On Monday night, BBC2 broadcast a documentary titled Protecting Our Children, the first of a series of three programmes which follows a social worker in Bristol as they deal with one of their child protection cases. The social worker featured this week was the newly-qualified Susanna, whose case (and its ending) has already been described in two articles, one in the Guardian and another on the BBC website. Next week’s case features another social worker, and another couple who have already lost three children: its conclusion has already been given away in this week’s Bella magazine. What concerns me, though, is the attitudes of some people online to the social workers and their “clients”, and the wilful blindness they display.
Susannah was (as far as we can tell, and this is the impression given in the written articles also) trying to support Mike and Tiffany with their son Toby, who at 3 1/2 years old was still in nappies, unable to speak and aggressive in his behaviour. The social workers believed that intervention was urgent as there was only a few months left before the window for remedying these things closed. The boy was being cared for by two obviously inadequate parents who had failed to obtain a bed for him and whose house had dog’s muck on the floor. The father, who obviously had learning difficulties of some kind, was hostile to the social worker from the start, and repeatedly accused her of simply being there to take Toby away, or as he put it, to “wreck” them. There were a number of incidents in which Toby sustained bruises and his parents’ explanations did not convince.
Tiffany was pregnant with another child, and during her pregnancy was hospitalised; the couple agreed that Toby should go into foster care as they did not think he could deal with looking after the boy on his own, but he pulled out at the last minute. The social workers went to court and succeeded in getting him taken into care. After the second baby was born (and promptly removed), Tiffany threw Mike out after a fight, and although the social workers were willing to work with Tiffany to keep her and her two children together, she decides to give them up for adoption.
Some might say that Tiffany made that decision because she felt beaten down by the constant pressure, but having watched the programme, it appeared that she was enjoying the new-found freedom caused by Mike not being there — she said that she had been controlled by others all her life, and was finally able to be herself. Her depression was also being treated for the first time. It’s possible that she wanted all trace of Mike out of her life, and that included his children. The programme ended by saying her children would be adopted separately due to Toby’s special needs, that Tiffany would not see them again as children, and that Mike had made no further contact.
I read a review of the programme on the Telegraph’s website (the picture of Tiffany is more flattering than anything you see of her in the programme), and one of the commenters (who signed himself “That Guy”) asked “Come on social workers, and their apologists, tell us why the children can’t see their natural mother, who didn’t intentionally harm them, during their childhood?”. The answer is that this is beyond the social workers’ control: it is how the adoption system works and always has done, because it dates back to a time when adoption was a means of getting rid of illegitimate children by pretending that they were really someone else’s. In other countries, a type of open adoption exists where the birth parents still have some degree of access, but that is not true here. There are other options available, such as special guardianship (where children are looked after by specially cleared family members or friends), but that probably was not an option for Tiffany anyway.
What astounded me was the refusal of some commenters to accept that Mike’s (in particular) obvious learning difficulties and inability to see or discuss things rationally were a major obstacle to getting Toby’s developmental needs seen to. One of the commenters compared Toby’s surroundings to his own upbringing in a small, crowded house in the 1950s, as if basic and poor was the same thing as filthy and unsanitary (I am sure they didn’t allow people or dogs to defecate on their floor). During a contact visit, he barely spoke to his son, preferring to absorb himself in playing with the children’s toys separately from Toby (however, the presence of the social worker looking at them and taking notes cannot have helped). He looked child-like, apart from his beard, and acted the part (he also revealed that he had lost a number of children to miscarriage and stillbirth, which may reflect a genetic disorder of some kind). It’s possible that his problems were not all of his own making, but it’s also true that he was in no fit state to raise Toby, much less to attempt to remedy his pressing developmental needs.
It is not the first time I have seen someone on the internet brazenly deny the obvious failings of a parent in such a documentary. Last December, the BBC broadcast a Panorama programme about the difficulties of getting older children adopted out of care, and a recurring feature was mothers with learning difficulties or low intelligence who had made repeated bad life choices which put their children in danger. The mothers’ learning issues were sometimes plainly obvious from the way they spoke, and yet Christopher Booker, in his column on the Telegraph website, said that these issues were “scarcely evident when she was allowed half an hour’s ‘contact’ and they all rushed into her arms”. Yet they were plainly obvious to me, and no doubt to the social workers as well. I’ve written about Christopher Booker briefly here in the past, but for those not familiar with his writings, as well as complaining endlessly about children being seized from loving families and held hostage by a secretive, unaccountable family court system that always sides with the social workers, also insists that global warming is a myth and that asbestos is nowhere near as dangerous as is commonly believed. George Monbiot addressed the failings of his writings on these two aspects here and here, but does not really address the fact that Booker is obsessed with the financial cost of everything — he published a book called The Real Global Warming Disaster, which purports to expose “how in the 1980s a handful of scientists came to believe that mankind faced catastrophe from runaway global warming, and how today this has persuaded politicians to land us with what promises to be the biggest bill in history”. It’s always the money: when social services are protecting kids (or wrongfully removing them), it’s money; when we are trying to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn, it’s money; when we strip out asbestos, it’s money. In his earlier book, Scared to Death (co-written with Richard North), he mentioned a number of the child protection scandals of the 1980s and in all but one of them, he mentioned the cost to the taxpayer. Never mind the fact that social workers avoid taking children into care, and prefer family members to care for children wherever possible, precisely because foster care (let alone institutional care, where it is even available) is expensive.
I’m often sympathetic to people who have had their children taken by social services, and I’m well aware that they make mistakes and that they are often not fixed as quickly as they should be (although often, the social workers are acting on instruction from doctors who fail to spot conditions like brittle-bone disease and assume a baby’s injuries are inflicted by their parents). However, when I see such ridiculous nonsense posted as comments on articles on this subject from people who are blind to obvious danger to children, my sympathy for them just drops like a stone. If anything, it’s rather a shame that poor Toby wasn’t found, and rescued from his miserable surroundings, much earlier.
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