I was having a conversation on Twitter yesterday with someone who passionately felt that the family Courts needed to be scrapped entirely, rather than improved. That’s not a view that I share, but it did strike me that we don’t really discuss radical options for child protection in this country.
When the Family Justice Review was commissioned, and roved the country talking to ‘stakeholders’ the one group it didn’t really capture was those people who had been through the system and were campaigning against it. It is really easy to just write those people off as conspiracy nuts and bad losers. I don’t think that’s fair. If you don’t listen to criticism, how do things ever get better? I don’t necessarily accept everything that the campaigners say uncritically, but in writing this blog I have been able to spend time discussing with the campaigners their real grievances. The Review never looked at the culture of child protection or whether we could learn lessons from other European methods.
The Family Justice Review didn’t start with a blank piece of paper. They started with a piece of paper that said don’t change much, don’t spend anything, and ideally save us lots of money.
So in terms of change, it was rather like having a house that isn’t really working out for the people living in it or visiting it, and arranging for a cleaner to come in.
You hope that the end result is that things look better, that it feels nice and that everything works a bit more smoothly. Of course, what can also happen is that things get out of place and not put back quite how you want them, or ornaments get broken. What we didn’t have, was an architect coming along and saying “we can build a new building and make it work exactly the way we want it to”
So, this piece is thinking of methods you could use to rip family justice up and start again. I’m not advocating that we do any of these things, but nor is it going to be a piece where I set out the options and sneer at them. If you never think about the other possibilities, how do you know that there’s nothing better worth trying?
Of course, all of these options have pros and cons, some of them have major drawbacks, all of them would cost money and take time that it is unlikely that the Government is ever going to put in. But the current system has pros and cons, has some major drawbacks and costs money and time that is being steadily removed from it.
These are just some models that COULD be used, and I’d be interested in a debate about whether any of them are what the family justice campaigners have in mind, or whether they’ve got something different to my thoughts. I don’t want, in this piece, to delineate the pros and cons, because that would be me as part of the System stifling the debate. Let’s have the pros and cons come out as part of the debate.
1. The Just Leave parents alone model. Does exactly what it says on the tin. We stop the child protection systems in the country and leave it to parents to parent. [Perhaps there is a tweaked version in which there’s a state safety net for the children who are at very very high risk, say about 2% of the current number of care proceedings.]
2. The Criminal Justice Model. If you are a parent and you commit a criminal offence for which you are imprisoned, someone else of your choosing will have to look after your child until you finish your sentence. If you do something which doesn’t result in a custodial sentence, then you get on with looking after your child. Maybe this will result in more prosecutions for child abuse, neglect and possession of heroin, maybe it won’t. But if the law doesn’t think that what you have done is serious enough to be locked up for, let parents get on with it. We would thus have no family courts (for care proceedings) and a very small number of social workers – for those cases where there is a custodial sentence and the parent can’t find someone who will look after the child.
3. The Quasi-criminal Model – the standard of proof is changed to the criminal standard. The rules of evidence become in line with criminal evidence. The case is decided by a jury, assisted and guided by a Judge conducting the hearing and summing up. Perhaps we even just move the process lock stock and barrel into the criminal Courts.
4. The Scandanavian Model – we have social workers and family Courts, but the emphasis is shifted massively to providing support for families and making things work at home, solving those problems. Courts have the power to tell social workers what help a family needs and the social workers have to provide it. There may be a rump of cases where the risks are just too great to manage at home, but that is something like 2%. It should be thought of as a failure if the child isn’t able to stay with the family. We lose the concept of permanence and making permanent decisions about children, and do what is right for them at that time. If a child HAS to stay somewhere else for a time, then the child can and should go home when circumstances change.
5. Splitting support and investigation Model – is there a conflict between the role of social workers in supporting a family and helping them, and investigating child abuse and making applications to Court? Could that role be split, so that the people helping a family and looking after the child are kept completely separate from the investigation and prosecution role? Perhaps the investigation/prosecution role moves over to the police, and social workers stick to support and help.