Ombudsman could investigate child 'snatching' by courts
An independent Ombudsman could be appointed to investigate cases in which social workers and the courts are accused of taking children from their homes without justification.
The move follows claims by campaigners that social workers are too eager to take children into care in cases where there is little clear-cut evidence they have been abused by their parents. They also claim that secretive family courts too readily endorse the actions of social workers at the expense of children's best interests.
Mr Loughton has appointed Professor Eileen Munro to examine child protection and the way social workers operate. He has also set in motion the Norgrove review into the workings of the family courts, which is due to publish its interim report later this month.
One of the most controversial cases in the family courts involved Mark and Nicky Webster, whose three children were taken into care in 2004 after doctors claimed that leg fractures on the middle child had been inflicted deliberately.
They were adopted before new scientific evidence came to light suggesting that the boy could have been suffering from scurvy.
Yet in 2009 the Court of Appeal ruled that even though the decision to remove the children had been wrong, the adoptions were final. The couple were allowed to keep their fourth child.
Mrs Webster, 29, of Cromer, Norfolk, last night welcomed the Ombudsman proposal. She said: "Cases like ours need to be looked at to see if mistakes have been made and if they can be put right. Its important to have someone independent doing that away from the strong feelings of social workers and court appointed guardians."
Controversial case: Mark and Nicky Webster
Mark and Nicky Webster fought tooth and nail to prove they had not harmed their little boy after their three eldest were taken into care.
But despite the Appeal Court ruling they were victims of a miscarriage of justice they have been told the family cannot be reunited.
Mr and Mrs Webster's three children were taken into care in 2004 after doctors claimed that six tiny fractures found on the middle child had been inflicted deliberately. All three were later adopted.
Three years later new scientific evidence came to light which suggested that they boy could have suffered from a rare case of scurvy.
However, despite the Court of Appeal ruling in February 2009 that the decision to take the children was wrong, it was too late to return them because their adoption was final.
The ruling stated that "after three years it was in any event too late to set the orders aside, and that it would not be in the interests of the children to do so".
Lord Justice Wall said social workers and medical staff had only done what they thought was best for the injured child.
During their fight to regain custody of their children Mr and Mrs Webster fled to Ireland to prevent their fourth child, Brandon, being taken from them at birth.
They returned to their home in Cromer, Norfolk, a year later, where, after a long legal battle, Norfolk County Council dropped proceedings to take Brandon into care after accepting that he was in 'robust good health'.
Mrs Webster, 29, said: "You see cases on the news about people harming their children. It's beyond belief that we were put in a similar pigeon hole to that."
Controversial case: Fifteen minute hearing
Two young children were taken from their mother by social services after a 15-minute hearing during which a judge failed to take evidence from her or her sons.
The woman said she was given no chance to say goodbye to them as police and social services took the children before had returned from the court hearing.
A High Court judge later said he was "aghast" at the decision and ordered the children to be immediately returned to their parents, saying the judge's hasty decision was "not acceptable".
The mother said that she was physically sick when she learned the boys had been taken without her even seeing them.
She said: "The judge didn't want to know what we had to say. How someone can take such as decision like that without hearing from the children's mother is beyond me."
She said problems started when one of the boys fell in the house and banged his right ear. The mother, who was already involved with social services because the boys have learning difficulties, telephoned the case worker who recommended she take him to hospital.
He was checked and sent home. When the same thing happened a week later social services again had him examined at hospital, but this time instigated an emergency care order.
She said she was given 24 hours notice of the court hearing, in Derby, and given the necessary paperwork 20 minutes before it began.
Following the judgement, the mother said she raced home in a taxi to see the boys, only to find police and social services waiting for her outside her house. When it emerged her fiancée had taken them to a relative, she started going there but was told that the authorities had beaten her to it.
She said: "I was physically sick. I could not believe it. I didn't even get a chance to see them."
Controversial case: Tim and Gina Williams
Tim and Gina Williams's three children spent two years in care because social workers wrongly believed that they were at risk of abuse.
Their son and two daughters were placed with separate foster families despite there being no evidence against the couple, from Newport, South Wales.
As a result, they missed their children's birthdays, Christmases and their first days in new schools.
The Williams were finally exonerated at the High Court in October 2006 and the children, now aged 16, 13 and 11, were returned to them.
Two years later the High Court awarded them a "six figure" sum in compensation and Newport City Council issued them a full written apology
Their nightmare began in August 2004, Mr Williams called the police after finding his youngest daughter, then aged five, naked from the waist down with an 11-year-old friend on top of her.
The girl was taken to hospital for a precautionary check-up. Here a doctor claimed to have found evidence of long-standing abuse – but by an adult, not another child.
Mr Williams and his wife were told that they were under suspicion and the children were taken into care. A second doctor confirmed the evidence of abuse and the couple were restricted to supervised weekly visits to their children.
There were only exonerated after a US expert in child abuse examined the evidence and disputed the claims by the British doctors, who subsequently accepted that they had been mistaken.
The council conceded that the children should never have been taken from their parents on the basis of the evidence.
Speaking before the settlement awarded by the High Court, Mr Williams said his children's ordeal had left them scared and insecure. He said: "They were ripped from us and still don't understand why. They think it was because they were naughty, even though we've tried to explain it to them as best we can.
"All three are extra clingy and constantly fight for our attention. If they don't see us at the school gates the moment the bell rings they freak out, so we have to get there 10 minutes early and stand in exactly the same spot. We take them everywhere with us because they refuse to go to babysitters"
Hundreds of Social Workers should go to prison for life!!
FORCED ADOPTION IS WICKED!!!
Forced adoption is not only illegal ,it is a crime against humanity for which the judges who order it should be put on trial ;as were the Nazi judges at Nuremberg.
To deprive parents who have never committed any crime against children of all future contact with their own offspring is a despicable act.After all even baby p’s mother was allowed contact with her surviving children.
1:-Child cruelty or neglect should be the affair of police and the criminal courts.
Innocent until proved guilty,no secrecy ,freedom of parents to speak, juries etc.
2:-Social workers should be there to help and should be forbidden to take children or to give orders to parents or better still gradually phased out !
3:-Children in care should be allowed contact by phone or email with parents and friends.They and visiting parents should never be censored and told what they can or cannot discuss.
4:-No citizen in a democracy should ever be punished or restrained unless they have committed a crime or are certified by their own doctor and one other expertas dangerously insane !
The above 4 measures are both necessary and easy to implement so what are our politicians waiting for? Gordon Brown apologised for wrongdoings 40 years ago,and Cameron should apologise for even worse outrages now
THESE JUDGES ARE CRIMINALS!
When parents in family courts are deprived for life of all contact with their own children for "risk of emotional abuse"(the most frequent reason for removal) and similar legally undefined predictions the hardship is immense and the injustices are manifest.
Establishment judges routinely and cautiously rubberstamp demands for "forced adoption" made by social services perhaps because one mistake would expose them to public castigation !Evidence from social workers (often unsupported allegations or hearsay)is too often preferred to that of the parents and their first hand witnesses.
A jury would have no such fears and no such bias.A jury would be most unlikely to "confiscate" new born babies for "risk of emotional abuse" or for "failure to protect children from witnessing domestic violence".(Battered women are now frightened to report their abusers to the police because social services are inevitably called in with the result that they lose their children permanently to forced adoption!)
A BURGLAR FACING SIX MONTHS PRISON CAN DEMAND A HEARING BY JURY BUT A MOTHER FACED WITH THE LOSS OF HER BABY FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE CANNOT.
What is more if she complains publicly she is jailed for contempt of court in a secret process! (Harriet Harman gave a figure of at least 200 such jailings every year!).
Juries already operate in civil courts to decide complicated cases of libel and of city tax frauds and would be well equipped to decide if permanent separation of parents and children was desirable or necessary.
I say "Bring on juries and lift the gag on parents!" Most of the injustices in the family courts would then disappear!
JANE MOORE: Expose the tyrants of child protection
IT can no longer be ignored by those who purport to be in charge of this country that something is deeply rotten at the core of Britain’s social services.
Believe me, the case of the three Eastern European children removed from a loving home because their foster parents were members of UKIP is just the tip of the iceberg.
Lurking below, in the murky depths of our ferociously secretive “care” system, will be hundreds if not thousands of similar cases where a gross abuse of power has helped to destroy the lives of the very youngsters it was set up to protect.
Hopefully, they will now rise above the surface, expose the ugly, playing-God mindset, and prompt a dramatic overhaul of these tin-pot dictatorships more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia than a modern democracy.
Babies forced into adoption after being taken from mothers on a mere suspicion of “future emotional abuse”, fathers and paternal relatives denied access to children on nothing more than maternal hearsay, and prospective well-meaning fosterers and adopters subjected to the ridiculously stringent political correctness that is making the headlines right now.
All conducted under a cloak of secrecy that claims to be in the interests of the children involved but all too conveniently protects the increasingly warped system itself.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of frontline social workers doing a fantastic job in often deeply challenging, sometimes harrowing circumstances.
That they are so poorly paid indicates that their motives for choosing to do it are well-intended.
But even they must be despairing of the lucrative industry that has sprung up around what was once the noble and pure intent to protect children but has seemingly morphed into the far uglier whiff of political or financial self-interest.
Roger Stone, the Labour leader of Rotherham council, says that while membership of UKIP should not prevent someone from fostering, this was a “complex” case (aren’t they all?) involving legal advice and an external agency responsible for finding the foster carers. Sounds expensive.
It could well be an outfit like the National Fostering Agency, set up by two former social workers in 1995 and sold earlier this year to venture capitalists Graphite for an eye-watering £130million.
And by the way, it’s only the UK’s second biggest private fostering business.
In other words, there’s money in them there ills.
Then there’s the outreach workers, the “experts” paid to provide statements to the courts, the state’s legal advisers, the “independent” legal advisers, the guardians, the police workers, the court officials etc etc. All with a vested interest in “child protection”.
Little wonder then that, according to a Children In Need census, in 2007 the number of children and young people who were the subject of a Child Protection Plan was 27,900.
In 2011, it was 42,700.
Plenty of those will be genuine cases where the work of social services has proved vital, in the spirit of its original ethos to act in the interests of children.
But all too many will be based on nothing more than an unfounded suspicion, plunging one or both parents into a Kafka-esque nightmare, a punishment without crime.
And worst of all, those who suffer most are the children, emotionally damaged by the actions of self-interested zealots who affect to “care”.
We are used to case-centric inquiries such as the one surrounding the Baby P scandal, but it’s now time to shine a torch into the dark, secretive corners of the entire system to try to make its work and objectives more transparent while still maintaining anonymity for the vulnerable.
The mother of BABY P was allowed to see her surviving children recently because despite the horrific injuries to her child she did not commit the ultimate sin "contempt of court";Vicky Haigh , countless other mothers and a few fathers too have been sent to prison for daring to see,speak to,or communicate by phone or email with their own children.Injunctions have been placed on these unfortunates forbidding them from exercising their democratic right to protest about the injustices when their children have been taken from them.No judge should be allowed to forbid contact between children and parents who have committed no crimes against them or any other child;But alas mothers are jailed for sending birthday cards or leaving Xmas presents on a doorstep.A father was jailed for a month for waving when his children passed by his house in a car !.
PUNISHMENT WITHOUT CRIME is a wicked practice that only takes place in the cold ferocity of so called "family courts" and that is why those courts should be disbanded and should hand over their functions to the criminal courts where cases are fully reported and where those accused can call witnesses , are presumed innocent until proved guilty, and where judges are not prejudiced against parents (as recently admitted by L.J Thorpe no less)
Don't believe me? Just read these 6 articles from the Sunday Telegraph and from The Times and then read on for further useful information.
Adoption increase fails to stop baby deaths
By Ben Leapman, Daily Telegraph 17/09/2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/16/nadopt116.xml A dramatic rise in the number of newborn babies seized by social workers for forced adoption has failed to reduce the murder rate among babies.
Despite the action by social services, intended to protect children at high risk, the number of deaths has actually grown.
Critics claimed that the figures showed that social workers were tearing apart innocent families, while failing to protect babies at the greatest risk.
The concerns will add fresh weight to The Sunday Telegraph's "Stop the Secrecy" campaign for greater openness in family courts. At present, judges sit in secret when deciding adoption cases, raising fears that miscarriages of justice go unnoticed.
Earlier this year, the Government abandoned plans to let the media publish anonymised reports on cases.
In 1995, when 540 newborns were removed for adoption, there were 17 murders in which the victim was less than a year old. A decade later, in 2005/6, 1,400 were taken, yet the murder total rose to 24.
Liz Davies, senior lecturer in social work at London Metropolitan University, claimed the failures were due to new techniques introduced following the murder of Victoria Climbie.
"Performance targets and the tick-box culture are undermining professional judgement," she said.
In a separate development, ministers announced that 30 English councils shared a payout of £18 million this year for meeting Government targets to increase adoptions.
Critics say the targets give social workers an incentive to take away children who would be better off with their natural parents. One that got away !! You are right Ian. Im safer here, and to be honest so too is richard. i recall reading a case where a man helped his wife to dover, then onto france and got arrested on his return to the uk. So for that reason, we both have to stay, id hate for that to happen to us, because the police would arrest Richard probably on suspicions of being an accessory, even though we came seperately on different flights.
I would like to write the following as a help to other unfortunate victims of the UK FAMILY COURT SYSTEM and SOCIAL SERVICES in hope that it will inspire others to finally bite the bullet and leave the UK and get to safety like us;
For months we had been at the hands of the family courts, and our local authority social services, theyd snatched our beautiful then five year old child, desperation and heart wreching lies the social worker and guardian convinced the magistrates, without medical proof or any convictions that we were both placing our child at risk of emotional harm. Our then solicitors convinced us to undergo assesments, and emotionally blackmailed us to sign the interim care order, and prove the social services wrong... telling us that this was in fact the best way of handling this situation... we did everything they asked of us, thinking that we would be better thought of by the judge, and reasonable, responsible people.
Soon enough I was frantically searching the internet one day, looking for answers, seaching for information, a helping hand, a good samaritan, anything that would help me understand what was happening to us, because we just felt like the whole world was about to cave in on us; and with little knowledge on why social services were doing this, despite our pleas to the courts, I began reading Ians site. In disbelief that this was happening also to others, and in very similar circumstances, I felt somewhat armed with some knowledge and understanding that me and my husband were far from the only people going through the same nightmare.
After severeral more pleas to the family courts, tears, and complete powerlessness, despite the judge making recommendations to the authority to start rebuilding the broken bridges with our child, social services ignored the Family Court Judge and continued their plight to destroy our family unit. They wanted our bright intelligent, beautiful now 6 year old child very badly. Every week we were calling Ian for advice, reading his site over and over.
I became pregnant with my second child, a miracle, after trying for months through all the stress the social services were placing on us, and the heartless phonecalls to cancel contact sessions, Still fighting for our daughter in court, I would prove that my husband and I were a couple that were meant to be together, not split up like the social services were determined to acchieve. We soon realised that they were desperate to make each of us weak, as together we were making them look very silly in court, holding hands, being publicly close, still wasnt a hint to these people. So they began playing one of us against the other. Until reading Ians site, we were unaware that this was a ploy to split us as they do with all couples, showing that they are moving on from a difficult patch. Ian was right. Everything that was on his site explained what we were going through; this was a grim reality and a mirror image in other families lives also. We knew we had to take action, and after phoning Ian his advice on where our unborn child was best safe, our decision was made. I sold my car, I packed a large case with essential belongings, and put the rest into storage.
I walked into a travel agents and booked my one way flight. Holding my unborn baby bump, I thought of nothing but our safety, and how I could avoid being in a situation where my baby would be snatched at birth also. This was fast becomming my biggest fear. I had no doubt in my mind this would happen if I stayed any longer. The hospital were sharing information with the social services, and were aware that my first born was in care, they tried to have me believe that all my medical notes and info I told them about myself would go nowhere but them. Confidentiality just nolonger existed not even with a hospital nurse, or my GP. Data protection clearly doesnt exist if one of your children is in care or even if your first child is wanted by the authorities for adoption. We thought for months we were able to fight the system, but with the odds being in the authorities favour, we knew after nearly a year, that we were powerless, and now our second child was in danger of being snatched, despite there still being no convictions, no medical problems, and no proof of domestic violence ever existing in our relationship.
As a last resort which in hindsite, should have been done earlier, we took Ians advice we at least managed to protect our second child and future children from the outrageous, heartless, business built round a commodity of children, and we owe everything to Ian for his advice. Any other family in this situation really need to take heed, and just get out especially if you are expecting, and a child is in care or has been.
I dont feel proud to be a British Citizen anymore because of what has happened to us. Its just a sick reality of a draconian way of dealing with family issues.
CHERYL McEwan ------------------
Remember to leave the UK in time if the ss are after you when you are pregnant ! IF the baby is born abroad S Ireland (no passports needed) or N.Cyprus (no extradition) are recommended. The following case should ensure that any attempt by the ss to kidnap your newborn will fail !
The applicant appeared in person and was
Threat to Take New-Born over Emotional Abuse
By David Harrison, Sunday Telegraph, 26/08/2007
A pregnant woman has been told that her baby will be taken from her at birth because she is deemed capable of "emotional abuse", even though psychiatrists treating her say there is no evidence to suggest that she will harm her child in any way.
Social services' recommendation that the baby should be taken from Fran Lyon, a 22-year-old charity worker who has five A-levels and a degree in neuroscience, was based in part on a letter from a paediatrician she has never met.
Hexham children's services, part of Northumberland County Council, said the decision had been made because Miss Lyon was likely to suffer from Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy, a condition unproven by science in which a mother will make up an illness in her child, or harm it, to draw attention to herself.
Under the plan, a doctor will hand the newborn to a social worker, provided there are no medical complications. Social services' request for an emergency protection order - these are usually granted - will be heard in secret in the family court at Hexham magistrates on the same day.
From then on, anyone discussing the case, including Miss Lyon, will be deemed to be in contempt of the court.
Miss Lyon, from Hexham, who is five months pregnant, is seeking a judicial review of the decision about Molly, as she calls her baby. She described it as "barbaric and draconian", and said it was "scandalous" that social services had not accepted submissions supporting her case.
"The paediatrician has never met me," she said. "He is not a psychiatrist and cannot possibly make assertions about my current or future mental health. Yet his letter was the only one considered in the case conference on August 16 which lasted just 10 minutes."
Northumberland County Council insists that two highly experienced doctors - another consultant paediatrician and a medical consultant - attended the case conference.
The case adds to growing concern, highlighted in a series of articles in The Sunday Telegraph, over a huge rise in the number of babies under a year old being taken from parents. The figure was 2,000 last year, three times the number 10 years ago.
Critics say councils are taking more babies from parents to help them meet adoption "targets".
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the Justice for Families campaign group, said the case showed "exactly what is wrong with public family law".
He added: "There is absolutely no evidence that Fran would harm her child. However, a vague letter from a paediatrician who has never met her has been used in a decision to remove her baby at birth, while evidence from professionals treating her, that she would have no problems has been ignored."
Mr Hemming was concerned that "vague assertions" of Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy - now known as "fabricated and invented illness" - had been used to remove a number of children from parents in the North-East.
Miss Lyon came under scrutiny because she had a mental health problem when she was 16 after being physically and emotionally abused by her father and raped by a stranger.
She suffered eating disorders and self-harm but, after therapy, graduated from Edinburgh University and now works for two mental health charities, Borderline and Personality Plus.
Dr Stella Newrith, a consultant psychiatrist, who treated Miss Lyon for her childhood trauma for a year, wrote to Northumberland social services stating: "There has never been any clinical evidence to suggest that Fran would put herself or others at risk, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that she would put a child at risk of emotional, physical or sexual harm."
Despite this support, endorsed by other psychiatrists and Miss Lyon's GP, social services based their recommendation partly on a letter from Dr Martin Ward Platt, a consultant paediatrician, who was unable to attend the meeting.
He wrote: "Even in the absence of a psychological assessment, if the professionals were concerned on the evidence available that Miss Holton (as Miss Lyon was briefly known), probably does fabricate or induce illness, there would be no option but the precautionary principle of taking the baby into foster care at birth, pending a post-natal forensic psychological assessment."
Miss Lyon said she was determined to fight the decision. "I know I can be a good mother to Molly. I just want the chance to prove it," she said.
The council said the recommendation would be subject to further assessment and review. "When making such difficult decisions, safeguarding children is our foremost priority," a spokesman said.
• A recording of social workers threatening to take a newborn into care has been removed from the YouTube website after Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire started legal action, claiming the Data Protection Act was breached.
Vanessa Brookes, 34, taped social workers telling her and her husband that they would seek to place the baby, due next month, in care, while admitting there was "no immediate risk to the child."
Orders of the Day — Children and Adoption Bill
Wednesday 26 October 2005
That this House urges the Government to remove the veil of secrecy from the workings of the Children Act 2004; considers that the closed door policy of the family courts breeds suspicion and a culture of secrecy which does nothing to instil confidence in those using them, which affects not just the courts but the social services departments of local authorities; and believes that it is possible to preserve the anonymity of children involved in the proceedings without the cumbersome rules which obstruct parents from receiving advice and support, which in particular works to the disadvantage of parents with special learning difficulty.
Ask your MP to sign the EDM 869 (Now Ended)
Eric Pickles (Brentwood & Ongar, Con) | Hansard source
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I hope she will forgive me if I do not pursue some of her excellent points, as I want to concentrate on a narrower aspect of the Bill, namely adoption. I want to say something about the secrecy of the family court. I think that some of the general rules on adoption concerning foreign nations are relevant to our own system. A particularly sad case in which I have been involved over the last few months has a direct bearing on how adoption works in practice, especially forced adoption, the most extreme of the many issues that we must consider.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) described the Under-Secretary of State as sparky. I am not sure that I can follow him down that avenue, but I want to record my enormous appreciation for the courtesy that she has shown me in connection with that case and my concerns about adoption. We have had three formal meetings and many more informal meetings. The Under-Secretary has changed my views on a number of important issues. She has also reinforced some of my prejudices, which is a nice feeling—but I am genuinely grateful to her, and grief-stricken by the fact that she is plainly suffering from a heavy cold. I wish her a quick recovery.
As I have said, I am concerned about the secrecy of the family court. I tabled an early-day motion on the subject. Looking around the Chamber earlier, I noted that almost every Member present, apart from Ministers and, obviously, the occupant of the Chair, had signed it. Early-day motion 869, entitled "Workings of the Children Act 2004", stated:
"That this House urges the Government to remove the veil of secrecy from the workings of the Children Act 2004; considers that the closed door policy of the family courts breeds suspicion and a culture of secrecy which does nothing to instil confidence in those using them, which affects not just the courts but the social services departments of local authorities; and believes that it is possible to preserve the anonymity of children involved in the proceedings without the cumbersome rules which obstruct parents from receiving advice and support, which in particular works to the disadvantage of parents with special learning difficulty."
The hon. and learned Member for Redcar spoke about the concept of the rights of the child being paramount. Her explanation was a good deal clearer than some that I have received from social services departments. However, I am less concerned with the effect on the courts than with the effect on social services. There is almost a process of Chinese whispers, whereby that noble concept becomes bastardised into an unwillingness to disclose, to justify, to listen to arguments, or even to see a need to explain decisions. The law was changed because of Members' difficulties in obtaining information from social services departments. At one time, they were threatened with contempt proceedings and prosecutions for pursuing constituency cases. Since the beginning of April last year, however, we have been able to look at case files and discuss the issues. I may be wrong but I think that I was the first Member of Parliament to take advantage of that, after a constituent who was going through the process brought it to my attention in the early part of April last year.
The change in the law seems to have wholly passed by Essex social services department. Despite the will of the House and the change in the law, it led me through quite an elaborate dance when I wanted to get some basic information from it. At one point, it insisted that I went to court to get special permission, when by Act of Parliament I already had that right. Had it not been for my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield, who happens to be the leader of Essex county council, I do not think that I would have been able to pursue the case to the full.
I cannot go into the details of the case, but I can talk about it in the abstract and discuss the way it affects the law. It concerned the decision by Essex social services to remove two children from a family because they considered the mother to be stupid and incapable of bringing up the children because of her lack of intellect. The mother had an IQ of around 60. Social services sought to present her as stupid to the point of being unable to understand maternal feelings. In my view, she was a little slow but someone who clearly loved her two children. She was faced with an unending stream of social workers dealing with her case—at one point, I counted 16—who were pushing her in different directions. She was left bewildered and unable adequately to rebut social services' allegations. I want to say a few things about people with learning difficulties and then move to the general question of social services. I want to stay firmly within the terms of the Bill.
A problem has been identified recently with the Meadow case. I do not want to go down that route but it illustrates the fact that, sometimes, proceedings have been initiated because hospital consultants or social workers have been a little over-zealous. It is typical for the person who initiates proceedings to see the complaint through. There is a need for a separation of powers between those who take the decision to initiate an investigation and those who actually conduct it. I am worried—I will come to this a little later—about the targets for adoption and the obvious financial benefits that accrue.
The principal problem is that social services departments cannot be entirely non-partisan in the way in which they identify the issues. Few people who initiate a serious chain of events are likely to admit it when it goes wrong. The temptation is to tailor evidence to fit the complaint. That should be resisted.
I can give a few brief examples of how that happens. As I said, I think that I was almost certainly the first MP to go through the process of wading through a social services file concerned with a forced adoption. It was thick, repetitive and at times confusing. I have talked to the Minister about that. I speak as a former chairman of a social services department and was used to seeing that kind of thing. I was shocked at the sloppiness of record keeping, the shoddiness of the process and the basic injustice. In that file—this is directly relevant—there was misinformation, embellishment and inappropriate assigning of motives.
I shall give just two examples, which illustrate the general problem. In the first example, the husband did not have learning difficulties but was, by mistake, described as having them. The mistake was recognised and corrected in the file but subsequently, such allegations continued to be made, as though it was a proven fact. More seriously, it was suggested that the child had witnessed domestic violence. It became clear that this was a single incident in which the husband, in a moment of pique, had picked up his slippers and thrown them against the wall. He is a gentle and passive man and at no time were the slippers aimed at anybody; nor was any damage caused, except, perhaps, for a slight mark on the wall. However, the file on that family states that the female child
"has witnessed domestic violence and this will have an impact towards her development".
Following close scrutiny on my part, social workers told me that there was no evidence of any violence toward either child in the family. No doctors or casualty departments had expressed concern, and there was no evidence of repeated accidents involving the children. Yet the allegation remained on the file.
An allegation was also made of poor parenting and I asked for various examples. I was given two. First, the female child had been given sandwiches and a packet of crisps for her lunch, and because she chose to eat the crisps first, she was too full to eat her sandwiches. That was deemed sufficiently important to be regarded as an example of poor parenting. The second example—we should bear in mind that at this point, I was pressing for another such example—involved allowing one of the children to stay up late at night to watch television. I asked whether "late" meant 10 o'clock at night, or perhaps 9 o'clock. I was told that she was allowed to stay up until 8 o'clock to watch the end of "EastEnders" or "Coronation Street". I have many middle-class friends with children of a similar age who are allowed to have crisps and to stay up until 8 o'clock. None of them is subject to a care order.
I turn to the issue of stories being embellished. By this point, the social worker was finding me a tad provocative. He said that the mother had screwed up a baby-wipe tightly in her fist and had repeatedly rubbed it against the genitals of the young male child, to the extent that they were "red raw." However, the report actually said that the mother had used heavy pressure, and that the genitals were flattened and "very red". There is a world of difference between "red raw" and discoloured.
I found distressing the way in which motives were ascribed in the report, without any obvious discipline. The father was criticised because he had refused to leave his job of some 23 years to become the full-time carer. It was said that that showed a lack of commitment. I believe that holding down a job—in his case, a humble job—for 23 years and putting bread on the table week in, week out sets a fine example to one's children. The social workers wanted the father to live off benefits. That might have been a solution, but if someone can set an example to their children by working hard, that is something to be proud of.
I want to return to the way in which the primacy rule can be bastardised. I confess that by this time I was beginning to irritate people, although I am sure that hon. Members will find that hard to believe. I found myself being lectured by a very senior person whom I shall not name, as that would be embarrassing. He said, "We have to consider the welfare of the child. That is absolutely paramount; whatever is best for the child is what we do."
I replied, "OK, but if that rule is applied generally, let's apply it to your children. If I arranged for them to live in the house of Mr. Bill Gates, they would get enormous intellectual stimulation—probably more than you can offer—and they would certainly enjoy much greater financial well-being." The very senior person did not seem to like that, which made me glad that I had not used my second choice of example—Michael Jackson.
I have talked these matters through with people who really understand them. They have said, "Look, Eric, what about the guardian? The guardian is there to look after the interests of children and to be impartial in the process."
I put that approach to various leading counsel with an interest in the matter. Although some guardians may exist who are prepared to stand up to social services departments and act as bastions of freedom, they are very hard to find. Generally speaking, guardians act as cheerleaders for social services departments. They are entirely compliant, and seem incapable of doing more than being a cheering section.
I had the opportunity last night to speak about such problems to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), and I shall give one example of the role of guardians. A leading counsel on these matters—who, by the nature of things, acts sometimes for the local authority and sometimes for parents—told me about one occasion when he was acting for the local authority. Just before proceedings began, people started to gather round the table. He was not paying attention to who came through the door, and was about to begin his contribution when he noticed that the guardian was sitting in the room. "What are you doing here?" he asked, to which the guardian replied, "Well, you know, I'm here as part of the team."
That person should not have been in the room, because the guardian's presence could demonstrate partiality. The system needs to make sure that the different strands of the process can be separated.
I was enormously surprised to find that there is no national system for the regulation or disciplining of social workers. No royal charter exists that sets out professional standards or disciplinary procedures and thus allows peer judgment to take place. The social work profession needs to address that defect. The solution does not need to be elaborate, but peer evaluation among social workers on relevant matters is important. Without that, there is enormous variation between authorities, which can be as slack as the one involved in the Climbié case, or as tough as Rochdale in the face of ridiculous accusations of satanism.
I shall quote briefly from Andrew Scott, an admittedly newly qualified barrister who deals with these matters on a daily basis. I suspect that he may be known to some hon. Members, as he has made quite a reputation for himself. He said:
"I don't think the public appreciates how low the threshold is. When children are taken from their parents, it is not because there is a certainty of future harm or even that, on the balance of probabilities, those children could be harmed. It is enough that there will be a possibility of future harm. If there is a 70 per cent. risk of a child being harmed and every child with that risk was taken into care then, in 100 such cases, 30 children would be taken from families where they would come to no harm. Sometimes, I wonder whether children are being protected, or whether it is social workers' careers."
Those are wise words. There may be a temptation for local authorities, possibly because of the financial advantage, to move towards adoption when other solutions may be possible.
Mr. Scott goes on to say:
"There's an unspoken fear that children from poor backgrounds are being freed up for middle-class adopters."
I would like to give an illustration which, of all the features of the case, has really chilled me. It is about the question of duty of care. In the April before the children were finally taken with a view to an enforced adoption, there was a case conference. The second child had not yet been born. The conference was considering whether to put the child on the at-risk register. The daughter was already on it. On the basis of the facts before it, the conference decided that it was not necessary to put the young boy on the register and furthermore that it was appropriate to take the young girl off it. Somebody at that conference, notably the chairman, did not like that decision. There was no change of circumstances and no other substantial incidents had taken place. Yet the same circumstances were seen as making it appropriate to put the children into care with a view to permanent adoption.
Let me say what I think needs to be done. Those who investigate a complaint must be independent of those who initiate it and those who may in due course be called on to care for the children. A proper code of conduct for social workers is long overdue. I certainly believe that those with special learning difficulties deserve special care. We are told that in 1 per cent. of all families one partner or the other has learning difficulties. We are also told that 20 per cent. of children in care have one parent with learning difficulties. There is some dispute over the figures, but whether they are precisely right or not, they demonstrate a problem.
The secrecy of the family courts needs to be opened up. We wait for the consultation document. I believe that there is a strong case for judgments to be published and that they can be published while retaining the anonymity of the child. I have one additional suggestion. It goes back to the Meadow case. There is a question whether the professional witnesses should be identified. If the Government take the decision that they should, I will generally support that. Once you become involved in a case you get e-mails from all over the country. Some are heartbreaking, but they all have strong emotion running through them. Very normal people sometimes become irrational. I recognise that there might be a problem obtaining witnesses if they are routinely named.
As an absolute minimum, each professional witness should be given a unique identifying number. I think that that is important—I suspect that hon. Members understand—because we need to establish a pattern so that if we get a problem with the veracity of a witness we can have another look at them.
We need to change the rules with regard to advice. Parents are put in the dreadful position of being unable to seek advice. They cannot talk to their county council or unitary authority; they cannot talk to friends or members of their family. Only recently could they come and talk to us. I can give examples of where there is a problem. In care or adoption proceedings it is understandable that parents want to take a fair amount of time off. Under the existing rules, parents cannot tell their employer why they are absent from work without going back to the court. Psychiatric evaluations are also often necessary in such proceedings, but people cannot make full disclosure without first going back to the court. We have to find ways to solve those problems, and I wholeheartedly endorse the Committee's recommendations for greater transparency.
It might be slightly controversial to say so, but some cases resemble attempts to make bricks without straw. Once the facts have been established, the courts are reluctant to revisit those facts or their interpretation. However, if adoption has resulted from fraud or seriously erroneous evidence, we should have a procedure to enable that adoption to be overturned, although the period in which that could be done should be limited. In care proceedings, any carer who is accused of abuse should have an automatic entitlement to legal aid; the opportunity to instruct an expert of their choosing; a right of appeal against any findings; and legal aid for any appeal.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues, but I wish to make one final point. I hope to be a Member of Parliament for many years to come—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Well, that is marvellous and makes me feel wonderful. However, the case I have described will haunt me, because a grave injustice has been done and the system has let those people down. Those two young people now live in my constituency in a flat that is spotlessly clean and well maintained, with a bedroom full of toys that their children will never see. The beds are made up and presents are waiting for them. While there will be an attempt to overturn the original care proceedings, everyone understands that the likelihood of reversal is not great. When the state intervenes in people's lives, we must ensure that it does so fairly. In the case that I have dealt with over the past few months, that intervention was "intervention beyond the humane."
A heavily pregnant woman is at the centre of an extraordinary legal battle with social workers after she secretly recorded them threatening to take away her newborn baby.
Vanessa Brookes, 34, who is due to give birth early next month, smuggled taping equipment into a meeting with social services officials, fearing they would try to take her baby for forced adoption.
advertisementShe recorded a social worker telling her and her husband Martin, 41, that even though there was "no immediate risk to your child from yourselves", the council would seek a court order to place the child in foster care.
Mother and baby would be allowed "two or three days" in hospital together, but should not leave the premises until social workers came to remove the infant. In a desperate attempt to keep their baby, the couple have published the recorded conversation on the internet.
Calderdale council, in West Yorkshire, last night accused them of breaching the Data Protection Act by recording its staff without their knowledge or consent. The council said it had begun legal action to have the recording removed from the YouTube website. Mrs Brookes said: "Even puppies and kittens aren't removed from their mothers at birth. Social workers always record everything, so why shouldn't we record them?"
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of campaign group Justice for Families, said: "I find it very odd that a newborn baby would be removed when there is not any allegation by the authorities that the child is at risk. Yet this case is not unique. There are many cases in which newborns are removed because of allegations that their mothers may at some later stage 'emotionally abuse' the child."
The case returns the spotlight to claims that social services are being heavy-handed in removing children from their parents, in order to meet Government adoption targets.
The Sunday Telegraph has previously revealed cases of mothers who were not told why their children were taken away, and cases of families whose children were not returned even after the parents had been cleared of wrongdoing. More than 2,000 babies aged under a year were taken for adoption last year, almost triple the level of a decade ago.
Social services took an interest in the Brookes family after Mrs Brookes, who is partially-sighted, was diagnosed with depression and a personality disorder, leading to concerns that her baby might be subjected to "emotional abuse". Neighbours have complained that the couple's household was disorderly, but neither has been accused of abusing or harming a child.
In the recorded meeting, the social worker tells the couple: "It's our intention as a local authority that when your baby is born, we go into court on that same day and ask for an interim court order because we would wish to place your baby with foster carers."
He tells Mrs Brookes: "I would like you and your baby to stay in hospital until the courts have made a decision."
The social worker says the two or three days the mother has with her baby in hospital will allow her to begin breast-feeding and that once the infant is taken away, social services will pick up expressed breast milk from her home and deliver it to the foster carers for bottle-feeding.
The social worker admits to the couple that a back-up plan is being drawn up in case the judge refuses the application for a care order. He says: "What we also have to think about is a child protection plan that looks at you, at home, with your baby. There is no immediate risk to your child from yourselves, that's my understanding from reading documents."
A spokesman for Calderdale council said officials would seek a meeting with Mr and Mrs Brookes "to understand how this information came into the public domain. We are taking action to have this item removed from YouTube. This recording was made without the knowledge or consent of our member of staff.
"The council does not take lightly any recommendation to the court for a child or a baby to be brought into care. The decision whether or not to institute care proceedings is made by social workers who have to consider the best interests of the child."