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Desperate times, desperate measures ?

 

Social Services, adoptions and child abuse – some of the intertwined causes and consequences

 

There’s a lot wrong with our Family Court system – and some of us would be the last people to support it – but what are we expecting of social workers and what can they do if not to seek, on occasion,  action through the courts ?

What do we want courts to do – or not do – when faced with safeguarding a child’s life and future happiness ? Do we want them to leave well alone so another child might meet a grisly fate ? Or do we want Social Services and the courts to intervene on our behalf to save other children from an abusive environment ?

Certainly the track record is littered with notorious failures – but is that because we don’t hear of the successes, and is it a truism personified that only bad news is good enough to make ‘the news’ ?

For those unfamiliar with the numbers, in recent days (23rd June 2014) the BBC published a story concerning ‘thousands of mothers’ who had multiple babies removed from them. It added that court records showed that 7,143 mothers were involved in repeat care cases, and said to be “affecting 22,790 children.” [1]

However, those “thousands of mothers” were measured over a 10 year period, so an annual average would be in the region of 714 mothers. Of course, even if one (or ten),  mothers had been forcibly deprived of their children it would be too many but firstly, there has to be a reason why; and secondly such a deprivation happens on an industrial scale to fathers whose partners decides to leave them.

Over 60%

The public is slowly coming around to the belief that it’s not just fathers who are violent to children. More children meet abuse and even untimely deaths at the hands of their mother than their father, and this fact is no longer seen as incredulous.

LorraineOnly this month, the life story and successful TV career of  chef Lorraine Pascale epitomised that it is often mothers that pose the gravest risk to children.

Right: chef Lorraine Pascale

Mothers are the parents that were more likely to call Social Services saying they can no longer cope; most often didn’t care or want to care; didn’t want ‘the bother’ of having their kids around;  couldn’t cope because of their addiction; and who vented all their inner frustrations on the kids. Such abuse and or neglect accounts for 62% of all children taken into care. The question is never posed nor answered as to exactly where these 62% of children materialise from but it is fairly safe to assume they are from mothers rather than fathers. That Lorraine Pascale – probably in common with far too many children growing up in one of the above scenarios – survived and even flourished is a testament to inner strength, the human spirit, good foster parents and probably ‘luck.’

Drugs, alcohol and violence have all been synonymous with men of a certain type– or at least that’s how it used to be seen. Now that women are more equal than they have ever been before (apparently), they are adopting the ‘laddette’ culture and the same lack of social morality once associated with the ‘cavalier’ attitude of some, but not all, men.  Is it any surprise that such low standards are  crossing the threshold into motherhood ?

Similarly, it is not all women but just ‘some’ women who are responsible for a doubling in serous female violence, physical assaults, for the surge in female prisoner numbers and a host of other ‘socially’ based pathologies.

Currently there are more than 15,000 children in “care”, in one form or another in England & Wales. Some are in foster care while  others are in local authority residential care, and some are awaiting adoption (ref. Channel 4, April 2014).  On average, one child is taken into care every 20 minutes in Britain (ref. Channel 4, April 2014). This probably is the result of  a series of major child abuse scandals involving neglect, starvation and/or torture headlined over the recent years which has forced Social Services to act more frequently in what might have been seen as marginal cases.

According to the Department of Education, one in every 166 children in the UK is in ”care’, and their overall figure is much higher than Channel 4’s focused examination,  showing 68,110 children to be ‘in care.’ (There are 4,310 who are under one year old. The gender divide is 37,510 boys and 30,600  girls and of these, 50,900 children are in foster care. This represents 75% of all children in care and is a constantly, if slow, rising figure  (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/244872/SFR36_2013.pdf  Sept 2013).

Foster care is by far the cheaper of the options but even this costs the tax-payer around £21,000 per child, per year,  i.e.  £390 p/w x 52  is the payment made to foster parents for each child (and that is excluding all the child and mother state benefits).  However,  even this cheaper option annually costs the taxpayer over £1 bn (£1,050,000,000).  From the same Dept of Education statistics we learned that 6,000 “looked after children” are allocated care in 1/. secure units, 2/. children’s homes and 3/. hostels.

Somewhere in the region of 9,000 children are  waiting at any one time to be adopted in the five years up to 2013, a number which  is twice what it was five years earlier, but only around 3,000 are actually adopted annually.

Destructive mothers

Social Services, by reputation, are associated with snatching children away from well-intentioned but unlucky parents (i.e. mothers). The assumption is usually that the intervention is being done for the wrong reasons, but we cannot simply assume that the parent(s) concerned is either well-intentioned or unlucky. Some mothers, no matter how few, do represent a danger to their children because they are deemed incompetent, inept or for a variety of reason pathologically unsuitable (see also psychiatric dimension, https://cohabitationlaw.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/11/). In such circumstances Social Services can’t stand idly by.

But equally, nor can we be misled with statements such as this:

  • “Researchers found children were taken away from their parents by local authorities in more than 90% of cases.”

The “90% of cases” sounds a deliciously devised tit-bit for newspapers – but 90% of what ? The total female population, or just of questionable mothers ? Sadly, in the BBC article quoting the researchers of the two universities, Manchester and Brunel, who carried out the study, it does not say. [2]

But what is highly relevant is the information that it backs up what judges have noticed in their own courts for some years, namely that “many mothers are stuck in a destructive cycle of pregnancies and care proceedings” to remove the child from its mother.

This, of course, does not come as a total surprise to some of us. It’s not just judges who believe many mothers are trapped in a ‘destructive cycle’ (of pregnancies and care proceedings); many of us who have spent years scrutinising the numbers believe it extends into other areas such as false allegations (see below for the age grouping). Some of us have felt this to be the case for many years but, because the information was from gleaned from tangential sources and not direct data, it could only be a supposition. Now for the first time exact data has been produced to underscore our deduced misgivings.

The report says that Family Court judges find that owing to abuse or neglect they have felt they have no alternative but to “remove” a young child or baby from a mother, i.e. putting the baby into foster care or residential care. But in this 90% subset, judges are finding themselves “removing” a new baby (and still found unable to care for the infant), a year or two later.

Nicholas Crichton, a retired family court judge and one of the more fair-minded ones, said recently:

  • “The work of the family courts for years has been removing the second, the third, the fourth child from the same mother. Not infrequently the sixth, the seventh, or the eighth.”
  • “In one case I’ve removed the 14th and I know two judges that have removed the 15th children from the same mother.”

NicholasMost of these mothers misuse drink or drugs – or both. And according to the research, half the women involved are 24, or below, at the time of the first care application, i.e. “the removal”, with the youngest mother being aged only 14. in such instances their babies are often removed quickly, at birth or soon afterwards.

Right: retired family court judge Nicholas Crichton

Assuming that the first birth was at the age of 14, then by the time the 15th child had been delivered it can be estimated that the woman must be aged no younger than 30, and more likely 35.

The age category or the subset of single women aged ‘under-25’ figures prominently in reports of domestic violence, child abuse, claims of sexual assaults and false rape allegation trials (i.e. “Perverting the course of justice).

Our own research into the available data long ago indicated that the most common constants (defence pleas), in care proceedings, e.g. child abuse by adults and false rape allegations, appeared to be a misuse of drink or drugs (or both), and/or mental health problems, e.g. bi-polar conditions etc. Terrie Moffitt has done a great deal of mainstream research in the area of ‘Comorbidity’ – but much of it is overlooked by the mainstream media (and is completely unknown in some legal circles). So it is gratifying to see suppositions confirmed.

70% of some mothers ?

Dr Karen Broadhurst, of the University of Manchester, and lead author of the research, told the BBC that:

  • ” . . . . in approximately 42% of cases, infants were subject to care proceedings within a month of their birth, which is an important finding”.
  • “We know that in 70% of cases infants were subject to proceedings within the first year of their life, which obviously leaves the mother with very little time to turn her life around.”

What a curious phrase to use,  “. . .  leaves the mother with very little time to turn her life around.” The unvarnished truth is that the mother should not have put herself, or let herself fall,  into such a position in the lead-up to her becoming pregnant, and having become pregnant she has 9 months in which to make changes. if asked we would probably be told these women lacked self-esteem and had poor levels of confidence. But what they most probably lacked was self-control, inner-strength, resolve and/or were poorly educated or ‘challenged’ in the same general direction  (one has to be so careful these days not to use expressions like,  “Not the sharpest tool in the box”).

Concrete numbers are not so misleading as quoting percentages; so is the 70% referring to the total sample or to just the 42% mentioned in the line above ?

Dr Karen Broadhurst also said the time intervals between care proceedings were short for these mothers.

  • “We think there is an average of 17 months between the first time a young mother appears in court with an infant and the second time she appears in court with another infant.”
  • “It suggests to us there’s a very short interval between pregnancies, which gives mums very little time to engage in their own rehab.”

Or it could indicate she is a hopeless case, or has no intention of turning her life around.

Women who transgress society’s ‘norms’ are immediately flagged up as in need of our help – this never happens to men. They are just banged-up in jail – no one ‘cares’ why they did what they did. No where is this dichotomy in societal treatment more visible than in Dr Broadhurst subsequent remarks. She believes the research demonstrates the need for family courts to change their approach, to help these women change their behaviour.

  • “We also need to get better at ensuring those young parents can access the treatment that’s recommended within the family court.”

Both Social Services and child abuse have been high on the political Agenda for some time past. Combine the two elements and there’s suddenly a heady mixture irresistible to Tabloid newspapers and, to a growing extent, TV documentaries that are really no more than glorified theatre.

By contrast, the programme about Lorraine Pascale’s childhood was stirring;  it opened the lid (for her and for us, her public) on an all too often closed box.

The fact that like many other children, she survived her ordeal and even flourished should not be taken as a signal to do nothing in extreme cases. But it does beg the question, what defines extreme cases ? That is the conundrum.

 

Postscript

 ‘Immense’ cost of family breakdown

 

Retired judge Nicholas Crichton set up, in 2008, the pioneering Family Drug & Alcohol Court (FDAC) in central London.

The Nuffield funded research found the FDAC had helped 35% of mothers become reunited with their children, compared with 19% in the ordinary family courts.

The FDAC has its own team of experts, doctors, therapists and expert social workers from the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and the children’s charity Coram.

Most parents in care cases have problems with drugs or alcohol. The FDAC’s team helps them kick their addictions and teaches them how to be better parents.

It is funded by London local authorities who recognised the benefits outweighed the cost of keeping children in care, even though the cost of the FDAC court is higher than that of the ordinary family court.

This spring the president of the family court, Sir James Munby, praised the court and said: “FDAC is – it must be – a vital component in the new family court.” He has said there should be a FDAC in every family court in England.

Nicholas Crichton believes the new research underlines the need for the expansion of projects which help parents break the destructive cycle.

  • “The emotional cost to those families, and to their children, is immense but the financial cost to the taxpayer is immense as well and we really have to find a different way of dealing with these cases.”

 

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Footnotes:

[1] See “Thousands of mothers have multiple babies removed”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27943591

[2] Funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

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