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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1514-viii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
THE CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEM IN ENGLAND
TUESDAY 22 MAY 2012
PROFESSOR EILEEN MUNRO
DISTRICT JUDGE NICHOLAS CRICHTON
and ANTHONY DOUGLAS
Evidence heard in Public Questions 701 - 790
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Education Committee
on Tuesday 22 May 2012
Mr Graham Stuart (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Professor Eileen Munro, Professor of Social Policy, London School of Economics, gave evidence.
Q701 Chair: Good morning, Professor Munro. Thank you very much for attending this session of our inquiry into the child protection system in England. It seems hard to believe that we are now a year on and the Department has decided to publish your one-year-on progress report this morning, in conjunction with your appearance before us today. That will make interesting reading. The Committee would have preferred more time to be able to read it before seeing you, but that is the Department for you. You say at the end of the one-year-on report that the Government should consider ongoing oversight of the whole system so that progress is maintained and encouraged. What do you have in mind with that?
Professor Munro: I wanted to recommend that there was something like a one or two-year-on progress report, but I did not in any way want to put into anyone’s mind that I should do it. I think it is time for a fresh person to do that. There is that need, because there is so much change related directly both to child protection but also to the health and police reforms, which by their very nature are so big that we cannot be quite sure how they pan out in reality and whether we end up with some unintended clashes so there are gaps in the way services are being provided.
Q702 Chair: Is this potential lack of coherence your biggest single concern? You seem to return to it again and again.
Professor Munro: No, it is not my single biggest concern. My biggest concern is that we keep our nerve and allow time, because this is about trying to change a system that has been saying, "We are doing okay because we are complying with rules", to one which recognises how very difficult it is to help families and makes its main priority, "Have we got the skills to engage with families, motivate them, help them change their behaviour and, when necessary, remove a child permanently?" It is about having patience, because that will take time, but also weathering the next major media story. There will be a child death of some kind that captures the headlines. If you think of the Peter Connelly case, the public became so critical of all the professions, particularly social work, and that can knock people’s confidence. It is much easier to run back into rules than to stick with focusing on your expertise and make a judgment, because when you make a judgment you are responsible for what you do. When you follow a rule you say, "It’s not my fault, guv."
Q703 Chair: Doubtless because of the nature of the review you conducted and the work you continue to do you will have a much better understanding of the mechanics of government than you had before.
Professor Munro: Yes.
Q704 Chair: On the subject of coherence and trying to get agencies, Departments and groups to work together to protect and look after the interests of the child, how best do you see that being delivered? You said there should be oversight, but by whom and in what way? Are there powers missing? Is it purely political will? Is it having someone senior enough with clarity about the leadership role? I am trying to work out what it looks like, and how we as a Select Committee going forward, whether or not others do a two-year-on review, would assess whether the coherence you are looking for has been embedded in the system.
Professor Munro: The majority of the effective work that is done on Working Together is at local level. These are the specific people in an area who know each other, talk to each other and make shared plans. In my report, I have some great examples of how local services are creating a unified plan for the spectrum of support to families. At the local level most of the nitty-gritty gets done, but what I am concerned about is that somewhere in the system there should be a place where you can talk about problems and somebody is willing to hear it. With a kind of compliance culture you tend to be scared to report back difficulties because it looks as if it is just you not obeying orders properly. Also, within that culture if people do report difficulties the response tends to be an addition to the rules. Therefore, it is a degree of humility to know we are trying to do something very difficult and willingness to see that it is starting to go wrong in a place and do something about it. It is specifically whether, at the national level, policies and reforms are having unintended effects.
Q705 Chair: Are there any particular areas or agencies outside social care that you have most concern about going forward?
Professor Munro: I have been made aware of the huge concerns within the health service about the scale of the reforms and the fear that child protection will get lost by people who do not directly deal with it and so do not fully understand its significance. The current system has a very good set of designated and named nurses and doctors. That needs somehow to be preserved, even if the organisation around them changes all its functions and titles.
Q706 Chair: At the moment is there a risk that it will not be?
Professor Munro: The problem is one of not knowing. It may be that they will be clearly spelt out, but we do not know that.
Q707 Charlotte Leslie: We have just had your published report put in front of us this morning. Probably most of us have not had time to read it, so I would very much value your thoughts on whether, one year on from the publication of your review, you feel momentum has been maintained or it has been lost.
Professor Munro: There have certainly been times when I have been worried that momentum is fading away. In the report I have called this a "watershed" moment because there have been changes. A new inspection framework that is coming in will be looking at how effective you are in helping children rather than how good you are at complying with procedures. There will be new performance information which is not to be treated as simplistic indicators but analyses what this means: what are the stories behind it in terms of children’s experiences that lead you to get this information? Revisions to the statutory guidance of Working Together will be published very shortly and come into action. That will allow a lot more flexibility. It does not change the duties, but instead of Government telling people how to perform their duties there will be more professional and local autonomy.
The LSCB system is getting well established; there is now a network of LSCB chairs, so that is becoming a more robust player in the sector. You see that I have a list of things. Within the sector there is a great deal of developments that give me confidence that, as the statutory guidance strips back the level of prescription and puts more responsibility on to the sector, it will be glad to take that responsibility. There is a developing system of peer review where people are willing to be more honest about their weaknesses than they were with Ofsted inspectors because they are talking to their peers, and the people who are doing the inspection say they learn almost as much as those being inspected because it makes them think about their own service. The Children’s Improvement Board is also getting established, working across the country and will become a mechanism for sharing learning, which is really important.
I have also been made aware of a number of local areas that have come together on a voluntary basis. There is a network of local authorities who are choosing to take the Signs of Safety approach to improve the social work skill. Another group is working with the people who designed the Hackney Reclaiming Social Work model. Again, that is a self-help group. A lot of the regions are sharing their learning. It seems to me there has been a lot of work going on, but it is not highly visible.
Q708 Charlotte Leslie: You have slightly anticipated my next question. As I understand it, some local authorities have really been proactive in anticipating the Working Together guidance and acting in the spirit of your reforms. What lessons can local authorities that have been slower, and perhaps have been waiting for instruction on compliance with rules, learn from the local authorities you have talked about that have steamed ahead with the spirit of what you described in your review?
Professor Munro: In chapter 4 of the report there are quite a few examples of what local authorities have been doing, so I am hoping that that would give them some momentum. It is about having both enthusiasm and confidence. The places that have forged ahead seem to me to have been champing at the bit to do it for a long time and are delighted to have encouragement to do it. I think learning by example will be the stimulus, and the growing sense of being rather out of step, old-fashioned and letting children down. If you want to make a culture change you cannot do it by edict from the centre; it has to evolve to a degree. I think there are enough places doing it to tilt the balance towards change.
Q709 Charlotte Leslie: With the shortening of regulations and the erosion of tickbox rules, do you have any concern that guidance that was valuable may be lost with reference to specific forms of abuse?
Professor Munro: It will not be lost; it stops being statutory guidance, and it will be taken into the professional sector instead. In the College of Social Work for a year I have taken on the chair of the faculty of child and family social work. I have been approached by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to work with them on developing guidance around prebirth assessment where there is mental illness. I do not see it disappearing; I see it becoming a professional and not political guidance.
Q710 Charlotte Leslie: Do you think it is still the case that social workers are seen as the primary people responsible for children’s protection, or are other professions beginning to be seen as equally responsible?
Professor Munro: I visit many other countries in the world and I think the UK does it best in that respect. Here we have a tradition of working together that dates back to the 1970s. Most other developed countries have a system of mandatory reporting where the teacher or doctor refers a case to the social worker and runs away and leaves it to them to deal with. You could argue that we would like to see even more of it, but I think you should be proud of what has been achieved here.
Q711 Charlotte Leslie: With specific reference to other professionals, are you able to elaborate any further your concerns about the effect of the health reforms, particularly on designated members of staff for protected children?
Professor Munro: I have to confess that some months ago I gave up trying to following the detail of the health reforms, so I cannot speak with accuracy. My report basically reflects the concerns I have received from the Royal College of Paediatrics and other people in the health services, so it is anecdotal rather than my own direct concern, but I am aware that child protection is the kind of subject that a lot of people would rather not be involved in. That is why it is one area where I think you must have a statutory duty.
Q712 Charlotte Leslie: Do you have any specific ideas of what should be done, and what should be inserted into the health reforms?
Professor Munro: Commissioning groups have to know that they need access to safeguarding expertise and make sure that it is in the services they commission, and then monitor that it is being done as part of the commission. I could imagine the health and wellbeing boards playing a very important role, because the whole policy about early intervention to improve health outcomes is hugely overlapping with the social care agenda. It would not make sense for them to be treated as separate tracks really, but the shape and scale of it is yet to be seen.
Q713 Chair: The Royal College of Paediatrics last week said they thought there should be a statutory duty to keep the designated roles in place. Do you think there is merit in that?
Professor Munro: That would mean it should be in the revised Working Together. I would have expected it to be there, but I have not seen the revised Working Together.
Q714 Pat Glass: This Committee has heard a lot of evidence to suggest that even in a complex system neglect appears to have been neglected. People like the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Action for Children are telling us that there is a need to review both the criminal and civil definition of "neglect". If you agree, what would you like to see changed? Do you think there is an argument for having a different definition of "neglect" for children of different ages or ability?
Professor Munro: I would agree with the concern that neglect gets neglected. I do not think it is because of a problem with the legal definition but because we have a very formalised procedure that is better designed to deal with an urgent concern about an incident of physical or sexual abuse, so neglect, which is about a chronic pattern of parenting, does not come up as a serious case when you look at it in terms of immediate harm to children. I would look at creating more flexibility in how you respond to a concern, not saying that potentially the child is going to be killed in the next 24 hours and you need to rush round there, but this is a family that is not functioning well and you will need to develop a good working relationship with it and stick with it for quite a while to change their behaviour. Then you start the whole case differently.
Q715 Pat Glass: What about the whole issue of definitions at different ages or abilities? What would not be seen as the neglect of a 14 year-old able child would cause you concerns if that child had severe learning difficulties, for instance.
Professor Munro: But that is where professional judgment should come in. Neglect always has to be in the total circumstances of the case. You would make a lot of lawyers very rich for a very long time if you tried to come up with a legal definition that captured the complexity of the scenarios that in reality you have to deal with.
Q716 Pat Glass: We have also heard evidence that social work training focuses too much upon skills and there is insufficient focus upon knowledge about child development, behavioural issues and how that impacts on the family. Is that a view you would share?
Professor Munro: I am not well enough informed of what social work training has been across the country, but I do know that the reforms Moira Gibb recommended are embedding a much more rigorous curriculum. The need for clear teaching, not just on child development but human development, because they deal with a lot of adults as well, is in the new curriculum, and it should be there. I cannot say with any confidence what weaknesses there are currently, but I do know that what is now being brought in is a much more reassuring and robust curriculum.
Q717 Neil Carmichael: Referring to older children aged 15 to 18 or 19, how do you think they are served by the existing system? Do you think, as has been suggested to us, that there is too much judgment about young people rather than helping them?
Professor Munro: I have heard that from a lot of people. The best of children at that age are a bit irritating, aren’t they? A lot of them come to attention because of naughty behaviour in some way, if it is in the criminal justice system or they are acting in sexual ways that worry concerned adults. To me, handling the fact that they are behaving badly and deserve our understanding and help requires maturity and people being supported to work that way. If they come back from an interview with a young boy and they are obviously irritated by him, their supervisors should challenge them about that and say, "Okay. He is irritating; he is a teenager, but so what? What’s happening to him? What is his home life like?" To me, it comes back to expertise and being able to work knowing that people have good and bad in them.
Q718 Neil Carmichael: Is there a tendency to regard a 15, 16 or 17-year-old as somebody who will soon become an adult anyway and therefore one should wait and see what happens?
Professor Munro: I do not know the reality of practice on that. I can see the case you are making that they might defer spending any money, but I honestly do not know. Quite a few young people come into care at the age of 15 or 16, don’t they? So it cannot be a widespread problem.
Q719 Neil Carmichael: We talked to a lot of young people in that sort of age range a few weeks ago. One of the obvious difficulties many had had was that they really did not know where to go. They felt unsure and tended to gravitate towards social services, but even that description was not helping them to find the exact route for them. Do we need to be advertising what is already there in a more vigorous way, or do we need to be thinking in terms of a national point where people can go to?
Professor Munro: I would not want to argue for another helpline. I think it is a matter of advertising the ones that we have, perhaps thinking about how young people access information so we make sure it is easily found through Google searches, or whatever. If you have never come across the problem before you will not automatically know you have to go and ask somebody, but I would have thought most young people can search the internet. A lot of them would have a teacher or some other adult they could ask, but there are a lot of leaflets and notices around saying that if you are worried you can contact so and so. There are plenty of notices for our students at the LSE-not that they get abused by lecturers-if they are distressed in any way. We make these things very visible. There are plenty of existing mechanisms to ask for help.
Q720 Neil Carmichael: When we were talking to children in this age group one of the points that came up at least twice related to talking to teachers about problems at home and teachers reacting to those bits of information in a slightly unhelpful way. I am not going to go into the details, but I found one particular situation quite startling. Should we be thinking in terms of more messaging to the teaching profession about these issues, or are we looking at a better interface between teachers and social services and other authorities?
Professor Munro: I am not sure it is a formal recommendation, but in the text of my final report there is reference to the importance of people being able to have a conversation with a social worker if they are at the stage of being concerned but not being clear. Quite often, it is not a straightforward case where a child has two broken bones which seem to have been caused by direct abuse; it is much more, "There’s something worrying me here." If you have not had much experience of that, it is where the designated people in health are so good. Any doctor can chat to another doctor to talk through those concerns, and teachers should have a child protection person in the school. Beyond that, I think they should also be able to talk through with a social worker, without making a formal referral, whether there should be a referral to somewhere and whether that would be social care.
Q721 Neil Carmichael: That last point is really important. It strikes me that, if you are in a situation where abusive behaviour is heading in your direction, you need to have some way of calibrating it to enable whoever is going to help you to deliver that help, but the individual who is being abused needs to know that within the context of whatever else is happening in his or her life. I was wondering whether that was something we could try to embed in the social services sector.
Professor Munro: Remember that the heart of helping other people is through the relationship and conversation rather than data entry, which is part of making it a human service again and, therefore, much more constructive for the young person.
Q722 Charlotte Leslie: To add to Neil’s point, is there a case for more information for young people so people can say, "If this is happening, this is not acceptable and it is abuse"? Often, one of the problems with a victim of abuse is that they blame themselves; they think it is normal and it is all their fault; they do not want to go to anyone. In that situation what you need is objectivity. Is there any more objective thing to say, "If this is happening it is not your fault; it is abuse", to enable vulnerable people to come forward and talk about things more?
Professor Munro: Soap operas can be very good in having a story line that gets it across to people. You are right that there is a real need for stories and perhaps videos being made that schools can use to help people understand what is abnormal. You have only one family and you do not know which of their oddities are unacceptable.
Q723 Charlotte Leslie: If the abuser is saying, "This is normal. Don’t tell anyone, and it is your fault", a vulnerable person will not be in a position to say anything to anyone.
Professor Munro: Yes. That is why it often takes quite a long time for somebody fully to recognise they are being abused and to ask for help. ChildLine is great in this way. There is also an internet site called Beatbullying, which has a chat room. If your first foray into exploring it is in a chat room with your peers, that can be very acceptable to young people.
Q724 Chair: You said you did not think we should have a new point of contact for young people. For instance, would the expansion of ChildLine to older children be helpful? Would you like to see ChildLine, which is a recognised name and brand, expanded so more people are aware that it is there for them?
Professor Munro: That is a way of speaking directly to an adult. I do not know whether you have come across the Beatbullying organisation, but I find that a really interesting use of modern technology. They have a chat room that is just a peer group but is monitored by adults. They have software that picks up words as well. It will pick up if somebody is grooming on it, but they also offer peer mentoring, which is great because talking it through with a fellow victim who has survived is good, but it is a win-win situation. Beyond that, they have a layer of counselling, and at any point they can refer on to the formal services. It is even more diverse in the ways it offers young people to talk about problems, and in a way with which young people are very familiar.
Q725 Chair: What about a national contact point for adults? Is there any case for that?
Professor Munro: It just adds another layer to it. All it will do is send you on to the local authority, so why not just make sure that the telephone number of the local authority is clearly set out in the phone book?
Q726 Chair: The British Association of Social Workers has suggested that, notwithstanding its positive direction on quite a few policies, there are cuts in the number of social workers and so the support is not there. One of the benefits of the nspcc’S ChildLine is that it provides some form of vetting. It is possible to communicate with a local authority that is not responding and say, "Look, every other local authority is responding in this kind of time and you’re not", and put a bit of pressure on it. It does create some ability to check, whereas if they just go direct to the local authority we are left hearing only from them or their auditors as to how they are doing.
Professor Munro: It would not be where I would put money at this point.
Q727 Chair: As to adult reporting, most tragedies over the years show there has been a failure to report or where they have reported, sometimes repeatedly, the local authority has not responded appropriately. Does BASW have a point in suggesting that there are cuts in numbers at the moment, and therefore, if social care within a local authority simply cannot respond because of the case load, that will undermine the confidence of other professionals in bothering to refer? You are not going to refer if you think they do not do anything.
Professor Munro: I have no idea about cuts. I have not seen any form of statistics on it. Whatever funding there is, there will always be a limit to how many services you can provide. You cannot have universal access; it is just not economically feasible. There will always be some who are turned away. You just hope that they are the less important cases.
Chair: That brings us neatly to the subject of thresholds.
Damian Hinds: Chairman, to be clear when you were asking about a national contact point for adults you were using a small "c" and small "p"; you were not referring to a database.
Q728 Damian Hinds: I just wanted to clear that up.
Professor Munro: I was confused by that.
Q729 Damian Hinds: In terms of thresholds-you have talked about some of these aspects already-we have heard from some professionals that they have been going up in response to financial pressures. It sounded from what you were saying just now that you do not have any particular evidence of that. Is that right?
Professor Munro: I do not have evidence.
Q730 Damian Hinds: What you say is logical. Whatever the limit and however it moves, there will always be a limit, but how, if at all, is it possible in the system to make sure that, when there are acute cases that really must be seen, there is never an issue of capacity that gets in the way of that case being dealt with?
Professor Munro: I would doubt that there is an issue of capacity in the sense that, if the social care department to which you have referred considered this was an urgent and important case, they would find time for it. The problem is more about how they interpret the evidence and say, "This does not look so serious." That is where I think neglect keeps getting a raw deal, because in the sense of urgency it is not there. We need to have a sense of importance that is based on damage to the child rather than the acuteness. It is about having staff who are expert enough to know what kinds of problems occur, or can be suspicious of severe family problems that can be very damaging to a child’s development.
Q731 Damian Hinds: Do you get cross-border flexibility in work force? If a particular local authority has, for whatever reason, a spike in case load is it able to draw on resources from neighbouring authorities on occasions?
Professor Munro: The smaller places may well have. I have the sense that in some of the more remote places in Scotland they would do that, but I do not have a clear knowledge of it.
Q732 Damian Hinds: On the question of cross-agency collaboration, we visited a couple of areas that had set up multi-agency hubs. Do we have an idea in how many areas that has happened?
Professor Munro: I do not.
Q733 Damian Hinds: In the nature of Committee visits, sometimes you go to the ones that work really well, because those are the poster children for the service. Is there a view across the piece about places where that approach has worked well and other places where perhaps it has not, and the learning points to be drawn from the differences?
Professor Munro: One of the interesting differences I have noticed-I do not know its impact on what families experience-is that some are creating a multi-agency team to look at referrals and decide what to do, but others are creating a multi-agency team to provide services.
Q734 Damian Hinds: Which is preferable?
Professor Munro: It is very new. I am saying that I would really like to see in the longer term what effect the multi-agency team has in providing help in that setting.
Q735 Damian Hinds: How does all of this dovetail with what is generically termed the 120,000 initiative? We know it is not exactly 120,000, blah, blah, blah, and the approach may vary in different areas, but how is that Government initiative impacting, if at all, what happens in local authorities and multi-agency working?
Professor Munro: My awareness of it is that areas are trying to work out how it fits with their existing services, because these are families that are already known to all of them. You do not want to add yet another person into the mix. I know that in one local authority it is being placed in the children’s social care department under the director so it becomes an integral part of social care. If it remains as a very narrowly focused initiative it will die a death once its pilot stage has gone. If it is to flourish it has to become embedded in ordinary work, doesn’t it?
Q736 Damian Hinds: We have heard from front-line professionals across different disciplines that quite often they have difficulty in having referral taken on board, even though they know the family concerned very well. They are very confident in their assessment, but, for whatever reason-in the systems and process I suppose-it does not tick enough boxes, or the right boxes, to use that term. What could be done to make that soft intelligence and the value of professional judgment count more?
Professor Munro: What do you mean by "soft intelligence" in that setting?
Q737 Damian Hinds: I suppose it may not be soft; it may be a mixture. I suppose the way you would express it in the vernacular is that you know it when you see it. If you have been a health visitor for 20 years and somebody says, "Show me the evidence of why this child is at risk", you may not be able to say that they fulfil the threshold of 10 of the 14 criteria, or however many there are, but you say, "I visit however many families it is every week. Over my professional career I know it; I can feel when I am in a family where there is a real problem. I’m telling you there is a real problem in this family. Please do something about it."
Professor Munro: I would certainly respect that expert judgment, but, if you ask them, usually people can unpack it. When they think back, they can say it was the way there was no eye contact between the mother and baby, or the way the pram was placed so the baby could not be seen. A lot of them can identify things from these little fragments.
Q738 Damian Hinds: But will those criteria necessarily be counted in evidence-"taken seriously" is perhaps the wrong expression-in the system?
Professor Munro: It is a question of whether the person receiving the referral is expert enough. If your mindset is that you are overworked and trying to keep cases out, you listen to evidence in a different way.
Q739 Damian Hinds: You find reasons.
Professor Munro: That is the problem. The kind of scenario you describe is very typical. Sometimes you get cases where there are clear physical injuries and it is straightforward, but there are not many like that. Most of them are more of a growing concern about a whole set of different issues that come together to mean there is something inadequate about the child’s life.
Q740 Damian Hinds: We have also heard a number of times, including the field visits, that the idea of a threshold for intervention is an outdated concept in terms of a line that you cross over. There are gradations and support services of different sorts being made available to all families. Are they right?
Professor Munro: Yes. The threshold suggests that it is going up. I prefer to think about what criteria you have for needing this service. If you want to make a referral to social care what do you want in it? Sometimes it is just that you do not know how to handle it and want somebody else to take it on, which is understandable, but it may be that the social workers are no better able than you. You have to remember that when it comes to chronically dysfunctional families there is very modest evidence about being able significantly to change their behaviour. It is not as if we actually could do it and make all families fantastic if only we had enough services.
Q741 Damian Hinds: Do you want to expand on that a little? Is the implication of what you are saying in crude terms that there are not enough children being taken into care because the system is too optimistic about the prospects of changing a family’s behaviour, or is that too much of a generalisation?
Professor Munro: I think that is too big a leap. Obviously, even when you take them into care you cannot guarantee that you can turn them into happy well-adjusted adults. You can make some improvements in a lot of families but that does not turn them into model families. You may not be able to solve all of the problems but you may make it good enough, but what is good enough? I think part of it-it is a good quality in our society-is that we want better for all children, so this problem that might have been tolerated in the past is becoming more worrying.
Q742 Damian Hinds: Given that rather unsatisfactory and pessimistic situation-I do not mean it should be more optimistic, but it is not the most happy view of the challenges in changing things for the most troubled or difficult families-if you did have all the resources in the world and the power to do everything else to change legislation and change the way local authorities, the public sector and everybody else operated, given all the experience you have amassed in doing this work, what would you want to see changed?
Professor Munro: I would like to see more therapeutic help offered at the early stages. For example, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which provides a really intensive package of care, gives the parents a fair chance to improve and, when they fail, it is much more obvious that they are not making progress because you are working closely with them, so you can make a quicker judgment that this is going nowhere and you need to remove the child. At the moment we provide a lot of services that are vaguely supportive and monitoring but do not work significantly with parents to improve their parenting skills. I would like to see the money we have targeted much more on doing something useful.
Q743 Damian Hinds: Though not particularly closely related to what I have just been asking, I want to come back to what you were saying about media and new media use. You mentioned the power of soap operas to bring issues out into the open and have them discussed in social settings. You have also talked about Beatbullying. With the experience you have amassed in your work, what do you think media and new media are not doing, and what more could be done specifically to deal with child abuse to bring those topics out into the open, to change the way referrals are done, or change self-help for families themselves to start realising they have a problem?
Professor Munro: I think there is a lot of potential in all these new technologies. I know there has been a proposal to extend the Beatbullying concept to a parenting support system. Under that model somebody is monitoring what is being said, so it is not just a chat room where somebody can be encouraging others to do appalling things. I have forgotten the correct term.
Q744 Damian Hinds: Moderator.
Professor Munro: Yes, it is one that will moderate it. One is also able to say to people, "Look, you’re really struggling. This is not the ordinary kind of difficult behaviour in a baby. You need to go to your doctor." There is potential for that. The system we have developed of being very focused on compliance has also made families into passive recipients of help. They need to be much more actively involved, first, because that is the only way you can get them to change their behaviour, but, second, most of the families have a desire to do a decent job. Therefore, to harness that motivation and give them more control in being able to access help would be very desirable.
Q745 Damian Hinds: To follow that up, what do you think might be done to improve on the opportunities for families to come forward and themselves try to do better?
Professor Munro: It is the mentality of the services that are responding to them. They are there to provide a service to help rather than to inspect and monitor them. A lot of the feedback I get from families is uneasiness about professionals being there to condemn them and being uneasy about what they can get blamed for, and it makes them hesitant to ask. Although we need to have a level of suspicion about serious abuse and neglect, we also need to know that most of the families are struggling with a problem which is perhaps poor parenting but is not at the level where we are wanting to turn to the law and compulsion. It is a real problem at the moment that too many families feel scared and that they will be harshly judged rather than helped.
Q746 Chair: Do you think that extends to people who come into contact with the care system, for instance adoptive families? I met a family last week who felt that the social workers were so used to coming in with exactly that mood of judgment and condemnation that when they came in to adopt children they were treated in exactly the same way and found themselves condemned. Once you are condemned the system appears to do everything it can to repeat and support its condemnation of you.
Professor Munro: It is something that has developed over time. People have ended up being so scared of missing a case of serious abuse that they go in looking just for that. Of course, it is a distorted picture of a family, because families have strengths, resilience and an extended network of family and friends who help out. Good assessment looks equally at the strengths as well as the negatives in a family. The Signs of Safety approach that many are using is extremely clear about developing with the family a table of what is going well and what is going badly and showing respect and admiration for all they are doing well as well as saying, "But this is not good enough." Adoptive parents must feel really bewildered by getting that response.
Q747 Chair: Is it possible we have a system, hopefully well at the margins, that is too slow to intervene to take a child into care for protection and, at the same time, puts too much power in the hands of poorly qualified, inexperienced and occasionally even malicious individuals who come down in judgment on families for whom no such damaging judgment is justified?
Professor Munro: I do not think you have given power to those people; you have put the fear of God in them. They are scared that they might miss something.
Q748 Chair: But children are taken away from parents by a combination of social worker concern and a medical judgment, and there appear to be cases where, even when the original evidence has been found to be incorrect, the system seems to continue remorselessly to judge the family as inadequate. Those who express fears about that side of the system are often treated as mad voices. Is it possible that there are two big problems: one is not intervening robustly enough and the other is that that combination of elements can lead to gross injustice to families-that must be true-and we need to ensure we get right the balance between intervening as quickly as possible to protect the child and recognising the devastating impact of powers being used against families inappropriately?
Professor Munro: But I think what you are picking up is the way human beings tend to make up their minds and stick to it. This is damaging if they have decided it is a dodgy family regardless or it is a benign family regardless. That is where good quality critical supervision is so needed. The heart of it is knowing that that is a really difficult human task to do for yourself. In your own mind it all fits together beautifully, so other people have to say to you, "You are forgetting the good qualities here. Is there another way of explaining that evidence?" Beyond that, you need a culture where people can admit that they got it wrong without being jeered at. That is why I say humility is something we should praise.
I did an evaluation of Hackney. They were very good in the units in having critical reviews of their judgments, but when I wrote up the report the managers were concerned because they thought The Sun newspaper could read it as "Hackney social workers admit to making lots of mistakes". I worded it as well as I could. That seems to me to be a sign of virtue: you realise when digging deeper that your first impression was quite wrong. That is something that should be encouraged as good professional practice, not sticking pig-headedly with your judgment as if it is your personal honour that is at stake.
Q749 Chair: The people who are within the system work together all the time. The experts and the judges-everyone involved in the process-work with one another all the time, and those relationships are important. Referring to a Kafkaesque nightmare of a system in which everyone keeps reinforcing and backing a person who is sticking to their original line, even though the evidence is not there, how real is that? How frequent is it? What could we do to support front-line workers doing a difficult job and yet have sufficient challenge where they have been caught up in the momentum of sticking with their original judgment?
Professor Munro: I have heard stories from families that are so convincing to me that I am sure this does happen. I do not know how widespread it is, but the way to tackle it is by knowing that at our best we reach the judgment on the available evidence. This is the best thing to do. One of my bugbears is people’s use of the word "ensure". We cannot ensure we get it right; we can do our best, but the whole language of surety and certainty has crept in, and then it makes people feel they are failing because they did not get it right. I have done a number of case reviews where other professionals have been concerned but feel it is not polite to ask and challenge. That is a real problem. You have to get a much more vigorous culture. We are dealing with really difficult judgments and we should always question whether we got it wrong or whether the family has changed. They are alive and they grow. It may be they are no longer a cause for concern, and we should be able to say, "I’ve made mistakes", without being criticised for it.
Q750 Charlotte Leslie: Do you think that in a sense we have too much accountability, or accountability that is too blunt, in one part of the system-I know this is something we will come to in the next session-and not enough accountability in another part of the system? As MPs we all get constituency mail bags. Sometimes these stories do crop up. Alas, the stories of neglect do not often crop up in our mail bags for obvious reasons, but stories about when things go wrong do. One of the situations I have come across, which we will talk about later on, is where a CAFCASS guardian has not made judgments in line with any of the parental family players or the social services. They have had tremendous problems in getting the child where the child, the teacher and the GP want it to be because of insufficient accountability for the decisions and actions of the CAFCASS guardian. Do you think that on the one hand we have very blunt accountability which leads to tick-box judgments and in another area not sufficient accountability so that decisions can be made without evidence?
Professor Munro: I think that in a poor system you end up with a conflict of opinions becoming a power struggle. It should be an intellectual opening out of why you think you are right, and, rather like a good student essay, looking at why the other person disagrees and trying to understand why there is disagreement. One of the things I have noticed in case reviews is that people often reject a challenge to their judgment by saying something rude about the person who has made the challenge. If ever that happens it should be seen as a red flag of warning that you are missing something to which you should pay more serious attention. It comes down to the quality of reasoning and support for good reasoning.
Q751 Charlotte Leslie: But the structure has to exist within which that reasoning has power and merit. In one constituency case, the problem was that the case had been made and the reasoning was there, but there did not seem to be any structural mechanism whereby that reasoning had any traction or force. It got resolved after an awfully long time. The education of the child suffered deeply; it took far too long. The system seemed to be set up so one individual’s judgment could override an awful lot of evidence, and for that reason there was not any capacity for dialogue to have traction.
Professor Munro: I think the new inspection process will make a contribution to that, because it will be talking much more to families and children and to workers to justify the way they are working. It will be a much more intense scrutiny which should then encourage the whole organisation to put more importance on that.
Q752 Chair: To go back to the definition of neglect, you said you were not particularly convinced of the need for a new definition. Does that apply to both the 1933 Act criminal definition and the civil definition in the 1989 Act?
Professor Munro: I do not feel competent to comment on the 1933 definition, but the one in the 1989 Act seems to me good enough. It is the use and implementation of it that needs to be improved.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for giving evidence to us this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: District Judge Nicholas Crichton, Family Drug and Alcohol Court, and Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive, Children and Families Courts Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), gave evidence.
Q753 Chair: Good morning. I think this is the first time we have had a judge appearing before the Committee since I have been on it, unless I have forgotten in which case I apologise to your predecessor. Welcome, Judge Crichton, and, Mr Douglas, it is a pleasure to see you again before us. Perhaps we could start off where we left at the end of the previous session. We were talking about rogue cases, the way the system reinforces early decisions and the professional concerned sticking to their guns and not having that humility and self-criticism, and the dangers of the system continuing to reinforce and back up an erroneous initial judgment. How big an issue is that?
Judge Crichton: I am just a jobbing judge. I am not sure I can answer that. What I see is what is placed in front of me. I do not know that I can comment on rogue cases, but the neglect cases-Professor Munro articulated it far better than I can-are the vast majority of the work that I do, and it is a question of identifying when the tipping point has been arrived at and something more has to be done about it. That is a very difficult decision for a social worker to make. When people say to me that there has been a spike in cases being brought to court, perhaps because of Climbié or baby Peter Connelly, "and social services are overreacting, aren’t they?" that is not my picture. I do not think I have ever seen a case where I scratch my head and think, "Why are we here?" Much more often I am scratching my head and thinking, "Why weren’t we here sooner?"
Q754 Chair: But is it possible that both extremes are true: that the system needs to move in more robustly to protect children in many cases and, albeit at the margins, there are cases where because of that systemic understanding, and perhaps because of the principle that the child’s interests come first, once a judgment has been made by professionals about a family then, short of that initial professional putting up their hands and saying, "Oh, no; I was completely wrong", it has a remorseless logic, and people like yourself in the system, whose overall impression is that, if anything, there is too little intervention, really are caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare? They cannot be heard and seen and everybody has a predilection towards saying, "We need more and not less of this."
Judge Crichton: Professor Munro put her finger on it. I am not a social worker; maybe you need to hear from Mr Douglas, but social work needs to be about the management of manageable risk. We cannot steam-roller all the risk out of every situation.
Q755 Chair: You have said you are not a social worker, but you are a judge and your job is to hear and see the evidence on paper, listen to the tone of the people and look them in the eye. Whatever it is, you are sitting in judgment getting a feeling for whether or not the story you are being told is true. Are you saying that no cases have come in front of you where the professionals concerned had come to the wrong judgment and you did not sense that? I am not expressing this very well, but I am surprised you feel that everybody has always turned up having behaved in the right way, if that is what you are saying.
Judge Crichton: If there are variations they are only in degree and they are not that great. Sometimes there is a case where the local authority sets out to seek removal of a child or children and we can arrive at a situation where it is worth persevering because this is a family that needs support, but the great majority of cases are those where removal is necessary, because that is the situation that has been arrived at.
Anthony Douglas: That is the picture our children’s guardians see every day. On Friday we are publishing a three-years-on study from the Baby P case into care applications, which have been at record levels for some time. What our guardians have found is that the local authority is intervening much more quickly and in a much more timely way and that virtually every child they come across has met the legal threshold for intervention. That is encouraging in a world where we have plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. It is encouraging because what the media storm led to was an intensive review of cases and a much greater realisation of the impact of neglect on children and, therefore, much more timely care applications. While the outcomes for children are still patchy and there are many difficulties with therapeutic services and the number of foster and adoptive placements, the primary purpose under the child protection system is to protect children from immediate harm. We must keep with that policy objective, because for children in those situations life is terrifying quite often and they deserve to be rescued from it.
Q756 Chair: You said it was patchy. How big is the variability in quality in your experience?
Anthony Douglas: There is variability of resourcing, quality and placements. Some of these are quite explainable by the local context and environment. It is virtually impossible to compare each of the 152 local authorities in England objectively. As Nick said, what you do have is the individual case before you. Certainly, our guardians are independent of everybody else, as your colleague suggested, and sometimes that works to good effect to protect children. Most of the time we need to try to persuade other parties to cases more quickly, if they do need persuading, or cede our position if we are wrong. We are as accountable as everybody else to the court, and ultimately to the court of child opinion. On the individual case, there is very rarely a doubt about something serious having happened; it is just a question of what is to be done about it.
Q757 Chair: Is the variability between local authorities so great that, if you were playing that role in different authorities for a child in the same circumstances, because of the local authority care that was likely to result in one case you would decide that they should be taken into care and in another you would decide it would be better if they were not?
Anthony Douglas: That will always happen with professional judgment. There are many cases involving children on the edge of care-many times the number of those in care-where you could argue it either way. You will get professionals or courts determining, on the balance of probabilities, that a child should be at home or away from home permanently, but in the vast majority of cases there is no disagreement that something major needs to change in a child’s life. The cases at the margin are fewer and fewer.
Q758 Chair: My point was about the quality of what was going to result if you put the child into care. You have talked about the variability and patchiness of the quality of service. Is it so extreme that with a child in one place you would have no doubt whatsoever that you wanted to get them taken into care and in another you would be so unsure of the quality of care that would result that you would prefer to take the risk of leaving them with the family? Is it that bad?
Anthony Douglas: No. The variability is enormous within each local authority, so you could have, as it were, the worst local authority and the best possible outcome for a child, and similarly there is no universally good authority. The second point is that each child is so diverse and their needs so special that to predict the outcomes from a particular course of therapy or placement is extraordinarily hard. What we do not have is a good longitudinal outcome study for children who remain at home, go back home or stay in care, but those studies we do have suggest that the care system is improving, although there is a long way to go, and the younger the child the more urgent the need to act quickly.
Q759 Neil Carmichael: As you know, the Government are thinking about introducing legislation in terms of shared parenting, effectively, for children. How do you think that is going to impact in general terms the question of the protection of children?
Judge Crichton: This is a difficult one. We have the legal concept of parental responsibility already in the Children Act, and we have the legal concept of residence-where a child should live-in the Children Act. When we refer to shared parenting, what are we talking about? We do not have a legal term for shared parenting, but I think shared parenting is shared parental responsibility, so we already have it. Most fathers-usually, those are the ones we are talking about-can get parental responsibility very quickly. They have parental responsibility if they are married to the mother; they have it if they are registered on the birth certificate. They can get an agreement from mother and, if that agreement is not forthcoming, they can come to court and ask for parental responsibility. In the vast majority of cases they will get it. The only cases in which they will not get it is if there is a feeling that the child will not be safe if we give shared parental responsibility, so I am not sure what more can be done to provide that because it is there already.
What I am very concerned about is the concept of shared residence. Sometimes parents come and ask for shared residence and you think, "What is it you are asking for?" More often than not, what they are asking for is what they already have, which is shared parental responsibility. The danger of going to shared residence-that is not the phrase you used in your question, but it is the one that is sometimes conflated-is that you then get into arguments such as, "I’m entitled to 50% of the child’s time", which may not be in the best interests of the child. That is where the tensions are. I do not know whether that is helpful.
Q760 Neil Carmichael: It certainly is, because I think it is a very interesting and complex question. If the Government is creating a legal presumption in favour of contact between parents, where does that place the court? On what do you think the judgments would be based with that new presumption?
Judge Crichton: It is going to depend upon the wording that the Government comes up with.
Q761 Neil Carmichael: In other words, it is definition.
Judge Crichton: Yes. But if we are talking of shared parenting we have already got it in shared parental responsibility. Since the Children Act courts have always recognised the importance of a child having a meaningful relationship with both parents so long as that is safe both physically and emotionally.
Q762 Neil Carmichael: Mr Douglas, what do you think about this line of questioning?
Anthony Douglas: I think shared parenting works enormously well in the vast majority of parental breakdown where there is continuing communication between parents, but where communication has broken down entirely and children are caught in the middle it is usually the worst outcome if it is formalised as shared residence, as Nick said. We work with a lot of children who look back on decisions made. What it shows is that the law has only a limited impact in complex family breakdown cases. Sometimes when children are forced to see one parent because we think it is in their best interests, they look back on that as a form of coercion that we should not have recommended. Sometimes if we make an assumption one parent is too dangerous for them to have contact with, they look back and say, "That wasn’t the case. I could handle him or her. You got that wrong." Individual children do make us quite humble about the work we do in trying to get it right over the course of their childhood, but I do think there is a risk from shared orders that the child is kept in the middle of a post-separation dispute that will never be resolved and will go to the grave with the parents. I think we have a duty to protect children against being forever caught in the middle.
Q763 Neil Carmichael: In contrast to the Family Justice Review, which was concerned about this measure, and subject to the definition arrived at, neither of you is concerned that it would be detrimental to protecting children.
Anthony Douglas: I think there has been a sea change in fathering especially. We did a study a couple of years ago that showed that in contested cases before court fathers were awarded residence virtually in the same numbers as mothers. That is contrary to popular myth. I think the existing arrangements are pretty sound. It is just the nature of the cases. Whether they are care cases in which there is the toxic combination of domestic violence and maybe mental health problems, particularly drug abuse, that are so difficult to work with, or intractable disputes in private cases that are almost beyond the ability of the law to deal with, what is needed are therapeutic services, public information campaigns about the damage done to children and so on. I think that the changes to the law, if they help to promote shared parenting for the majority, will be in the interests of children, as long as those safeguards are built in.
Q764 Neil Carmichael: In terms of a set of parents, one abusive to a child and one not, obviously there are various mechanisms and processes to go through, but in general terms do you think it is better to support the non-abusive parent rather than punish and remove the abusive one?
Anthony Douglas: In a world of limited resources ideally you would support both, but, from the child’s point of view, you have to go with the safe non-abusive parent. Ultimately, abusive parents go on to have other children. Unless there is a life cycle approach to certain people who are damaging children, the cost to the public purse and to individual children becomes massive. Some work is going on in local authority areas when children have been removed to give rehab and treatment services-it is a bit like the Family Drug and Alcohol Court-to parents. That treatment is carried out before the next pre-birth conference when the next child is inevitably taken away.
Judge Crichton: We have to be careful to understand what we mean by an abusive parent. There are all sorts of levels of abuse. Of course, the violent drunken father who assaults the mother on a regular basis is a danger to the child long term, but there are also other forms of abuse. I am talking more about physical abuse, but there is physical and emotional abuse at the time a relationship breaks down. That is a very difficult situation particularly for the mother but also for the children. Once the parents have separated and divorced, if they were married, it is not to say that this father may not still have significant contributions to make to the child’s life. Quite frequently, courts are dealing with cases where the mother is still quite bitter and resentful about what has happened at that time, but the father has now moved out of the household and wants to see the child. We are talking about children who did go through a difficult time while that was happening between the parents but who now want to see their dad and have a relationship with him. It is difficult for the mother to put behind her what happened in that period; it is difficult for all three parties, but it is a different situation from that long-term violent and abusive father, so we are coming down to gradations again.
Q765Neil Carmichael: The Government have stated that their proposed changes are effectively directed towards the assumption that a married couple or two parents are better for the child’s long-term welfare. Will that influence your position, Anthony, in terms of the work you do, and certainly your position in the court?
Anthony Douglas: Not really. We are duty bound to consider effectively a presumption of continuing contact. It is nearly always right for children, postseparation. We are already duty bound to stop that if the threat to a child is significant. If I were looking at legal changes, as has been said before, I would not look at the 1933 Act on neglect; I think there are other areas to look at that would help children more.
Judge Crichton: I agree with that, but while I was listening to Professor Munro I was thinking about it, because there is a huge danger in trying to over-define what we are talking about. It is a bit like describing an elephant: it is not easy to sit here and describe them, but my God, if one comes through the door I know one when I see one. Neglect is in that category. I am wary of definitions, because, as Professor Munro said, if we define things too tightly we make a whole lot of people very rich over a long period of time-and I am a lawyer.
Neil Carmichael: Well done, thank you very much. That is my questioning over.
Q766Chair: In the case of serious domestic violence, should more be done to help support the nonabusive parent rather than moving swiftly to take the child away?
Judge Crichton: I completely agree with what Anthony has said. In an ideal world we support everybody, but it depends on the level of abuse. There are some parents-some fathers in particular-who are so abusive that you cannot see how we are ever going to get them into a situation where they can contribute anything useful to the child’s life. Some children know that and make it very clear to the CAFCASS officer, "I don’t want to see my dad." But there are all sorts of levels below that.
Q767Chair: I’m sorry, I am talking about where there is current serious domestic violence; is there a tendency to go in and take the child out of that situation, and a presumption of doing so, rather than perhaps more of a presumption of supporting the nonabusive parent and seeing if there is a solution there, while nonetheless protecting the child?
Judge Crichton: If the nonabusive parent is providing good care for the child, why would you take such a drastic step to remove the child? What you have to do is protect-it is usually the mother and the child-from the abuser. I think that is what we do, by and large, but it depends on the standard of care and the nature of the relationship between the child and the nonabusive parent.
Q768Chair: You do not think we need more emphasis on the support of the nonabusive parent than we have now? Do you think we have the balance about right?
Anthony Douglas: If I may, as you know the Government is consulting on extending the legal definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. When I started practicing as a social worker we knew very little about the complexity of domestic violence or its interplay with other factors. We are becoming more aware of postseparation control, coercive control, the ways in which it can undermine the nonabusive parent in parenting and the interplay of that with coached children: children manipulated by one parent against the other. The more light we can shine on these cases-and the needs of the child, in particular, who is a witness or, if you like, a victim within the family of its continuation-the better.
It is not a simple question of short-term services. In the end, the best guarantor is probably a shift in public awareness and education about the damage done by domestic violence. In a world where resources are fewer and priority setting has to be more exclusive, I am particularly minded by the campaigns against smoking, drink driving, other aspects of public health, and the new duty on local authorities for public health next April. There is a tremendous amount that could be done to increase public awareness. Ultimately, unless parents change their behaviour, services only have a minimal impact at times on what is happening to a child.
Q769Chair: That was an excellent and interesting answer; it did not quite tell me the answer to my question, though, which was: should there be greater emphasis than we have now on supporting a nonabusive parent?
Anthony Douglas: In the end at court, with limited resources, you have to make the right decision. I would put the emphasis on the application and making the right decision based upon as good an assessment as you can get. That is the best we can do.
Q770Chair: So is that a yes or a no?
Anthony Douglas: It is a yes to always backing the parent or the parents who are protecting the child from the impact of that.
Q771Pat Glass: It was interesting to hear Professor Munro earlier talking about the dilemma of the professional working with a family and knowing that you are only going to get the most positive outcome if that family views the services as supportive and not as monitoring or inspection. We have heard as a committee, many times, from teachers, doctors and magistrates, about cases-and I have personally seen them-that take years to get to the courts, and then there are further delays once we get into the courts system. Do you believe that the recommendations of the Family Justice Review will make a difference, and will they make a difference quickly enough for those children?
Anthony Douglas: I do think they will make a difference. The report we are releasing on Friday will, as I said, show more urgency about neglect and not leaving children in these situations for too long, but it has taken us a long time to get to the current level of unacceptable delay, particularly in public law cases. They were at the new expected limit of 26 weeks in 1995, so having taken 17 years to get to that point it will take us a little while to get back to something more acceptable. Some areas, like Derbyshire and Suffolk, are quite close to that limit in some cases already, so there is best practice. It is very important not to have a sequence of expert reports that drag cases out. Nick’s case is a good example of concurrent assessment, treatment and support that can shorten timescales.
I do think that we need to be careful, because 25 years ago, when some of the delays, checks and balances were not there, parents could lose their child at the stroke of a senior manager’s pen in a local authority. Many of the safeguards we have brought in since have at least given parents the right to an independent voice for them, but, as everybody now concludes, that has gone too far, at the expense of a child’s timescale. I do think these reforms would make a difference, and I do think there is evidence of momentum towards that in many courts and in many local authorities.
Chair: We still have quite a bit of stuff to get through in a limited time. If we could have short questions and answers that would be great.
Judge Crichton: I could talk about this until this evening, but I will not. First of all, the issue of social workers supporting rather than inspecting and monitoring is critical. I not infrequently have the experience of saying to parents, "You have to listen to these people, social workers: they have concerns, the concerns are genuine, let’s work together." Too often parents say to me, "Support me? All they are doing is watching until I make a mistake, and then they can take my child away." There is a real issue about raising the profile of social work. Professor Munro’s Report and the reforms she is trying to put in place are absolutely essential to a better functioning child protection system, because we need to value social work within our society.
End of short speech. Coming back now to Norgrove and the Family Justice Review: yes, of course we need more urgency in the decisionmaking process, and I completely understand the 26-week aspiration. I am fond of saying, and am frequently saying, two months is 1% of a child’s childhood. If we spend two years getting to a decision for a child we have thrown away 12% of his childhood. I think the review will make a difference, but we should beware the pendulum that swings too far. Not only do parents have Article 8 rights to respect for their family life, children have Article 8 rights to respect for their family life. We must not rush them out of their family too quickly if there is a realistic prospect that they can remain there with proper support.
There is an awful lot of work to be done to make the whole process more efficient: getting social work reports and information before the court more quickly; reducing the number of experts and getting the expert opinions that we need more quickly; and having-not everybody agrees with this, but I believe in it firmly-more courts, judges and specialist judges available so that we can provide more judicial continuity and get cases done more quickly and efficiently, but with better decisions for children.
Q772Pat Glass: In the Scottish legal system there is a positive statement around parenting. One of the recommendations of the Family Justice Review was that when a child is registered a parent should be handed a sheet of paper that says, "This is what good parenting is about". Because our system is so focused on negative statements, do you think that is something that you would agree with?
Anthony Douglas: I am not sure about a piece of paper at birth; it is a very emotional time.
Q773Pat Glass: Do we need a positive statement, or is the current 1989 Act sufficient?
Anthony Douglas: Yes, I think the Act is. I do not think the issue is about legislation, but a lot more could be done on public education, awareness and information.
Judge Crichton: School curriculum.
Q774Damian Hinds: Not PSHE, please; is that what you were going to say?
Judge Crichton: I do not even know what that stands for.
Anthony Douglas: As Eileen said, the designated teacher has a good role to play. Head teachers have, since the introduction of virtual schools, taken more interest in children in care. That has been important. The NHS: a huge amount still needs to be done to give these children clinical priority; they do not get priority on pure clinical grounds. Much more needs to be done in the guidance to organisations and the way services are organised than in new legislation.
Q775Damian Hinds: Speaking of in school, it is a natural thing to say: young people grow up and all too soon, in many cases, they are going to be parents themselves. PSHE, by the way, is personal, social and health education. Different schools use it to mean slightly different things, but it is the catchall thing for social responsibility. Generally, whenever there is a social problem-teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, death, you name it-the answer is a bolton module to PSHE. Some people think it is more fundamental: Frank Field, for example, says that if you teach brain development in GCSE science-so if teenagers see the difference between a neglected child and a well-looked-after child-presumably most people want to be a good parent, and that makes a difference. Do you have a feeling from your line of work about what it is that schools should be doing? Maybe it is not about what you teach at all; maybe it is more about ethos and responsibility. Anyway, sorry; my Chairman gets upset with long questions, quite understandably so.
Judge Crichton: I am going to digress for a second, but not for long and I hope it is valuable. You talk about ethos and responsibility. Like Professor Munro I am very lucky; I do a lot of work in a lot of parts of the world. I have recently come back from Namibia. They are putting into their legislation that children have responsibilities. They have responsibilities within their families, schools and communities, and to their nation. They are putting that into the school curriculum, aged six or seven. That is quite an interesting concept, if it is properly introduced to the curriculum. We get down to the 120,000. The point I am trying to make is that if we make parenting and the importance of responsible parenting a part of that overall picture from a very early stage, I can see value in that. Maybe a judge should not talk like that; I do not know.
Q776Damian Hinds: Can I ask what lessons you think there are from the CAFCASS preproceedings pilots? We talked a couple of times about the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which I know Judge Crichton has pioneered. What is the ultimate potential of those things for addressing chaotic behaviour and parenting capacity as an alternative to other actions?
Anthony Douglas: It is quite early days, but to give a short answer I suppose the headline is that closer working between CAFCASS guardians and local authority social workers has led, in some cases, to a stronger degree of trust between parents and local authorities. Often proceedings are brought and continue because of a breakdown in trust on the local authority side about the parents, as well as the parents about professionals. That has enabled some children to go back home on child protection plans without the need for a more radical intervention. The second lesson is that cases have been better prepared for court with an integrated social work assessment so they have been able to progress through court more quickly.
Q777Damian Hinds: We are all stuck to know what to call you: I want to call you "M’Lud", is that right?
Judge Crichton: No, I am on the very bottom branch of the tree; I am a jobbing judge. FDAC again is a topic I can talk about for hours because it is close to my heart. It is early intervention in very dysfunctional families, and it is very intensive. It fits quite well with the 26-week aspiration because we work so intensively with these families that we find out pretty quickly the families that are not going to make it. But for those families who, given the right, intensive support, can make it, there are some astonishing results of families who you would not have expected to make it and have done really well. We have had one family with six children adopted and another with seven adopted who have made it with the seventh and eighth children respectively. In the long term will they have made it? That remains to be seen, but at the moment the signs are very good.
This programme is also producing a better and closer working relationship between the family and social services, because the families are coming to a better understanding of why everybody is so concerned about the way in which they are caring for their children. I do not want to get overexcited about it because the evaluation on it is quite early and is continuing, but we are getting more children home; we are identifying more quickly the children who cannot go home; more of the parents of the children who cannot come home are understanding why their children cannot come home, and are saying that they accept the situation. There are all sorts of levels of success, and actually we save money.
Q778Damian Hinds: Are there other types of programmes that you can envisage that might complement and add to those effects, apart from drugs and alcohol?
Judge Crichton: It is a model that could be adapted. It could be adapted to domestic violence situations, although I have to say that in 150 cases we have had through FDAC only one, maybe two, have not also had a significant domestic violence component. It is a model that could be adapted to mental health and learning disability.
Q779Damian Hinds: Finally from me, because I know time is short, what are the merits of special guardianship as an alternative to adoption for creating permanent stability for older children?
Anthony Douglas: It has been enormously successful. It is not such a radical intervention as adoption, and once a child is subject to a special guardianship order he or she is no longer in care. It can give certainty to children about where they live until they are 18, and it can also give certainty to carers that they can make their own decisions about parenting, separate from the local authority. It works for a discrete group of children, perhaps those with good continuing relations with their birth families but who cannot live at home, against adoption, which is generally best if the relationship is nonexistent or just cannot be continued positively.
Q780Damian Hinds: To the extent that it has been used for younger children as well, has that been appropriate? It was not the original intention, was it?
Anthony Douglas: Generally, the younger the child the more appropriate adoption is as the placement of choice.
Q781Damian Hinds: Do you think that balance has been right in the way special guardianships have been deployed thus far?
Anthony Douglas: For foster carers, for example, with whom the child has been placed short term but that has gone on and it has been important for the child to stay-the child may be four or five-the foster carers themselves may not want to become adoptive parents and may want to be special guardians. That will still give the child permanency and security.
Judge Crichton: There are two categories where it is particularly helpful: where the child can be looked after within the extended family and where there are cultural oppositions to the concept of adoption. The foster care situation is interesting, because foster carers who have become very attached to the child and want to continue caring for them often cannot do so without the financial assistance that a special guardianship order can offer them.
Q782Chair: On the subject of the number of children taken into care-obviously it is a matter of always heated debate-internationally, the number we take into care is not that high; Denmark has twice the level that we have. Do you think there is a case that there are more children who would benefit from being taken into care than is currently the case?
Anthony Douglas: The statistics are not clear, but there are probably two to three times the number of children that there are in care facing the same difficulties in the community. As of last Friday, the numbers of children coming into the care system were continuing to increase at record levels. For local authorities that are continuing to apply this tougher approach, those numbers will continue to increase, but as you say, if you take the perspective of do they meet the threshold, the answer is yes. We must therefore say, for individual children, if they get past the various hurdles, checks and balances that is a good thing, and we should continue to be aware of the children who are in need of services first but removal second, rather than being either left in limbo or desperate situations.
Local politicians and managers have been very brave to take some of the steps they have taken. These services are crosssubsidised within local authorities; they are not the most politically popular services and at a time of continuing recession that is going to be a bigger and bigger challenge, but I think they are to be commended for putting children at the top of the agenda. These children are under the radar far too often.
Judge Crichton: It is such a difficult balance to strike. Again, I come back to the drug and alcohol misusing families: if we just keep removing children, there will be more children. That is what families do, or is what a lot of families do. At one time I thought it just sort of happened that, to fill the void, a mother sought comfort when a child was removed and, somehow or other, a child appeared. It is more deliberate than that. Parents shout at me, "Take this one away; I will go on having one a year until you let me keep one." I read a psychiatric report where a mother said, "Every time they take a child away from me, the only way I can deal with the pain of the loss is to have another one."
We have to address the core problems. Now, in some cases they are almost unaddressable, but in some cases more intensive support-we come back to resources-might enable this family to keep this child. If this family can keep this child then there might not be another one a year for the next 12 years. So we have terribly difficult balances to strike in identifying the children who really are at risk and have to be removed and the families where the child can perhaps be supported and stay there. It is very difficult territory for social workers.
Q783Chair: Can I take you back to neglect, if I may? If the existing statutory definitions of neglect in Working Together are clear, are there problems with gathering enough evidence to bring a neglect case to court?
Judge Crichton: I do not think so.
Anthony Douglas: I do not think so. Neglect rarely takes place in isolation from other forms of abuse. It is covered by Working Together, the welfare checklist and the court examination.
Q784Damian Hinds: I was just going to ask if you believe that the increase in Section 31 cases following the case of Peter Connelly-it is difficult to talk about these things in macro terms, obviously, because each one is an individual case-is a catchup to a more appropriate level of children in the care system, and therefore expect there to be a permanent increase in the numbers involved, perhaps closer to some of the international benchmarks the Chairman was talking about?
Anthony Douglas: The evidence base is that after the media storm and initial panic came the intensive reviewing of existing cases and determined action about those to catch up. However, more recent evidence in the last year is that new cases are being dealt with in a more timely way. Our evidence, which is published on Friday, shows that London is doing slightly better than many parts of the rest of the country, counter-intuitively-it is always difficult to get public services right in London. Those boroughs closest to Haringey have done particularly well. In 2011 we might have said it was a catchup and things have returned to normal, but the record increases in the last year suggest that there is a permanency about this. As Nick says, each case is different, but that does give us a big public policy and resourcing challenge over the next decade.
Q785Charlotte Leslie: Very briefly, I just wanted to ask about-I do not like this phrase-older young people, older children. The Family Justice Review report recommended that older children be given much more of a say and a voice in cases they are involved in. One thing that has been very apparent through this review is, not unsurprisingly, children want much more of a say in what happens to them and are far more able to contribute to the debate than the system gives them credit for. The Family Justice Review report talked about a "menu of options" by which they might do this: what kind of "menu of options" do you foresee, and how well do you think we have the balance at the moment?
Judge Crichton: This is another topic that is close to my heart. I chair the Voice of the Child subcommittee of the Family Justice Council. The mechanism we have of bringing children’s wishes and feelings to the court is through a CAFCASS officer who provides a written report. I think the children who want to meet the person who is making an important decision in their lives should be given that opportunity. There are plenty of children who say, "Make the decision for me; I don’t want to be part of this." That is fine: they need to understand it is okay to say that.
However, I will nearly always meet with the child who wants to meet with me, unless somebody tells me there is some emotional danger to the child that we have to be careful of. That is not the same as a child giving evidence; it is not a forensic exercise. It is an exercise for the child, not for me. I take them through what the CAFCASS officer has written, and I make it clear to them that I cannot have secrets. I see them separate from their parents and the lawyers, but I make it clear that I have to tell the lawyers what they have told me. I make it clear to them that this is my decision, not theirs; I have a lot of things that I have to balance; I have rules that I have to apply. Their wishes and feelings are very important to me, but I have to weigh them up against other things.
I think kids understand the concept of secrets and rules very clearly. I am more wary about the forensic exercise of children giving evidence; it happens very rarely in my court, but it does happen from time to time. It is an overall picture of showing respect to a child, allowing a child to understand the nature of the proceedings they are in and decisions that have to be made. All of that is born of the fact that my work with the Voice of the Child subcommittee where I have travelled around the country quite a lot, talking to children and young people, is that there is a strong feeling or perception that their views have not been listened to in the process. Sometimes it is just perception, and their views have been listened to but it has not been properly explained to them, and they have not been given a proper opportunity to play a slightly bigger part in the process of decisionmaking, if they want to. That is always the caveat.
Anthony Douglas: The process is extremely stressful for them, and often they have not really been asked very much, if at all, before about how they should live their lives and choose. Each child will say something that is absolutely heartfelt, meant and they will go on thinking and believing. That is the part you have to stay with. Even older children, because chronological age is not the same as developmental age, may well have been coached or unduly influenced by one parent against the other. The professional responsibility we have is to conduct a balancing exercise with wishes and feelings as well as a needs analysis.
Because it is so fraught and our work with children is often too brief to be able to get at the depth of what they are going through, we will make mistakes. For some children, it is quite clear, go with what they say; but with the majority you have to go into it and sometimes protect them against some element of parenting they still need protection against, even as older children. I have been amazed by some of our young people, including those on our Young People’s Board, who have said at 15 and 16 that life is impossible and they will never get through it, and who with support-whether from a CAFCASS worker, a judge, a safe relative, a leaving care worker-have turned their lives around by 21 or 22. We now work with 150,000 children a year. As Eileen Munro said, our system is one that people now come to look at with respect and want to put in place themselves. At the heart of it is to spend more and more time understanding the voice of the child and its complexity.
Judge Crichton: I just want to add two things. In the private law situation of divorce and relationship breakdown it is a much more difficult exercise talking to children because of the issue of them being influenced by one parent or another. One has to be cautious. The other difficulty is-I do not know whether Anthony would agree with this-because of economic constraints CAFCASS officers find it more difficult to have the time to get to visit the child as often as they once did in order to gain the child’s trust and, over a period of time, to reflect the child’s sometimes changing feelings about what is happening to them and produce a clearer picture of how the child’s feelings are changing in difficult situations.
Q786Charlotte Leslie: I was going to ask you, Anthony, if I may, about that. I wanted to run this past you: I mentioned before a constituency case.
Anthony Douglas: Which I would be very happy to look at.
Charlotte Leslie: That would be very kind. It is going to be retrospective now, but it struck me as very interesting, talking about the amount of time the CAFCASS officer, the guardian, gets with the child and their ability to see underneath the layers, as it were. The case was such that-as far as I can tell, and it is always difficult to judge these things-the mother, who had been rather manipulative and had broken up the relationship, had, for various reasons, access to legal aid. So she got herself a lawyer. The husband was, as far as I can tell-you cannot make a judgment-very much an innocent party in this. The mother was very manipulative and was interfering with the child’s education. The child was saying "I want to go back to dad"; the teacher was saying every time mum comes to pick him up from school and every time he is with mum his education stops. The doctors were saying this is no good at all; he needs to be with dad.
The CAFCASS guardian had made an assessment and felt-I think because there was a lawyer involved and there were a lot of very persuasive things being said-that mum was the one to be with, and mum also had a partner who was quite manipulative as well. It has taken an awful lot of constituency time, my caseworker’s time, to try and unravel this thing, because the judgment of the CAFCASS guardian-who I am sure was thinking he was doing the right thing-was so difficult to go against, since he was the voice of the child. You had situations where there was a testament given by the child, which was very contrary to what he was saying to teachers and people who knew him, phrased in the language of someone who was operating within the system. There was a problem about that. In any good system there are always rogue cases; how can we make sure that cases like this do not arise as frequently? How do you create a level playing field so that children are able to say what they actually think and are not overly influenced by systems in which they are put and in which they operate?
Anthony Douglas: Three points. I am happy to look at the individual case. There are many cases I could point you to in which we have stood out against a local authority in particular, and other experts, and, on behalf of the child, got a better deal for the child. We are an accountable organisation: our staff are supervised, managed. But-and there is case law about this-they are independent of all parties to a case and have a responsibility to reach their own professional judgment and for that to be on behalf of the child, respected and submitted to court. The point you are making is true, not just of CAFCASS practitioners but all practitioners in this field. The explosion of referrals in the last few years has meant that caseloads have increased-sometimes they have doubled-in local authorities, in CAFCASS and other organisations, and there is less time per case. We say that our responsibility is to make sure that every child has a service, rather than the majority of children have a longer service and some have no service at all. With that come risks that we miss things.
Q787Charlotte Leslie: Workers, people under pressure, make difficult decisions, and as you say, these are risky situations; you are never going to get a situation where everything can be sure and safety is guaranteed. However, if there was a situation where a particular individual again and again had complaints raised about decisions they made-there are always complications-are there mechanisms to look at the decisions that individual is making to check that they are doing their job well, like in any profession?
Anthony Douglas: Yes. We have a pretty rigorous performance management system and individual staff are performance managed as well as supervised. In general our performance, as validated through Ofsted, is improving, but it is always best to look at the individual situation. We get cases referred by MPs, parents and so on. We rigorously debrief each complaint or concern.
Q788Charlotte Leslie: I know you have been doing great work with your Young People’s Board, which the Government has been looking at. Can you update us on what mechanisms are being put in place, perhaps, so that we might learn more from it or it might feed into what the Government does with new national governance regulations?
Anthony Douglas: We are using our board as the basis for the family justice system’s Young People’s Board to try to drive through the changes. They do a mixture of things: they carry out joint training of staff; they carry out young people’s inspections of services; they carry out mystery shopping exercises to make sure that receptionists respond well to children. We are about to offer those services to the rest of the family justice system, including courts, to try to take the review forward. We are about to embark upon a recruitment exercise, particularly with younger children, to develop the work still further.
Judge Crichton: There is another mechanism, and it is called a judge. What we need, as I believe very strongly and have said before, is more professional, full-time, specialist judges doing this work all the time. Then you get more confidence, and with more confidence comes more competence. That is the loudest cry from where I am.
Q789Chair: How many more?
Judge Crichton: I am not in a position to talk numbers. I have in my court I think 20 colleagues coming in on a rota basis for eight, 10 or 12 weeks a year. Some of them are extraordinarily good, but they would all be better if they were doing the work more regularly than eight or 10 weeks a year. They could provide continuity, keep cases to themselves and be able to monitor the progress of cases more efficiently.
Q790Chair: What is standing in the way?
Judge Crichton: The whole system of appointing judges. At the moment judges still only get to do family law by being criminal judges and then giving up a certain amount of their time to it. We need to change that.
Chair: Can I thank both of you very much for giving evidence to us this morning and afternoon?