This is a post divided into two parts. The first part is a summary of my analysis of the French documentary ‘England’s Stolen Children’ which first aired in France in November 2016. The second part is my attempt to transcribe it. The producer sent me a link to an English language version but it expires on December 30th. The transcript is not 100% accurate but as near as I have time and patience to make it.
I was critical of this documentary when I had read only a short summary of information about its contents – see https://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/englands-stolen-children/. I have now seen it all. Although I acknowledge below that it raises issues of importance which require further discussion, the overall impression is of unhelpful distortion, misrepresentation and failure to mention some very pertinent facts.
The comments which followed publication of my first post were very disappointing, many focusing on unfairly insulting me as a person, rather than engaging in any useful discussion about the points I made. I can appreciate some may have been frustrated that I was initially dismissive of the documentary on such limited information. I hope they can now accept I have made genuine attempts to understand what is going on and I hope we can continue to have productive discussions about these really important issues.
There is a lot to make us legitimately worried about the current state of the child protection system, but we won’t fix anything if we are continually distracted by persistent and dangerous misrepresentations made by some of those who campaign for parents.
What is clear is that there are many parents now mourning the loss of their children and who appear utterly baffled by what has happened to them. It is also clear that over many years there have been significant failings in the child protection system; children have been left to die at the hands of adults despite significant intervention by a number of different agencies, or children have been taken from parents on evidence which is later shown to be not good enough. Either way, the human misery caused by such failures is real and significant. It cannot be ignored or brushed aside. If we do not engage with this, we risk the system being undermined to the extent that it will collapse.
So is this documentary part of the distraction or a useful contribution to a necessary debate? My very firm opinion is that it is actively harmful – both in its general tone and in its particular reliance on misrepresentations and untruths.
PART I SUMMARY OF ANALYSIS
The documentary sets out a very wide range of topics. From pre birth assessments and the mothers who ‘flee’ England while pregnant to avoid them, to issues of non accidental injury, to children taken for future risk of significant harm, to reaction to the murder of Victoria Climbie, to Thatcherite contempt for the poor, to advertising children like pets for sale, to the involvement of private companies in child protection issues – and attempts to lump them altogether as the inevitable ‘outrageous’ consequences of the Children Act 1989 and it’s ‘inconceivable’ statutory provisions relating to future risk of emotional harm.
The language used is relentlessly negative and inflammatory, ‘fleeing’ ‘stealing’ ‘prisoners’ ‘innocent’ etc etc. Ominous music plays throughout.
I have some sympathy with arguments that the driving narrative in child protection is now ‘child rescue’ and the waters have been further muddied by successive Governments who seem to see adoption as not simply the best outcome for many children in care, but the only outcome.
But that is no excuse for the largely distorted and false picture presented by this documentary. People have been interviewed without challenge and say things which are demonstrably untrue and which will terrify any parent currently facing care proceedings.
Issues we need to discuss:
• use of future risk of significant harm’ in the Children Act. This is clearly a concept both alien and alarming to the French documentary makers (as well as most parents in the UK) and we need to think more about why this provokes such an extreme reaction. In my view this underscores the urgent need for more research about how and why other countries intervene for children at risk of harm. For further discussion about the Children Act and the concept of future risk of harm, see these two posts http://childprotectionresource.online/the-children-act-1989-deeply-flawed-legislation/ and http://childprotectionresource.online/is-likely-to-suffer-significant-harm-to-what-extent-are-social-workers-relying-on-their-crystal-balls/ BUT the Act is clearly not ‘outrageous’ or ‘inconceivable’ as alleged, having survived challenge in the European Court of Human Rights. And actual neglect continues over the years to be the most common reason why children are removed. See here for further discussion http://childprotectionresource.online/general-legal-principles/.
• The system has moved away from supporting families to focusing on ‘risk’ and there is concern that poor parents are much more likely to be subject to intervention and assessment and that the numbers of child protection investigations have increased dramatically with little supporting evidence of detection of increased levels of abuse – there seems to be a lot of credible evidence to support this – see for e.g. academics such as Sue White, Brid Feathesrtone, Lauren Devine and Andy Bilson. What can we do about this?
• Social workers are sometimes more concerned about not being blamed than by objectively assessing risk – I think this is true in some cases and is a product of our very unhelpful ‘blame and shame’ culture so clearly exemplified by the media reaction to the death of Peter Connelly. What can we do about this?
• The impact of a 26 week timetable on care proceedings – there are concerns expressed from many that this may too quick for some parents to show they can change, particularly those cases involving parents using drugs or alcohol.
• Parents apparently baffled by the process and not knowing what is going on, believing that social workers have all the power and make all the decisions – what is happening between parents and their lawyers? Do they not understand? Are things not being properly explained? Or are they being encouraged not to engage with their lawyers, referred to by Ian Josephs as ‘legal aid losers’ ? A particularly chilling example is the account of Clare and Colin’s court proceedings and their ‘advice’ from Ian Josephs.
• The issue of ‘targets’ is clearly one which provokes enormous unease, quite reasonably. We need more of a concentrated and ‘official response’ to reassure parents that targets do not operate to mean their children will be taken from them.
• Use of private companies in any aspect of child protection work. I agree that this is hugely concerning and that there should always be public accountability for the work done in this field. Profits should have no role to play whatsoever; I accept it is indeed a ‘recipe for disaster’.
• Restrictions placed on reporting and discussion about these cases. I agree that we need to consider urgently how we can be more open about this. Continued secrecy is damaging trust in the system. People need to be able to speak out about issues that concern them. Hopefully we will be seeing greater moves to a more open system, particularly now the Court of Protection has been open for some time. However, care must be taken not to publicise private details about children which is not fair to them.
Issues raised which are based on distortions, misrepresentations or reliance on things which are not true.
This is not an exhaustive list but simply the ones that most concerned me. There is further comment (in bold and in brackets) on the transcript below.
• Parents are at the mercy of ‘arbitrary’ decisions which they can’t challenge. A generally false and misleading picture is presented to support the central argument that social workers alone have all the power and make ‘arbitrary decisions’. For example, the true facts about Bethany and Gena’s circumstances are not mentioned, let alone discussed. There appears to be only slight recognition of the fact that decisions must be made within a legal framework and if social workers fail to do this they can be challenged in court. A clear and false impression is given at several points in the documentary that care proceedings are decided in a ‘matter of days’ with parents given no opportunity to challenge the case against them. It is further asserted that social work evidence ‘trumps’ police evidence ‘every time’ which is simply untrue.
• Children are taken away from parents because they are poor and not ‘enlightened’ – poverty is certainly a major part of what makes life so difficult for so many parents. But other issues, such as drug addiction, violence and poor relationship skills are not an inevitable consequence of poverty and are part of the picture for many care proceedings.
• It’s all Thatcher’s fault. She hasn’t been Prime Minister since 1990 and from 1997 -2010 a Labour Government was in power. I struggle to see why current problems in child protection system are explained by Thatcher’s legacy. Particularly as the documentary makers then assert the number of ‘iniquitous’ cases ‘rose exponentially’ following the murder of Victoria Climbie in 2000; a decade after Thatcher left power. They provide no explanation for how they can make this assertion. The Children Act had a lot of cross party support; it was not simply Thatcher’s creation.
• Ian Josephs is a ‘white knight’ helping innocent families to keep their children. Mr Josephs is interviewed but not challenged about his refusal to carry out any proper risk assessment of the women to whom he gives money. This should alarm the French authorities, given that one of the women who took his money and went to France was Marie Black, a convicted paedophile. See this post for further details. http://childprotectionresource.online/helping-parents-leave-the-jurisdiction/. Of particular and very grave concern is the account of Colin and Clare’s court hearing at around 34 minutes. They attended without lawyers having received ‘advice’ from Ian Josephs on the morning of their hearing; Mr Josephs was clearly ignorant of the law that would apply and had only apparently scant knowledge of this couple and their circumstances. Why had they refused legal representation? We don’t know, because the documentary doesn’t tell us. Is it because Mr Josephs advised them not to? Would proper, robust legal representation have made a difference for Colin and Clare? Sadly we – and they – will never know that now.
• Cases have only 26 weeks in which all investigations and inquiries have to be carried out – this ignores the requirement for pre-proceedings work and help and support which is often offered before proceedings start. The documentary makes no distinction between those cases of chronic neglect where there has often been many years of social work intervention and those cases of a one off unexplained injury.
• In England the Government sets adoption quotas for the local authorities responsible for child protection. There is an obligation to achieve certain pre defined results. This is not true. The picture regarding ‘targets’ is a lot more complicated. See the Transparency Project analysis of freedom of information requests send to every LA in England and Wales. https://www.transparencyproject.org.uk/english-councils-confirm-they-set-targets-for-the-number-of-children-to-be-adopted/
• Children are publicly displayed on the ‘shelves of a strange supermarket’ or in the manner of a pet shop to attract adopters. This is not true. Those children who have waited many months for a family will be advertised. But to suggest this is publicly in the manner of a supermarket is not true. The documentary makers had to pretend to be prospective parents in order to attend an adoption agency and look at information about children.
• The Judges believe that it is acceptable to rely on assessments from local authority when the local authority is under pressure to get children adopted. That is clearly wrong, that is clearly not a fair trial. This is very misleading. In cases of suspected non accidental injury for example, the court will be assisted by an independent medical report. This is a joint instruction and paid for by all parties. There is no mention of the children’s guardian assessment. Again, the impression is wrongly given that the local authority is all powerful.
• The court doesn’t have to make an effort to find out what happened to children I accept that the court process is more adversarial than inquisitorial and this can cause problems; judges can only decide cases on the evidence before them. However to say that ‘no effort’ is required is simply untrue. The burden of proof is on the local authority to make their case. Judges who do not examine with great care whether that case is made out will be vulnerable to appeal.
PART II Attempted transcript of English language version of ‘England’s Stolen Children’
(My comments are in bold and in brackets)
Voiceover: Jane is accompanying her daughter into her exile in France. Bethany is fleeing the British Social Services… Administration threatened to take first child away at birth.
Bethany: I don’t want to go back to Britain. It’s not safe there. This is only choice I had to be a mother. Hopefully my life in France will be happy and peaceful.
VO: Bethany is 8 months pregnant. Before she has even given birth…
MGM: They decide. That’s it. They give you no explanation. We are putting baby into foster care as we have issues of possible abuse. Possible harm in future.
VO B is youngest of 3 siblings. Elder sister killed herself 6 years ago leaving behind new born baby. Since then the social services have been ‘going after’ all women in family. Child ‘ripped from’ other sister and when Bethany became pregnant SS declared Bethany a threat.
MGM They want to take her baby as they say she is an alcoholic as when her sister died she drank. She was 16 she is now 22. 6 years ago. She had one drink.
Bethany: Letter saying this is your ‘last chance’. They didn’t give me first chance. Gave me five days to get a solicitor. What person can do that. So it was pretty much decided then.
VO: Like Bethany, 100s of women have already fled UK to avoid losing their children. Those who didn’t take SS threat seriously ended up losing them for good…. Upon their arrival in Normandy, welcomed by Gena. She ‘fled’ UK after SS took this single mother’s first three children away from her. (If you watch the BBC interview in September 2016 with Bethany https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWFY-TvH9bA or read the Sunday Times interview in December 2015 with Gena http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/People/article1647147.ece
you will note that there is a lot more information which is ignored by the documentary but which gives an entirely different perspective on the activities of these women. For example, Bethany binge drank while pregnant, not simply once after her sister died. Bethany left Gena’s after arguments, returned to England and has kept her baby. See further this post about ‘mums on the run’ )
Gena and Bethany met on Facebook ‘a few weeks ago’. Gena helps future mothers who want to escape SS arbitrary judgments’.
Gena: People like me have to make an informed decision… People have to prove resources to pay their rent and bills and have confidence to learn new language. It’s a choice for life. (Some of the mothers who have stayed with Gena have contacted me directly to raise issues of people trafficking as they assert Gena has threatened some and taken money from them. See further this post about ‘mums on the run’.
VO: Gena sought refuge near Nantes. She started a family with her new partner (Based on Ian Josephs comment below and Gena’s interview with the Sunday Times in 2015 this is not a ‘new’ partner, it’s the same one who hospitalised her by beating her up) In France both of their children are safe. In last 4 years Gena has taken in over 40 families. …There is one man that Gena can count on to help all these women. The man who started this solidarity network . A former elected politician in Kent Ian Josephs. He has offered financial support to a 100 or so future mums so they could leave the UK.
Ian Josephs: I helped Gena escape to France as they had taken 3 of her children already. She has done nothing. I helped her and her husband escape (So is this new partner or not? doesn’t sound like it) I said you can help other mother’s who escape. Never refused a pregnant women providing she can give me a letter to prove she is pregnant and has letter from SS threatening to take baby…. I will send money. I help parents whose children were taken from them by SS when they committed no crime. Punishment without crime. (The worst example of Ian Josephs providing financial help to women whose background he makes no effort to establish, is of course Marie Black, the convicted paedophile who took his money in 2012. For more information see this post http://childprotectionresource.online/helping-parents-leave-the-jurisdiction/ )
VOICE OVER Why do future mothers, innocent families lose the right to raise their children without having committed the slightest abuse? Is something rotten in the UK? The answer can be found in a piece of legislation that has had outrageous consequences – the 1989 Children Act. It grants SW full powers all in the name of child protection. It contains a legal concept that seems inconceivable in legislation. The likelihood of future harm. These terms are actually laid down as such. They anticipate a child’s future suffering.
(9 minutes) MAGGIE MELLON ‘Former Social Worker Member of the British Association of Social Workers’: I’ve been a social worker since 1977 when I qualified. I’ve worked as social worker and manager for 40 years nearly. There’s been a process going on where child protection became the be all and everything in children and family work. Moved from supporting families from working positively…moved from that to very much a risk situation. (I agree with this, as do many other researchers in the field such as Lauren Devine and Andy Bilson)
VOICEOVER: Over the years this notion of risk has licenced all kinds of suspicions of future harm – psychological, physical, and emotional. 1989 Children Act is brainchild of a government that made innocent people guilty (inflammatory and unhelpful – on what basis are parents asserted to be ‘innocent’ . It’s not about ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ ; these concepts of criminal law; the Children Act is about child protection. Even if the police/CPS decide not to prosecute, a local authority still has a responsibility to consider bringing care proceedings).
Everything began in 1979. After years of Labour Governments, Britain placed political fate in the hands of the Conservative party and its iconic leader, Margaret Thatcher’s. Thatcher, who came from a middle class background, wanted to impose her own personal success on the entire population, A path that left no room for the weak. (Margaret Thatcher’s voice ‘A bill to privatise bus companies….the British Steel Corporation.) Margaret Thatcher mistreated the British people and broke the social protection system. The UK abandoned its poorest citizens and turned them into suspects. (I have some sympathy with this analysis of the Thatcher years. However, it is now 2016. She has not been in power since 1990 – 26 years ago – and from 1997 – 2010 a Labour Government was in power! I struggle to see why her legacy remains as powerful as is asserted here. Whatever is going wrong with the child protection system in 2016, it seems unlikely we can blame Thatcher for it. Further, the Children Act was the product of much thought from a variety of different people and had cross party support. It was not simply a vehicle for Thatcher to demonstrate her hatred for the poor and weak.)
10.46 My name is Colin Racey (?) I am 34 years old. I was born in Norwich. I have always had a happy upbringing. I may have not lived with my mum. may have not known my original dad. I lived with my nan. It was normal to me. I loved every second of it.
VO: Colin depends on benefits. He lives below the poverty level. He receives every month £870 which he shares with partner Clare who has epilepsy.
Clare: I am Clare Fox . I am 24. I went into foster care when I was 12. Living in 3 different foster placements. Moved into hostel when I was 21. My first meeting didn’t know what to say to each other from there it went talking and talking, we ended up with each other.
VO This picture of their first child is already just a memory. A little girl who came into the world 5 months ago and whom Social Services took away 3 days after birth.
Colin: Obviously when we found out Clare was pregnant it was 3 months into pregnancy so we got up to doctors… she was pregnant and we got a midwife appointment to see how Clare was doing, how baby was growing.
VO: During these routine checks, Cambridgeshire Social Services launched an investigation into their past, their lifestyle and their income. And as provided by the Children Act they evaluated the risk of future harm. Potential risk of physical harm. Potential risk of emotional harm. Potential risk of neglect. During the 5th month of pregnancy Social Services concluded that Colin and Clare were seemingly unfit to be good parents. (again, no mention of or explanation of the court process. It is not the social workers who determine when children are removed. Why is there no mention of Colin and Clare getting non means, non merits tested legal aid for a lawyer?)
Colin: We were told then we would lose our daughter as soon as she comes along. … they see Clare as an easy target.
(13.22minutes) Maggie Mellon: Suspicion falls on poorer parents. Parents who have to turn to services or are brought to the attention of authorities for some reason. Because of need, mainly because of need but we now turn need into risk.
Colin: 3 o’clock in the morning, Clare gets stomach pains. Arrival of our little baby daughter. An hour later she is hospital but on the way to hospital Clare said to the paramedics can I take my epilepsy tablets? And he said no.
VO: While giving birth Clare suffered an epileptic fit that … she was incapable of caring for her baby and this was enough to disqualify her entirely in the eyes of Social Services. (But it isn’t social services who will make that decision – it is the court. Where is the mention of the court process in this assertion? There is clearly some significant medical information that we are not told enough about to understand its impact.)
Clare: I saw her when Colin held her. I thought that little girl just came out of me! 7 lb 11 oz
Colin: 3 days after we had settled in, bonding with her and that. I go to hospital the solicitor turns up with some papers. Its an interim order, a care order for our daughter. (who is this solicitor? Colin’s solicitor? Legal process not explained) Along pops a social worker and all of sudden we had to put her in a car seat and the social worker said if you kick off the police are already here to arrest you. We had to watch our daughter get carried out of hospital with the social workers.
(15.20) Maggie Mellon: quite often we hear, this will tackle the cycle of poverty, these interventions which make sure children are removed before harm is caused – what is actually happening is the poor are being blamed for their own poverty. Its actually saying if only their parents were more enlightened, they would make different choices, these children would have different experiences and they wouldn’t be poor. (But it isn’t just poverty that is the problem for many parents. Poverty of course exacerbates other problems but poverty itself cannot be isolated as root cause. Many parents struggle with drug/alcohol addictions or had no experience of good parenting as children themselves).
VO: Now Colin and Clare are waiting to see if the courts will allow them to get their child back. (16.00 first mention of courts!) In Great Britain, expecting parents are not the only ones threatened by the Children Act. Established families also get unjustly torn apart in a matter of days. Nicky and Mark’s life changed for ever in October 2003. Their son of 18 months was showing bizarre symptoms that prompted them to take him to hospital. (Nicky and Mark are of the Websters about whom is a lot of information in the public domain. Suffice to say there is much more information about their son’s medical condition than is touched upon here. But this case was rightly recognised as a ‘disaster’ and a significant miscarriage of justice. http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed32412. The Websters went on to have two other children who remain in their care but they did not succeed in overturning the adoption orders made with regard to their elder children as by the time the true circumstances of their son’s injury were known, the children had been living in other homes for many years and were settled there).
(1625) Nicky On 30th March 2003 we took him to Norwich hospital. They X-rayed him, tests and all sorts of things. It was the next day that the nightmare started. We got ushered into a side room to be told that they had someone looked at our son’s X rays and they found an unusual fracture. His ankle.
Mark: Every parent’s worst nightmare to be in hospital with a sick child and social services actually come walking in and say we would like to speak to you at the side.
Nicky: Social workers said our son had what they called non-accidental injuries. In other words, someone had inflicted them on him by pulling and twisting.
Mark: So we are actually looking at each other now.. put a strain on our relationship thinking hang on a minute, have you hurt this child?
VO: When the suspicions were raised, Nicky and Mark had been married for 3 years. A quiet law abiding couple lived in residential part of Cromer on East coast of England. They were raising 3 children. Eldest daughter, 3 3 month old baby who Nicky was still breastfeeding and little boy 18 months who was in hospital.
Mark: They said to us: do you have any explanations? Well, we didn’t know what was going on. We knew he was ill. We bought him to hospital and Nicky mentioned well we do have brittle bones in the family.
Nicky: They immediately dismissed it.
VO: Without looking any further, Norfolk County Social Services accused Nicky and Mark of having beaten their son. Their three children were immediately placed in foster care. Nicky and Mark didn’t even get a chance to explain themselves. Unable to prove their innocence they returned home alone, a mere 3 weeks after their trip to hospital.
Mark: When you come home, you sit here and you are sitting here in silence. The noise you would have with 2 children and a baby crying, a family home, a basic family home.. It was just silence. Not the best feeling in the world to know your children aren’t there.
Nicky: What surprised me the most was when they took our baby, he was only 3 months, they didn’t ask how often he was fed or how much. At the time I was still breastfeeding. I had to stop that. One of the worst aches I think I ever had. When I stopped feeding him. The milk was still there and I was made even more aware of fact he wasn’t here along with the other 2. It was just so eerily quiet. I don’t know how we got through them days to be honest. (this is very sad to hear. Complaints from breast feeding mothers about how they were treated were a strong feature of discussions at CPConf2016 so it doesn’t look as if anything has changed for the better.)
VO: The stroke of fate that hit Nicky and Mark’s family was no accident. The British authorities had started using risk of future harm much more frequently after an awful news story had shook the entire country two years before. (BBC News – Victoria Climbie report- murdered by great aunt and her boyfriend). This little girl’s family had been under close scrutiny by social workers for years who now had to examine their consciences. (valid perspective to underline the shockwaves sent out by the Victoria Climbie case – exacerbated again of course by the tragedy of Peter Connelly who was killed in 2007)
(20.58) Unidentified man: We are facing a national crisis really. We are investing huge sums of money, huge time and energy in running child protection systems that don’t seem to be achieving what we set out (Fair point)
Maggie Mellon: my feeling was that at that time London was under enormous pressure and there was this constant change and turn going on of Senior Managers. You would go into work in Haringey and find their office had been packed up and you were told here’s your case, here’s your things, we don’t know where you are going but someone’s in your office.
VO: It was chaos in the social services. The public servants subjected to more pressure than ever before. On the ground they had to do everything they could to track down abusive parents and find reasons for taking their children away. The system quickly derailed and the number of iniquitous cases grew exponentially. (on what basis do they conclude that cases were iniquitous? How have they calculated that they grew ‘exponentially’?) (22.00) It is in this context that Jacquie and John lost their two boys over a mere bump on their baby’s temple.
J: Just straight out, child abuse, this is what’s happening, fracture, bleeding on the brain.
John: You go there looking for help and they turn around and say you are a child abuser. It just made no sense whatsoever.
VO: 3 weeks after being examined in the emergency room both of J and J’s children were placed in foster care. The parents were held by the County police for questioning.
J: The police … taking photographs .. interviewing us in the house and just before they leave, they are having a cup of coffee. Police say now we have met you we can’t understand why this is going on.
VO: one month later the county police sent J and J the report of their investigation and their conclusions. David Gale is former policeman who supports them in battle to clear their name.
David Gale: The thing that strikes you is the last 3 lines of it ‘I have received the advice back from the CPS and the advice is all suspects should be released and no further action. That’s unequivocal. To some extent there has been pressure on social workers to avoid error and sometimes they err on the side of safety and ignore the evidence while they are doing it. There is almost a default position that has shifted from objective to ‘lets make sure we are not blamed for anything’. (I agree with this) Social Services are more powerful than the police decision if you have an expert witness or social worker on the stand in the family court they will trump police evidence every time (Not accepted, not true).
(24.15) VO: Where the police need evidence, social services may need results. Since 1989 CA evaluations for suspected abuse have increased by 302% while proven cases of abuse have decreased by half. (This would appear to be citing the research of Dr Lauren Devine although she is not mentioned. I agree that these figures are disturbing and point to an increase in unnecessary investigations).
The Judicial system has only 26 weeks to control the social services excessive zeal (assumption that all cases arise from ‘excessive zeal’ ?)
Lord Nicholas Wilson Justice of the Supreme Court: Basically these cases must be done in 26 weeks and that is a very tight timetable. Before you consider adoption you have a preliminary decision to make – should this child be taken into care? And the 26 weeks refers to the start of the proceedings by the public authority to take the child into care and the conclusion of that case.
Maggie Mellon: You have only got six months then to make all the inquiries to do all the necessary work, to attempt rehabilitation, to even get the proper service for a parent (ignoring pre-proceedings work http://childprotectionresource.online/tag/pre-proceedings/ )
VO: During these six months Colin and Clare had to take parenting classes. A sort of exam to win the right to get their child back. (this is a distortion and a misrepresentation of what parenting classes are meant to achieve. They are not an ‘exam’ and they do not determine absolutely whether or not a child is going home)
Colin (25.49): We were put on a parenting course… they were just taking notes and talking about how kids react… how to know when they are hungry, tired, need nappy changed, when they are ill. Me and Clare were only ones there made to go without our daughter because she was taken into care.
VO: In spite of these Kafkaesque circumstances, (what does this even mean? Pejorative assertion which is not explained) Colin and Clare were awarded a good parenting certificate.
(26.32) Colin: We are going to Huntingdon (?) to see our daughter. Hillrise contact Centre. Stay there for 2 hours hopefully have some fun with our daughter.
VO; Colin and Clare are still on trial. (no, they are not. This is not a criminal trial. These are care proceedings) They have been making this trip 3 times a week for the past six months. They have 3 meetings a week at a family mediation centre where they attempt to make up for lost time with their daughter under the supervision of a social worker. (27.02) During these contacts all their actions and gestures are recorded in official reports, minute by minute. Nothing is omitted. To fight for custody of their baby they have to endure this kind of inquisition (again, pejorative, inflammatory language). It is now late April and they are meeting with their daughter for the last time before the court determines their fate. (27.36) (Again inflammatory language, but at least a recognition that it is the court which decides).
(playing with daughter) … (walking away from contact centre). Colin: We did build a relationship up with her. We tried so hard for ourselves to build a relationship up with her and we’ve done it. …. We just wanted to get the chance to be a mum and dad to her. Even the criminal courts say innocent until proven guilty. But we’ve been proven guilty when we haven’t even had our child. I don’t really know what else to say about that one, it just makes me so angry. The court system in this world, in this country is absolutely diabolical. When we go to court I don’t know if we are going to get one more visit or if she will just go straight away. We don’t know what is happening (no mention of the parents’ lawyers. Parents seem confused about local authority care plan. Has this been explained to them? Or is it something they haven’t been able to take in?) Until we get in that court room and they say. They are in control of our daughter’s life. Not us. Them.
(29.19) VO In 3 days Colin and Clare will face their judges.
Maggie Mellon. The child has become or is becoming almost the property of the State and the State has created outcomes which they want the child to achieve and the parents must either ensure or get out of the way. (no mention of significant harm – the legal basis for removal of children. No mention of body of case law that explicitly warns against such social engineering. This gives false and misleading impression)
VO how do you endure such a draconian process? During the six month period waiting for the final sentence, Nicky and Mark were tempted to breach the law. (But the Websters’ case was decided well before the Children and Families Act 2014 came into force – the six month period had nothing to do with their case).
(30.08) Mark: it would have been easy. It would have been very easy to kidnap them. Even though you could see there was no light at the end of the tunnel we wanted to do this the proper way and try and work with social services. There was one day it was very close I nearly thought about getting them and going.
Nicky: It would have been easy to have put them in the car.. but where would we have gone? We weren’t allowed to say anything to anyone. If anyone asked us where our children were we had to lie (saying that care proceedings are on-going is NOT a breach of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960. If that is the advice the Websters were given, it was the wrong advice). They didn’t even want us to tell our families what had happened.
Mark:… everyone was going to know everything that had happened. Plus we were being accused of something we hadn’t done so why should I have to lie to family and friends when I had done nothing wrong.
Nicky: Our daughter was nearly 4. I think the worst thing was the day when she said to us why can’t I come home, is it because I have been naughty? She thought somehow even at her age it was her fault they were there. She said to foster carer why do we have to live here? And the foster carer told her its because mummy and daddy hurt your little brother (31.40)
(31.41) VO: At the end of a six month period Nicky and Mark were declared responsible for their son’s fractures (as stated above, the six month time limit was introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 and therefore could have had nothing to do with the Websters’ case) They lost their 3 children for good. Their eldest daughter and her two brothers were immediately put up for adoption. Why the rush? The reason behind it is shocking. In England the Government sets adoption quotas for the local authorities responsible for child protection. Targets for each county on number of children to be adopted. An obligation to achieve certain pre defined results.
John Hemming: From the year 2000 onwards all children’s services authorities were told to increase adoption numbers wherever possible and do whatever they can and there clearly are cases where social workers have fabricated evidence in order to get children adopted. (sadly, it is true that there are reported cases of social workers lying – see Hampshire case. https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/11/23/social-workers-slammed-for-lying-on-oath/
But these are not commonplace. Also, this account of adoption targets is distorted and not true – see the TP analysis of freedom of information requests send to every LA in England and Wales. The ‘targets’ mentioned from 2000 were targets designed to get children out of the care system, not to encourage social workers to take children from families.)
VO To give counties an incentive to reach their quotas, the Labour government designed a reward system. The more adoption numbers rose, the more the LA budgets would grow, sometimes by several million pounds. (some documents shown in background but no efforts to explain how this assertion is supported, or where these figures come from)
John Hemming: they could have a target for recycling waste for instance If they get more waste recycling they get a reward. Similarly there is a reward for recycling children from one family to another.
VO: Since 2008 the system has got worse. If counties don’t reach their targets they actually lose money. It is this terrifying logic put in place by the Government that Colin and Clare fell victim to. Their first court hearing is this Monday and they will appear without legal representation. Ian Josephs the wealthy good Samaritan who assists families who have been unjustly accused advised them the day before (this is really worrying. WHY don’t they have a lawyer? They will have non means non merits tested legal aid in care proceedings. Is it because Ian Josephs has told them not to bother with ‘legal aid losers’? Why is Josephs described as assisting those who are ‘unjustly’ accused when he confirms himself that he doesn’t check the backgrounds of those he gives money to?)
Ian Josephs: They don’t sound very rich people, in lower income group. Clare has occasional fits of epilepsy but very rare now as she is taking medication. There is no evidence that Clare or Colin is going to hurt their baby. There is no evidence that they have any intention of hurting their baby. (This isn’t the legal test for obvious reasons. They might love their baby very much but be unable to keep her safe without a very high level of support, that is unlikely to be provided. What documents had Ian Josephs seen to be so confident in his assessment?)
VO: Colin and Clare tried to convince the judges they could be good parents.
(34.46) Colin: I looked at them with a smile on my face. I answered every question with a defence I even acted in a professional manner, shaking everyone’s hands. Its all been the look on the social workers face … The judge looks like he knows what we are on about he knows we are in the right.
Clare: we asked for a supervision order, so if the Judge lets us have one we might get our daughter back.
Colin: If it does go ahead we will have our daughter in our own place 24/7, but social workers will come round every day to check but when they leave we will keep our daughter there
VO: Colin and Clare still have hope. What they do not know is that the process is rushed which is what Nicky and Mark discovered on the day of their hearing.
(35.42) Mark : Family courts are all about people just sitting there and allowing people to slag you off and tell you the worst parts of your life. I had a theft and I did have an actual bodily harm. I was 14 and the person was 15. We had a fight and I hit him once… and I stole a bubble-gum machine. It was all put on ‘o you are the bad person’ because you had a bad childhood … that was a big point I had been put in care myself. Still to this day there are a lot of people who think that children taken are taken from people who have been in care themselves.
(36.29) Sir Nicholas Wilson: We in the family courts have to look into the future all the time. We have to see what has happened in the past but that for us is only a guide for what is likely to happen in the future. We must look at the past but only in so far as it is a guide to the future.
VO: Not everything would be decided in a trance. The next day Colin and Clare are summonsed for their last day of hearings. This time it will be the social worker’s turn to speak. In the late afternoon the verdict falls.
Colin: We have lost her (in tears). … we just can’t take care of her emotional needs. They have took her, took her for adoption (breaks down). They stole our baby. They stole our baby for nothing…I am not giving up on her, not at all. .. I am going to find her and make sure she knows we love her, screw what they say. I am going to find her … I am going to show her the reports and show her we were there for her no matter what… if it is last thing I do on this earth I will. (sobs)
VO: Colin and Clare’s baby is now going to feature in an advert to charm her future parents. In England children who are up for adoption are exposed publicly and have their faces in brochures and adverts (not all children – only those who are finding it hard to get matched with potential adoptive parents)
(Clip from video about Elaine who is 4 and looking for a family. She has been in foster care for 13 months)
Mark. I am horrified to see it on video. It is disgusting.
VO 12 years ago when adopted, N and M’s three children also featured in a short promotional video.
Nicky We were given a VHS tape that SW said we might want as memento. Used it to show to prospective adopters to advertise them.
Mark You can imagine Tescos advertising baked beans. This was them advertising our children.
(41.13) VO In Cambridgeshire, Colin and Clare’s baby was also displayed on shelves of this strange supermarket. We pretended to be prospective parents at the agency that got her adopted. The social workers there use methods similar to those in pet stores. …(RECORDING OF SWs you can see he is adorable little baby but he’s got muscular dystrophy.. degenerative. Not many people want that risk. Lots of groups of 3. Probably happy healthy children but there is 3. People who take 3 are really hard to find. Those children will be on the internet as well…. Not enough adopters. That is another reason why we put them on the internet. It is a catalogue. You can’t get away from it. That’s a bit what its like.(What do you think of that?) It is not nice but it is necessary. It does work. Means child waits 3 months not 3 years for right family. Speeds things up).(Seems a fair enough point. Not treating children like animals in a pet shop but trying to find a family for them as quickly as possible)
VO: In just a few months social workers found a family for Colin and Clare’s white and healthy baby.
(42.52) Maggie Mellon: For social workers then to have imposed upon them targets, creates other problems. There are not adoptive parents for older children in care, with disabilities, of different ethnicities… not queues for these children.. Where there are loads are for white babies with no disability. That’s what they want.
VO: in 2015 of the 7,740 children waiting to be adopted less than 40% found new parents. Meanwhile 70,000 children are still living with foster parents or in homes. At a cost of almost 2.8 billion euros for tax payer.
Sir Nicholas Wilson: Foster carers are paid quite a significant sum of money for doing the job of fostering, unlike adopters, when you take the child into your family as yours, you don’t get paid for it. One reason perhaps local authorities prefer adoption to fostering (Fair point, and I agree with it)
Ian Josephs: they will save a lot of money if they take the child out of fostering which goes on for years and gives them to adoptive parents because once the child is adopted the expense for the country stops. (fair point, as above)
VO: In November 2015 PM David Cameron put his foot down and demanded more adoptions. To get rid of all these children without parents the government unscrupulously resorted to private agencies.
Maggie Mellon: The very idea that the market is a positive force in terms of raising standards for children I think is very, very questionable and it is not one there is a lot of evidence behind. Children have a right to know that there is a public awareness and accountability for their care and the more that is subcontracted out, that there is money involved.. we know that money and children removed from their families is a recipe for disaster (agree entirely).
(45.19) VO in the UK adoption is an endless cycle of tragedy. The parents, unfairly separated from their children are deprived of their parent status. For life. Adoption is irrevocable. Mistakes made are irreparable. With the Children Act, the UK has found a way to erase the biological parents. (This is remarkably inflammatory language. No recognition of the fact that for some children adoption is absolutely the right thing. it is accepted that adoption orders are very unlikely to be overturned –as the Websters very sadly found. But this does not mean that the biological families are ‘erased’. There is no mention here of life story work or post adoption contact. The emphasis on parental status as opposed to thinking about what the child needs, is interesting and telling. There is apparently no consideration of the impact on a child in having an adoptive placement disrupted after possibly many years and returning to parents who are now strangers)
How can life go on with the memory of the children you have lost and whose names you cannot say out loud and faces you cannot show. J and J are still clinging on to a glimmer of hope that they will see their two boys one day. The ones they lost over a single bump on the head. To find them as adults and teach them about their family history.
(46.20) J: We have started this book. The boys have each got one. It is a book of genealogy. This book is for the boys to learn and understand where they come from and what their history is. It is photographs and stories. It explains how their name came what our surnames mean. History and where our families have travelled around the world. Most of time because its closed adoptions, their files are sealed and they can’t get access to their own history (no mention of life story work done for each child?)
John: they will only have one side of the story. The side they were told by adopters or social services, not the other side.
VO: piece by piece J and J put together a new version of their story which was fabricated by social services. After losing her two children J decided to study family law and created an association for the victims of social services. Thanks to this network and her new skills she found out that her child abuse record was a forgery. The first piece of the file fell on the first day of the first hearing when a decision was made to remove her boys.
J: there was a break in the proceedings. We go outside … my solicitor says to me do you know about this document ?
VO A pregnancy medical report from J’s first child shows that J was in poor health with a long medical record. The DR didn’t believe this and concluded that J was fabricating illness and expressed concern about the future well being of her baby.
J what transpires is that she left that meeting in 2005, went back to her office, drafted a letter to social services stating I had this condition.
VO: Following her first pregnancy, social services continued to observe J. 3 years later when take her child to hospital regarding the bump she was immediately accused by social services of causing serious harm to her child. She has discovered since then this was a false allegation.
J: I made an application to the hospital. Events unfolded. As a result of that … documents that seemed to be part of the investigation that hadn’t been shown to us before. The medical paperwork from hospital states that my son never had any injury. The social workers said my son had a skull fracture. The court said it. But the medical report says my son never had a skull fracture (hopefully if relevant documents were kept from the courts in the first proceedings, J and J are going to be able to bring matters back before the courts. Deliberate with holding of relevant evidence is unacceptable and cannot go unchallenged. However, I do not accept it is common place – but I accept there are some awful examples of it, most notably and recently this case.)
(49.47) John Hemming: The problem is that Judges don’t accept that people need independent assessments. The Judges believe that it is acceptable to rely on assessments from the local authority when the local authority is under pressure to get children adopted. That is clearly wrong, that is clearly not a fair trial. (And that is not what happens! In cases where non accidental injury is alleged, the court is assisted by independent medical evidence about what happened. All parties instruct and pay for this expert).
J: the first thing the judge said in a family decision case on whether adoption is considered is the words used were ‘the court does not have a duty to strain’. In other words the court doesn’t have to go to any limits to try and find the truth in family law. They don’t have to make an effort (This is untrue and an unfair mispresentation of the court process. The courts recognise that they may not be able to find out what happened and should not ‘strain’ to provide an explanation for an injury. It is sometimes just not possible to know how a child suffered an injury. This does not mean that the court doesn’t make an effort! I accept that the system is more adversarial than inquisitorial but this places a burden on the local authority to make their case. A big problem in cases of unexplained injury to a child is that medical evidence can shift over time. This does not mean that people making decisions in the earlier case were acting in bad faith; they were doing their best with the evidence they had at the time. For a more detailed look at what the court’s have to do in cases of unexplained injury, see this post http://childprotectionresource.online/what-happens-when-a-child-gets-hurt-and-we-dont-know-who-did-it/ The local authority have to prove their case and if there is any doubt the parents should get the benefit of that doubt; they don’t have to prove their ‘innocence’ ).
VO If the local authority had really wanted to they could have found evidence to prove J’s innocence. Two years ago she discovered that she suffered from a genetic illness that can be transmitted to one’s children. An illness that provokes bruises or bumps at the slightest impact.
John: If they had asked the geneticists that specific question, If J has got it could the boys have it. And she said yes, 50/50 chance they will have it. Obviously no way we could get them checked for it, but other things also clicked into place so it would explain a lot.
(51.33) VO Today J and John cling to the hope of proving their child was ill to get their two boys back. In a few months time the court may agree to study the evidence that J found herself. Mark and Nicky have given up hope of getting their children back. They have started a new family. B was born 10 years ago … the little boy came through a storm that raged for over a year.
Nicky: When I discovered I was expecting B it was a mixture of being horrified,uncertain. I kind of kept it to myself for about 5 months. I couldn’t keep it to myself for much longer because it was beginning to show.
Mark We were not going to lose a fourth. No way. We were going to go, we were going to do anything possible to keep this child.
VO: Social services, threatened with suspicions of likely future harm, they threatened to take N and M’s baby away from them at birth. 2 weeks before the due date the couple fled to Ireland to escape British law.
(53.22) Nicky: When we arrived at the hospital in Wexford Ireland we told them why we were there. We were honest. There to have our baby who would have been taken at birth if we had him in this country. We then had two police women at bottom of the bed. I had the hospital administrator beside me practically reading me my rights and saying I wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital and if I did it would be without my baby. Then the following morning, not long after I had given birth, Norfolk social services social workers arrived.
Mark: the fact that Norfolk social services had actually chased us over there, you could see that they were trying to scam us to go back and take …
VO: Nicky and Mark realised they had an opportunity here. Suspected harm does not apply in Ireland. The Irish judicial system could not place baby in guardianship or gag the parents. For once, British journalists were able to report on the case.
John Hemming: If you produced your programme in England, you would go to jail. And I am sure you don’t want to do that and obviously many journalists don’t want to do that. So they cannot go into the same detail about individual cases as you can. (Fair point. We need to be doing much more to ensure greater openness about family proceedings and allowing journalists to report more)
VO: The media soon took up the cause and stirred the entire country. Mark and Nicky were now able to negotiate with social services. They would return to England only if they were given a fair chance. In June 2006 they returned home. They obtained the right to be put on probation in a centre where families suspected of abuse are locked up (no they are not! They are free to leave at any time – but it may not be with their children)
Nicky: When I first moved in there it was like a prison because you are locked in. there are cameras in the communal areas and a speaker system they use in your apartment. So they can hear absolutely everything that gets said and done. So if they hear a child cry out suddenly they can go rushing through to see what problem is.
VO: the prisoners decided to beat the surveillance system at its own game. To prove they were not making any mistakes, they recorded and described their daily life on camera.
Mark I think it’s a case that they put you in that house to build you to fail so they don’t care what you are doing.
VO: After 5 months Nicky and Mark left this awful place. They had given social services no reason to steal B from them.
(57.14) Nicky: We came home with B in October 2006 having done 5 months assessment. So we had regular visits from children’s services. To start with every day, very intrusive, but slowly over time it goes down to 3 times a week then 2 times a week…
VO: During that period the family is still faced with the threat of social services. Nicky and Mark would have to wait 5 months to know if they could keep B permanently. On 26th June 2007 they were finally free. The 13 month long nightmare had ended at last. Why did the court finally allow Mark and Nicky to be parents? Because they didn’t have a choice. A few months earlier Nicky received the results of a forensic examination carried out by an eminent American paediatrician. The doctor made a decisive discovery. Social services had wrongly accused Mark and Nicky of abuse. Their son was not severely beaten. His fractures were caused by scurvy.
(Nicky and Mark talking to doctor by Skype) It’s nice to finally put a face to a name! how long did it take you to make the diagnosis of scurvy.
DR: I think it took, I worked on an off for about a week, doing research and extracting the records .. X rays and I mean it just hits you. Here s a child with food aversion, the wrong diet, losing weight and then these symptoms. Yes, its clearly scurvy. The criteria they use when it comes to bone and bone fractures are flawed. There are none that show any cause or effect scientifically rigorous between these fractures and child abuse.
VO: Just before the children were removed Nicky and Mark had spoken to social services about the food allergies that had caused their son’s scurvy.
Nicky: We suggested it was a possibility our son’s diet could have been a possibility and that is something we raised with them
VO: Mark and Nicky’s children were taken and adopted because of a false diagnosis. (Yes, the initial diagnosis was wrong. This was on the state of the medical evidence in 2004. In 2007 the court had better evidence. This does not mean that the diagnosis was concocted in bad faith or deliberately. The court was faced with a 3 month old baby with fractures and medical evidence at that time did not show that scurvy was the cause. I accept this is cold comfort to the Websters who have lost their children. But it will not help any future parents to encourage fear and suspicion). The justice system would not be able to avoid a retrial which would find Mark and Nicky to be innocent. Nevertheless Judge Wilson made the decision that they would never get their children back.
(1.00.32) Sir Nicholas Wilson: We have to say to ourselves now here is a possible grave injustice to Mr and Mrs Webster but our focus must be on these children now and if we focus on the needs of these children now and their belief and this is their ‘forever family’ and that lady is their mum and that man is their dad and to pull them out of all of that and give them back to the Websters who they haven’t seen for four years, is too much to ask of these children in psychological terms. (this remains the fundamental problem with overturning adoption orders found to have been wrongly made)
Mark: They actually call it a miscarriage of justice. There is nothing we can do about it. We lose our children.
Nicky: it is a shame that nothing can be done to rectify it. The only thing I can see them doing is to change the law on adoption which I can’t see them doing any time soon.
VO one month after the trial Nicky gave birth to a little girl C. The only one of five siblings not to have been persecuted by social services.
C: my sister is 16 and my two brothers I can’t remember their age. Mummy knows. Maybe when I see them I can give them a hug and play some games.
VO C might get to see her big sister and brother one day. But only when they become adults. If they have any memories of their parents, if they manage to find them, if they want to find them. In England the child protection law does not give the families they destroy a chance. Unless they escape it. Bethany’s baby was born 5 weeks after her exile to France. As soon as L was born social services came knocking on his grandparents door.
MGM it was knock knock at the door, where is Bethany. I said they are not here, she has moved abroad..
VO: By leaving their hunting ground Bethany escaped the harm social services could have caused. She was able to negotiate her return to England without losing her baby.
Bethany: It was the best idea ever fleeing to France to have my baby. Otherwise I would not have had my son. He would have been taken at birth.
VO for 2 months social services put young mother to the test. They found the person they had suspected of future child abuse was actually a good mother. (and the sadness is, she could have been assessed in England, without being encouraged to run away and put her baby and herself at risk)
Bethany: I wanted a chance to be a mother I have never had kids before. How could they decide I was a future risk! I would never hurt my son
Maggie Mellon: there are very, very few parents who should not have care of their children. But generally in order to find out about the level of injustice being perpetrated we need to be listening now to parents and not in 20 years time when children grow up and say why did this happen to me. (yes we need to listen. But I don’t accept that parents who can’t care for their children are so vanishingly rare).
VO: Today more than 2 million children are listed in the records of social services. (What does this figure mean and where does it come from? The Committee of Public Accounts says there are 800,000 children a year in need of protection).
JH this sort of machine crunching up families and recycling children continues to run on insanely as it does without being properly addressed. People in other countries don’t believe that this is happening in England. (I will continue to assert that John Hemming is a big part of the problem why this debate is not progressing. I deal with this in more detail here: http://childprotectionresource.online/why-do-i-worry-about-john-hemming/).
UPDATE 01 JAN 2017 : See Maggie Mellon’s response to this post here.