This is a guest post written by social worker Maggie Mellon, in response to blog posts by Sarah Phillimore previously published on this blog here and here. As with Sarah’s posts, this post is a comment piece and represents the views of the author, not necessarily that of The Transparency Project, which has a committment to the provision of accurate information and to the facilitation of debate and plurality of perspectives.
Sarah Philimore has asked me to respond to her criticisms of The Stolen Children of England (Les Enfants Voles D’Angleterre), a documentary that was shown on French TV Canal 5 on 15 November 2016.
I appeared on this programme on the request of the documentary makers. They had read an article that I had written in 2014 in Professional Social Work, the monthly magazine of the British Association of Social Workers. In this article, I had expressed strong concerns about current policy and practice on adoption, and asked if, in future, this would be recognised as a scandal of the same magnitude as removal of children from care to Australia, Canada, New Zealand in the previous century.
These removals have now been acknowledged by the government, and by the charities who carried them out, to have been very wrong. My plea was for us not to wait forty or fifty years to ask if the current policy and practice on adoption is right. In my view, this is a crucial issue for social work. BASW has now mounted an enquiry into the social work role in adoption which will report in 2017. You can read about this here.
In November Sarah posted up a strong condemnation of the documentary, prior to having watched it. After watching the programme Sarah has now enlarged on this condemnation in a detailed piece on her blog which contests some of the editorial commentary, throws doubt upon the validity of the families’ cases, and generally asserts that it composes a nasty campaign to discredit English courts, and to frighten people unnecessarily.
Sarah has asked me to respond to her blog, and whilst she may be disappointed, I am not going to offer a point-by-point commentary on all of the issues that she raises about the documentary’s content. I am instead going to focus on the key issues.
The documentary had the legitimate aim of exposing what the makers considered to be serious breaches of human rights in the UK, with a particular focus on the number of mothers travelling to France to avoid having their babies taken at birth. The aim was to draw attention to the policy and practice of forced adoption by UK social services and courts, a practise which is almost unique in Europe, and certainly nowhere so prevalent as in the UK. I don’t believe that it is necessary to endorse all the claims or concerns expressed in the documentary in order to believe that it is good that it was made and broadcast. The nature of a documentary is that it features a number of interviews of people with relevant knowledge, points of view and experiences. I do not feel it necessary to defend the nature of independent documentary filmmaking, which is what Sarah seems to be inviting me to do.
I did not make the documentary, so I am neither obliged, nor interested in debating incidental issues such as the programme makers’ assertion that Thatcherism was responsible, or whether case A may not be properly explained, or that person B may have less than pure motives and the other criticisms and allegations that Sarah makes.
The issue for me is whether the programme had legitimate aims and whether it carried these out. This comes down to two crucial criticisms which Sarah seems to hold about the very premises of the documentary’s aim.
One is her belief that the family courts are mostly to be trusted in arriving at their judgements on this issue. The other is that forced or non-consensual adoption is a reasonable policy for the UK to have adopted. From everything that Sarah writes, neither of these beliefs was liable to be shaken by any evidence to the contrary that the documentary might present.
First of all – belief in the family courts:
Here is an exchange between ‘Stacey’ and Sarah in the comments following her initial blog criticising the (then yet unseen) programme:
Stacey “What is going to happen when future generations of children who have had a bad experience in foster care or adoption want answers to why they were removed from their families?”
Sarah “If a child wants answers about why they were removed, they can access all the documents that went before the Judge.”
This is not an acceptable answer to the question. It rests on an assumption that there is a level playing field for families in the courts, and that the wheels of British justice ground slow and smooth. Ultimately Sarah believes that transparency would reveal the worthiness of the British legal system, and that children who have been removed from their parents will be sufficiently comforted and reassured when they are grown, by her confirmation that the process was carried out properly.
For me, there are a number of flaws in this position. One is that it assumes that if the court made the right decision based on whatever information it was presented to it, then that is just fine and dandy. But it’s not. We know that the civil courts decide on the balance of probability, not beyond reasonable doubt. Sarah herself, in a post on another issue, protests that this test means that ‘truth’ only needs to be 51% probable. The balance of probability is not an objective test, and must often necessarily be decided by what a judge finds the most probable assertion between two competing claims. Is there a level playing field in the struggle to assert what is ‘probable’, if the case is contested between a group of professional social workers, and an understandably distraught and ill-resourced family?
Social services and the courts are not immune to the prejudices and injustices of the wider world that sustains their existence. This directly challenges any assumption that the best interests of children is as sound a guide for decision making as those who use it to justify their actions and decisions would have us believe. Just because the law and the courts embrace the principle of the best interests of the child, it does not follow that these may be reasonably decided in court. In practice the test of ‘the best interests of children’ is open to many interpretations, and to flagrant abuse. It can be used to justify the ‘rescue’ of children from the problems that their parents are experiencing or are assessed as experiencing to the ‘safe’ world of ‘care’. I discuss the actuality of ‘care’ later, but for now, I want to consider the rapid changes to the notion of ‘best interests’ judgements.
Not so long ago, homosexuality was illegal, and at best a sign of mental illness or at worst of perversion. Homosexual young people were subject to religious or psychiatric ‘treatment’. Not much longer ago, a woman who left her husband was assumed to have forfeited her right to custody of the children. Within my lifetime unmarried mothers have been locked up in Magdalene laundries, or confined to mother and baby homes, and forced to give up their children – all in the children’s ‘best interests’. Now we are apologising to those mothers and their children – too late for many, who have died without ever being offered contrition. What are the prejudices or convictions today about children’s best interests that future generations may look back on in disbelief and horror?
Aside from these issues of principle and of politics, in any case a court case is at the end of a process, during which the best interests of children are supposed to determine all decisions made in intervening in a child and family’s life. The ‘best interests’ argument in these cases is often deployed to justify the termination or severe restriction and policing of contact between children and their parents, from the point that a child is removed and long before a case comes to court. It is used to prohibit parents from telling their child they love them and are fighting to get them back, it is used to prevent parents showing upset, and to demand that they are cheerful and assure the child that they want them to be happy in ‘care’ and that their social worker is doing the right thing, and it has also been used to forbid the parent talking to the child in their common language of origin. The consequence is quite often the long drawn out destruction of the parent-child relationship, the evidence of which, ironically, is then used as the main reason why the child must be permanently separated from the parent(s) by adoption. These and other social work decisions on contact are not founded on any reliable body of knowledge, and yet are accepted by the courts as the result of ‘expert’ application of knowledge about children’s best interests.
Florence Bellone, a French journalist whom Sarah dismisses in her blog as not credible to comment on the programme, because she has consistently and outspokenly criticised UK adoption law and practice, offers this advice to Sarah:
“The only thing I could say is: ‘follow parents on the field to see the evidence…Don’t rely on what is written in the paperwork…If there is one thing which is covering up real rubbish, it is that mantra of the “BEST interest of the child” which is covering up all possible rubbish.’
Stacey continues with this advice from her knowledge of a case based on the mother’s alleged ‘failure to bond’ with her child. She points out that evidence that points away from this conclusion even if it is presented in court by the mother’s representative, will not weigh against the social workers’ assessment and that ‘… the social worker should have evaluated the evidence before writing the assessment and the mother’s time might be better spent focusing on her infant’s development rather than worrying about having to defend such nonsense in front of a judge, even if she does have a lawyer.’
Giving birth to a baby while the threat or knowledge of its forcible removal hangs over a mother is one of the most likely ways to damage her relationship to her unborn child. The uncertainty, the suspicion, the stress, the knowledge that any love felt might inevitably mean unbearable pain of loss: what could be more likely to make a mother hesitate to commit to a child? And then to find that that very self-preserving distance may be used as justification for removal? I have yet to be persuaded that there are any circumstances beyond psychosis, or other evidence, that the parent represents an imminent physical threat to the child that would make removal at birth necessary or right.
And that brings me to the second part of my disagreement with Sarah; her apparent acceptance of non-consensual adoption as a response to circumstances which are much short of absolutely critical, or where the parent’s consent can’t be sought due to absence or refusal to respond. Other countries in Europe require a far higher standard – if it happens at all. Forced adoption against the explicit opposition of parents is not contemplated as a routine childcare option anywhere in Europe, to the extent that it is here.
What is peculiar is that Sarah does not even begin to grapple with the contention that ‘failure to bond’ with a child after birth should be advanced as a reason for the removal and adoption of that child. Apart from any other concern, the child will be first moved to a foster mother, who is being paid to care for the child and has no bond at all with the child, and will not be required to prove one. And from there to a succession of such foster mothers, including ‘respite carers’ offered to give the paid carer a break from the 24/7 demands of a young baby – curious that it is an expensive justifiable for a paid carer, but not for the original mother. Finally, the child will be moved to a placement with adopters who may or may not ‘bond’ to the standard demanded of the birth mother. If they don’t they will be offered post-adoption counselling and support, rather than the child protection assessment and removal offered to the birth mother. It is ironic that such a support structure can be utilised for the paid recipients of the child, but not its birth mother, and callous that the emotional cost, of knowing your child is being passed around such a series of strangers, without your consent or knowledge, is not considered.
Over the last couple of years, I have had the privilege and the pain of acting as an independent social worker in a number of adoption cases. Invariably I find major discrepancies between the file records and the reports that are presented to Children’s Hearings and to the Sheriff courts. These are usually the result of a number of either deliberate or accidental misrepresentations. Within these records, I rarely, if ever, see reference to any research by social workers to justify their assessments and their decisions. I often find claims about the damage to infant brains that ‘failure to bond’, or exposure to ‘emotional abuse’ will cause, or that children’s upset after having contact with their mother ‘must be’ a result of ‘re-traumatisation’. These claims are scientifically and intellectually suspect at best, but worse, they are professionally incompetent.
This is at the crux of the issue, there is a dearth of critical thinking, and a dearth of professional robustness in the carrying out of forced adoptions.
So, no, I have no regrets about taking part in a programme that addressed the pain of parents separated from their children and their very poor experiences of social services and the courts. The programme was worth making and worth watching and deserves more than a litany of complaints about everything and everyone associated with it. Yes, my contribution and that of others was edited – unless a programme is live, editing is inevitable. I have appeared or been quoted in many articles and programmes and there is always editing.
My own unedited views are clearly expressed in a number of published articles, in Professional Social Work, in The Herald, Scotsman and Guardian newspapers, online in Community Care, Common Space, Scottish Review, Scottish Justice Matters, amongst other places. Until such time as I can make a programme that allows me editorial control of content then I will accept invitations that allow me to offer a challenge to what I believe is a collective failure to protect and promote human rights.
31 DECEMBER 2016