When considering care proceedings to remove a child from the parents, Munby said local authorities must consider '’not merely about the practicalities of finding an appropriate placement, whether institutional or in a specialised foster placement, but also about the practicalities of ensuring that the parents have proper contact with their child during what may be its last few months or weeks of life. And by proper contact I do not mean contact two or three times a week for a couple of hours a time if the parents reasonably want more, even much more'’.
I think most people who have no contact with Children’s Social Care would find it both confusing and concerning that a senior judge thought it necessary to spell out so plainly that the Local Authority should not seek to put itself between parents and their profoundly ill child. Sadly, I believe that many families with experience of children’s social care will not be surprised that a Local Authority took this course of action.
From the Local Authority’s perspective I can only imagine that Children’s Services had practical arrangements to make in regard to the child and meeting the needs of someone not directly involved in these practical arrangements, came very low down the list of priorities. Families, who may be very desperate by the time the Local Authority become involved, often have little choice but to accept this. Legal teams want arrangements ‘sewn up’ so the Local Authority has authority to make decisions as it deems necessary without protracted challenges from a third party (the family) – it is almost inevitable that they will seek a Court Order and for this to succeed the parents have to be presented in a bad light – overwrought, argumentative, incompetent, lacking insight and displaying behaviour that is dangerous to their child.
The Children Act 1989, is the primary piece of legislation to promote the welfare of children and it is generally accepted that it was intended to promote collaborative working between families and Agencies (I include Local Authorities in these) in the best interests of children.
The Main Principles of the Act are: - the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. - wherever possible, children should be brought up and cared for within their own families. - parents with children in need should be helped to bring up their children themselves; this help would be provided as a service to the child and his family.
In the case above, the judge was highly critical of the Local Authority’s approach but I believe this case sheds light on a system of support for families that has gone badly off track. There is simply no culture of working with families in many local authorities and where there should be collaborative processes there are adversarial and punitive processes instead. In reality, the Act as it is used, sets out a mechanism for breaking the links between children and the adults in their lives, even when these adults care very deeply about their children and are faced with very difficult challenges in their parenting role.
So what changes would be beneficial to the Children Act 1989 to give it some ‘teeth’? I’m a parent not a lawyer and I’m a parent with no court experience to boot, (My child was accommodated under section 20 of the Act) but here are my suggestions:-
- The courts should not allow themselves to be used to ‘rubberstamp’ failures in social policy that do not provide services for children in need within their own families as the Act envisaged. Attempting to prevent 'maltreatment' or 'neglect' (everything Children's Social Care related is framed in this hugely problematic language) of children at the hands of members of their family, in an environment where child protection, rather than child welfare is the goal of all, is unachievable and unjust to many, including children.
- Unless the court process becomes truly collaborative then there needs to be much higher evidential standards required of all professionals involved with an acceptance that the court system, first and foremost, must be fair and seen to be so. The court and decision-making process needs to become transparent so that the expectation is that bad practice in all forms will be exposed and challenged and consequences will flow from this for Agencies and individual practitioners.
- Higher evidential standards must include as examples, recordings of key interactions as evidence to ‘back up’ claims by either side, Agencies must produce evidence that parents understand choices open to them and consequences of their decisions, particularly where parents have communication needs, Agencies must produce evidence that appropriate (not whatever is available irrespective of needs) support has been provided. A failing system, will by and large deliver failure. Reform of the Children Act 1989 to redress the current massive imbalances of power between agencies and families is fundamental to ensuring the State can deliver an environment where families and the children within them thrive.
Aspirations are well and good but enforceable rights deliver.