TV investigation aims to highlight trauma faced by families from wrongful child protection action

Story updated 17 May 2022

A BBC Panorama investigation aimed to highlight the “traumatic” effect on families when the state intervenes badly in their lives.

The half-hour film, broadcast on 16 May, focused on a series of court judgments that severely criticised practice and management at Herefordshire council, as well as two other cases of families who felt failed by the authority when it took their children into care.

Journalist Louise Tickle said her programme – for which she was given court approval to name individual social workers and families – focused on how the cases affected the children and their relatives.

“It absolutely does blight children’s lives.” she said. “Many of them will never recover from the intervention of the state into their families when it is done badly.”

She said she also wanted the programme – for which she spoke to social work experts and practitioners who used to work for Herefordshire – to shine a light on a severely overstretched family justice and child protection system and the extent to which it militates against good social work practice.

Damning judgments

A High Court ruling last year found social work teams at Herefordshire council ignored the concerns of a senior judge and the advice of a psychiatrist in pursuing a plan for special guardianship orders (SGOs) for four children who had made false allegations of sexual abuse against their parents.

The children did not see their parents for eight years, during which time one child died of a serious illness. Giving judgment, Mr Justice Keehan said the decision making in the case called into question the “fitness for purpose” of the council’s children’s services, prompting the Department for Education to issue an improvement notice on Herefordshire.

The local authority was previously criticised by the same judge in three court judgments in 2018. In one case, Mr Justice Keehan said that 14 children in Herefordshire had “wrongly and abusively” been in section 20 care arrangements for a “wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time”, and should have been the subject of legal planning meetings or care proceedings much earlier.

In a second judgment that year, he condemned social workers who had misrepresented and failed to disclose evidence during adoption proceedings that separated twins. This case was featured in the Panorama programme, for which Tickle interviewed the adoptive parents for each twin; their words were spoken by actors in the programme.

The programme also featured the other case from 2018, in which Mr Justice Keehan criticised Herefordshire’s “woeful” treatment of two half-sisters who suffered emotional and psychological harm as a result of chaotic care planning over a period of years. Tickle interviewed one of the sisters, whose words were also spoken by an actor.

Council: ‘We failed children’

Paul Walker, chief executive of Herefordshire council, said the authority “failed children in our care over a number of years”.

“We are acutely aware of the impact these failings had, and continue to have, on children and their families in Herefordshire,” he said.

“I am sorry this happened. We have made heartfelt apologies to all those affected and we urge anyone who has concerns to raise them with us so we can investigate further.

“I have made it my top priority to make sure we deliver the changes required so that children and families in Herefordshire get the support they need now and in the future. We have a new management team in place, under new leadership and our social workers continue to do their best, often in very difficult circumstances.

“This is a long journey, we are one year into a three year improvement plan and we know there are challenges ahead. But we are committed to change.”

Challenging reporting restrictions

Tickle first planned to investigate Herefordshire council’s children’s services in 2018 after the three damning judgments of that year, but she was prevented by legal restrictions designed to protect the identity of families involved. Specifically, section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 (s12) prevents the publication of information relating to proceedings under the Children Act 1989 or Adoption and Children Act 2002, where a court sits in private, as is invariably the case.

But after the High Court ruling last year, Tickle said she was “so aghast at what this local authority had seen fit to do”, she applied for permission to challenge the application of s12 in these cases, on public interest grounds.

Tickle obtained an order last year from Mr Justice Keehan enabling her to speak to and quote, with their consent, anyone involved in the four cases. She could also name and film them if they agreed, except in the one ongoing case.

“I have found out some pretty awful stuff,” she said. “[The 2021] case has very severely traumatised the children and the mother involved.”

Earlier this month, she also obtained court permission to name and film a mother in a separate case, who had three children placed in Herefordshire’s care in 2018 because of allegations of fabricated and induced illness before she successfully had the care order discharged in 2020. The woman, Angeline, was featured in the programme.

Permission to name social workers

In that judgment, the High Court also granted Tickle permission to name social workers involved in the case despite the local authority arguing that doing so could impede their ability to recruit practitioners.

Mrs Justice Lieven said was “extremely aware of the problems with the recruitment of social workers nationally and in the Midlands” and that the “role of a social worker is an enormously difficult one”.

But she said the provisions of s12 were to protect the “best interests of the children”, not the local authority.

She also said that social workers in the Herefordshire cases “[were] not being made subject to a campaign of harassment” and were therefore “no different to any individual who may be commented upon or criticised in a public broadcast”.

“Ms Tickle and the BBC are undertaking a documentary programme with all the journalistic standards that are applicable,” she said. “For those reasons I do not conclude that there is a justification for anonymity.”

Tickle said: “We fought against the idea that a local authority, an arm of the state, could prevent the press from naming people who were not currently involved with a family or had done something wrong, or indeed who were currently involved with the family but were senior members of the council.”

However, the programme did not name individual social workers or managers.

Arthur and Star review ‘may trigger more risk-averse practice’

Tickle’s programme comes ahead of the publication of the national review into Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’s deaths.

Tickle said she expected the review to “make social workers feel absolutely as if they must be risk averse at all costs”, potentially leading to a spike in child protection investigations and children being taken into care, as followed the reviews in the wake of the Baby P case.

The number of children in care in England reached a record high of 80,850 in 2020-21, according to Department for Education figures, although the number of children entering care was at its lowest in nine years, the high care population being driven by fewer children leaving care.

According to figures from the annual children in need census, child protection enquiries in England under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 increased by 126.7% from 2009-10 levels to 198,790 in 2020-21, though this total is lower than for the previous two years.

Tickle said a culture of risk aversion was preventing good social work with children and families.

“Senior social workers have told me that that actually prevents them from doing good, targeted social work with families that need it because everybody is so incredibly petrified that they are busy doing investigations, of which many go nowhere,” said Tickle.

Tickle’s programme also highlighted staffing pressures in Herefordshire including high turnover, a lack of experience and high use of agency staff and interim managers. She also identified that there were 10 senior managers who had moved from one struggling authority to another, often in interim roles, over the past eight years.

Use of interim manaers ‘no way to build a service’

On the programme, she asked Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, whether this was a good use of public money.

“No, not at all,” said Jones, who is currently leading a review into children’s services in Northern Ireland. “Partly because you can’t do the job you’re here to do if you’re here today, gone tomorrow. I think people see them as a source of expertise, a source of holding things together at that point in time, and both of those points are right. But it’s not a way of building a service that will be strong for the future.”

Tickle also told Community Care that the family courts were also “completely overstretched” and that overall “the seams have gone” from the children’s social care system “and there are people just desperately trying to sew them up”.

“In the middle of this there are families who are deeply traumatised by the kinds of interventions that are not helpful. Meanwhile, families who need help and support are not getting it and children who desperately need to be removed, social workers don’t have time to make those assessments accurately. It is a horrible mess,” she said.

‘The state is doing harm’

Tickle’s programme also comes ahead of the publication of the government-commissioned children’s social care review’s final report.

She was unable to speak to review lead Josh MacAlister for the programme about his potential recommendations, but she said, “something has to change in the way children’s social care is both funded and in how they approach their work with families because whatever is happening now, it is not working”.

She said the practice of children in care “being sent from pillar to post around the country to different foster carers and residential children’s homes” was leading to them being “hugely traumatised”.

“Their links with their families and particularly with their siblings are being broken, and the state is doing harm,” she said.

Tickle said everyone was “understandably horrified” by child deaths but that there was a “less obvious trauma”, of social care intervening wrongly in people’s lives, that will “blight” children’s and families’ futures.

“I have seen the results of this by talking to the people involved in these cases. It is not as easy to understand and not as easy to talk about and not as easy to quantify,” she said.

BBC Panorama’s Protecting Our Children: A Balancing Act was screened on Monday 16 May 2022 and is now available on iPlayer

TV investigation aims to highlight trauma faced by families from wrongful child protection action