Sharing Vulnerable Children’s Details Online – Are UK Fostering Agencies Enabling Child Trafficking?

An adoption agency has taken the unusual step of explaining why it chose to publicly advertise two vulnerable siblings, after sharing photo and video footage of the brother and sister in an online newspaper. The private details were shared in an attempt to find foster parents for the children.

The invasive practice, which allows vulnerable children’s details to be shared worldwide, often draws criticism from the public. Reformers and child rights groups are also growing increasingly concerned about the exposure the practice offers grooming gangs and child traffickers.

Interestingly, the piece in the Evening Post does not explain why adoption agency Caritas Care felt the need to explain its actions. The decision may stem around the often aggressive public reaction to making information about vulnerable children widely available online and in print. And for good reason: the practice is widespread but poorly regulated, and is in direct breach of a child’s right to privacy.

The practice also throws up another important conflict of interest. Many parents whose children are taken into care share parental responsibility with the Local Authority who are looking after their children, which means that significant decisions about a child’s health and wellbeing need to be made with parental involvement, and often, their consent. That would include ensuring that parents who share decision making responsibilities have agreed to their children being publicly advertised in the first place. Caritas does not say whether the parents were involved in this appeal, or whether they had parental responsibility at the time. Trying to get a sense of how agencies and government are implementing this kind of publicity is also virtually impossible. Centrally held child welfare data in the UK is so piecemeal, that information on which councils and agencies are publicising children in the media and doing so either with the consent of parents who share parental responsibility, or as the sole body with that responsibility, isn’t automatically available.

Another deeply concerning aspect of publicising vulnerable children online, is that it may well be contributing to the child trafficking epidemic in Britain, which is responsible for thousands of children in care going missing every year, who are then sexually exploited and groomed by gangs. Given that 70% of child sex trafficking victims are sold online, we can see that traffickers are using the internet in a variety of ways to find, and sell, trafficking victims. It’s the first place they look.

And yet the government remains complacent about the effects of publicly advertising vulnerable children online.

Publicising deeply intimate information about a child, and sharing photos and videos of them online, can also be traumatic for a child. The trauma can take place during the event if they are old enough to access the internet, but it can also happen later on, should someone tell the child they’ve been seen online, and know, for example, what their personal preferences are, and, of course, that they are not only vulnerable, but being looked after by foster or adoptive parents.

Caritas tell the Yorkshire Evening Post that the online appeals it has run for the children in its Leeds branch have resulted in the service finding families for over 90% of the children it has featured over the last three years. What Caritas doesn’t tell the newspaper is how many of those children stayed in those placements permanently, how many ran away, and how many were identified by groomers and traffickers, and then found themselves victims of child sexual abuse and neglect.

Caritas also don’t mention that Leeds is one of the worst places in England for human trafficking and child sexual abuse. 

We also know that a large number of children go missing from foster care every year, though the government is still not sure why. Perhaps practices like these are part of the problem. It is now vital that we ask whether this Local Authority’s media drive is helping to feed the trafficking and grooming industries in the city. (For more news items on this, Google “child trafficking in Leeds”).

Still, it’s not just Leeds’ fostering agencies engaging in the practice. We know it’s a nationwide phenomenon. So, it’s time for the government to have a serious debate about the practice and policy around advertising vulnerable children online. This is what it must do:

  • Investigate the practice of publicly advertising vulnerable children for placements, both online and in print, by collecting as much data on this practice as possible
  • Examine the child rights issues involved
  • Look at the ways in which local authorities have been, and should be proceeding, where they share parental responsibility with the children’s parents
  • Explore the link between child trafficking and grooming, and publicly available information about children and their whereabouts
  • Hold a consultation on the practice, inviting submissions on all the points above

Very many thanks to Michele Simmons for alerting us to this story.

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REPORT: Family Courts Are Failing To Protect Domestic Abuse Survivors

A new report produced by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University Of London, says that the family courts are failing to recognise and protect the rights of abuse survivors by not providing safe, and fair, hearings, as well as placing survivors’ children at risk.

Queen Mary’s website offers the following information on the report, entitled “What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts:

“The report found that nearly a quarter of survivors, 24%, reported that they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner during court hearings, which breaches survivors’ human right to be free from degrading treatment.”

The finding is also at odds with previous guidance set down in Practice Direction 12J, which asks the court to intervene where an alleged victim is about to be crossed examined by an alleged, or convicted, abuser. However, the court is not required to intervene unless invited to do so by the alleged survivor.

Whilst it is currently forbidden for this kind of cross examination to take place in criminal courts, government has still not made good on its promise to draw up similar legislation to prevent this practice in the family courts, something they promised to do quickly, in December of last year.

The Queen Mary website outlines the key findings from its report, which we have added below:

No special measures for protection in court

Three in five survivors (61 per cent) reported that there were no special measures – for example, separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screen or video link – in place in the court despite allegations of domestic abuse in their case.

According to the report, the lack of measures to protect survivors from abuse during the court process negatively impacts on their ability to give evidence and prevents them from effectively advocating for their children in court.

Risk to children’s wellbeing

The report also revealed a clear link between survivors’ experience of domestic abuse, including coercive control and post-separation abuse, and risks to children’s wellbeing and safety. Over two thirds of survivors (69 per cent) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their child(ren), while almost two in five survivors (38 per cent) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive towards their child(ren).

Despite these figures, unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was most likely to be awarded in the cases outlined in the report. This reinforced findings from a recent report by Cafcass and Women’s Aid which revealed that unsupervised contact was ordered at the final hearing in almost two in five cases where there was an allegation of domestic abuse (39 per cent).

In the most extreme cases, contact decisions threatened survivors and their children’s human right to life when contact orders placed them in unsafe proximity to abusive ex-partners or confidential information about their address or location was revealed during the court process. The report argues that survivors’ lack of access to a fair hearing is putting children’s wellbeing and safety at risk.

Urgent attention needed

Professor Shazia Choudhry, Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London, said: “When the Human Rights Act was passed in 1998 it was heralded as an opportunity to “bring rights home” in order for British citizens to argue for their human rights in British courts. What this exploratory research has demonstrated is that this has not been the case for a number of women survivors of domestic abuse in the family courts.

“This research indicates that the human rights of these survivors to their family life and to be free from discrimination are not being given sufficient effect in the domestic family courts. Moreover, there is evidence of the family courts failing in their responsibility to prevent and investigate acts of violence towards these survivors and facilitating or failing to challenge a climate of gender discrimination within the courtroom.

“The findings of this research are deeply concerning and requires urgent attention from both the judiciary and the legal profession.

The report has been released to coincide with the closing of the government’s consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Quantitative and qualitative data was collected from 72 women living in England. Their experiences of family courts confirms and builds on findings from existing research in this area. ”

You can read the report in full, here. 

Further information on this topic:

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Question It!

Welcome to another, slightly shorter, week.

A petition on Change.Org asking Prime Minister Theresa May to stop children being abused through the Family Court process, has gathered almost 77,000 signatures.

The petition anonymously details a case where two children were taken by force in the middle of the night, from their mother’s home, by the police, and forced to live against their wishes with their father. It alleges that the children have tried repeatedly to tell Cafcass that they wish to stay with their mother and have no contact with their father, however the petition suggests that Cafcass are not listening to the children, and that the father has used his financial advantage to hire specialist lawyers to remove the children from their mother’s care, as part of an ongoing series of controlling behaviours the petition alleges he has been exerting over the mother for some time.

The view outlined by the petition is that despite policy, guidelines, and legislation, which make it clear that the family courts should not be used to facilitate abusive behaviour or to place children in more situations where they could be emotionally or physically harmed, little in reality is being done to stop these practices. It also highlights the ongoing persecution parents face if they try to challenge the system’s decision making, or amplify the voices of their children if contrary to the court’s interpretation, or lack of interest in those voices.

As we cannot verify the contents of the case, this week’s question is not about the legitimacy of the claims themselves. Instead, we are asking you this: do you think the family courts and Cafcass have improved the way they listen to children?

Very many thanks to Evie, for alerting us to this petition.

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Ombudsman Decisions Reveal Startling Number Of Complaints Against Social Workers

The Local Government Obudsman – which is now calling itself the Local Government And Social Care Ombudsman – has just released the latest set of complaints lodged with the organisation, which show a large volume of complaints against social workers in child welfare cases.

The allegations include dishonest behaviour by social workers, unjust treatment of families, as well as errors and deliberate lying in child welfare and child protection hearings and court reports.

The Ombudsman has also released two reports about the way councils have treated Special Guardians. The first is entitled, “Ombudsman finds council’s special guardian policy left scores of families out of pocket,” whilst the second is called, “Ombudsman challenges councils to ensure appropriate support provided for special guardians.”

We’re adding summaries of the complaints below, many of which were not resolved by the Ombudsman, either due to the case not being within their jurisdiction or because the action required was not something they could carry out.

London Borough of Croydon 

Summary: The Ombudsman cannot investigate this complaint about the actions of a social worker and a Section 7 Report prepared by the Council’s children’s services department. This is because the issues have been the subject of court proceedings and are out of our jurisdiction.

The complainant says that a social worker for the Council:

  • Is refusing to allow contact between Mr F’s mother and his daughter;
  • Has contacted his probation officer and revoked permission for Mr F’s contact letters;
  • Has shared Mr F’s probation file with his mother, without his consent, as part of a Section 7 Report compiled for court;
  • Has compiled a biased and inaccurate Section 7 Report; and
  • Has refused to consider Mr F’s concerns regarding his daughter’s stepfather.
  • Mr F also complains that the Council has refused to investigate this complaint on the grounds that there are on-going court proceedings regarding care and contact of his daughter.

Nottinghamshire County Council

Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint about the Council’s response to malicious child protection allegations made against the complainant. This is because we cannot achieve the outcomes that the complainant seeks.

The complainant says that the Council:

  • Has handled poorly safeguarding procedures following an allegation about the care provided by her for their grandchildren;
  • Should have taken into consideration the history of malicious and untrue allegations instigated by the children’s paternal grandparents;
  • Has refused to remove the allegation from her file; and
  • Has not fully complied with a Subject Access Request made by the her and her husband.

Leeds City Council

Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint about the conduct of a Section 47 child protection investigation. This is because there is nothing further that he could add to the Council’s investigation and response.

The complainant says that the Council:

  • Inappropriately interviewed his daughter, D, for whom he has parental responsibility, without his consent;
  • Did not provide him with sufficient information about why she was interviewed; and;
  • Delayed in responding to his complaint.

London Borough of Sutton

Summary: The Ombudsman cannot investigate this complaint alleging a social worker lied in a court report. This is because it has been used in court proceedings.

The complainant says social workers lied in a report and told lies in court.

Nottinghamshire County Council

Summary: The Ombudsman cannot investigate this complaint alleging a social worker lied in a report written for court. This is because it has been used in court proceedings.

The complainant, who I shall refer to as Mrs X, says social workers told lies in a report relied on in court.

Devon County Council

Summary: The Council provided Mrs X’s abusive husband with information about her whereabouts. However, there was evidence Mrs X had invited him to her home and so she was not caused an injustice by the Council’s actions. The Ombudsman cannot investigate the Council’s decision to start care proceedings as this was dealt with by the court.

Mrs X complains that the Council has removed her child from her care. She says the Council has refused to move contact visits even though she has difficulties travelling to see her child. Mrs X says the Council refused to postpone a court hearing when she was hospitalised but agreed to postpone the hearing because a psychiatrist was ill.
Mrs X says the Council told her abusive ex-husband where she was living putting her at risk.

Isle of Wight Council

We cannot investigate Mrs M’s complaint about how the Council dealt with a complaint about the accuracy of a report its children services team produced for a Court.

The complainant says the Council failed to reply properly to a complaint she made about its reports given to a Court.

If nothing else, the above cases show a clear need for a body of some kind to be able to address these issues swiftly, and ensure that they do not affect the outcomes of cases.

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Lord Patel: We Should All Be Concerned About The Lack Of Regulation In Children’s Care Homes.

Researching Reform was very kindly invited to the House of Lords by new Social Work England Chair, Lord Patel, to discuss social work in England and what families and children felt about it, as service users.

We met with Lord Patel yesterday, who shared updates on Social Work England’s progress with us, as well as his vision for the sector and his views on the current problems it faces.

Lord Patel also revealed that Social Work England, or SWE (which the sector is pronouncing ‘swee’) began its recruitment drive this week, for several positions within the regulatory body. Amongst the jobs currently available, are:

When we spoke with Lord Patel, we discussed the most significant challenges the social work sector faced. We looked at the problems with social work registration, crucially that anyone engaging in social work with a different official job title to that of ‘social worker’ was able to practice without being held accountable by an independent reviewing body. Lord Patel was also concerned about the number of individuals inside the sector who were practicing without the necessary qualifications. We spoke about the misuse of Section 20 arrangements, the need for there to be better redress processes in place with social workers being able to correct errors they make, and the problems around forced adoption. Lord Patel also confirmed that the vast majority of complaints to the HCPC, the current regulatory body which SWE will take over from, and which oversees several medical and health sectors and not just social care, came from the social work sector.

The issue of social workers in children’s care homes was also raised, with Lord Patel expressing concern about the fact that whilst care workers were essentially engaging in social work, they were not required to be registered with SWE and so remained unregulated by an independent body. Lord Patel confirmed too, that SWE was not responsible for care workers in any capacity and so its powers in relation to this demographic were restricted to gathering data relating to this area.

Lord Patel explained that SWE’s remit was limited to its role as a regulator and only monitored individuals rather than councils or agencies, but he was very keen to hear from all voices inside the system, especially service users. Lord Patel then shared the latest ideas he was hoping to encourage the government to implement:

  • 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 broached the subject of forced adoption with Lord Patel, who agreed that most adoptions which took place were unnecessary and could be avoided with the right support. We explained that service users were incredibly grateful when social workers admitted to a failing, and he agreed that this kind of honest approach was beneficial to the sector and helped to rebuild its image.

Lord Patel’s proposals are likely to take anywhere from a few months to several years to come into effect and whilst not all of these proposals may make it to the finishing line, the ideas themselves will be welcomed by children and families, and we would encourage them to share their thoughts on what they want and need as SWE gets going.

Very many thanks to Lord Patel for his generous invitation, and for taking the time to speak with us. You can follow Lord Patel on Twitter, and although not yet up and running, Social Work England now has a shiny new Twitter account, too.

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“What this government is doing to poor families is atrocious – We shouldn’t add to that awfulness by taking people’s children away.”

A former deputy director of children’s services in Hackney has called out the government for targeting poor families and traumatising them further by unnecessarily removing children from their care.

Steve Goodman, made the comments at a Frontline Leadership Event. Goodman told the audience:

“What this government is doing to poor families is atrocious. The food banks, the rubbish private housing, the precarious employment position of people is awful. But that does not mean we should add to that awfulness by taking people’s children away when we don’t need to… People’s lives are worse, that doesn’t mean that we need to compound that”.

You can watch the speech in full, below.

Can Parents Object To Their Children Being Immunised Whilst In Care?

An article in Local Government Lawyer outlines the principles around giving children in care immunisations whilst the local authority shares parental responsibility.

The piece, which is very well explained, was written by barrister Sarah Fahy, and offers the backdrop behind immunisations for children in care, as well as the correct approach to them as set out in Re SL (Permission to Vaccinate) [2017] EWHC 125 (Fam).  

As Sarah explains, immunisations in England are not compulsory, and every parent has the right to refuse having their child immunised. Difficulties around consent and refusal come into play once a local authority shares parental responsibility with a parent, over a child inside the care system.

The underlying principle in cases like these is that where a parent objects to the council giving their child a vaccination, the council may not go ahead and immunise that child whilst the objection exists. 

The correct approach in this instance is set down below:

  • The local authority may not apply for a specific issue order as of right.
  • First, the council must apply for declaratory relief as to whether it is in the best interest of the child to receive the immunisation/s in question.
  • When applying, the local authority has to apply for leave to do so and the court must consider the criteria under s.100(4) Children Act 1989.
  • Expert opinion must be brought in over the immunisation/s, the risks they pose, possible side effects to any child in question and their circumstances and the benefits of the immunisations being sought.
  • The court has to give proper weight to the views of the parents.
  • The child’s welfare and what is in their best interests must be the court’s paramount consideration.
  • The court has to be convinced that the benefits of the immunisation(s) outweighs the risks to the specific circumstances and/or health history of the child in question. Any alleged harm and/or risks need to be evidenced by the party alleging them, for example, where there is a family history of bad reactions to immunisations.
  • A decision by the court to authorise immunisation where there is parental objection is an interference with their Article 8 rights. As a result, the court has to be satisfied that the interference is lawful, necessary and proportionate to protect the child’s best interests.
  • Any order that the court makes should set out the list of immunisations that the court has determined are in the child’s best interests to receive.

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to this article.

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Social Work Apprenticeships – The Blind Leading The Blind?

A survey has confirmed that the majority of local authorities will be using social work apprenticeships to train up future professionals inside the sector.

Councils hope that the move will encourage more people to come forward to take up positions as child and family social workers.

The apprenticeships being offered will be paid, so that students will be earning money from the moment they start.

Bizarrely, the survey, which was conducted by the Department for Education, also revealed that 80% of local authority directors were positive about the knowledge and skills of social workers in their authority. This view does not reflect the current crisis faced by the sector, in which a significant number of councils continue to let children down and place them at risk. Google “Ofsted Rates Inadequate” or “councils rated poor in social work”, and the extent of the problem becomes painfully obvious.

Researching Reform is deeply concerned by this development. Whilst apprenticeships can be for the good where services are efficient and effective, inside a sector where resources are scarce and quality of practice is highly variable, the move may lead to a new generation of social workers picking up bad habits and placing yet more children and families at risk.

The decision to offer these apprenticeships has clearly been based on a desire to entice more people into social work. How many times must we tell the government that financial incentivisation is not a magic wand, and can do more harm than good, especially when there is a need for a massive rethink about the way a system runs, day to day?

Whilst there appears to be tandem learning on offer with collaborating universities, this is not much of a comfort. The current curriculum for social work is patchy and lacking in depth, and must be overhauled before any meaningful progress can be made inside the sector.

What do you think? Are apprenticeships a disaster waiting to happen, or do they offer benefits?

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