Children and Social Work Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 8th November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 3:30 pm, 8th November 2016

My Lords, I know the Minister will think that I go on about the issue I am about to raise, and in a sense I am not apologising. I remind the House of my interests as chair of Changing Lives, a charity based in the north-east of England.

Children who are removed and placed in care are overwhelmingly from economically and socially deprived backgrounds. There has been a lot of evidence on this, recently and over many years. The experiences of those who try to parent in a profoundly unequal society are simply not considered sufficiently. That sounds a bit academic—let me explain what I mean. Mental health difficulties, substance misuse and domestic abuse are seen and accepted as central risk indicators for child abuse. However, these are intrinsically linked with living in poverty and disadvantage in a very unequal society. Psychosocial reactions to deprivation and shame, which are the experience I am talking about, are important in understanding self-harm and harm to others.

Currently, our policy has moved—on some occasions I have been part of that movement, and have resisted it on others—to being absolutely focused on the individual child, with very little space to consider the family context. As I have consistently argued in this House, the role of wider family members—of grandparents, siblings and friendship networks in supporting children—is too often neither recognised nor supported effectively.

Perhaps it would help if I reminded the House of an actual case which came from a Family Rights Group assessment—a study that was done on some of its advocacy work. The study says: “Julia cried as she explained that social workers had told her she was unable to have healthy adult relationships as a result of a brief period in care as a young child. Her child had been removed from her because it transpired that her partner had a history of abuse that she had been unaware of. She immediately separated from him and paid privately for counselling as it was not available from the social worker, who was concerned with the child’s welfare only. Despite her actions, the child was placed in care while a risk assessment was carried out. No one seemed to have considered the ironies here. Would such a separation, for example, result in this child being seen, too, as unable to have healthy adult relationships?”. In other words, the whole system was reinforcing the problems, rather than tackling them.

The importance of attachment is recognised in study after study of child-rearing. Not to understand and consider that in our child protection policies is, at best, unwise. This amendment seeks to ensure that appropriate counselling and therapeutic support is offered to any parent whose child is permanently removed. The context of the amendment is that child protection inquiries are continuing to increase; the number of new care proceedings is at record levels. As of 31 March 2016, there were over 70,000 looked-after children in England, which is the highest figure since 1985. If this does not tell us that we have to think again about what we are doing, I do not know what will.

The new clause would enable any parent whose child has been permanently removed to get the therapeutic support and counselling to help them deal with their grief, emotional hurt and other difficulties, so they can avoid the appalling cycle of repeat pregnancies that lead to repeat removals of children. Analysis of court data found that one in four mothers subject to care proceedings was subject to repeat care proceedings. That figure rose to one in three for those who became mothers in their teenage years. Provisional results from further analysis show that more than six out of 10 mothers who had children sequentially removed were teenagers when they had their first child. Of these, 40% were in care, or had been looked after in the care system, during their own childhood.

The figures go on. Some 354 mothers were looked at in this study of recurrent care proceedings. It found that approximately 65% had had their mental health issues mentioned in their first set of proceedings; 75% had domestic abuse mentioned in their first set of proceedings; and 90% had experienced some form of neglect or abuse—emotional, physical or sexual—in their childhood.

The President of the Family Division has recognised the importance of the work that programmes such as Pause are doing in trying to make sure that there is not this cycle of repeat pregnancies and repeat admissions to care. But the programmes that are available, including the one we run in Newcastle, are not nationwide or underpinned by any statutory duty. Most vulnerable parents who have lost a child are therefore left unsupported emotionally and not assisted to parent in future. The new duties set out in the amendment would ensure that all parents who have lost a child receive the therapeutic care and counselling that would help them to avoid that cycle.

I move this amendment in the hope that, in thinking about the future of social work and children in care—and I know that the Government are doing that—they look carefully at the evidence on the importance of working effectively with women in vulnerable situations, so that they are better able to handle the trauma in their lives that inevitably adversely affects their relationships and those they can develop, particularly with their children.

The charity that I chair works with many women who are in this position. Among other work, we have a project in Newcastle that works with women recovering from addictions, and with their children, in a residential setting. Many of them have already lost children into care, and we work with them intensively for about six months. The programme has been successful in breaking that cycle, which has meant that the local authorities involved will happily talk to the Government and others about saving money through children not having come into care who otherwise would have. This is a really challenging time for the Government regarding the future of social work and children in care, and this is one way we can help to break a cycle that is not only depressing but destructive to the children and mothers involved. I beg to move.