Broadcasters have tremendous power when it comes to influencing public perceptions of the justice system. As Spiderman taught us (or was it Voltaire?), with great power comes great responsibility. On the one hand, broadcasters want to make compelling programmes that people want to watch. On the other hand they have a responsibility to ensure the process is properly portrayed. Despite best intentions, they sometimes get things wrong.
Some of these mistakes don’t matter. I’m mainly referring to judges and barristers in courtroom dramas wearing the wrong robes or wigs, the unwelcome appearance of a gavel, or even a lawyer cross-examining her own client. Legal twitter may resemble something of an angry mob when, for example, a parent refers to ‘access’ instead of ‘contact’ or ‘spending time with’, but these largely matter to nobody but the lawyers.
Some mistakes do matter. If a storyline is portrayed badly, it can influence perceptions of the justice system in a negative way.
Enter Coronation Street. I must preface this with an acknowledgment that the Corrie writers and team usually get it right. Their coverage of criminal matters is normally spot on, so it should be said that they are not one of the serial offenders (Broadchurch, I’m looking at you).
Any viewers of Coronation Street in the past two weeks will be watching the crescendo of the Jade-Fizz-Hope story. For those of you who are not familiar, some background. Hope is a 10 year old girl who has displayed some challenging behaviour in recent months. Her mother is Fizz and her step-father is Tyrone. She also has a sister, Ruby.
Hope’s biological father – John – was a serial killer who, upon escaping from detention and faking his own death, suffered a heart attack. We’ve not seen him for a while.
Hope was taken out of mainstream education last year when her behaviours became unmanageable, including breaking her sister’s arm and starting several fires. Hope’s new school was in Birmingham. Whilst she was there she was supported by Jade, who was introduced to us as her teaching assistant. In September, Fizz decided to move back to Weatherfield with Hope, and Jade came along to support home schooling and behaviour management.
All is not as it seems, as we discovered when told that Jade was in fact Hope’s half-sister and the secret daughter of bad John. Jade blames Fizz for John’s death and wanted revenge for the death of her father. Thus, supporting Hope was actually part of Jade’s elaborate plan to remove Hope from Fizz and Tyrone’s care so they can live as siblings away from The Street.
In recent weeks Jade has concocted a series of safeguarding concerns in respect of Hope. She firstly has told medical professionals during secret visits to the GP that Hope is being verbally and physically abused by Fizz. She has planted a smashed iPad around the house, and taken photographs of bruises drawn on with make-up, to evidence her claims. When Hope was pushed from a park bench by her sister Ruby last week, and broke her arm, Jade told Hope to lie to the treating paediatrician at hospital before alleging that Fizz had in fact caused the fracture.
This fracture was treated as a significant enough incident to warrant the involvement of children’s services and on Monday the children were removed from the care of Fizz and Tyrone.
This is undoubtably good drama, but the way this story has been portrayed has been inexcusably poor.
What is the problem?
This is ultimately a story about false allegations and children being removed into care of that basis – it’s a tale as old as the Cleveland Inquiry and creates a sense of moral panic whenever such an event is reported. These cases continue to crop-up, sometimes on a large scale for example in the Manchester/Rochdale satanic abuse cases in the early 90s. Such events undermine trust in the social work profession and fuel ill feeling between social workers and the public.
For social workers, it’s a lose-lose situation as far as the public are concerned: if they act prematurely, they are child-snatchers who wield arbitrary power to break families apart; if they act too late they are invariably scapegoated in the most tragic of cases – Baby P and Victoria Climbié spring to mind. (Incidentally, the most powerful piece of writing I have seen about this very problem can be found on the wonderful Suesspicious Minds blog: https://suesspiciousminds.com/tag/could-baby-p-have-been-saved/).
The point I have been laboriously leading to is that perceptions matter in these situations. The Hope story has played wrongly in my view in a number of ways. I’ve tried to address the main ones below:
- Hope should have been the subject of at least three safeguarding referrals from the local GP and one from the treating doctor who attended to her broken arm. The GP on the first two occasions did nothing. Children’s Services only became involved after the broken arm;
- The social worker came to speak to Fizz and Tyrone about the allegations and hastily organised a meeting between both children at school, where the allegations were discussed. The social worker began the conversation saying “looks like you’ve had a few accidents lately – how did that happen?” Nobody made any notes of this meeting;
- The social worker – off the back of this conversation, and a medical report which suggested that the broken arm was “non accidental or unexplained” turned up on Monday evening and said she had no choice but to remove the children. She told Fizz and Tyrone that she would set-up contact. The children went to stay with a neighbour;
- Contact did not take place until Wednesday, when the children went ‘round the back’ to see their parents without the permission of the social worker;
- When this was reported to the police, the social worker stormed into the family home and shouted that the children would need to go into care. She told Fizz and Tyrone that they had to agree to a Section 20 or they would involve the police and obtain a Police Protection Order;
- The children were taken to Social Services’ offices and a showdown ensued between Jade – who had miraculously obtained her own accommodation and wished to care for Hope and Ruby, and the parents.
As I was watching, I took to twitter to vent my spleen about these issues. You might say I was Fizz-ing with anger.
I promise this is the first and last joke of this piece.
The majority of my work is care proceedings, so I am used to seeing situations where an injury prompts social services intervention and, in very serious cases, the removal of children. Normally where a referral is made it will be considered by children’s services at a kind of triage stage and then a decision will be made whether or not to launch a Section 47 enquiry. A section 47 enquiry is an assessment process, the outcome of which decides what kind of action social services need to take. They will undertake a section 47 enquiry if they are required to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child who is suspected of, or likely to be, suffering significant harm.
It is likely that the Jade’s first visit to the GP some weeks ago to disclose possible physical abuse at home will have prompted a referral to Children’s Services, which should have kicked off an assessment process of some kind. That no referrals were made until the broken arm is a failure of the processes that exist to protect children like Hope who, on the face of it, are suffering harm.
A preliminary investigation
A referral will trigger an assessment. A referral will be based on a safeguarding concern – for example if a child consistently comes into school with dirty clothes or a baby presents at hospital with fingertip bruises. They will rarely, if ever, be made in the cases of accidents, although logs will be kept as patterns are essential for a medical professional or social worker to investigate properly.
A section 47 assessment is a careful process of assessment where the authority should:
- Undertake an assessment in line with strict guidance (each authority has their own);
- Carry out enquiries in a way that minimises distress for the child and family;
- See the child who is subject of concern to ascertain their wishes and feelings, assess their understanding of the situation and relationships/circumstances broadly;
- Interview the caregivers and parents as part of an investigation of the situation and any relevant wider factors;
- Adopt a multi-agency approach to gather information about the family. This includes the police, medical professionals (GP, health visitor etc);
- Draw together their findings and produce recommendations to inform next steps.
Specific guidance exists where a decision is made to interview a child in the form of the Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on interviewing victims and witnesses, and guidance on using special measures. This guidance exists to ensure that evidence from the very first words spoken has forensic value and is not contaminated. It requires word for word notation of any question/answer asked of a child, a proper (and multi-agency between police and social work) process of planning any such interview, and requires tightly worded, open questions to be asked.
In this case, the social worker came briefly from the hospital to speak to Fizz and Tyrone.
There was a brief conversation where it was explained to Fizz and Tyrone that the social worker was worried about Hope and Jade’s allegations of physical harm were put to them to answer. The social worker off the back of this brief discussion decided to speak to Hope and her sister about the allegations and hastily asked that a meeting be arranged at school that afternoon. There was no conversation with the police about any initial enquiries they had undertaken, and the social worker and her colleague put to Hope: “looks like you’ve had a few accidents lately – how did that happen?”
This scene portrayed an absence of planning, an absence of essential multi agency work, and crucially, a lack of a proper note of all questions asked and answers given. We don’t know what Hope said in response to this question, however it’s not a proper way of introducing such a topic to a child and, in any event, the forensic value of what she says next will be undermined by the lack of compliance with any proper processes. In 26 weeks time – or in the present system of overburdened family justice, 26 years’ time – when the court is holding a Finding of Fact hearing within care proceedings, what is the use of ‘Mummy hits me’ if we don’t know the context or circumstances in which it was said, or the question it answered?
This is problematic because the question for the judge, when making decisions on facts, is ‘where does the evidence lead me?’. If the evidence is fatally flawed or contaminated to the point where it cannot be safely relied upon, there is a risk of a miscarriage of justice.
All this is further very difficult to investigate without knowledge of how the injury occurred. The key evidence comes from the treating doctor or paediatrician at the hospital where Hope presented. I will return to this, however without an opinion to suggest the injury was either accidental, inflicted or non-accidental, the social workers can only really do the ground work. So all of this is premature.
Later on that evening, the social worker came to the family home. She informed Fizz and Tyrone that a medical report confirmed Hope’s broken arm to be “non accidental or unexplained”.
This is a problem in itself as the key evidence of harm is equivocal. The paediatrician will normally examine the child and look carefully over their notes. They will look for patterns, which are the basis of any diagnosis or opinion. They will speak to the child and the parents – perhaps anybody else who was there. Finally they will offer their expert opinion on a likely mechanism for the injury and if the explanations she has thus far been given accord with the likely mechanism identified. The conclusion “non-accidental or unexplained” leaves significant room for doubt and therefore one might expect further assessment as opposed to immediate action.
Undeterred by shaky ground for further action at this time, the social worker explains to Fizz and Tyrone that her only option is to remove the children from their care. The social worker agreed to a suggestion that Hope and her sister go to live with a new neighbour and promised to set up contact.
It is not easy for an authority to arrive at the conclusion that removing a child from her family is the only way to keep her safe – there will be a careful, internal process within the authority where several levels of management are consulted and give their approval. There will normally be a legal gateway meeting where senior management and a lawyer from the authority consider the case. This then triggers a placement search for the child. It can happen as a result of a local authority applying for a protective order, or the police exercising their short term powers of protection, or the parents agreeing for the child to go into foster care voluntarily. We call this ‘section 20’ after the section of the Children Act 1989 where the power is contained. It’s important that this is voluntary. I readily acknowledge that sometimes (as I will come to), section 20 consent is given in dubious situations or circumstances. Sometimes parents may not fully understand what is going on – given the average reading age in this country is 8, it wouldn’t surprise me. It is up-to the social worker to ensure that the process of obtaining consent is free, fair and accessible. A section 20 consent can be reversed at any time by an adult with parental responsibility for the child, so in any event it is a fragile mechanism.
Voluntary foster care and police powers of protection are short term measures, and ultimately any child in foster care against the will of her parents will, pretty quickly, have to be sanctioned by a judge. The court process in such situations is a forensic one with several evidential hurdles to consider. The key lesson is without one of these lawful authorities, a social worker has no power to turn up and remove a child. In this case, the social worker had no lawful authority to simply turn up and demand Hope’s removal into the care of the authority.
The Court process rightly presents a number of hurdles to a local authority to remove a child from their family home. Firstly, a court can only exercise its protective powers if the ‘threshold criteria’ are satisfied. At an interim stage, this means the court being satisfied that reasonable grounds exist to believe that the children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. If this is the case, only then can the court consider what is the appropriate step to protect the children. If the local authority wishes to remove a child from the family home, they must produce evidence to prove that the child’s safety demands immediate removal from the family home.
The evidence in support of such an application must be “full, detailed, precise and compelling” (according to Munby J, as he then was, in Re X  1 FLR 341). Any second-hand sources or information must be identified, and any expressions of opinion must be supported by detailed evidence and properly articulated reasoning.
The result of this is that removal, unless it is on an urgent and time limited basis by the police exercising their powers of protection or with the parents’ consent, can only happen as a result of a judicial decision. This will only come at a hearing where everybody can have their say and everybody, through legal aid, is represented. All lawyers who conduct care proceedings will have stayed until 8pm on a Friday night dealing with urgent cases like these. Everybody’s rights must be carefully balanced, so the court will consider not only the local authority’s evidence, but that of the parents and an independent guardian who has been appointed to represent the child’s best interests. The court will have to give full reasons for its decision.
Without any of the above, the authority is acting unlawfully and there is no legal basis to the placement outside of the family home.
Contact did not take place until some days after the children were removed. The authority have a duty to promote ‘reasonable contact’. This is entirely subjective and there is no hard and fast rule as to what is reasonable. However it’s unfortunate that there was such a delay.
As I have said, however, given the authority removed the children illegally this is perhaps small fry…
The placement of the children with the neighbour broke down quickly. This was foreseeable as he only lived two doors down and the authority should never have placed the children with an unassessed person. Upon this breakdown, the social worker entered the family home and informed the parents that they would have to agree to the children being accommodated under Section 20 CA 1989, or they would involve the police (presumably through Police Protection powers).
Let’s break this down.
First, Section 20 allows a local authority to receive a child into their care if the parents give their voluntary consent to the same, or in the case of a 16/17 year old they consent. Voluntary is the key word, and in Williams v Hackney  UKSC 37, the court said:
“Any such delegation must be real and voluntary. Otherwise the local authority have no power to interfere with her parental responsibility by taking the child away.”
A parent does not have to agree to Section 20 – they cannot be made or induced to. Tyrone and Fizz were presented with Hobson’s choice: agree or we’ll force you anyway. This is not a proper use of Section 20. If the local authority consider the threshold for compulsory intervention to be satisfied to the point where it is imperative to remove Hope from the family home, they should issue care proceedings.
The other problem for Section 20 in this case, given the authority consider that Hope should be removed from the family home, is that the parents can rescind their consent at any time. This leaves the authority in a difficult position if Fizz or Tyrone later change their mind. And, as Lady Hale observed in the above case, “Section 20 gives local authorities no compulsory powers over parents or their children and must not be used in such a way as to give the impression that it does. It is obviously good practice in every case that parents should be given clear and accurate information, both orally and in writing, both as to their own rights and as to the responsibilities of the local authority, before a child is accommodated under section 20 or as soon as practicable thereafter.”
[Ed : you can read more about s20 in The Transparency Project’s guidance note for parents and professionals]
As I have outlined, perceptions matter and the Hope storyline was inaccurate in a number of ways. Displaying social workers as heavy handed and able to exercise arbitrary power is unhelpful and reinforces the suspicions that many parents and newspapers express about social workers and how they operate. Social workers deserve the space afforded by an informed public to be able to do their job properly, and parents need the certainty of knowing that the safeguards within the process offer them the chance to challenge a local authority if they are taking protective action against their children.
Public confidence is changeable and storylines that do not portray these sensitive matters properly can easily undermine it. You never know who is watching. It could be a parent whose children are near to the threshold of intervention – a child in need or child protection plan, for example – who needs to work collaboratively with the authority to improve the situation. Storylines like these are the difference between the parent who answers the door and tries to build a relationship of trust, and the parent who closes the curtains and turns off the lights.
My view is that it’s incumbent on the broadcasters to tackle these difficult social issues, in much the same way they Coronation Street are running a domestic abuse storyline between Geoff and Yasmeen. Soaps have an educational role and the Geoff/Yasmeen story is raising much needed awareness of all forms of domestic abuse, particularly coercive and controlling behaviour. When they cover these stories, though, they have to get it right.
I am not so much of a buzzkill to suggest that the storyline should have been set over several episodes: ‘the preliminary investigation episode’, ‘Hope’s interview with the social worker’, ‘the Section 20 consent meeting’, ‘legal gateway’. Coronation Street is ultimately a drama that relies on not boring its viewers into a state of paralysis. However, to properly do justice to the Hope storyline, care should be taken to ensure the storyline reflects the considered and forensic processes that underpin child protection in England and Wales.
We have a small favour to ask!
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