NOT in the “best interest” of children & families

The government calls its strategy in response to the review of children’s social care Stable Homes Built on Love but they don’t mean how to keep children with their loving mums and families! What they want is more social workers embedded in the community, more foster carers to cope with more children being taken into care, and nothing to stop the obscene profits being made by private companies running children’s homes . . . none of which is in the “best interest” of children & families. The government has an consultation on their proposals which is open until Thursday 11 May. Anyone can respond to the consultation, whether or not you have direct experience of children’s social care. See here.

Response to the government’s proposals by the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign & Support Not Separation

Background

The Support Not Separation Coalition (SNS, co-ordinated by Legal Action for Women) includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, disabled women, 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, adults formerly in care as children, family law professionals, organisations and concerned individuals.[i] Our publications include Suffer the Little Children & their Mothers (2017) and research updates (June 2021 and November 2022). 

Poverty defined as “neglect” and domestic violence where the mother is blamed rather than the perpetrator, are the main reasons for removing children from mothers and families. Our experience of the prejudiced assumptions against mothers/families who are single, 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. Disabled mothers also face their disability being used as another prejudiced justification for children to be taken away, with more than 8% of all children in care, being taken from a parent with a learning disability – excluding physical disability or mental distress.

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 being taken from their mothers.

The Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign (DMRC, co-ordinated by WinVisible) brings disabled mothers together to defend our right to have and to keep our children. We campaign to stop the cruelty and discrimination we face from social services and the family courts which use mothers’ requests for council support as an excuse to label us “unfit” and take our children from us. DMRC is part of the SNS coalition.  DMRC and SNS worked with Channel 5 News for a feature broadcast nationally on 25 January 2023. They interviewed a mother and daughter, now reunited after forced adoption, who are part of DMRC, as well as a learning disabled mother whose three children have been adopted against her will. Ch5 News announced their shocking findings that parents with a learning disability are 54 times more likely to have their children taken into care. This confirms our experience of the discrimination and hostility faced by disabled mothers, and other mothers especially if we are single, of colour, working class and/or have been through the care system as children …, when we attempt to stop social workers and the family courts taking our children from us purely due to disability and/or other prejudice.

Review of Children’s Social Care

Both the report by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (May 2022) and the government’s response to it (February 2023) completely miss the central issue at the heart of improving children’s social care: to stop so many children being taken into care in the first place

The government’s response to the Review completely ignores the impact of policies which over the last 20 years have deliberately cut resources available to mothers and children, under Section 17 of the Children Act, the Care Act (support for disabled mothers) as well as cuts to benefits, including via sanctions, and community services. It makes no proposals to redirect the millions spent on institutionalising children towards supporting mothers and other primary carers, or kinship carers, so children can stay safely with their families. Nor are there any proposals to reinstate the services that have been decimated, especially for victims of domestic violence.

Instead, the government has a “six pillar” plan over the next two years to extend the power of the “corporate parent” by: extending the reach of social workers into every community under the guise of “Family Help” in 12 local areas); increase the number of foster carers and social workers; create a new Child protection lead that could lead to the removal of the independent Child Protection Conference chairperson[ii] and independent oversight; and continue to allow massive profiteering by private companies running residential homes[iii]. The only measure which may be helpful, the recognition of kinship care, would be promoted in just seven areas but is not accompanied by any financial support for kinship carers.

The government response (and 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 places, 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. Disabled children taken from their mothers are four times more likely to be abused in care as are children of colour who are also over-represented among children “in care”, and are most likely to remain in institutions mostly run by profiteer companies[iv], rather than be placed with families. 

Unlike mothers who are constantly investigated, blamed, and punished, “child protection” professionals have near-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 mentioned in the government response, nor is the complete failure of Ofsted to monitor and condemn conditions in so many residential children’s homes run for profit.

It is widely acknowledged that the outcomes for care leavers are disastrous: when they leave care, 50% will be in the criminal justice system by age 21; 25% will end up in prison; 50% have mental distress; 70% die prematurely and are 20 times more likely to die by age 25[v]. Instead of claiming to want to put “love, relationships and a stable home at the heart of being a child in care”, the government must prioritise measures to stop children going into care in the first place. 

The government does not address the legal obligations of Councils to provide support to disabled mothers under the Care Act s12 regarding the needs of the family and support for caring responsibilities for a child.  Instead they have cut the central government grant to councils, triggering rationing of local services and high charges for those of us reliant on homecare services.

Councils routinely put disabled mothers, and mothers of disabled children, under child protection instead of providing support. 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.

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 Council 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 government and councils perpetuate the ways in which the needs of mothers and children are separated off to the detriment of both.

The overhaul of Children’s Social Care must start with government action to tackle rising rates of child poverty, domestic violence, and mental distress. Children in deprived areas, where care needs are higher, should get a bigger share of funding.  Children need their primary carer, overwhelmingly the mother, to be supported both financially and practically.

What children and their mothers need:

  • Recognise the bond between mother and child as the child’s first and most crucial relationship. Supporting mothers is the best way to ensure children’s health and well-being.
  • Prioritise implementing financial support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 with a view to keeping families together. Why aren’t mothers and kinship carers (mostly grandmothers) getting the same financial support as foster carers?
  • 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 adult social care services for disabled parents.
  • Address child poverty by addressing mothers’ poverty, especially single and/or 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” conflated with poverty – “neglect” is the single biggest category of child protection plans (see Nuffield Foundation). There is already legislation in California forbidding poverty being used as neglect to take children, and a Special Committee in Philadelphia proposes that neglect should be removed from the law.[vi]
  • Stop taking children into care because of domestic violence and end the use of predicted “future emotional harm” which enables social workers prejudices and manipulation to justify taking children from loving mums.
  • Victims of domestic violence must be helped to escape and live independently from violent men. The “presumption of contact in the Children Act must end so 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 be stopped from using “parental alienation” in court to undermine mothers and children who raise safety concerns about contact with fathers.
  • The discrimination that results in so many children (including those of colour/taken because their parents have no recourse to public funds) taken into “care” must be acknowledged and ended. Other discrimination against mothers who have grown up “in care” or are sex workers must also be acknowledged and ended.
  • End the discrimination in 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” must be separated from “child in need”.
  • Recognise that the harm caused to children by separation from mother and siblings, and by 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 cash and services, not by adding layers of professionals whose priority is intervention, not support.
  • 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 caring for children 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.

Some key facts:

  • More and more children and their mothers, especially single mothers, are living in poverty.
  • There are more children in “care” than ever before: over 82,000 in England and Wales.
  • Numbers are 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 and sanctions, 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. Children of colour and immigrant children are disproportionately investigated and removed from their families.
  • A disproportionate number of disabled children are “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.

[i] 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.

[ii] https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2022/05/24/review-proposals-to-axe-child-protection-conference-chairs-a-massive-concern-warns-basw/

[iii]  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/mar/26/revealed-top-10-childrens-care-providers-made-300m-profits

[iv] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1113508/safeguarding_children_with_disabilities_in_residential_care_homes_phase_1_report.pdf

[v] Figures from Channel 4 News

[vi] 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 convened a special committee to look into why so many children, especially Black children, are removed from their families. Their report, issued in April 2022 recommends 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”. In California, legislation presented by Senator Kamlager  which provides critical protection for families vulnerable to separation based on factors such as poverty, homelessness, and a lack of access to basic resources was passed into law in October 2022.