Removing a child from a toxic family is never easy

17th August 2012 at 01:00
For both the social worker and the youth, it's an uphill battle that could and should be made less gruelling

There's no easy way to say this. So I'll just say it. Some children need to be permanently removed from their own parents.

For the vast majority of parents who love and cherish their children, the idea of neglecting them, sexually or physically abusing them, or subjecting them to mental cruelty is so far from our comprehension as to make it unbelievable. Nevertheless, there are some parents who quite simply have a long-term damaging effect upon their children - and the longer the child is exposed to that environment the more lasting the damage.

However, such is our personal and societal commitment to keeping the child with their parents - doing everything possible to make the "family" work - that I believe we end up harming the long-term well-being of children born into such circumstances, as opposed to having the courage to put the interests of the child first and moving towards early adoption for such children, while they are still young enough to form a stable and loving attachment with adoptive parents.

Yet the reality of the situation is that all too often the same pattern is played out over and over again with tragic consequences for the children in question. For example, it seems reasonable to give drug-abusing parents a chance - so we remove the child but only into a temporary fostering placement - in the hope that we can support the parents, give them supervised access to the child, and on many occasions manage to put the child back with their family under close supervision. Inevitably the home placement falls down again - so we place them again in temporary fostering - and so on and so on.

Eventually, when it becomes blatantly apparent that things are not going to work out and the evidence is sufficient, we decide enough is enough - often when the child is around the age of seven - and move for permanency order, thereby permanently removing the child from the care of the birth parents. Yet what is apparent from the evidence is that once children reach the age of seven, there is little likelihood of them being wanted for adoption. It's this paradox that so disturbs me. The simple question rings out in my head: "Why don't we move to permanency earlier?" - especially when we know the long-term harm that can be caused by damaging parenting.

The subsequent path for such a child is that he or she moves to foster parents, but it is likely that a child who has not formed strong attachments with an adult will find such a permanency order difficult, which then leads to a breakdown with the fostering parents and a subsequent move - or moves. The outcomes for such children are exceptionally negative, most of which can be traced back to our well- intentioned efforts to keep the child and birth family together.

It's within this ethical and emotional maelstrom that the social worker lives her or his life. A social worker assigned to support a vulnerable child has an unenviable task. For it is human nature to seek to adopt an optimistic perspective on the outcomes of our professional work - I've written about this before and I find it remarkable that social workers can internalise the dangers of adopting an overly optimistic perspective when dealing with a vulnerable family. Nevertheless, perhaps it's time for all of us to think again from a system perspective and reconsider our practice in light of what we know will be in the best interests of the child.

For it seems to me that there exists a systemic "rule of optimism", which is based upon people's intuitive belief that a child's best place is with its parents. Consequently, we project our own values and behaviours upon parenthood and through a misguided sense of empathy believe that we should always err on the side of keeping the child with their parents - regardless of the overwhelming evidence of the long-term damage this causes to the child.

Such a systemic perspective would appear to predominate as the view of the courts and children's hearings. For it can be argued that both of these cornerstones of our justice system make a presumption of giving the rights of the child and the rights of the birth parents equal value. In cases where any element of discretion or dubiety is present, the social worker requesting a permanency order has to provide a much higher level of proof that the birth parents are damaging the child, than is required to prove that they are not damaging the child.

So what might we do about such a situation? There are three things we could do in the short term. First, we should try to find ways in which the evidence we provide to support permanency orders are more robust and compelling. Second, we should seek to engage with decision-makers such as sheriffs and children's hearing members about the long-term outcomes of children we fail to take into permanency at an early stage. Third, we should vigorously engage with the current Scottish government consultation on the Children and Young People Bill with a view to ensuring that the rights of the child take primacy over the rights of the birth parents - especially when considering decisions about the long-term risks associated with leaving a child with damaging parents.

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services, Midlothian, and executive director of services for people, East Lothian.

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