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April 23, 2013 permalink
A British couple, both social workers, had their lives turned upside down following an anonymous complaint about care of their own child. The persecution of the family escalated after they complained about their treatment. Fixcas skipped this story at first because it lacks the name of the family, but it is authoritative and has attracted commentary. If this case comes up again, we will call them the ABCDEF Family.
Haringey council tried to crush our family
Speaking for the first time since a historic court case, a couple who risked losing their child and their careers describe the 22-month battle to clear their names
A mother smiles as she watches her little girl play in their local park in north London. But her face is drawn, revealing an underlying tension. “Recently she fell off the roundabout and I panicked,” she tells me. “I asked the other mums 'Did anyone see that?’ I wanted witnesses. I was scared of being framed again.”
This woman and her husband, who cannot be named for legal reasons, made history last month as the first parents successfully to sue a council after being wrongly accused of child abuse. Their unprecedented High Court victory took 22 long months and all their savings. “But what’s money compared to your good name?” the woman asks.
Haringey council is notorious for its high-profile failures in child protection. Victoria Climbié and Baby P, who were tortured to death after social workers, managers, officials and doctors ignored numerous warning signs, will never be forgotten by the public, nor the council forgiven. In this latest case, which highlights different but equally alarming failings, the Labour authority turned on an innocent couple after receiving a single anonymous letter claiming the mother had “shouted” at and “slapped” her six-year-old.
The possible consequences were dire: the loss of their child to care, fostering or even adoption and the end of their careers. The father, CD, is a senior social worker, and the mother, AB, is a respected freelance social work trainer.
Judge Anthony Thornton’s judicial review drew the “inescapable conclusion” that the authority had illegally escalated its inquiry to the highest possible level purely because the mother had the temerity to complain. She did so after it blackened her name and broke all guidelines by telling police, the family GP and their child’s school that the child, EF, was the suspected victim of serious abuse – without any supporting evidence.
Haringey’s behaviour reveals that the council remains deeply dysfunctional.
The Daily Telegraph has extensively reported recent large increases in the number of children being forcibly removed from their parents and fostered or adopted following hearings in Britain’s secret family courts. Every story results in letters from desperate parents claiming that their children may be or have been removed on flimsy, subjective grounds. If this couple had not been so knowledgeable and determined, they too might have lost their child.
“Haringey closed this inquiry but could any time have opened another and referred back to it,” says AB, speaking for the first time about the family’s ordeal.
“Haringey acted like a one-party state, and tried to crush us for challenging them. This wasn’t about child protection but protection of management [at the council] and about punishment.”
John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley and a long-time campaigner for parents victimised by social workers, says: “Since Baby P, many more children are being taken into care. But often the wrong children are taken.”
His analysis of Department for Health figures shows that, over 20 years, the number of young children subject to care orders has more than doubled. In the year to March 31 1995, there were 5,800 “looked after” children of four years and under. By 1998 there were 8,200, but in 2010 the number rose to 11,200, and 12,300 in 2011.
Hemming says: “The Haringey case was vindictive, and the system is dangerously tolerant of vindictive allegations. This High Court judgment makes clear that there must be an allegation of substance before the system kicks off.”
CD and AB’s world began to cave in as they drove home along the M25 on Wednesday, May 4 2011. It was about 2pm and they had just visited CD’s father, who is unwell.
“My husband’s emergency phone rang,” says AB. “The phone is just for his dad’s carer, so we were immediately fearful. We pulled over and a man on the other end abruptly said he was a social worker [from Haringey Council] and wanted to see our child, following [receipt of] an anonymous letter.”
AB, stunned, asked him to read it. Someone claiming to be a neighbour of the family had written: “I have some very big worries about how they are looking after the young girl in the house… The mother is always screaming at the little girl, shouting and screaming. I have seen the mother pulling the little girl along by her arm and slapping her.”
AB says: “It struck me immediately the letter was malicious. My husband and I have 50 years of social work experience between us and have received threats. If you really are committed to being a warrior for children, there will be people who will not like you – not just paedophiles, but sometimes other professionals.”
She was horrified when it became clear that Haringey’s children’s services had already made inquiries at their daughter’s school and with the family doctor. Statutory guidelines state that confidential information about children can only be obtained legally without parental consent when “significant harm” is feared.
Haringey’s screening team – whose job it is to filter out baseless concerns and malicious allegations – had sent the couple’s GP an information request form on April 26 2011. This stated, erroneously, that the council was “currently working with the family” after a report of “emotional and physical abuse”. It sought the child’s medical history and any abuse “indicators”.
The GP was so alarmed that he immediately rang the authority and said he knew the family well and had no concerns.
AB told her caller from the council – who was in fact a social work trainee – that she was a child protection professional and that Haringey’s response to a solitary anonymous complaint was “ridiculous”. She admits that: “I raised my voice… that’s not yet illegal.”
The trainee logged that AB was “defensive” and told Jeffrey Baker, team manager of Haringey’s Service for First Response, that she had also threatened to make a complaint. Mr Baker rang her about 20 minutes later. In a witness statement to the judicial review, he claimed that AB “shouted” and this “led me to decide that the threshold for regarding the child as vulnerable had definitely been met”.
In Kafkaesque style, it seemed that indignation was apparently an indication of guilt.
Mr Baker reported AB’s threatened complaint to Haringey’s head of Service for First Response, Sylvia Chew. Her witness statement similarly claimed that the mother’s “angry manner… reflected the information received in the referral”, and “gave me reasonable cause to believe that (the child) was suffering, or was likely to suffer, significant harm”. Ms Chew wrote that she was particularly concerned because the couple held responsible posts in social work, and immediately elevated the inquiry to the most serious Level 4 threshold under the Children Act 1989, the precursor to care orders.
AB remains incredulous: “One is allowed to feel indignant when attacked. Social work involves the state intruding into people’s lives, possibly to remove their children. I put the phone down, cried and asked my husband: 'What if they remove her?’ We were really scared because they had already acted so irrationally and illegally.”
That evening (May 4) AB sent an email to Haringey’s then director of children’s and young people’s services, Peter Lewis. “I pleaded: 'Please be measured, please don’t ruin our lives.’ ”
The family went away that weekend, desperate to relax, but they returned to a letter from Ms Chew (dated Friday May 6), announcing a Section 47 inquiry under the Children Act 1989.
AB says: “I knew what that meant. I went into complete shock, I thought I would die. I rang my sister crying and she said that children’s services had left a message on her answerphone saying they had “reached a decision” and needed urgently to see us. Our elderly neighbour came round – they had contacted her too. She asked, really upset: 'Why are they after a lovely family like you?’
“They had involved everyone. I begged my sister: 'If they say [EF] can’t live with us, will you take her?’
“I was crying for my daughter, for what it would do to her, to be torn from her Mummy. We felt that a mad Orwellian world had opened up and, if anonymous letters led to Section 47 inquiries, every family in Britain could be investigated.”
Except in dire emergencies, a Section 47 inquiry can only legally be ordered after a screening inquiry to eliminate groundless complaints, and an initial assessment with interviews. There must be evidence giving reasonable cause to fear significant harm, and a multi-agency strategy meeting involving police, health and education, should agree it. But Haringey acted completely alone.
AB later discovered that on May 6 the council contacted both EF’s head teacher and the local police child abuse investigation team. Both said they had no concerns about EF, and the police positively refused to get involved in Haringey’s groundless “investigation”.
“That night I felt broken. They [the council] were coming first thing next day and I didn’t trust them coming to our lovely home, our nest, the place we feel safe.
“I got into a complete panic about the toilet’s cleanliness. I tidied manically. I thought irrationally I should be making bread.”
When the team manager, Mr Baker, arrived “he basically said we brought it on ourselves by challenging them”.
A woman social worker then went upstairs with their child, says AB. “I was thinking if they distort what my daughter says, who will believe a child against a professional? The man [Mr Baker] said he’d Googled us. I felt invaded.
“We said 'No’ to everything he asked.”
The woman rejoined them and said: “Your daughter’s a lively, bright little thing.”
The parents concluded that the council knew it acted illegally but still “wanted to intimidate us”.
As they left, Mr Baker commented “that our home was 'groovy’,” says AB. “I thought: 'You’re a cuckoo in our nest, - get out.’ ”
On May 11, Mr Baker wrote to the couple saying that the inquiry had been escalated “due to the nature of your reaction” but that it was now closed, concluding that “it is highly likely that the referral was malicious”.
Relief was mixed with dread, says AB. “Our careers were nonetheless potentially in ruins. We would have to declare this inquiry to future employers and the stigma of having been subjected to a Section 47 remained.”
Because of this, the couple decided to challenge Haringey legally. They knew that if they lost they faced having to sell their home, but they felt they had no choice. “We are old-fashioned. If we didn’t dare take Haringey on, what chance would poorer parents have? Most people are terrified of social workers. We even had an alternative, mad plan [to use if we lost] to move, if need be, where housing is cheaper, and set up a little café. We’d be poverty level but tick over.”
CD, an active trade unionist when younger, says: “I studied Sovietology for years, the single party, the single state, and it’s the way to understand Haringey. You’re the enemy if you dare challenge. Our case shows how any evidence can be made to seem deviant. A state in which this can happen is a state out of control. Everyone makes mistakes but Haringey’s programming is: 'We make sure that no one finds out.’
“There was no one in Haringey who would stop this madness. We contacted our MP, councillors, Haringey’s director and no one, not one, responded. It’s the Stalinist model – once the central power had said, 'This is where we are going,’ no one can challenge it.”
The couple found a specialist law firm, Birmingham-based Celtic Knot, run by a “brilliant” former social worker turned solicitor who proved that Haringey acted unlawfully. Judge Thornton confirmed that Haringey acted “without due process”. Moreover, he believed there was a “distinct possibility” that AB’s threat of making a formal complaint had triggered the council’s decision to escalate, rather than any real concerns about EF.
“It would appear to be an inescapable conclusion that Ms Chew took her Section 47 decision after meeting with Mr Baker on May 4, after having had sight of AB’s letter and having taken into account its contents.”
It was, Judge Thornton decided, a “knee-jerk reaction to AB’s email to the director of service”.
He called Ms Chew’s implementation of a Section 47 inquiry “wholly unreasonable”, undocumented, unfounded and “so flawed procedurally… that it was unlawful”.
The council had ignored “a plethora of rules” designed to protect the innocent, and the lack of real evidence meant, he concluded, that no real Section 47 inquiry had taken place. All references to it should therefore be struck from official records: “A Section 47 enquiry has in recent years become very damaging for the life, career and family relationships of many who are parenting or caring for the child being assessed.”
Judge Thornton also ordered Haringey to pay the couple’s costs and £2,000 compensation, and to apologise.
Ms Chew left Haringey before the judgment and is now head of safeguarding for Kingston Borough Council.
The nightmare for the family is over, but AB and CD remain concerned about the council that hounded them. And they are scathing about social work’s brave new world. “Social work offices are like call centres now, with staff just updating intrusive databases,” says CD. “We’ve abandoned helping people. We now just have the world of surveillance and policing.”
When contacted by The Daily Telegraph, Haringey Council declined to say if it had investigated who sent the malicious allegation, or to answer questions about staff and their response in relation to this case: “It would not be appropriate for us to comment on the individuals concerned. Our handling of this case fell below the standards that we would expect, and we apologise to the family concerned. We are committed to learning from the findings of the court as we continue to make improvements to our child protection and safeguarding systems.”
For the future, AB plans to establish an advocacy charity to help vulnerable parents in similar circumstances: “We hope this victory against the illegal use of a Section 47 will help build a campaign against the intimidation of innocent parents. Our case says to local authorities everywhere: 'You can’t do whatever you want anymore, the guidance and legislation are there for a reason.’ ”
Source: Telegraph (UK)