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 individual social workers and former social workers who share our perspective. 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, children, family law professionals, organisations and concerned individuals. Our publications include Suffer the Little Children & their Mothers published in 2017 and updated research published in June 2021.
Poverty defined as “neglect” and domestic violence are the main reasons for removing children from mothers and families. Our experience of the prejudiced assumptions against mothers/families who are low income, working class, of colour, have disabilities and/or mental distress, have grown up in “care” . . . by social workers, children’s guardians, psychologists and judges, was borne out by the government’s Harm Report which found a pattern of “sexism, racism and classism” 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. Abuse of power by the state and profiteering by the “child protection” industry are crucial to understanding why so many children are taken from their mothers,
Introduction to the Review
We were not hopeful that the “Independent” Review, launched in March 2021 by the then Education Minister Gavin Williamson, would be independent nor that it would recommend the far-reaching overhaul needed to stop so many children being taken into “care”, their mistreatment while “in care” and the obscene profits being made by the private companies which dominate the fostering and adoption industry.
Notably, the government made clear from the beginning that any Review recommendations must not cost any money, and appointed Josh MacAlister as its lead. At the time MacAlister was CEO of the Frontline Organisation, a charity he founded to train social workers in 2013, which received £45m from the Department for Education in 2019 and £4.3m just one month before his appointment; just months after the Review reported, Frontline was awarded £10m for more training! After a conflict-of-interest outcry Macalister resigned from Frontline, however he is widely expected to return there soon.[i]
We submitted two sets of evidence 4 April 2021 and 1 September 2021 based on the extensive collective self-help and campaigning[ii] we have done over many years. We also attended nine consultation events held during the Review.
It’s important to claim the impact that the mother-led movement we are part of has had on getting some of the key issues recognised by the Review. It is mothers’ determined struggle to protect our children, children’s resistance, and ongoing campaigning for justice against biased investigations and forced separations and adoptions, which resulted in this Review in the first place. Many also took the time to contribute to the consultation process. However, predictably given who conducted the Review, its proposals for “reform” fly in the face of the very evidence it acknowledges and amount to expanding the “corporate parent”: increasing the involvement and powers of social workers and other professionals in family life; recruiting more foster carers; allowing rampant privatisation of children’s services to continue; and cutting what few independent safeguards against state power currently exist. Most proposals are not in the “best interest” of children or their mothers, primary carers and wider family networks and, if enacted, will cause further harm.
Context for the Review
- More and more children and their mothers, especially single mothers, are living in poverty.
- More children in “care” than ever before: over 80,000 in England and Wales.
- Numbers widely predicted to rise as even more families, especially single mother families, are plunged further into poverty and destitution as a result of low wages, benefit cuts, zero-hour contracts, homelessness, and the rising cost of living.
- Children in the poorest neighbourhoods are at least 10 times more likely to be in care than children in the most affluent ones.
- A disproportionate number of disabled children “in care” as families with disabled children are hardest hit by poverty and discrimination, especially if we are single mothers.
- Spending on preventative services to support families has fallen from £3.8 billion in 2010 to £2.1 billion in 2018.
- Most children’s services have been privatised and are making huge profits.
Summary of what the Review acknowledges
The Review recognises what we and others have pointed out, that:
- Too many children are taken into “care” due to the lack of early support for families
- Too many children are needlessly taken through “child protection” – investigations have increased by 127% in the past 11 years but the number which did not result in a “child protection plan” (that is, which proved to be unwarranted) went up by 211% over the same period.
- Poverty is a key factor in children being removed.
- Huge profits are being made by private companies dominating a “child welfare” industry including fostering, adoption and children’s homes.
- In order to reform children’s social care, there needs to be government action to tackle rising rates of child poverty, domestic violence, and mental ill-health. Children in deprived areas, where care needs are higher, should get a bigger share of funding.
The Review’s main recommendations and our response
Create “Family Help” services called Family hubs supervised by social workers, to be based in schools and children’s centres and made up of social workers, mental health practitioners and domestic abuse workers, who would provide intensive support to about 500,000 children considered to be “in need”. The main help envisaged for these hubs is to “check benefits, signpost to food banks, clothes banks, loans and faith groups”.
Family Hubs would increase the power of professionals to intervene in and make judgements about mothers and families’ lives. Mothers and primary carers do not need more social workers and other professionals in our lives dictating how we raise our children – we need money to help us feed and protect them. It is outrageous that the help mothers and families living in poverty are being offered is “signposting” to food banks! There are no recommendations for direct financial support to actually address the poverty which is then mislabelled as “neglect” in order to remove our children. Once again, there is plenty of money to take our children but none to keep them with their mothers.
Alongside the Hubs, all public bodies would have “community parenting responsibilities”. This would be a dangerous extension of the state’s power to override a mother’s choice about schooling, health/medical care, diet, lifestyle – in other words how we choose to raise our children. Social workers already have far too much power which they often abuse, throwing their weight around as if they are the best arbiters of how children should be raised. The excuse that social workers remove too many children because they are “risk averse” and worry about children being harmed is a lie: children are repeatedly taken from victims of domestic violence and forced into contact or even residence with their abusive fathers. The “risk adverse” apologists never comment on that.
Spend £253 million on training more social workers aiming to “address high vacancy and turnover rates and enable social workers to spend more time working with children and families and less time on paperwork and bureaucracy”. The Review calls for changes to initial social work education, and promotes private agencies including Frontline, Teaching Partnerships and Step Up while being critical of university social work courses which train the majority of social workers.
We are opposed to prioritising spending on social workers over spending on what mums and family’s needs in order to keep children safe. Social workers should not need more training in order to listen to what mothers and children say about what they need, or to tell a mother what she already knows. They do need training in the importance of the mother/child bond, which is routinely ignored or dismissed – as far as we know, this is not included in any training programme, whether provided by Frontline or universities.
It is outrageous that, under the guise of training, the Review is advocating that even more millions be directed to private companies which are already profiteering from this lucrative “child protection” racket. Who are these companies? One of them, which the Review strongly recommends (over the universities which currently train social workers), is Frontline – Josh MacAlister’s company at the time he was appointed to head the Review! Seriously?!
Spend £82m to “improve foster carer support” and £76m to recruit 9,000 foster carers from 2023-26.
This money should be spent on supporting families and keeping children with their mothers, not on recruiting more foster carers. Over one-third of foster carers work through Independent Foster Agencies[iii] and the increasing privatisation of children’s services has led to fostering and adoption becoming a hugely profitable industry which depends on a continual “supply” of children. Almost three quarter of children’s homes are run privately; an average weekly placement is £4,000 rising to £7-8,000 for children with disabilities, and up to £1m a year in one extraordinary case. One company running children’s homes and fostering services, CareTech, was paid £430m in 2021 by local authorities and the top 10 companies made more than £300m profits in 2021.[iv]
Foster carers would be given even more rights to make day to day decisions for the children they take rather than having to check with mothers or anyone else with parental responsibility. Extending foster carers’ powers of “parental responsibility” in this way would do away with the need to ask for the consent of families. This is extremely serious, for example, foster carers could end up making decisions in relation to schooling, religion, holidays, medical treatment and even the right to life of children – life support has been switched off without involvement of the biological mother – further eroding a mother’s parental responsibility and the protection she is able to provide to her children. This could lead to even less scrutiny of what happens to children in foster “care”, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Abolish the role of independent Child Protection Chair and create a new category of social worker called the “expert practitioner” who would decide whether to start child protection proceedings and would then take on the role of “child protection conference chair”.
We oppose the proposal to remove the role of “Child Protection Chair” and replace it with the social worker on the case – this would increase the power of social workers against mothers and children. We note that BASW shares our concerns.[v] The Chair should NEVER be directly involved in the case, and they have a right to veto a social worker’s proposal. This can be some protection for mothers who are being scrutinised by social workers who are often hostile to them and can at least ask the Chair to correct inaccurate statements made by the social worker. Having the safeguarding social worker who is leading the case against a family also chairing the Child Protection conferences would make them judge and jury, removing any level of independent scrutiny, which could lead to more children being taken.
Abolish the role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) who provide some independent scrutiny of the work social workers are doing with children “in care”, and replace them with “independent advocacy” for those children.
Abolishing IROs increases the unaccountable powers of social workers, once again. IROs are supposed to scrutinise local authorities’ decision-making about individual children. They were introduced to make sure children were protected by having someone not connected to their case who can hold the local authority to account, visit them and see how they are living, and can insist on increasing children’s contact with their families when social workers refuse. They are too often not independent enough, but to remove this minimal safeguard altogether is to give carte blanche to social workers so they can abuse their powers even more than they do already.
Children “in care” are already entitled to “independent advocacy” but this is very rarely implemented. The Review should have recommended stronger independent advocacy instead it wants to abolish it.
Create “regional care co-operatives” (RCCs), which all local authorities would have to join, which would plan and commission fostering, residential and secure care across their areas. These would become fully operational by 2025 under the Review’s proposals and would be funded via a one-off “windfall” tax on the top 15 profit-making companies which dominate the child welfare industry.
It seems RCCs would be used to fund the new foster carers while at the same time private companies would retain the monopoly on children’s homes and residential schools, continuing to be unregulated as they generate huge profits. The Review makes no proposals about improving regular inspections of homes or of automatically closing those found to be abusing or neglecting children in their “care”.
The fact that the RCCs would be regional rather than local could mean children being automatically moved away from their families, schools, etc., as there is no proposal to ensure children are kept close to their family home.
Create new “universal care standards” to ensure children are placed in regulated accommodation and receive care up to the age of 18, to come into force in 2025.
Teenagers are the fastest growing group being taken into care[vi]. In September 2021, legislation came into force which bans the use of unregulated accommodation for children in care aged 15 and younger and guarantees that they always receive care where they live. This should immediately be extended to those aged 16 – 18 who can be placed in unregulated accommodation[vii], expected to buy their own clothes and bedding, food, etc on a pittance provided by the social workers and to attend school without any checks on their wellbeing. There is no justification for wating until 2025 to protect these young people.
Take action to ensure that no young person leaves care without at least two loving relationships – it suggests not family or friends but social workers, teachers, NHS staff . . .
This is another attempt to dismiss the child’s family and replace it with the “corporate parent”. The most obvious source of “loving relationships” for care leavers are their families and friends, yet these connections are frequently disrupted by children and teenagers being moved a long way from home and further undermined when contact is limited to three to six times a year. Much more emphasis should be placed on sibling and parental contact for all children in care, in order to maintain those crucial relationships.
Create a new lifelong special guardianship order and improve support for kinship carers, including by providing financial allowances to special guardians or kinship carers with child arrangement orders; extending legal aid in the family courts to all kinship carers and those seeking to become such, and providing kinship carers with paid leave from work.
Introducing lifelong special guardianship orders would further erode a family’s possibility to be reunited with children who have been taken. These are often the children of domestic abuse victims traumatised by violence and further traumatised by having had their children taken from them. Domestic violence victims need support together with their children, so they rebuild their lives in safety.
Proposes family group conferences, prior to a case reaching pre-proceedings which would develop an alternative family-led plan before a council sought a care order. If this was agreed, the child would be cared for under a “family network plan”, with “appropriate local authority oversight” and funding to support the extended family to care for the child.
We welcome the needs of kinship carers being addressed, in particular the proposal to provide additional funding to them, although the details of this proposal are not spelled out. We support the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance which has been campaigning for kinship carers to be paid on a par with foster carers. When the children are returned home this money should also be given to the mothers.
Establish a new National Reform Board which will have “a mechanism for local authorities to raise where they feel there are national regulatory blockers to taking a course of action that is in the best interests of children and families, with action taken to address this”.
This would open the way for government to further remove current protections by scrutinising current statutory regulations which social workers object to because they restrict their powers. There have already been legislative attempts to erode and even abolish statutory protections in the name of “innovation” so private agencies can make even more profits at children’s expense. A campaign which we were part of succeeded in defeating this in November 2020. This must be opposed and defeated again.
The Review largely ignores the impact of policies which over the last 20 years have deliberately cut resources available to mothers and children, including under Section 17 of the Children Act, as well as community services. It makes no proposals to redirect the millions used to remove children towards supporting mothers and other primary carers so children can stay safely with their families. Nor are there any proposals to reinstate the services that have been decimated, especially for domestic violence. Instead, it proposes to extend the power of the “corporate parent” by extending the power of social workers into every community, increasing foster carers, taking away statutory safeguards, and allowing profiteering by private companies to continue.
The Review completely ignores the outrageous scandals involving thousands of children “in care” and/or forcibly taken by social services being raped, abused, exploited, and even murdered. Despite all the evidence that has emerged in the recent period, there is no mention of Oldham, Oxford, Rochdale, Rotherham… to name a few, or the murders of forcibly adopted children like Elsie Scully-Hicks and Leiland-James Corkill whose mother and grandmother were rejected by social workers in favour of adoption.
Unlike mothers who are constantly investigated, blamed, and punished, “child protection” professionals have total impunity. Those running residential homes, social workers who harmed children by forcibly removing them from loving families, police who didn’t act to protect children and even criminalised them when they reported the violence, they were suffering … are not even criticised in the Review.
Nor has the Review addressed the legal obligations of Councils to provide support to disabled mothers under Care Act “outcomes” which include caring responsibilities for a child. Councils routinely put disabled mothers under child protection instead of providing support. Section 12 of the Care Act lays down the duty to assess the needs of the family and to carry out dual assessments where necessary. Ealing was found in breach of this duty in 2019 and had to pay childcare costs and compensation to the disabled mother. By ignoring this duty, the Review perpetuates how the needs of mothers and children are separated off to the detriment of both.
We are calling for:
– Support children by supporting their primary carer, overwhelmingly the mother.
– Recognise that the bond between mother and child is the child’s first and most crucial relationship and that supporting mothers is the best way to ensure children’s health and well-being.
– Prioritise implementing Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 with a view to keeping families together.
– Implement Care Act support for disabled mothers who have caring responsibilities for a child. Stop taking children from disabled mothers on the basis that having a disabled mother is “harm” to a child. Support for “child carers” should start with social care services for disabled parents.
– Address child poverty by addressing mothers’ poverty, especially single/disabled mothers, often of colour, who are among the poorest and most likely to be targeted for intervention by children’s social care.
– Stop taking children on the basis of “neglect” – the single biggest category of child protection plans (see Nuffield Foundation). As we write there is proposed legislation in California forbidding poverty being used as neglect to take children, as well as proposals from a Special Committee in Philadelphia that neglect should be removed from the law.[viii]
– Stop taking children into care because of domestic violence, and/or on the basis of predicted “future emotional harm” which is most commonly used to blame mothers for men’s violence.
-.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. Now that the fake science of “parental alienation” has been formally rejected from inclusion in the Domestic Abuse Act and its Statutory Guidance, CAFCASS and other professionals must stop using it to attack mothers who raise safety concerns about their children.
– The discrimination that results in the disproportionate number of children of colour (including those taken because their parents have no recourse to public funds) and disabled children “in care” must be acknowledged and addressed. Other discrimination against mothers who have grown up “in care” or are sex workers must also be acknowledged and addressed.
– Review The Working Together document (2018) which assumes all parents need safeguarding referrals, and results in mothers in poverty or asking for help due to their own or their children’s disability being treated as having harmed their children. Child Protection should be separated from Child in Need.
– Recognise that the trauma of separation from mother and siblings, and of being uprooted from all that is familiar, invariably outweighs the difficulties children may face within their families, the majority of which could be overcome with proper financial and practical support.
– Provide the support families ask for, rather than what social workers decide is appropriate, which invariably means intrusive and degrading monitoring and prejudicial judgements. Strengthen communities by providing services, not by more social work intervention.
– Follow the lead set by Dr Andy Bilson in the 1970s which 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.
– Remove privatisation from children’s services to end the profit motive – obscene profits made by private providers/agencies for fostering, residential children’s homes, adoption, etc., are feeding the “child protection” industry which wrecks the lives of children and families.
– Give mothers and other primary carers a Care Income so that the work mothers do is financially recognised and no mother can be accused of neglect because she is poor. This would protect mothers and children from professionals abusing their powers and acting as if they know best, as if the children belong to the state and not to their families. Foster carers receive between £400 and £600 a week – why not mothers whose caring work would prevent the institutionalisation of children and avoid lifelong trauma?
– Open the family courts so that decisions made there are open to public scrutiny.
– Reinstate legal aid for all family law cases.
[i] During his last year at Frontline it made a profit of £22.8 million https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/independence-of-major-childrens-care-review-in-question-over-the-appointment-of-a-charity-boss-78153 Frontline Received £45m from Dept of Education, which commissioned the Review https://article39.org.uk/2021/03/17/childrens-social-care-review-cannot-secure-extra-government-funding-for-children-and-families-contract-reveals/
[ii] 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.
[viii] Give Us Back Our Children, which is part of Support Not Separation’s international network, and the mother-led movement in the US have recently had a massive victory. After years of struggle, the local authority in Philadelphia s p a special committee to look into why so many children, especially Blackchildren, are removed from their families. A recent report says that neglect should be removed from the law, and that “any family condition that can be remedied through the provision of concrete help, including direct cash assistance, food, clothing, housing, and/or childcare, shall not constitute neglect and shall not be cause for an investigation”. And in California legislation proposed by Senator Kamlager. This bill will provide critical protection for California’s families vulnerable to separation based onfactors such as poverty, homelessness, and a lack of access to basic resources.
Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) Report March 2022 found the current annual cost for children’s social care services is around £5.7 billion in England, £680 million in Scotland and £350 million in Wales. It said: “large private sector providers of fostering services and children homes appear to be making higher profits in England and Wales than the CMA would expect in a well-functioning market.”