On Friday, 23 November, the Daily Telegraph published a story about foster carers in Rotherham who had three children removed from their care, eight weeks after an emergency placement, because of the carers’ membership of a political party, namely the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The carers are quoted as saying that they were informed that the local authority’s decision was taken because the children were of eastern European origin and UKIP has ‘racist policies that want to see Europeans out of the country’. A furore quickly blew up in the media over the weekend, with condemnatory statements by politicians, including the Secretary of State for Education (whose department holds responsibility for children’s services in England).
Local authorities’ children’s services have a common law duty of confidentiality toward their clients and, if there are ongoing court proceedings, they may also be prohibited by statute from making public any information about the parties (s 12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 and s 97 Children Act 1989). The spokesperson for Rotherham is therefore restricted in the extent to which she can attempt to publicly defend what the Secretary of State has already described as ‘indefensible’. (Somewhat more measured than The Spectator’s description of a social worker involved as ‘imbecilic’.) Certainly, planning for children in care (defined by the 1989 Act as ‘looked-after children’) solely on half-baked assumptions about political beliefs would be contrary to statutory guidance but both the Department and the council have launched inquiries into the decision, and further speculation on why it was taken would be premature.
What can be remarked on, however, is the volume and tone of the media and internet coverage this story has received. As noted by The Not So Big Society,
a story about an ill-judged decision by one practitioner in, say, medicine, would not immediately bring the entire profession into disrepute. Why, then, is a decision about one change in short-term placement for three looked-after siblings of such public interest? There are approximately 65,000 children looked after by local authorities in England, and some experience multiple changes of placement
The answer perhaps lies in the following extract from The Huffington Post
Gove, who was adopted as a child, said Rotherham sent out a “dreadful signal” by taking the children from the foster family.
“The ideology behind their decision is actively harmful to children. We should not allow considerations of ethnic or cultural background to prevent children being placed with loving and stable families,” he said.
The phrase ‘loving and stable families’ is a familiar one in the government’s drive to increase the rate of adoption in England, one strand of which is the introduction of draft legislation which aims to remove barriers to adoption by deleting s 1(5) Adoption and Children Act 2002 in England. Under this section (which remains in Wales) agencies placing a child for adoption ‘must give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. The government in England sees this as having created barrier to increasing the rate of adoption, which now seems to extend to short-term care as well.
During National Adoption Week, 5 – 11 November, adoption charities highlighted some commonly-held myths, such as adopters having to be aged under 40. A new campaign exposing myths about fostering now looks due. The Fostering Network estimates that every 22 minutes, another child in England and Wales needs a foster carer. Given the shortage of this precious resource, it seems irresponsible to foment such adverse publicity. The spokesperson for Rotherham has stated that they had been earlier criticised by the court for not taking the children’s cultural heritage into account when placing them in foster care. So what are the council’s duties in this situation? The wording in s 1(5) Adoption and Children Act 2002 regarding decisions about adoption is replicated in s 22 (5) Children Act 1989 with regard to any decision about a looked-after child. Consequently, in both situations, ‘due consideration’ is to be given to the child’s ‘religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. However, ‘due consideration’ would necessarily be given at different levels when finding an emergency short-term foster home to making a lifelong adoption decision.
The Daily Telegraph has used the word ‘Stasi’ to describe these actions by a local authority. In contrast, read Amelia Gentleman’s report in the guardian on 4 November on ‘London’s housing crisis’. She writes that Waltham Forest Council had threatened that ‘social services’ could ‘remove’ a nine-year old girl if her mother refused the offer of accommodation which was, on the facts, unsuitable under s 204 Housing Act 1996. While not doubting the genuine fear of the mother, such a threat could not be lawfully followed through by children’s services. There are a number of differences in these two stories. Firstly, the foster carers in Rotherham have access to the independent reviewing mechanism under s 12 Adoption and Children Act 2012 and planning for the three children requires the input of an independent reviewing officer.
In the era of shrinking legal aid, the mother in Waltham Forest will be lucky to find the highly specialised housing advice she needs. Secondly, Amelia Gentleman has unsuccessfully asked Waltham Forest to clarify what the mother was told, but no denial has been forthcoming, whereas Rotherham’s response is widely publicised. Thirdly, and most importantly, the relative level of attention paid to the families in Rotherham and Waltham Forest could not make it clearer that whatever the fuss is about here, it is not about the welfare of the children who are being shuttled about between homes.
Dr Julie Doughty is a lecturer at Cardiff Law School and specialises in family law. She is a member of the BAAF (British Association for Adoption & Fostering) Cymru Legal Group and represents Wales on the BAAF Legal Group Advisory Committee. She is the Chair of Family Mediation Cardiff.