Speeches for PFAN webinar on parental advocacy

On Wednesday 3 May, Tracey Norton from Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign & SNS gave a speech at a Parental Advocacy and Representation: Learning from experience Webinar organised by PFAN to discuss parent advocacy, to tell the government what advocacy support mums/kinship carers and families need in child protection/family court hearings.  And Anj, a mum in SNS network described her experience, comparing advocacy provided by a local authority with what she learnt from SNS’s collective self-help meetings.

My name is Tracey Norton and I co-ordinate The Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign organised by Winvisible, women with visible and invisible disabilities and part of Support Not Separation.

I’m a mother with a painful invisible disability and I have a severely disabled son. He was wrongly taken into care, not because I was guilty of harming him but so that the funding we’d won for his care at home could be stopped and the mistakes the hospital made could be blamed on me. Abandoned into a completely unsuitable unregulated home, he was not allowed to see me. He couldn’t shower for 2 years because there was no accessible bathroom. He was denied an education and medical treatment. When we eventually got him home, the abuse he had suffered left him traumatised, something he has not recovered from. My smiling funny child had lost his love of life. This is what the Government call ‘Care’. And we know thousands of children like my son are taken from loving mothers in ‘secret’ courts, not because children have actually been harmed but because successive governments have cut funding for support in favour of the privatised removal industry making millions in profits on the back of children’s misery. Disability, poverty, domestic abuse, racism … are all used against mothers to take our children and to feed this ever-growing industry. The problem starts with Child Protection and so called ‘parental blame’ which is really ‘blame the mother’.

In the years of fighting, first against child protection twice, which I won both times, and then to get my son home from family court, I watched, learned and read. I realised that Child Protection had little to do with the truth. But I had no support outside my family. I was shamed, despite being innocent, into silence and gagged in court, and given false information not only by social workers but also by my own lawyers. Support Not Separation changed that for me, they introduced me to advocacy through collective self-help and that’s what I’m now committed to because I did not want another mother to face the heart break and pain that I had suffered.

Support Not Separation is coordinated by LAW and includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour and asylum seekers/refugees, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, kinship carers, psychotherapists, men and former social workers, committed to defending mothers and children against unwarranted separation and the devaluing of the mother-child relationship.  We work closely with the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance and with Give Us Back Our Children in the US which is part of Support Not Separation and with mothers in other countries who share our aims. We have learnt a lot from each other.

For the past 6 years Support Not Separation has held a monthly picket outside central family court in London, calling for the courts to be open to public and calling out the injustices we see day in and day out happening in family courts everywhere.  We also have monthly meetings with mums from all around England and Wales who are fighting their cases. The meetings are online and in person at the Crossroads Women’s Centre where we’re based.  These meetings are based on collective self-help by which we mean that the many years’ experience and expertise of the different organisations at the Centre (of women of colour, single mothers, rape survivors and women with disabilities, to name a few) are available to those who come with their own case. Mums are able to share with each other their experiences of fighting social workers and the family court, gain strength from finding out that you’re not alone and that there are committed grassroots women’s organisations (and even some men who share our views) who are ready to back you up. This collective process is in itself a way of healing from professional abuse.  

We always share our victories however big or small. This is crucial because mothers fighting to protect our children need hope and determination to carry on – we’re so traumatised and terrorised by the cruelty, sexism and other discrimination (if we are a woman of colour or disabled immigrant and/or a sex worker, for example) and the abuse of power we face. Professionals who are paid to protect our children dismiss and despise mothers, claiming that we lie about or exaggerate our children’s disabilities (there is a huge rise in FII cases) and they routinely back violent fathers rather than victims – over ¾ of cases that go to court involve domestic violence and only 1% of these men are refused contact.

We discuss tactics and strategies for dealing with social workers, CAFCASS and other professionals, and see what has worked and what hasn’t worked so well. This collective experience is the basis of our advocacy.  

Collective self-help – we find this term more accurate than advocacy because our power derives from bringing together the experiences and expertise different sectors of mothers (and others who share our aims) have acquired in our struggles for justice.

Collective self-help is crucial to the battle against the current abuse of ‘child in need’ and ‘child protection’. Social workers often use Child In Need to bully mothers battling for support, for example, for a disabled child under S17 of the Children Act or for support if the mother is herself disabled, under the Care Act. They make threats about “safeguarding”, telling us that if we don’t stop asking for support or claiming that the father is abusing the children, we will be in trouble.

It makes a big difference in these meetings to have someone who is knowledgeable in the laws and guidance, and is there to make sure that the views and wishes of the child and mother are followed, and our rights are not breached. For example, I’ve often walked into a CIN meeting and heard social workers tell mothers ‘It’s the law’, when that is blatantly not true, but the mother doesn’t know that, and is terrified that if she challenges them she will be accused of being ‘unwilling to work with professionals’ – a common accusation levelled against mums who stand up for our children and our rights. And if the mother’s first language is not English or she has a disability, she’s even more disadvantaged. I’ve had to challenge a social worker who shook my hand when I went into a meeting, but completely ignored the mother, a woman of colour. I had to remind the SW to look and address the mother whose case it was and speak directly to her rather than as if she was not in the room.

There are some tactics which we’ve found particularly effective: for example, I always take notes but even when I have written something down, I will often ask the SW to repeat what they said, so they know they are being held to it — it can make them nervous and change what they have just said. I learnt early on that it’s always a good idea to let social workers talk first, let them come out with their assumptions, that way you find out what they’ve got against you and you can respond and call them on any factual mistakes – and there are usually plenty! If you speak after them, your evidence is the last thing a chairperson (who is supposed to be independent) hears. Sometimes CP meets have been postponed because social workers have handed in the paperwork only the day before giving mothers no chance to defend themselves. When mothers ask for it we are often ignored, but when we are not alone asking we are more difficult to ignore.

It’s crucial that advocates remain independent, because what a mother/kinship carer needs is someone experienced supporting her, not someone who’s become part of the system, who has to follow the rules and outcomes professionals impose. As advocates, as mothers working together with other mothers, we refuse to be incorporated into the child removal industry.  We must be free to point out all the injustices in the system, and to campaign for change.  Being independent doesn’t mean we can only advocate on a voluntary basis – we’re absolutely in favour of being paid for our work, but the money must come from an independent source, for example legal aid, not from Councils which are part of the system. We must also have the right to speak on behalf of mothers if they wish it, both in court and at Child Protection meetings, rather than it being up to the judge or the chair person.

This would be different from the MK friend system – although they are independent of LA’s, they often charge a fee to mothers, sometimes as much as lawyers and don’t have an automatic right to speak. And they are often connected to Families Need Fathers and, just like many lawyers, they tell mothers not to mention DV, not to press for a Fact Finding! These are not advocates, they are abusers.

Advocacy should be free to all mothers in ALL circumstances! In fact, it is the mothers who should be paid so they can take care of their children rather than struggle with poverty, as most single mothers do, only to be accused of ‘neglect’.   

The Government’s response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social care recommends abolishing the Child Protection Chairperson and the Independent Reviewing Officer (who chairs LAC reviews for children in care), both of which are crucial to maintaining what little independence there is for mums and families in what has become a child removal industry.  We are completely opposed to these proposals, especially as they want to replace these people with specialist social workers embedded in community-based family hubs.  It sounds just like police in schools which are used to criminalise children from an early age.  We know what we mean by independent advocacy and we can be pretty sure it’s not what the government means, as they show absolutely no intention of putting any resources into reducing the numbers of children taken into care. 

So when we respond to the consultation on this, I hope we will all make our views absolutely clear. We must use every opportunity to oppose the embedding of more social workers and professionals into our communities in the name of being “family friendly”.  This will only extend the “safeguarding” police state and the number of children in care.  The best way to be family friendly is to give mums and families the direct support we need, including cash in our hands to care for our kids and keep them safe – we are calling for a Care Income Now for mums and all those who do the work of caring for people and planet, the environment all our lives depend on.  As our US friends, who have been winning major changes in law there, say: take away our poverty, not our children!

From Anj, a mum who is part of SNS network

Good afternoon,

Thank you for allowing me some time to participate in this important event. I’d like to share my experience as a birth mum and my involvement both past and present.

I am a mum (domestic abuse survivor) that has experienced from 2017 and to present day all aspects of the child protection system through to family court with the end result being my daughter is now in placement under a Special Guardianship Order.

In 2017 after an interim care order was granted I was provided an advocate by my local authority to help me understand what was happening within the family court arena and to support me in voicing my views. I believe this was significantly important, after all I knew nothing about being involved with children services or their procedures let alone knowing I had any rights as a human being or birth mum. My priority being I wanted to do the best by my daughter and anything that related to her care and achieve the best outcomes for her.

Sadly this experience of having an advocate which was funded by my local authority was one with maybe a few notes being taken, attending a couple of meetings and sided very much with the local authority’s assessments and even any complaints I had raised. Then once family court proceedings had ended, the local authority alledged there was no funding for an advocate and a service that all of a sudden they didn’t provide unless I paid for it .I felt alienated, alone, overwhelmed and confused.  I also feel that because the local authority(social services) provided and funded my advocate this affected the way I was represented.

Fast forward to 2020 I came across an organisation called Support Not Separation which facilitate monthly self help meetings based on collective self help and first hand experience.  SNS have supported me with advocacy and this is something that has changed my life around whilst still being involved with Children Services and family time arrangements with my daughter.

SNS have given me confidence and empowered me not only as a mum but as an individual. An advocate service that not only was totally independent from the local authority and government but took interest in my situation.  They are non judgemental and ensure wishes and rights are upheld. Through the self help meetings I’ve been able to educate myself and effectively engage with Children’s Services and make positive progress.

Something that from 2017-2020 I’ve struggled with as Children’s Services seemed to pass me from pillar to post, giving me misleading information and refusing me any services. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of listening to many others from the mums self help group share their experiences, gain knowledge and tactics that have often been used to gain better and positive outcomes, for example not raising negative opinions which are often made by social workers in assessments but to concentrate and focus on positive change rather than respond further with negative opinions.  I also finally got the right information that the local authorities are responsible for funding a contact worker, something that I had been told that I had to pay for and had funded for many months. SNS have attended meetings with me as a parent advocate which furthermore empowered and supported me to achieve consistent positive outcomes.an example of this would be social workers now giving me time frames and engaging with me, something that has never been implemented before.

finally, advocacy such as Support not Separation are not only totally independent from local authorities and government but they offer a free service which I believe is important to mums. We should not be refused or expected to pay for advocacy services.  SNS enables parents to articulate their views and perspective and also ensures they’re heard and taken into account.  Advocacy also ensures that the right information, advice and guidance is understood and that parents are clear about options and processes as well as ensuring decisions are fair, transparent and truly reflect the views and experience of the parent.

I believe advocacy should be independent of the local authorities and social services departments as well as still being free to mums.

Thank you for listening