How social services can seize our children
By Cassandra Jardine 12:01AM BST 30 Aug 2005 THE TELEGRAPH
It is scant solace, but parents whose children have been taken from them by social services on what they consider insufficient grounds now know that they are not the only ones. Over the year since I first described the plight of Emma and Martin, and looked into Essex's child protection and adoption procedures, scarcely a day has gone by without a distraught parent bringing another case to my attention.
These parents cannot understand why seemingly minor or passing problems have become magnified or distorted by social services. Time and again, rather than investigate and observe - or support and rehabilitate - the chosen solution has been to take a child, and often then that child's siblings, into care.
A major factor seems to be the Government's target, set in 2000, for a 40 per cent increase in adoptions. The motive was to take children off the care register but, like many well-meant initiatives, it has had undesirable consequences. The target has encouraged social services departments to achieve Beacon status by arranging the adoption of easy-to-adopt children - young, healthy and white - rather than strive to find permanent homes for older children, or those from ethnic minorities, or those with disabilities.
Again and again, I have heard parents say that social workers seem to make an instant judgment about their fitness as parents and then assemble the evidence to support that decision. One woman sobbed down the phone from South Wales that she had been accused of neglecting her children because one of them was underweight; even those of her children without dietary problems have been taken from her. A cluster of women from Sheffield contacted me about the high-handed behaviour of social services: one had had her two children taken because she had left them with a 12-year-old while shopping; another had had her younger children taken because her eldest had mental health problems; a third because she and her partner had been arguing. From the Isle of Wight, I heard from a woman whose three-year-old cowered whenever the doorbell rang because twice she had been taken into care by social services on the basis of inaccurate information.
The pattern of these cases became all too familiar. An initial incident brought a family to the attention of social services. Sometimes it was the parents' backgrounds: they might have been in care themselves, have a police record, or just a low IQ. In other cases, they had been denounced to social services by a vindictive ex-partner or relative. Still others had been drawn to social services' attention by an incident that appeared suspicious to a doctor or child protection officer.
In several cases, behavioural issues due to autism had been blamed on bad parenting. In every case, the parents felt that minds were set against them before they had been able to assemble a defence.
These parents often told me that their loss felt like a bereavement, but worse because there was no closure. They had to struggle with the guilt of feeling that somehow they had brought this situation upon themselves, and the frustration of not seeing any way to clear their names. As they wandered the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of a lost child whom they feared might have changed beyond recognition, they felt anger against a system that allowed professionals to act before they knew the facts.
Some of these parents may be failing to disclose pertinent information, of course; but in every case they are desperate to be allowed to care for their own children. Those who have made mistakes, been in bad relationships or had mental or physical health problems clearly want to be allowed a second chance. Yet, in their children's "best interests", secure, loving attachments had been severed and children placed in the cold limbo of state care. There, many of them seemed to be receiving far worse physical treatment - not to mention emotional deprivation.
Often the parents had tried asking social services for a review of their cases, but their letters, and those of their MPs, routinely received brief responses saying that the matter had been investigated internally by the social services department in question and that the local authority's actions had been found to be above reproach. Many felt that their complaints hardened attitudes against them.
In frustration, many have turned to the police hoping to bring their grievances into the criminal courts. Parents feel they have strong cases: they have documentary evidence of distorted reports, refusal to share vital documents and failure to follow procedures. A group of such parents in Essex who went to the police found that initially they received an interested response. Inevitably, when investigations stall, they suspect collusion between social services and the police. They have no proof, but, unless their complaints are investigated, they will always harbour such suspicions.
There is, however, one case that has got further. A couple whose child has been forcibly put up for adoption after what they consider to be a false accusation by an aggrieved ex-wife have been to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The Crown Prosecution Service is now looking at 11 complaints against 13 police officers ranging from unlawful arrest, imprisonment and harassment to refusal to accept the parents' alibi.
"If this comes to court," says the father, "the social workers concerned will be named and will not be able to hide behind the mantle of secrecy that protects them in the family courts."
On other levels there has been progress over the past year. Following one case that I brought to light - involving a family in which a mother was deemed to have too low an IQ to care for her children - other newspapers have taken up the cudgels. The vulnerability of the low IQ group to interference from social services is now better understood and the mental health charities are making a stand against this practice. There is also wider recognition that the policy of increased adoption needs looking at.
Such moves are positive. But what is really needed is an independent body overseeing the actions of social services which would operate like the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Until we have such a body, social services will be able to carry on acting as they feel best - which may not be, whatever they say, in the best interests of children.