Child protection and family fragility

    Legal Action for Women published a dossier this week, with the intent of addressing what it describes as “the traumatic and discriminatory treatment of children, mothers and grandmothers by the state and the institutions who are in charge of child protection”. The take home message from the dossier was that, whereas removing children from their families and placing them in care used to be a last resort, the weight of prioritisation has shifted from provision of family support to enforced adoption. Indeed, there has been a 65% increase in the number of children separated from their families and adoptions are at their highest number since complete data collection began.

    Perhaps surprisingly, then, given this purportedly all-or-nothing pattern of intervention from local authorities, the dossier also reports that less than 1% of child contact applications are currently refused. The implication of this is that violent and abusive non-resident parents are almost always given at least some level of contact should they request it. Legal Action for Women commented on this juxtaposition, suggesting that together the data suggests an unprecedented level of state intrusion in family life and a failure to protect children residing with disadvantaged parents, which might then result in the child being taken from their homes and placed in care. It is often, the dossier notes, children from low income working class, black, or immigrant families who are taken into care, with impoverished mothers accused of ‘neglect’ despite little or no support from the state. Anna Neale, co-author of the dossier, stated that in order “for child welfare to be prioritised, money and resources must be made available to support families, starting with primary carers, usually the mother.”

    Despite this fairly damning analysis of how child protection is being handled, Friday’s news that senior judges have ruled to change the laws surrounding child contact for violent fathers suggests that positive and data-supported change may be on the horizon. The move is to avoid the presumption that fathers must be allowed contact with a child in cases where evidence of domestic abuse suggests a risk to the mother and/or child. Encouragingly, included in the changes is a call from a senior family court judge for all the judiciary to have further training with regards to domestic violence, in order to better ensure the safety of mothers and children. It seems at least conceivable, after all, that the removal of an abusive parent’s involvement might reduce the need for a child’s removal and placement into care.

    Of course, that which will hopefully lead to a shift in the local authorities’ approach to child protection ought not to reduce the consideration given to the benefits of co-parenting. Researchers and social workers are generally in agreement in championing the inclusion of both parents in the upbringing of a child, where appropriate. In future, it will therefore be the delicate and sometimes difficult job of authorities to balance the risks of parent-child contact, the risks of allowing a child to remain with one or both parents, but also the damage that removal of the child might cause and the help from social workers that could be afforded to the family.