8 May: SNS speaking on Panel: Sex, Race & Class – blowing the whistle on the criminality of the state

Speech by Anne Neale for SNS as part of a panel called Sex, Race & Class – blowing the whistle on the criminality of the state on Saturday 8 May at International Festival of Whistleblowing, Dissent and Accountability

Thank you to the organisers for inviting us here today, we’re very glad to be taking part.

Support Not Separation Coalition includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, kinship carers, psychotherapists, men and social workers, committed to defending mothers and children against unwarranted separation and the devaluing of the mother-child relationship.  It is coordinated by LAW.  We work closely with SNS in the US and with mothers in other countries who share our aims.

In 2017, LAW published a Dossier Suffer the Little Children & their Mothers of over 50 cases of mothers we were working with who were fighting in the family courts to stop violent fathers having unsupervised contact or residence of children, and to stop the state taking their children into ‘care’ and/or forced adoption.  We’re in touch with hundreds of mothers and families and hold a monthly whistle-blowing picket outside the central family court in London (virtual protest since the pandemic) and monthly collective self-help meetings (b4 Covid at the Crossroads Women’s Centre & now online) where mothers exchange tactics drawing on their own experiences and the experience of the organisations based at the Centre, esp WAR, SMSD, and GWS.

The secrecy of the family courts makes it a crime for mothers to discuss their cases with family and friends, let alone to speak publicly about their cases – mothers are gagged and the press is also gagged.  This keeps the proceedings and decisions hidden from public view and hides the reality of how tens of thousands of children are taken by the “corporate parent” ie the State and the lucrative and, heavily privatised industry of fostering and adoption. 

This is where children and families, most especially single mothers who are low income, working class, of colour, have disabilities and/or mental health problems come up against the extensive powers of the state, enforced by an army of social workers, children’s guardians, psychiatrists, and other professionals, including lawyers and judges who routinely take children from protective mothers and put them into foster care or adoption, or with violent fathers.  Our experience of the biases mothers face at the hands of the State was born out by a government commissioned report, the Harm Report, published last year which found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in the family courts.  Evidence to that report came overwhelmingly from mothers blowing the whistle on what goes on behind closed doors – not surprisingly, the government has followed not with action based on the report but by setting up a panel which includes DV deniers.  

4.3m children now live in poverty in the UK and child “neglect” ie poverty is the single biggest target of the corporate parent, together with domestic violence, which is deeply connected to poverty which stops women escaping.  Numbers of children in care are at an all-time high and increasing – over 80,000 in England, an increase of over 10,000 since 2015.  There are a disproportionate number of children of colour (including those taken because whose immigrant parents have no recourse to public funds) and disabled children in care. Children in the poorest neighbourhoods are at least 10 times more likely to be in care than children in the most affluent ones.   A recent report on Wales found that in some places, 1 in 44 children is in the “care” of the state.

Local authorities and professionals refuse to implement Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, or the Care Act if the mother has a disability, which entitle mothers to financial or other support to enable children to stay with their families.   Spending on support for families has fallen from £3.8 billion in 2010 to £2.1 billion in 2018, while spending on the “corporate parent” (foster care and institutional care) has continued to rise and is ring-fenced (unlike S17 money).   As S17 resources have shrunk, mothers who go to social services to demand the support they are entitled to, including because they’re victims of domestic violence, risk intervention and investigation by social workers who have the backing of the police and are even less accountable than the police.  While mothers are under scrutiny, what happens to children once they are in the hands of the ‘corporate parent’ is covered up by layers of professionals, including the very lawyers which are supposed to represent mothers.  Even reports which are challenged for containing false information or assumptions and agreed not to be true are not amended and are presented in court as true.  The more mothers try to correct any misinformation, the more she is seen as “not cooperating”, which in itself can be used as a reason to take children into care.

Thousands of children are being taken into care because the state backs the perpetrators of rape and domestic violence not the victims.  Mothers are accused of causing children “emotional harm” if they disclose domestic violence, and children who refuse to see their violent father are forced to or put into foster care.  When survivors of domestic abuse go to or are referred to Children’s Services, instead of support they are accused of causing their children “harm” by witnessing domestic abuse.  Then there’s the Catch 22 that under 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.   

So mothers fighting to protect children face a hostile environment in the family courts in which the misogynist fathers’ lobby is embedded – they’ve heavily influenced CAFCASS, the body supposed to promote children’s welfare, are good friends with the President  of the Family Division and professionals increasingly support fathers as the importance of mothers in children’s lives is dismissed, ignored or devalued.  Mothers are being tortured by the constant threat that their children will be taken, and by the devastation when they are taken, compounded by the trauma the children face – which is hardly ever mentioned or considered.

The increasing privatisation of children’s services has led to fostering and adoption becoming a highly profitable industry which depends on  a continual “supply” of children.  To give you an idea: Almost three quarters of children’s homes are run privately; almost half of local authorities are not managing any children’s homes themselves. Almost a third of all children in foster care in England live with foster carers provided through private agencies. In 2015, Corporate Watch reported that eight private foster care agencies (there are many more) made profits of more than £40m. When you look online to see how much a foster carer gets, its all private agencies which pop up, advertising themselves and foster care as well paid – £450 per week for one child, could be more depending on child’s age and needs (eg if they’re disabled)  Also, private employment agencies are also making big money out of providing interim agency social workers, managers, and even whole teams to local authority children’s social services.    Obviously these private services are largely unaccountable – among other things they can hide behind commercial confidentiality and they’re clearly determined by their profit margins, not the best interest of the children. Covid19 regulations have taken away even the most minimal safeguards for fostering, adoption and children in institutional care, leaving those most vulnerable unprotected.

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.  Working class children being adopted by middle class parents “who can give them a better life” amounts to social engineering. And of course no mother is getting anything like £450 a week to take care of her child – more like just £21 a week Child Benefit and maybe some child tax credits ,if she’s lucky! 

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. 

What we want

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.   S17 must be implemented as a priority and mothers and other carers given a Care Income (see link)

We lobbied hard with WAR and others to get an amendment in the recently passed Domestic Abuse Act to change the “presumption of contact” in the Children Act to stop violent fathers having unsupervised contact or residence of children and to stop the family courts from accepting allegations of “parental alienation” against mothers who raise safety concerns.  We didn’t succeed but we’re not stopping – the rampant sexism has to be challenged everywhere.

We want those in professional positions to become whistleblowers – including social workers, lawyers etc who see how the system really works

 There’s lots of good research out there about what’s actually happening and we need those people to speak out and defend those of us in the firing line

Family courts must be open so that what’s really going on is exposed and held accountable

We are part of grassroots movements of mothers who are speaking out and campaigning for change, and for support not separation.