Christopher Booker can usually be relied upon to express what most of us are thinking, so we were pleased to find this article in the Daily Wail last month ...
(On 11th April it was) ... reported that applications to take children into care in England have soared to an all-time record, for the first time topping 10,000 in just 12 months. Since 2008 alone, the figure has much more than doubled, to some 225 cases a week — bringing the total number of children in care in the UK as a whole to at least 90,000.
The official reason given for this explosion in the number of children being removed from their families by social workers in only four years is that 2008 was the year when the nation was shocked by the events leading to the death of Baby P — later named as Peter Connelly. He was just 17 months old when he died in North London at the hands of his mother Tracey and her violent partner, suffering more than 50 injuries.
The story goes that social workers have become much more eager to take children into care because they do not wish to see any repetition of the scandal surrounding their failure to save Baby Peter, even though they and other officials had visited his home 60 times. But one hugely important ingredient is missing from the way this version of events is being put across by the authorities responsible for ‘child protection’.
Evidence is accumulating on all sides to show that far too many children are now being removed from their parents wholly unnecessarily, often for laughably inadequate, even absurd, reasons.
No one could object if the rise in the number of families being torn apart was simply due to the increased determination of our social workers to intervene in situations likely to lead to another Baby P tragedy. But the fact is, happy children are today being snatched from loving parents for reasons they cannot begin to fathom, leaving all concerned in a state of utter misery. And this can constitute a tragedy in its own way scarcely less heart-rending than those where a child has been genuinely abused.
Having investigated scores of such cases over the past three years, I do not hesitate to describe this as one of the most disturbing scandals in Britain today. The manner in which, every week, dozens of families are wantonly ripped apart has become truly horrifying. And the only reason this does not itself make headline news is that our so-called ‘child protection’ system has become so ruthlessly hidden from view by the wall of secrecy built round it by our family courts.
The social workers have become far too prone to target not genuine problem families like those of Baby P or Victoria Climbié — the eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast who in 2000 was tortured and murdered by her guardians in London — but normal, respectable homes where children are being happily brought up by responsible parents. The reasons given by the care industry for seizing these children these tell their own story.
Since 2008 the proportion of children removed because they are being physically or sexually abused has actually gone down. Instead, the social workers cite vague reasons based on opinion rather than testable evidence — they use terms such as ‘emotional abuse’ the use of which has soared by 70 per cent. In many cases the social workers don’t even need to produce evidence, only their personal view that a child might be ‘at risk of emotional harm’.
Once the social workers have made their decision, children and parents find themselves caught up in a shadowy system which seems rigged against them. The social workers hire ‘experts’, such as psychologists, who earn thousands of pounds writing reports which appear to confirm the case planned for the courts. The reports can contain woolly allegations, such as that a mother might suffer from a ‘borderline personality disorder’ (which of us could not have that charge levelled against them?).
Far too often the parents aren’t allowed to challenge the reports in court — even though the ‘experts’, rather than practising in clinics and seeing patients, may earn all their living from writing such reports, and endorsing what the social workers want them to say. Judges are then presented with allegations made against the parents based on no more than the wildest hearsay. Such allegations elsewhere in our legal system would instantly be ruled inadmissible. But because of the secrecy of the family courts system, the parents are not permitted to even question these claims and the media is denied the opportunity to present them for scrutiny (our underlining – GOS).
Meanwhile, countless children find themselves living with strangers in foster homes, where all the evidence shows — despite many shining exceptions — they may risk physical abuse or emotional harm far worse than anything their parents were accused of inflicting on them. The only contact the accused parents and their unhappy children are allowed with each other is in brief, rigorously supervised ‘contact sessions’, staged in grim council ‘contact centres’. Even these are likely to be brusquely terminated if any sign of affection is shown, or if a bewildered child dares to ask its parents for an explanation of why all this is happening.
I would not believe all this and much more could happen in England if I had not heard remarkably similar stories again and again from dozens of parents and children — even though the parents are routinely threatened with prison if they discuss their case with anyone from outside the system. Just how ruthless and Kafkaesque this system has become behind this impenetrable wall of secrecy is almost impossible to convey to anyone unfamiliar with it. It makes a complete mockery of a system that has been set up in the name of ‘protecting children’, to ensure their lives are somehow better and happier than they were before.
Nothing is more shocking than the statistics showing what happens to children who have emerged from Britain’s care system. Fifty per cent of all this country’s prostitutes are girls who have been in care, and 80 per cent of all Big Issue sellers. Half of all those in young offenders’ institutions have been in care, and 26 per cent of adults in prison have the same background. Meanwhile, half of all girls who leave care become single mothers within two years, not least because they want someone to love.
These devastating statistics go on and on — hard evidence of just how horribly our ‘care system’ is failing those who fall into its clutches. Many of the children, of course, have already had an appalling start in life, being born to drug-addicted, alcoholic, genuinely abusive or otherwise incapable parents. It is hard to argue that social workers and the courts were wrong to remove these tragic youngsters.
But this makes it all the more incomprehensible that among such children in care today are ever more thousands who should never have been taken from homes where they were properly cared for.
This is the real price we are paying for the impersonal statistic that the number of children being seized from their parents has now soared for the first time to 10,000 a year. Having heard too many of their accounts in chillingly repetitive detail, I must say that this scandal is the most shocking story I have reported in all my many decades as a journalist. It is high time it was pulled from behind that wall of secrecy and reported across the world.
Well said, that man. It may seem an extreme view, but we can see the sense in this comment on the article from an anonymous poster ...
Just another plank of the Left's strategy to attack the basic unit of society - the family. This is something worthy of the USSR in the 1930s. Social workers, like teachers, were politicised long ago and, like every public institution in the UK, their objectives are the polar opposite of those you might expect from their titles. Teaching has sacrificed education for political indoctrination: churning out semi-literates with a burning belief in their right to a free ride and social work has put the state in the place of parents, with disastrous consequences for social cohesion. In 1984, the Ministry of Truth was in charge of propaganda, the Thought Police worked for the Ministry of Love and the Ministry of Peace was responsible for waging permanent war against manufactured enemies ... I doubt that even Orwell could have anticipated how accurate his predictions were.
... and if last week's local election results are anything to go by, this is the next government we think we're going to elect? God help us all.
Only a week after Booker's article appeared, we read with some relief of the acquittal of the couple wrongly accused TWICE of shaking their four-month-old son to death. Social workers had exacerbated their ordeal by taking their second baby away at birth.
Rohan Wray and Chana Al-Alas were accused of killing four-month-old Jayden, who died of severe head injuries. While awaiting trial, they lost custody of the little boy’s younger sister, Jayda. They were cleared of all criminal charges when it emerged their son had been suffering from rickets which causes weak bones and could explain his injuries; charges were dropped following a six-week trial.
However, their local council refused to return Jayda to her parents because it remained convinced they may have been responsible for her brother’s death, and as everyone knows local authority social workers know much better than the courts. The couple then endured a four-week hearing at the High Court during which the accusations of which they had already been cleared were levelled at them again.
Eventually they were cleared for a second time, and later they spoke bitterly of their treatment. Mr Wray, 22, said: ‘There are medical staff who we believe should be disciplined at an inquiry. I think these medical experts who judge parents are dangerous people. They base much of what they say on opinion rather than fact.’
If that story was not Kafka-esque enough, here is one that completely beggars belief. Rohan Wray and Chana Al-Alas were vulnerable to begin with – they were young (Chana only 19), they were coloured (are we still allowed to say that?), and Chana suffered from an endemic vitamin deficiency that may have impacted on their children. But Lucy Allan was a middle-class mother and a Tory councillor, happily married to a stockbroker. Her ten-year-old son loved going to school and was a passionate cricketer. Indeed, such was Mrs Allan’s standing in the community that this accountant and former investment banker was on David Cameron’s A-list of potential MPs and a prospective Conservative candidate at the last election. She devoted her spare time to her council duties. You would have thought that if anyone could be proof against the vicissitudes of child protection lunacy, Lucy Allan was.
Twice a month, she even sat on the local fostering panel, which oversaw the removal of children from their parents and placed them with new families. It was heart-rending work, as she recalls: ‘At each fostering meeting we were presented with horrifying cases of abusive parents, almost always depicted as “substance abusers”, mentally unstable or “unable to put the needs of their children over their own needs. Often, this portrayal was supported by an expert report from a psychiatrist, psychologist or medical doctor,’ says Lucy. ‘It never occurred to me or any member of the panel that the information we were presented with might be a distorted, twisted fiction — or that the reports were anything other than independent.’
Now, her view has changed. She suspects that many of the damning reports were written by experts who had never met the families in question, to suit the wishes of social workers under pressure from the Government to increase the number of children adopted. As a result of this process, more and more children are being taken into state foster care.
So why has her faith in the system she once facilitated been shattered? Because, thanks to a bewildering chain of events, this eloquent, educated woman found herself under attack from social workers and fighting to stop her own son being taken into care. Family “experts” passed judgement on her fitness as a mother without, in some cases, even meeting her. Her story is particularly disturbing in the light of a report released last month that decisions about the futures of thousands of children are being based on flawed evidence from well-paid ‘experts’, some of whom are unqualified and, time and again, never meet the families concerned.
The damning study by Professor Jane Ireland, a forensic psychologist, examined more than 127 expert witness reports used in family court cases in three areas of England. She found that 90 per cent were produced by clinicians who no longer practise, but instead earn their living entirely as ‘professional expert witnesses’ paid for by council social work departments. Sixty-five per cent of the reports were poorly or very poorly carried out.
This has led to accusations from MPs, lawyers and families that many of the experts are on a gravy train — ‘hired guns’ paid to write precisely what social workers want to read.
John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP who is calling for a national inquiry into the use of expert testimonies in family court hearings, says this dubious system has resulted in families being torn apart and hundreds of children being wrongly taken for adoption from innocent parents.
It is a scenario Lucy Allan feared could happen with her own son. Her nightmare began last March when, aged 46, and having begun to feel depressed for no apparent reason, she decided to go to see a doctor. ‘I am close to my son, so I was worried that he knew I was feeling sad. I went to my local GP surgery expecting to be given a course of anti-depressants and then feel better,’ she recalls. She was seen by a young female locum, who listened to what Lucy had to say, and then told her she wanted to refer her to social services to ‘see if the family needed support’.
The locum turned to Dr Peter Green, a consultant forensic physician and head of child safeguarding in Wandsworth, South London, where Lucy lives. A flamboyant figure with flowing grey hair and a penchant for bow ties, he has written thousands of reports for the family courts. According to documents seen by the Allan family, Dr Green told the locum his view was that Lucy was ‘very self-centred’ — this despite the fact he had never set eyes on Lucy or spoken to her (when she later complained about the conclusions he had drawn without even having seen her, the doctor is alleged to have told her he had relied on a ‘gut feel’).
To Lucy’s horror, following Dr Green’s assessment, the locum informed social services that Lucy’s son was at significant risk of harm from his mother. Thus it was that a woman whose job it had been to make decisions on the fostering panel about which children should be removed from their families suddenly found herself under the most intense scrutiny.
‘Instead of reading reports on another mother’s “emotionally abused” child or her “chaotic” home life, I was reading the same accusations in reports about me and my family,’ she says. Social services insisted they interview her son, but as the inquiry unfolded, the evidence from his teachers suggested he was happy and thriving. An independent report from a NHS psychiatrist also said Lucy was ‘no risk to anyone, including her son’. But social services hired their own psychiatrist from the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London — at taxpayers’ expense naturally.
Without meeting Lucy or her son, and based only on information provided by social services, the private psychiatrist stated in an ‘expert’ report that there was an ‘urgent need’ for the assessment and treatment of Lucy. The psychiatrist added that there was ‘no way’ her depression would not have a ‘significant impact on her parenting’.
As the investigation dragged on, Lucy underwent a series of interviews by social services and by experts paid by them to examine her and her family. Many of their subsequent reports, says Lucy, were inaccurate, biased and took her family’s words out of context. For example, her son had mentioned that when he got off the school bus, he always asked Lucy how she was, but this was described in one report as: ‘Her son demonstrates inappropriate anxiety for the well-being of his mother on a daily basis.’
When Lucy admitted taking sleeping pills for insomnia and diazepam for anxiety, another report on her said such ‘drug abuse would make her barely conscious on a daily basis’. Her confession of sharing a bottle of wine with husband Robin most nights was written up as ‘alcohol abuse’, and the risk of Lucy harming her son was deemed to be ‘substantiated’.
All this begs the question of how often such judgments are passed down by ‘experts’ and social workers on those less well equipped than Lucy to defend themselves. She has spent the past year trying to clear her name, paid out £10,000 on legal fees and has had to pull herself off the A-list of David Cameron’s potential Tory candidates, quit as a school governor, and, of course, resign from the fostering panel.
‘I am now ineligible for the Criminal Record Bureau check required for working with children or young people,’ she says sadly. Her son’s social services records state that she was once considered a ‘risk’ to him, and it will remain on his file till he is 18.
Finally, at Christmas, the council’s social services said officially no action was required concerning Lucy. She is trying to rebuild her life with the help of husband Robin — who, incredibly, was never interviewed by social services — but still fears she could come under scrutiny again.
‘The system is designed to silence people,’ she says. ‘I have been prescribed anti-depressants and I am better. But at the back of my mind is the fear that if I complain too loudly about the child protection system they will be back at my door.’
No doubt she would agree with Nigel Priestley, a lawyer involved in family law, who said recently: ‘Just about the most draconian act the state can carry out is to remove a family’s child. What is at stake is the loss of their children, and on the basis of a report which might, or might not be, questionable.’
Those who write these reports — often psychologists or psychiatrists, but also medical doctors and consultants — do not face the glare of public scrutiny precisely because of the secrecy of the family court system. Lucy can describe her ordeal only because her case never got as far as those closed courts — no parent who appears at one of these hearings, which operate in every town and city in the land, is allowed to speak to anyone later about what has happened there, even to their own MP.
Every year, 200 mothers or fathers are jailed for ‘contempt of court’ for breaking this silence — while the same family courts request the removal of 225 children each week, 97 per cent of whom are never returned to their families.
Now, there are demands for an American-style ‘class’ legal action against the Government by parents who have had dubious or even bogus reports written about them. Paul Grant, a legal adviser at Bernard Chill & Axtell Solicitors in Southampton, says devastated parents have contacted him after his firm took on the case of a mother, known only as Miss A, who claims she was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder by psychiatrist Dr George Hibbert because social workers wanted her baby adopted.
Now, Hibbert could be struck off by the General Medical Council, which is investigating extraordinary suggestions that he deliberately misdiagnosed ‘caring’ mothers as having ‘personality disorders’ in order to help social workers take away children.
When he was confronted with the allegation about Miss A, Hibbert offered to surrender his licence to practise as a doctor. His spokesman said he is ‘unable to comment due to his professional duty of confidentiality’. But journalists have learned that Porsche-driving Dr Hibbert amassed up to half-a-million pounds a year from his work as an expert witness, and from his reports on parents and children for social services departments.
Accounts for his company, Assessment in Care Ltd, show that profits soared from £23,000 in 2001 to a peak of £468,000 in 2007. It is now worth £2.7million, according to Companies’ House records. Paul Grant says that Miss A’s distressing case ‘may be the tip of a very large iceberg’. He adds: ‘We contend that when a practising clinician becomes a professional expert witness with a private company, there is no registration process, and no machinery to vet what they do. By failing to put in a regulatory framework, we would argue that the state is failing to protect families under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which says everyone has the right to a private and family life.’
As Dr Hibbert’s professional conduct comes under scrutiny, it is emerging that he is not the only one whose actions are being questioned. Scores of parents believe they have been mistreated on the word of these ‘experts’. Some tell of clinicians charging £1,800 a day to appear at family courts, on top of the thousands of pounds a time they receive for writing the reports, which often contain lies, ambiguities and insinuations.
One mother said she had her children taken away because an ‘expert’ said she ‘liked shopping’; another was criticised as mentally unfit for ‘burning the toast’, and lost her child, too. In another case, an expert was paid handsomely to write a report based on the observations of a social worker who said a five-year-old girl was ‘monosyllabic’ despite a secret tape recording of the social worker’s interview at which the child chatted away about school, her family and her home. The little girl has since been removed from her mother.
A gregarious 47-year-old business adviser in the north of England had to fight to keep her five-year-old daughter after being labelled a ‘totally isolated schizoid’ by a psychologist, who was trained only to treat children and should never have been involved in the analysis of adult behaviour. The psychologist in question (who writes up to 100 expert reports a year) charged £6,000 for his written opinion on the mother, her husband and child. Yet the mother says she was given no chance to deny the ‘schizoid’ report — and kept her girl by the skin of her teeth only after the child’s nanny vouched for her parenting skills.
In another extraordinary case, after a woman was found by a psychologist to be a ‘competent mother’, the social workers are said to have insisted on commissioning a second expert’s report. It agreed with the first. They then commissioned a third, which finally found that the mother had a ‘borderline personality disorder’. All three of her children were taken away for adoption.
So how have such apparent travesties been allowed to go on virtually unchecked in child protection? No other country in Western Europe removes so many children from their parents.
The last Labour government set adoption targets and rewarded local councils with hundreds of thousands of pounds if they reached them. The targets have been scrapped after protests from MPs and lawyers, but the dangerous legacy persists. Social workers now get praise and promotion if they raise adoption numbers. David Cameron is also demanding more adoptions — and that they are fast-tracked. Since the case of 17-month-old Baby P, more youngsters than ever before in British history are being removed from families every week. Many say this is a knee-jerk reaction, which is probably true.
But it’s not the whole story. It is the 1989 Children Act — which introduced a blanket secrecy in the family courts — that is the real culprit. It encouraged a lack of public scrutiny in the child protection system and what MP John Hemming calls the ‘twaddle and psychobabble’ peddled there, which has caused dreadful miscarriages of justice.
Ian Joseph, who has written a book on forced adoption, told me this week: ‘It’s time the criminal rules of justice applied in the family courts. We need parents to be considered innocent until proven guilty and also be free to talk about what is happening in those courts without being thrown into jail.’
Until that happens, hundreds more children may be seized from their families on the word of experts — many of whom are either not qualified or are receiving huge sums of money to play God.
If you've read this far, you're either deeply engaged in this subject or you've fallen into a cataleptic trance caused by overload of distasteful information.
So by way of recompense for your patience, here's some interesting stuff which we hope you'll read and then pass the links on to people in your address book. These dreadful abuses are carried out in the name of compassion by people who've been given a job to do, and lack the will or the intelligence or the time or the moral fibre to do it properly. The more daylight we can shed on them, the sooner we'll see politicians taking notice. God knows they aren't at the moment, and haven't done for the last twenty years.
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