15 April 2020
First Minister of Scotland
15 April 2020
Dear Nicola Sturgeon
Earlier this year, you received the hard fought for and much needed Care Review report. Upon receipt, you made a promise! You promised to ensure that the messages in the report were heard and acted upon.
You promised to put love first and you promised that relationships matter!
One of the most important messages in the report is “For Scotland to truly to be the best place in the world for children to grow up, a fundamental shift is required in how decisions are made about children and families.”
The Care Review report also stated that “When children talk about wanting to be safe, they talk about having relationships that are real, loving and consistent. That must be the starting point. Scotland must prioritise that message from children over rules that have too often failed to keep them safe.”
Yet, three weeks into the lockdown, when relationships could not be more important, it seems that most if not all councils are cancelling direct contact between children and their parents and siblings. Many councils are ceasing all contact with immediate effect, indefinitely. Can you imagine the fear and heartbreak a child feels to be told that they cannot see their parent or siblings? Or the fear that they might never see their parent or brother or sister again?
Remember, many of these parents have experience themselves of care.The Care Review told you what those experiences were. Many dread their children having the same experiences. The way that they are dismissed from their children’s lives without any consultation about what they and their children want and what might be better is a stark reminder of what needs to change, and what the promise was about. What is happening to children in care during this lock down?
Remember too that this is not a decision that is being imposed on the children of separated parents. The government has recognised that family relationships are vital and they must continue during the emergency. The Scottish courts’ website gives clear advice that orders and voluntary agreements can be implemented. Orders should be respected. There is of course leeway for flexibility and for parents to agree not to follow an order where for instance this would mean unacceptable risk to someone in a protected group by reason of age or health. But that is an individual decision to be made in each case by the parents and the children.
Once again, children in care are being subjected to rules made from on high, without explanation, without consultation, and without any consideration of the specific circumstances of each child.
Now that the initial phase of the lockdown is over, and social workers have time to think and plan ahead, PAR Parents Advocacy and Rights is asking that each case is considered on its merits.
The importance of continuity of relationships for children in care is recognised in our regulations and guidance, and councils have a duty to promote direct contact between children and their parents and families. This must be weighed in the balance when risk is being considered. So too should children’s and parents’ views and needs. For children in care, feeling loved and knowing that they important to someone is vital – having relationships suddenly ended is cruel.
Please make it clear that there must be a very good reason for breaching an order of a children’s hearing for contact between chidren and their parents to take place. This could be in the parents’ home if that is where children are used to seeing their parents, or it could be in the garden of a residential home or foster home, or in a park or other public space. If necessary, it could take place under social distancing, 6 feet apart, where children are old enough to understand this. If it has to be virtual via FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp then social workers must take responsibility for providing parents and children with the resource to make this happen. Parents with no money, no smart phone, no wifi at home can’t just be left to make the arrangement. Please fund this.
Sadly, it seems to us that despite the Care Review’s Promise, there has been no change and high handed decision making has once again proved to be business as usual in the cruel world of care.
Please remember YOUR promise to children in care and to their families.
PARENTS, FAMILIES AND FRIENDS OF CHILDREN IN CARE
PAR Parents Advocacy and Rights wordpress.com/post/parentsadvocacyrights.com
PAR PARENTS ADVOCACY AND RIGHTS
ADVICE TO PARENTS OF CHILDREN IN CARE DURING CORONA VIRUS
This is an especially frightening time for parents whose children are in care. Parents are worrying about how children are, if they are frightened, if they are being cared for and not abused, about when you will see each other again
While we understand and support efforts to cut down on rates of infection and protect the NHS from overload, we believe that questions need to be asked of these local authorities about the legality and the necessity of the blanket decisions that have been made.
It seems that many if not all councils have ended direct contact between children in care and their parents and family citing the Corona Virus measures as the reason. Orders made by Children’s Hearings for contact have been breached without any consultation with the children or parents concerned. Parents have been told that they can only have contact over Facetime or WhatsApp. Many parents do not have smartphones, or wifi or do not have any credit left. They are not being provided with equipment or with credit to make contact possible.
But is this legal?
Contact between children and their parents and siblings and wider families is a recognised right under both the ECHR and the UNCRC. The government has recognised the need for children of separated parents to maintain relationships with both parents, and have said that voluntary arrangements and orders should continue to be observed, as long as both parents agree. Parents would be expected to take children’s views into account in making the decision and so should social workers. There is no reason why relationships with parents and family should be treated any less seriously for children in care than for children of separated parents.
Local authorities have a duty to promote direct contact between children in care and their parents and family, whether the children are on compulsory orders or voluntary measures. Where children are on orders by the children’s hearings, there can be conditions on frequency, length and on whether it is supervised or not. Any order made by a hearing has to be implemented by the local authority.
There is no authority under the emergency powers for local authorities to routinely breach court orders. A local authority may take emergency decisions to breach any condition of an order only if this is necessary to protect a child from immediate risk of significant harm. That decision may be to move a child in an emergency or to stop contact taking place if they have reason to believe that contact would put the child at serious risk. They must then go to a hearing within three working days to present their evidence and to have their position agreed or overturned.
At hearings, it is the law that children must attend unless they have been excused. If a child wants to attend, they cannot be excused attendance. It is also the law that parents’ and children’s views must be heard and taken account of in arriving at any decision. Yes, we know that reality is often far from this, but it is the law that children must be heard.
Now, we have a situation where most hearings have been cancelled, and only emergency hearings are taking place. There is likely to be a big backlog of cases when this ends. So what can parents do now?
Firstly, we believe that the existing law and guidance means that every case needs to have individual consideration. Local authorities must take the time now that the initial panic is over to fulfil their responsibilities to consult with parents and children and to consider all the possible options for protecting and promoting relationships. Each case must be judged on its own specific circumstances.
We understand that this is difficult times and due to underlying health conditions of parents, foster carers and children, they may be required to shield for 12 weeks to keep themselves safe. Physical distancing of staff and service users will be required. We want everyone to be safe but we also want for risk assessments to be in place in order that families can still have contact with one another either face to face or virtually.
What can parents do?
1 Write/email the responsible social worker, if possible copying in the head of children’s services and the council’s legal department, asking
- their reasons for breaching the order for contact – or if the care is on a voluntary basis, the agreement for contact to happen
- what risks they have considered,
- how they have taken your children’s views and your views into account
- whether and when they will reconsider the break in your contact,
- what are their proposals for mitigating the harms that will be caused? Can you have a meeting at a distance with older children (who can understand why you can’t come closer) than 6 feet? Can you have a direct mobile phone number or email to contact the foster home, or the residential unit directly to send your child messages and photos?
- will they provide the necessary equipment and financing to enable parents to have online contact on Facetime or WhatsApp? This should include making payments to increase data bundles or to get wifi in the house.
Keep a copy of this and ask for a written response within five working days.
2 Contact your MSPs and local councillors asking them to take this up with the council and ask the questions above – MSPs are having online surgeries and their offices are dealing with correspondence.
3 What can you do in the meantime until contact restarts? Write letters to your child – every day if you can. This can be done by email or by post or hand delivered via the social work office. If you have foster parents’ or residential homes’ email addresses or mobile numbers then do send photos, messages from siblings, make recordings.
4 Tell your child’s social worker if there are difficulties in making Facetime,/WhatsApp calls. Do not breach physical distancing, visit elderly relatives or friends/family who are shielding to use their wifi or devices to make Facetime/WhatsApp calls or indeed you may not be able to leave the house. It’s not your fault that you do not have an expensive smart phone or iPad or have a cheap data bundle on your phone. Tell your child’s social worker your difficulties ask them politely to find solutions for you in order to keep quality contact at this time.
5 Be prepared to complain if your child’s social worker blames you for not having devices or data bundles that makes contacting your children virtually impossible. If your child’s social worker says “if you want to keep contact with your children you’d make sure you have the right apps or get access to a phone that works” (or something similar) this is a breach of the Scottish Social Services Council Code of Practice. This is why it is important to have everything in writing.
Please do not panic, we know this is a scary time for you and your children too. Hopefully, hearings and courts will start again, but right now it’s important that you stay in touch with your children’s social worker so there is a record of your contacts and all your efforts to stay in touch with your children.
“Scotland must listen to and absorb the overwhelming evidence of the lasting pain that removal has caused children, families and communities. This must result in a fundamental shift of thinking about when a child should be removed from their family.” (Care Review “Promise”)
Three years ago a group of parents and social workers established “PAR Parents Advocacy and Rights”, an organisation for parents and families of children in care. We met yesterday in the wake of the Care Review report launch, astonished and overwhelmed by the strong and honest report produced by the Review. The Promise describes the harms of care so clearly and well and sets out the radical changes that needs to happen.
Now we want action to ensure that all children in care today unnecessarily are returned safely to their families. There are thousands of children in Scotland in care who do not need to be in care. Every day for them and their parents is a day of loss and suffering.
Parents and families are forbidden to speak about their cases but PAR and organisations like us can speak out on their behalf about their experiences.
We were motivated to help establish PAR by the harms to children and grieving and broken parents that we saw. There is neglect and casual cruelty in practices in care have now been laid bare by the Care Review. Alienating children from their families of origin, leaves children feeling the lack of care and unconditional love that children need to thrive.
Many children in care today are in care unnecessarily. They are usually only allowed restricted and supervised time with their parent or other family members. “Contact” with family is usually a time when any mention by parents of love, or of longing to have them home, of a possible future out of care are forbidden. If the parent breaks the rules they are threatened with having all contact ended. Wider family members are routinely excluded from contact.
PAR is involved in cases where children have been injured and abused in care, children have been refused the right to attend their children’s hearings purely because they want to complain about the conditions they are being held in and want to go home. We know of cases where mothers have been accused of mental illness and deliberately harming their children without a shred of evidence.We know of cases where parents of children with serious disabilities have been accused of neglect purely because of poverty and a failure of support. They then have to see no expense spared in keeping that child with strangers.
These children and thousands of others are still in care, still suffering the kind of harms that the Care Review found and described so well in their report. It’s not enough for the government to plan to do better sometime in the future. The current review system exists to rubber stamp the plans and decisions of social workers. The Care Review principle of care away from family only where necessary for safety and where there is no family alternative has to be the test that is applied. We believe there should be independent reviews of the cases of ALL children currently in care, particularly those where there are no plans in place to return them to their families.
We need to ensure that we keep a focus on children and families suffering the harms of a failed and failing system today. Children in care today must be rescued from harms being suffered today.
PAR can be contacted through www.parparentsadvocacyrights.com
c/o WomanZone, The Crannie, 9 Cranston Street Edinburgh EH8
Here are the early results of our PAR Survey of parents’ experiences of child protection and care. These first returns echo other research pointing to low levels of trust in social work, bruising encounters with professionals in child protection processes, and poor experiences of contact with children in care, and between siblings when one or more are in care. We are carrying on with the survey and want as many parents as possible to be made aware of it. So please re post this and bring it to the attention of other parents.