The Casual Cruelty of the Bedroom Tax

I recently spoke to a mother who was being hit by the Bedroom Tax. Because her son spends part of the week with her and part of the week at Dad’s, his bedroom in her home was declared a spare room. I was so appalled I asked her how this came about. This is her reply, which is published with her permission.

 

Over the past few months I’ve been hearing about the new Bedroom Tax. I read about lots of people who are losing money and in financial trouble because of it, including disabled people or people with disabled children. I thought it was disgusting for these people to have to pay this for bedrooms that are so clearly needed, for specially adapted beds and equipment for themselves or their child, or for carers to sleep in. But it didn’t occur to me that the bedroom tax was going to affect me at all.

Then in December I had a letter asking me to fill out a form to say who lives in my home. It said that if I have more bedrooms than I need my housing benefit will be reduced. I filled it in, stating that my son stays with me for four nights a week. It asked if I received Child Benefit- I stated that I don’t as his father receives this. We have joint custody and only one parent can claim Child Benefit.

I sent back the form and didn’t feel overly concerned, I live in a two bedroom maisonette and both bedrooms are being slept in – I don’t have more bedrooms than I need. I thought that this would make sense to them. Looking back, I think I was being naive or stupid. On the 25th of February I received a reply. It said that as my son’s father receives the Child Benefit they will treat him as the person who is responsible for my son and the person who provides him with his main home. Therefore they are unable to include my son in the assessment of my Housing and Council Tax Benefit.

When my son’s father and I split up I moved out of the house we were living in and took my name off the joint tenancy agreement. The housing association then told my ex that he had to move out as they now counted him as a single man living in a 2 bedroom house, even though we had joint custody and the 2nd bedroom was being used regularly. So I signed over the Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits to him so he wouldn’t be homeless. A few people told me that I was shooting myself in the foot so to speak, but I couldn’t live with him being evicted. The break up in itself was so stressful for me that I suffered a psychotic episode and was sectioned for a month because I was a danger to myself, convinced that I had to die to make things easier for everyone. Aspects of my mental health condition have a big impact on the way I handle change and stress and in particular conflict in my personal life. As a child I was made to feel overly responsible and guilty about the circumstances of certain adults in my life and was often put in positions of having to make choices that hurt someone no matter what or who I chose. As an adult the sense of guilt and worry about choices I make is still filled with the intense anxiety and panic I experienced as a child and at times that can tip me over the edge. 

It’s my wish to attempt to go back to work part-time, three days a week. I want to contribute to society, but at a level and pace that is right for me, that won’t set me back to square one with my mental health. I’ve worked hard to manage my condition and get to this place and I know that working full-time would be too much for me. However, if I work three days a week, the wage at my grade won’t be enough to cover my rent, bills and food etc (and now this bedroom tax on top) because I don’t have Child Tax Credits to top up my earnings. I don’t receive any financial support to look after my son. I’ve learned that I could apply to get disabled persons tax credits when I start work but this would only be allowed for one year, after that I have no idea how I would manage. I would probably have to go back on benefits. I don’t want this. I want to get into and stay in part-time work, not go backwards again.

I’ve discussed the situation with my ex. He is in the same boat. He is a carer for his elderly mother and is on benefits too. If he signs the Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits back over to me he will have to pay the bedroom tax and also then when he finds work won’t be able to have his earnings topped up to give him enough income.

Mothers and fathers are equally important to a child. I don’t believe that on paper it’s fair to say that only one of them is the responsible parent if both of them are caring for the child equally. I’m very sensitive about my role as a mother, I have a lot of anxiety about others assuming I’m not a good parent because of my mental health problems and for being on benefits, and it really hurt to see on paper that I’m not the ‘responsible’ parent.

I believe that parents who have joint custody of their children should have the benefits and financial support relating to a child shared between them by the DWP. If I wasn’t looking after my son at all and he lived with his father full-time then I would expect to pay this bedroom tax. But I do look after my son, as much as his father does.

I have to make a decision now about whether I push for the Child Benefit/Child Tax Credits, possibly having to go to court if he is unwilling to give them to me, or to stay in the position I’m in which is a very precarious one financially. Any day I will be called for my ESA review and medical (as thousands of others have been so far) and it’s likely I will lose that money, and will be put onto a single persons JSA – as I’m not considered to be looking after a child in the eyes of the DWP. There is no way I can support my son on JSA. I cannot make any progress in my life if I stay in my current position, but going to work will leave me worse off after a year when the disabled persons tax credits stop. This government want people back in work but they are making it extremely difficult for people to do so, how are you meant to get your life back on track with obstacles like these in the way? 

Some people might say that it’s not my problem what his dad has to deal with, ‘just do what you have to do, for you’. And there some moments I say to myself you just have to care about yourself now and forget about how your actions impact on someone else. But I can’t feel any conviction in that attitude. It’s not in my nature to not care about how others are affected by my actions (however it seems to be in this government’s nature). I do care about how things are for my son’s father, and how things are between us. It’s important for my son that we get along and for him to be able to continue to spend equal amounts with both of us – this could mean that he has to start living with just one of us – and then there will be a battle over who he lives with permanently. I can’t take that kind of stress and would be devastated to not have my son live with me at all. If his father signs the money back to me then I have to deal with the guilt of him being left in the same position that I’m in now. This government is pitting family members against each other, trapping them in dog eat dog situations.

I can’t cope with the stress and guilt of going to court over this, but I can’t carry on in this situation either. I feel unbearably trapped. Every morning I’m waking up filled with dread and fear over my future, suicidal feelings are surfacing and my mental health is getting worse and I’m really scared of going badly downhill again.

This government don’t see people as individuals, all with different circumstances and needs, we are just fodder to them.

To some extent you do have to put yourself first. But not totally, it’s about give and take, there should be a way for us both to be ok, not one person ok, the other left in dire straits. But this government is all take. Look after number one and screw you.

 

Adoption: Threats And Divisions As Gove Loses Patience

We’ve known for some time now that as far as working with children in care are concerned, adoption is the government’s absolute priority. A series of announcements over the past 15 months or so have focused on different aspects of the process. Last week came the latest and potentially most radical, where failing authorities could be stripped of their powers, which would be handed to the voluntary or private sector. There’s £150m purely for adoption, new resources but it’s not new money because it comes from cash previously earmarked for early intervention. Michael Gove just got serious.

The new money for adoption is £150m previously earmarked for early intervention, an area where Surestart and other preventative initiatives that aim to keep families together have already been decimated. A few days before this announcement, Eric Pickles stated he wanted to cut resources available for troubled families. The agenda could not be more stark – prevention and keeping families together is less important than adoption. With devastating irony, this most ideological of decisions uses money specifically set aside for evidence-based initiatives.

Politicians and practitioners agree that the shortage of adoptive carers has to be robustly addressed but surely not at the expense of other children in need. The government’s attempt to say that one sector in need is more important than another smacks of the way their divisive language around the welfare and employment debate tries to set working people against the unemployed, the rest against the “shirkers and skivers”. Child care is a continuum, with support for keeping families together at one end and adoption at the other. They may appear to be poles apart but in fact they are part of the same whole, far more closely related than is convenient for the governement to acknowledge.

Evidence shows that large numbers of children come in and out of care. In foster care, for example, providers have noticed that the rise in placements due to the higher numbers of children coming into care has been accompanied by an increase in the number of short-term placments, where children then return home. It is easy to forget that the original intention of section 20 of the Children Act where children and young people can be accommodated with the agreement of their parents was designed to maintain the ties between children and their families rather than close the door, and that families could use accommodation as a service, a week or two’s respite while they sort out problems with the help of their social worker so that the child can return to where they belong, in a safe, caring home. The Act became law in 1991 but sounds like ancient history. I may as well be writing in Sanskrit for all the sense those last few sentences make in 2013.

On a personal level, as someone who has worked across the whole spectrum but more recently in fostering and adoption, I feel dirty, as if I’m using money that’s been pinched from a child’s piggy bank. This is how awful this low, underhand and cold-blooded financial conjuring makes me feel.

The decision encapsulates all that is wrong in that dark, dank place where politics meets planning for children’s services. These are themes I’ve written about before. Prevention leads to better services and saves money in the long run whether it’s children in care, health and safety or gritting the roads before forecast snow falls. Yet for the government, any government not just this one, there’s little reason to invest in the long-term because another administration will reap the benefit, be it another government or perish the thought, another lot of politicians from another party. Yet we will know the success of our work with children in care only when they are well into adulthood, and anyway, even then people change as they grow older.

Adotpion czar Martin Narey, now Sir Martin, said this week that if even half the children on the waiting list are adopted, that would produce huge savings. He’s right of course, and he’s right to say that children should not have to languish in care with only the hope of a family to hang on to. Where I fundamentally disagree is that one element of the continuum should be prioritised at the expense of another. The twin goals of long-term savings and better choices for children and families for children in need of help from the state could be achieved by investment in early intervention as well as in adoption, not instead of. Also, even if the adoption backlog were cleared, there are others coming through the system in greater numbers than ever before. They too will need placements and the resources to find them. Further, adoption is not the only route to permanence. Evidence demonstrates the value of long-term fostering for many children and for their carers who receive support throughout the placement. These placements cost money but the children are worth it.

I am delighted that the government has made the welfare of children in care a priority, the first to do so in recent memory. However, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that for this long-term, complex issue they are seeking a quick win, the headline and the soundbite that goes with it.

More irony: government proposals in the pipeline won’t grab the headlines but are far more interesting and relevent for me as a practitioner because they directly address many of the problems in the existing system. Most important is the review of the court process that maintains a steadfast focus on the needs of the child within a clear timetable and minimises drift. Support for adopters will increase, with a look at personal budgets so they can decide what their family needs and how to sort out any problems. The purpose of the new national Adoption Gateway is to make it easier for prospective adopters to find out more. Changes in the inter-agency fee place the voluntary sector on the same level as authorties, thus widening the pool of adopters. Finally, there will be more organised gatherings of prospective adopters and children, sometimes called adoption parties. This is a direct result of an evidence-based study by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering that was properly researched, funded by the voluntary sector and fully evaluated. Taken together, these initiatives will do nothing but good. I fully support them. Evidence not ideology.

Every now and again any system in any organisation needs a good kick up the backsidebut in my experience, threats are far less effective than committed, considered leadership that understands a problem and sets goals for change. The government has quickly tired of what it sees as intransigence in the sector. Last week we heard that councils who do not respond will find adoption services removed entirely from them and placed in the hands of the voluntary and private sector. The appearence of the private sector is noteworthy. This requires a legislative change as private companies are not able by law to become adoption agencies.

Once more we are seeing divisions rather than partnership. The voluntary sector wants to work alongside local authority partners. Legions of dedicated, able local authority social workers want to find more adopters, not to be excluded from the whole process. We have to work closely with communities to find more adopters, for example more black adopters, rather than becoming ever more distant. Change must be accomplished by working with the sector not against it.

Don’t hijack child welfare to attack gay marriage

I got home from work today to discover that this afternoon’s House of Commons debate had turned into a procession of backbench Tory MPs delivering a series of variations on “I’m not a homophobe but…” If David Cameron’s endorsement of gay marriage was intended to show a forward-thinking, tolerant conservatism, it seems a large section of his party failed to get the memo.

Much of the opposition to gay marriage has taken the form of concern trolling about what it’ll mean for our children. Yesterday David Davies MP said, “I hate to say this, in a way, because I expect it’s going to cause controversy – but I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else.”

A few days ago another Tory MP, Bob Blackman, went further than just opposing gay marriage. He called the reintroduction of the notorious Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. He said, “I was one of those that strongly believed that Section 28 was the right rules to have in school so that we should not promote in any way shape or form promote same-sex relationships, I still abide by that and feel thats the right way forward, and if teachers are forced to say same-sex relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships I’d be very opposed to that.” As a quick history lesson, not a single prosecution was ever brought under Section 28, but it created a huge obstacle for teachers who wanted to prevent homophobic bullying.

A couple of weeks ago the Daily Telegraph suggested that teachers could be sacked for not promoting gay marriage in schools, and fulminated against such a grievous hypothetical outrage.

Since I work in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), I think I’ll give my own thoughts on what gay marriage could mean for our children.

I won’t mention any individual cases, but I’ve been involved with several young people where events have followed a certain template. A teenager suddenly stops attending school, and stops seeing their friends. Often there were previously no issues with their school attendance. We’re asked to see them. They’re low in mood, but not necessarily at the level of a clinical depression. They can’t tell us why they won’t go to school, or why they’re locking themselves in their bedrooms, but whatever it is seems to be distressing them.

At some stage down the line, it turns out to be either a sexuality or a gender identity issue. Often this gets revealed accidentally. Perhaps they blurt something out in a moment of stress, or their parents discover same-sex images on their computer. They usually don’t simply come into the therapy room and tell us, because they’re terrified of how people will react.

What happens next is crucial. If the response of family and friends is a positive one – to tell them it’s okay, to accept this aspect of them, to let them know that this isn’t a problem – then the child has a good chance of getting their life back on track. They now have the opportunity to move forward, to be who they are, and to prosper.

If the disclosure is met with hostility and rejection, then the damage can be enormous. Instead of prospering, the kid can fall into depression, substance misuse, self-harm, school avoidance or any combination thereof.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying is still an issue in schools, but when I think of when I was at school in the late 80s and early 90s, the progress is enormous. I’ve worked with LGBT teenagers who describe being accepted by their classmates in a way that would have been inconceivable when I was a kid. Some of our local schools have LGBT student groups, and ask older pupils to act as mentors to young people who are coming out. There’s a support group for LGBT teenagers that we can signpost kids to. More and more young people are being presented with a very healthy idea – that being gay, bisexual or transgender is normal.  In that sense, many of our kids understand the future a lot better than the grey-haired fulminators on the Tory backbenches.

But there’s still a way to go. Gay marriage may not be the most important waypoint on the road to demonstrating that LGBT people are equal and normal in every way, but it is one of those waypoints. So, if you’re opposed to gay marriage, don’t do it because our kids supposedly need “protecting” from homosexuality. They don’t need protection; they need normalisation.

The #Rotherham #UKIP fostering row: Further details emerge

Another day, another set of details emerge about the UKIP fostering row. This time courtesy of the Daily Mail. I’ve said before that I’m not comfortable with the way a sensitive case about vulnerable children is being played out and discussed in the media, but since other people are clearly going to comment on the case, I suspect throwing a tuppence forth from this little blog isn’t going to make much difference in the grand scheme of things.

Last week the Guardian alluded to tensions between Rotherham Council and elements of the local East European community, and yesterday’s Daily Mail fills in some of the blanks regarding this. Apparently the council has been the subject of protests from Slovakian families following a number of removals of children into foster care. These families are accusing the council of “child-stealing” for racist reasons and of trying to impose British values on them. This has led to protests from the Slovakian government who appear to be taking the side of the families.

Though the “British values” in question appear to be things like children going to school, not wandering the streets at 2am, and not living in a mice infestation.

The Mail being the Mail, they don’t appear to see any irony at all in, a couple of weeks after accusing the council of ideologically-driven fixations with multiculturalism, then granting a fairly uncritical interview with an alleged abuser, strongly suggesting that the council are racist towards East Europeans.

The words “shot at from both sides” spring to mind.

And naturally, there’s a rentaquote from John Hemming, an MP who seems to live in a strange parallel world where child protection proceedings are nearly always due to scheming, malicious social workers and hardly ever about averting another Victoria Climbie or Baby Peter.

These arguments appear to have been made in the courts as well as in the media and council meetings, apparently with some success. As the Guardian said,

But a family court judge ruled three of the children should be returned to the parents after the birth parents successfully argued that the council had failed in their duty to ensure the children enjoyed the linguistic right to learn and speak the language of their birth.

In the light of the Guardian and Daily Mail reports, I’m going to make a rough educated guess at the backstory here, which may or may not have to amended as further details emerge into the public domain.

It seems likely that the council would have been anxious to avoid a repeat of this judicial ruling. It also seems likely that they may have been vigilant for anything that would be immediately be pounced upon by the birth family’s lawyers, by the Slovak protesters, possibly even by the Slovakian government and media.

Something like the foster carers being members of UKIP. They may well have been doing a perfectly good job as carers, but that wouldn’t be what the family’s lawyers would say in court.

One could argue that the local authority should have challenged the judicial rulings, ignored the Slovak government and media, and served up the local Slovak community a hefty slice of if-you-don’t-like-our-rules-you-don’t-have-to-come-here. I’ll leave others to argue that one out.

But either way, the application of Occam’s Razor doesn’t require the council to be acting out of an ideological crusade about multiculturalism, or a Labour-inspired grudge against UKIP, in order to have acted in this way.

It certainly doesn’t require any David Icke-style conspiracy theories about Common Purpose.

Such a scenario is entirely consistent with the local authority trying to tiptoe around one set of legal, social and political grenades, and in doing so accidentally setting off a completely different grenade. And that’s my guess as to what’s happened. Eventually time will tell whether I’m right or wrong.

One thing this case does show is how complex and difficult fostering cases can be. When such cases are seized upon for political reasons, whether by UKIP or the Slovakian government, such complexities and difficulties are rarely grasped.

What will the new DSM-5 mean for us Brits?

There was a slightly provocative headline to this Guardian article a couple of days ago. “Asperger’s syndrome dropped from psychiatrists’ handbook the DSM”. This refers to the DSM-5, the forthcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which will be published by the American Psychiatric Association. Though actually Asperger’s isn’t so much being “dropped” as merged into one catch-all diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

This left me wondering about how the new DSM will affect mental health services over here.

I suspect it initially won’t affect us a great deal in Blighty. Psychiatrists in the UK usually base their diagnostic categories on the World Health Organisation’s ICD-10 rather than the American DSM. Also it’s important to note that diagnostic categories are not the only thing that affects what mental health services will or won’t do. There may be a diagnosis listed for, say, “oppositional defiant disorder” in the DSM and ICD-10, but my Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service doesn’t accept referrals for it. Such problems are considered the realm of school strategies, parent training and youth offending services, not child psychiatry. Those who say that psychiatry is out to medicalise all forms of human behaviour can take comfort that in our corner we wouldn’t be able to do that even if we wanted to. We don’t have the time or resources.

But it is true that what happens in America has a tendency to filter down to the rest of us, though not always. Pediatric bipolar disorder, for example, never really took off outside the United States.

I’m in two minds about the idea of merging Asperger’s into ASD. On one level I can see a rationale for it. It’s really not clear that Aspergers is a distinct condition from ASD. I also can’t think of anything that we do differently as a result of saying that a child has Asperger’s rather than ASD.

On another level, I wonder what effect this might have on the neurodiversity community and the sense of identity that some people have fostered. Also, I’m slightly concerned about the effect this might have, given that we’re referring to a condition that causes people to have difficulty coping with change.

This article on NHS Choices gives a few of the other changes. A new category coming in is “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder”; basically an angry child. The rationale given is an eyebrow-raising one, “to address concerns about potential over diagnoses and overtreatment of bipolar disorder in children”. In other words, the whole fad for pediatric bipolar disorder got so out of control Stateside that they had to create a diagnostic category to accept that some children get angry a lot. By comparison, I’ve been in CAMHS for five years and I’ve never met a pre-pubescent child with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Neuroskeptic has an excellent critique here, in which he points out that it basically describes the same thing as oppositional defiant disorder.

My guess is we won’t be accepting referrals for disruptive mood dysregulation disorder either.

There’s also some diagnoses going into the DSM-5 under the category of “conditions that require further research before their consideration as formal disorders.” Such as “internet use gaming disorder.” Here’s a musical number from some precontemplative addicts.

I doubt we’d be accepting referrals for that either, other than to write back suggesting the parents unplug the X-Box for a while.

There’s also some proposed categories that aren’t going to make it into the DSM-5, such as:

parental alienation syndrome – a term proposed to describe a child who ‘on an ongoing basis, belittles and insults one parent without justification’

Fair enough, because including that would be really silly.

There’s probably a lot more to be said about the DSM-5, particularly about the new dimensional approach to assessing personality disorders, but I’ve limited myself here to discussing it from a CAMHS perspective.

The #Rotherham #UKIP Case – Will Nigel Farage and Michael Gove now apologise?

When the story broke that three children had been moved from a foster family in Rotherham, reportedly for being members of UKIP, I went out and talked to social workers, solicitors and care leavers. Consistently I got a response that the reported account was implausible, and there was almost certainly a more complex story to it. I put up a blog post saying so, and got a barrage of responses, much of them abusive.

Now a more complete picture is coming out about the affair. And – surprise, surprise – it was more complex than that. The details emerging are not of politically-crusading social workers with a grudge against UKIP, but of a difficult court case, dealing with distressing circumstances, with social services trying to comply with court rulings and fend off legal counter-arguments from the birth family.

This was not a case that should have been played out in the public domain like this. These are incredibly vulnerable children and their privacy has been invaded in an atrocious manner. I’m not going to repeat the details here (though people can just go to the Guardian for that)  but the distressing nature of their abuse gives a clear reason why such matters should be kept confidential. Not because social services have anything to hide, but to safeguard the wellbeing of the children.

A badly-handled interview with Joyce Thacker, Rotherham’s director of children’s services, didn’t help. Though with hindsight this is likely to be partly due to being caught on the hop on a Saturday morning, and also partly due to trying to be careful about what she said about a complex case. It may have been better for the council to have simply put out a “no comment” rather than trying to rush out an interview at the weekend.

Quite possibly the foster carers may well now have some difficult questions to answer about the way they went to the media and ignited a political firestorm. But politicians also have some questions to answer about the way they conducted themselves in this case. Nigel Farage practically turned  the whole thing into a party political broadcast for UKIP. Then there’s Michael Gove, the minister responsible for children’s services. He called it “indefensible” though in fact it turned out to be totally defensible. He also called it “the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons”. Did he even know the way or the reasons when he said that? Was he even interested, or was he simply putting the Rotherham by-election before his ministerial responsibilities?

Ed Miliband emerges only marginally better in that, unlike Gove and Farage, he admitted he didn’t know the facts of the case and limited himself to calling for an investigation.

If politicians were cynical and opportunistic, some in the media were even worse. For example, the inexplicably-respected blogger Guido Fawkes ran an absolutely barking mad article. “Rotherham’s UKIP Child-Catcher Joyce Thacker Follows Common Purpose Progressive Agenda.” He leapt on a set of conspiracy theories, straight from David Icke territory, that accuse a rather dull training company called Common Purpose of trying to rewire our society along a “Marxist and Fabian” agenda. He concluded.

Thacker is yet another graduate of the Common Purpose organisation which pursues a“we know best” Fabian-style progressive agenda in the public sector. She was a project advisor for a pilot programme, run by Common Purpose, that was concerned with diversity issues in the West Yorkshire area. Something tells Guido she has an axe to grind in this and is not a neutral public servant…

Something tells me that Guido had better hope Ms Thacker doesn’t find herself a decent no-win-no-fee libel lawyer.

Nothing good has come out of this affair. Vulnerable children have had their privacy invaded. Hardworking and honest public servants have been grossly slandered. And why? For short-term political gain in a by-election. The likes of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Guido Fawkes need to apologise for their shameful behaviour in this ridiculous and unpleasant case.

New site rules – please read before commenting

In the past week I and others have posted expressed skepticism that the Rotherham UKIP case is likely to be as clear-cut as it’s currently being presented in the media. Others have responded giving reasons why the stated version of events may not be so implausible after all. Some people have given good and informed arguments as to why the latter may be the case, and I’ve invited one of them to make a guest post giving their analysis. Either way, an investigation is taking place, so hopefully we’ll all get some answers eventually.

Alongside this debate, there’s also been a slew of comments about which all I can say is…..Oh dear.

It’s one thing to say why you think Rotherham Council are likely to have made a bad decision. It’s quite another thing to accuse an entire profession of being evil baby-stealers, or part of a hidden political agenda. I think that’s inaccurate and also quite offensive to many dedicated professionals who do a difficult and often unthanked job.

Also in the past few days, I’ve had to delete a comment where the author posted a YouTube video of him interviewing his wife about the ongoing child protection case against them.

As a result of this, a couple of commenters have had their comments unapproved, and I’ll also be keeping a stricter eye on the comments threads.

Just to be clear, here’s the sort of thing that might get your comment unapproved or not approved in the first place.

  • Referring to Social Services as “the SS” or “the Stasi”.
  • Accusing another site user of being part of a hidden agenda, based on them having a differing opinion to you.
  • Conspiracy theories involving Common Purpose, a organisation that strikes me as operating some deeply boring public sector management training, but which is unlikely to be part of anything sinister.
  • Making public appeals for support over care proceedings that have been initiated against you. Apart from being against the site rules, doing this really, really isn’t going to help your case and in fact may make it worse for you.
  • Dismissing care leavers who give a different view from yours as “token”.
  • Telling someone their opinion is invalid because they work for Social Services or the NHS.
  • Declaring basic rules of client confidentiality to be evidence of a secret conspiracy.

I appreciate some people may not appreciate this infringement on their freedom of speech. But don’t worry, there’s already an online forum where your views will be appreciated.

 

 

Rotherham: Truth and Politics

The only time I read my local paper is at the Indian takeaway. Whilst waiting for my korahi chicken yesterday evening, I disinterestedly flicked through the familiar mix of parking problems, noisy neighbours and oversubscribed schools. I nearly skipped the article buried on page 11 about a man who died after an error from his GP, because I was pondering whether to order a popadom. Then I stopped and read it: it was my GP.

Our doctor is kind, caring and hard-working. He treats people as individuals and always makes time for them. On this occasion, the surgery computer system did not indicate that the prescriptions for the drugs his elderly patient required for a heart condition had stopped after the man was released from hospital. Several months on, he relapsed and sadly died. The coroner praised the doctor for his honesty. I can’t recall the actual verdict but the death could have been prevented.

Today’s Daily Telegraph didn’t lead with an avoidable death or for that matter any death. The case of foster carers who allegedly had children in their care removed from them because they were UKIP members has run on all media. It’s been top of 5Live news all day, for example. You would expect Nigel Farage to have an opinion but Michael Gove has swiftly weighed in too. As I write, Milliband is being quoted. Cue outrage at social work.

If UKIP membership is the only reason why these children were moved, I don’t agree with it. They should have stayed where they were. The council said on the news this morning that the children were going to move on anyway. This may be the case. However, the original Telegraph report says the boy was moved the following day and his two sisters soon after. If this is accurate, it does not sound like a planned move to me.

I qualify my remarks with ‘if accurate’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the report does not appear to have any corroboration from other sources. They may exist but it’s based heavily on the carers’ account. I thought journalists cross-checked, especially on a headline story, but this is different.

Secondly, it doesn’t chime with my experiences over the years. Judgments about the capabilities of  carers are never made on the basis of a single piece of information, unless of course it relates to a child protection matter or allegation, in which case prompt action must be taken to safeguard the child.

In this case, you would like to think that other evidence would have been considered, such as the history of the carers over their fostering career, the progress of the children in placement, any evidence that the actual behaviour of the carers had negatively impacted on the children (as  distinct from their membership of a political party) and the wishes and feelings of the children. Bear in mind that the Fostering Standards prohibit changes in children’s careplans without consultation unless there is a real and immediate need. If the local authority has other information, they could not possibly break confidentiality and share it publicly, which offers no protection to the storm of media outrage.

Some of the criticism is misinformed. Farage was calling for the immediate reinstatement of the carers but they are still approved carers, it’s just this placement that has ended. Also, he might think about considering the children’s needs first, which is the law after all.

However, what is most significant is why this is a story at all. My doctor will carry on practising, as he should. The competence of the medical profession has not been called into question because a man died. Yet in the case of the Rotherham foster carers, the ability of the entire social work profession has immediately become the issue. This is all the corroboration the Telegraph needed. We know social workers do this sort of thing, don’t we. Leaving aside the fact that as I have already suggested, any judgement is based on incomplete evidence, this is not about the actions of individual social workers or even the authority itself, it’s about how lousy our profession supposedly is in making these judgement.

The implication clearly is that social workers make snap judgments based on dogma and preconceived ideas. More than this, we are driven by political ideology. In much of the coverage, this deeply flawed and prejudiced perspective has not been significantly questioned. This must be the case – what other reason could there be? It shows how little the public still understand about what we do.

This may have been a carefully considered decision or something that was rushed. It could have been a wrong decision. If so, hold up our hands, but it does not prove one single thing about how social work as a whole assesses the needs of children.

You would think the minister, our minister, might at the very least inject a sense of perspective. Not so. “The wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons,” he said. I humbly suggest he cannot know that for certain. But there are bigger issues at play here and it suits him to use the profession for which he is responsible for other reasons.

Rotherham is holding a by-election. It’s Labour-held, therefore this decision is the responsibility of the Labour authority even though it would have been made by social workers, i.e. officials not politicians. The assumption that this is a political issue has not been called into question. No coincidence.

Also, the consultation period for government proposals to diminish the significance of culture and origin in decisions about adoption placements is coming to an end. This has been well-trailed over the past year – see some of my previous articles – as a way of removing what the government characterise as impediments to swifter adoption. It’s an important proposal that has considerable opposition as well as its proponents. Whichever position you take, it’s disturbing that a matter about the health and well-being of three little children and public confidence in social work becomes a chance for political points-scoring.  We might look back at this episode in future and ask if anyone truly cares.

Why the #Rotherham #UKIP scandal is almost certainly a load of codswallop

This morning we awoke to a story that sounded like something from the worst nightmares of Paul Dacre’s feverish imagination. Rotherham Council had reportedly removed three children from their foster carers, based on the carers’ membership of UKIP. Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Ed Miliband have all piled in to condemn the decision. An absolutely shambolic performance in a BBC interview by Rotherham Council’s Joyce Thacker didn’t do anything to dispel the outrage gathering across the media.

But does this story have proper substance? When I read it this morning, there was a distinct whiff of bovine ordure to it. Although I regularly come into contact with looked-after children, I’m not an expert on the fostering process. However, my co-bloggers Ermintrude2 and Abe Laurens are both experienced social workers, and the latter is particularly experienced at working with looked-after children. I promptly sought out their opinions, and their advice has informed this blog post.

There’s a couple of things we already know about the case from the media reports. First, we know that these children were always meant to be staying with the couple temporarily, and there was never any suggestion that this would be a long-term placement. I’d say that’s a big clue from the word go.

We also know that in a previous court case the judge had criticised the council for not adequately attending to the childrens’ cultural needs.

But as well as what we know, we also have to remember what we don’t know. The local authority will have a duty of confidentiality to these children. They won’t be in a position to go into the ins and outs of why they couldn’t continue to be housed by this particular foster family. When I asked Abe Laurens, he commented that, “In my experience such decisions are NEVER made on any single factor alone.” We don’t know what the other factors were.

But there’s something else we do know, and it almost certainly acts as a great big klaxon telling us exactly what this is really about. There’s a by-election in Rotherham on Thursday. A Labour seat is up for grabs, and UKIP are campaigning hard. Funnily enough, Nigel Farage is doing his damnedest to link the decision with the Labour Party.

The UKIP leader said his primary concern was for the welfare of the children and their foster parents, but hit out strongly at the Labour party, despite Today host Evan Davis commenting that the decision was made by “officials” at the council rather than elected representatives.

“This is typical of the kind of bigotry I’m afraid that we get from the Labour party and from Labour-controlled councils….their attempt to close down the debate [over immigration] is just to write off anybody that wants to discuss it as being racist,” said Mr Farage.

And strangely enough, this has come out at the weekend, when the council would be in the least position to come out with a prompt response. What a coincidence!

It’s almost as if this is a media stunt intended to give UKIP a PR coup on the eve of the by-election.

[EDIT: I’m now more of the view that the proximity to the election date is coincidental rather than any deliberate timing, albeit one that’s had the effect of massively throwing petrol on a flame. What does seem clear is that the various political parties are engaged in a lot of electoral jockeying on the issue.]

And with Michael Gove and Ed Miliband lining up to give Rotherham Council a verbal kicking, it’s almost as if they’re desperately trying to avoid losing crucial votes to UKIP on Thursday.

Once again, social workers and vulnerable children are being used as a political football by opportunist politicians. What a surprise.

What The BBC Can Learn From Social Work

One of the biggest problems faced by the social work profession is that everybody else thinks they know what we do, and most of them think they can do it too. Not the nasty bits like taking children away from their families, but knowing when a child is being neglected or abused. I’ve written about this before. It undermines our credibility as a profession and limits the effort people make to understand what we do because they believe they already know the answer.

I have the same relationship with the BBC. The reality is, I don’t know what’s really going on during this latest schmozzle (see how I’m avoiding the ‘c’ word there) but I’m firmly convinced that on the basis of having some contact with the corporation on virtually every day of my life thus far, I understand exactly what’s happening.

From Danny Baker to Jeremy Paxman via David Mellor, the message bellowed by anyone who has a microphone thrust in front of them is that the BBC have too many managers. The Newsnight contretemps (neatly sliding past the ‘f’ word) is full of poor practice but also raises issues that are pertinent to most organisations, about who takes decisions, how much senior managers know about any given topic, how much they need to know and how much power is delegated. Whatever is going on, those sorting out the mess would do well to pause and make considered choices about how to maintain the balance between the professional discretion that encourages creativity and the compliance that spends so much time ensuring things get done the right way, not enough gets done.

Despite Munro’s attempts to focus on practise, children’s social work remains in the grip of a risk averse culture. The waves from the so-called Baby Peter effect are slowly becoming ripples but their effects are still being felt. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. The most noticeable is the high level of care applications before the courts but it’s all around us. I’m writing this in my lunchbreak, seeking respite from a tender application for fostering provision. At this opening stage, the authority will base its decisions on just three pieces of information – the price, the training programme and the Risk Assessment Procedure. Nothing about the quality of service provided for children or outcomes. It’s a revealing insight that lays bare the authority’s current priorities and concerns.

However, the culture of compliance is deeply embedded into the very structure of child care planning. The question has to asked, is this the most efficient way of taking the best possible decisions for vulnerable children and young people?

I’m in favour of built-in checks and balances, and also of the value of independent scrutiny. However, the current system is confusing and stifles the creativity of professionals who work face to face with children, young people and their families, precisely the point where the best social work is done. The balance has to be right.

The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations in England became effective in April 2011. Reacting to long-standing problems in the planning process, they made it a requirement for foster carers and children and young people to be fully heard and responded to in reviews. They also gave the Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO) greater authority. For example, anyone with a significant interest, including the child or young person, can contact them at any time should there be a problem or implementation delay.

In principle I’m in favour of this. Note the role of the IRO has been beefed up because of perceived failings in the system with poor decisions and lack of implementation resulting in drift. Potentially, however, it creates uncertainly and a lack of clarity.

Typically, the child’s social worker has most contact with the child, their family and their carers. In the current climate, they are at best wary and at worst disempowered from taking the decisions relating to that child, deferring to their manager.

At the Review, the IRO creates the Care Plan. In my experience, team managers sometimes feel powerless. Recommendations may be made that the manager disagrees with or for resources that may not be available. The Care Plan goes back into the mix. The manager may say the resources are not available. Increasingly, the manager and social worker have to go to an eighties-style resource panel where the recommendations of the care plan are effectively reevaluated, but crucially in the absence of key participants.

Meanwhile, the IRO, who as an employee of the local authority is not as independent as their job title makes out, is now feeling undermined. One said to me last week, ‘I despair. This is the third review in as many weeks that when I’ve come back to a key decision I took 6 months ago, nothing has happened due to resource constraints.’

Being connected to but outside the whole process, people talk to me, and anyway I have a kind face. I’ve also got the time to stop and listen, unusual these days. The thing is, managers and social worker feel exactly the same – disempowered, undermined and uncertain. Who exactly takes the decision? It feels sometimes as if any decision is temporary, subject to review at any time. Children require consistency and stability. It saps morale. Managers complain about IROs, IROs grumble about standards. Disharmony where everyone should be working together.

Compliance also takes its toll at an organisatonal level. Independent residential and fostering providers are snowed under with quality assurance demands. Again, I fully accept why this is required and both authorities and children have a right to know they are getting good value for their money and that the best possible standards are in place.

However, it is astonishingly time-consuming and costly. As in any business, those costs are passed on. The unit cost of any placement increases because more backroom staff and/or systems are needed to provide the seemingly endless flow of data for tenders and compliance. And that’s not including Ofsted.

In fostering, although a National Contract exists, few use it. In consequence, all authorities require what is effectively the same information but in an ever-so-slightly different format. This is complex, draining and favours large organisations who can pay for their own compliance unit.

Let me make it perfectly clear – IROs, social workers and their managers undertake some phenomenally good work that benefits so many children. However, in a signficant number of cases that I come across, they are hindered by the system, not helped by it. The unintended effects of well-meaning processes suck up both resources and precious energy. Professional creativity and innovation are stifled. The balance has to be right. The BBC would do well to learn from social work’s mistakes.