A recent Judgment about misuse of Section 20 by Herefordshire Council has shocked many and prompted newspaper coverage and numerous social media postings and tweets, but it has been known for a number of years that misuse of Section 20 is a serious problem. In 2015 Louise Tickle wrote about misuse of Section 20 in the Guardian. The article raised concerns about the legislation being “compulsion in disguise”. We suggest that when one has little alternative but to use or accept Section 20, as a means to access respite, when caring for a child that is hard to care for, under austerity service cut backs, this is exactly what it is.
Section 20 legislation was introduced in the 1980’s as a way for LAs to scrutinise foster care, and it was considered problematic at the time by adopters – with the concerns they raised not heeded or heard. For adoptive and special guardian families this legislation has always been a potential problem because of the very real risk of destabilisation when our children re-enter care. Our children tend to reject us when they feel rejected and of course any rejection can, from a child protection perspective be considered to have cause. This creates a tremendously hostile environment in which we must seek help and access respite.
There has been much social change since the 1980s. The Special Guardian Order only came about in 14 years ago and since the S20 legislation was introduced, single parent adoptions and special guardianships are relatively common – a fifth of adopters and nearly a third of special guardians were single carers in our survey. Many marriages and relationships are affected or may even break up under the strain of caring for an extremely challenging child. In our survey, just over half our respondents said their relationship had suffered because of the challenges of their caring role.
On top of looking after our children, so many of us have additional care commitments – we are often older parents, and most special guardians are grandparents. We are known as the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for our young ones and trying to support our own aging parents at the same time.
The statistics from our survey paint a bleak picture: 62% of us get no respite at all and less than 7% of nearly 400 respondents considered the Adoption Support Fund sufficient to meet their child’s needs.
How we are supposed to care for children, often with high levels of disability and very severe mental health needs, on our own, without respite, and inadequate support is a mystery – and there is little doubt that the result will be many returns to care, and more will come about as special guardian children start to reach the turbulent teenage years – this situation is a ticking time bomb for the government and platitudes from MPs are not going to cut it any more.
Should our disabled children re-enter care to enable us to access a break? Is this justifiable from an ethical perspective when a return to care may be destabilising, retraumatising and provoke high levels of fear for our children?
If our children do re-enter care under Section 20, who is it that will support us as families to be reunified? Having no ‘intention to reunify’ means there is, conveniently, no further obligation to support the child in the context of their family. How much easier it can be to put a child into foster care than have to listen to the demands of adopters and special guardians – when resources are so limited and inadequate. Once in foster care it is the Local Authority that is in the scrutinising role, but no one to scrutinise them apart from the Independent Reviewing Officers, who work for the Local Authority and do not take cases back to court.
Reunification should never be ruled out in adoptions according to Selwyn (2014) – but we are finding this recommendation makes it very easy to put reunification, as a goal to work towards, to one side, and come up with all sorts of reasons why it should not happen. We implore loacal authorities to stop viewing us as a ‘failed care option’ when we run into problems and seek help. Surely we deserve as much support as foster carers?
Going through harrowing child protection investigations and court proceedings, when we ask for help, is a nightmare that any sane person would wish to avoid and our survey suggested that far too many of are now scared to seek help – even from their GP – half the special guardians and a third of the adopters responding to our survey told us they had, at some stage, been scared to seek help from their doctor for their own health needs, for fear their parenting capacity would be judged.
It is not unusual to find, when we seek help for our children, we are described as ‘challenging’ to work with, especially when our children are looked after by the state, with terrible consequences in the recent Powys child suicide case – as it meant the child’s parents, who retained parental responsibility under Section 20 since he re-entered care at 10, could not advocate effectively for him, and he took his own life just before he reached 18: “The local authority apologies unreservedly for the way in which it failed to provide appropriate support for this young man”.
Under Section 20 it can be that Local Authorities marginalise parents. In a case where an adopted child was eventually made a Ward of Court the father is reported to ask “plaintively: if this is the way the local authority treat us when we alone have parental responsibility (under Section 20), how will they treat us if they share parental responsibility with us under a care order?” The Judge considers this “a serious question. I regret to say that on the evidence before me I am in no doubt that there is a likelihood, a real possibility, that if I make a care order the parents will be marginalised and largely ignored.”  EWHC 4148 (Fam)CASE No. EY11CO0084. How did the Wardship work out? Challenging we imagine – remaining an adversary of the local authority, and one’s own child, for years on end, cannot be easy for any parent.
For any judge in any doubt that the making of a Care Order will pose enormous problems for the future when our children will need us and need someone to look out for them when children’s services have long gone, please look at this case of a young Muslim boy. taken into care at 11 after his adoptive parents sought help. For two years he wanted to go home but now, after his fourth foster carer handed in her notice, he rejects his faith and his adoptive parents. There is no support for the parents or family as a whole and the family is quite simply in the wrong hands – no post adoption support is accessible at all – the adoption may as well be an irrelevance.
Current legislation is not really working for our families. Section 20 does not allow us to achieve the help for our children that they need, and it carries a very big risk of destabilisation for our children. Wardship makes us into adversaries of our child and the local authority, as does Section 31, which sees us marginalised further – at a time of life when children naturally push away from parents. On top of this, if they have attachment problems, or mental health issues that compromise feelings of safety, they are likely to push us away.
We desperately need professionals that can see beyond this sort of rejection and understand the reasons for it are not necessarily due to our failings.
Ultimately our families – parents, children or both – should be able to access respite without the need for any child to re-enter care and become destabilised with fear and feelings of rejection. There needs to be an alternative to Section 20/ Section 31, that allows us to advocate for our children who are so vulnerable – they are not mini adults able to fend for themselves – and they need to be able to relinquish control and feel able to be vulnerable with us. We have to hold them, and we need someone to hold us – not attack and criticise us and find fault. This legislation needs to support reunification as an ultimate goal, achievable or not, so families can be brought back together when space is needed. Professionals are required that value the hard work done by committed parents and special guardians and we urgently need protection from child protection social work teams with ‘rescue the child’ as their raison d’etre, and from harmful legislation that enables parents and children to be pulled apart with no calling to account when this happens – because the opinion of a professional is sacrosanct. Professionals will protect each other – they work in groups and develop professional relationships – so once an approach is decided, or an adopter or special guardian is labelled as difficult, it is too hard for an individual to disagree. We should not ever have to cross question those with a duty of care that failed to support, or Cafcass guardians, in courts of law, with no legal help, as a parent must when they wish for reunification and the LA and Cafcass Guardian have decided for foster care. It is far far easier to destroy something than build it – and to see all the years of hard work we have put in being trashed, whilst we are blamed, is soul destroying. Yes, legislative and policy review is urgently needed to keep up with social change, but in the meantime, we suggest the Independent Guardian might be a very sound investment for our government. These highly skilled professionals would take a family centred approach where ever a child lived, and whatever their legal status, for all children living at the edges of care, which includes all children that are, through no fault of their own, hard to care for or parent.