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The parent trap

Are social workers targeting mothers who serve frozen meals?


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In 25 local authorities, an average of one child in every 100 live births is taken from its parents in their first week of life, with few being reunited. There are currently more than 80,000 children under council care in England — up from 65,000 a decade ago. Strict secrecy rules covering the family courts mean the detail behind decisions to investigate and remove children rarely becomes public. However, The Critic has obtained disturbing documents that shed some light on how social workers decide if someone’s parenting is “good enough” to keep their children. The documents suggest low-income parents are held to standards that would test even relatively affluent middle-class families.

From the 1990s onwards many local authorities used a scoresheet called the Graded Care Profile (GCP) to assess neglect. In 2017 the NSPCC began selling an adapted version, dubbed GCP2. Councils spent £1,000-odd for a GCP2 licence and around £6,000 on training. Under the GCP2, parenting is scored on a scale from 1 (best parent: all child’s needs always met) through 3 (adequate: mild neglect) to 5 (worst: severe neglect).

Both the GCP and its successor are based on the concept of “instinctive parenting” — supposedly an evolutionary drive to ensure the survival of one’s progeny. “Looking at what a parent is actually doing to care for their child, and then differentiating how much parental investment has gone into providing that care can best assess this ‘instinctive parenting strength’,” says the NSPCC’s GCP2 Guidance Booklet.

Instinctive parenting strength supposedly then interacts with environmental factors and attributes of child and parent to produce “net care”, which the GCP2 attempts to quantify numerically. 

The NSPCC advises social workers to consider various actions for parents with scores of 3 or more, including referrals to child protection. The scoresheet is supposed to help parents understand their strengths and weaknesses and demonstrate change after an intervention. Results are sometimes submitted to court. In other words, a lot can hang on these scores.

Despite this lofty talk of evolutionary theory, what the assessment tool is effectively saying is that the best parents are those who spend the most on their children and on housekeeping, in terms of time and money. 

Under the GCP2, top level parenting involves: an “exceptionally clean” and “exceptionally well-maintained” house with facilities that go beyond the essential, meals that are “elaborately organised” with food that is “painstakingly cooked”; while the child’s clothing is “an excellent fit” and “exceptionally well cared for, cleaned and ironed”. The gold-star parent never leaves a child with an adult they are unfamiliar with, even if they are suitable babysitters and always closely supervises them up to the age of 11, even if they are in a safe place. 

What many people would consider normal: a reasonably clean house, with some redecoration needed, quality of food that is adequate most of the time and children’s clothes occasionally ill-fitting — is deemed “mild neglect”.

The blogger Suessuspiciousminds, a local authority lawyer, wrote in 2015 about what parents have to do, once their child has been removed, to prove they can give “good enough care”. He described how many local authorities’ assessments featured, prominently, the parent’s ability to make a shepherd’s pie from scratch. Which is nice, he concluded, but cannot be a test of whether a parent is good enough:

A parent’s case doesn’t become not ‘good enough’ because they give their kid oven chips and Crispy Pancakes rather than homemade shepherd’s pie. And if you are wincing at the idea of a child eating that sort of food, ask yourself how you would feel about a child (or an adult) eating Marks and Spencer’s Chicken Alfredo ready meal, or Tesco’s Finest Boeuf Bourguignon? It isn’t better, just because it is middle-class …

Little has changed. In July, we spoke to a barrister who said: “I was recently involved in a care case where the mother had been criticised by a social worker for feeding her children frozen vegetables during lockdown — although frozen veg have the same nutritional value as fresh … In my experience, some social workers are biased against working-class parents.”

Turning back to the GCP, Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at St George’s, University of London, fears it does not reflect parental motivation or competence so much as poverty, and takes little account of the extraneous factors that may interfere with a parent’s ability to provide. 

“If you live in damp, decaying and cramped accommodation, regardless of your motivation and efforts you are likely to be scored low on the GCP,” he told me. “Similarly, if you run out of money each week to buy food or cannot afford to replace children’s torn or out-grown clothing, you will score badly.” 

The original GPC, still in use by several councils, recommends discounting home repairs by landlords unless parents have made a personal contribution. There is no similar instruction to discount disrepair that is not the parents’ responsibility.

According to the NSPCC, the scores are only supposed to be used in context, taking into account the reasons for poor care and the impact on a particular child. But in the only published family court judgment that refers to GCP, the scores are stated without context. The judgment states that the parents found the scoring “unnecessarily harsh”.

The gold-star parent marks personal and seasonal events with “lots of enthusiasm and elaborate celebrations”

The tool could also be culturally biased. According to the GCP2, the gold-star parent marks personal and seasonal events with “lots of enthusiasm and elaborate celebrations”. “Low-key” celebrations are deemed less positive and failing to celebrate earns a score of 5 — the worst possible parenting. A score of 5 overrides any better score in the relevant GCP2 domain, in this case, developmental care. That’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses — who do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or birthdays — told.

Similarly, the GCP says the best parents “talk about the child with delight/praise without being asked” and provide “material and generous emotional reward for any achievement”. (The GPC2 drops the word “material”.) 

However, the correct approach to praise and boasting about one’s child is not only controversial — some research suggests excessive praise of children for insignificant achievements is a recipe for narcissism — but also varies with culture as research on South Asian parents in the UK has shown.

Under GCP2, a parent who fails to take their child on trips out, with playing only taking place in the neighbourhood, is given a score of 5 — a reminder this is the worst possible parenting. The best parent provides “frequent child-centred outings”.

Does any evidence exist that children need “child-centred outings”? The American research psychologist, Peter Gray, suggests the decline in children’s free — as in, unstructured — play with other children over the last half century may be linked to the rise in their psychopathology. Research has shown that children are, on average, happier when simply messing around with friends than they are in any other situation. 

“Somehow, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults,” Gray writes. 

Every so often researchers notice that many successful people have endured traumatic or neglectful childhoods. A 1964 tome called Cradles of Eminence, investigated the backgrounds of people such as Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Freud and Churchill. The authors found three quarters had endured traumatic childhoods and one quarter had a physical disability. Parents whose opinions went against the grain were a common feature, as were “domineering” mothers. 

More recently Matthew Parris, presenter of Radio 4’s Great Lives, noticed that many of the exceptional people featured had very troubled childhoods. His book Fracture also suggests that these experiences may have been instrumental in their success. 

That the legacy of deprivation and trauma is negative for the vast majority of affected children is not in doubt. If these books have a message it is that interference with parenting style, and prescriptions for intense control and involvement in children’s lives, should be avoided so far as possible as some clearly thrive on independence and difficulty.

The NSPCC tweeted in January 2021 that 18,000 children’s care practitioners had received GCP2 training since its launch five years ago. To encourage its use, the charity holds events at which celebrities such as the former Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard and The Countess of Wessex present awards to staff who are particularly strong GPC2 advocates.

We asked the charity whether any independent evidence existed that the GCP2 improved outcomes for children. We also asked what evidence it had for claiming that children’s needs are never met by playing solely in their neighbourhood, or always met by being praised for every achievement. 

The NSPCC was unable or unwilling to answer these questions but said it “completely rejected” any suggestion the tool contributes to bias in the system. It said professionals receive extensive training to use the GCP2 which it described as “an evidence-based tool, which has been tested by academics and practitioners”. We also asked dozens of councils that use the GCP and GCP2 for copies of any evaluation they had done of the tools’ impact on children. None was provided.

This is a minefield for any parent to navigate

 The GCP is not the only type of assessment that raises questions about bias. A few years ago we obtained a copy of the rules of a parent and baby assessment unit that is still operating today with the same manager. “Parents must ensure they are dressed appropriately. Bare feet are not permitted. Dressing gowns should not be worn after 9am or before 8pm,” the rules say. Heels are not allowed. Cooking is not permitted after 8pm. Meals must be made daily from scratch (of course) with fizzy drinks kept to a minimum and no more than one take-out per week. Residents are not allowed in each other’s rooms and families are banned from the communal lounge after 9pm.

For young women, grappling with first-time motherhood while separated from their friends and families, this boarding school regime must come as a severe shock. We have seen a report by the unit on Emma (not her real name), a young single mother caring for her first child. The text is laced with condemnation of the ordinary behaviour and reactions of a young woman, including criticism of her use of fake tan and revealing clothes. She is also criticised for failing to be sufficiently open about her past and the impact of violent abuse from her former partner, from whom she was by now separated.

This is a minefield for any parent to navigate. Child protection workers view domestic violence victims with suspicion even if they have left their abuser as they may reunite or choose another abusive partner. Social workers are trained through “reflective practice”, which involves thinking critically about their actions. Some seem to expect parents to do the same. But parents often do not understand what the social workers are looking for. Anyone who copes with difficult periods of their lives by blocking out the past and focusing on “moving on”, is likely to be judged negatively, as Emma was.

Acutely aware that their futures with their children hang in the balance, parents may also try to give social workers what they think they want by over-emphasising positive aspects of their lives. This is natural human behaviour towards a person with enormous power. It is not evidence of fundamental dishonesty but some social workers treat it as if it is.

The system favours sophisticated thinkers who can learn quickly to provide the appropriately formulated mea culpa. But any admissions or negative assertions can equally be used as evidence against the parent. In later sessions, Emma told her key worker she did not want her son to see his father (in jail for assaulting her) and wanted to be present at any court-ordered contact as she feared his aggression. The social worker interpreted this in the worst possible light as evidence of Emma’s anger towards her ex rather than concern for her son.

This schizophrenic approach is repeated throughout the family legal system. While social workers judge parents like Emma for failing to acknowledge the significance of domestic abuse on their children, the family courts regularly downplay serious abuse and approve known abusers’ applications for contact. A Court of Appeal judgment in March 2021 revealed the High Court had found a husband who made three assaults on his wife — two accompanied by threats to kill including putting a plastic bag over her head while saying “this is how you should die” — was not a violent man and posed no threat. 

In a linked case, the High Court said a mother had taken a “trivial incident” and blown it out of proportion. The “trivial incident” involved her husband slapping her while she was heavily pregnant after she asked him not to open her mail. The judge excused other abusive behaviour by the husband with reference to the mother’s lifestyle and the fact “her home was a mess and her childcare routines lacking”. Very recently it has emerged that a woman is being forced to subsidise child contact visits for a man who the court had found had raped her.

Lay advocate Julie Haines has been assisting parents fighting for the return of their children since her own family’s brush with social services in 2004 (no action was taken despite Haines’s refusal to allow social workers near her children). She is enraged by the double standards running through proceedings involving children.

“These are imperfect people but they hold parents to a very high standard. They dispense judgment against the parents before they get anywhere near the court and look for evidence to confirm it.” She once discovered a social worker’s extra-curricular interests included marijuana. “I emailed everyone on the case to say he uses cannabis, which is illegal. I got in a lot of trouble for that, but it was the truth.

“A lot of social workers lie about what they’ve found in people’s houses. They pick and choose the worst elements and exaggerate.” Haines says her husband went to a boarding school but the social worker’s report on her family said he had spent time in a residential unit. “It was pure spin.” 

Haines could be accused of having a jaundiced view, having previously worked alongside the former MP, John Hemming, who was notoriously critical of the family court system.

The double standard could not be starker

But the fact that some social workers lie is not in doubt. What is more surprising is that after being exposed as dishonest and criticised in the severest terms in court, they may keep their jobs. In 2016 a judge found social worker Linda Fraser fabricated evidence to bolster the local authority’s case for removing a child from the mother’s care on grounds of neglect. In 2018 the regulator for social workers decided she should be allowed to continue practising without restriction. Today, Fraser is still working as a social worker.

Hampshire social worker Sarah Smart lied under oath and also put pressure on a housing officer to say that the dilapidated condition of a home was due to the parents’ neglect, which he refused to do. She was promoted to team manager.

Her own manager, Kim Goode, initiated the “deliberate and calculated alteration” of a balanced assessment by a different social worker. Goode’s changes to her colleague’s report were all extremely negative. Goode is now a senior manager in Isle of Wight children’s services. Lisa Humphreys, Kim Goode’s manager, whose evidence the judge described as “deeply unimpressive” is now head of children’s services in Slough. 

In February 2017 the regulator found the Hampshire social workers had no case to answer. It refused to publish its reasons. In contrast, Hampshire dismissed the social worker who completed the initial, balanced, report after Goode initiated a disciplinary hearing against her. The children at the heart of the case were not returned home. Part of the case against their parents was that they were unable to work with professionals due to their “deep-seated mistrust and their tendency to accuse professionals of lying when challenged”.

The double standard could not be starker. While the family courts remain largely closed to public scrutiny we stand very little chance of knowing what is really happening in the world of child protection. In his evidence to an ongoing transparency review the former family division president, Sir James Munby, said reporting restrictions prevented “the ability of a system to reflect, having had a mirror held up, and to learn”. 

Discrimination, abuse and corruption thrive in secrecy. That decisions on permanent removal of children from their families are taking place in these conditions is a national scandal.

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