SNS evidence to the “independent” review of children’s social care

In January, the government announced what it described as an “independent”, “once-in-a-generation” review of children’s social care. But earlier this month, Article 39, which fights for the rights of children in institutional care, made a detailed analysis of the government contract signed by Josh MacAlister, who was appointed to lead the review. Their comments are here, and they conclude:

Many of us have suspected from the start that the government already knows what it wants to happen from this review, and this contract confirms our worst fears. It’s time for the government to come clean about what it’s planning for children’s social care, and to admit this review is independent in name only”.

We share Article 39’s concerns. The review sounds almost exactly like what happened with the recently published “independent” review by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which basically denies the existence of institutional racism, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As we know, the Harm Report found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in family courts, and that’s just one institution among many!

So although we don’t hold out much hope that this review will really be independent of government, we have submitted our evidence, which follows. We will be watching the progress of the review closely!

Evidence to the independent review of children’s social care by Support Not Separation


The Support Not Separation Coalition (co-ordinated by Legal Action for Women), includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, psychotherapists, men and social workers. We defend mothers and children against unwarranted separation and the devaluing of the mother-child relationship. We are in contact with hundreds of mothers and other primary carers, and children, family law professionals, organisations and concerned individuals.

In January 2017 we published our Dossier Suffer the Little Children & their Mothers which documented 56 cases of mothers fighting in the family courts to stop violent fathers having unsupervised contact or residence of children, and against children being taken into care and/or adopted  Since then we have been contacted by over 300 mothers (and some families) from across England — the breakdown of their and their children’s experiences of separation confirm those described in the Dossier, which should be referred to as part of our evidence. 

Our experience of the biases against mothers/families who are low income, working class, of colour, have disabilities and/or mental health problems . . . which determines the assumptions/judgements of social workers, children’s guardians and psychologists as well as family court judges was born out by the government’s Harm Report which found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in the family courts.  The fact that the courts operate in secret has enabled them to escape the discipline of public scrutiny, particularly in relation to judgements removing children from mothers and other primary carers, usually with devastating implications for the rest of those children’s lives, and for their mothers and families.

Our evidence is based on extensive collective self-help and campaigning. We run monthly self-help meetings where mothers share their experiences and a number of organisations contribute their expertise. They are: All African Women’s Group, English Collective of Prostitutes, Global Women’s Strike (GWS), Women of Colour GWS, Single Mothers’ Self Defence, WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) and Women Against Rape.

Based on this collective experience, the following crucial issues must be considered by the Social Care Review:

1. The increasing numbers of children now subjected to state intervention, including child protection.

 Despite less evidence of abuse there are increasing numbers of children being taken into care (over 80,000 in England in March 2020, compared with 69,470 in 2015).  At the same time, local authorities and professionals routinely refuse to prioritise support for families and to use powers under Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, or the Care Act if the mother has a disability, to provide financial or other support to enable families to stay together. 

2. The non-implementation of Section 17 to keep children in their families while resources to remove them are ringfenced and seemingly unlimited.

A recent report Protecting young children at risk of abuse and neglect by the Nuffield Foundation found that spending on preventative services to support families has fallen from £3.8 billion in 2010 to £2.1 billion in 2018, and shows that children in the poorest neighbourhoods are at least 10 times more likely to be in care than children in the most affluent ones.  

Significantly, spending on S17 seems to reflect this disparity: speaking at the recent launch of the Nuffield report, Andrew Webb, former President of the Association of the Directors of Children’s Services commented that “the state is punishing families for being poor, the state is hollowing out the support services and making more cuts to the local authorities in areas of high deprivation – in other words, money goes to where the money already is”.  While funding for S17 has dropped, spending on the “corporate parent” (foster care and institutional care) has continued to rise and is ring-fenced (unlike S17 money).  We are also seeing once again local authorities/national politicians promoting adoption as the “gold standard” instead of “the last resort” as legally defined in the Children Act.

Over recent years we have seen that as resources for “children in need” (CIN) have been cut, children are moved directly onto Section 47 (child protection), leading directly to more and more children being taken into care.  In our experience of attending many CIN meetings, social workers routinely use S17 as an excuse to intervene in a child’s life, where this may be inappropriate and without providing families with adequate information about the voluntary nature of their involvement and therefore their right to withdraw from it, and without offering any substantial support.  In fact, if families having realised the nature of the interference attempt to withdraw from S17, as is their right, they are immediately threatened with Section 47.  Social workers do not work in “partnership” with families.  Instead they abuse the statutory powers available to them under Section 47 to scrutinise families’ lives without justification and/or accountability, and without the agreement or consent of families.  

3. The lack of scrutiny of Children’s Services

Under the child “protection” process there is no scrutiny of social workers’ decisions or reports, and even reports which are challenged for containing false information or assumptions and agreed not to be true are not amended.  This means that when they are brought back into court they are taken to be true so judges may receive a great deal of false information.  The more the mother tries to explain any errors, the more she is seen as “not cooperating”, which in itself can be used as a reason to take children into care.

4. The impact of increased poverty as a result of “austerity” cuts which particularly affects single mothers, leading to wrongful accusations of “neglect”.

4.3m children now live in poverty, and child “neglect” is the single biggest category of child protection plans (see Nuffield Foundation).  At the same time, the disproportionate number of children of colour (including those taken because their parents have no recourse to public funds) and disabled children who are in care must be addressed.  

5. If the resources (financial and otherwise) available to foster parents were available to mothers/birth families, the numbers of children in care would drop significantly.  Why is this not being pursued?

Work done in 1970s by Dr Andy Bilson showed that when social workers were allocated money to help families rather than to take children into care, up to 70% fewer children were taken.  The Social Care Review should urgently consider recommending initiatives such as this being implemented widely.

6. Domestic violence

Thousands of children are being taken into care because the family courts blame the victims of rape and domestic violence rather than the perpetrator.  Mothers are accused of causing their children “emotional harm” if they disclose domestic violence, and children who refuse to see their violent father are put into foster care.  When survivors of domestic abuse go to or are referred to Children’s Services they hope for, and are entitled to receive, support, but the most likely outcome is either that they are accused of causing their children “harm” by witnessing domestic abuse and the children are taken into “care” or that they are put on child “protection”.  Mothers are told that if they want to keep their children they must stop any relationship with the perpetrator.  But when the perpetrator drags the mother through the family court demanding contact as a way to continue his reign of terror over her and their children, it is the mother who is accused of “alienating” the children from father if she refuses unsupervised contact on grounds of safety.  It is not uncommon for perpetrators, even those with convictions for violence, to be given residence of children. 

Victims of domestic violence must be helped to escape and live independently from violent men, the “presumption of contact” in the Children Act must be amended to ensure that violent fathers are not allowed unsupervised contact or residence of children.  The family courts must stop accepting allegations of “parental alienation” against mothers who raise safety concerns.

7. Why is the “corporate parent” allowed to get away with abysmal standards of care with lifelong consequences?  And why is this not being considered when decisions are made about taking children from their mothers?

Children are taken into care when their parents are deemed “not good enough” to keep them, yet the standard of care they receive from the “corporate parent” is often much, much, worse than anything the mother was accused of and entirely detrimental to their welfare.  Children and teenagers are frequently moved to different placements and different parts of the country, denied contact with birth parents and siblings, left unprotected from sexual abuse and exploitation,  housed in unregulated children’s homes, excluded from school, etc.  When they leave care, they face horrendous discrimination throughout their lives – they are less likely to be in employment, education or training, disproportionately in prison, and are more likely to have their children taken from them at or soon after birth. 

 Covid19 regulations have taken away even the most minimal safeguards for fostering, adoption and children in institutional care, leaving those most vulnerable unprotected.

8. Why is privatisation being allowed into children’s services?

The increasing privatisation of children’s services has led to fostering and adoption becoming a highly profitable industry with a vested interest in there being a continual “supply” of children.  These private services are largely unaccountable for the “services” they provide which are determined by their profit margins, not the best interest of the children.

Our suggested reading:

How best to engage children, young people and families who have experienced children’s services:

We are in touch with hundreds of mothers who have experienced Child in Need, Child Protection as well as public and private law proceedings in family court.  You should speak with these mothers and as many children currently or formerly in the care system as possible.

Do you know of any evidence, analysis or research that challenges current practices in children’s social care?  Please provide this evidence where possible.

In addition to our dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers, we particularly refer to research done by Dr Andy Bilson, Professor Paul Byaters, Professor Brid Featherstone, Prof Ray Jones, the Nuffield Foundation, and the work of Article 39.

31 March 2021

Legal Action for Women, co-ordinates Support Not Separation

Crossroads Women’s Centre

25 Wolsey Mews

London NW5 2DX

Tel: 0207 482 2496