On 15th September a group of parents, lawyers, social workers and academics met at the Conway Hall in London for the third Child Protection Conference, supported by The Transparency Project and sponsored by Bath Publishing.
There was an audio recording of the day which hopefully we will publish soon, in the meantime, further details of the speakers’ presentations can be found at the foot of this post. There was lots of ‘live tweeting’ on the day so please do investigate #CPConf2018.
The topic for discussion was how the future risk of emotional harm was used as a justification for removing children from their parents. Among the aims of the conference was to launch the guidance note about the use of experts in proceedings involving children (which is now available on the TP resources page) and to start the process of thinking about what needed to be included in a guidance note about risk assessments – how is risk identified, assessed and how can such reports be analysed and challenged? The use of experts and risk assessments is clearly important when considering the risk of future emotional harm as the court will often need assistance to make decisions in this area.
It was clear that the majority of those attending shared the speakers’ grave concerns about how emotional harm is identified and how it is assessed. This paints a worrying picture especially when set alongside the academic research which points to significant increases in care proceedings involving emotional harm and very different rates of removal in different LA areas.
Sarah Phillimore, member of The Transparency Project and site administrator of the Child Protection Resource Online opened the conference by attempting to put future risk of emotional harm in its historical context of the Children Act 1989 and by looking at the Supreme Court decision in Re B (A Child)  UKSC 33 where Lady Hale was the sole dissenting voice against the decision to confirm the removal of a ‘much loved’ child on a future risk of harm in the care of her parents.
Sarah commented that she could understand why removing children on the basis of future risk of emotional harm often caused parents serious anxiety. Emotional harm, unlike physical harm, was not always capable of quick and easy identification. We are not always sure when it becomes serious enough to merit state intervention and the problem is made worse when we are trying to work out future risks.
Next to speak was Lauren Devine, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of the West of England.
Also touching on the history of how emotional harm has become part of the legal framework, Professor Devine commented on how important the conference was to her, in bringing together the perspectives of many different participants in the children protection system.
She reminded us that originally ’emotional harm’ was seen as more part of the toolbox of section 17 of the Children Act 1989 i.e. was seen within the framework of harm that attracted ‘voluntary’ engagement with Child in Need plans rather than the coercive intervention that might follow a section 47 investigation. But now risk of emotional harm was fuelling more care proceedings – and how do we prove it? Her research into case papers at the Bristol CJC was providing evidence of ‘expert’ reports of a very poor quality ‘that would make your hair stand on end’. Her presentation began to cause stirrings of unease for the lawyers in the room as we realised how poorly equipped we were to challenge such reports and their methodology – what is a ‘confidence interval’ for e.g.?
We needed to focus on the ethical issues – the law says we can remove children on risk of future emotional harm. But should we? It was accepted that harm was caused to children and parents by removal. Once the ‘ride’ of care proceedings started, it was impossible to stop and the only way to get off was for parents to demonstrate ‘hyper compliance’. An ‘excellent but scarey talk’ was the TP live tweeting verdict.
Then Louise Tickle, the ‘intelligent outsider’ spoke
The conference was important to her as it was at #CPConf2015 that she was first exposed to those issues and people that had lead to some of ‘the most difficult but rewarding reporting I have ever done’. She referred to the chilling quote from President Trump – ‘power is fear’. The fact that parents could lose children on a future risk on such a low standard of proof feels ‘outrageous’ to those outside the system. She agreed that sensationalist reporting from some journalists wasn’t helpful but it was reflective of a wider societal fear and distrust of a system that was not transparent. Although we have policing by consent we do not appear to have ‘social work by consent’ and people needed to have confidence that bad behaviour would be recognised and punished – the failure of the HCPC to act against social workers found to have lied to the court in the Hampshire case being an example of what was going wrong.
Lucy Reed, Chair of the Transparency Project then gave the lawyer’s view. She accepted that emotional harm was difficult to explain and for some parents to understand and we had to do a better job of explaining it. Emotional harm was part of life – as parents we had all caused emotional harm to our children at some point. When did it become serious enough to intervene? She was troubled by the number of parents she encountered who were given bad advice about not engaging on the basis that ’emotional harm’ was just a ‘cooked up theory’. Parents who might have had a good prospect of being reunited with their children instead ‘stuffed up’ their chances.
Lucy explored further some of the difficulties in discussing uncomfortable issues and how we aren’t always as objective as we like to think in her blog post following the conference.
Concerns about the suspicions and confusions around risk assessments lead to the second aim of #CPConf2018 – not build the foundation of a Guidance Note to promote better understanding.
Then Simon Haworth of the University of Birmingham offered the social worker’s perspective. He is now an academic but was previously a front line social worker and expressed himself a ‘big fan’ of the work of Anna Gupta, Brid Featherstone and Paul Bywaters, concerned about the continuing spectre of ‘muscular authoritarianism’ that meant family support was becoming overwhelmed by ‘protecting’ children from an often poorly defined risk. Issues of poverty and the impact of austerity had to be part of the debate. He posed the key questions for the profession. How can we return to be confident with ‘safe uncertainty’ ?
Then ‘Annie’ spoke to give a parent’s perspective. She blogs at Surviving Safeguarding and works to help parents navigate and understand the system. This was her first speaking engagement since the death of her son Jonny and her ex partner, who both took their own lives and both had spoken critically about the impact of local authority intervention in their lives. Annie took us on a journey with photographs of her and her family; most poignantly her eldest son Jonny with her youngest son, removed from her at birth and handed back in a car park 258 days later. She had fought and won – but knew more keenly than most the emotionally harmful impact care proceedings had on her and her family.
After lunch we had presentations from Emeritus Professor Andy Bilson and Special Guardians and Adopters together, then opened to the floor for questions and comment.
Andy Bilson discussed some recent statistics he had unearthed by making FOI requests of various local authorities – statistics were useful to inform campaigning. He had examined rates of removal from different LA areas and found a huge rise in rate of care proceedings and some worrying discrepancies – in some LA areas cases of emotional harm had increased significantly, in others decreased. Just what was going on? This strongly suggested that ’emotional harm’ was something nebulous. Andy didn’t think it likely that the different rates pointed to more or less children suffering emotional abuse, but more likely indicated the different cultures and practices of each LA area. He was concerned that children were being removed when they need not be. The LA he identified as having the highest increases in findings of emotional harm were Hackney, Hampshire, Sefton, Wirral and Wolverhampton.
Finally Dr Sylvia Schroer, the Chair of Special Guardians and Adopters Together spoke. One of the group’s concerns was about a system with poor accountability removing children with disabilities from loving parents ended up in a power struggle where parents felt persecuted. There had to be a better way.
We finished the day with comment and discussion from the floor – lawyers spoke of their unease with a system that what clearly broken, parents asked how they should best continue their ‘fight’ to show that they were loving parents. We hope that this can become much more than simply another ‘talking shop’ and that everyone who is concerned about what is happening can take action in even some small way of their own, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.
As James Baldwin commented; not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing will change that is not faced.
Lucy Reed and Louise Tickle spoke but did not produce a presentation
Survive Court’s presentation contains sensitive information and will not be published