Do No Harm – Anne Neale

DO NO HARM Seminar 11 September 2018, House of Commons

Findings and analysis of the last 18 months case work
by Anne Neale, Legal Action for Women (LAW)

LAW started in 1982 and is based at Crossroads Women’s Centre (which started in 1975). Over the past 10 years we’ve worked particularly closely with the other groups based there to defend mothers fighting against being separated from our children, whether by the state and/or by violent fathers taking them away, by immigration or other racist laws which separate families, or by the separations imposed by overwork and poverty.

In January 2017, LAW published our dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers, documenting 50 cases of mothers who had come to the groups at the centre for support with: preventing social services taking their children, getting their children back, stopping children being forcibly adopted, fighting court orders that made children live or have contact with violent fathers despite being warned of the dangers. We documented which families were being targeted and how.

This was not an academic exercise or research for the sake of careers – our aim was to describe, quantify and publicise the traumatic and discriminatory treatment of children, mothers and grandmothers (and sometimes fathers) by the state and the institutions who are in charge of child protection, and to use the Dossier as evidence to overturn the policies and practices responsible for this tragedy.

Since that time, we’ve founded the SNS Coalition, and hold monthly pickets outside the central family court in London (and sometimes in Brighton), hold monthly self-help meetings for mums and grans (and their supporters) who want to take charge of their own cases, and we continue to publicise these issues wherever and whenever we can.

In the past 18 months more and more women have contacted us, desperate about the harm which is being caused to their children and their families by these unwarranted separations.

Method: what these most recent findings are based on

In the past 18 months we have been in touch with over 130 women.  They have called our women’s centre looking for help, have been referred by others who know our work, or we have met them outside the family court during our monthly protest.  The findings we publish here are based on 80 mothers we have worked with (total of 159 children) – we are confident we have enough information about their cases to draw conclusions about what has been happening to their families.


  • All the families are low income and 75% are single mother families. Some are parents working together to keep their children; several are grandmothers or other close relatives.
  • 64% of mothers had all their children taken from them; 15% of mothers had some of their children with them; 21% were trying to stop their children being taken and some had succeeded.
  • 12% of mums had some or all of their children adopted; 25% had some or all children in foster care; 10% had children being looked after by a family member or friend under a Special Guardianship Order.
  • Women of colour are disproportionately affected: 36% of mothers who came to us were women of colour.
  • Immigrant families are also disproportionately affected: 21% of mothers were immigrant, including asylum seekers.
  • A high proportion of mothers (34%) have mental health issues and another 19% have a disability.
  • 44% of mothers had been victims of rape and/or domestic violence, including controlling behaviour. And 26% had some or all of their children living with fathers who in almost every case had previously been violent, including coercive and controlling towards the mother and the children.
  • 24% of mothers were outside London where even fewer resources like ours

What triggered social services involvement?

  • Mother asked for help to leave violent father, or having left was blamed for not wanting him to see the kids, accused of being “over protective” or “anxious” and SS supports children going to live with their father.
  • Mum asked for help accessing suitable housing but got none but children were taken instead.
  • Mother had a drink and was accused of being drunk while in charge of child – was cautioned for ‘neglect’.
  • Mother needs help with child’s health issues and their educational needs for eg, and instead of help, got taken; or mum has disability and needs help herself – again not forthcoming.
  • Mother badly injured during childbirth because husband’s family insisted she had child at home, he was banned from seeing child while on bail for violence vs her, ends up child under 2 still breastfeeding given to violent father, mum only has few hours a week of supervised contact.
  • Young mum “fails” parenting assessment in a mother & baby unit and young baby taken for adoption – mums are set up to fail.
  • Any mum who has lost a child/ren already faces prospect of babies taken at birth – big increase in adoptions of babies under a year old is clearly a motivating factor.

The women we meet outside the family court

On average 4 or 5 mums/families each time with heart-breaking stories of separation, terrible lawyers, very biased social work reports or psych reports which demonise them

Family of 6 kids taken from African immigrant parents after one of the children complained his brother hit him, then he changed his mind and said his father hit him – next thing all 6 taken, in 3 different foster homes, parents absolutely desperate as were two teenage siblings who’d been allowed to stay.

Black mother with mental health probs whose 10 year old daughter was taken into foster care, moved far away (common) and hardly able to see her – no lawyer

Young mum who’d been homeless since she left care at 16 was just put in mother and baby unit with 5 day old baby

Mum who gave birth two days previously in court, baby taken into foster care

What harm is caused by scrutiny/separation – assessments done while separated

Mothers come under the most intense scrutiny unlike anything else because every aspect of their life comes under scrutiny – how they keep their house, what clothes they wear, how they talk/express themselves, what are their theories of child rearing, who their friends are, what relationships are like etc etc

And then expected to act normally in supervised contact with their children even though that’s a completely artificial situation – criticised if too emotional, not emotional enough . . . get blamed if child is cautious or nervous around mum with no reference to trauma of being taken abruptly as some are, even when breastfeeding, and then not seeing their mum maybe for a month or more – that is a normal response but is used to say child not securely attached

All too often social workers impose their own (usually middle-class standards) and mums are set up to fail

Older children are not believed when they say they want to go home and even keep running away from foster care to make their way home. But when they say they don’t want to go home, none of the professionals consider they may be too scared of fathers, step-fathers or foster carers to say how they really feel, or take into account how the foster carers might have bad talked the mum down so the child feels it’s wrong to want to go back to her – gathering testimonies from children about how they feel about separation – but its there weekly on our TV screens in Long Lost Family or high profile people like Lemn Sissay who have spoken publicly about being adopted, in care etc and the lifelong trauma it has caused

Mothers who react to the stress of the situation and the trauma of being separated, are accused of being over emotional, anxious, depressed etc but when your child is taken you would be callous if you weren’t all those things!  This can have devastating consequences.

Disability is commonly used to label mothers unfit. A mum who we met outside the family court with her partner when they were fighting to get a 12 year old back from foster care and they have both been coming to our self help meetings to press for that (a 2 year old been adopted) and to get help with the harassment they were facing from their neighbours which contributed to the children being taken, very sadly passed away two weeks ago, most likely from an epileptic fit just after having a meeting with their HA with support from one of our volunteers. The harassment had continued unabated against this Black working class couple and of course her health had been greatly undermined by being separated from her two children (the older one who they had cared for until she was 10).  WE will be fighting for justice for Lami.

The welfare checklist makes no mention of the harm of separation – it just doesn’t figure anywhere or if it is mentioned the judge might say well there’s no doubt that if this child could speak, they would probably say they wanted to stay with their mum/birth family, but that’s tough because we’ve decided something else

There is loads more to be said about this – we are just scratching the surface of the harm caused.

In saying Do No Harm – the law has the proviso that in any given case they do not have to make an order for separation, and that’s what we’re all fighting for – support not separation.