The Government Needs To Do More To Help At-Risk Parents Keep Their Children

Few of us can imagine the devastation of having a child taken away either fostered or put up for adoption.  The latest official statistics show 72,000 children were in care in England at the end of March 2017, up 3% on the previous year, and the ninth successive year that this number has increased[1].  In addition, more children are adopted in England and Wales than any other EU country[2]

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) told the Guardian that the relentless austerity policies and an increasingly fragmented approach to public services were taking a toll on communities and punishing the most economically fragile households.  In turn, this caused a rise in the number of families struggling and subsequently losing their children.

“The unintended consequence of the government’s austerity programme has been to drive up demand for [child protection] services as more and more families find themselves at the point of crisis with little or no early help available,” ADCS said in a report[3].

But there is another tragic element to children being taken into care – the fact many mothers and indeed fathers who lose their children are victims of abuse themselves.  And unfortunately, these men and women are not getting the support they need to help them recover from their own traumatic upbringings and learn how to parent effectively.

Money spent in the wrong places

In a recent case concerning a mother who had suffered sexual abuse as a child and was facing having her 9-month-old removed, Judge Wildblood QC, who has a reputation for “sticking his neck out for disadvantaged families[4]”, stated:

“This case is another example of how important it is that, if therapy is needed, it is obtained at an early stage. Time and time again I see a process whereby the following occurs: a) a Local Authority intervenes and begins making assessment of a family; b) months later proceedings are issued; c) an order is made for some form of expert evidence to be produced (often a psychological report); d) months later the psychological report is obtained which says, invariably and utterly foreseeably, that someone within the family needs therapy and e) it is stated that, by then, the beneficial effect of therapy would be ‘out with the timescales for the child’. In this case, for instance, it would have been perfectly obvious to all that, when the mother was referred before birth, she was a prime candidate for therapy. If therapy were to be obtained at an early stage such as that there is at least a prospect that outcomes in some cases might be different. I have therefore already set up arrangements in the New Year to look very carefully at how we facilitate and access therapy in this area, with a view to doing my utmost to encourage much earlier therapeutic intervention if possible. I ask for as much help as possible with that endeavour.[5]

Judge Wildblood, the most senior family court judge in the South West of England has also vehemently criticised the practice of Local Authorities spending thousands of pounds on psychologists for the purpose of establishing that a mother is unfit, whilst not spending a penny on supporting her so she can change the situation and keep her child[6].

Supporting a parent is more cost-effective than putting a child into foster care.  The average cost to take a care case through court is between £35,000 and £58,000.  And although the initial cost of adoption is cheaper, adoptive parents often need ongoing support which is funded by the local government.  In contrast, the annual cost for specialist long-term therapy that would allow a parent to keep their children is estimated at £5,200.  However, in many cases, parents are never given the option to attend therapy and once care proceedings end, the parent is “dropped” from Social Services’ radar.

Hope for the future?

There is hope for the future when it comes to providing vulnerable mothers with the support needed to ensure their children are not taken into care.  The Pause programme[7] assists women who are at risk of having their children taken into care with a programme of intense support designed to “reflect, tackle destructive patterns of behaviour, and to develop new skills and responses that can help them create a more positive future”.  Each woman is assigned a dedicated practitioner (who is not a social worker) who will not only provide therapy but will advocate for her in matters relating to housing, health, and addiction services.  The women on the programme, therefore, get access to the help they need quicker, and more importantly, are encouraged to attend appointments and work through painful issues so they can move forward.

However, Pause is far from a nationwide service (currently assisting women only) and is only accessible in a few areas of the country.  And although the European Court of Human Rights in the case Soares de Melo v. Portugal (application no. 72850/14), stated that the state has an obligation to take steps to ensure families are kept together, women are still being cast aside once their children have been removed.  And should they go on to have another child, chances are, the cycle will simply repeat itself.

It is not only the welfare of the child that needs to be made paramount.  The welfare of the parent must be prioritised as well so that families do not have to suffer the pain of being torn apart because it is the ‘easiest’ option.

Bennett Griffin Is an award-winning solicitors based in West Sussex, with offices in central Worthing and Ferring.  Our experienced and specialist solicitors offer a comprehensive service and will work with you in an honest, considered and practical manner.  All our family law team are members of Resolution and the team also includes a Family Mediator and Collaborative Lawyer.  Please contact us on 01903 229 999 or by email at info@bennett-griffin.co.uk for more information.

The information contained in this article is for general guidance only and is not intended to be legal advice. Professional advice should always be taken on the application of the law in any particular situation.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/11/austerity-policy-blamed-record-numbers-children-taken-into-care

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/556940/IPOL_STU(2016)556940_EN.pdf

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.buzzfeed.com/emilydugan/this-judge-says-he-cries-when-he-has-to-take-children-away?utm_term=.oxarm4gJQ#.vyyAWzPex

[5] http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B158.html&query=HHJ+and+Wildblood+and+QC&method=boolean

[6] https://www.buzzfeed.com/emilydugan/this-judge-says-he-cries-when-he-has-to-take-children-away?utm_term=.bf7XqmZYw#.br71gv6jR

[7] http://www.pause.org.uk/aboutpause