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Children and Families Act 2014 - ParliamentThe Children and Families Act  2014

The 22nd April 2014 was a red-letter day in the world of Family Law. The date saw the enactment of “the most far-reaching child welfare legislature to be considered by Parliament in decades”: the Children and Families Act 2014.

The aim of the Act is to give “greater protection to vulnerable children, better support for children whose parents are separating, a new system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, and help for parents to balance work and family life” and will also ensure that “vital changes to the adoption system can be put into practice, meaning more children who need loving homes are placed faster” and “reforms for children in care can be implemented including giving them the choice to stay with their foster families until their 21st birthday.”

The 22nd April saw, in addition to the new Act, the establishment of a unified Family Court, simplifying the extant system whereby family proceedings may have been heard by county courts, Magistrates’ courts or the High Court.

But what effect do there changes have upon those who are fighting to keep their families together?

A comprehensive series of articles at our parent site, Brendan Fleming Solicitors, will cover the effects of this new single Family Court and this new Children and Families Act.

Please note that while we have made every effort to ensure that all information on our websites is accurate and up-to-date, these new changes are sweeping and comprehensive. We cannot therefore guarantee the accuracy of any articles predating the changes unless we have clearly marked them as having been updated to align with the new legislature.

Baby_PWhat is yet more tragic is the legacy that this affair left in its wake – the so-called “‘Baby P’ effect.”

The Baby P effect is the pendulum swing that has occurred in the attitudes and behaviour of the Social Service when it comes to babies and children manifesting injuries.

That case was mismanaged when Peter was repeatedly seen by Haringey Children’s Services and NHS health professionals over an eight month period, during which time he sustained over 50 injuries. At no time was he taken from his mother. No Care Order was issued. Nothing. He was allowed to return home each time, eventually to his death.

The case became very high profile, with child protection services of Haringey and other agencies subject to wide criticism for their fatal failure to execute their duties and responsibilities. As a result of the incident, three inquiries and a nationwide review of social service care were launched.

The actions of Social Services have swung from one extreme of neglect to the other of over-caution. Unwilling for there to be any repeat of the Peter Connelly case, children are now regularly removed from their parents custody when they have suffered bona fide accidental injuries.

This reaction may prevent a repeat of the tragedy; but it replaces it with the tragedy of broken families, torn apart on flimsy, inconclusive evidence and “expert” opinion as testimony.

As just one example, in a recent case following a single hearing, lasting no more than a quarter of an hour, during which the parents were not allowed to challenge the “evidence” of an expert witness, a judge ruled that 3 children must be taken from their parents and placed into care. The reason, because the medical expert testified that bruising on one child could possibly have been caused by “pinching.” “Possibly.”

Mr Justice Thorpe stated regarding this case, “I am completely aghast at this case. There is nothing more serious than a removal hearing, because the parents are so prejudiced in proceedings thereafter. Once you lose a child it is very difficult to get a child back.”

It is understood that Social Services are trying to avoid another human tragedy; however, what is being overlooked are the lesser-publicized human tragedies that occur when children are taken away from their parents when they are in no danger, when there has been no crime commited and when misinterpretation of the facts has given rise to a misdiagnosis and an injustice.

Where you have found yourself in a situation like the above, have been accused of inflicting non-accidental injury, have had Care Proceedings initiated and have had your children taken from you, do not waste a moment, contact us on our help line immediately.

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A family in the Midlands found themselves in the hands of the Social Services following a referral. An initial assessment was made and it was found that the family home was in such an unhygienic state that care proceedings were undertaken. A care order was issued and the children were removed from the family home.

The parents immediately addressed the situation, cleaning the house and getting rid of the numerous pet cats that had contributed to the scene. As a result, the care order was lifted and the children were allowed to return.

This, however, was but the beginning of the nightmare.

With the birth of another son, the family was told that they must move into a residential care unit and undergo an assessment to prove that they were worthy parents.

In an artificial environment shared with nine other families, they were made to follow directions on how to raise their child, even when these directions were clearly upsetting to both child and parents. They had to endure this for a period of six months.

Finally the family was allowed to return home.

And still it wasn’t over.

In early 2009, one of the sons made an allegation that he had been punched and kicked by his father.

Based on this single unsubstantiated report, the children were once again taken.

The father has no criminal record and no history of violence toward his partner or his children. Of the five children in the family, no others were questioned with regard to domestic violence. And yet, with no further investigation, the children were taken.

Over the following year, through many assessments and conferences, and through the work of a good solicitor, the children were returned to their parents.

Then one year later, it happened again.

One of the daughters had a mark on her neck. She told a teacher at nursery that “Mummy did it. Mummy hates me and wants me dead.”

Based on this one statement, the children were taken into care that very day.

It has taken the ongoing work of solicitors throughout the year to return all but one of the children to the family home by this time.

And now the parents are forced to operate on a basis of near paranoia, ensuring that the children go to school or nursery without a hair out of place for fear that social services will seize the opportunity to again seize their children.

But how did it come to pass that for the slightest imperfection, such serious consequences could be brought to bear?

“Historical concerns” the social workers term it. Once a child has been made subject to a Child Protection Plan, then they are viewed as at risk from thereon out.

So even in a case such as this where the initial care proceedings were based upon an unhygienic family home, any referral of any kind to the Social Services is acted upon unthinkingly. Based on hearsay, there is no burden of proof – the parent is very much presumed guilty until proven innocent.

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Another illustration of the breakdown of the system comes from another Midlands family.

Following a referral and an assessment, the daughter was taken from her parents under a seventy-two-hour child protection order due to “emotional abuse.” The father was described as “aggressive,” had “anger problems,” “alcohol problems” and “drug problems” and a “history of domestic violence against his wife.” Yet there was no evidence of an alcohol problem, a drug problem or any history of domestic violence.

And the basis for this?

The unsubstantiated report of a neighbour.

The findings from the initial assessment, as given verbally to the family by both the social worker and support worker assigned to the case, were that they were a happy and loving family.

However in court, the social worker’s report as submitted was against the family. As the support worker still reported in favour of the family, further “evidence” was required to bring the case to bear.

The “evidence” was a report of ninety-eight house calls by the police to the father’s previous address to investigate domestic violence.

The police reports of these house calls were not produced for the court.

When asked by a solicitor if the police reports of these call-outs had been studied by Social Services, the answer was “no.”

And what was found when the reports were produced? No incidents of domestic violence against wife or child. The reports were of other, disrelated incidents: a smashed window, a fight in the street outside, someone suspiciously loitering outside in the street, and so on.

With this revelation, the case was won and it was ruled that the child was allowed to go home with the parents. However, when the parents came to collect their daughter from Social Services, they would not release her as they “needed permission” – despite the findings of the court.

This continued until later that evening when the parents were called back into the court to answer new “evidence.”

This time, the fact that the child had said, “Mummy’s mouth bleeds when she brushes her teeth.”

This was offered as evidence of abuse.

The truth was that the mother had a gum infection. She had been to the dentist previously; but due to her pregnancy, there was little that could be done to treat the mother’s condition – she couldn’t have x-rays or be prescribed anything for the infection. The infection would have to be addressed once she had given birth.

Again, all of this was documented.

Again, in answer to the solicitors enquiry as to whether the evidence had even been studied, Social Service’s answer was “no.”

Once again, the Social Service’s case was thrown out and this time, at about midnight, the parents were allowed to collect their child and go home.

In spite of the complete lack of any evidence of wrong-doing, the family is now forced to endure the continued scrutiny of social services. They are to be monitored and supervised and told how to bring up their child.

And their only crime? To have been reported to the social services on suspicion of emotional abuse of their child – the groundless, unsubstantiated, accusation of a neighbour.

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When anyone tells Social Services this, the local authority must decide, within one working day, whether or not they need to check up on you. If the answer is yes, a Social Worker is told to make an initial assessment. This assessment must occur within ten working days of the initial referral.

This might happen casually, with a Social Worker “popping in for a chat” or it might be by appointment in your home.

But no matter how “casual” this assessment, from that point, you are involved in a Child Protection Investigation. This meeting is written up on a record that goes permanently on file about you and your children.

The result of this meeting with you can be “No action taken” but you are unlikely to get an apology or thanks; and you need to check that the file that stays with Social Services is accurate as it can affect your child’s future.

Matters can go further and Social Services decide to hold an ominously-entitled Section 47 Enquiry (named for section 47 of the Children Act 1989), carrying out a core assessment.

If the core assessment deems that the child is at continued risk from significant harm, a child protection conference will be convened.

Depending upon the findings of the child protection conference, it may be decided that care proceedings are necessary to keep the child safe. “Care proceedings” is the term used to describe the legal process by which Social Services ask the court whether or not a young person should go into care.

Here it is decided whether or not the child should be made subject to a Child Protection Plan.

Care proceedings are usually held in the Family Proceedings Court.

This court is also responsible for awarding emergency protection orders whereby a child may be removed from his or her home for up to eight days.

The court may issue a care order giving local authority parental responsibility for a child – either fully or in part, shared with the parents – and the care plan for the child will be implemented. Depending on the circumstances, the child may continue to live at home, be placed in the care of other members of the family, foster care or a children’s home.

In that the core governmental guidance on how agencies should co-operate in child protection, Working Together to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Inter-Agency Working to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children (DCSF, 2010), emphasises “the importance of keeping the focus on the child and his or safety and welfare, understanding the daily life experience of the child…and using information about the family’s history and functioning to inform decision making,” where does it all go wrong? Where does the system break down?

We can help you right now – do not wait, for your free family support & advice!

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