The real scandal of our care system is still overlooked
A new report into our child protection system ignores its glaring shortcomings.
7:00PM GMT 05 Nov 2011
Two figures alone might give us a hint that something very odd is going on in the system supposedly set up to protect the interests of children under the 1989 Children Act. Once again, the number of children taken into care has broken all records this year. There are, at present, more than 65,000 of them in England. At the same time, the number of children being adopted has fallen – again – to just 3,050.
Last week, front-page headlines greeted the report from a committee set up under David Norgrove to look into the workings of our “family justice system”. But its 200-odd pages scarcely touched on the reasons behind the remarkable discrepancy in those figures, other than a general recommendation that its laborious procedures should in some way be “speeded up”. But to achieve what end?
The mighty elephant in the room of the Norgrove report is the horror story I have reported here many times, whereby untold thousands of children are being removed from their families for what, too often, seem highly questionable reasons. As I have observed before, what we are looking at here is the very opposite of those awful blunders which from time to time make a national scandal, as in the case of Baby P, where social workwers fail to intervene despite evidence that children are being genuinely abused.
At the other end of the spectrum are the cases where social workers seize children who are enjoying a happy family life with loving parents, only to be plunged very much less happily into foster care, for reasons they cannot understand. Having investigated dozens of such cases, what has struck me more than anything is how consistently our family protection system, behind the wall of secrecy it has built round itself to hide its workings, turns the basic principles of justice and humanity on their head. Innocent parents find themselves in a Kafkaesque world, treated as criminals, while the whole system seems stacked against them.
After the initial shock of seeing their children seized, often with the aid of a mob of policemen, the parents find themselves in courtrooms where anything up to four or five teams of lawyers, at great public expense, are ranged against them. If they themselves are given solicitors on the advice of the council, these too often turn out to be as much part of the system as the rest. The same is true of the “expert witnesses”, paid extraordinarily lavish fees to add to the pile of damning evidence. Again, too often, judges are prepared only to listen to what amounts to “the case for the prosecution”, making no effort to test that evidence, however dubious it may be.
This system is so rigged in support of the social workers that it is hardly surprising that the number of children in care is breaking all records. As a senior family judge, Lord Justice Thorpe, chillingly observed earlier this year, “once you have lost a child, it is very difficult to get a child back”.
Yet in all the pedestrian pages of the Norgrove report, there is not a hint of this, the most damaging way in which our child protection system has gone off the rails. As John Hemming, the MP who has long campaigned on this scandal, elicited through a parliamentary question, not one of Norgrove’s panel has ever been personally involved in a child protection case. They are all in different ways part of a system which, as Hemming says, “is a complete mess, too remote from reality to come up with reliable conclusions”.
What is needed is a wholly different inquiry into the largely untold story of how and why this system has gone so horribly wrong. As yet there is no sign from on high that the voices of these unhappy children and their parents will ever be heard.