevent violent behaviour. Evaluation shows this resulted in a 39% reduction in the number of days children spent in care, for cases allocated to the safeguarding team, a 53% drop in in hospital admissions for adults in that family, and a 66% reduction in contact with the police.
  • North Yorkshire No Wrong Door: creates ‘hubs’ where young people at risk of going into care get targeted support to cope with the multiple issues they face, including lack of accommodation or contact with the police. Independent evaluation showed the programme saw a 38% fall in arrests of individuals involved during the first 18 months of the programme and a 57% reduction in A&E visits.

The launch of the project coincides with the Children Act 1989’s thirtieth anniversary.

The press release can be read here.

The criteria for entry onto the project can be found here.

Ofsted’s Local Authority Children’s Social Care reports can be accessed here. 

Many thanks to Michele Simmons for alerting us to this project.

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The Buzz

The latest child welfare items:

Buzz

MPs Launch Inquiry Into The Future Of Post-Adoption Support In England

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence (APPGAP) has just launched an inquiry looking into post-adoption support for adoptive and Special Guardianship families. The inquiry includes a survey for children, families and child welfare practitioners.

It would be heartening to see similar funds operating for families who have lost their children to the care system.

The APPGAP, which was set up in February describes itself on Parliament’s Register of APPGs as a group to, “amplify the voices and experiences of children and families engaged in adoption and other forms of permanence to inform parliamentarians and promote the development and implementation of effective policy and practice. To provide an opportunity for the ambitious exploration of innovative solutions to enable adoptive children and families to thrive.”

The Group is sponsored by Adoption UK and Home For Good, who have so far given the APPG around £10,000.

Adoption UK has a page on its website which outlines the purpose of the inquiry in more detail. The page explains that the inquiry has been launched to look at The Adoption Support Fund (ASF) and try to secure a long-term commitment from government for the ASF to fund its therapeutic support for adoptive families.

The inquiry page says that the fund has delivered more than £100m worth of support for around 35,000 families.

As part of the inquiry’s work the APPG is inviting written submissions from adoptees -including children – adopters, social workers, agencies, local authorities and support providers about their engagement with the ASF. The inquiry is particularly keen to hear from children who have engaged with the fund.

The APPG would like insight into the following areas:

  • Accessibility of the ASF, including timings and the application process
  • Types of support accessed and gaps in support provision
  • Long and short-term impacts of support accessed through the fund

The survey for children and young people can be accessed here. 

The survey for adults can be found here. 

Terms of reference for the inquiry can be read here.

If you have any questions or comments you can send them to: info@appgap.org.uk

The deadline for sending in submissions is 24 April, 2019 at noon.

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The Buzz

The latest news items:

Buzz

My Social Worker Is Stalking Me On Facebook – What Can I Do?

As social workers increasingly take to social media to spy on parents and children going through family proceedings, Researching Reform takes a look at what families can do to protect themselves from online privacy breaches.

The news last week that family social workers have been breaking the law to gather information on parents going through child protection proceedings by collecting information about children from social media accounts has understandably alarmed families.

The revelation has left parents feeling more targeted than ever by social services, who they say are unjustly and aggressively removing children in order to compensate for shrinking budgets inside local authorities.

Fostering agencies in the UK made in excess of £41m profit in 2015. Last year, Britain’s foster care industry was valued at £1.7 billion.

The Chief Surveillance Commissioner’s annual report from 2014 also notes the way public authorities are behaving in order to claw back costs:

“In cash-strapped public authorities, it might be tempting to conduct on-line investigations from a desktop, as this saves time and money, and often provides far more detail about someone’s personal lifestyle, employment, associates, etc. But just because one can, does not mean one should. The same considerations of privacy, and especially collateral intrusion against innocent parties, must be applied regardless of the technological advances.”

Families going through child protection proceedings often feel isolated and unsupported, as legal representation is too expensive for many to access and legal aid has become almost impossible to secure.

Rules which prevent families from discussing their cases with outsiders also heighten a sense of loneliness and disempowerment during a process which is gruelling and at times inhumane.

The reality of the family court experience has led to a surge in service users gathering online to find information and support from other families who are going, or have gone through the system. Social media has also become a place where families who feel their children have been unjustly removed go to expose their concerns.

Social workers have tried to quell online activity through court-ordered non-disclosure agreements which prevent families from discussing their cases on public forums like Twitter and Facebook. Social work professionals have been quick to respond to the difficulties in policing this kind of activity and enforcing such orders and they have started to change tack.

Now, children’s social workers are using the internet to spy on families and collect as much information as they can to bolster their reports and assessments, but they are breaking the law.

Subject access requests (SARs) shown to this site also reveal an alarming trend within councils of producing forms for social workers to fill out in which they ask for personal information about service users’ social media accounts, without following the law. One service user told Researching Reform:

“I did a SAR request and came across a form which actually asks the social worker “Are there any pictures of the child on social media?” so it would seem to be a part of the job.”

Another parent who has been through the family court told this site about their SAR request, which had been redacted – the name of the social worker who had unlawfully gathered data from the mother had been removed. No other information was edited out.

Other service users described their own experiences of being stalked by social workers online. One father said:

“[Social services] have been stalking me for years now on Facebook. It doesn’t bother me, I’ve got nothing at all to hide. Only letting them know the truth –  that Our Daughter is Still Loved and Missed. They are not going to try to bully us again.”

Research published by the Times newspaper last month confirmed that social workers in the UK were engaging in criminal activity as they collected data from families going through child welfare proceedings. The research noted that social workers were not following legislation on data collection and in failing to comply were in violation of the law.

While there is an urgent need for a review of these practices, any change in behaviour will be slow and so the aim of this post is to ensure that families can protect themselves immediately from data breaches.

Facebook

As social workers become more familiar with platforms like Facebook, research has highlighted a growing trend in child welfare professionals setting up fake accounts to monitor families. Social workers will use those accounts to send friend requests to families and then monitor their profiles, online activity and posts.

Friends of Friends

A quick and efficient way of protecting Facebook accounts is to set your account from public to private and remove open access to your Friend Request button so that you only allow friends of friends to connect with you. The setting also removes the Friend Request button from your account which prevents strangers from being able to see or access the button.

While this does not ensure that all friend requests will be genuine – a friend may have accidentally connected to a fake account which could try to connect with you – it significantly decreases the risk of your account being exposed to criminal activity.

The setting can be changed by:

Going to Privacy Settings >>> How People Find and Contact You >>> Who Can Send You Friend Requests >>> Friend of Friend

You can also set your Facebook posts to Private as the default position, make your Friends list private and block people from finding you through searches. This post from LifeWire offers quick steps on how to set up these safety measures.

Blocking

If you suspect that you are connected to a fake account, Facebook also allows you the option of blocking the account. Facebook offers a quick set by step guide on how to block users.

Reporting an Account

Fake accounts can also be reported to Facebook. The platform also allows you to give details about the account, and to file a full report.

Reporting Abuse

The option to report abusive behaviour is also offered on Facebook. Abusive behaviour includes social workers being rude about, or to, service users online, and breaking the law while gathering data on families (we will explain a little further down how to spot illegal data gathering). This page on Facebook offers information on how to report abusive accounts and content.

Evidence 

Before taking any action against an account, we would strongly recommend doing the following:

  • Set up a private ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ page where members can discuss suspicious-looking accounts in order to work out whether they are genuine or fake
  • Once an account has been deemed fake, take a screenshot of the account page and write down its URL in order to have a record of the name and details of the account
  • If you have received correspondence from a council that your account has been viewed, review the data the council has set down from your account. If the data has come from more than one page, or has been accessed several times from the same page (i.e. if the council sets down the number of times the same piece of data has been logged by them), make a record of this and take screenshots of each accessed page.

The Law

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) councils and their agents – which includes social workers – can view a Facebook account once without engaging legal protocols, but are then legally required to obtain permission for repeat viewing or continued surveillance.

There is significant controversy around using RIPA for spying on parents in child welfare proceedings. The legislation was criticised by Lords and politicians in 2016, who argued that it was only ever intended to be used to protect the British public from extreme threats such as terrorism.

RIPA and Facebook

If a social worker wants to explore a service user’s account, their council will need to carry out an assessment to assess whether the spying is warranted, beforehand.

Where a council decides that data collection is appropriate, the social worker will then need to get an order from a magistrate to collect that information.

RIPA legislation kicks in every time an investigator/social worker looks at a Facebook account while taking steps to hide their activity from the account holder they are spying on.

Where a social worker accesses a service user’s Facebook account through a Friend Request, this automatically places a legal responsibility on the council to ensure that RIPA has been followed by their social worker.

Under section 26(8) of RIPA that connection signifies an intent to establish or maintain a personal or other relationship with a person for the covert purpose of facilitating data collection and sharing that data with others.

When deciding whether or not to authorise a social worker to access a service user’s Facebook account, councils will also need to comply with the Human Rights Act – specifically Article 8, which provides for a right to respect for private and family life – and the Data Protection Act 1998. 

Further Reading:

Suing the Council 

If a social worker has breached RIPA in accessing your personal information, you are entitled to pursue a claim against the council.

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