A recent tweet from Nigel Priestly, a well known solicitor who specialises in adoption cases, should give cause for concern. We are grateful to him for raising awareness of what has transpired.
“Child made L After child at 14 mths from chaotic home. Foster care/rehab to M/foster care/R0 to strangers for 21/2 yrs/disruption/f care/adopted at 6/breakdown at 13. CSE+ violence+ attachment probs-Beyond control threshold?LA want CO on basis of adopters parenting! Unbelievable!” (26/7/18)
This is not, according to our experiences, an isolated or unusual case. Special guardians are also suffering. A number of our group members have had very traumatic experiences of court, or are currently having great difficulties.
The threshold for taking a child into care is that the child is ‘beyond parental control’ or there is ‘risk of significant harm’ to the child if he/she is not accommodated by the local authority. In the case of ‘beyond parental control’ there is a focus on the problems of behaviour and not the causes, many of which professionals are aware of, and have often failed to address by supporting the child and family.
For many young people in care the corporate parent proves to be an inadequate parent, with problems with absconding, truancy, violence and aggression, perhaps involvement in CSE, drug taking/ dealing, and other criminal or anti social behaviour. These are some of the issues that led to authorities seeking a Care Order, yet they often persist, and are not successfully addressed.
The challenges of court
The adversarial nature of proceedings and lack of dialogue between parties (except through advocates), in the court process, can mean polarised views and opinions that are hard to shift for us in courts. Professional lack of knowledge and understanding are incredibly hard to counter as a parent/carer, and a case may conclude with little shared understanding, which leaves us, and our children, extremely vulnerable.
It is standard procedure in court cases to suggest there are mental health problems on the part of the parent or special guardian. Family time – called ‘contact’ by professionals, during the course of care proceedings and in the aftermath of them under a Care Order, may be curtailed by the local authority in ways that feel punitive towards the child. This all causes great distress.
In the first instance we have legal representation but in later applications for discharge there is likely to be no legal aid or assistance, under the current thresholds. It rather defeats the object if one has to put the family home up as collateral to pay for legal help so the child can come back to live there. The charity Barprobono is so overwhelmed that even if one’s MP writes into the charity to request support, the chances are high that no help can be provided. We do not have the legal knowledge that is needed. It is not a level playing field and the stakes are far higher for us than anyone else in the court. The ramifications of a Care Order can be significant – life changing for us and our children, those at home as well as those re-entering care. Yet what choice do we have if we cannot live safely with our child, if our child needs secure accommodation or support we have not the resources to provide?
Professionals and experts who judge us and don’t understand.
We are finding that without the right experts involved in court proceedings, who really understand adoption/special guardianship issues, serious errors are made, which are almost impossible to rectify. A major problem for us is there is usually no one involved in such court proceedings who has any real concept of what it is actually like to adopt/parent a child who suffered trauma and abuse in early life, and how exhausting and stressful our lives can be. The pressures we are under are often not appreciated.
Assessments need to be fair and objective – done by the right experts, and with instructions that are sufficiently impartial. Expecting the parent or special guardian who will inevitably be under enormous emotional duress, to cross examine professionals who do not seem to understand, or the expert who was, from their perspective, chosen and instructed in a way that was not impartial, by adversarial parties – this may be legal but it is beyond stressful for us, and seems utterly pointless. We have found that making appeals in this scenario – so that more suitably qualified experts might be instructed, and the case might potentially have a more just outcome, to be futile. This is very concerning and disheartening. There is nothing we can do it seems. It is hard to bear.
A system that is role oriented – not task oriented, and problem solving
Courts and organisations are role oriented not task oriented – as a parent or carer is. This means everyone can do their ‘job’, and still there are cracks and gaps, which we end up trying to fill. As parents and special guardians we do what needs to be done until we break down unable to do more, and we are unable to safely contain the child’s anger, hurt and pain. We are in the firing line for this and our love will be tested again and again. We understand where the anger and hurt comes from. We need help and support to deal with it, and it will take many years – and we have not failed if we do not succeed or cannot live together as a family during the teenage years. This is not necessarily a ‘breakdown’. What we have to endure is beyond what any carer, teacher or therapist expects to deal with. These professionals can refuse to deal with the child, or exclude them from school. It is us who must try and help the child move forwards when this happens. Then, almost inevitably because we have asked for more help and support than there is on offer in our local authority, they must move forwards without us, when a Care Order is made. Looked After Child Reviews are just once every six months, and if there is disagreement about the approach we will be informed that what is happening is in the ‘best interests’ of our child.
Coutesy and politeness are not respect
In court, and after a Care Order is made, whilst there is courtesy and politeness – this does not equate to respect. Kindness is what is needed in these very difficult cases but it often seems to be missing. There can be little sensitivity shown towards a parent or special guardian who has tried their best for so long, and has asked for help – having reached the heartbreaking decision they cannot live safely with their child.
The aftermath of care proceedings when threshold is proven
Secure accomodation and residential care are often needed, when our children re-enter care – and it can be hard for local authorities to find foster carers who are willing to take on the ‘risk’ of parenting or caring for our children, especially if the child is hard to care for, is unable to emotionally regulate, or was sexual abused in early life – with the risk of allegations. Whilst we struggle to cope as parent/carers, we are finding that once back in the care system, our vulnerable children are exposed to far greater risks than at home with us – grooming, sexual exploitation, being used by drug gangs. Our children may try to take their own lives, or go missing – but we are often powerless to assist them or advocate for them. Cases drift with little professional continuity and multiple placement moves.
Commissioning for our children may not happen. As Dame Christine Lenehan, co-chair of the SCIE mental health and wellbeing project pointed out – commissioning does not happen in a vacuum. And as her co-chair Peter Fonagy suggested – there needs to be a reporting system for ‘never’ cases – but there doesn’t seem to be one.
It can feel to us that if the corporate parent were to be judged against the threshold of significant harm, as we are/were, it would be proven many times over.
Love and affection are essential factors, they are needed for a child’s emotional development
Our children may, with the right approach, better appreciate us and learn to love us more after time apart, as they mature emotionally and have time away from the intensity of family life, which they can find too demanding or overwhelming. Our children are survivors. They need space and understanding to help them thrive. They also need to know someone is there and they are cared about and not forgotten.
Children need love and affection to develop emotionally – this is something that we can provide – whether or not a child lives with us. We call this ‘parenting from a distance’.
What is needed in these complex cases is shared understanding and a way forward that supports the child – with professionals and organisations working together with us. We are a resource, and should be used as such – we have a deep understanding of our child’s needs gained over many years of parenting and caring for then, and we have made a lifelong commitment to them. Most importantly of all, we offer our children ‘come what may’ love and affection. This is every child’s birthright, and our children need it more than most, to overcome their difficulties and build resilience.
Transitioning to adult life can be so hard for our children. They need family and support more than ever at this difficult stage of life. They need our protection. When a Care Order is made it is as if the system works against us to help our children. Without connection with us, and with them being so disconnected from us and made to feel we are unsafe to care for them, they may turn to their birth family, out of desperation for love and connection, and in such a vulnerable state. The parents can be angry with us – imagining that we are complicit in the removal process – when the reality is we may not be well informed at all by services. There is no one to protect us and consequences have been serious for blameless individuals. Our children feel split.
One of the saddest consequences of a Care Order is that we are written off as a family, replaced by other forms of care, and it can be that no dialogue will be achievable about reunification as an ultimate goal to work towards, even when this is the child’s wish.
Poor scrutinising of the performance level of agencies in and after court
The Local Government Ombudsman and the Local Authority will not consider matters that have been to court. The remit of court is too narrow to problem solve and consider many important aspects of the case. This leaves families unable to rectify injustices.
The scrutinising of public law order implementation, when an adopted or special guardianship child re-enters care, and the case has been to court, is not sufficient. Independent Reviewing Officers and Cafcass Guardians do not seem to bring these cases back to court.
Unable to access the support that is intended to help the child
In this scenario of a public law order being made, there is no possibility for the child to access the Adoption Support Fund, with the specialist assessment and help this could bring. It is not helpful in any way, and it seems poorly considered, that those who are in all likelihood in most need of specialist help, support and knowledge, cannot access it.
No learning from cases. No progress made.
In his most recent speech, Sir James Munby, the outgoing head of the Family Court, encourages the ‘telling of truth to power’. This is what we try to do when we have been through a difficult time as families, when the system has failed us, our children suffer – and we are left broken hearted and made to feel our parenting was the cause.
Our children are not always able to speak out – their difficult early life can mean they find this hard – they may be frightened, they may have lost hope – they rely on us, but we may struggle to be heard. We also need to protect their right of privacy – and ours. Care proceedings and their aftermath can leave us out on a limb, unable to be heard, facing shut doors and closing of ranks, unable to achieve the support that is needed for our children as they grow up, possibly becoming estranged from us, despite our best efforts.
The Family Courts are opening up but when there is no contested hearing, there are no judgments to publish. If a local authority/Cafcass guardian has finally conceeded to discharge, and to allowing a child to go back home after many years back in the care system, longing for this outcome – no one will learn about this. If we are successful in achieving the discharge of public law orders and have managed to rectify errors, then we are finding no apologies are given to us or our children.
Harriett Sergeant in her report ‘Handle with Care’ (Centre for Policy Studies 2006) quotes a young person saying , ‘ First I was fucked over by my family, then I was fucked over by social services. I don’t know which was worse.’ It is an indictment of our caring society when things have not radically changed in the years since. We must ask ourselves why change is so hard to achieve.
What SG&AT has done
It is clear to us that adopters and special guardians need to be much better supported in our courts, before the case ever comes to court, and in the aftermath of care proceedings, particularly if a Care Order is made. Things change as our children develop and mature, or are exposed to risks in care, and the Care Order can be an impediment to us being able to help and support our children in so many ways when they are still so vulnerable.
- We have suggested that the government looks at developing a new childcare role the ‘Independent Guardian’ who would support our children with specialist knowledge and training, and take a more family centred view.
- We have suggested a Task Force is set up to look at how our children and families can be better supported, especially when they re-enter care. Family time and making connection with birth family, including brothers and sisters, is also something that needs consideration with us.
- We have suggested that models for reunification are developed, where none exist, for adoptive parents and special guardians. There seems to be little attention paid to the recommendation of the Selwyn Report that reunification should never be ruled out once a Care Order is made.
- We have supported a petition to bring about dialogue about legal change that we feel needs to be considered because it is impacting on us and our children, with life changing negative consequences. Please click this link to see this petition.
SG&AT Chair and Management Committee 31/7/18
Thank you for reading this article. Please contact us using this form below if you would like to give us your thoughts about it, or you would like to join SG&AT as an adoptive parent or special guardian.