"Adults' voices are always louder than children's": another judicial inquiry on child abuse

Whenever there are serious problems with social services, the person appointed to conduct an inquiry is likely to be a judge or a senior lawyer. The assumption is that a judicial knowledge of process, integrity and skilled handling are the most appropriate background for the task. That is why Baroness Butler-Sloss, who conducted the Cleveland inquiry on child sex abuse, has been appointed to conduct a overarching review of historic abuse now.

There were deep flaws in the Cleveland Inquiry. It wasn’t as bad as the Clyde Inquiry into Orkney, but those inquiries shared three common problems. The first was a failure to consider the children’s best interests. The Cleveland inquiry set that question aside; the Clyde inquiry demanded, quite inappropriately, a standard of evidence equivalent to criminal proof, instead of considering the risk to the children.  (The situation in Orkney may or may not have been what was alleged  – some of the things said after the children went into care were certainly enough to raise suspicion – but it is now clear that there was serious abuse in at least one family.)  The second was that, despite the requirement to look at the response made by services, the judges did not really understand the process that people in child protection were engaged in. For example, the Cleveland inquiry seemed to think that the doctors should just stop making diagnoses when a quota was reached and it never got to grips with the question why these cases were being referred all at once.  The Clyde inquiry held that no action could be taken for which there was not conclusive proof. The third problem was the absence of the children’s voices.   I took the ringing quote in the title of this entry from a documentary about the misrepresentation of the issues in Cleveland.


The compulsory reporting of child abuse

A former Director of Public Prosecutions has been arguing for the compulsory reporting of all cases of child abuse.  The problem this is intended to address are the evidence of deliberate cover-ups, notably in cases of child sex abuse, and attempts to save the face of certain institutions.  Where that has happened, there’s an argument for treating people as accomplices.  However, there are many other circumstances where  this rule would apply, and those are much less clear-cut.

The first problem is the referral of partial or incomplete information.  One of the characteristic features of many cases of child abuse is that people haven’t known the whole story, and haven’t put the information together with others.  It’s only after a catastrophe that the whole issue becomes clear, and people realise what they should have done.  (In one of the worst cases, Victoria Climbié, the Social Work department had most of the necessary information, but it was spread across different files.  The Laming Inquiry reported:  “Victoria managed, during the time that her case was open in Brent, to acquire five different ‘unique’ identification numbers on the various systems that were designed to ensure that the progress of her case was effectively monitored.”)

Then there is the problem of uncertainty.  What does a teacher, a community worker, a nurse do if they’re not sure?  Is a burn, a bruise, a cut, enough to call for an investigation?  One of the immediate effects of that would be to put off parents from coming near the worker or the agency, and that raises other issues.

The third problem is that suspicion is not proof.  Many of us will have been in a position where we suspect someone of a crime, but we don’t know.   I’ve certainly sat in meetings where a lawyer has advised that people accused of theft or fraud are innocent until proven guilty, that it’s not for us to reach a verdict, and that no public statement should be made.    There has to be evidence to refer, and all too often in cases where child protection is needed, the evidence is not there.

Prosecutions aren’t made lightly, and even if there was to be a new offence it would have to be reviewed with a wide degree of  discretion.  I can’t see, however, how a new offence would clarify what ought to be done in practice.

Value for money in child care

The recent events in Rochdale, where under-age girls were forced into prostitution, have mainly focused on other issues. Prostitution has been a long-standing problem for young people in care – vulnerable teenagers who have been abused and sexualised at a young age, are often open to the opportunity, and no institution has ever found a satisfactory resolution. One of the issues which came out of the recent case was that one young girl who was placed in a single unit, with six full time workers, nevertheless managed to spend one or two nights a week out – 19 times in three months, which sounds worse.

The cost of this private unit has been reported variously at £225,000 to £250,000 a year. Most authorities have some children farmed out in this sort of arrangement. That poses a question which has mainly been considered at much lower levels of need – whether such intensive childcare is justifiable. We know that the outcomes of formal care are generally poor, and that many arrangements end up making things worse. But there is a standard, default comparison: how a child would fare in substitute family care instead. What are the objections to paying a full-time foster parent a living income – say, £40,000 a year – instead of paying £225,000 for six-full time workers?

There are four main objections, and none of them seems to me to stack up. The first is professional training. I think we have to ask what a very damaged child needs to have provided on a 24 hour, 365 basis – thoughtful, systematic intervention or a secure, protective life style. There is no reason why these cannot both be done – but also no reason why they have to be done at the same time. The second is the variable quality of foster care, including – in the worst cases – abuse. That is true, but the same is true of residential units. Many local authorities take the view that they cannot pass an ungovernable child to any but the best foster parent. While I understand their reticence, the illusion is that they have a better option in residential care.

The third is that it is not possible to pay someone a large amount of money in a fostering allowance without treating them as an employee. That’s not right – this is family support, and family support doesn’t have respite or hourly rates of pay – but clarification of the law would help. The fourth is that while one can pass legal responsibility to a private provider, a local authority cannot pass it to a foster parent. That is true, but it shouldn’t matter. Local authorities are not minimising harm to a child by keeping the child in residential care instead. In relation to the third and fourth points, both hang on current constructions of legal responsibility. If the law is working against the child’s best interests, we should change it.

There are no general rules, but in every case where a child is in residential care, the question needs at least to be asked: why is this child not in substitute family care instead? If the only objections are the four I have mentioned, they should be overruled. Increasing the use of substitute care in the most difficult circumstances will inevitably lead to some bad decisions, and some disasters, but let’s be blunt: it’s disastrous now.

Social work as it happens

The BBC documentary, “Protecting our children”, has offered the best sense of what happens in social work I’ve seen for years. Sadly, the first episode will only be available on IPlayer for a week, but social work and social policy students will find it well worth viewing. The first part wasn’t perfect – it didn’t give the viewer a sense of the options the social workers explored, or how they settled on the methods that they chose to use in preference to others. For example, a ‘contract’ was made with the family, but that wasn’t explained. What it did give was a sense of the problems that are being addressed and how social workers have to negotiate with a family – a springboard for discussion, rather than a revelation.

There are several noteworthy issues, but let me point to two in particular. One is the use of power by the social work team, most obviously in a team meeting where the family was simply overwhelmed by formality and numbers. The other is the the reluctance of social workers to offer advice. The dominant professional ethic is still that service users have a “right to fail” – but not that they have a right to know what the consequences of alternative actions might be.

Two parents?

What is a parent? Is it a biological relationship? Or is it someone who raises and nurtures a child? In the UK, we have tended to assume that the two things mean much the same.

  • People with a biological relationship are expected to take responsibility for their children; people whose relationship is social are not.
  • Someone can show they are a parent by a DNA test. They can show they are not a parent by a DNA test.
  • Where a biological father has nothing to do with a child, that parent can be pursued. Recently, this has been extended to cover anonymous sperm donors, who have been arraigned for child support.

There is nothing inevitable about the idea that parenthood is biological. In France, parenthood is understood in social, rather than biological terms. When a child is born, it can have no parents, one parent, or two. If the mother or father do not accept the child, the child will have only one parent. If both of them withdraw, the child is treated as having no parents, and may be adopted.

One of the central assumptions behind the structure of family law in the UK is that children have two parents. The norm is both an expectation, and a rule. Where it does not apply, it is treated as if it ought to apply. So,

  • When a couple separate or divorce, there is a general presumption that both partners will have access to the children. This applies not only for biological parents, but for subsequent partners, who may be able to establish rights of access.
  • Where a child has no parents, people who want to adopt are expected to be young couples – which means that most of the people who hope to adopt are not allowed to do so.

The assumptions behind these policies are increasingly questionable in practice. The first, and most obvious thing, to say about them is that many children do not have two parents. In a society where many children are born to unmarried couples, and many marriages end in divorce, they tend to have a relationship with one carer, rather than two. About 40% of all children do not see the absent partner at all two years after a divorce. The preoccupation with biology, the insistence that children must have two parents, and the under-estimation of social relationships, is at odds with experience. More importantly, they are often at odds with the interests of the children.

There is little prospect of bringing about a fundamental cultural change, and no prospect at all that a law modelled on the French idea could be implemented directly in the UK. But there are several principles we ought to consider. They would include

  • the acceptance that a child can have only one parent.
  • the consequent normalisation of adoption by single parents, or by one person within a couple. The central principle should be the child’s best interest, and it is not in a child’s best interest for there to be a custody battle when couples separate, and
  • the identification of parenthood as a social responsibility.

We need also to balance the position of children who have more than two people in parental roles – mainly through step families. The law has been gradually amended to recognise the importance of these relationships, and partners may have rights of access; but we should not be confusing those rights with the rights of parenthood.