Senior judge says 'highly defensive' atmosphere means social workers under increased pressure to intervene in families

Justice Sir Mark Hedley pictured speaking to ITV's Exposure. Credit: ITV

A senior judge has said there is a "highly defensive atmosphere" in social services about "future disasters" meaning that social workers are under increased pressure to intervene into the lives of families.

The comments from Justice Sir Mark Hedley come as the chief executive of campaign group British Association of Social Workers said its members were working in a 'climate of fear' and often had to 'play it safe'.

The concerns are investigated in a new documentary, to be aired on ITV at 10.35pm on Tuesday 15th July, called Exposure: Don't take my Child.

The programme examines how and why social workers are increasingly prepared to remove children from their birth parents through forced adoption.

There is a highly defensive atmosphere around both in social services and in the state generally about future disasters like that happening again.

That has meant I think that there is increased regulation, there is an increased pressure on social workers to intervene where they might not have done so in the past.

– Justice Sir Mark Hedley

The show features the distressing video showing the forced removal of a father's young baby.

The father had already lost his older children to adoption because he and his wife couldn’t cope without support.

The decision to take this child was made by the courts before he was even born.

The number of court orders required to place a child into the adoption process has increased by 95 per cent in the last three years, while new laws introduced this year mean it is likely there will be more cases.

But most often, the stories remain shrouded in the secrecy of family courts where journalists are barred from reporting.

Exposure focuses on the parents who claim to have been unfairly dealt with by the system, alongside insight from leading social workers and legal workers.

It is a climate of fear, a climate where people cover their backs, a climate where people want to try and do their best by families but also know that they’ve got to... play this game safe, safe for them as an organisation, safe for them as a worker - not just safe for the child.

– Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

It looks at whether child protection following the death of Baby P in 2007 is increasingly geared towards the permanent removal of children as opposed to supporting families to stay together. It also hears concerns that the new legislation will put social workers under pressure to act quickly.

The time limits now imposed for formulating a care plan have raised concerns that an adoption order is likely to be made in shorter time - potentially making it more difficult for birth parents to get their children back.

Support for families

Secretly filmed footage by the father of one child shows his newborn baby being forcibly removed from the arms of his mother by social workers and police just hours after its birth.

The decision was made before the baby was even born and the father describes how powerless he felt when the authorities came to take the child away.

They’re just saying they’ve got an order, they’ve got to follow it. They’ve got to follow their orders.

You feel there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

You feel powerless, useless, you know worthless. And then they started pulling my wife’s arms.

And that was it. As soon as they got the baby, they were out of the flat. Goodbye, leave you to it. All I could do was hold my wife.

– Father of a removed newborn baby

Barrister Martha Cover has specialised in child law for 25 years, and believes there have been incidences where the law on secrecy has been taken too far.

The purpose of the legislation that protects the confidentiality of children’s proceedings and the identity of children’s and their families, is to protect them but by a side wind it has had the effect of also protecting poor local authority practice, poor social work, and inadequate experts, poor expert reporting to the courts.

– Barrister Martha Cover

For parents, it can be extremely difficult to get their child back from care once they are approved for potential adoption.

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, endured a 12-month fight for their return.

Her children are still under a year-long supervision order and she says she fears that social services could try to take her children away again.

I am frightened in case I am judged, I am judged on the way they look.

If there is a mark for when they got scratched, I was worried in case they thought that I had done the scratch.

I write everything down, any accidents that happen, I write it all down.I take pictures. They are so quick to use anything against me. So quick.

– A mother who fought to get her children back

Such long battles to get children back are less likely to happen with the new Children and Family Act now in force.

The Act, championed by Education Secretary Michael Gove, who was adopted himself, gained Royal Assent in April this year and sets a target of just 26 weeks from when a child is taken from parents and a care plan is approved.

The Department for Education says decisions to remove children from their families rest with the courts and should only happen when they are sure children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.

But Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, believes the Government is now erring on the side of taking children away from their parents.

The rhetoric of this Government is much harsher than previous Governments, in terms of supporting adoption in contrast to the support given to birth families.

And that is new, it is harsher.

It fits very well with the language about welfare, and language about, call it almost an underclass of people, who are not fit to look after their children.

– Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

Conservative parliamentary candidate Lucy Allan reveals how she found herself desperately trying to clear her reputation as a fit mother after suffering a bout of depression.

She had to act quickly and funded a legal battle to force social services to concede her son was not at any risk after her GP called in social workers.

Lucy Allen speaking to ITV Exposure. Credit: ITV

I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I know what happens next.' Because you do not leave a child in a family in those circumstances. You just do not.

They had ticked a box on their file, saying that this child was at risk of significant harm from his mother, and that is a permanent record and has to be disclosed, should I seek a CRB check for any work with children in the future.

It was a big legal battle, we had solicitors, we had a top QC and that’s the sort of resource that is not available to everybody.

– Conservative parliamentary candidate Lucy Allan

The despair parents can find themselves in has spawned an unofficial network that helps mothers flee British social services.

Multimillionaire Ian Josephs, now a resident of Monaco, told Exposure about his work advising and personally funding the travel costs of expectant mothers to leave Britain because, he believes, they have nowhere else to turn.

Even grandparents hoping to keep children within their families can find they run into difficulties.

Anthony and Alison were desperate to adopt their grandson when social services decided their daughter was not a fit mother, but after Alison missed two meetings with social workers, a decision was taken to continue showing the child to prospective adoptive families.

The minute we have to go he heads down, he becomes this shut off little boy, who’s confused.

He tends to want to cling near me, thinking I am going to take him away now, take him home. And that doesn’t happen.

And so each time we see him, this is what we have to face. It’s so hard. I really miss him. I really do, I really do miss him.

– Grandad Anthony

They now have visiting rights, but they all still feel the heartache of saying goodbye when they have to leave.