Should Social Workers Visit Children At School?

A council has been criticised by Ofsted for allowing its social workers to routinely visit children during school hours.

An article in Community Care explains that Ofsted says the practice could harm children’s educational outcomes –  in the area under inspection, boys and girls were missing lessons to meet with social workers.

Those of us assisting parents across the country know that this practice isn’t just limited to Torbay (the council pulled up by Ofsted, in the article).

We also know that there’s much more at stake than children missing class.

Social workers visiting children at school is a common occurrence everywhere which local authorities allow on the basis that children may feel more able to open up about their concerns, away from their parents and in a ‘safe’ place.

In reality, this policy – and we are not even sure if this is a ‘real’ policy and what legislation or guidelines permit it, if it is – often causes children deep anxiety. Having strangers infiltrate your environment, often un-announced, is hugely traumatic for children. Being asked intensely personal questions, by strangers, in a formal environment which doesn’t feel quite like home (how many children really love being at school enough that it’s home from home for them?) without their parents is destabilising, and this practice needs to be looked at.

Whilst we have every sympathy for social workers trying to protect children, the custom of turning up at children’s schools and interrogating them on school premises is misguided, and it’s not professional.

What do you think? Are we being unfair, or is it time the government issued guidelines on how and where social workers should meet with children?

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Former PM: Government Criminally Negligent For Sending Children To Be Abused In Australia

Former Prime Minster Gordon Brown has accused the government of wilfully sending children to Australia during a period that spanned 40 years, in the knowledge that they were at high risk of abuse. Evidence is now emerging that many of these children were also abused in the UK before leaving to go abroad. Brown says the government’s involvement in this national disgrace is tantamount to criminal negligence.

Children in England were sent to Australia during the 1920s-1960s, with a view to ‘cleaning up’ the country. Many of these children had been separated from their parents.

A debate in the House of Commons in 2015 where Lord Blackheath admits the government’s involvement in facilitating child abuse during that period and enabling the cover up that followed, led to Researching Reform writing about the contents of the debate. In the debate, Lord Blackheath confirms that he personally arranged for children to be sent to Australia, knowing the sexual abuse that was waiting for them there. Blackheath also made these arrangements illegally – none of the children had legal permission to travel. 

Gordon Brown’s view of the legal implications is right. Government officials were well aware of the terrible abuse these children would experience once reaching Australia, and were equally unconcerned about the abuse they suffered before leaving. These children were also sent off without the correct legal permissions to travel, which should not be ignored in any future legal actions mounted.

If you were a child migrant and are trying to locate your family, the Child Migrants Trust may be able to help you. 

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Question It!

Welcome to another week.

The High Court in Bombay, India, has ruled that denying mothers custody under certain circumstances amounts to domestic violence. 

The case involved a couple whose marriage broke down shortly after it began. The mother gave birth to a boy who arrived prematurely. It is alleged that the mother’s in-laws then decided to prevent the mother from caring for the baby, even going so far as to prevent her from touching him. They had taken the view that the mother was not mature enough to care for her baby, was often cruel to the baby and her inability to breastfeed was also harming the baby.

The mother claimed she was being so badly emotionally abused by her in-laws that she was eventually forced to flee to her parents’ home.

The mother subsequently filed for, and was awarded interim custody of her son under the country’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence (DV) Act, 2005.

The father tried to block the application for interim custody arguing amongst other things that his son needed proper treatment which he could only get in Mumbai. However, the High Court upheld the original order citing the view that a denial of interim contact would result in the mother’s mental health being harmed which was in itself a form of domestic violence.

Counsel for the mother:

“There is no connection between lack of lactation and motherly attachment to one’s own baby. By seeking child’s custody, wife has shown that she is concerned about his welfare and desirous of giving him love. The baby is so small that his being with mother would only help him grow and develop.” 

The court went on to remind the parties that contact orders were only temporary and could be changed at any time.

Setting aside the facts of this case for a moment, the High Court ruling raises an interesting point about domestic abuse in the context of parenting, a point which could be applied equally to fathers.

Currently, the act of blocking contact is talked about using terms like Parental Alienation, whether this behaviour is a psychological disorder, and whether in fact alienation is a ‘real’ phenomenon (which Researching Reform believes it is, though we are not convinced about it being a mental health illness). This case frames the behaviour in an alternative way.

So, our question this week, is just this: do you think denial of contact could amount to domestic abuse? 

Many thanks to Charles Pragnell for sharing this news item with us.

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“Their conviction that relationships are unlikely to endure… was entirely unaffected by the amount of time they spent with each parent.”

A then groundbreaking 25 year study published in 2004, which followed 131 children after their parents divorced makes some bold suggestions which many will view as controversial.

Its central conclusion is that parental divorce negatively impacts a child’s ability to love and be loved within a lasting relationship.

Its key findings  include:

  • The economic implications of divorce often left parents scrambling to earn income, which meant less time spent with their children. As a result, children felt neglected during periods of their childhood when they needed their parents most
  • Children’s views of relationships were affected: they took the view that personal relationships were unreliable, no matter how much contact they had with each parent
  • Loneliness and fear of abandonment were significantly increased in the children who took part in the study
  • A strong concern for separated parents and who would take care of those parents also featured
  • Children were able to vividly recall scenes of violence between their parents, and being abandoned by a particular parent 
  • Children as young as four or five could not remember specific scenes of violence, but appeared to have ongoing nightmares which featured violence
  • Very few children of divorce in the study felt they had a happy childhood. Older siblings took on a parental role, taking care of siblings and needy parents, but were proud of their ability to cope.
  • Children who had to take on such responsibilities developed moral values and compassion at an early age. Those who took on too much lost out on their childhood and important aspects of their social development.
  • As teenagers, many reported feeling alone and having to take care of themselves
  • Children in the study played parents off each other, and there was more ‘acting out’ in these family units
  • 1 in 5 of the girls in the study had a sexual experience before the age of 14 – however sex was not the goal, rather the price these girls felt they needed to pay in order to be ‘held’ by a man and feel significant. 
  • Parenting in each home differed widely, with little consistency
  • Whilst fathers had higher paying jobs than mothers in the main, only one third of fathers offered support for college expenses, despite there being regular and positive contact
  • Two thirds of mothers offered support for college expenses

Much has happened since 2004, and even more research exists which tells us that divorce is much more nuanced in its effect on children than we imagined, with genes and personality traits playing a role in how kids are impacted, but this study is interesting for the number of issues it highlights, many of which may still ring true today.

There is no doubt that divorce does create obstacles, but it would be wrong to think that conventional family units don’t have problems of their own. Togetherness is not always a sign of harmony, or a peaceful home. Many children live in ‘whole’ family units because the parents don’t feel they can separate, whether for emotional or financial reasons. Some children will witness ongoing abuse and violence in a conventional home. In short, it is not divorce that’s the problem, it’s how we handle life’s challenges, and what we teach our children.

Many thanks to Sabine, a dedicated McKenzie Friend who goes beyond the call of duty for the families she assists, for sharing this study with us.

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Head Of Family Court On Children Talking To Judges

President of the Family Division James Munby has reminded the government that children who wish to speak to judges about their wishes and feelings during a case should be able to do so, in his latest update on the Family Court.

The reminder comes after Researching Reform published its Freedom Of Information Request asking the Ministry of Justice on an update in this area.

In the 16th View From The President’s Chambers, Munby adds a quote from Minister for Victims, Youth and Family Justice, Dr Lee as a gentle nudge. Dr Lee says:

“Guidance on children’s participation in proceedings is key to the voice of the child agenda. It is vital that we get this right, so the judiciary, Cafcass and Ministry of Justice are working carefully on this.  We need to explore ways to balance children’s stronger involvement in proceedings about them, while also making sure the system continues to operate effectively at this time of increasing demand and pressure. We will, of course, listen to your views in getting that balance right.”

The government’s very slow progress in this area is partly to do with high level anxiety over involving children in proceedings. However, any policy that’s implemented must stress that involvement is voluntary and where requested, facilitated quickly and safely.

Anxiety should not be a factor in the government dragging its heels over this issue – if children wish to speak, they will not feel duress or fear and should expect that if they are being coerced into seeing the judge, professionals working with the family should be able to spot this and protect the child in question without opening them up to any harm.

Current guidelines being used to allow children to speak with judges can be found here.

Researching Reform expects a response to its FOI request at the beginning of February. We’ll keep you posted.

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The Death Of Presumption Of Custody At All Costs – But Who Will Decide ‘Risk Of Harm’?

It looks like the Family Court has finally decided to drag itself out of the Dark Ages after a report recommending that the presumption of contact ‘at all costs’ be reversed so that victims of domestic violence are not exposed to more harm.

The news that families will no longer have to suffer the indignity, and ongoing damage, of prolonged abuse through child contact is a very welcome development. The recommendations are set to become revisions within Practice Direction 12J, which addresses contact issues in the context of domestic violence and harm.

A report written by Justice Cobb recommends making several changes to the way the family courts deals with child contact where there is evidence of domestic abuse which could place children and partners at risk. At the moment, the burden of proving contact would be unsafe is placed on the alleged victim.

Whilst it has been suggested that the presumption of contact at all costs will be scrapped, a conflicting view also put forward is that the presumption will still operate but would be excluded where risk of harm could be shown.

In reality it’s not yet clear how the new presumption will work, however it may be that experts will be brought in to decide whether contact could lead to harm. This will also open up debate over the controversial ‘risk of future harm’ threshold the Family Court currently uses, especially where abuse has either not been formally documented or evidenced. The recommendations to revise Practice Direction 12J have not yet been approved by government.

The report follows research from Women’s Aid which confirms that at least 19 children were killed by violent fathers in the last decade after being awarded contact by judges.

Allowing violent and allegedly violent or abusive partners to personally cross examine their victims in court is also being addressed. Currently the criminal courts do not allow this to happen, but our Family Court does (this was our topic for the Huff Post this month). Justice Cobb also recommends that this practice is stopped, however a lack of funds means that separate waiting areas in court houses have disappeared – an important aspect of reducing the trauma of a court hearing with a violent or abusive partner and ensuring victims feel they can attend court. Perhaps it’s time to rethink courts as venues for family matters? In any event, the government has agreed to implement legislation to ban this kind of cross examination. In the meantime, we hope judges get fully briefed on 12J as it stands, as it gives family judges the power to prevent personal questioning and assume the cross examination on behalf of the abuser, or alleged abuser.

Some articles and posts on contact, domestic violence and gender inequality in parenting:

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Question It!

Welcome to another week. A World War free week. For now.

As calls for transparency within the Family Courts continue, a growing number of questions raised by MPs in the House of Commons ask about the data available on these courts.

More often than not, the Ministry of Justice and other relevant departments are unable to provide this information, either due to what’s claimed to be a disproportionate cost in having to collect these stats, or simply because the data is not stored in the first place.

Much of the data not stored or efficiently recorded could be considered essential information.

A recent example of a written request asked for details about stalking and harassment orders issued from 2014-2015. Whilst data on the number of orders was available, the Minister responding confirmed that details about specific restrictions included in a restraining order was not held centrally and could only be obtained at an unreasonable cost.

The minister went on to say that there were also no stats on how frequently perpetrators of stalking and harassment try to contact their victims through action in the civil or family courts.

Freedom of Information requests made by the public and campaigners asking for data on orders, policy implementation and the impact of legislation often come back with little or no information.

However, the government does publish reports and bulletins which include data about things like legal aid, litigants in person and the numbers of certain types of orders issued.

Our question, is this: what kind of Family Court focused data would you like the government to produce, or do we have enough stats for the time being?

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Child Welfare Debates In Parliament This Week

The 18th January was a busy day for child welfare matters in the House of Commons.

As Britain moves forward with plans to leave the EU, questions are now being asked about cross border agency information sharing, especially in relation to child protection.

Yesterday, ministers discussed how leaving the EU might affect Britain’s security, law enforcement and its criminal justice system.  Home Affairs Committee Chair, Yvette Cooper, asked whether the government planned to try to keep its Europol membership. Europol has worked closely with the Met in order to protect children from child abuse and exploitation.

The child abuse inquiry also continues to dominate Commons’ discussions.

In another debate, Ann Clwyd MP asked if the Home Department would take steps to encourage survivors of non recent child abuse to share their experience with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. (And Ann, it is non recent rather than historic abuse, a term survivors and victims don’t care for much).

After research came to light exposing the practice of alleged abusers and convicted perpetrators of abuse personally cross examining their victims in court, the House has seen a flurry of activity on this issue.

Jess Phillips MP raised two questions this week. The first asked the Secretary Of State For Justice what plans the Department had to consult with Women’s Aid and survivors of domestic abuse on the ancillary measures needed to enforce a ban on perpetrators of domestic abuse from directly cross-examining their victims in the family court. Oliver Heald responded by saying the government was committed to addressing this issue as quickly as possible.

Jess also asked whether a timetable was in place to get this work underway – the government said it hoped to get this matter resolved soon.

Wishing everyone a good weekend,

Researching Reform.

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Thank You, Obama.

Ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States at 5pm tomorrow, avid supporters of outgoing POTUS Barack Obama have taken to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to show their appreciation for the former President.

The hashtag #ThanksObama, previously used to mock the President, has been turned on its head and social media users are adding it to photos and videos of the President and his family to express gratitude, and to show their support.

During his time in office, Obama was heavily criticised by many for his policy choices, strategy on foreign affairs and what some felt was a naive perception of politics.

We saw something different.

Whilst his time in office was not perfect, Obama lived his presidency like a man of principle rather than a cynic. He leaves us with a blueprint to protect the future.

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