It is encouraging to see the BBC picking up on work carried out by Researching Reform and campaigners like Sammy Woodhouse, Rachel Williams and Teresa Whittaker to offer these important issues even more exposure. We hope the programme doesn’t over-simplify the issues, and offers a careful and well thought out look at why this kind of contact occurs.
The UK has found itself at the bottom of a global index which monitors the enforcement, protection and promotion of children’s rights.
Dutch international children’s rights organization KidsRights placed the UK 170th out of 181 countries in its 2019 index.
The UK was also ranked 178th out of 181 countries when it came to providing an appropriate environment for children’s rights. The index included the UK’s performance over its implementation of the following elements:
The ‘best interest of the child’ policy,
Respect for the views of children and their engagement in processes which affect them,
Enabling child-focused legislation,
Offering proper budgets for child welfare,
The collection and analysis of child-focused data and,
State-civil society cooperation for child rights.
Iceland ranked first in this year’s index, followed by Portugal, Switzerland, Finland and Germany marking the countries as the top five most successful states when it came to protecting children’s rights in 2019.
The nine countries ranked lower than the UK included war-torn countries and states which had experienced long-term conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan which came in last on the index.
A report published at the same time as the index criticised the UK’s approach to children’s rights, noting systematic discrimination against child refugees and a lack of legal protection for children experiencing poverty.
“The UK’s low rankings are attributed to discrimination against children from minority groups such as refugees or migrants. As well as concerns that the views of children, especially children from a poorer social background, are systematically not being heard in policymaking on issues that affect them and, insufficient investment in children’s rights.”
The UK ranked a little better in other areas, coming in at number 20 for domain life which assessed under 5 mortality, life expectancy at birth and maternal mortality ratio.
Other scores for the UK included:
35/ 181 – percentage of under 5s who were underweight, immunization of 1 year-old children, percentage of the population using improved sanitation facilities (urban and rural), percentage of the population using improved drinking water sources (urban and rural)
12/181- education, namely expected years of schooling of boys and girls, and gender inequality in expected years of schooling (absolute difference between girls and boys)
30/181 – child labour, adolescent birth rate and birth registration
Many thanks to Teresa for sharing this index with us.
Ireland has just launched a public consultation on open and semi-open adoptions which could pave the way for biological families to participate more fully in the adoption process and stay in contact with their children after adoption.
The country’s department for Children and Youth Affairs is holding an open debate today which will include adoption experts, service providers and groups focused on children’s rights and their perspectives on welfare issues which affect them.
England and Wales currently practice a form of open adoption though contact between birth parents and their biological children usually ends after an adoption order is made.
The Children and Families Act 2014 in England and Wales allows post-adoption contact with birth parents, but it is heavily tilted in favour of the wishes and feelings of the adoptive parents, rather than the best interests of the adopted child.
A growing body of research produced by social workers and child welfare experts is also starting to challenge what are increasingly being seen as damaging and restrictive policies around child contact with birth parents within the adoption process in England and Wales.
While the terms set down for open and semi-open adoptions can vary, the consultation page offers these definitions and examples of open and semi-open adoptions:
“‘Open adoption’ is most commonly understood to refer to arrangements involving post-adoption contact between members of birth and adoptive families of adopted children under 18.
‘Semi-open adoption’ usually means arrangements for indirect contact such as the sharing of information and or items between members of birth and adoptive families, usually facilitated or mediated by social workers. In practice, open adoption and semi-open adoption may take on many different forms, including:
Birth parents providing information to social workers about themselves and their lives, such as their medical histories or family background, so that these details can be shared with the adopted child;
The adoptive parents writing to the birth parents by regular arrangement to let them know how the adopted child is getting on, in school, for instance;
Face to face meetings or visits between the adopted child and his or her birth parent;
Birth parents sending birthday cards to the adopted child; or
Arrangements for the adopted child to meet up with his or her birth siblings or grandparents.”
The questionnaire contains sections which ask for your views on open and semi-open adoptions.
Ireland’s Children and Youth Affairs minister Katharine Zappone is concerned about the impact of current adoption policies on children’s health and wellbeing.
Zappone told the Law Society Gazette Ireland, “Understandings of what is meant by open or semi-open adoption vary but these terms usually refer to arrangements for information sharing between adoptive and birth families as well as an option for contact.
“This is a complex and sensitive issue. As we are in the early stages of having this discussion in Ireland, it is vital that we gain the views of those affected by adoption as well as other key stakeholders in order to find out what works best for children and families.”
She added, “Adoption is a hugely significant event in the life of a child,” Zappone said.
“When considering any proposed change to adoption policy, we must be guided by what is in the child’s best interests.”
A speech made yesterday by the President of the Family Division has just been published by the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary.
Speech by President of the Family Division: Nicholas Wall Memorial Lecture 2019
Current President of the Family Division, Andrew McFarlane reflects on the life of Nicholas Wall, a former President, and Head of Family Justice for England and Wales who passed away in 2017.
McFarlane goes on to talk about contact, child protection, secure accommodation, the Children Act 1989, and adoption.
The speech also marks the 30th anniversary of the Children Act 1989.
Nicholas sat on a panel for a Researching Reform debate we hosted with Mishcon de Reya in 2009 in the House of Commons, which looked at protecting children during divorce. We remember him as a thoughtful judge, who questioned the significant harm threshold more than once and advocated for no fault divorce.
Heather, who only represents families, spoke about the current gaps inside the system caused by budget cuts which made it harder for her to secure support for families and the legal challenges faced by women experiencing domestic abuse. Malek talked about the history behind forced adoption and the rise in litigants in person inside the family courts as legal aid cuts kicked in.
Researching Reform chose to speak about the unprecedented spike in child removals, the theories as to why there had been an increase in care orders and how families who just need support find themselves trapped inside the system with the threat of care orders looming over them. We explained how budget cuts and entrenched cultural practices created obstacles to accessing support and crucially, created a trend towards child removal.
We are very grateful to Young Legal Aid Lawyers and 39 Essex Chambers for giving Researching Reform the opportunity to amplify families’ voices at the conference, and it was a privilege to sit on a panel with such accomplished and passionate lawyers.
A House of Commons debate looking at food poverty in the UK and how it is affecting children across the country is being held today.
The debate will discuss the Children’s Future Food Inquiry report, which offers insight into school food shortages, hunger and food poverty experienced by children in the UK.
The inquiry has prepared a briefing paper for anyone interested in learning more about the issues ahead of the debate which starts at 9.30am.
The report collected evidence through workshops with around 400 children; an academic review of child food insecurity; polling young people; evidence submissions from people working with children; a UK-wide policy review; and secondary analysis of Government data on the affordability of a healthy diet.
The report was launched on 25 April 2019 by the Inquiry’s Ambassador, Dame Emma Thompson and the Inquiry’s young Food Ambassadors, and makes the following recommendations:
Expanding free school meals;
Expanding voucher schemes and other policies to enable healthy eating
The creation of a Children’s Food Watchdog;
Addressing the marketing of unhealthy foods); and
Additional recommendations regarding free school meals including renaming it as a “school meal allowance to remove the stigma attached to free school meals
The Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) analyses child protection cases in Ireland with a view to informing the public and improving the child care system inside the country.
The project, which was launched in 2012, focuses on the reporting of childcare cases in Ireland and is part of a research programme established by Ireland’s then Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald in the same year. The current minister is Katherine Zappone.
Dr Coulter, who reports on the cases for the project told the Irish Times in 2012, “We must… distinguish between privacy and secrecy. We can protect people’s privacy without maintaining secrecy. This project will be doing that.”
The Board of Directors includes Noeline Blackwell, (Chair) CEO, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre; Judge Catherine McGuinness, former Supreme Court judge and President of the Law Reform Commission; Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Irish Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection; Dr Carol Coulter, Executive Director of the Project; and Maria Corbett, former Deputy Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.
The project is an excellent one.
We’d like to invite the President of the Family Division and interested lawyers and reporters to put a similar project together for England and Wales, but to amp it up with in-depth stats, service-user led input and a dedicated minister to put the findings to parliament so that legislation can be amended to make the courts fit for purpose.
Big data tools used in children’s social care are to be reviewed by Oxford University’s Rees Centre and the Alan Turing Institute.
The review will offer recommendations for the ethical use of machine learning in children’s social care and propose solutions for some of AI’s current weaknesses including bias, discrimination, inaccuracy, and poor data quality.
The child protection sector already applies machine learning in a variety of ways including the use of software to detect child abuse, which has raised concern among child welfare reformers, family law experts and social workers.
Several big data pilots inside the sector have been criticised for failing to interpret data effectively or offer credible methods for identifying child abuse and neglect.
The Troubled Families programme which was launched in 2012 was shut down after it was condemned by the Public Accounts Committee in 2016 for being ineffective and unethical.
Analysts at the programme were also exposed by a whistleblower in 2016, for fraudulently trying to manipulate the software’s data after it failed to achieved the desired results. The Troubled Families programme used big data software called ClearCore to evaluate families around the country. Despite its terrible track record, the programme was revived in February.
Since 2015, councils across the country have been piloting software produced by a firm called Xantura, which claims to identify children at risk of harm. While the councils say that the big data software has anywhere between a 60-80% success rate, there is no information on how that success rate has been measured.
Feedback from some councils suggests that social workers using Xantura’s software have been slow to trust the model, because it is not completely effective, or accurate.
The review into the ethics of machine learning has been commissioned by the What Works Centre, a project funded by the government which currently assists new social care watchdog Social Work England.
Dr Lisa Holmes, Director, The Rees Centre (Department of Education, University of Oxford) said:
“I am pleased to be working on this project with colleagues at The Alan Turing Institute. We recognise the need for transparency in this area and welcome the opportunity to interrogate the issues related to the appropriateness of machine learning in children’s social care”.
Dr David Leslie, Ethics Fellow, The Alan Turing Institute added:
“This joint effort to assess prospects for the responsible design and deployment of machine learning systems in the children’s social care sector couldn’t be more timely or critical, given that these systems are currently in use across the UK. Our work will include engagement with researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders to ensure we deliver results that will encourage well-informed and ethical decisions be made about the application of these powerful technologies in real world scenarios.”
Explaining the current position in relation to AI and the child welfare sector, Vicky Clayton, Senior Researcher, What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care said:
“Machine learning is already being used in the children’s social care sector in the UK but without a solid ethical framework to help practitioners make decisions about when and importantly when not to use machine learning. We are excited that The Rees Centre and The Alan Turing Institute will be combining their expertise to provide a map across what can be rocky terrain.”
The researchers will reach out to experts and stakeholders in order to produce the review, which is set to be published in Autumn 2019.