By Christopher Booker
Britain’s social workers took a beating again last week. On the orders of the children’s minister, Tim Loughton, full versions of two harrowing case reviews of the Baby P tragedy were published. They found fault not only with Haringey’s social workers but with lawyers, the police and health professionals, Under pressure from social workers, reviews of two similar cases in Yorkshire are still being kept under wraps. Meanwhile, an Ofsted report found that 119 children died or suffered serious injury last year through social workers’ failure to intervene.
Still largely hidden from view, however, is that other scandal, in its way just as disturbing, in which the failure of our child protection system is the very opposite: the seizure of thousands of children a year from loving homes, for no good reason.
In recent months, as I have followed dozens of these cases and been briefed on many more by such experts as John Hemming, the MP who runs the Justice for Families campaign, and Ian Josephs, the former councillor who has helped hundreds of families through his Forced Adoption website, a startlingly consistent picture has emerged. What follows is not based on exceptional cases but on the typical workings of a system which has gone horrifyingly off the rails.
For parents who fall foul of this system, often on no more evidence than malicious hearsay, the first shock is to find themselves treated like dangerous criminals. To seize children, social workers seem able to enlist the unquestioning support of the police, who arrive mob-handed, six or eight at a time, beating down doors, tearing babies from their mothers’ arms, holding parents in custody for up to 36 hours while their children are removed into foster care.
The parents must then wrestle with a Kafka-esque system rigged against them in every way. They find themselves in courts where every normal principle of British justice has been stood on its head. Social workers may give written evidence to a judge which the parents aren’t allowed to see. The most outrageous hearsay evidence may be accepted by the court without the parents even being allowed to cross-examine on it.
A key part is played by evidence from supposed “experts”, psychiatrists or paediatricians who may be paid up to £35,000 for their reports, and who receive regular work from the social workers involved. Parents are forbidden to call their own independent experts to challenge a case made against them. They are, all too often, pressured into being represented by lawyers who, again, work regularly for the council, who fail to put their case and who turn out to be just part of the same system.
Parents may be forbidden to testify on their own behalf, but must listen for hours, even days, to everyone else involved – including their own lawyers – putting what amounts to a case for the prosecution. The guardian appointed to represent the interests of the child may never have met the child and merely endorses whatever the social workers say.
Not surprisingly, these bizarre practices are so geared to the interests of a corrupted system that, in the latest year for which we have figures (2008), of 7,340 applications for care orders made by social workers, only 20 were refused.
Meanwhile, the children themselves are handed over to foster homes, which receive £400 a week or £20,000 a year for each child, and where many are intensely unhappy and not infrequently abused. Foster carers and social workers routinely conspire to tell bewildered children that their parents neither love them nor want them back. Children and parents meet at rigorously supervised “contact sessions”, where any expression of affection or attempt to discuss why the children have been taken from home may be punished by termination of the session or denial of further contact.
The purpose of all this, funded by hundreds of millions of pounds of public money, is partly to keep in being the vast fostering industry, run by dozens of agencies, often owned by ex-social workers, which also receive £20,000 a year for each child they place. Of course, there are many good and responsible foster parents, but statistics show that children in care do very much worse on almost every count, from health to performance in school, than children living with their birth parents.
Another purpose of the system is to ensure that as many children as possible are adopted (at a cost of £36,000 per placement), in accordance with Tony Blair’s personal commitment a decade ago that the target for adoptions in Britain should rise by 40 per cent. Councils are still receiving millions of pounds a year for meeting adoption targets.
Yet virtually none of this reaches the outside world because the system is hidden behind an almost impenetrable veil of secrecy. The nominal reason for this is to protect the identity and interests of the children, but secrecy has been so extended that its real aim is to protect the system itself and all those who do so well out of it.
Parents are forbidden to talk to the media or even to their MPs about the injustice they are suffering. Several times in recent months, councils have sought injunctions to prohibit me reporting anything at all about a case, even though no person or even the council itself would be identified. More than once, parents have been threatened with contempt of court and prison if they talk to me or anyone else about how they are being treated.
Very occasionally a judge or senior lawyer breaks ranks by speaking out against such abuse of state power, as when one Court of Appeal judge recently compared the conduct of a council’s social workers to what went on in “Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China”. But in general this cruel, dishonest and venal system continues on its way, hidden from view, accountable to nobody but itself.
The only people in a position to reform this system fundamentally are those who set it up in the first place under the 1989 Children Act – the politicians. But they have, with one or two shining exceptions – notably John Hemming – walked away from the Frankenstein’s monster that Parliament created. It is now up to them to support Mr Hemming and all those horribly maltreated families who are campaigning for one of the most outrageous scandals in Britain today to be brought to an end.