Guest Post – by practising frontline child protection social worker

 

As a parent involved with children’s services; we are generally suspicious of “The Social Worker”. This comes from the fear that they have the power to take our children away and it’s only natural to feel that way when our families are threatened. Social Workers are seen as ‘the enemy’, depersonalised, mistrusted, vilified and viewed with a cautious eye.

But Social Workers are human beings too. And, broadly speaking, entered the world of social work to try and help people. Some social workers find the current “risk-averse” climate and the focus on “timescales” and “permanence” very difficult to work in, because it doesn’t always allow them to help people in the way they want to.

I wanted a post by a frontline, practicing, child protection social worker, because I wanted the families who read my site to get some advice from a social worker not directly involved with their own family. I know how hard it is to listen to someone who has been responsible for taking your child away. But I also know the value of the advice that most social workers can give, and that that advice is given out of a real, genuine desire to keep families together where it is safe enough to do so.   

James – not his real name – is a qualified social worker currently supervising social workers and practising with children and families who are the subject of child protection plans and care proceedings. He has previously worked as a court appointed expert undertaking parenting assessments. These views are his own and based on his own experience. I am extremely grateful to James for taking the time to write this post and I hope it helps you.

 

I first came across Annie when I read this blog and like many readers, I was blown away by her account and the insights it gave me. We have since met when I invited her to talk to some of my colleagues in what was one of the most moving and humbling presentations I have ever seen.

When I was asked by Annie to write this post I accepted without hesitation. I write in recognition of the inspiration and hope that her brave work has given me and many of my colleagues in her journey so far. She writes honestly, speaks from the heart, and provides sound advice; I will try to do the same.

I also agreed to write this because on a personal level, I often find myself struggling to deal with the demands of my work with families. Sometimes it feels like all we social workers are doing is causing further pain and trauma to those families who have experienced and survived so much already. I hope that by writing this post I can help to redress this and enable parents to better understand and negotiate the child protection system and social work interventions with their families. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I or my colleagues have helped a family to make changes to improve their lives and those of their children.

In my career I have worked with parents who have been picking up the pieces of their own difficult childhood experiences, most of whom are still traumatised by what has happened to them.
I have worked with parents who have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, FGM, slavery and exploitation, war and conflict, neglect, and emotional abuse.
I have worked with parents whose own parents have had difficulties with addictions, violent relationships, mental illness and more, and have been unable to look after their children as a result of that.
Sadly, some of the parents I have worked with have experienced abuse from within the care system, the very alternative which was supposed to keep them safe.

My point is this; In my work I don’t think I can recall having come across a parent who has not faced and survived horrendous adversity already in their life. In my experience it is often because of the impact of this adversity that many find themselves faced with child protection interventions and court proceedings. What is frustrating is that these interventions in themselves can be brutal for parents and this is something that Annie’s experience so clearly shows. Some parents can make it through, work with professionals to make the changes asked of them and show professionals and the courts that their children will be safe; some cannot. I have only compassion for those parents who don’t manage it and admiration for those who do.

In thinking about what advice I can give to those parents who find themselves facing child protection processes or care proceedings, I am not aiming to help you ‘beat’ the system, but simply to stand the best chance of navigating through it successfully.

 

My Advice

Be honest

Many of you might have heard social workers talk about ‘openness and honesty’ in meetings or seen it used in reports. It’s concept which is very important, and although on the surface it might seem fairly simple, in reality it is complicated. Sometimes for parents it can involve talking with social workers about some of the most difficult things that have happened in their lives such as abusive childhood experiences, difficult relationships, or things which they have done in the past which they might really regret or feel ashamed of. It can even mean talking about some-thing very exposing or difficult, for example, feeling that you might not like your child.
I understand that:
a) not many people would willingly want to talk about these things
and
b) parents might be suspicious of why these things are being asked of them.
It must be terrifying to be in that situation and easy to think that social workers are looking for problems or reasons for you not to look after your children. It also must be tempting to hold back on talking about these things in order to present a better picture of yourself and your family. However the reality is that social workers are usually asking about these things to try and better understand your life and to think about how they might be able to help you as a family.

Openness and honesty are important for another reason too. When we have concerns about a child, one of the things that is most difficult for social workers is dealing with uncertainty. Often when we are thinking about whether children are at risk from their parents, we are thinking about what might be happening in a child’s life when we are not there. If we don’t think a parent is being honest with us, it can have the effect of increasing our anxiety about what we don’t know. However, if what we get is an accurate picture of what is happening, it can make a huge difference to how we think about whether a child is safe in a family.

 

Tell us if you don’t understand

If you don’t understand something that is being asked of you, make sure you tell the social worker. Scary thought maybe? Well the reality is that social work is bogged down with phrases and terminology. Often I think that social workers hide behind this because they themselves do not fully understand what they are saying. I was once at some training where Andrew Turnell (a big name in the profession) said “if you can’t explain something to a six year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself”. I think this is a very important point. Everything a social worker says to you should be explained in a way which is VERY easy to understand. If they are not doing so then it is really important you tell them. If it still does not make sense, ask them to explain it until it does. The stakes can be very high and it is important that you understand what you are agreeing to or being asked to do. It won’t reflect badly on you if you say you don’t understand something, but it might do if you are seen not to stick to an agreement, but in reality have not told anybody you did not understand what you agreed to.

Some people have real difficulties in understanding what is happening when social workers are involved with their family and need some extra help to do this. If you think you might need some extra help then think about asking to be referred for an advocate. An advocate is somebody who can help you to understand what is happening and help you to make informed choices and decisions. They will attend big meetings with you and talk to you about them before and after. If social worker suggests you would benefit from an advocate then I would recommend you consider this. The social worker should be able to arrange this for you too.

 

Listen

Listen to what the social worker is saying and try and understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, (and say if you don’t), but it is really important that you listen to, and think carefully about what they are worried about. You might agree with them and be worried about some of the same things too. Whatever the case may be, it is important that you are able to listen and think about what people are saying to you, no matter how painful it might be to hear. Often in my experience when parents are able to really listen and reflect on what people are worried about, it can be the turning point in our work with their families.

 

Prepare

Emotions can run high in meetings with social workers, and often in these situations I would guess that parents can forget what they wanted to say or the points they want to get across. The same happens for me when I am placed under strain. The best way to deal with this is to prepare some notes beforehand and take some notes at the time. It also comes back to my earlier point about understanding what is being asked of you. There is no reason why you should not take notes but if you do choose to during meetings or visits from social workers, then you might want to explain why you are doing so. It’s better to be clear about this than to leave any room for misunderstanding.

 

Ask for help

This relates back to being honest. It must be really scary to admit to a social worker that there is a problem, but if you can, try to have the confidence to ask for help with any difficulties that you might be having. This can often be the starting point for getting help and making changes. A social worker will always want to help your family and will be able to work with you to think about what you might find helpful.

 

Build a relationship

Every social worker should treat you and your family with respect, compassion and openness. This does not mean they have to agree with you on everything, but if they don’t agree or if they are worried about something, they should tell you, and do it in a sensitive and respectful way. If you don’t feel this is happening then ask to speak to their manager about it. If you do this, then as I mentioned before, prepare yourself carefully so that you stand the best chance of getting your point across.

There can be many reasons why you might find it difficult to build a relationship with a social worker. This might, for example, be to do with their gender, religion or background. It might also be because of your own experiences (maybe they remind you of somebody or something unpleasant). If there are difficulties, then have a conversation with them about it. If it doesn’t change, then consider asking for a change of social worker. Your relationship with the social worker is so important and it is vital that you feel as comfortable as possible with them.

 

Talk to us if you are anxious

If you are anxious about a social worker visiting, tell them. The prospect of having a social worker visit can, at times, I imagine, be terrifying for families. It must be so tempting at times for parents to cancel appointments. My advice is that if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening then rather than avoiding or cancelling appointments or meetings, ring the social worker and try to tell them about it. Not always easy I know, but they should be understanding and be able to help alleviate some of your worries about this. It will also help them to understand what is going on for you.

 

Get sensible advice

I know that Annie is a strong believer in the work of the Family Rights Group and I would thoroughly recommend you have a look at their website www.frg.org.uk.

If you are looking for information online, choose your online resources carefully as there is a lot of misinformation out there. I would recommend reading what Annie and Sarah Phillimore have said about this already on this website.

 

 

I hope this is useful and makes some sense to you. Although I am blogging this anonymously, you can contact me via the contact form on this website here. You can also tweet me: @jamesgosingSW

Surviving Safeguarding…or There And Back Again.

I want to tell my story, in an effort to explain why I have chosen to write this Blog. It’s not a pleasant or an easy tale to tell. What I have been through in so many ways defines me, which, when you read my story, is very sad. But it is because it defines me that I want to tell you and…well…this is me.

The nature of the matter, and the fact that I, and my children have been subject to public law proceedings requires me to anonymise my story. As such, there are parts that might read a bit strange. For example, I use “my child” and gender neutral vocabulary at times, and my grammar has (toe-curlingly) had to take a back seat. I have also added (in brackets and italics) explanations of terms used within the Child Protection process. But, other than that, my story is verbatim.

This story is my life, and all that I am. I am happy to answer any questions, where I can, or take any comments on the chin.

I’ve always tried to be a good mother, that I know, but my mental health hasn’t always been stable as a result of a very traumatic childhood.

I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused by my biological Father, and neglected and disregarded by my Mother, causing me to spend time within the care system. This had the consequence that I was drawn to abusive and inappropriate relationships with men, whilst desperately searching for love, acceptance and a family.

As such, I had a number of children by a number of Fathers, most of whom abandoned us. Admittedly, I have made mistakes throughout my life and on reflection, I have let my children down at times by prioritising abusive relationships over them. I have always struggled with my mental health as a result of my abuse as a child which has also impacted on my children. I have had two breakdowns in my life and my mental health has been acute at others.

My first breakdown in 2007, during an emotionally abusive relationship, resulted in me approaching the LA for help as I had no family I felt the children would be safe with. My children were accommodated under a Section 20 (a voluntary placement with foster carers where a parent retains 100% Parental Responsibility) for around three months, during which the LA were relatively supportive and helpful. My children were returned under a Child Protection Plan (an agreement with the LA to adhere to certain requirements, such as unplanned visits by Social Workers, in order to ensure the children and parents are safe and well) and within six months the case was closed.

In 2010, one of my children was diagnosed with a condition that explained their meltdowns and increasingly frightening behaviours. My child requested to go in to LA care of their own volition, no longer feeling able to live in a family unit. I missed my child desperately and saw it as a rejection, but had no choice other than to accept it. Once again, the LA were reasonably supportive and helpful.

I then got into another abusive relationship in 2011, my mental health having spiralled after my child had left home. I was very vulnerable and the relationship ultimately turned violent. My mental health was so acute at that point that I truly felt the children would be better off without me and I took a massive overdose. I made arrangements for the children to be collected from school, but did not think about the rest of their lives. I could absent myself from responsibility and say that it was because I was so mentally ill. Yes, I was, but my behaviour was not that of a mother and I am truly ashamed I took that course of action. I should have thought of my children first and last.

I asked the LA for help at that point once again, having left the relationship and got to a refuge. The LA helped with my children, but the dynamic changed and they wouldn’t permit them to return to me. They said they feared I would engage in another inappropriate relationship in the future and subsequently have another breakdown. They said “future risk of emotional harm” and issued proceedings. I understand entirely now why they took that course of action, but at the time I was in absolute despair, screaming inside for my children, and sharply plummeting into self-destruct.

It had become a “battle” with the LA. No longer were they ‘supportive’ and ‘helpful’, but invincible and indomitable. A Psychiatric Report and a Psychological Report (these are commonly commissioned during Child Protection Proceedings to provide evidence to the Court) both stated I needed two years of Therapy. My solicitor told me to face facts, it was hopeless.

I felt crushed, lost, alone.

I had been a mother since my mid-teens – who was I without my children? They were all I knew.

I continued to make poor choices and fell pregnant once again during the Proceedings. I knew the LA could try to take my unborn baby so battled with a termination. I was booked in at 11 weeks. I couldn’t do it.

The Proceedings concluded at the IRH (Issues Resolution Hearing – the “last chance” for everyone to agree before a contested Final Hearing), my eldest, being ‘of age’, came home to me and it was agreed my child who had left home of their own volition would stay under a Section 20 with unlimited, unsupervised contact (as I was in agreement).
Two children stayed in Long Term Foster Care under a full non-contested Care Order (this means the LA share Parental Responsibility with parents, but the LA have the ultimate say in important decisions such as schooling etc) but with weekly, supervised contact (it is normal to have supervised contact when children are in Foster Care however the frequency is normally 6 times per year). This was devastating for us all, but agreeing to the Order safeguarded my contact.
Another child stayed with their Father under a Residence Order – now known as a Child Arrangement Order – but with daily contact.

Mere days after Proceedings ended, my ex-partner absconded with this child and cut all contact. I had to issue private law (contact) proceedings as Litigant in Person (representing myself, no lawyer) at seven months pregnant, answering wild accusations made by my ex-partner.

The LA then used these accusations, as well as my history, as evidence I wasn’t stable. I was told the LA would try to take my baby at birth and have him or her adopted in case I ever got into another abusive relationship, or suffered another mental health issue.

I was advised to flee the country by John Hemmings (then an MP) and Ian Josephs. “Go to Ireland”.
I nearly did. But I couldn’t leave my other children. So I stayed here, with my due date growing closer each day – in the full knowledge that going into labour sparked the end and that I could lose my baby forever.

I gave birth to my baby after a horrific labour, and the LA issued Proceedings shortly after. We were forced to remain in hospital, neither of us permitted to leave. Despite LA submitting in court there was no immediate risk of harm (in theory, for a baby to be removed there usually has to be an immediate risk of harm, as in death, but in practice it doesn’t often work like that), once I read the Case Summary, I knew it was over.
I was put on the stand, just a few days postnatal, hardly able to walk, bleeding heavily, leaking breast milk and made to fight. I did my best but I was so traumatised and terrified. I met the Children’s Guardian (they represent the child in Court and are independent) during the Hearing, I never stood a chance. The LA requested only once per week contact as they “didn’t want me to bond”; the Judge refused and gave me three times weekly.

My baby was taken from me at a few days old out of my arms and from our hospital bed, on a “future risk of emotional harm”.

I screamed when they took him. A guttural, primal scream.

I left hospital with empty arms, an empty uterus, and a breast pump given to me by LA as I was still exclusively breastfeeding. I had never pumped before, having breastfed previously and had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t allowed to see my baby for 3 days, and baby was put on formula against my wishes. The LA refused to transport my breast milk and I was told I could bring it to contact. I kept breastfeeding every contact and expressed 12 times per day, day and night, taking it to contact each time.

It was like a death every time I had to leave my baby after contact, but I didn’t miss a single one offered to me.

It was like I was grieving, whilst my child was still alive, all the time having to keep fighting. This was the very epitome of disenfranchised grief. But I kept going. I began the Therapy that had been recommended during Proceedings, and began counselling too. I read What should you do if Social Services steal your children, by suesspiciousminds and took every single scrap of advice given.

The LA made applications for Care and Placement orders (a Placement order allows the LA to place the child for adoption against their parent’s wishes, this is known as Forced Adoption and we are one of a tiny number of countries in the world that allows this).

My solicitor told me to give up; my child WOULD be adopted, it was hopeless. She told me to stop breastfeeding as it was making me ill. She told me to stop going to contact, to protect myself from the inevitable. When a newborn baby is taken at birth by a LA, the chances of having that baby returned to their parent’s care was 0.25%.

I sacked her, found a solicitor who believed in me and I fought them, I fought all the way with every tiny bit of strength I had. I never backed down, never gave up, every time they battered me down, I got back up and kept going.

The tide began to turn. The Guardian recommended rehabilitation home, my local MP took my case on and a local charity supporting parents through the child protection process – Families In Care – stood shoulder to shoulder with me, supporting me all the way. Eventually the LA were left standing completely alone as everyone fought alongside me for my child to come home.

I turned my life around. In the days I didn’t have contacts, I attended therapy, counselling, domestic abuse courses, stress control courses, a relaxation technique course, confidence building, assertiveness training. I went to every contact offered to me for the children not in my care, I never missed one. I educated myself on the law, religiously read suesspiciousminds and pinktape and began to read Family Law Week and Bailii, scouring each for anything I could use. I also asked for advice on Mumsnet, and found some very experienced people willing to help and offer good advice. In short, I fought and fought and fought.

I won my case for my child who had been taken away by their father, despite LA opposing all the way – advising the Court I should be given one hour a week in a contact centre supervised by them – and despite having no lawyer. I was given shared care; three nights and six days a week.

The Judge in my baby’s case gave the LA chance after chance to back down. They wouldn’t and pursued a plan of adoption. In my view, their behaviour was increasingly hostile, their working practice sloppy, inefficient and narrow-minded. In one Hearing, the Judge told them the way they had treat me was “outrageous”, “unforgivable”, “beggared belief” and made it clear that an Application for an Independent Social Work Assessment would be very sympathetically heard (the reasoning behind this was that the LA were rigid in their thinking and would never give me a chance) . The Judge told me I was not only “good enough” but that I gave a “higher than average standard of parenting care” and that I was a “highly intelligent woman”. I finally felt listened to and respected.

Shortly after that Hearing, the LA finally backed down, accepting a plan of rehabilitation under an Supervision Order (an Order that means parents retain 100% Parental Responsibility but means the LA MUST support, assist and befriend the family).

258 days after my baby was first taken, they were handed back to me in a car park and have not only been home now for over three years without issue but the Supervision Order expired in March 2015 and the case was closed. It could have been very different.

I have completed the Therapy recommended during Proceedings, despite the LA stating they believed the prospect of my engagement looked “bleak”, and made huge progress. I am now more reflective, more mindful, quieter, and calmer. A Psychological Report in late 2015 stated I had “no mental health issues”. The same Psychologist who had originally diagnosed me told me I did not now meet the threshold for any mental health diagnosis.

The LA continued to enforce supervised contact once per week with the two children who remain in long term foster care, despite having 3 children in my care and unsupervised, overnight access to another. The LAs reasoning was that, if I was unsupervised, I “may tell these two children that I want them to come home” which “may destabilise their placement”.
The LA did not think how it may feel for my two children not to hear these words. That they may – as they now do – feel that I fought for their youngest siblings, but not for them.
I duly issued Proceedings as LiP (Litigant in Person) in 2015 to bring their contact more in line with that of which their siblings enjoy. I also successfully applied for an ISW (Independent Social Work) assessment and the updating Psychological Assessment which provided me with evidence to support my application.

This now marked my SIXTH set of Proceedings in under 3 years.

I was granted unsupervised contact, at home, with my two children in long term foster care. It went beautifully well for a time. They both expressed a wish to come home. I issued Proceedings for a Discharge of the Care Order. During those Proceedings, oddly, they both changed their minds. I respected their wishes, and withdrew my application.

One child then chose to come home, whilst the other stayed. You can read more about that here. It lasted four days. We both naively thought the desire to be together would be enough to make it work.

We were fractured again, broken. It was hard. Both my children cut contact. I had to respect that, ensuring and reassuring the both via their social worker that my door was always open for them and I was always here for them. It was difficult not to put barriers up to protect myself; a natural and understandable reaction I think. I blamed and tortured myself.

Unexpectedly, two months later, my child who I had a shared care arrangement with their father, came home to live with me full-time. Their father simply abandoned our child one day. This child has lived with me since September 2016 and will now stay with me until they are ready to leave home.

One of the main people to help support me was my eldest son. One of the main things that helped me was writing my blog. I began training social workers, I began speaking at conferences. Terrifyingly, the media told my story (see Media section!).
I wanted to make a difference. With balls of steel, I came off benefits and became self employed. I wrote for Community Care. I travelled, around one day a week, around our nation to help social workers to reconnect with their service users. My children were proud of me. I found, for the first time in my life, I felt worth something.

I have a lot of reparatory work to do with all of my children, to put right what I previously did wrong. I still carry a lot of guilt, but it is a work in progress. I will never be able to forgive myself for my mistakes, but I can use them as fuel to ensure I am the best parent I can be, here and now.

At the time, I never would have believed I would say this, but I am grateful for what I have been through. It was incredibly traumatic, and I still live that trauma each day, but it changed me for the better. It has made me a better Mum, a better person, and given me a willingness to believe in myself, trust myself, and – for the first time -like myself.

 

Since first writing this piece, I have lost two members of my family to suicide; my eldest son on May the 27th 2017 and my ex-partner (who had previously abandoned our child) on August the 20th 2017. You can read the story of their deaths here.

I have my two youngest children in my full-time care, children who wish to remain in foster care  and one child at University. My eldest son lies in a grave I visit daily. Every single day I apologise for my failings. Every single day I vow to make his short life count for something. I intend, in time, to set up a Foundation for the elder siblings of children in care, a forgotten demographic. They need support and a voice too.

I fight through every day, and I will keep fighting to fulfil my original aim; to bring social worker and service user closer together. There should be no “them and us”.
We are We.

Thank you for reading.

 

Annie

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