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Is the system failing parents?

Unlike most newspaper headlines that pose a question, to which the answer turns out to be “no”, this particular article from the Guardian ends up with the answer “yes”, and I would agree with it.

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/25/are-we-failing-parents-whose-children-are-taken-into-care

 

I do complain often about how the mainstream press report on care proceedings, but this piece is a good example of how it can be done properly.

Firstly, when reporting on a particular judgment, the piece provides a link to the judgment itself, so that the readers can if they wish read the source material.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B158.html

Second, the account of the judgment holds up as being accurate even after you’ve read the judgment itself.

And third, rather than a single source story (which is specifically against the code that journalists have signed up to), this particular journalist, Louise Tickle, has taken the trouble to go and speak to a variety of sources to inform the story.  And she has picked smart people (like Cathy Ashley of Family Rights Group, Karen Broadhurst and the Pause project) to speak to.

The really sad thing about this case is that it is not a unique and unusual outlier – it isn’t the story of a dreadful miscarriage of justice, or the truth coming out following dogged cross-examination, or a Local Authority being put to the sword for mistreatment.

It is an example of a case that people working within the system will see week in and week out – a mother who is very damaged by her own experiences and upbringing, who needs proper therapeutic help to address those difficulties and who didn’t get that therapeutic help in time to make a difference for her care of her child, with the effect that the child can’t  be with her.  This sort of thing happens all the time, up and down the country. The fact that it happens all the time shouldn’t immunise us to the pain involved and the sense that it must be wrong.

 

Whilst the Judge, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, carefully pointed out that this was a mother who had a need to change substantially and was not going to change within the time that the baby needed her to, he went over and above the usual expression of sadness and into not only a critique of the system but an exhortation that the system must do better.

 

This case is another example of how important it is that, if therapy is needed, it is obtained at an early stage. Time and time again I see a process whereby the following occurs: a) a Local Authority intervenes and begins making assessment of a family; b) months later proceedings are issued; c) an order is made for some form of expert evidence to be produced (often a psychological report); d) months later the psychological report is obtained which says, invariably and utterly foreseeably, that someone within the family needs therapy and e) it is stated that, by then, the beneficial effect of therapy would be ‘outwith the timescales for the child’. In this case, for instance, it would have been perfectly obvious to all that, when the mother was referred before birth, she was a prime candidate for therapy. If therapy were to be obtained at an early stage such as that there is at least a prospect that outcomes in some cases might be different. I have therefore already set up arrangements in the New Year to look very carefully at how we facilitate and access therapy in this area, with a view to doing my utmost to encourage much earlier therapeutic intervention if possible. I ask for as much help as possible with that endeavour.

 

The Judge is completely right here. I’ve been saying for many years that the system was geared up to get and pay for a Harley Street diagnosis but left the business of obtaining  treatment to a model of  stand outside Superdrug looking sad and hoping the staff take pity on you.  {It’s even worse now, since we don’t even have the Harley Street diagnosis money any more to redirect where it always should have been going}

It’s really easy to wring our hands and say that the system is the system and what can you do. It is even easier to say that when the pragmatic reality is that Local Authority budgets were cut massively in the current Parliament and are set to be cut still further in the next one, whoever is in charge.  Social Services isn’t education and it isn’t health, so there’s no budgetary ringfencing – it will have to take its share of the cuts and some of health and education’s share into the bargain.

I like that His Honour Judge Wildblood QC isn’t satisfied with hand-wringing and wants to do something about it. I very much hope that his scheme works, and I hope that it works so well that versions of it are rolled out nationally.

As Louise’s article touches on, there’s precedent for that. District Judge Crichton saw so many care cases with drugs and alcohol being a feature that he took it upon himself to devise and champion a specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Court, and that model is now being rolled out to other areas in the country.

As George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”

I have no idea at all whether His Honour Judge Wildblood QC is an unreasonable man – I’m sure he is instead a deeply reasonable one. But if he is choosing to be unreasonable about a system that can see when a parent is crying out for therapeutic intervention but doing nothing about him, then all power to him.

I’d love to see some legislation that insists that where a Local Authority issues care proceedings, they must arrange and provide funding for therapy for the parents; it must be more economically sensible and morally sensible and less costly in terms of pain and trauma to try to fix what is wrong with a parent rather than simply waiting around for them to have the next child and starting the whole process off again.  (I’d love also to see that legislation backed with some government funding to pay for it, but although I am an unreasonable man, I’m not an unrealistic one)

Yes, there’s far more to tackle in family justice than this one issue of providing therapy for those who need it (rather than them trailing off to see their GP who at best puts them on a two year waiting list), but it would be a starting point, a base camp – and a message that there’s more to do to make a family justice system really be about both families and justice – rather than at the moment, where it is all simply about “system”

 

[I feel like I ought to put a You-Tube clip of “My name’s Ben Elton, good night” here, as I got a bit student ranty there]

Let’s watch out for Louise Tickle – this is damn good journalism, and it would be nice for mainstream writing on family justice to have this blend of outrage and factual accuracy.