Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign, mum speaks out

Speech by Support Not Separation’s Tracey Norton, who co-ordinates the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign, who spoke on the panel of a webinar Parents of disabled children and child welfare, presented by the International Parent Advocacy Network (IPAN) on Tuesday 24 May 2022.

Thank you. I’m very glad to be asked to speak because I have a long-standing interest in this, both as part of the DMRC but also my own personal experience of the system.  I am a mother with an invisible disability, and I have a severely disabled child, who was taken from us for some years.  So called ‘child protection’ has done great harm to our family.

I am the coordinator of the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign which is organised by Winvisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) and is part of the Support Not Separation coalition. We are protecting our children and defending our rights to have them and keep them.

We are fighting to stop the cruelty and discrimination we face from social services and the family courts. We are campaigning to get the support from official agencies which we, as disabled mothers, are entitled to by law such as the Care Act, Children Act, Equality Act, and the international United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UK government signed up to in 2009), as well as the rights of our children under the Children Act 1989, and in particular Section 17.

Support Not Separation Coalition includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, survivors of rape and domestic violence, breastfeeding advocates, kinship carers, psychotherapists, men and occasionally social workers who share our perspective. We campaign to stop the devaluing of the mother-child relationship and the resulting unwarranted separation of children from their mothers. Support Not Separation is coordinated by Legal Action for Women, and we work closely with the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance and Give Us Back Our Children in the US which is also part of our coalition. We are part of an international women-led movement.

We hold monthly pickets on the first Wednesday of each month outside the Central Family Court in London and a twitter storm alongside the picket. And very importantly, we hold monthly collective self-help meetings of mothers, in person and on zoom, at the Crossroads Women’s Centre where we are based.  These meetings bring together our experiences as mothers as well as the experiences of the 16 other groups based at the centre.  Through the pickets we meet mothers going in and out of court fighting cases and we speak out about the injustices we are confronting, giving visibility to our movement.     

All these shared experiences have enabled us to put together a Self-Help Guide to help mothers struggling with social services and the family courts. The Guide is an important tool for all the mothers and for the Disabled Mothers Rights Campaign. It aims to strengthen women like me so we can be in charge of our own cases and get the support we need to win. If I had had it years ago, the outcome of my own case would have been extremely different. 

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, and in June 2021 we published our latest research based on 219 mothers and 411 children: 19% had a physical disability used against them and 44% had mental health used against them, most were single mothers on low incomes, many women of colour and/or immigrant.

My personal journey started when I requested a Statement (EHCP as they are now called) so my son could get educational support, but it was denied so I had to struggle on by myself.  From my personal experience I can tell you that working with professionals was the most difficult and stressful aspect of looking after my disabled child.

Instead of support I was dragged through Child Protection, accused of FII (Fabricated and Induced illness). I was shocked because my child had a diagnosed genetic condition. 27 doctors and nurses turned up and I asked each one if they had ever treated or even seen my child – only two had ever met him. This is how they bully parents onto Child Protection so they can deny us the care we are entitled to. I learnt to keep copies of everything, a paper trail, and I now faced 28 accusations. The first accusation was that my son’s broken hand had never been broken, and that I had lied and put my son in a cast. I produced the X-ray and the consultant’s report, at which point the hospital social worker said, ‘where the hell did she get a copy of that?’ I will never forget those words. My child’s medical records, that I had been told were lost! Doctors started walking out of the Child Protection meeting as I produced evidence for all 28 accusations, by the end only four people remained.

Of course, I won my case but straight away the hospital appealed. They lost again. However, the professionals were not happy and they tried cancelling my son’s care package. My GP intervened, and I complained. I was still naive in those days and did not realise how dangerous it was to complain against professionals.

My son, now in hospital, suffered a serious incident: a doctor overdosed him and he ended up in ICU. We thought we had lost him. We complained again and asked for him to be transferred out of the hospital. To cover up what they had done, at 2am six armed police officers arrived at hospital whilst we slept and arrested me for attempting to kill my child. Two weeks later my husband was arrested for the same crime. After interviewing us and our son, the police dropped all charges. But despite that, we were dragged through the family courts. My first realisation that I was in trouble was when my lawyers called me the day before my first court hearing and told me we had lost! Shocked I said, ‘But my evidence has not been heard’. My lawyers explained that the judge I was up against hates mothers with medical cases and no matter what I said he would rule against me. I should shut up and stay quiet. Later I was told to forget my child and get a job in a flower shop! The judge refused to hear my evidence, I was denied the right to bring in my specialists and the medical records were withheld. The judge told my lawyers to shut up and sit down, and my child was taken into care. His care package stopped. All medical treatment stopped.

They got what they wanted. It took two years, until he turned 18 and they couldn’t keep him against his will, for him to be able to come home. He had been abused in care, starved of food and had not had a bath or shower in those two years. His clothes were covered in fleas.

Despite my husband being accused of the exact same crime, he was not stopped from seeing our son. Only I, the mother, was punished, accused of FII and denied all access to my child. As we know all too well, it is the mothers who are targeted because the mother is the primary carer and protector, and it is the mother bond that they try to break, causing lifelong trauma to the children.

Yesterday the Children’s Social Care review final report was published, calling for a £2 ½ billion investment in children’s services. Despite people like myself and SNS giving evidence about the need for money for mothers so we can protect our children, they propose to add another layer of professionals.

4.3m children now live in poverty in the UK. Child “neglect”, ie poverty, is the single biggest target of the ‘corporate parent’, together with domestic violence which is deeply connected to women’s poverty and economic dependence that stops women escaping. 

Numbers of children in care are at an all-time high: over 80,000 in England and Wales. There are a disproportionate number of disabled children in care as families dealing with disability are hardest hit by poverty and discrimination, especially if we are single mothers. Children in the poorest neighbourhoods are 10 times more likely to be in care than children in the most affluent ones. With energy price rises, cut to UC and rising prices we can expect that these numbers will increase. While the review recognises that too many children are taken needlessly, it calls for an increase of 900 foster carers rather than for money in mothers’ hands so we can keep children home safe and fed. The Review is wary of upsetting the “child protection” industry and challenging their abuse of power.

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, CareTech was paid £430m last year by Local Authorities and almost ¾ of children’s homes are run privately. An average weekly placement is £4,000 rising to £7-8,000 for children with disabilities. At least one child in care presently is costing £1m a year. Foster carers can get £450 per week for one child which rises to £650 is the child is disabled. But a mother gets £21 a week Child Benefit and maybe some child tax credits, if she’s lucky! Working class children are being adopted by middle class parents “who can give them a better life” – this amounts to social engineering. By giving mothers a fraction of what foster carers get, many children would not be in care because poverty is NOT neglect.

I first met Andy Bilson in 2017 when he spoke at the Support Not Separation event ‘Do No Harm’, and I was struck by his work in Fife where in just 3 years they reduced the number of children in care by 70% by making cash available to families. By giving each of the seven areas the equivalent of the cost of one child in care for a year to spend on families, the numbers of children in care went right down.

That’s the kind of support social workers should be focused on and what Section 17 of the Children Act should provide for families in the community, particularly for disabled children.

But even this is not enough as it would still be administered by social workers and the power would remain in their hands. That’s why we are calling for 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 and the children belong to the state and not to their families. The excuse that social workers remove too many children because they are “risk averse” and worry about children being harmed is a lie: how else can you explain that they repeatedly take children from victims of domestic violence and force them into contact or even residence with their abusive fathers?

We don’t need more professionals or foster carers in our lives, we need money to feed and protect our children. It is mothers who fight for our children and that’s why they attack us and use false terminology such as FII rather than support our disability or support us against a violent partner.

Give Us Back Our Children, which is part of Support Not Separation, and the mother-led movement in the US have recently had a massive victory. After years of struggle, the local authority in Philadelphia set up a special committee to look into why so many children, especially Black children, are removed from their families. The report was scathing. It says that neglect should be removed from the law, and 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.

It recommends that the family courts are open – something we campaign for here because if family courts were open to scrutiny many miscarriages of justice, such as my own, could be heard and less children would be taken. Now there is no oversight and mothers are gagged from even talking to their own families.

There is also a law which was just passed by the California senate, forbidding poverty being used as neglect to take children.

The Philadelphia report and the California law go much further than the Care Review and we must use them here to put pressure on the system.

I’d like to end with the struggle of disabled mothers and our disabled children. It is estimated that 21% of children in care have a disability. The funding to support disabled children has been cut by half to £2 billion whilst the funding for child protection and child removal has increased by 30% to £7.2 billion. The ‘Working Together 2018’ statutory Guidance which is used to assess families is humiliating and bullying starting at the point of parental neglect and blame, disregarding the assessments of needs for those of us who are disabled, and we know that disabled mothers are one of the most severely disadvantaged groups in the UK, often neglecting our own care to look after our disabled children. Disabilities often run-in families, Autism, ME, EDS to name a few, but when mothers ask for the support our children need and are entitled to, we are told that we are projecting our own disability onto our children, rather than assessing the needs of the child, and this is the reason for removal.

One mother in our network with a genetic condition was told she had to throw away her crutches and walk to prove she was a good mother. Her child was forcibly adopted and 18 years later when that child found her mother, the child reported suffering her whole life with unknown medical problems as her medical history had been denied to her. She had run away from her adopted family who had harmed her.

Another disabled mother said, ‘You don’t want to call social services, you are scared to call them because they might think you are incapable of looking after your child, so you have to struggle with what you have. There’s always an element of fear.’

Another mother had a substantial care package until a new social worker took over who did not support the care package and, although there had been no incidents, applied to court to take away the children. The new social worker told the court that the mother did not work well with her. This is a common reason used by social workers to take children. They treat us as if we are stupid, thick, and expect us to do as we are told – where is that in the legislation?

Another single mother who needs an operation is too afraid they will take her children if she seeks medical help. She is right to be worried, another mother we know has been fighting for 3 years to get her children home after needing simple surgery.

The forced adoption and removal of children now is one continuum with the forced adoptions and removal of children in the 50s and 70s, or the removal of Aboriginal or Black children in Australia, Canada and the US.

People don’t realise how many mothers are treated like victims of miscarriages of justice who are refused parole unless they “confess” to a crime they haven’t committed. We are often forced to “confess” to whatever we are accused of in order to get back or keep our child. That’s the power relation social workers and judges impose on us.

This abuse of power must stop. Social workers, stop looking in fridges and drawers of mothers who request help to try and find something you can blame on us rather than give us support. Stop threatening mothers seeking EHCPs with removing our children. Stop blaming mothers for the ‘behavioural’ issues of our disabled children. Disability is not neglect. Poverty is not neglect.

Through our collective self-help and our campaigning, we win many cases, of course not all, and we count every victory: every adoption we stop, every contact we re-establish, every child we get back.

And whether or not it is acknowledged, it is our work as a movement of thousands of mothers and primary carers defending our children, and the rebellion of our children who are refusing the abuse of the care system, which have forced this most tragic of injustices onto the limelight. No one was talking about this a few years ago, it is now front and centre. 

Finally, the Global Women’s Strike is doing an international survey for mothers and other primary carers to say what we think of our caring work, what we need and want. It’s time we mothers were heard. We urge you all to fill the questionnaire.