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Always/never

I’ve been reading a book by Eric Schlosser recently, called “Command and Control”  – it is primarily about the history of incidents and accidents in America with nuclear weapons, Schlosser’s research turning up an eye-watering number of hushed-up accidents with nuclear bombs and missiles in America, including the centrepiece of his story a fire in a nuclear missile silo where workers battled to stop the fire detonating the warheads.

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Command-Control-Eric-Schlosser/dp/1846141486/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380449302&sr=1-1&keywords=command+and+control

It is a great book, with there being something good on every page (following the Raymond Chandler edict of “put a diamond on every page”) – whether that be Fermi’s calculations about the possibility of the first nuclear explosion potentially going wrong and setting fire to every atom of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere (that would be a bad thing), the fact that in the early days of the Cold War whilst US media politicians and military spoke about how the US military stockpile of nukes could wipe Russia off the map they actually had just one functioning nuclear weapon (“for all the talk about the stockpile, there was no stock, and there was not even a pile”), the naming of the early computer system to plan nuclear conflict being called M.A.N.I.A.C, the British nuclear bunker to plan for life after the apocalypse having a pub called “The Rose and Crown” in it, and much more.

But the bit that struck me, and is applicable to this blog generally, is the battle that the US had over this dilemma, “Always/Never”.  They wanted to make nuclear weapons that would ALWAYS detonate and work when they wanted them to, but would NEVER go off when they weren’t intended to. That means that they had to be reliable and ALWAYS detonate when fired, but had to be sturdy and strong enough to survive maintenance, fires, the planes they were in crashing or being shot down, even accidents with testing.

And that was a goal on paper, but the reality was that the show was being run by the military, and thus the “ALWAYS” part had priority. For them, it was more important that they knew that if the Russian planes or missiles went up, they could launch and hit their own targets and get the job done; than the risk that an accident might occur. Whilst the calculations on “NEVER” seemed pretty good – a one in ten million chance that any individual nuke would go off accidentally, when multiplied by the number that they ended up with, the risk ended up feeling pretty unpalatable. (And as Schlosser identifies, there ended up being hundreds of incidents where things went wrong with nukes, sometimes quite badly wrong)

 

Now, in child protection, we also run an “ALWAYS/NEVER” ideal.  Children who are going to be seriously hurt or killed by their parents should ALWAYS be protected and kept safe, and children who ought to be at home with their parents should NEVER be removed.  As Munro and others have identified, this ideal is never going to actually work 100% of the time in practice. The myth for a long time was that with more information, more assessment, more structure, more procedures, more rigour, we could get very very close to that 100% figure, but that’s only a myth.

At the moment, like the US military in the Fifties and Sixties, we are more focussed on the “ALWAYS” portion of the equation – we strive for ALWAYS/NEVER but the ALWAYS bit is more important. I can’t really think of a time when the fear of getting another child death has been higher, post Baby P, but as you can see, even with that heavy focus on child rescue, individual tragedies still occur.  Looking at the Looked after Children statistics recently published by the Department for Education https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/244872/SFR36_2013.pdf  in amongst the (imho wrongly triumphalist) boasting about the increase in number of adoptive placements found for children, is the incredible statistic that the numbers of children currently the subject of Placement Orders   (the legal order which sanctions an adoptive placement being found for the child) has gone up by 95% since 2009.   Ninety-five per cent.

 

Even against that backdrop, the Serious Case Reviews and child deaths continue to happen. Even when everyone is very heavily focussed on ALWAYS, the truth is that you can’t keep all children safe.

 

And of course, whilst a mistake in the ALWAYS part of the equation is easy to detect – the child dies, there is an inquest, a criminal trial, a serious case review – everyone knows that something went badly wrong;  any mistake in the NEVER part of the equation is harder to pick up. You can tell if you took too much of a risk with a child, because something awful happens. But you can’t tell if you were far too cautious with a child, because that child doesn’t go home, the family is broken up and you never know whether that was the right call or not.

Our legal system is intended to be the check and balance on the NEVER part of the equation – we have laws and case law which makes it plain how important family preservation is, and a forensic process that gives parents free legal advice, the opportunity to present their own evidence and to test the evidence against them, with independent judges to make decisions, and an appeal process as a safeguard for those individual judgments getting it wrong.

 

All of that isn’t foolproof though. It would be hard to devise a foolproof system – I know that some of my regulars believe that the threshold for child protection intervention ought to be more like criminal offences, and that cases should be decided by juries not judges. That may or may not help, but we only have to look at criminal trials to realise that things go wrong with those – the wrong people do get convicted; and undoubtedly a criminal definition of threshold, a criminal standard of proof, a jury system would be moving much more towards the NEVER side of the equation.  ( In our criminal justice system we accept the possibility that guilty people may go free as an acceptable price for ensuring that innocent people are not punished – and even then sometimes it still goes wrong and innocent people go to prison)

 

I don’t have any solutions – I think really my point is that there isn’t a solution that will deliver ALWAYS/NEVER in child protection – you’ll make mistakes on both sides of that equation, and lurching too much to either side produces more mistakes on the other.  It is important to remember that you are trying to balance family preservation and child rescue, and that this is a difficult task and there’s no easy shortcut to getting it right, and that sometimes with all the best intentions, individual mistakes will happen and get past the system. Each of those individual mistakes is life-destroying for families and for children.

“Two thirds of children who died of abuse in 2012 could have been saved”

An examination of this very shocking claim from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England report, and discussion of the report itself.

This is a very interesting report, with very weighty contributors. The report is scathing and coruscating of the way that Children’s Rights and issues affecting children is dealt with in the UK, particularly by the Government. I found the tone a bit polemical and overtly political, but there is no doubt that the authors care passionately about children’s welfare and are extremely angry and fearful about the failings they identify.

If you are worried about where we are currently going as a nation, or care passionately about the nation’s children, this report is a must-read. (I did find it too overtly Tory-bashing, but it is still for all of its political slants a meaningful and strong document)

The report is here:- http://www.crae.org.uk/assets/files/s%20Rights%202012.pdf

Here are some of the headline points they open with, and they are shocking.

• Forty-eight children died as a result of ‘deliberately inflicted injury, abuse or neglect’ in 2011-12. Sixty-five per cent of these deaths were ‘modifiable’ – there were factors involved in the death indicating that achievable steps could be taken to reduce the risk of future deaths.

• Between April 2009 and April 2010, Tasers were used on under-18s a total of 144 times. In the previous 12 month period Tasers were used on children 102 times – an increase of 41%.

• Thirty-three children have died in custody in England and Wales since 1990. In January 2012, two children died within a week.

• Official statistics published in November 2012 reported that the number of children going missing from foster care had increased by 19% in the previous year.

• More than 3,000 foster children are estimated to have gone missing in the year up to March 2012. As of 31 March 2012 there were a reported 1% still missing from care.

• In 2011 only 13.9% of children in care achieved good GCSE grades (A* to C) in both English and mathematics, compared to 58.6% of their peers. The attainment gap has risen from 37.2 in 2007 to 44.7 in 2011.

• When they visit a looked after child, social workers are required to speak to the child in private, but only 39% of children say that this happens on every visit, and 5% of children said that this never happens.

• Official figures published in November 2012 revealed that of 6,610 care leavers aged 19, 36% (2,390) were not in education, employment or training. This percentage is at its highest since 2008 (when it was 24%).

Action for Children’s analysis of the impact of Government spending decisions on vulnerable children and families found that family support services have been significantly affected by cuts to local authority spending. Out of 48 family support managers questioned:

• 13% of managers had seen a decrease in the number of hours that staff were able to spend with families and children in the last 12 months;

• More than a quarter of managers (27%) reported a decrease in funding. 4% of services reported a budget increase;

 • 44% of managers reported that the number of new referrals is rising, compared to the previous six months;

• According to almost two-thirds (62%) of the managers, families are facing increasingly severe problems

I was staggered to read here that this country is Tasering children. I knew that the number of children who die from abuse each year is roughly one a week, so 48 is obviously tragic and shocking though not surprising to me. The claim that 65% were ‘modifiable’ is probably what is going to be reported in the papers in lines with the headline I have used for this piece.

Let’s have a look at the specific bits in the report on this:-

Statutory guidance sets out the procedures to be followed when a child dies.

Two processes are conducted to review child deaths.

A rapid response by key professionals is undertaken to investigate each individual unexpected death of a child.

A Child Death Overview Panel will also conduct an overview of all child deaths in the area covered by the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB). Either of these processes can trigger a Serious Case Review.

Child death review processes became mandatory in April 2008, though LSCBs have been able to implement these functions since April 2006.

There were 4,012 child death reviews in the year ending 31 March 2012. This is slightly lower than the number of reviews carried out in the previous year.

Official data shows that there were 784 ‘modifiable’ deaths in England in 2011-12. A modifiable death is the official term given to a death where one or more factors could be modified (changed) to reduce the risk of future child deaths. (This is the same proportion as the previous year – 20% of the total number of child deaths reviewed)

The age breakdown of the 784 ‘modifiable’ deaths is as follows:

• Newborns under the age of 27 days accounted for 45% of modifiable child deaths (an increase of 12% on the previous year)

• Infants aged between 28 and 364 days accounted for 21% of modifiable child deaths

• Children aged between 1 and 4 years accounted for 12% of modifiable child deaths

• Children aged between 15 and 17 years accounted for 9% of modifiable child deaths

• Children aged between 10 and 14 accounted for 7% of modifiable child deaths

• Children aged between 5 and 9 years accounted for 6% of modifiable child deaths.

Older children who died aged 15-17 years were more likely to have modifiable factors identified in their deaths, with 32% of this age group having modifiable factors identified, compared to 18% of children aged under one-year.

Of the 43 children that died in England in 2011-12 as a result of deliberately inflicted injury, abuse or neglect over half (28) were deemed to have modifiable factors.

Six per cent (45) of the 784 children who died where modifiable factors were identified were, or had been, subject to a child protection plan at the time of death; and 50 of the 784 children were or had been subject to a statutory order at the time of death.

The EHRC’s Human Rights Review states that local authority mechanisms for investigating and learning from serious cases of ill-treatment may be ‘insufficient’. The Review reiterates the concerns expressed in the Munro Review that serious case reviews are failing to identify the core issues that prevent child protection professionals from protecting children. In addition, the EHRC concludes that agencies often fail to work together effectively to prevent the ill-treatment of children.

The report notes that in child protection cases there is often a blurring of boundaries between different agencies. This lack of communication means that at-risk children can fall through the gaps.

So the 781 child deaths that were reviewed covered a wide range of causes, and it is the 48 who died from abuse that the report is focussing on. I see no reason to dispute that the figures about whether the deaths were ‘modifiable’ are accurate figures and that the decision as to whether they were ‘modifiable’ (or preventable, in plain English) are accurately taken from the investigation into those deaths.

That is a shocking figure. Not least given that we have all been working under the shadow of Baby P for over four years now, with numbers of care proceedings having gone up nearly 50% over that time.

There is an argument that somewhere along the line since Baby P, perhaps explicitly, perhaps in an underlying and unconscious trend, that the nation has moved in child protection terms quite far along the “child rescue” side of the scale rather than “family preservation” and that underpinning that is the understandable desire amongst social workers, and maybe even Courts not to have another tragedy like Baby P, and that perhaps, buried deep under that is the notion that separating more families is a price worth paying to avoid that.

But we don’t seem to have reduced the numbers of child deaths caused by abuse (at least not appreciably) and this report is decent evidence to suggest that even in the most hyper aware culture of ‘child rescue’ we have had in this country, 28 children died of abuse where this could have been avoided.

If there has been a lurch down the ‘child rescue’ side of the scale, as some commentators suggest, has that actually had any positive benefits for the children of the UK compared to the negative aspects of the system not properly balancing ‘family preservation’?

As I was recently suggesting in my post about Baby P, unless you become as a society so risk averse that any sniff of risk results in removal of children, you can’t necessarily tell which children who are at risk will fall into that dreadful bracket.

It all seems terribly inevitable, when you do what the Press does and work backwards from the death to look at the history.

I’d suggest that this is a media fallacy – yes, if you start from the death and look at all of the concerns the outcome seems terribly inevitable, just as if you only interview people who have WON the national lottery you would establish that buying a lottery ticket inevitably leads to winning the lottery.

You need to be aware of how many people buy tickets and don’t have any life-changing event, to have any idea as to whether buying a lottery ticket is likely to lead to you winning the lottery.

Unless you look at the pool of children who have those sorts of pattern of concerns and bruises and worries who end up being able to be safely managed at home, which of course nobody ever does, you don’t get an accurate picture of what risks, if any, do inevitably lead to child deaths, and which are just professionals weighing up the interest of keeping a family together and managing risk against ‘safety first’ and breaking up a family, and who with the magical benefit of hindsight maybe got that balance wrong with tragic consequences.

A thought-provoking report. Worth a read.

There’s a small boat made of china, going nowhere on my mantelpiece

 

Laplace, prediction, and why we might, everywhere we go, always take the weather with us in care proceedings

 

By the start of the nineteenth century, scientists had discovered a great many of the principles of physics and particularly how various forces acted on objects in predictable and mathematical ways.  This led some scientists to hubristically predict that there was nothing new to be found in the world of physics   (obviously not aware that radioactivity, splitting the atom and quantum physics were completely unknown to them at that point).

 

Anyway, once you discover the various mathematical principles about forces and objects and how forces act upon objects, one starts thinking about whether you could predict something with absolute certainty if you had enough information.

 

Being a previously sad geeky sciency Suesspiciousminds Junior, I had certainly wondered in my adolescence whether you could, if you had really fast computers and knew everything, no longer be guessing a toin coss, but knowing how it would end up.  

 

That’s something which has also exercised the minds of a great many gamblers, since Roulette is essentially just an exercise in predictable physics (speed of spin of the table, angle and speed at which the ball is dropped) – predictable, but extremely complex, and if you could actually predict which slot the ball would drop into, with certainty, you would be an extraordinarily rich person.

 

Well, someone else,  Pierre-Simon Laplace took that a stage further, and suggested that with a great enough intellect (computers weren’t really around at that stage, other than Babbage’s mechanical one which was more of a theoretical concept than something you could actually boot up and play Farmville on), you could calculate the entire future of the universe and the movement of every particle.

 

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

 

This is really the birth of determinism, the idea that you can, given enough information, accurately predict future outcomes, or more broadly, that given a set of conditions, the outcome which emerges from those conditions is the only one which COULD have emerged.  

 

[Sadly, I learned when doing a bit of quick research, that Laplace’s other claim, that Pope Callixtus had once excommunicated a comet, was fallacious. I have a later essay planned on how the law has treated animals and inanimate objects, and that would have fitted perfectly with the excommunication of beetles and the pig who was put on trial for murder]

 

I won’t get any further into whether Laplace’s grand conjecture is true or not (if only in a deeply theoretical sense), and it is still debated – Einstein firmly lined up with Laplace on believing that there were firm mathematical laws and principles underpinning all matter and physics and that it would therefore be possible to predict things with certainly, but that there were just things that were yet unknown to us that prevented such predictions being made. Many others think otherwise, and that there’s an element of randomness, particularly at the quantum level that makes that impossible.

 

Let’s move away from correctly predicting the motion, position and velocity of every particle in the universe and onto a smaller scale, and some predictions which are common to every one of us, and which enter our homes on a daily basis.

 

And that allows me to  yank it back to care proceedings – in one of the dominant cases of the 1990’s, Re H and R 1996, the House of Lords grappled with the issue of what ‘likely’ meant, when considering whether a child was ‘likely to suffer significant harm’  and this is one of the more memorable passages from Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead :-

 

 

In everyday usage one meaning of the word likely, perhaps its primary meaning, is probable, in the sense of more likely than not. This is not its only meaning. If I am going walking on Kinder Scout and ask whether it is likely to rain, I am using likely in a different sense. I am enquiring whether there is a real risk of rain, a risk that ought not to be ignored. In which sense is likely being used in this subsection?

 

 

And if you know the law, you will grasp that the latter is where we ended up at in terms of likelihood  – it does not mean something that is more likely than not to happen, but a risk that cannot sensibly be ignored.

 

But in a real sense now, I am going to talk about the science of predicting the weather – will it rain on Kinder Scout today or not?

 

As you will know, the field of predicting the weather has moved beyond hanging up pine-cones or (my standby) looking at whether cows are lying down in a field   (a belief I can’t shed, despite knowing how stupid it is, and one which gets me regularly mocked by Ms SuesspiciousMinds)

Meteorology instead uses a combination of :-

 

  1. Gathering lots of information about the current situation
  2. Applying mathematical principles and formula to predict how features in one part of the system will interact with another
  3. Calculating therefore what a particular part of the system is likely to do at a future point

 

 

And thus, is a system that would make Laplace very proud.

 

 

The principles that govern whether we get rain, or snow, or a nice bright sunny day, are pretty uncontroversial. There isn’t a band of quarrelling meteorologists bickering about whether isobars are of any significance at all or whether the warm fronts we see so much of on the television are merely illusory.  So, the principles are all there. The mathematical models for what these set of conditions will do over the next few hours are there (based largely on thermodynamics and fluid dynamics), and have been refined and improved, the collection of information about those conditions has vastly improved over the last thirty years, as has the quality of computers doing the calculations.

 

But what is your first answer, quickly, when I ask

 

“Do you think we can reliably forecast the weather?”

 

 

Making my own little forecast, your instant reaction was no, or that we are hopeless. You may, if you are a fair-minded person, have had a momentary recalibration and decided that we are better at it than we used to be, or even that we are not bad at it now.

 

But let’s go back to Lord Nicholls – it is March, you are about to go up Kinder Scout  and the weather forecast says that it is probably not going to rain. Do you take a coat, or not?

 

Is the risk that the weather forecast will be wrong when it says there won’t be rain, a risk that cannot be sensibly be ignored, if you find yourself up on a mountain without a coat?

 

You may have had nagging at the back of your mind, or the front of your mind if you are a science geek or liked Jeff Goldlum’s character in JurassicPark, the notion of chaos theory at this point. You may even have recalled the image of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane on the other side of the world   [incidentally, probably the most misunderstood image in the history of science  – it doesn’t CAUSE the hurricane, it is about how small factors can amplify and make things harder to predict]

 

Essentially, small factors amplify with time, and the way they amplify is hard to predict, so even the very best computer forecasts become more and more unreliable with the passage of time. Forecasts are far more reliable about the next few hours than they are about next week, and break down almost entirely after sixteen days.  In numerical models, extremely small errors in initial values double roughly every five days for variables such as temperature and wind velocity

 

[So every time the newspapers tell you that there are predictions that this is going to be a “barbecue summer”  remember that the accuracy beyond 16 days is all to cock]

 

 

Okay, so predicting the weather, which is based on inanimate objects, which act under the influence of known forces, in known ways, and which the science of meteorology has been refining and checking against known outcomes to improve the prediction models, isn’t all that accurate and is not very accurate at all after 16 days.

 

Now, I will pull us back to law.

 

At the conclusion of a criminal trial, things are simple  – did this person do what they were accused of, and has that been proven. It’s similar with any other sort of legal dispute  – did one person prove that x happened, and what punishment / compensation should the Court give.   The Court doesn’t really have to predict the future – a burglar isn’t convicted of an offence of burglary only if the Court think he will do another burglary next week.

 

 

Care proceedings aren’t like that – whilst we may well spend some time arguing about precisely what happened in the past and the Court may have to decide that if we can’t hit on a form of words which everyone can agree, mostly what we are doing is predicting the future.

 

  • Have the improvements seen in the mother’s parenting at a mother and baby placement, or in contact, mean that she can now safely care for the child, or is she going to slip back into her old ways once she stops being watched all the time?
  • Is this father, who has been using heroin for 6 years but has been clean for 4 months, going to remain clean, or will he slip back? (What if he was clean for 6 months, but had one lapse?)
  • Will the mother, now that she has seen how risky an individual her new boyfriend is, stay away from him when the proceedings are over, or will he be back in her life and have the chance to hurt the child?
  • Will the parents who broke their four year old’s leg by handling him far too roughly, ever do anything like that again?

 

 

I have probably sledge-hammered this point, rather than making it in a subtle way, but if top scientists with huge computers can’t predict whether it will rain on Kinder Scout tomorrow, how can we possibly predict with certainty whether the mother will succumb to text messages from the dodgy boyfriend and keep seeing him in secret?

 

Professor Monroe touched on this in her first report –  there was for a long time a body of thought in social work, or social work management, that we could avoid the twin pitfalls of social work    – being too soft and letting children get hurt, or being too hard and breaking up families who could have stayed together (Baby P at one end, Cleveland and Orkney at the other) by having more information, more accurate models, and getting the decisions just right.

 

1.43

Professionals can make two types of error: they can over-estimate or underestimate the dangers facing a child or young person. Error cannot be eradicated and this review is conscious of how trying to reduce one type of error increases the other.

1.44

The public tend to learn of cases of abuse after a child or young person has died or suffered serious harm and then, with the benefit of hindsight, make judgments on how it was easy to see that the child or young person was in danger and would have been safer if removed. This is of course not the way the issue looks for the professionals who only have foresight. Removing a child or young person can protect them from immediate risk of significant harm, but is understandably traumatic for them. Maltreated children or young people who come into care often benefit in the long term,  but although the outcomes achieved by looked after children have improved, in too many cases, the potential of the care system to compensate for early harm is unrealised for reasons which are well documented.

 

Our society rightly values the birth family as the primary source of care for children and young people and disrupting that bond is seen as a serious step to take, requiring close scrutiny before the courts will grant the legal authority to do so.

The birth family equally presents a mixture of benefits and dangers. A good assessment involves weighing up these relative risks and benefits and deciding which option, on balance, carries the highest probability of the best outcomes for the child. Neither option carries zero risk of harm.

1.45

In assessing the value of leaving the child in the same situation, professionals have to consider a balance of possibilities: to estimate how harmful it will be, to consider whether it might escalate and cause very serious harm or death. They also need to consider whether resources are locally available so that families can be helped to provide safer care and estimate how effective such interventions are likely to be.

1.46

All of these areas of uncertainty make decisions about children and young people’s safety and well-being very challenging. A well thought out decision may conclude that the probability of significant harm in the birth family is low. However, low probability events happen and sometimes the child left in the birth family is a victim of extreme violence and dies or is seriously injured is therefore very important. Public understanding that the death of a child may follow even when the quality of professional practice is high is therefore very important.

 

 

She says, and as you can see, I agree, that you just can’t hope to get every case right, when you predict the future, your predictions have limitations to their accuracy.  If you try to move down the safety first side of the scale, you will take children away unnecessarily. If you try to move down the keeping families together side of the scale, some children will be badly harmed at home.  The aim to just make the right decisions at the right time, in all case is simply never going to happen.

If the weather forecasters can’t get it right, neither can we.

You are dealing with people, with all their uncertainties, capriciousness and emotions, and you can’t predict exactly what they will do. The cases where you get it ‘just right’ may well end up being few and far between, and may well be more by luck than judgment.

 

A mother who is utterly resolute about remaining separate from her dangerous  ex-boyfriend, who understands what is at stake and how bad he is from her, may on any given day fluctuate about just how resolute she is. Maybe someone handsome smiled at her at a bus stop and she feels good about herself when he sends the text message and she deletes it without reading it. Maybe just before the text message came in, she caught sight of herself in a mirror and felt fat and unloveable. It is utterly impossible to predict that.  It seems easier to predict that a mother that tried to separate from ex boyfriend six times and always went back to him, and was caught out two weeks ago, probably won’t stick to her claims that it is all over and she will never see him again. But we can’t be SURE, we can only predict whether the risk is one that cannot be sensibly ignored.

 

 

None of that means that we simply give up, and either leave all children at home with their parents, or take away every child where there is a sniff of danger, but we do have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with society as a whole.

 

 

And we have to constantly test where we find ourselves on the scale of child rescue and family preservation – are we lurching too far down one end or another?  Are we risk averse, fearful of a Baby P headline and ignoring that those actions break up a family which could have stayed together, or running with a rule of optimism that small changes mean a good future prognosis and not seeing the full picture?

 

We are attempting to predict what human beings, with human emotions, will do in the future – not just in the next few days, or 16 days, but over the course of their children’s childhood.  And the very sort of parents that we attempt to do that with tend,  not always, but more often than not, to be emotionally fragile, damaged people who are chaotic and unpredictable in their actions.

 

 

 

Injustice, the death penalty and… Cloppa Castle?

This post is by way of being a book review, unsolicited, for a non-fiction book called “Injustice”  by Clive Stafford Smith.

 

I’ve popped you an amazon link here, not because I get any money for doing so, but because I thought it might be helpful

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Injustice-Life-Death-Courtrooms-America/dp/1846556252/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357313233&sr=8-1

 

 

The book is written by a British lawyer who now practices criminal defence law in America, specifically death row appeals. 

 

It deals with one particular individual, who was convicted for the murder of two people, a man and his son, in cold blood in a hotel room. He knew the victim and had quarrelled with him, there was an eye witness who described everything, his prints were in the hotel room, and the ballistics expert testified that the bullets fired were compatible with the gun that the suspect had been found to possess by police officers who had stopped him months earlier. The defence called no witnesses, and even the suspect himself did not go into the witness box. He was duly convicted of the murders.

 

Chapter one sets all of that out, and you may, as I did, read all that and say “Well, none of this sounds like an injustice, he sounds bang to rights”

 

Mr Stafford Smith then picks up the case and the story at the point at which the defendant, found guilty and awaiting the death penalty, contacts him to launch an appeal, and the investigation he conducts.

 

More interesting though than the focus on the detail of the particular case (which is compelling in itself) is the analysis of each of the stages and participants in the process, and how Mr Stafford Smith shows that the system itself is inherently flawed.

 

For example, there’s the fact that the jury were told that the prosecution eye witness had passed a lie detector test showing that his testimony was true.  That’s not quite accurate, when full disclosure is obtained after the conviction, because it shows that :-

 

(a)   the eye witness passed some bits of a lie detector test

(b)   he failed other important bits in relation to the witness deposition he gave the prosecution

(c)   The prosecution (including the trial lawyers) knew this

(d)   The eye witness, with the help of the prosecution, then made further depositions, correcting the bits that he had obviously lied about, and to make his version of events fit better

 

 

It gets a lot worse than that, but that was the first bit where I dropped the book in horror and had to pick it back up and read it back to Ms SuesspiciousMinds.

 

 

The author looks at every part of the process – from the police officers who call Crime Hotlines to give ‘anonymous tips’ about people they are about to arrest so they can claim the reward, to the original defence attorney who had been given a flat fee and thus didn’t put sufficient hours into the case (and that if they actually do that on public defender rates the hourly rate they get works out to be about $2.50 per hour), to the jury, to the Judge (in this case, the trial Judge was arrested halfway through the trial for having taken bribes from other defendants in cases – this man’s defence lawyer knew that the defendant had been approached by another attorney who had suggested that if the defendant used them and paid them a large sum of money they would get a successful outcome from the Judge in question, but didn’t think that was worth raising), to the appeal process that essentially decides that you can win an appeal on a technicality but not on evidence that ought to have been put forward by your defence attorney  – i.e if you have a bad lawyer at trial, you get screwed both at trial and later at appeal if he just didn’t do his job.

 

He even shows why an innocent defendant can be the worst sort of client to have – this man knew he was innocent, so why spend money on your lawyer calling lots of witnesses to prove it, why give evidence and tell your side of the story, when of course you can’t be found guilty of murder if you didn’t do it?

 

The author explains that the jurors who get the long legal explanation about the arcane and complex tests don’t always understand them. After they have had the explanations of “aggravating factors and mitigating factors”  when tested, over 50% of jurors gave an explanation as to what mitigating factors were that showed that they thought that mitigating factors were the same thing as aggravating ones, when they are actually total opposites.

 

It is an excellent book and the structure of it makes me think that with the right case, one of the journalists who claim in hand-wringing style to be deeply worried about family justice (whilst their newspapers run pro Fast Adoption campaigns) could write.

 

It also seems to me that Al Alas Wray would be a good case to look at   – not that I am suggesting for a second that any of the professionals in that case were bent, or incompetent, or dumb in the way that some of them appear in “Injustice”  but rather looking at how the system can make well-intentioned, capable, reasonable and competent people get something badly wrong, and how Al Alas Wray might sadly represent the high waterline of British justice being able to get to the bottom of such a potential miscarriage of justice and fix it, whereas the changes coming our way seem to me to reduce the prospects of that in the future.

The bit that I found interesting was the chapter about prosecutors, and the suggestion that it is certain types of people, certain types of lawyer who choose to prosecute criminals.  They perhaps believe strongly in law and order, that the police are generally right, that justice prevails, that the system works, that the people who are convicted at trial were rightly convicted.

 

That did make me think, because of course, my job is sort of analogous to that – I do present cases to Court involving parents where part of my job is to present evidence as to the flaws of their parenting, and sometimes that involves persuading the Court that it is right that their children should no longer live with them.

 

I like to think, and maybe this is my own Prosecutor Bias, that my take on my job is to present the evidence fairly, to play with a straight bat, and that where such an awful decision is taken, it is because it is the right thing to do.  And ultimately, every decision that a child can’t be with his or her parents is a failure, of a kind. It is sometimes the least worst of all the options available on the picture at the time, but it is always a bad thing. I think that’s true of the colleagues I work with too.

 

Perhaps I am deceiving myself. I’m sure also that there are people who don’t approach the job that way. I know that because it wasn’t the way I approached the job when I started.

 

I was young, and idealistic, and believed that my job was child rescue and to protect children from wicked people who would mistreat them. When you come into the world of child protection, initially you do think that people who could abuse children must be wicked and dreadful – it is one of society’s great taboos, after all, the notion of parents harming their children.

 

As time goes on, and particularly with the benefit of having crossed the floor and represented parents against the State, you realise that most of those parents that initially seemed wicked are just scared, baffled, lonely, needy or damaged.

 

 

I used to think that my job was a bit like being on the battlements of a castle under siege, and that it was my job to keep the inside of the castle (the child) safe from the besiegers.

 

I now think that my job is much more like being outside the castle with the parents, and that it is my job to find an appropriate ladder that would be the right one to help them climb the walls and get over into good enough and safe parenting, so that they can be together with their children and the child will be safe and happy.  Sometimes it is also my job to help them up the first few rungs. Sometimes it is my job to realise that the ladder we thought would be right isn’t a good fit and to find another one.

 

Sometimes, sadly, it is my job to tell the Court that despite all of that, the parent got stuck halfway up the ladder and couldn’t get over the good enough or safe parenting wall. Sometimes that they got halfway up and climbed back down a few rungs. Sometimes that they looked at the ladder and decided they couldn’t do it at all, paralysed by vertigo, or influenced by people wanting them to stay on the ground with them.   Sometimes we argue about whether someone is halfway up, three quarters of the way up, or all the way up, or whether they should have another go with a different ladder. Sometimes we argue about whether the type of ladder they need can be found in time, or whether it costs far too much.

 

But it certainly isn’t my job to pour boiling oil on them as they try to climb up. I know some of the readers of the blog won’t believe that, and they are entitled to their belief.   They may well have had personal experience of Local Authority lawyers and social workers yanking the ladder away from under them, greasing the rungs, or pouring that boiling oil down.  That is something I feel bad about – I don’t deny that it happens, but I feel fervently that it shouldn’t.

 

I don’t think it harms any of us to reflect from time to time whether we have that balance right, are we defending the castle come what may, or are we trying to see if someone, given the right ladder can get over the wall and deserves to be inside the castle?

 

 

Anyway, here’s a picture from CloppaCastle, which the older readers may recall.  It had a very nice theme song, containing the words “Friendly enemy”  and maybe that is close to the role that my job comes down to.

 cloppa1

And here’s a link if you want to hear the theme song

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK90sLowzGk

Family preservation versus child rescue

I was kindly sent Dr Peter Dale’s response to the Government consultation on contact with children in care, and sibling placement in adoption.

 

I blogged about those consultations here :-

 

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/23/we-are-family-ive-got-all-my-sisters-with-me-or-beware-of-the-leopard/ 

 

 

Anyway, here is Dr Dale’s response.

 

http://www.peterdale.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ContactPaperResponseAug2012.pdf

 

 

Whilst I don’t agree with absolutely everything Dr Dale says, I like to read things that I don’t agree with, and I particularly like reading things that make me change my view about things.  This document did that, and for that reason, I commend it to you.

 

It also chimed with some things that were in my mind about where we are currently headed with family justice, and my overriding uneasy impression that there’s nothing in the Family Justice Review or the legislation and practice that’s going to flow from it which is about the fundamentals of whether Society wants what we’re currently doing, and whether we ought to step back from the 1989 Act and see how it is working. 

 

Not in terms of processes, and costs and times – it’s awful on all of those things, and that’s what the Family Justice Review has focussed on, but on the bigger issues of whether the whole interaction between State and parents is what the general public would want, or whether, as is alleged by critics of the system it has created a horrible sense of injustice and unfairness where professionals are powerful and parents are powerless.

 

Are the people working within the Family Justice System out of step with what society as a whole would think about when the State ought to intervene and care for your children, and what is child abuse, and what is what Hedley J described in Re L as Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent.

 

 

It’s always a good thing, I suspect, to question that. It’s very easy to assess any case against the backdrop of your own experience, but even when that experience seems quite large, it is really just tiny and trivial compared to the overall numbers of care proceedings.

 

And whilst I can look at the risks of harm in a case and have a good feel for whether the Courts I appear in will consider it manageable or not manageable, that gives me no proper sense of what UK society as a whole would think.

 

I think that most people in the UK would agree that children should not be sexually abused  (although even on that, one person’s view as whether a man who five years ago groped a fifteen year old daughter of a previous partner is now a risk of sexual abuse to his own baby boy is probably going to differ from anothers),  but I suspect that there’s a multitude of views on physical abuse and where the line is drawn between parental chastisement and abuse  (I think most people would say no to broken arms and legs, but there would be a difference of opinion about bruising) and neglect would be very hard to get a consensus on, and emotional harm even more so.

 

Is there a value in care proceedings calibrating themselves against what the general population or society at large would consider to meet Significant Harm?  Where do we want, as a society, to draw the line of ‘this is unusual or not very good parenting but let them get on with it’  against ‘this child can’t stay at home

 

I think it’s something that’s not really been attempted, and I’d be interested in the results. Should a parent not have a clear idea, long before they ever meet a social worker, of what sort of parenting falls so below society’s standards that the State would intervene?

 

I would like to hope that if you pulled out a random judgment from any care case decided by any  Court in the country since the Children Act came into being, and gave it to a journalist, they might think at worst  “well, that could have gone the other way, and it was finely balanced. I might disagree, but I can see why it happened” but would never think “god, that’s just outrageous, how could they have possibly not got those kids back? This is a scandal”  

 

I’d like to hope that, but I can’t say for certain. Maybe of 1000 random cases, there’d be one that produces the ‘outrageous’ reaction, maybe 60, maybe 300.  We have no way of knowing.  I suspect, hand on heart, that there are more ‘outrageous’ cases than I’d like to believe, but less than the Hemming/Brooker camp would believe.  But either of us could be wrong. We might both be (and probably are)

 

I’d like to see, for example, the collation of anonymised threshold documents from every case, so that research could be done on whether this fluctuates over time and between areas, and to have a proper sense of what it is, in  a family justice system that results in Care Orders being made.

 

Anyway, enough about me, on with Dr Dale.

 

He opens with this :-

 

“there are major philosophical, theoretical, political and cultural differences as to what constitutes a child’s “best interests”. Such differences are apparent throughout the history of childcare literature, and dominant viewpoints rise and fall. The field of child protection in general, and specifically permanent separation/adoption, is permeated by variations and polarities of apparently reasonable opinion. Over time the social policy pendulum has swung back and forth across the continuum that has “familypreservation’’ principles at one pole; and “child rescue” principles at the other. Each position is internally logically consistent and can call on research to support its belief systems (as to what is “best” for children). Notably each paradigm/mindset when implemented gives rise to unintended negative consequences (which may only become apparent over time).”

 

 

And I think he is completely right. I suspect, as he believe, that we are in a period of “child rescue” being the dominant thinking, and that this is colouring Government thinking on the Family Justice Review, on adoption scorecards and on these consultations.

 

[Cynically, if you’re in the Government, and you’re imagining the headlines for ‘another Cleveland’ or ‘another Baby P’ and had to choose one of those two to encounter, I suspect most ministers would choose another Cleveland.   I’m sure it has never been as overt as that]

 

 

Dr Dale talks at some length about the risks of ‘child rescue’ and I think it is worth setting them out in full, because they are well constructed and interesting.

 

“In essence, what the DoE/Narey report recommends is a reinforcement of “childrescue” principles and practices that in the 1940s–1960s saw thousands of children in state care being forcibly emigrated to places such as Australia, Canada and South Africa without the knowledge of their parents (and without any continuing contact). Of course, at the time, the agencies involved (including Children’s charities such as Barnardos) considered that this was “in the best interests” of these children. History informs us otherwise (Humphrey 1996).

 

It is of note that compulsory adoption, and adoption without contact, is anathema in Australia and New Zealand because of the history of mass forced adoption of Aboriginal and Maori children known as the “Stolen Generation(http://reconciliaction.org.au/nsw/education-kit/stolen-generations/). The South Australian government formally apologised on 18 July 2012 for this history of forced adoption. The following notice appeared in the South Australian press on 14/7/2012:

Government of South Australia: Forced Adoption Practices.

“On behalf of the South Australian Government the Premier, the Hon Jay Weatherill MP, will deliver a formal Apology to mothers and fathers whose children were removed because of forced adoption practices from the past, and to people who were separated from their parents as infants as a result of those practices. The Apology will be delivered at the South Australian Parliament from 11am on Wednesday 18 July 2012.”

1.4 I predict a UK government apology for recent and current practices of forced adoption in about 30 years time.

1.5 In this context, the proposals in the DoE/Narey paper are technical measures to further implement “child rescue” principles, policies and practices. In my view, a broader theoretical perspective is required to ensure that the proposed changes do not have adverse outcomes and unintended negative consequences.

 

It is always worth a reality check, and this whole section is one.  Maybe we will recoil in horror in 30 years time at the idea of forced adoptions.

 

It may well be that in years to come, the concept of the State adopting children against the will of the parent may be something that boggles the mind, just as reading that in the 1940s-1960s the State took children in care and forcibly emigrated them to the other side of the world boggles the mind now.  I’m sure that nobody involved in that practice at the time thought that they were doing anything other than something that was good for the children, even if with the passage of time it now seems unfathomable, and we can’t disregard the possibility that in time, things that seem ‘good practice’ now will become anathema.

 

For that reason, I would support a family justice review that didn’t look just at processes and system but the whole overarching philosophy of how the interaction between State and parents who are considered to be not meeting their children’s needs should take place. What does Society want from a family justice system?  How much help does Society want to give struggling parents? More than is delivered at present, I suspect.

 

 

There’s some very detailed deconstruction of the Kenrick research that colours so much of the Government consultation on contact. I’m not going to get in the ring between Dr Dale and Kenrick, but I would suggest that at the very least, and as with any research, accepting it uncritically is not wise to do. If you’re involved in any way with contact between children and parents, I think Dr Dale’s analysis of this is worth reading, even if you eventually settle more on the Kenrick side of the debate, because it is a properly constructed assessment of the other side of the coin.

 

 

Some more on compulsory adoption here :-

 

1.45 Compulsory adoption is often referred to as being the most draconian outcome in UK law since the abolition of the death penalty. In cases of murder, the death penalty was imposed following a finding of guilt by a jury at the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt). The outcome of compulsory adoption occurs on the basis of findings by a single judge at the lower civil level of proof (balance of probabilities). In both scenarios, miscarriages of justice are known to occur.

 

1.46 In the same way as a hanged man cannot be revived and reprieved, children who have been wrongly subject to compulsory adoption cannot be returned to their innocent parents. [e.g. Norfolk County Council v Webster [2007] 2 FLR 415]. In the sad case of four-month-old baby Jayden Wray in 2012, two parents were accused of his murder; and had a new baby removed from their care with a plan for adoption, until it was confirmed that Jayden had in fact died from undiagnosed rickets. (LB of Islington v Al Alas and Wray [2012] EWHC 865 (Fam).) Faster compulsory adoption raises risks of inadequate investigation in complex medical cases; proper exploration of alternative (less draconian) placements (e.g. kinship care); and scrutiny of the judicial process.

 

 

 

[As someone within the system – and I am trying here to be honest in accepting that that doesn’t necessarily put me in the best position, I think cases should be determined on the civil standard of proof and by a Judge, rather than to the criminal standard and before a jury – but I do think that a proper debate about this to reach a consensus as to what Society thinks is legitimate. And if Society had a different view to me, the law ought to be looked at.   I can see an argument that can’t be dismissed out of hand  that if a person is accused of stealing from a shop, they can insist on a trial by jury and the criminal standard of proof, but can’t get that for a determination of whether they’ve abused their child]

 

I share Dr Dale’s fears that we are rushing into a faster resolution of the most drastic step that the law can take in a persons life, without having first done the most basic exercise of  “Is the system actually getting the right answers now?”

 

 

As Billy the Kid once said  “Speed’s fine, partner, but accuracy’s final”  

 

I know the stats about the high proportion of cases where the order sought by the Local Authority is the one made by the Court, and also the NSPCC research on the children who were rehabilitated home having too high a proportion going on to suffer further significant harm, or to go on to come back into care.

 

But I am troubled by the fact that we don’t have a clear sense of whether we currently are on the ‘family preservation versus child rescue’ scale is a place where society and the general public would be content with, if they knew.

 

I would like to think that if there were some huge detailed investigation whereby proper impartial researchers with access to proper information and data would conclude that in the vast majority of cases, Courts make Care Orders for proper reasons and that whilst mistakes are made and every one is a human tragedy, they are rare and the appeal process rectifies them.

 

But I have to accept that I am within the system, and maybe I believe that because the alternative is too hard to contemplate. Those outside the system, certainly a significant body of them, believe the opposite, that a proper root and branch investigation would show that the State is letting families down, removing them for insufficient reason and not doing enough to support them, and that social workers are mistreating parents.

 

Dr Dale’s consideration of the case of Re K (A Child: Post Adoption Placement Breakdown) [Neutral Citation Number: [2012] EWHC B9 (Fam)].  Which I have blogged about here    

 

 

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/30/forensic-ferrets-or-standing-in-the-way-of-beyond-parental-control/

is very interesting. That’s clearly a case where judicial scrutiny of a case has led to the Judge determining that the Local Authority’s treatment of the parents was ‘not only inappropriate and wrong but cruel’    and it’s easy to see, when you read cases like this, why the people who rail against Local Authorities have a point.  Sometimes Local Authorities behave extremely badly. What we don’t know, is how often.

 

This is not the sort of thing that should happen, but it still does, and we have no way of knowing, without a proper independent look at the body of care cases as a whole whether this is an awful aberration (as I would claim) or an illustration of how social workers behave and usually get away with (as the forced adoption camp would claim).

 

3.23 If the UK practice of compulsory adoption continues with no direct contact for the child with natural family members during childhood, I predict in the not-too distant future, an increase in the phenomenon of adoptive parents being rejected and abandoned by their alienated adoptive children who ‘vote with their feet’ and return to their natural families. This is a tragic outcome for all three parties in the ‘adoption triangle’. It is one, in my experience, that adoptive parents are not warned to expect by social/adoption workers.

 

 

 

I suspect that the consultation, as I hinted darkly, is already a done deal, that the new thinking is all about ‘child rescue’   – I note that there’s nothing being launched by the Government to measure the statistics of children successfully rehabilitated to the care of parents, or of interventions with troubled families that avoid the need for care proceedings, or a league table congratulating Local Authorities for being able to keep children within the family.

 

 

It would be nice to have an emphasis on the importance of ‘family preservation’ and balancing it properly against ‘child rescue’ on the basis that it is the right and proper thing to do, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to another Cleveland, Orkney or Rochdale.

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