Who’s thinking about the kids?


Things are getting a little complicated for GIRFEC (Getting it right for every child) and the prospects for the new Children and Young People Bill in the light of the Edinburgh social workers’ case, both highlighted in recent articles in SR. Readers may wonder…whither GIRFEC when it becomes formalised in the new bill? I fear the ‘best interests’ of the two children at the heart of the case are being lost in the deafeningly high dudgeon of all the grown-ups.

The Edinburgh social workers in this complex case were, more than likely, acting in their capacity as ‘lead professionals’ – GIRFEC-speak for the professionals leading a multi-agency team working with families in complex circumstances (this is not the same as the ‘named person’ discussed by Maggie Mellon in her recent SR article). The team is there to devise ‘early and effective interventions’.

GIRFEC principles are laudable. They aim to ensure that Scottish children grow, develop and learn in safety and good health and have all they need from those looking after them.

Some local authorities do get a bit carried away with high falutin’ research aiming to ‘engage with communities’ and identify children’s ‘needs’ for the delights available in ‘Serviceland’. However, some children and families do need the support of professional grown-ups to help them cope with difficult circumstances, abuse or neglect; and agencies are expected to intervene ‘in the best interests of the child’.

In Sheriff Mackie’s judgement the social work team involved had a less than comprehensive understanding of the complex dynamics of domestic abuse operating in this family. A child’s-eye-view may offer one way of unravelling some aspects of an almighty fankle.

It seems that AT (the children’s mother) experienced domestic abuse in her relationship with CP senior, who was denied contact with his children. AT had limited, regular, supervised contact with her children. The termination of this contact by the social workers is the key issue in this case.

In child protection circles, holding women responsible for protecting their children from the harms caused by abusive partners – ‘failure to protect’ – and blaming them for remaining in the relationship is now considered an outmoded and unhelpful response to domestic abuse cases involving children. The focus should rightly be on the behaviour of the abusive partner. The judgement in this case suggests that no attempt was made to address CP senior directly about his abusive behaviour.

Where the danger from an abuser is such that neither mother nor the children can be protected, there are times when removing the children from their mother’s care may be wise, until it is safe for them to be reunited. The adverse impact of domestic abuse on women and children is now well established. Witnessing the abuse of their mother can be equally damaging and potentially highly traumatic for children.

When they are safe, what children need most is the comfort of their mother’s care, with time and space to recover and rebuild a relationship so often damaged by the abuse. They may benefit from attending a specialist domestic abuse service. ‘Serviceland’ in Scotland, including Edinburgh, has many excellent services for women and children provided by organisations such as Women’s Aid.

Sherriff Mackie mentioned one – CEDAR (children experiencing domestic abuse recovery) – which is beginning to work wonders for many Scottish children in this situation after doing just that in Canada for the last 30 years. CEDAR works with children aged 5-16 years and helps them make sense of what has happened – in a safe and stimulating environment with specially trained workers.

The programme works in parallel with mothers and helps them to rebuild the relationship with their children, so often damaged by the abuse. With or without a programme like CEDAR, maintaining regular contact with their mother during a temporary separation is essential for children’s wellbeing.

Weekly contact was granted to AT by the Children’s Panel. Children often believe that the abuse is their fault and are afraid their mother will be harmed or taken away from them permanently. Separation from their mother can cause great distress and, in extreme cases, children may be further traumatised.

The biggest fear of many mothers who have experienced domestic abuse is that their children will be taken from their care permanently by social services. Mothers in this situation can become desperate. There was talk of ‘permanency’ in relation to AT’s children.

The new Children Bill strongly emphasises the children’s rights, enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and provides enhanced powers to Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner. The commissioner tells children and young people that ‘your views must be considered and taken into account in all matters affecting you’. GIRFEC and the new bill uphold these obligations and maintain that the child should be at the centre of the process.

So where were the views of AT’s two children in all of this? Did anyone ask them what they wanted or how they were feeling about it all? Were AT’s children removed from a risky situation at home and separated from their mum only to be faced with further uncertainties and risks created by the very services and procedures designed to protect them and their rights?

If you are confused by this case…think of the children.

Anni Donaldson is a writer, journalist and honorary research fellow

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