“It is a climate of fear, a climate where people cover their backs, a climate where people want to try and do their best by families but also know that they’ve got to …play this game safe, safe for them as an organisation, safe for them as a worker – not just safe for the child.” – Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers
This new documentary in ITV’s flagship Exposure current affairs strand investigates how and why social workers are increasingly prepared to remove children from their birth parents through forced adoption.
The number of court orders required to place a child into the adoption process has increased by 95 per cent in the last three years and new laws introduced this year are likely to lead to a further increase in the number of such cases. Yet in most instances, the stories remain untold because family court hearings remain shrouded in secrecy, with journalists unable to report anything from proceedings.
With powerful testimony from parents who claim to have been unfairly dealt with by the system, alongside insight into the prevailing climate from leading social workers and legal practitioners, Exposure focuses on whether child protection following the death of Baby P in 2007 is increasingly geared towards the permanent removal of children as opposed to supporting families to stay together. It also hears concerns that the new legislation will put social workers, under pressure to act quickly, at greater risk of making mistakes.
Hard-hitting footage secretly filmed by the father of one such child shows his newborn baby being forcibly removed from the arms of his mother by social workers and police just hours after its birth. The decision was made before the baby was even born and the father describes how powerless he felt when the authorities came to take the child away: “They’re just saying they’ve got an order, they’ve got to follow it. They’ve got to follow their orders. You feel – there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You feel powerless, useless, you know worthless. And then they started pulling my wife’s arms. And that was it. As soon as they got the baby, they were out of the flat. Goodbye, leave you to it. All I could do was hold my wife.”
Barrister Martha Cover has specialised in child law for 25 years, and believes there have been incidences where the law on secrecy has been taken too far. “The purpose of the legislation that protects the confidentiality of children’s proceedings and the identity of children’s and their families, is to protect them but by a side wind it has had the effect of also protecting poor local authority practice, poor social work, and inadequate experts, poor expert reporting to the courts.”
For parents, it can be extremely difficult to get their child back from care once they are approved for potential adoption. One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, endured a 12-month fight for their return. Her children are still under a year-long supervision order and she says she fears that social services could try to take her children away again. She says: “I am frightened in case I am judged, I am judged on the way they look. If there is a mark for when they got scratched, I was worried in case they thought that I had done the scratch. I write everything down, any accidents that happen, I write it all down. I take pictures. They are so quick to use anything against me. So quick.“
Year-long battles like this to get children back are less likely to happen in the future with the new Children and Family Act now in force. The Act, a passion project of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who was adopted himself, gained Royal Assent in April this year and sets a target of just 26 weeks from when a child is taken from parents and a care plan is approved. Experts fear that as adoption is often part of this plan, the time pressure on parents to prove themselves capable is likely to be increased.
The Department for Education says decisions to remove children from their families rest with the courts and should only happen when they are sure children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Yet Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, believes the Government is now erring on the side of taking children away from their parents: “The rhetoric of this Government is much harsher than previous Governments, in terms of supporting adoption in contrast to the support given to birth families. And that is new, it is harsher. It fits very well with the language about welfare, and language about, call it almost an underclass of people, who are not fit to look after their children.”
Conservative parliamentary candidate Lucy Allan reveals how she found herself desperately trying to clear her reputation as a fit mother after suffering a bout of depression. She had to act quickly and funded a legal battle to force social services to concede her son was not at any risk after her GP called in social workers: “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I know what happens next.’ Because you do not leave a child in a family in those circumstances. You just do not. They had ticked a box on their file, saying that this child was at risk of significant harm from his mother, and that is a permanent record and has to be disclosed, should I seek a CRB check for any work with children in the future. It was a big legal battle, we had solicitors we had a top QC and that’s the sort of resource that is not available to everybody.”
The despair parents can find themselves in has spawned an unofficial network that helps mothers flee British social services. Multimillionaire Ian Josephs, now a resident of Monaco,tells Exposure about his work advising and personally funding the travel costs of expectant mothers to leave Britain because, he believes, they have nowhere else to turn.
Even grandparents hoping to keep children within their families can find they run into virtually insurmountable difficulties. Anthony and Alison were desperate to adopt their grandson when social services decided their daughter was not a fit mother, but after Alison missed two meetings with social workers, a decision was taken to continue showing the child to prospective adoptive families. They now have visiting rights, and Anthony describes the heartache of saying goodbye when they have to leave: “The minute we have to go he heads down, he becomes this shut off little boy, who’s confused. He tends to want to cling near me, thinking I am going to take him away now, take him home. And that doesn’t happen. And so each time we see him, this is what we have to face. It’s so hard. I really miss him. I really do, I really do miss him.”.