There was time, not so very long ago, when a dreadful spectre stalked the land striking terror into the hearts of new mothers…
…the District Nurse. [Da Da Daaaaaaah]
Talk to women of my mother’s generation and the impression that quickly forms is The District Nurse came in two distinct varieties; one was a stern and somewhat skeletal figure who was obviously a close cousin of the Wicked Witch of the West, while the other had the appearance of a cross between the late Peggy Mount and a Chesterfield sofa and the general demeanour of a Bull Mastiff. Both would sweep imperiously into the homes of new mothers and subject the household to a military-style inspection; and if so much as single ornament had not been dusted or a single plate had been left unwashed then they would return unannounced, several hours later, with an army of policemen, social workers and doctors in tow and haul the children off into care, never to be seen again.
Okay, so some pretty horrific things could, and did, happen to women back in the 1950s and 60s, particularly those unfortunate enough to fall pregnant and give birth without *gasp* being married, but it is nevertheless the case that the once-terrifying figure of The District Nurse is very much an urban legend. Poor hygiene might well have got you a bit of a stern telling-off on the premise that this was ‘bad for baby’ but if someone did their kids taken in care, it was for something altogether more serious that forgetting to black lead the grate.
There has always been a degree of scaremongering surrounding the work of social services and the NHS when it comes to very difficult and complex issue of child protection, a situation that hasn’t been helped in the slightest by its history of very public failures and scandals. When the system get its badly wrong, children die or are taken away from their parents without any genuine justification and the media goes into overdrive.
The child protection has long been the subject of scaremongering and urban myths fueled, in part, by the overheated media coverage its very public failures have received over the year, and this creates, at the fringes, fertile ground in which conspiracy theories take root. As H L Mencken tartly observed in the Baltimore Evening Sun on 15 June 1936:
The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy. If these villains could be put down, he holds, he would at once become rich, powerful and eminent. Nine politicians out of every ten, of whatever party, live and have their being by promising to perform this putting down. In brief, they are knaves who maintain themselves by preying on the idiotic vanities and pathetic hopes of half-wits.
A harsh observation, certainly, but one that is not that far off the mark in regards to John Hemming MP, his coterie of camp followers who operate under the guise ‘Justice for Families’, and their ongoing vendetta against the child protection system, social workers and other health and social care professionals and the family court system.
In all of Hemming’s recent public posturing on the issue of superinjunctions and, worse still, so-called ‘hyperinjunctions’, which exist only a figment of his own increasingly deranged imagination (discussed in detail on pps 69-73 of Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions) one can too easily fail to pick up on his real agenda, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the sexual indiscretions of the rich and shameless. Hemming’s Don Quixote complex is firmly fixated on the family courts and, in particular on adoption proceedings, about which he routinely makes the most staggering allegations, as here in local news coverage of an adoption case that was recently submitted for review to the European Court of Human Rights:
John Hemming, the Lib-Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley, who champions the Justice for Families group in Parliament, said: “This is a significant case and it will set a precedent. I believe some 1,000 children a year are wrongly adopted in this country and this will highlight that on a national scale.”
I’ll come back to the actual case to which the newspaper report relates, if only to show that there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye, but for now we need to put Hemming’s claim at a 1,000 children a year are wrongly adopted into context before disposing with it using evidence taken from Hemming’s own ‘Justice for Families’ website.
To begin with, we need to put some basic statistics under the argument, so since 1997 around 5,000 adoption orders have been granted each year, give or take a few hundred either side in any given year. Based on DfE data for the five years from 2006 to 2010, around 3,300 adoptions a year involve children who’ve been through the social care system; the rest, one assumes, are accounted for largely by adoptions from overseas and in-family adoptions, e.g. step-parents formally adopting their partner’s children, etc.
Of the 3,300 adoptions that have been through the social care system, i.e. where the child/children have spent at least some time in Local Authority care, slightly more than half go through the system with the consent of the child’s biological parent(s), leaving a balance of around 1,500 adoptions a year in which parental consent is dispensed with by the courts. There are no published statistics which give a break down of the precise circumstances in which parental consent is dispensed with but this will include cases of abandonment in which the biological parent(s) cannot be located by the court, cases in which the biological parent(s) lack the mental capacity to consent to the adoption and, of court, cases in which the biological parent(s) are opposed to the adoption and believe that they should be given another chance to demonstrate that they can adequately care for their child/children.
These are extremely difficult cases for the court to deal with, particularly in cases where the decision to dispense with parental consent and allow the adoption to proceed hinges in questions relating to the mental capacity or psychiatric health and well-being of the biological parent(s) and, inevitably, these decisions leave some parents with deeply held feelings of grievance and injustice when the decision of the court goes against them.
So, we have around 3,300 adoptions a year from the care system, 1,500 of which arise as a result of the courts dispensing with parental consent, and an allegation by Hemming that 1,000 children a year are ‘wrongly adopted’, the suggestion being that anything between 1 in 3 and 2 in 3 decisions made by the courts are wrong, depending on whether he believes that these allegedly incorrect decisions relate only to cases in which consent has been dispensed with or not. That is an utterly staggering figure and would, indeed, be a national scandal had it basis in fact – which it demonstrably doesn’t.
You see, Hemming is not simply advancing the argument that the courts are getting it wrong. He and his supporters argue that these decisions are being wrongly made for a very specific reason, this being the introduction, in the early years of the last decade, of a government target for adoptions which was linked to financial incentives for increasing the number of children in care placed for adoption. In short, the allegation is that local authorities were, in effect, stealing babies from their biological parents and railroading them through the care system and into adoption in order to meet this target (BV163) and obtain the cash incentive that had been linked to it by the government.
There are two very good reason to discount this allegation as being nothing more than a wild and wholly unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
The first of these relates specific to the construction of the BV163 target itself, which was introduced in 2001/2 for adoptions, extended in 2006/7 to include children placed with a special guardian and then discontinued in 2008. The Audit Commission’s technical description of this target, from the period following the inclusion of special guardians, was as follows:
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).
The first and most obvious thing to note here is that this is not a straightforward throughput target based solely on increasing the absolute number of children who leave local authority care on adoption orders or special guardianship orders. Its a relatively target based on dividing the number of children successfully adopted or placed with a special guardian over the course of a whole year by the number of children still in local authority care at a set date (31st March) who had been in the system for at least months, but not including those who had accrued six months by virtue of an agreed series of short term placement.
A local authority intent on gaming this target for financial gain could, hypothetically, try to increase their revenue by increasing the number of adoptable children they take into care over the year – which does mean babies and toddlers as the market demand for children drops off precipitously once they reach school age – in order to fast-track them out the system on adoption and special guardianship orders as quickly as possible. This would, however, be a very risky approach to gaming the system as this necessarily requires the local authority to take cases through the courts where they can be readily delayed by applications for adjournments and appeal proceedings at several different stages of the legal process, so there are no absolute guarantees that a local authority would be successful in gaming the target by this route.
If one did intend to game this target, then there are at least two much easy ways of going about it.The most obvious method, given that the target’s denominator is based on the number of children in care on a set date, is simply that of temporarily dumping kids out of the care system and back to their parents shortly before the 31st March headcount. This would not be without its risks – a full audit would quickly identify this practice and, worse still, it could result in children being placed at risk by their returned to their potentially unsuitable, neglectful and even abusive parents, but it would still be much easier to pull off that trying to game the numerator.
By far the best way of gaming the target, if that’s what you wished to do, would be to use persuasion rather than compulsion. If you can persuade more parents to voluntarily place their children into care on an agreed series of short term placements, as an alternative to having them taken into care under a care, then you can get the best of both worlds – the children are safely tucked away from the risks posed by the parent(s) and they don’t count towards the denominator for the BV163 target, a win-win scenario.
This is all hypothetical, of course, not least because Hemming and his cronies have never yet succeeding in producing any corroborating evidence to support their allegations, but one can nevertheless still empirically refute Hemming’s baby-stealing BV163 hypothesis using evidence taken directly from official statistics published on Hemming’s own ‘Justice for Families’ website.
The main table shows the number of children who left the care system on adoption orders between 1994/5 and 2005/6 broken down by the age of the child when it was taken into care, which Hemming has ‘helpfully’ added two columns – one showing the percentage increase in adoptions for each age group between 1995 and 2006 and the other showing the increase in absolute numbers. As you’ll see from the table, the largest increases shown relate specifically to children taken into care before their first birthday and, in particular to those taken into care for the first time before they were one month old.
This is Hemming’s prima facie ‘evidence’ for state-sponsored baby stealing to meet government targets, but even before we analyse the figures, we have to treat this data with caution because of the information it doesn’t contain.
It doesn’t, for example, tell us how long any of these children were in the care system before they were finally adopted. Some may have made their way through the system to adoption relatively quickly while others may have been in the system for years, while their biological parent(s) were given every possibly opportunity to show that they were up to the job of raising their child, before the child was finally placed for adoption.
It doesn’t tell how many of these children were voluntarily given up for adoption as opposed to being adopted after parental consent was dispensed with by the courts, nor does it give us an age breakdown for this metric. Women still do get pregnant, decide that they don’t want the child but choose not to have an abortion and these women almost always give their child up for adoption within a matter of days, if not hours, of it being born.
And, of course, it doesn’t tell us anything at all about why these children were taken into care in the first place. In general terms, abuse and neglect remain the most common reasons why children enter the case system, followed by family dysfunction and acute family stress, but every year, for the last few years, around 700-800 children enter the care system because they have a disability, with another another 1,200-1,500 joining them due to parental illness or disability, and 3,000 children find themselves in care after being abandoned by their parent(s) – although at least some of these are unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK and are, therefore, highly unlikely to be babies/toddlers.
There’s a lot we simply don’t know from these figures but it is nevertheless the case that we can blow Hemming’s baby stealing hypothesis out of the water with one very simple graph:
What the graph shows are the trends in the annual number of adoptions, taken from Hemming’s own table, grouped into three age ranges based on the age at which children were taken into care; under one year of age (blue), one to five years of age (pinky-red) and six to ten years of age (which looks sort of beige on my screen). I’ve also indicated when the BV163 adoption target was introduced – the pink area on the right-hand side of the graph shows when this target was in effect and, therefore, the period during which cash incentives were given to local authorities who met their adoption targets. And, of course, the first thing that leaps out at you when to look at the graph is the fact that most of the increase in the annual number of adoptions over this period occurred before the introduction of the BV163 target, which Hemming claims is the cause of local authorities allegedly getting into the baby stealing business.
For children under one year of age when taken into care, the low point in the trend occurred in 1996/7 and between that date and the introduction of the BV163 target, the annual number of adoptions increased by 92.6%, but then only by a further 17.1% after BV163 came into effect. On the same timescales, the numbers adopted after being taken into care at between one and five years of age rose by 62.1% before BV163 was introduced, but only 18.7% and the only age group to see a large increase in adoptions after the introduction of this target was the six to ten years age group, which saw a 64.3% increase (with a single datapoint increase of over 100% in 2003/4) compared to a 36% fall in adoptions before the target came into effect.
Fully three-quarters of the increase in the annual number of adoptions of children who had been taken into care before one year of age, ove this period, occurred before the government put in place the BV163 target, to which a financial incentive was attached, and that fact alone neatly cuts the legs out from under Hemming’s target-driven baby theft conspiracy theory.
With that, lets go back to the newspaper article I cited at the beginning and look briefly at the case to which it refers.
unfortunately, there isn’t that much to go on at the moment as what’s in the public domain is merely the newspaper article and the statement of facts submitted to the European Court of Human Rights, both which are written entirely from the complainants point of view. So, what we have to go on is nothing more than a summary of their complaints to the court but little or no detail to work with as there are no relevant judgements currently on Bailii, anonymised or otherwise.
Nevertheless, we can glean some useful information about the case from what we have to hand, not least in regard to this statement in the newspaper article:
The woman says the psychological effects of neglect as a child in care herself were then used as evidence for the separation from her daughter.
The basic facts of the case are as follows:
The applicant is the mother in care proceedings brought by Oldham Local Authority in relation to her daughter, M., born 14 November 2008. Before M.’s birth the applicant underwent a pre-birth assessment administered to her because of her status of having been brought up in care. Following M.’s birth a health visitor and members of the applicant’s family raised concerns about the applicant’s ability to meet M.’s needs. The applicant states that the reports made by her family (including by her sister, who is also the partner of M.’s father, with whom the applicant had had a one or two night stand), were made maliciously. The local authority undertook a core assessment of the applicant and initiated a residential assessment. They brought proceedings and an initial care order was granted on 27 May 2009. M. was placed with foster carers on 6 June 2009. Thereafter, care orders were renewed while non-residential assessments continued, until a final hearing took place between 25-29 January 2010, at the conclusion of which a full care order and a placement order were made, authorising M.’s placement for adoption and dispensing with the applicant’s consent. The judgment from this final hearing is dated 3 February 2010. An adoption order was made on 7 May 2010.
So, the mother was brought up in care, had a brief fling with her sister’s boyfriend and got pregnant, giving birth at around the age of 20 or so. She was given a pre-birth assessment despite, presumably, having left the children’s care at 18, which suggests both that she may have been passed directly on to adult social services when she left the children’s system and that she is likely to have a known history of behavioural/psychological problems about which there were sufficient concerns to carry out a risk assessment before the child was born.
Nevertheless, her local social services department does not appear to have tried to intervene immediately following the birth of the child and only become involved again after concerns were raise by both a health visitor and members of her family – the allegation of malice against her family is of minimal relevance here given that a healthcare professional had also raised concerns.
An interim care order was then granted in May 2009, when the child was around 6 months old, so its difficult to argue that social services jumped the gun and failed to give her any opportunity to try to raise her child, at which the child was placed in foster care while further assessments were carried out until the final hearing in January 2010, when a full care order and placement order for adoption was granted, against the mother’s wishes.
So what’s the actual issue with the mother?
At the January hearing the applicant was not requesting the immediate return of M. to her care (which she accepted would not be possible at that time), but an adjournment of the final hearing to allow for further work and assessments. A number of professionals gave evidence, including a social worker, a member of Abbeyfield Residential Family Centre in Sheffield, a member of “the Goodman Project” (part of the Manchester Adoption Society which carries out assessments of parenting abilities), a psychologist, and M.’s guardian ad litem. The view of these professionals was broadly that the applicant offered an inconsistent standard of practical care to M. (in relation to, for example, feeding and recognising tiredness), that she would not be able to adapt to and meet M.’s changing practical needs, and that she had difficulties forming a bond or attachment to M. The suggestion was that a history of abuse had impaired the applicant’s emotional functioning, which was now impacting upon her own parenting ability. The applicant may have suffered from post-natal depression, but the views of the professionals involved appears to have been that her attachment difficulties were caused by deeper psychological factors relating to her own experience of being brought up in care.
The key passage here related to the professional opinions given of her parenting abilities, i.e. that she offered an inconsistent standard of practical care in relation to thing such as feeding, recognising tiredness, etc, showed a lacked of adaptabilityto the child’s developing needs and had difficulties forming a bond or attachment to the child. That suggests that we’re dealing with a case in which at least part of the ground for the care order and adoption stem from a perceived risk of neglect in addtion to th mother’s inability to form an emotional bond. In terms of this being down to the effects of the mother having brought up in care, this appears to have been relevant to the case only insofar as it prompted the court to reject the possibility that the mother’s difficulties in relating to and caring for the child stemmed from post-natal depression.
So its a tough case in which the mother has been assessed as having long-term psychological problems which inhibit her ability to successfully care for her child of sufficient severity to raise doubts as to whether it would be in the child’s best interest to persevere with the biological mother, even though it appears that some additoinal support could have been made available. That’s a hell of judgerment call to have to make, but the judge made it and took the view that the best interests of the child at the time lay in placing them with in a stable family environment which, it seems, the court felt that the biological mother would not be able to offer within a timescale that met the needs of the child.
Exactly how and why they came to that view cannot be ascertained with access to the full judgment, but it was a view that was unanimously supported by all the professionals involved in the case.
There is, however, something of a cloud over the final stages of the case, as the statement of fact notes a dispute between the mother and her legal counsel over a submission made to a case management hearing which resulted in an appeal:
Due to confusions between the applicant and her counsel and/or the mother’s counsel’s failure to follow her instructions, this case management decision was understood by the judge at the time to have the mother’s consent, and was expressed to have been taken with the consent of the parties present.
The ‘and/or’ is a little puzzling here as its not entirely clear what the mother is claiming in regards to the actions of her counsel, which rather suggests that her now-former counsel may well dispute her version of these events, and the statement also goes on to note that:
The applicant [mother] was not legally represented in respect of any of the proceedings after 3 February 2010.
This appears to cover two appeal hearings against the decision to grant a care order and adoption placement on 3 February 2010, and the hearing at which an adoption order was granted on 17 May 2010, to which the mother unsuccessfully sought to submit a number of applications including one that asked the judge to recuse himself from the hearing for reasons that the statement does not disclose.
The absence of legal counsel at appeal is, naturally, a little troubling and requires further explanation but, reading between the lines, the options seem to come down to the mother dispensing with counsel after the hearing on Feb 3rd went against her and choosing to continue in person with what quite clearly seems to have been entirely unqualified help, or that counsel may have decided to withdraw from the case due to concerns over the mother’s behaviour, particularly in light of the apparent dispute over intructions at the case management hearing. One suspects, given the attempt to ask the judge to recuse himself from the final adoption hearing. that the mother may well have been getting ‘help’ from someone linked to Hemming’s ‘Justice for Families’ operation, much good that it appears to have done her.
This general impression is reinforced by the mother’s statement of complaints which, in addition to citing articles 6 and 8 of ECHR – which is precisely what you’d expect for an adoption case – also cites article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) in respect of the pre-birth risk assessment she underwent on the ground that it was ‘stressful’. That looks very much like the kind of batshit insane argument that Hemming and his followers have been peddling around the internet for quite a while for all that its unclear whether this assessment has any real relevance to the case as a whole.
There is much in the case that I find troubling, not least the comments attributed to the mother in the newspaper article:
She said: “It’s quite scary to be in the centre of such a landmark case, I’m hoping that this could change the UK adoption system.
“First and foremost my concern is my daughter, it’s been almost two years now since I’ve seen her.
“At the start I was working alone and a lot of people would have given up, but not me.”
What is being sought here is, at the very least, a right to appeal the adoption order itself after the adoption has been completed, in fact several years after as it unlikely yhat this case will be decided for several years. The mother is, it seems, being sold the idea that she may one day see her (former) child returned to here, which seems extremely unlikely given that such an argument automatically engages the article 8 rights of the adoptive family and of child who, by the time the case is resolved, will be unlikely to have any memories of their biological mother.
What we have here is a vulnerable young woman with what appears to be a history of psychiatric problems being sold what looks very much like a complete pipedream; and disturbingly this seems to be a common feature of the three case that I’ve looked into in detail in which Hemming’s operation has got involved – of the other two cases, one hinged on the mental capacity of the biological parent while the other, which I covered here, certainly suggests that the aggrieved party may well have some sort of psychiatric problem or active personality disorder. This strikes me a matter of legitimate and serious concern. The cases into which Hemming and his supporters seems to routinely inserting themselves involve not only vulnerable children but vulnerable adults, parents with a history of mental health and/or capacity issues who find themselves facing a desperate situation in which they are likely, one suspects, to be all-too-willing to buy into any and every crackpot conspiracy theory that might conceivably support their contention that they have been unjustly and unfairly treated.
That worries and disgusts me in equal measure. It is nothing short of despicable abuse of trust.
I’ve had a quite a few visitors over the last day or so from Mumsnet, where one of my earlier posts regarding John Hemming’s antics is currently under discussion.
Without wishing to cross any lines here, I feel that its important to share one of the comments on this thread with my own regular readers as this, I think, provides an interesting additional insight in to the activities of Hemming and his camp followers:
I don’t work in social services. In fact he has told me that I am apparently at risk of having my children taken off me because I asked for help when I became mentally ill. He is dangerous, not only for the children, but for the parents who are too scared to ask for help with any problems, because of the dangerous myths he is spreading.
When he was on here, he would just bumble into threads spreading his rubbish. I mainly came across him in mental health, but he has apprently caused much heartache elsewhere on here, and to god knows how many lurkers.
A quick and non-exhaustive mooch around Mumsnet seems to indicate that Hemming and others may have been trolling the forums on there in an effort to peddle their conspiracy theories. Hemming has certainly posted on the forums there a number of time (and causing a degree of ill-felling) even if matters have been somewhat confused by at least one of his supporters also showing up and posting pseudonymously, leaving some Mumsnet regulars with the impression that this second poster may be a Hemming sockpuppet.
This may be figuratively the case but not, I suspect, literally so, as Hemming is far too egotistical and narcissistic, in my experience, to post anything under a pseudonym.
Be that as it may, Mumsnet does appear to have been trolled repeatedly by Hemming supporters who appear to have been specifically targeting the site’s mental health and adoption sections with their ravings and scaremongering, as the comment I’ve reposted above clearly seems to demonstrate.