When you are a parent going through Child Protection Proceedings, you will do and say anything to have your children returned to you. The pain of separation is so great, it can be overwhelming at times. When my newborn was removed, I desperately searched the internet for advice, guidance, someone…anyone to listen. I was very vulnerable, as are all parents at these times, and regularly came across “Don’t speak to Social Workers”, “Don’t engage”, “Tape record everything” from people who had already lost their children.
I was very lucky; I had a strong network of support around me and, with their help, was able to snorkel my way through the pool of bad advice found on the internet. I felt compelled to write this piece as an antidote to this, and in an attempt to offer parents another viewpoint from one who has been there, and successfully so.
Rule Number One
How to win your case
I am often asked by parents going through Proceedings how I succeeded in my newborn’s case. Unfortunately, not many of those parents are then willing to take on board the answer. The reality is, there is no “quick fix”. There is no magic wand, no one case law, no “freeman/common law” that is going to help to have your children returned to your care. I often see “admit nothing!” and I have to say, I cringe.
The best advice I can give a parent is this:
Look at your behaviour. Yes, it’s very uncomfortable, and it hurts. But genuinely look at the way you have behaved and see if you are able to admit that you have been at fault and made mistakes. I don’t doubt that the LA have also made mistakes in your case, but forget that for a moment and look inwards. Identify the parts of your parenting that are not “good enough”. Be totally honest with yourself. This is not about anything other than your children, keep that in mind at all times. Only when you have identified your mistakes can you hope to accept them, put them right and change. I intend to expand on this particular issue in a later post, but for now, that really is the way I had my newborn returned to my care. I identified where I had been going wrong, and I worked my backside off to put it right. Yes, of course, there were other factors, but that was the main one. The bottom line is, if you maintain you have done “nothing wrong” (I hear that regularly), you almost certainly will lose your children.
Rule Number Two
The best way to survive the worst day of your lives
There is never an easy way for children to be removed from home. Whether it is by consent (where you sign a Section 20), or by force (by an Interim Care Order, Emergency Protection Order, or Police Protection), it is always distressing for everyone concerned. It is almost pointless to advise any parent on this, as – having been there myself – it is one of the most traumatic experiences of your life. However, I have heard advice that parents should tell children to resist Social Workers or Police Officers removing them from the care of their parents. I have to say, for the children’s sake, this is a very bad move. Put yourself in your children’s shoes; you are being removed from everything you know and made to live with people you’ve never met in a house you’ve never seen. I would say this – don’t make it any more difficult for your children than it already is. Stay as calm as possible (I know…I know), tell your children you love them very much, and make sure they have special toys with them – like a comforter or a teddy bear, a favourite book or a doll. If there’s time, give them a photograph of you all together to take with them. Above all, don’t make any promises, because at that stage, you don’t know when you’ll see them again, you don’t know when they’ll be home. Just tell them you love them and you will do whatever you need to do for them.
Rule Number Three
If your children are currently in Foster Care, regardless of any Orders or lack thereof, it is likely they will be feeling upset, confused and anxious. Of course, they will miss you, as their parent, and of course they will want to be with you and come home. However, there is a difference between “want” and “need”. It is never advisable to encourage children to leave their Placement, unaccompanied and without warning and come to you. As much as it hurts, and I understand that pain more than anyone, children need consistency, and for the adults to take the lead. If your children do “turn up” unannounced, or contact you unexpectedly, I would always advise you, as their parent, let the Foster Carers and/or Social Workers know. One of my children turned up unannounced, having argued with their Foster Carer one day some time ago. I contacted the Foster Carer who was frantic with worry and about to ring the Police, reassured them my child was safe and made arrangements for the Carer to collect once I had sat with my child and talked through the reasons for their upset. It wasn’t that I didn’t want my child to stay, but that it wasn’t about what I wanted, but what was best.
On similar lines, it is never advisable to turn up at your children’s school, or placement in an effort to see them. Whilst this might help you as their parent, it is very likely to cause upset and confusion for your child, and panic and concern amongst the professionals. I used to live for my contact days, and would have given anything for even just a glimpse outside of those strict times. However, I know that had I taken matters in to my own hands, all it would have done was provided the LA with more evidence that I could not prioritise my children over my own needs.
Rule Number Four
Be careful what you say…and not for obvious reasons
If your children are in Foster Care, it is likely you will see them only at specified times and under supervision, by the LA, contact centre workers, or family members. Certainly my experience of contact supervised by the LA has been that everything of importance that is said is recorded, sometimes by a contact supervisor literally sitting with a notepad in front of you and your children. I can’t say that this is anything other than deeply unnatural and unpleasant, and many parents find it very difficult to attend contact as a result. I know at times, I really struggled to attend, not because I didn’t want to see my children, but solely because the pressure of being stared at and everything you say or do recorded and then picked over is extremely difficult to handle.
At times, my children begged me to take them home. At times, my children sobbed and wailed and at other times they were very angry with me that I couldn’t just take them home. At times they asked very difficult questions: “why can’t we come home?”, “why are (three children) home and we aren’t?”, “why can’t we see you more?”. During one contact session, one of my children referred to themselves as “Council Property”, because they were in Care. These questions, these contact sessions, made me feel so angry with the LA and at times I had to fight my impulses to react, to say how much I hated my children being in Foster Care, that I was jealous of the Carers, that I felt the LA weren’t committed in any way to keeping my family together. The main reason I didn’t? Because I absolutely did not want my children to be any unhappier than they already were. I didn’t want them to feel divided loyalties, I didn’t want them to have to carry my pain at our separation as a burden. Yes, as an aside, the LA would have used anything I said as evidence I was prioritising my own feelings and needs over that of my children, but to be honest, that didn’t matter as much as making sure my children felt secure in their placement. I didn’t want them to be there, but we genuinely had no other option at the time, so what was I, as a Mother, to do?
So. When you are in contact, and your children ask painful questions, think of them first and last and how your answer will affect them. Of course they need to know you miss them and you want them to be at home with you, but they also need to know it’s ok for them to feel secure and happy with their Foster Carers and that you support them. Vent to your family, your friends, your lawyer, but try your very best to be careful what you say to your children.
Rule Number Five
Lawyers V Litigants in Person
If the Local Authority initiate Care Proceedings, you are automatically entitled to Legal Aid. This then allows you free legal advice and representation in Court. I have heard much advice on forgoing this representation and acting as Litigant In Person (LiP), and it is true that there are benefits to this. However, having acted in Person preparing Applications, Court bundles, statements and evidence, and having had a lawyer, I can tell you that it is significantly easier with a lawyer, than without. It is absolutely the case, in my experience anyway, that there are certain lawyers who will not work as hard for you, and others who will fight tooth and nail. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.
If you want representation: I would advise seeking out a lawyer either out of the area, or one who acts in the main for parents, or Guardians.
If you want to act LiP: I would strongly advise using a Mackenzie Friend with a good reputation and reading Lucy Reed’s book “The Family Court Without A Lawyer”.
Reading this Guest Post by Sarah Phillimore on how to get the best out of your lawyer will also help, in my humble opinion.
Rule Number Six
Signing your life away…
If you are asked to sign a Section 20, or any kind of documentation at all, I would always advise having that documentation looked over first by a legal representative. When you sign such a document, you are told that you will retain 100% Parental Responsibility for your children, however, the reality is that you cannot realistically withdraw your consent thereafter and expect to have your children returned. Rightly so, the LA will want to see that the reason you signed in the first place is not going to be repeated. I have signed a Section 20 for two of my children before and, whilst it was entirely the right decision at the time and there was nothing else I could have done, I didn’t truly know the implications of what I was signing. Shortly after, the LA initiated Care Proceedings anyway, and what I found was that the S20 was used as a bit of a bargaining tool, if I withdrew my consent not only did the LA state they would apply for an Interim Care Order, but I was also advised by my lawyer that it would provide evidence that I was not cooperating with the LA. In conclusion, whilst sometimes there is no other option but a S20, I would advise thinking very carefully and getting some legal advice before you do so.
Rule Number Seven
This is a massively contentious issue and has been the subject of television documentaries and newspaper articles. It’s a difficult one for me, because I was in the position where I was pregnant, and in Proceedings with my other children. I was informed at an Initial Child Protection Conference at 8 months pregnant that the LA would be making an Application to Court to have my baby removed from my care at birth on a future risk of emotional harm. Of course I wanted to run, God did I not! I couldn’t bear the thought of them taking my baby. And certain quarters made it sound so easy! “Go to Ireland, get a house, have your baby, they can’t touch you, they’ll help keep your family together”.
It did used to be like that but things have changed in Ireland as a result of 700+ families a year fleeing abroad to escape the Local Authorities. The Irish economy has suffered and it’s not as easy to make a life unless you have plenty of money and contacts over there who are willing to help you. The reality is, without those things, it’s highly possible you will get over there and have your baby taken anyway. I personally would never ever have been able to leave my other children in the UK and go abroad, though I genuinely did consider it out of absolute terror at one point.
Of course, there are other countries you could go and there are families who have successfully relocated; you have to do what you think is best for you. I can completely relate to the fear and the want to run. I can’t advocate it, but I can understand it. I would always always advise staying and fighting. I know of cases where the family has relocated, and the concerns that the LA have had end up showing themselves, and sometimes children have been at risk, or have been harmed. Conversely, I know of cases where the family has fled, and been able to keep their children – only to lose them again when they return to the UK. I chose to stay and fight, knowing they would take my newborn. Would I have done that if I had plenty of money, contacts abroad and no other children? Honestly, I can’t be sure.
Rule Number Eight
In my time, I’ve heard all sorts of wild theories about “Experts” and a parent’s engagement with them during Proceedings. First of all, the term “Expert” can be attributed to many Professionals; a Psychiatrist, a Psychologist, a Medical Examiner to name a few. However, the Court also views the Social Worker as an “Expert”. Some camps feel that the input of a Expert Witness during Proceedings is invaluable as they are independent and have nothing to gain regardless of their viewpoint. Other camps feel that, as Experts are paid quite well for their input into Proceedings, it makes sense for that Expert to support the LA’s position, as that would then lead to them being instructed again. It appears true that there are “professional witnesses”, and it seems it can be a lucrative career.
So, what does that mean for a parent going through Proceedings? On the one hand, you would be forgiven for wondering the point in engaging, if the Expert is a potential “professional witness”. On the other hand, what do you have to lose? One of the worst things that could ever happen to you has already happened, your children have been taken, surely you would do anything possible to have them returned?
My advice would always be to engage as much as possible with any and all Professionals. Whether you like it or not, these are the people who will hold sway with the Court – don’t make it difficult for yourself. Suesspiciousminds says in “what should you do if social services steal your children” never to underestimate the power of being likeable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge where necessary and appropriate, but it does mean that you might need to grit your teeth and make nice with the very people you know may stop your children coming home. A big ask, I know. Every time you want to lose it with these people, keep in the forefront of your mind that you are doing this for your children. If you’re asked to engage in Therapy, or counselling, or complete assessments, or courses – do them. Don’t even hesitate.
Rule Number Nine
Some people advise recording interactions with social workers and I have mixed feelings on this one. Part of me thinks that there is no reason why we shouldn’t record meetings, conferences, even telephone calls; if the social work practice is good then the social worker’s should have no issue with it. However, I do worry that it perpetuates the adversarial dynamic, and the “us and them”.
Louise Tickle, a freelance journalist, has investigated this issue and I would advise you to read her article here.
I would also advise you to read The Transparency Project’s guidance on recording meetings with social workers here.
What I would finally advise is to take a notebook and pen to every meeting and take notes as you’re going. It’s also useful, where possible, to have an advocate, support worker, family member or friend with you at these meetings who are also prepared to take notes, particularly where there are emotive issues being discussed. I would also advise that you keep a notepad next to your phone and don’t be afraid to ask the Social Worker to pause whilst you jot something down. It’s a very good idea to keep a daily journal of anything and everything during Proceedings. Keep a record of appointments, meetings and Hearings and what occurred when they are over. This can also help to give you a daily focus and will be invaluable when it comes to statements and Final Hearing.
Rule Number Ten
If you suspect a child is being abused, physically, emotionally, or sexually, it is always best to pass that information to professionals. Similarly, if you are a victim of domestic abuse, it is always best to seek help. There are a wealth of local and national organisations there to help. As a survivor of both, I can promise you that, as a child, all I wanted was protection. It does not automatically follow that you will lose your children to foster care. It is our duty and responsibility to ensure the next generation are safeguarded and protected. What you need to be able to demonstrate to the LA and the Court, is that you can safeguard and protect your child. Keeping it quiet to avoid LA involvement is not going to help.
Whilst I can’t promise that following these rules will ensure the safe return of your children, I can tell you that following this advice will be doing something productive to bring your children home. Care Proceedings are the fight of you life, so fight well.