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The child welfare stories that should be right on your radar:

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At Least 5,000 Children In Care Have Been Separated From Their Siblings

A Freedom Of Information request has revealed that at least 5,000 children in care in England and Wales, have been separated from their siblings.

The staggering figure was revealed after 50 councils responded to the request. The actual figure, however, is likely to be much higher. There are 125 ‘single tier’ authorities in England and Wales, which all function as billing authorities for Council Tax and local education authorities.

We could not find the Freedom Of Information request (please do let us know if you spot it), however data published by media outlets offer the following insights:

  • Nearly 2,500 sibling groups, at least 5,000 children, are currently split up in care;
  • In 30 of the 50 councils, more than 50% of sibling groups had been separated;
  • In Islington, 73% of their sibling groups are split up;
  • In Oxfordshire 68% of their sibling groups are separated;
  • 60% of sibling groups are split in Cheshire West and Chester.

The debate over siblings being separated in care is not new. In August 2012, Martin Narey, who is also dubbed The Adoption Tsar and is currently the government’s senior advisor on all things adoption, urged policy makers to end the presumption that siblings should be kept together.

Narey’s reasons for calling on the government to end this presumption were so poor that we broke them down on this blog. Here are some of his views on the subject, which he aired in an interview with online magazine, Children and Young People Now:

“One of the instances where separation of siblings is probably wise, is where a particular child has started to parent a younger child, where they have compensated for the neglect and abuse they have received by a parent, essentially becoming a parent for the younger child.” 

Surely the better solution is to support the older child in changing their behaviours towards the younger sibling? This can be done by showing the older sibling that there is someone there to support the younger sibling (the parent or carer), a measure which both prevents the siblings from being traumatised by a separation, and at the same time, allows the older sibling to readjust.

“Sibling groups have to wait on average a year longer to be adopted than individual children, due to a shortage of adopters willing and able to adopt groups of children.”

This doesn’t justify re-traumatising already vulnerable children. If we made our care homes loving, supportive environments for these children, waiting would not be an issue.

And whilst we have politicians and figure heads focusing on profit before child protection, it is likely that this kind of poor policy will continue to dog the system.

The data from this Freedom Of Information request is warmly received, and timely. We hope the government will stop looking at short term solutions and start thinking about the bigger picture.

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Victims: Going To Court Can Be Worse Than The Abuse We Suffered.

Growing concerns about the use of court rooms, and their impact on victims and quality of evidence have emerged this month, with the publication of a damning new report. The document also confirms that victims of rape routinely feel that the court experience leaves them more traumatised than the sexual violence they’ve suffered.

The report, which was organised by The Rape Crisis Network Ireland, and produced by the Vulnerable Witnesses MultiAgency Group, explains that modern psychological research doesn’t support the current view that live evidence produces the best quality evidence, and that much better results would be achieved through pre recording a statement soon after a complaint is made.

The document also observes that the current system relies “too much on memory and performance on a given day, years after the event and on the ability to articulate simple answers swiftly, clearly and unambiguously to complex, sometimes unclear, or even occasionally misleading questions.”

The research Group goes on to recommend the use of pre recorded evidence as a better alternative to live, face to face evidence giving, including evidence given via live video feeds. The report comes at a time when child rights campaigners are calling on the government to stop rolling out live feeds in court for child witnesses, warning that the practice increases the risk of wrongful convictions and unfair sentences. 

The report, which was published in March, also suggests that pre-trial hearings should be placed on a statutory footing, and should be the primary means through which special protection needs are determined.

The measures in the report aim to reduce the traumatic elements of the court process, and deliver the best possible evidence available, and are designed to support vulnerable witnesses, for example those with intellectual disability or mental health difficulties as well as victims of sexual or domestic violence. The measures would also support and protect child witnesses.

Along with the publication of the report, a conference held in Dublin this month, hosted by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, the Bar Council and the Law Society, confirmed that the court experience leaves victims feeling re-traumatised. Maria McDonald, a lawyer present at the conference, called for measures to be introduced such as allowing vulnerable witnesses and children to bring comforting objects like teddies with them to court, to have in their possession whilst being questioned, which at the very least could act as a supportive interim measure until evidence giving in court rooms is properly reviewed.

Researching Reform warmly recommends the measures in the report, and we hope that they will be considered, and piloted, in criminal and family courts around the UK.

You can read the report in full here. 

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Question It!

Welcome to another week.

Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, who is also a judge in the Court of Appeal, gave a speech last week, in which he said that the family courts’ focus must be on safeguarding children’s best interests, and that better training was needed for judges.

Ryder also questioned the system’s current adversarial approach, which has historically led to a shift in focus away from children’s needs, and more on individual performances of lawyers representing parties. On this point, he observed that an adversarial approach ‘is challenged in the context of family justice with its more inquisitorial process, where the focus must be, on ‘safeguarding children by securing their best interests’.

Whilst Ryder notes that family courts are increasingly trying to use inquisitorial avenues to process cases, the Family Court still remains largely adversarial, from the processes used, to the working, day-to-day culture inside the courts. The discussion about these two models though, is not new.

Researching Reform started the debate around whether the family courts should remain adversarial, or switch to an inquisitorial model in 2010, where we attempted to offer a balanced view of both. The two systems are not always mutually exclusive, with neither being completely immune to bias, error, or abuse of power. Both models can also share similar characteristics, and unsurprisingly, a more inquisitorial model would hand judges far greater powers than they have at present, which may explain judicial support for an inquisitorial system.

Our question this week, then, is just this: would you like to see the Family Court move away from an adversarial system, to an inquisitorial one? 

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Former Labour Councillor For Rochdale Suspended By Party After Child Abuse Inquiry Findings Published

Richard Farnell, former council leader for Rochdale and a Labour representative, has been suspended from the party after the nation’s child abuse inquiry found he had lied under oath. 

The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse found he had lied whilst giving evidence about the Knowl View sexual abuse scandal in hearings last year. Farnell claimed he was unaware of ongoing abuse allegations whilst acting as leader of the council between 1988 and 1992.

You can read the inquiry’s report, which was published today, in full, here.

The revelation caused the Labour party to scramble for a response, and suspended their councillor within 30 minutes of the inquiry’s report being published.

Prior to the findings, a petition on Change.org pushing for a vote of no confidence in the Rochdale council leader, outlining allegations of dishonesty and profiteering from his position, was launched.

The inquiry called Farnell’s denial of child abuse taking place in his constituency shameful.

Inquiry Chair, Professor Alexis Jay, commented:

“After listening to the evidence presented by a number of victims and survivors in Rochdale at the time, I am deeply disturbed at the evidence of extensive abuse and the institutional responses to that abuse.

“Many of those who testified to their abuse have never had the opportunity to seek justice through the courts. I hope that the public hearings and this report has offered them some measure of acknowledgement for their suffering.”

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The Buzz

Child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

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Is Government Quietly Privatising The Social Care Sector To Sell It For Parts?

A series of developments inside the social care sector suggests a worrying trend to keep children in state care, and maximise lucrative fostering and adoption placements.

As child poverty in England continues to sky-rocket, it’s likely that more children will find themselves inside the social care sector through no fault of their own. Families struggling to feed and clothe their children will become even more vulnerable to government intervention, and with state care already buckling under the pressure of looked after children – care applications rose by 8% in February this year, signalling the second highest monthly total for a February on record – the government is clearly looking to find ways to shift the burden off the state and, perhaps, make a profit from the trade.

There is already a growing trend to sell adoption and fostering as preferred alternatives to keeping families together where possible, despite momentum building inside the sector for family focused support services. A review of the state of foster care in England produced in February of this year by Martin Narey, dubbed the adoption tsar, and Mark Owers, tried unsuccessfully to paint a rosy picture of the fostering sector, despite the data, which shows quite clearly that outcomes for fostered children are still unacceptably poor, remaining unchanged.

Social Work England, the government’s new regulatory body which is set to replace the Health and Care Professions Council, has also caused concern amongst social work professionals, who believe that SWE will reduce the sector’s independence and effectively hand over complete control of the sector to the government.

SWE is currently being managed by a charity called Nesta, which claims to work with partners and national governments all over the world to tackle what they call big challenges. And whilst their efforts are admirable, none of the success stories featured on their website represent large-scale challenges or extensive experience working within the social care sector, although it claims to have worked with over 40 governments ‘at every level’. The charity, which is based in Victoria, a stone’s throw from Whitehall, is being led by several current and former civil servants, and entrepreneurs with blue chip backgrounds in venture capital law, corporate finance and fund management.

Whilst the executive team at Nesta is not in itself questionable, it is the board of Trustees which looks odd at first glance. Most charities tend to list their people in order of seniority, with the Chair and Trustees on the front page of the Who We Are section, or its equivalent. Nesta, though, has chosen to order its staff alphabetically and has tucked its Chair away, at the end of a page.

Nesta’s controversial Chair, Sir John Gieve, is listed at the very bottom of the Trustees list, and unlike the rest of the Nesta team who are all filed under the initial of their first name, John can be found under ‘S’ for Sir. Forget to scroll, and you might miss him. Perhaps that was Nesta’s intention.

Gieve, whose disastrous careers at the Home Office and the Bank of England led to his departure from both the government body and the financial institution, seems like a high risk choice to run a managing body. Gieve was pressed to resign from his position as permanent secretary at the Home Office after a National Audit Office review of its accounts for 2004-05 revealed errors so wild that they beggared belief, an incident which followed the lost prisoner scandal, in which it emerged that more than 1,000 prisoners had been released from British prisons without being considered for deportation, under Gieve’s watch. Gieve was also forced to resign as deputy governor of the Bank Of England, after the Northern Rock scandal. The committee’s chairman at the time, John McFall, accused Gieve of being “asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front.”

Another Trustee and career civil servant, Moira Wallace, was also subject to calls to resign from her post as Provost of Oriel College, in 2016, after questions were raised over her leadership abilities. Wallace was embroiled in another controversial clash in 2013 with the then energy secretary Ed Davey, which led to her leaving her previous job as permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but not without receiving what was widely thought to be the biggest ever Whitehall severance package at the time.

Several more trustees have extensive experience working in private equity, a background which lends itself perfectly to the privatisation of services, including those offered within the social care system.

The credentials, and professional histories of Nesta’s trustees are enough to cause a stir inside the social care sector, already deeply sensitive to mismanagement, and privatisation. But privatisation creep inside the system is not new and continues on, largely unopposed.

In 2014, the government was already pressing ahead with the marketisation and privatisation of children’s social services. A strong public backlash followed, which forced the government to issue a revised regulation. Crucially, the revision did not stop private sector companies from getting contracts to provide children’s social care services. Instead, it simply required the companies to set up not-for-profit subsidiaries to provide the services – a little like Nesta is doing for Social Work England.

Research produced in 2015 by Corporate Watch revealed that eight commercial fostering agencies made around £41m profit between them from providing foster placements to local authorities. Fostering and adoption agencies are big business, and with the promise of profits like these, the sector seems ripe for full-scale commercialisation. If privatisation was good for vulnerable children it could be forgiven, but the emerging data does not show any visible difference in outcomes for children who experience commercial placements. In fact, an expose by ITV in December of last year confirms the worst – whilst children in care are given the bare minimum under these kinds of arrangements, private companies are siphoning off the majority of the funds.

And when children’s care homes fail, private equity firms then make millions from their demise. 

Despite the Department for Education’s updates on developments inside the sector, little seems to be known about the recruitment processes for positions within bodies like Social Work England, Cafcass and the Independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Is the Department for Education really being transparent about its agenda, or is a picture emerging of a government ruthlessly chopping up the social care sector to sell it for parts?

 

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Question it!

Welcome to another week.

April is always Child Abuse Prevention Month here at Researching Reform, and this year, we are going to share our Top Ten ‘How To’s’ which focus on stopping abuse before it starts.

  1. Economics: A functional society that wants to reduce incidents of child abuse has to be one where children get the best possible start in life. It’s not a coincidence that most ‘at risk’ children are vulnerable children long before they’re victims of abuse.
  2. Education: The vast majority of child abuse happens within a home setting, carried out at the hands of relatives or family friends. Raising awareness around the different types of abuse, why they occur and what can be done to stop these abuses is crucial.
  3. Excellence in training: The social work sector needs to start raising the bar. One of our original Bug Bears, social work courses and training sessions continue to work to a standard the sector calls the ‘good enough’ principle. Much of day to day practice though, is nowhere near good enough. Either revise the definition and content of the courses to ensure that good enough is good enough, or strive for something far more exciting: the best practice standard. If the sector gets this right, the label really won’t matter, but the results will matter to vulnerable children everywhere. (It’s also the only way this sector can rebuild its reputation. Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it).
  4. Everybody Counts: From agencies working with each other and not against each other, to birth parents playing an inclusive role in an adopted child’s life wherever possible, the idea that everybody counts in the child protection ecosystem, is a huge one. If we don’t acknowledge that every individual has something important to offer, and go back and constantly revise those roles to ensure they’re working in the best interests of every child, the system will keep on failing.
  5. Ethical Practice: The system can’t ignore the fact that it is suffering under the weight of unethical behaviours and routine law breaking by professionals working in it. We have to take stock of, and revise those functions, before we can put an end to what’s become blatant defiance of policy and legislation designed to protect vulnerable children in the first place.
  6. Experts: As a minimum, the government should pass legislation that requires every practicing social worker to register with an independent regulatory body. All experts working with the family courts should also be vetted by an independent organisation tasked with checking backgrounds, qualifications and practice history.
  7. Explain Everything: Doctors and surgeons don’t expect their patients to speak the language of medicine when they advise or operate on them, and vulnerable families should not be expected to understand legalease, or be shut out from life changing decisions which affect them if they don’t. It’s time the family justice system set everything down in plain English.
  8. Equality: vulnerable families should be treated with the respect and dignity that everyone else inside the system expects to receive. We are all here to support these families, not the other way around.
  9. Evidence: A proper system for gathering evidence, filing it and ensuring that decisions are only made off the back of genuine, high quality data has to be implemented. A social worker spending 5 minutes with a child and then writing a report which is designed to send that child into care should never be allowed. We have the scientific tools at our disposal to get some truly powerful insights into what children really need, let’s use them.
  10. Efficiency: managers of every department should be required to look at their department’s working processes to see what works and what doesn’t, with the sole aim of ensuring that vulnerable children are given the time and support they need. If that form you’re being asked to fill in is completely pointless and taking up time that could be spent talking to a vulnerable child and being there for them, flag it up. The more people who join together to speak up, the more of a difference you can make.

Our question this week then, is just this: what would be on your list? 

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Petition Calls For The Removal Of Children and Families MP

A petition on Change.org calling on the government to remove Children and Families Under Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has racked up almost 2,000 signatures. Two more petitions were submitted on Parliament’s own Petitions site, but were rejected because the site does not allow petitions asking for government ministers to be sacked.

Zahawi came to the public’s attention after he attended the President’s Club dinner, which was widely condemned for its appalling treatment of waitresses and hostesses working at the function, and its controversial non disclosure agreement which prevented employees from talking about incidents of sexual harassment at the venue. The club has since shut down, but question marks remain over Zahawi’s attendance after an Urgent Question in the House of Commons revealed inconsistencies in Zahawi’s statements about the event.

The petition reads:

“Nadhim Zahawi has been reprimanded by Chief Whip, Julian Smith, for attending the men only The Presidents Club fundraiser where hostesses were subjected to groping and lewd comments. Mr Zahawi claims that he left the event early but has admitted to having attended the event in previous years.

TheyWorkForYou.com statistics show that Mr Zahawi generally votes against laws to promote equality and human rights and has consistently voted for University tuition fees.

Mr Zahawi also called for cuts to Child Benefits and Child Tax Credits and for them to be stopped after two children. Zahawi said: “Capping welfare by family size would save billions.”

Even though Mr Zahawi states that he “felt uncomfortable” at the men only fundraiser, why would somebody who felt it was acceptable to go to a men only event be the right person to speak for children and families?”

Whilst the President’s Club scandal continues to plague Zahawi – his constituents are still demanding answers to questions , which he is refusing to give – his income and connections are raising eyebrows as well. Listed as the second richest MP in Britain, largely due to his involvement with an oil company operating inside Iraq, Zahawi was also a former adviser to David Cameron, and counts Michael Gove as one of his closest friends. Tipped to be a government official by Cameron in 2013, tensions rose between the pair after Zahawi suggested an amnesty for illegal immigrants. David Cameron publicly hit out at Zahawi over the comments, during an EU summit,  telling attendees it was not a policy he supported.

No stranger to controversy, Zahawi was also accused of supplying oil to Islamic State by Iranian media outlet, Press TV in 2017. Zahawi took the broadcaster to court and later won damages for libel after the judge claimed that Zahawi had been a victim of fake news.

His voting record too, makes for compelling reading. Zahawi has consistently voted against legislation promoting equality and human rights, a sticking point particularly after the President’s Club fiasco. He has also voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, more specifically, “against an investigation into the contrast between public statements and private actions in the run up to the Iraq war”.

Zahawi’s election to the role of children and families lead is an unusual one. Unlike his predecessors, Zahawi has not been given a full Ministerial role. As Parliamentary Under Secretary, which is the lowest of three tiers of government minister in the United Kingdom, Zahawi is subordinate to Ministers of State, who in turn answer to Secretaries of State. An uncharitable quote by the Duke of Devonshire who served in McMillan’s 1957- 1963 Conservative government, sums up the title:

“No one who hasn’t been a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State has any conception of how unimportant a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is.”

Whilst some news outlets at the time of Zahawi’s appointment suggested that the diminutive title was a reflection of the government’s lack of interest in child welfare, the truth is more likely to center around Zahawi’s own credentials and the reasons behind his elevation to a government department position.

And as a junior government official, Zahawi will be very keen to please the Conservative cabinet and do whatever it takes to secure a position as a fully fledged minister.

Many thanks to Oeillade for sharing the petition with us.

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