‘Problem families’: just take them into care?

Screenshot of Samira Ahmed (presenter), Angela Epstein, George Hargreaves and James O'Brien on Sunday Morning LiveLast week, a civil servant called Louise Casey published a report identifying 120,000 “problem families” and proposed an intervention scheme whereby social workers would actually sit in people’s houses and make sure they get up get their children to school, and suggest that they take responsibility for certain situations such as their children’s behaviour. She explains the thinking behind the report in this interview. On Saturday Morning Live yesterday, Samira Ahmad (the presenter) asked if the intervention was a waste of time, and if it would not be better to simply remove the children. The first feature was introduced by a video of James O’Brien, the LBC presenter, making the point that we should do just that. Also featured in the talk were George Hargreaves, a Christian pastor who is also the leader of the “Christian Party” (and one-time pop songwriter best known for “So Macho”), and Angela Epstein, a journalist who currently works on the Jewish Chronicle. (The programme can be watched here until next Sunday if you are in the UK.)

O’Brien argued that we need to cut biological ties between “inadequate” parents and their children, and give the children to a Mum and Dad that “really, really want them”. He complained that children faced concerted efforts to keep them with the very same families that had neglected or abused them. He had been adopted at 28 days old, and nobody had parents “more devoted or loving” than his. Today, parents would be lucky to “take delivery” of a baby at two or three years old, by which time irreparable damage could have been done to “everything from [his] basic nutrition to [his] cognitive ability”. He continues, “it chills my liberal blood to say so, but you shouldn’t get unlimited chances to be a decent parent. You don’t get unlimited chances to be a decent dog owner, so the state should intervene more”. He claims that social services are under a “tyranny of biology” that ensures that children’s one chance of a decent life is snatched away from them at birth.

George Hargreaves, asked about this as soon as the video was over, replied that no, we should work to empower families and that taking children away should be an absolute last resort. O’Brien responded that it was precisely because the social services tried to do that that children remained in care for years, in one case he knows of, remaining there longer because the mother had another child, so her “chance” to prove herself was extended. Hargreaves responded that, as a pastor in a black-majority church in the East End, he was aware of an “epidemic” of children being taken away at birth, with one mother being so threatened if she “did not answer questions the way the social worker wanted”. Angela Epstein suggested that taking a child away from an inadequate parent temporarily could shock the parent into changing their behaviour and also give the child some “respite care”.

Picture of James O'Brien walking in LondonI find O’Brien’s arguments objectionable because it bases itself entirely on his personal experience and completely ignores the complex reasons why children are taken into care in the first place. He says he was adopted at 28 days old; the likely reason is that he was given up by a mother who found herself pregnant at an inopportune time in her life or was expected to do so by her family. Far fewer children are given up for that reason now than, say, 30 years ago or more, because pregnancy and motherhood out of wedlock is not the social embarrassment it once was. It is also quite likely that the pool of potential adopters has shrunk because fertility treatments are available (which they were not in the 1970s), because people know that fewer babies are being given up for the reasons they were in the past, and also because adoption agencies and social service departments are nowadays much more fussy about who they allow to adopt children, leading some families to adopt from abroad (this, rather than being overly concerned to preserve links with birth parents, may explain why children remain in care for so long).

O’Brien’s suggestion that babies from “problem families” should be seized more easily for quick adoption also overlooks the risk of wrongful seizures such as in cases where one parent has a disability (particularly a learning difficulty), or where social services are prejudiced against their social background and regard them as unfit merely on those grounds; there are also circumstances where a parent could be supported to raise their own child or where it may be appropriate for them to demonstrate that they can care for a child. There is a due process, much as there is when someone is sent to prison, because losing a child is devastating for a parent, so it has to be made sure that it is absolutely necessary for the child’s welfare. It is more than mere ‘biology’ or rights; the barrier is the profound attachment a parent has to their child, and O’Brien perhaps assumes that decent parents like his have a greater degree of this, or a superior version of it perhaps, than do these ‘problem’ parents.

Finally, Casey was not primarily talking about parents with babies but of those with older children. They cannot always be taken away for adoption as they will always remember who their real parents were even if not allowed to see them and will be difficult to place as adopters usually want babies or very young children. The programme simply diverted the discussion from managing this group of families’ problems in general to a small subset where a baby could be rescued at birth from an ‘inadequate’ family. The state cannot afford to uplift every child from a family that cannot offer it an ideal family life; there are too many children nowadays born into such circumstances. It can only care for those suffering from, or in danger of, abuse or neglect.

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