They Steal Babies Don’t They?

As you might expect, poking a stick at John Hemming and his pet conspiracy theories about baby-stealing social workers has drawn the conspiraloons out in force and, as usual, the arguments they have to offer are none the more convincing for their continual repetition. Still, and somewhat unusually, we’ve got a live one here, in the sense that this whole farrago is well enough documented to trace and analyse its development and, of course, pick it apart as we go.

So, let’s start at the beginning by looking at the political/policy context that created the background to Hemming’s foray into conspiracism, for which we need to look at the data for adoption orders over the last 30 years…

So, we have a big fall in the number of adoptions between 1974 and 1983, one which coincides with a significant rise in the number of abortions, and then a more gradual decline up to 1999, when things bottomed out at a little over 4,300 adoption orders granted in that year, after which things have been a bit up and down. This data covers all adoptions, not just those in which a local authority acts as the adoption agency but to give you a general picture, local authorities typically account for anything between 60% & 70% of all adoptions in any given year.

So, at the turn of the Millenium, the government concluded that local authorities weren’t doing enough to get kids out of care and, being good managerialists, decided that the way to deal with this was by incorporating adoptions of looked after children into the Best Value Performance Indicators that the Audit Commission used to assess local authority performance, and it this policy decision that lies at the root of Hemming’s conspiracy theory, because what he believes is that the existence of this ‘target’, which may or may not have financial incentives for good performance attached to it, has prompted social services department to ‘game’ the system in order meet targets and obtain these incentives.

And how is the system allegedly being gamed?

Well, its a well established if unfortunate fact of adoption that the older a child is, the more difficult it is to find them an adoptive parent – most prospective adoptive parents would prefer, given the option, to adopt a child as a baby and bring it up as their own without having deal with any of the messy business of explaining to them that they’re not their real parent, at least until they’re teenagers and considered ‘old enough’ to deal with information or external circumstances, such as the need to obtain a passport or driving licence, force the issue by requiring the child to obtain a copy of their birth certificate, which inevitable gives the game away.

And if a baby is out the question? Well, its a case of the younger, the better – as you can see from the graph, the one age group that has bucked the downward trend is that of children aged between 1 and 5 years of age which, since the late 80s, has overtaken, for the first time, the 5-9 age group in terms of the total number of adoption orders granted annually.

That’s the story here. The number of babies adopted under 1 year of age has hit the floor, quite literally, and has been bumpting along at between 180 and 300 a year since the mid 1990’s, meanwhile the numbers adopted between the age of 1 and 4 has risen over the roughly the same period and at the expense of both the under 1s and the 5s- 9s.

So that proves it then – they are stealing babies…

No, of course not – on its own that data could mean that more young children are coming into the system at an earlier age and are then being placed for adoption or that the same number of children are coming into the system but that councils are merely moving younger children through the system to adoption somewhat more efficiently that they used to and there’s nothing in this data to tell us why these kids entered the system in the first place or the decision to place them for adoption was taken, on what grounds and whether or not those decisions were justified, or not.

We’ve got a line of inquiry in the data, so far, and that’s about it…

However, there is something we can look at other than the data to help unpick the question of whether the government’s ‘target culture’ may be creating an incentive for social workers to game the system and that’s the description of the ‘target’ itself, BV 163, which you’ll find at the Audit Commission’s Information Portal, and this gives us the following definition:

BV163

Numerator: The number of children who ceased to be looked after during the year as a result of the granting of an adoption order or a special guardianship order, (excluding any unaccompanied asylum seeking children). Children placed for adoption, freed for adoption, or subject to a placement order remain looked after until the adoption order is granted.

(Count only those children who were looked after by the council immediately prior to adoption or the granting of a special guardianship order).

Denominator: The total number of children who were looked after at 31st March and who at that date had been looked after for 6 months or more (i.e. 183 or more days inclusive of 31st March), excluding any unaccompanied asylum seeking children and children who were looked after on that date under an agreed series of short term placements (under the provisions of Reg.13 of the Arrangement for the Placement of Children (General) Regulations, 1991).

So, the indicator is based on dividing the number of children that a local authority succeeds in moving out of the system fully (by adoption or special guardianship) or partially (by placing them for adoption) by the number of who spent more than 6 months in care over the course of the year, excluding unaccompanied asylum seekers and those on short-term placements. Gaming the system is, therefore a matter of increasing the numerator relative to the denominator by placing more kids out for adoption or reducing the number of kids in care or a combination of both.

So its theoretically possible but there’s something of a wrinkle you have to take into account and that’s the time it takes to get from taking a child into care to placing them for adoption given that, in just shy of half of all such cases, the application to place a child for adoption is opposed by their natural parents and, of course, not all such applications are granted first time out, if at all in some cases.

If you’re going to try and game the system for financial reasons then deliberately increasing the number of adoptable young children entering the system isn’t the way to go about it – it would actually by much easier to leave the adoption side of things to run its natural course while making every effort to reduce the denominator. i.e. the overall number of kids in the system and particularly the number of older children who will be very much more difficult to place successfully for adoption.

The difficulties that arise in trying to game the system by ‘stealing babies’ are neatly illustrated by a set of tables which appear on John Hemming’s ‘Justice for Families’ website and which show, for the years 2004,5 & 6, the final outcomes, by the end of 2007, for children taken into care for the first time during each of those years. Feel free to view them for yourselves, naturally, but for our purposes the data we need to look at specifically is that for the number of babies taken into care under 1 year of age in each year and the number of those babies who were then adopted by the end of 2007, and what we find is that in 2004 there were 2140 infants under 1 year of age taken into care of which 1020 (47.6%) had been adopted by the end of 2007 with a mere 60 more placed for but still awaiting adoption. When we get to 2005, the number taken into care for the first time rose very slightly to 2150, but only 800 (37.2%) of these had been adopted by the end of 2007 and there were only 160 children in the no mans land of having been placed for adoption but not yet adopted and for 2006, we see another slight increase in the numbers going into care, which totalled 2180, but a dramatic drop in the number who had been adopted by the end of 2007, to a mere 280 (12.8%) but with 370 having been placed for adoption.

The serious point here is that if, as a local authority, you’re going to try to game the system for financial reasons by increasing the number of infants you’re taking into care then you’re going to want better odds than a bare 50-50 of getting them out the system through adoption inside four years – and here we’re using just a small subset of the available data relating to the care system and adoption, data carefully selected by John to try to prove his theory that social services departments are ‘stealing’ babies for financial gain, which is where you get tables like this one – also of John’s – coming into play.

Again, please check out the data I’ve linked to because what you’ll see is that John’s made a point of underlining the data for the number of children adopted having been taken into care while under one year of age. showing how this figure has grown over the years – but what the data in that table doesn’t tell us, at all, is how long any of these infant were in the system before being adopted so there’s no way, on the information provided by this table, of determining whether the increase in the number of adoptions in recent years is the result of more babies going into the system or whether what we’re seeing is a system that’s simply clearing out a backlog of children who’ve been stuck in the system for a number of years.

On its own, none of the data John provides in any sense proves his theory – what it does, and this is why its be carefully selected by John – in create the appearance that more babies are going into and through the system in a way that much of the general public, whose grasp of statistics is somewhat limited, would be inclined to interpret as supporting John’s theory but there’s a marked difference between appearance and reality in this case.

For starters, the rising trend in the numbers of babies going into care in john’s own data begins before the introduction of the contentious BV 163 target was introduced in 2000/01, in fact the number of infants under 1 year of age taken into care each year has been rising since at least 1993, when 1350 were taken into care and today, during which time there were two very noticable accelerations in the overall trend, one in 1999, when the number taken into care rose from 1850 in the previous year to 2200 and another 2003, where the numbers entering care hit 2600, 300 more than the previous year. Neither of these sharp rises coincide with the introduction of the BV 163 target nor, indeed, does the overall trend in the total number of children in the care system where the one sharp increase in numbers, from 51,200 to 58,100, occurred between 1997 and 2000.

There’s also a very noticeable anomaly in the adoption data.

The BV 163 target was introduced in 2000/01 and if John’s ‘baby stealing’ theory is correct then this should have driven both an increase in the numbers of babies going to local authority care, which it didn’t – even if you allow for the possibility that the increase in 2003 is a time-lagged consequence of the introduction of the target then the effect is still smaller than the rise between 1999 and 2000, when there was no such target – and in the numbers of children being placed for adoption, and yet the number of adoption orders, overall, fell between 2001 and 2003 and the numbers being placed for adoption fell between 2002 and 2004, at the precise time where any rise in the numbers going into care spawned by the BV 163 target should have been filtering in to the system.

The numbers don’t add up and that suggests that something other than targets and financial incentives is driving these trends – but what?

Not legislation.

Neither of the two Acts of Parliament that have directly impacted on childrens services and adoption services, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and the Children Act 2004, came into full effect until 2005 for the same reason that we have an anomalous trend in adoptions and placements between 2001 and 2003, because the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie effectively gummed up the works in terms of changes to the child protection and adoption systems for anything from three to five years in total. The call for an inquiry into this case came in April 2000, from the then-Home Secretary and Health Secretary, Jack Straw and Alan Milburn but it was not until April 2001 that the inquiry was formally launched and it didn’t report until January 2003. Factor in a couple of years to draft legislation, steer it through parliament and then carry out all the work necessary for implementation there’s your five year hiatus is major policy developments and it really only in the last 2-3 years that all this has had any major impact in the delivery of Children’s Services.

So what’s the story?

Well to start with, its not one story but two quite different ones in which the pivot point turns out to be 2002. If you at the population demographics then there was a peak in the birth rate in 1991, at which time there were 789,700 infants in the UK under 1 year of age. From that peak, the number of births and, therefore the number of infants under one year of age started to fall year on year until it bottomed out in 2002 at 661,200, but it was during this period that the number of infants going into local authority care annually pretty much double, running against the demographic trend. Year on year, from the early 1990s up to 2002, the number of infants under 1 year was falling but the numbers going into care and being placed for adoption was rising, so what we can say is that something was going on during this period to cause the adoption and care statistics to run in the opposite direction to the main demographic trend in population.

In 2002, the fall in the number of births (and infants) bottomed out and in the last 5-6 years the number of infants under 1 year in the population has risen sharply, and now stands at around 755,000. If we do no more than assume that the incidence of child abuse, neglect, etc. has stayed the same over that period, then we would fully expect to see the numbers of infants going in care and being placed for adoption increase for no other reason than that the overall population aged under 1 year has increased. If we use some of John’s figures, then we find that the annual figure for number of infants who were adopted after being taken into care at under 1 year of age has risen over the last 5-6 years by about 12-13% and the numbers of babies born annually has increased, over the same period, by around 14.5%.

John’s entirely conjectural theory of target-driven baby-stealing social workers turns out to be nothing more than statistical artefact, a natural consequence of entirely normal changes in population demographics.

What’s much more interesting is the trend over the preceding decade, where the numbers of infants taken into care and placed for adoption rose, even though the demographics were moving in the opposite direction and trends of that type do merit closer examination, even if anyone with halfway decent memory should have no difficulty  in pinpointing one of the factors that almost certainly influenced this trend.

1993 was the year of the James Bulger murder and the start of the modern era of public and political paranoia surrounding the issue of child protection.

The Bulger case is the pivotal event here for a number of reasons.

First, and most obviously, it was this case kicked media hysteria around child protection into the stratosphere and it here that we finds the roots of the ‘paedogeddon culture’ the som completely pervades the tabloid press today.

Not uncoincidentally, the Bulger case also saw the entry, into the public spotlight, of a then-youthful, dynamic and ambitious Labour politician who was, at the time, Shadow Home Secretary – Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. The Bulger case, and his performance opposite, first, Kenneth Clarke and then Michael Howard played a significant part in building his reputation in the public eye and and cementing it within the Labour Party, but more than it also gave Blair the impetus he needed to sell the party his view that in order to be electable it could no longer continue to concede the political ‘high ground’ to the Tories on law and order. Although is was Gordon Brown who coined the aphorism ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ this was Blair’s agenda at the outset and it was on the back of the Bulger case that he succeeded in convincing the party that he had right agenda for electoral success even if that meant outflanking the Tories to the right on law and order issues.

And, of even more relevance to the main issue at hand, the Bulger case also played a major role in shaping Blair’s thinking on the issue of child protection and, more to the point, on the role and direction that social work and local authority social services departments would take under a future Labour government. Right up until the early 1990s, the role of social services was explicitly that of protecting children from harm and abuse. After the Bulger case, and particularly from the point at which Blair became Prime Minister, the ambit of social work within children’s services began to change, with the emphasis moving away from merely protecting children towards one in which supporting their personal development became a key objective. Blair latched on to the fact that both of Bulger’s killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, came from trouble and dysfunctional families and concluded that it was that background that was, if not the direct cause of their subsequent behaviour, which culminated in the murder of James Bulger, then at least a major contributory factor.

On top of everything else, the Bulger case contributed to an increasing focus amongst politicians and within social work, itself, on the impact of emotional and psychological ‘abuse’ and on families that failed to provide children with a caring, nurturing home environment – the prevailing culture with childrens services began to change and it did so against a background of media-driven hysteria which served to imbue that culture with a marked preference for avoiding risks, one that was further reinforced by high profile cases, such as that of Victoria Climbie, in which the system failed a child and failed them with the most terrible consequences.

And all the while that this was going on, the number of field social workers employed by local authorities increased by getting on for 25% over the course of the ten years between 1993 and 2002, even though opportunities to pursue professional qualifications in social work were in short supply. I left university a couple of years before all these changes started to emerge and at the time there were far fewer courses and places leading to professional social work qualifications than there were people looking to obtain those qualifications, in fact there weren’t enough places to meet the needs of those already working in social work for local authorities let alone to cope with demand from new entrants to the field, not to mention that the course I studied, a combined social sciences degree in which you specialised in a specific discipline after the first year, attracted a significant number of existing and prospective social workers, 45-50 out of 200 that started the course and these individuals were pretty much evenly split between experienced social workers who had decided that a degree was a way out of social work into a new field and new entrants, most of whom had come straight from sixth form college, who were looking to the degree as a stepping stone into a post graduate qualification in social work in order to get into the profession.

So, on top of everything else, you’ve got a big increase in the numbers of field social workers – and more staff equals more cases dealt with, more assessments, more problems identified and, ultimately, more children entering the system and being taken into care – at the same time that the profession was losing a number of its most experienced staff, taking on less experienced staff, including many that were going into the professional straight from college/university and with only limited life experience to draw on, to which you can add a chronic shortage of professional training, endless shifting priorities and the old story of social workers being overworked, under-resourced and underpaid – and some people were, and still are surprised when some social workers fuck up, make mistakes and/or make bad judgement calls or are found to be short on competence.

If you come at this issue with an open mind, its not that difficult to fathom out how we got to where we are today. The context in which social workers operate is one that positively encourages extremes of risk aversion – the rising tide of media-fueled public hysteria surrounding child protection issues coupled to the even more hysterical reaction when mistakes are made and things go wrong badly has created a climate of fear within the profession against the background of which social workers quite naturally err on the side of extreme caution. Faced with a case in which a child may be at risk, its safer to assume that they are at risk and proceed accordingly rather than take a chance on the family and see things go wrong. The cult of paedogeddon hasn’t just infected the public consciousness, its crept into professional circles and influences much of the thinking within childrens services…

And if all that seems heavy going, try this instead…

So far as the political and policy context in which social workers operate is concerned, what we’ve seen since the mid 90s, and all the more so since New Labour came to power, is an increase emphasis on social care as a prophylactic for wider social problems. The emphasis has shifted from protection to prevention and the pressure is on social workers to try to pre-empt problems and identify children who may be at risk of harm in advance of any significant problems emerging and not just those for whom the risks are already all to evident. There has been, from politicians, an incessant demand for earlier and earlier intervention in families, one which is moving rapidly towards its apex in the form of the contentious ContactPoint children’s database created under the Children Act 2004 and very real potential that this could be used for profiling and labelling families as potential sources of problems and children as potential future delinquents.

In turn that has created a greater emphasis on question of mental health and psychological well-being within the work of children’s services. The quality of the emotional care and nurturing provided by parents and families has come under increasing scrutiny and with that we’ve seen a corresponding increase in the numbers of children taken into care on the grounds of emotional and psychological abuse and greater emphasis placed on the mental health of parents as a factor in evaluating the potential for risk within the family environment. With all due respect to any social worker reading this, many with the profession are ill-equipped to deal with and interpret correctly the complexities presented by cases in which questions of mental health feature heavily and the level of support that social workers receive from the psychiatric profession can be patchy – it, too, is often badly underfunded and horribly overstretched, not to mention that by comparison to other clinicians, particularly GPs and Consultants working in other specialisms, the pay scales for psychiatric professionals within the NHS are crap.

There are, of course, many excellent psychiatrists working in the NHS but there is still very much a cynical school of thought around psychiatry which views the ‘average’ psychiatrist as being no more than a doctor who lacks both the medical skills necessary to become a surgeon and the people skills required for general practice and you do sometime run into psychiatrists who seem very much to fit that stereotype,

Add in the occasional rogue clinician with a vastly overinflated sense of their own self-importance and penchant for professional hubris plus the occasional new bogeyman condition – and for that we’ve had Munchausen by Proxy which, for all its attracted considerable scepticism, is a real enough condition if one that is far less prevalent than some suppose – plus all the usual problems of group think and in-group psychology and the demands of confidentiality that run right through this whole strand of work and you’ve got yourself a framework which more than adequately accounts for everything that some would prefer to attribute to the existence of a malevolent conspiracy for which there is no substantive supporting evidence.

If you look at cases that have hit the public domain or that have been flagged up in the discussion under the previous post, there is nothing in any of them than cannot be rationally and reasonable explained without recourse to conspiracism.

In the case of RP vs Nottingham Social Services and the Official Solicitor, in which John has been most directly involved, the pivotal issue is that of whether or not the plaintiff is competent to care adequately for their child and the key evidence is an assessment by a clinical psychologist which places the plaintiff’s IQ at between 55 and 70 and give the opinion that the only circumstances in which they would be able to care for the child would be if they were, themselves, provided with 24 hour care, someone to continually prompt them to do what needs doing to look after the child.

To overturn the ruling in that case, it is necessary to overturn that opinion with a contrary clinical opinion – no amount of legal hair-splitting, sophistry and chicanery will render the plaintiff competent if they are, in truth, not competent and having read the comments of John and Andrew, and the full judgement of course, the one point they raise that I can see the validity is that of the cost of obtaining that second opinion. It would appear, from what’s been said, that RP went into this case and right they through to the appeal wthout having access to her own expert witness to challenge the opinion of the clinicial psychologist whose evidence of her lack of competence was put to the court and that this was primarily a matter the family not being able to sustain the financial cost of obtaining a secind opinion.

Now, if that is the case, then we a point that is worth pursuing regardless of whether this might be to the direct benefit of RP, because it does strike me that where the state relies on expert clinical testimony in family court then it is very much in the interests of justice that the family on the other end of the proceeding should be afforded access to their expert witness, if one can be found who is willing the challenge the opinion of the state’s witness.

Admittedly that does introduce further complications that need to be taken into account as there can be, and are, legitimate concerns one can raise as the possibility that this might turn the proceedings of the family courts into nothing more than contest of experts and, as such, the role of expert witnesses in such cases does need to be carefully defined and circumscribed but, as is manifestly evidence across the law as a whole, our common law system is actually pretty damn good and reconciling and resolving issues of this kind and it would unlikely to take more than a handful of suitable test cases to iron out the wrinkles.

The cases of Fran Lyon and Sam Thomas, both of whom skipped the country in order to ‘prevent’ social services from taking the unborn child into care immediately following its birth present a number of marked similarities that are well worth reviewing both in the context of understanding why situations like these arise and, in turn, why they provide fodder for inveterate conspiracists.

Lets starts with the main points of commonality in both cases.

Quite obviously, both are young woman – Fran Lyon was 22 at the time she left for Sweden, Sam Thomas is 19 – and both were/are pregnant and in neither case does the baby’s father appear to feature at all. However, and its worth noting this even though we’re primarily interest in what the two cases have in common, there appears to be a marked difference between the two in terms of their educational background. Fran Lyon was, until this all kicked off, studying for a degree in neuroscience at Edinburgh University while there’s no mention at all of Sam Thomas’s educational background in the press coverage of her story, from which we can infer only that she’s likely to be an average-ish teenager from a difficult family background. So, in at least one of these cases we can rule out completely any possibility of social worker operating out of class prejudice or on the basis of the kind of negative social stereotypes represented by Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard.

That said, the single important common element in both cases is that both these young women have a prior history of psychological problems.

In the case of Fran Lyon we have anorexia, self-harm, a rape and a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder requiring admission as an in-patient for a year and a further nine months as an outpatient before she was discharged and, in the words of the Daily Mail, ‘the diagnosis was removed’.

Now that, in itself, is extremely unusal because psychiatrists rarely ‘remove’ a diagnosis and what will generally be recorded on discharge is that the diagnoised condition is ‘in remission’ and so we have a question here, is this young women overstating the circumstances of her discharge, in which the record will show that has a Borderline Personal Disorder which is in remission – personality disorders of this kind don’t go away and can’t be ‘cured’ but they be very successfully controlled to extent that they present no significant problems in every day life, or is the removal of the diagnosis an indication that the psychiatrist conclude that the original diagnosis of BPD had been incorrect – and with a rape on the books then some variation on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is certainly candidate for an alternative explanation for this young woman’s problems.

Either way, there are grounds here, given her past, for addressing the question of whether giving birth to a child and all the changes that introduces into this young woman’s life might present some risk of an adverse psychological outcome. Exactly how much of a risk and how this might manifest itself is matter for an appropriately qualified clinician to assess but, from the point of view of considering this young woman’s situation and possible needs there are reasonable ground for giving this a bit of thought in terms of making sure that there’s appropriate package of support in place and ready to roll should she actually need it and that’s what should have been broached with her – after all you been though… big changes ahead… we figure you might need a bit extra help… we want to figure out what we can do for you and the baby to make this all as easy as possible….

Nothing at all wrong with that approach as long as you pitch it sensitively and stress the point that this is all about providing help and support and not about whether or not she’s capable of caring for the kiddie once it arrives.

However, somewhere in all this some within the social services department chose to raise a query about the possibility of Munchausen’s By Proxy with a consultant paediatrician who had had no previous dealings with Ms Lyon but who offered this opinion…

“If the professionals were concerned from the evidence available that [this woman] probably does fabricate or induce illness, there would be no option but to put the baby into foster care at birth pending a post-natal forensic psychological assessment.”

Which is a perfectly reasonable if entirely meaningless opinion because all the paediatrician is saying is that it would be reasonable to take the child into care IF there is evidence of Munchausen’s which, in the annals of medical opinion, amounts to stating the fucking obvious – but what it manifestly isn’t is an opinion as to whether there is any actual evidence to support such a contention.

But, this does explain everything because Ms Lyon does have a history of self-harming behaviour and that is consistent with Munchausen’s – and with a shitload of other conditions and problems like depression, low self-esteem and ANOREXIA and POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. There are at least two plausible explanations for her past behaviour on her record neither of which suggest Munchausen’s AND Munchausen’s presents a very particular pathology, not only does the individual self harm but having inflicted an injury on themselves they immediately and compulsive present themselves for medical treatment because that’s the purpose of self-harm in Munchausen’s, to get the payoff of being treated by a doctor. To even suspect Munchausen’s you got to have both the pattern of self-inflicted injury or fabricated illness and the continual running backwards and forwards to a doctor/hospital and even then that’s standard Munchausen’s not the By Proxy form in which the individual doesn’t fabricate illness in themselves by in someone else, typically a child although it can happen in other settings, as the case of Beverley Allitt demonstrated – and guess when that happened? Yep, she was arrested in 1991 and convicted in 1993 – see the pattern of dates yet again.

What we have here is not an exercise in attempted baby laundering for the financial benefit of the local authority but a simple and straightforward case of a social worker putting two and two together and coming up with thirty-five. There are legitimate and serious questions to be asked here about the professional competence of those involved in this case not to mention how it was all handled but, on the other hand, we have a problem here because all we have to go on is the information provided by Ms Lyon who has, in the past, been diagnosed with a Borderline Personality Disorder the status of which is a little uncertain because, as I noted earlier, the ‘removal’ of a diagnosis is not that common an occurrance and, it has to be said, one of the diagnostic symptoms of BPD is transient stress-related paranoid ideation i.e. delusions – and with that sitting in the background we actually have to extremely careful in making blanket assessments about this case given that it is possible that some of what’s been published in the Daily Mail may be more of a reflection of Ms Lyon’s anxieties about her contact with social services than what may have actually been going on the background. The inquiry about Muchausen’s could have been made simply to try to rule it out as possibility and the social workers in question may not have started out with the presumption that there were likely to be grounds for placing the child in foster care as soon as it was born.

I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here to make an important point, even though it appears that Ms Lyon’s account of her dealings with Social Services are on the level, at least sufficiently to ring alarm bells with the Swedish social workers from whom she’s now receiving support, because what this illustrates is a major issue that can arise when mental health issues lie at the centre of such assessments.

To begin with, social services start out making what are perfectly reasonable inquiries within the context of assessing an individual both for elements of risk and for possible support needs but the mere fact that such inquiries are being made can be enough to set off anxieties in the individual – they can be readily interpreted as a precursor to an attempt to take a child into care even if that’s not the intention at the outset. So we have a miscommunication and misinterpretation of intent, one that may prompt the individual whose being assessed to try to avoid contact with social services or become uncooperative – if someone fears that their child may be taken into care then refusing to play ball is a perfectly understandable reaction, for all that this may well be interpreted by social workers as an indication that there is a problem, one that the individual is attempting to conceal by avoiding contact with social services…

…and we’re on a downward spiral in which the more that social workers try to assess whether there is any cause for legitimate, the more the uncooperative behaviour of individuals acting out of what were, to begin with, misplaced anxieties about the intention of a social worker serve to confirm, in the eyes of the social worker, that there is cause for genuine concern and, therefore, for them to take action.

And anything that unnecessarily and unjustifiably serves to foster or exacerbate that cycle of misunderstandings, from the peddling of conspiracy theories to the histrionic ritualised abuse of the social work profession by right-wing newspapers operating on the belief that all social workers are members of a namby-pamby, bleeding heart, international Marxist, leftist, multiculturalist, lesbian conspiracy – which a bit of an odd view as fully half of all the social workers I’ve ever come across have tended to be middle-aged women who look as if they’re more at home at a meeting of the WI –  only serves to make matters worse, foment unnecessary and unhelpful suspicion and lock-in that cycle with what are ultimately damaging consequences for all parties.

From what’s emerged about the case of Sam Thomas, this appears to be a feature of that case. There are clear similarities between this case and that of Fran Lyon, a past history of mental health issues (depression), self harm and a suicide attempt plus the added complication of what appears to be a limited social support network around the young woman all of which, again, adds up to reasonable grounds for carrying out an evaluation to identify possible support needs, and again we have what appears to be evidence of insensitive handling in the form of quotation from a letter sent to the hospital in which she was due to give birth by a social work which reads…

‘under no circumstances must Miss Thomas be discharged without Children’s Social Care involvement’.

And again, there is also good reason to approach this case with a measure of caution.

We only have one side of the story, Ms Thomas’s, and a partial quotation from a letter that’s published out of context in, of all places, the Daily Mail which, if you check out the records at the Press Complaints Commission, is Britain most complained about newspaper when it comes to factually inaccruate and tendentious reporting. But what we also have, from a comment left here – if this information is correct – is an assertion that…

What none of you know…but what I have found out….is that social services are using grounds that Miss Thomas didn’t attend her ante natal appointments…they didn’t even know she was attending at another hospital and had been for months!!

And did anyone think to tell social services that she’d been attending ante natal appointment at the different hospital or are they just supposed to guess or maybe ring round all the hospitals they can think of to see if she’s on the books?

Whoopie-fucking doo – we’ve got some here who knows something that social services don’t but who’s so wrapped in her own ‘cleverness’ that she can’t see the obvious problem here even though its staring her in the face. Is it not possible that social service might not be running around and pressing panic buttons IF they’d have known that she was attending ante-natal appointments somewhere other than at the hospital they were expecting. Is this information not relevant to the situation at hand. Might it not have gone some towards allaying any concerns that they may have had?

Is it not long past time that some people realised that adopting a Beavis and Butthead mentality in cases like this just doesn’t help anyone, least of all this young woman who may well, quite unnecessarily, be holed up in fucking bedsit in the Irish Republic when she could still be at home with what little bit of family she does have?

How fucking clever is that!

In a system that deals with issues as complex and difficult as those that arise in the field of child protection there will inevitably be occasions where mistake are made and where errors of judgement and faulty reasoning result in the wrong decisions being taken. Situations will arise in which professional standards fall below what is expected and, sometimes below what even acceptable and, from time to time, the system may throw a rogue operator or a spurious theory that, on later and detailed investigation, proves to be without solid foundation or basis in fact.

All this is true of the child protection system and there are occasions where it fails to do the job it is supposed to do with terrible consequences; a child is seriously injured, abused or dies or a family is unjustly separated, and when that happens then inquiries have to be held, investigations carried out and lessons have to be learned, but to do that there has to be a fundamental and unshakeable commitment to a particular method of inquiry, one founded on reason, rationality and the examination and evaluation of evidence and not on conjecture, hearsay, public hysteria fuelled by meretricious media reporting and tendentious forays into conspiracism.

It actually not difficult to stay on the right side of the line between rational, sceptical inquiry and irrational fabulism, you just have to remember three basic rules…

1. Never assume a conspiracy when a cock-up or simple incompetence will satisfactorily account for observable events – and there is nothing in either of the cases of Fran Lyon or Sam Thomas that cannot be accounted for on that basis.

2. On encountering what appears to be a cover-up, never assume that this indicate a conspiracy before the fact – conspiracies before the fact are extremely rare and in the vast majority of cases where a cover-up is uncovered, what is being concealed is evidence of poor judgement, avoidable errors and incompetence, and

3. Follow the evidence and let it lead you to your conclusions, don’t reach a conclusions then search for evidence to support your pre-conceived opinions.

Now if John would only take these three rules to heart then maybe, just maybe, he might not demonstrate quite a marked aptitude for pissing off senior members of the judiciary and his efforts to raise concerns, some of which merit careful examination, about the operation of the existing child protection and family law/justice system might just make a bit of headway and deliver a worthwhile reform or two.

  • Maybe the civil court scenario where there is a joint and independent expert appointed, whose clear role is as an officer of the court, might help in some of these cases. It won’t help with inter-speciality group think, obviously, either where there is a new, sexy theory that at least loosely meets the circumstances of the case but it should help to even the playing field.

  • “All this is true of the child protection system and there are occasions where it fails to do the job it is supposed to do with terrible consequences; a child is seriously injured, abused or dies or a family is unjustly separated, and when that happens then inquiries have to be held, investigations carried out and lessons have to be learned…”

    Yet, they never are. Time and again, we see the same errors repeated.

    Remember the case of Victoria Climbie and how worry about scabies prevented the police and social workers doing their job?

    Well, try this – child with horrific injuries, including paralysis because of a broken back, not examined competently because he ‘was cranky’.

    You may dislike MP John Hemming’s methods, but I don’t see too many people doing the valuable job of bringing a light to bear on the problems inherent in the system, do you?

  • Andrew

    Adoption targets being met either for the

  • In the cases of Fran Lyon and Sam Thomas I have a copy of pretty well all their paperwork. That does not, however, permit me to make this public on a whim. The public reports are never that precise and this makes your conclusions in respect of these cases unreliable.

    This is, in fact, a good argument for anonymous judgments where the reasoning of the court can be challenged. If you want to look at one of those try the one of the court of appeal in respect of a case reported in The times
    http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2008/1681.html
    http://johnhemming.blogspot.com/2008/07/parental-rows-result-in-adoption.html

    BV163 came in after a change in policy and drove further changes. Hence you need to consider the changes from about 1995 (when the effects of the 1967 Abortion Act had completely stabilised) through to date.

    What is seen is an increase in the number of babies taken into care. A good comparison is with Scotland which has a completely different regime for child protection.

    It is also important to remember that about a third of children in care are there because they are “uncontrollable teenagers” under S20. These acted as part of the denominator.

    Also BV163 was changed for 2006-7. Prior to that it was adoptions and then after that SGs were included.

    There are lots of other issues with your post, but I don’t have the time to deal with them.

  • Sarah

    Why waste time attacking John Hemming?
    Theft of children isn’t all that common… so that’s OK?
    Do you have children?
    Can you imagine the pain of seeing them taken from you by an uncaring, box-ticking, bureaucratic state?
    Hemming deserves a medal for lifting up the rock under which this scandal is hidden.

  • “Can you imagine the pain of seeing them taken from you by an uncaring, box-ticking, bureaucratic state?”

    Well, Sarah, once upon a time, people who considered themselves ‘of the left’ would be at the forefront of demonstrations and legal challenges to abominations like the secrecy surrounding family courts, and the disproportionate actions taken by the State (in the form of unaccountable social workers) against the mostly young, poor or ill-educated.

    In fact, ‘pissing off senior members of the judiciary’ – so pooh-poohed here by the host – would be considered a victory.

    I don’t know what happened to that ‘left’, frankly…

    And yes, Hemming does indeed deserve a medal, for being that rare beast – a politician that acts for his constituents and against his political interests.

  • What happened to the left?

    It stopped emoting and started thinking for itself and looking at the evidence, which I appreciate is a bit of novel concept in this case but tough shit. Welcome to the real world…

    Let’s quantify some of the issues here.

    Last year, there were 545,000 referrals to social services.

    305,000 of these required a formal assessment.

    Nearly 80,000 resulted in a s47 enquiry, i.e. they raised sufficient concern to warrant a full investigation.

    Nearly 40,000 of these resulted in a case conference to identify if a formal care protection plan was necessary and in 33,000 of these cases a care protection plan was put in place with 15,000+ being serious enough to result in a child being placed on the child protection register.

    There are currently around 60,000 children in care, most in foster care but there’s still around 8,000 in children’s homes.

    There were 3,300 children placed for adoption last year and of these around half were cases in which parental consent was dispensed with by a court, with all the additional workload that entails.

    Of those placed for adoption, 2400 entered the care system due to abuse or neglect.

    20 disabled children were placed for adoption due their parents inability or unwillingness to care for them.

    160 children were adopted because parental illness or disability meant that they could care for them.

    Another 160 were placed for adoption from families in ‘acute distress and 330 more because a family was judged to be too dysfunctional to bring up the child successfully.

    And, there were 190 children paced for adoption because they had been abandoned by their parents.

    Of the 2400 placed for adoption due to neglect or abuse, around 40% are placed due to neglect, 22-23% due to emotional abuse, 10-15% for physical abuse and 7-10% for sexual abuse – in the remaining cases there is evidence of multiple abuses.

    There are currently something of the order 20-25,000 social workers working in children and family services who have to cope with all those referrals, assessments, enquiries, case conferences, the development of care protection plans, the monitoring of children and families in the system, adoptions, legal proceedings and so an so forth…

    NOW do you see why social workers sometimes make mistakes?

    NOW do you see why the system sometimes fails?

    No, of course you don’t, because its complicated and its messy and understanding the problems requires you confront some pretty uncomfortable ideas – its just so much easier to swallow the black and white picture of the world you find in the pages of the Daily Mail and make a saint of a man who could use his position for good but who squanders his opportunities by setting off in pursuit of non-existent conspiracies rather than dealing with the evidence.

  • Ah, yes, that’s the ‘left’ we have now: ‘My opponent is just mean and inhuman and reads the wrong papers, big brother never gets it wrong, and when things do go wrong then it’s down to enemy action because the people who run the systems are saints, I tell, you, saints, who only screw up because they aren’t given enough money and staff!’

  • “There are currently something of the order 20-25,000 social workers working in children and family services…”

    Actually, that reminds me of an old joke:

    Q. How many people work in DCFS?
    A. About half of ’em…

  • Andrew

    @JuliaM – Lol your joke

  • Oh very droll, Julia. That joke’s almost as old as your rhetoric…