Interesting Cases

This week’s cases were taken from the most recent set of Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman complaints, and they are compelling.

One of the biggest takeaways from these cases is the investigatory gap which exists between complaints bodies, resulting in important issues going un-examined.

For example, the Ombudsman can look at council process, but it cannot investigate matters being looked at in family courts, even if some of the elements in those cases also do not fall within the court’s remit.

The end result creates a loophole, in which families and children find they cannot seek relief for the most basic of injustices. The cases below highlight this point.

London Borough of Bromley (18 015 715)

This case features a complaint made by parents in relation to the way the council issued care proceedings for their son, who has autism. The parents said they had been treated badly by social workers and had been routinely ignored when they asked for information during the proceedings.

They had contacted the council to seek support for their son, but found that the council was more interested in issuing care proceedings, after discovering their son’s needs were complex and posed a substantial challenge to the council.

The parents accused the council of issuing unnecessary care proceedings and of fabricating risk assessments to meet the relevant thresholds for care applications.

The council then dropped its care application ten minutes before the hearing and provided no explanation for changing its mind.

Very much worth a read, for the several other awkward developments which prevented this family from having their complaint properly examined.

London Borough of Newham (18 017 840)

This case involved a couple who were informed by the council that their baby would be taken into care as soon as the child was born (the Ombudsman uses the word ‘it’ to describe the baby, we wish people wouldn’t), but were also initially told that would not be the case.

The couple’s relationship was marked by some domestic violence, but both parents actively took classes and assessments to try to address their conduct. The court noted the effort and set aside the adoption order the council requested to allow the mother to be assessed further.

The family were reunited, and lived under a supervision order until it ran out in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the parents felt they had been badly treated by the council.

However, the case was set aside by the Ombudsman for exceeding the time limit to apply to the complaints body.

Birmingham City Council (19 002 217)

This complaint stems from the way a mother and her children were treated by social services, and the errors she said were prevalent in the council’s files about her case.

One of the concerns the mother raised was that social workers arrived at her children’s school to observe them. In a previous post on RR, we explain that this practice has no legitimate policy or law to underpin it, and that social worker visits during school hours whether to observe, interview or remove a child are not professional, nor are they appropriate. (And Ofsted agrees).

The case also involved surveillance of the family, the mother being questioned in the street by council officers, and allegations that the mother had committed criminal offences, which the mother said was not true.

The Ombudsman said it could not investigate what happened within schools, and that it did not have any evidence to find fault with the council, and so the complaint was dropped.

Sheffield City Council (18 015 263)

In this case, a father who alleged that the mother of his child had been emotionally abusive to their son complained that the council had used incorrect and outdated information about him during the proceedings.

That information was being transferred to other departments to be used for assessments, therefore perpetuating the errors which made the assessments inaccurate and flawed.

The father told the Ombudsman that if the assessments in this case had been carried out properly, he would not have lost contact with his children.

The mother made a number of false allegations against the father which were disproved by previous assessments but not taken into account during the final proceedings. There were also concerns that the children’s wishes and feelings were not properly documented.

The father asked for several remedies, most of which the Ombudsman could not offer, but the Ombudsman approved a small sum for compensation. This is what the Ombudsman said:

“The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman does not give ‘compensation’ in the way a court might – we remedy injustice arising from Council fault. Our guidance says, in relation to payments for ‘distress’ and ‘time and trouble’, these are ‘more of a symbolic payment, which serves as an acknowledgement of the distress or difficulties’. I set out agreed payments below:

  1. For the Council to apologise to Mr E, in particular for complaint d) which I consider should have been upheld within a month of the date of my decision.
  2. For the Council to make a payment of £300 for the time and trouble experienced by Mr E. Mr E expected the matters he complained of in 2012 to be resolved so he would not need to make the same complaint again. The Council will also make a payment of £300 for the distress experienced by Mr E, which has, again, been prolonged because he has had to revisit the incorrect statements made about him. I note the Council has already made a payment of £500 to Mr E as a remedy to his complaints and will pay a further £100 within a month of the date of my decision.
  3. For the Council to consider whether it needs specific guidance on emotional abuse for social workers who are carrying out assessments. It should tell me what action it plans to take within two months of the date of my decision.
  4. For the Council to share information with the other council about matters that affect its assessment of Mr E’s other children within a month of the date of my decision.”

Family Law Cases RR

 

 

 

The Children Act 1989 Turns 30

The Children Act 1989 marked its 30th anniversary on 16th November.

The legislation, which pioneered a child-focused outlook inside the family courts and introduced controversial measures which gave councils the power to remove children from parents using a risk-based threshold, is both loved and loathed.

Advocates of the Children Act 1989, whose architect is President of the UK’s Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, admire the legislation for its child-centered approach and its elegant infrastructure. Critics of the law point to its “risk of harm” threshold, which allows social workers to remove children from parents without robust evidence showing targeted parents are unfit carers.

To mark the Children Act’s 30th birthday, Lady Hale gave a speech at the Law Commission, which was published today, looking back at the Act and the history of the family courts.

Lady Hale talks about the challenges inside the courts around marriage, divorce and child protection and explains that those problems galvanised her into helping to produce the Children Act. She goes on to outline the difficulties in trying to create a body of law which focuses on often deeply complicated legal, ethical and social issues.

Her speech also offers a balanced look at both the achievements and the disappointments around the Act.

You can read the speech here. 

Hale sworn In

 

Measures To Challenge Domestic Violence Sentences Come Into Force Today

Measures to allow domestic violence and child abuse victims to challenge sentences which are perceived to be too lenient come into force today.

The Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme, which has been extended to include 14 more offences, allows victims of child sexual crimes, stalking and harassment to challenge sentences handed down in the Crown Court.

However, Solicitor General Michael Ellis QC MP, said the bar for cases to be accepted for review is set high, raising concerns over whether the scheme will offer victims of violence the relief, and justice, they seek.

Further concerns have been raised by domestic violence campaigners who say that the scheme simply places the burden of a fair trial on the shoulders of victims, and that the jail sentences set for these crimes should be much longer to begin with.

Campaigners have also warned that the scheme would draw out proceedings unnecessarily and also place victims at further risk of abuse.

The following offences have now been included in the scheme:

  • Abuse of position of trust: sexual activity with a child (s.16, Sexual Offences Act 2003),
  • Abuse of position of trust: causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity (s.17, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Abuse of position of trust: sexual activity in the presence of a child (s.18, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Abuse of position of trust: causing a child to watch a sexual act (s.19, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Inciting a child family member to engage in sexual activity (s.26, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Sexual activity with a person with a mental disorder impeding choice (s.30, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Causing or inciting a person, with a mental disorder impeding choice, to engage in sexual activity (s.31, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a person with a mental disorder impeding choice (s.32, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Causing a person, with a mental disorder impeding choice, to watch a sexual act (s.33, Sexual Offences Act 2003)
  • Possession of indecent photograph of a child (Criminal Justice Act 1988, s.160)
  • Taking, possessing, distributing, publishing Indecent Photographs of Children (s.1 Protection of Children Act 1978)
  • Harassment: putting people in fear of violence (s.4, Protection from Harassment Act 1997)
  • Stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress (Protection from Harassment Act 1997, s.4A, Protection from Harassment Act 1997)
  • Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship (s.76, Serious Crime Act 201,).

You can apply for a review here. 

unduly-lenient-sentencing-digital-collateral_govuk

Interesting Things

Welcome to another week.

Today we thought we would share some thought provoking items which have recently been made public:

interesting Things

 

New Podcasts Featuring Care Leavers Launched by Children’s Commissioner

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has launched a podcast series which features children and care leavers being interviewed about their experiences in care.

In a press release offering more information on the series, which to date includes four podcasts, the Children’s Commissioner calls the interviews ‘open and honest conversations with care leavers’ and says care leavers are able to talk about any subject they like.

You can access the podcasts in the following ways:

IMO-website.jpg

The Buzz

The latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Buzz

New Social Work Regulator To Take Over In December

Social Work England (SWE), the new body set up to replace the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) which regulates social workers in the UK, will take over on 2 December.

SWE, (which is pronounced ‘swee’), will be responsible for ensuring that social workers are registered, regulating the social work profession and overseeing fitness to practice complaints.

Lord Patel, who is SWE’s Chair, told Researching Reform last year that he was concerned about the number of social workers inside the sector who were practicing without the necessary qualifications, and said the overwhelming majority of complaints received by outgoing regulator the HCPC came from the social work sector.

SWE has its work cut out. The registration process is not water-tight, and current loopholes allow individuals to practice as social workers without being registered, and without the necessary skills.

Because registration with SWE is not mandatory for every individual providing social care, the exact number of social workers engaging in care work in the UK is not known. This knowledge gap also dangerously affects the regulator’s ability to monitor the quality of social work being carried out.

Care workers can also exempt themselves from registration by avoiding the use of “protected titles” like “social worker”, and using unprotected titles instead. This phenomenon is hugely concerning because some of the titles which are unprotected include senior positions that require a deep knowledge of social care and years of experience.

Lord Patel addressed our concerns over the registration process when we interviewed him, explaining that he would like to see a more robust registration system for care workers inside children’s care homes. Patel also set out a list of initiatives he hoped to implement while acting as Chair for the new regulator. Patel said he would like the government to implement the following:

  • Engagement Officers in each town which service users could meet with to discuss concerns;
  • An online forum for service users to get and share information and offer SWE feedback on its proposals;
  • Thorough data collection across the sector, to better inform social work practice and raise standards across the country;
  • Raising the standard of social work through courses, university degrees and CPD training;
  • Monitoring and maintaining practice standards with a website or portal for social workers and local authority teams to set down what work has been carried out during the year;
  • Addressing the lack of complaints procedures relating to care workers, who engage in social work inside children’s care homes but who are currently not regulated by any independent body – Lord Patel is considering creating a sub-body to deal with these complaints and make sure they are recorded. At the moment, the law does not require regulators to respond to these concerns;
  • Finding a way to quantify care workers – Lord Patel estimated that there were currently over one million care workers.

We wish SWE luck.

Further reading:

social_work_england

Children Suicidal After Being Denied Access to Birth Parents by Family Courts

Children’s requests to remain in contact with their birth families as they go through family court proceedings are routinely being ignored by the family courts, leading to children threatening to commit suicide.

This site was inundated by testimonies of children, and parents who said their children had consistently asked for some form of contact with their families, while others begged social workers to be returned home.

Speaking to Researching Reform, one mother said:

“My children haven’t been put first once. My 7 year old threatened to kill himself last month because they won’t let him come home. My 5 year old asks to come home at every contact. They’ve cut my contact, so I only see my boys 2 hours a week and my little girl 3 hours a week. I’m devastated. I’m a domestic abuse survivor. I’ve done all the courses off my own back but my social worker tells lies and bullies me. Cafcass still hasn’t been out to see my kids 8 months on. My children ask to come home at every contact.”

Another parent described a similar experience:

“My daughter tried to kill herself to get away from ongoing abuse. The Independent Children Lawyer refused to speak to the children. This has been going on for over 7 years in the courts. My daughter’s feelings were never recorded, and our child protection meeting took a grand total of ten minutes. She was ignored by the judge completely, despite violent incidents carried out by her father which had all been formally documented.”

Judges are currently not required to speak to children going through family law proceedings, even if a child requests a meeting with their judge. A Freedom of Information request by this site exposed the then coalition government’s failure to secure the right in 2014, despite pledging to implement a duty on judges to speak to children who wanted to talk about their case.

Guidelines were drawn up in 2010 by the former Family Justice Council’s Voice of the Child sub-committee, which allowed children to speak to judges. But the guidelines were heavily restricted, and only permitted the judge to explain the court process, denying children the right to talk about their feelings and express concerns about their case.

Discussions on implementing the right came to an abrupt halt in May, when the former President of the Family Division James Munby admitted that the government had refused to create a right to speak to judges because it had said the cost of launching the policy was too high. The government’s reasoning was widely criticised by child welfare campaigners and the public.

Instances of judges not listening to social workers in court who recommend contact with birth parents have also been uncovered by this site. One parent described an experience where the social worker had recommended contact but the judge had refused to grant it, despite the child having had positive contact with the parent for several years.

“No one ascertained my daughter’s views. She was nine at the time. We had racked up eight years of really good contact logs and the social services reports said my daughter very much wanted to remain in contact with me. All of that was ignored because the other parent had come off better in court.”

A leading study by British social workers confirmed that children in care need ties to their birth families, which are vital for healthy development. The study’s researchers called on the government to ensure that children retained contact with their birth families wherever possible and urged the government to overhaul the UK’s outdated child protection practices in this area.

A comment in the study said: “Adopted children denied contact can experience serious identity issues and when they are free to seek out their birth families at age 18, adoptive parents can be ill-prepared for the emotional consequences.” 

Professor Brid Featherstone, who co-authored the study explained:

“You should start from the assumption that direct contact with birth parents ought to be considered… Usually, adopted children go searching when they get to 18 and it can store up trouble if they haven’t had previous contact, enabling them to see their birth parents for good or ill.

They can stop having fantasies about these wonderful parents that they were stolen away from, or equally that they were absolutely terrible people. It’s about their identities. Adopted people told us that identity is a lifelong issue for them. Where do I come from? Who do I belong to?”

Children’s feelings are swept under the carpet throughout their lifetime in care, causing them serious harm. A study published in October by University College London, found that children’s voices were often absent from care records, causing them significant distress.

Adults who had grown up in care and who took part in the study criticised a lack of acknowledgment in their care records. Some said their voices were completely absent from their files, while others said words were put into their mouths by child welfare professionals. Redacted files caused a lot of distress too, with care leavers questioning the validity and usefulness of piecemeal information in piecing together their lives.

One father told us about his son’s experience of his Life Story Book, a record intended to log comprehensive details about a child’s life before, during and after care in a sensitive and compassionate way.

“The social workers just ignored the requirement to compile the Life Story Book. It was never done after over 6 years. By then the damage was done. He didn’t remember me. I felt like he had been conditioned to believe whatever he had been told.”

Some parents who have children in care believe that judges and child welfare professionals are intentionally stifling children’s voices to stem any potential obstacles or challenges to adoption orders.

One parent told this site that their 17 year-old son had written his wishes and feelings down on paper to give to the judge as he was concerned about the validity of his adoption – some paperwork was missing and some documentation looked as if it had been tampered – but the judge disregarded his concerns.

” I’d taken my son’s written evidence to the family court which outlined his wishes and feelings, and him wanting answers to the very serious concerns over whether his adoption had been registered. I though that perhaps this would make the court order null or void, as I also had significant evidence showing the anomalies.

My evidence was rejected – some were audio recordings from a court clerk which confirmed there were problems with my son’s adoption certificate – and the judge just set them aside and told me to ‘let it go’.

I really do think the judge must have heard the audio recordings, and now I feel as if there has been a cover up. I’ve since been restricted from mentioning specific names and places and my son has never got his answers, and neither have I to this day.”

Further reading:

Our thanks go out to Jane Doe, Tum-Tum,  and the many parents and children who shared their experiences with Researching Reform.

 

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We Asked You To Describe What Was Missing In The Family Courts In One Word – This Is What You Said

On Monday, in our regular Question It slot, we asked our readers to tell us what they thought was missing inside the family court system, using just one word.

The answers were overwhelming, and often featured the same word, multiple times, like ‘family’, ‘accountability’ and ‘truth’.

To make it easier to digest the answers, we’ve added them all in the image below.

Food for thought on a Friday.

Words