Support not Separation launched
at moving powerful meeting
An important new coalition was launched in London on 11 July 2017. Support not Separation (SnS) is campaigning to end the unwarranted and damaging separation of children from their mother or other primary carer. Coordinated by Legal Action for Women (LAW) the coalition SnS has come from the decades of work by LAW, and other grassroots organisations based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre. The launch follows the publication of LAW’s dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers released in January 2017.
The SnS coalition launch was hosted by MP Emma Lewell-Buck, shadow minister for children and families, and attended by another three MPs. It was held in parliament and the room was packed. People spoke movingly and powerfully from their painful personal experiences, strengthened by the awareness that they were no longer alone – so many had come together to fight for justice and to support each other.
SnS brings together a wide range of organisations, social workers, psychotherapists, teachers and other professionals alarmed at the huge rise in children taken from their families.
Research by Professor Andy Bilson of Central Lancashire University published this year found that 144,555 children were in care, adopted from care or in special guardianship in 2016 – the highest number in 35 years . In a message welcoming SnS, Dr Bilson pointed to the class bias of child removals:
‘In the poorest and most deprived communities … 45% of children are referred to children’s services before they are five-years-old and 22% come under suspicion of having been “abused”…This blaming approach to child protection… provides a smokescreen for [the present government] to implement austerity measures whilst blaming parents for the impact of these policies on their children.’
Given that nearly four million children (28%) are living in poverty in the UK and that 90% of adoptions are without the consent of the birth family, the potential reach of these policies is huge.
Anne Neale reported that since January, over 50 mothers have approached LAW, desperate to keep their children. Running through the findings of the Dossier, she accused the authorities of targeting families on low income.
‘Most were single mothers; half were Black, of colour and/or immigrant; half had mental health issues or other disabilities; and 2/3 had been victims of domestic violence…
‘What’s happening with adoptions is clearly social engineering. Kids are being taken from poor working class families and given to middle class families to raise…There is no evidence of actual harm that has been caused, it’s all based on future possible harm that might be caused. It’s hard to imagine other situations where you are punished because of something that might happen in the future…And there is no evidence gathered about how many adoptions break down or what actually happens to those children once they get adopted…
‘…one in four mums with children who are placed for adoption grew up in care…Mums are told, “Oh, you don’t know how to parent because you were brought up in care.” Rather than getting support and protection, the care leaver is then punished by having her children taken away…
She described the monthly self-help meetings that many mothers have been attending, based on the collective experience of the organisations at Crossroads.
‘We work on the basis of self-help, we don’t accept the usual relationship of service provider vs client, we are all in this together fighting against separation…It does mean that every mother has to take charge of her own case, keep track of her own papers, know what’s happening with court hearings…Our starting point is that something can always be done.’
Many were in tears when Antoinette Simpson told how her last two babies were forcibly put up for adoption despite no evidence of harm and the strong bond they had with her.
‘Sixteen years ago I had two children removed from me. I changed my life around after that. I had twins in 2015 and I had them brutally removed from me. I was a good mother but because of my past they were removed from me. What happened to me was wrong. I want to go public. I want justice.’
Liz Hilton  was adopted at birth in Australia; her adoption ‘failed’, as do a substantial but undisclosed number in Britain. She described the damage this caused her and her mother:
‘I was born at a time when the government was determined to provide babies to middle class families and created the myth that poor mothers were unfit mothers…We were broken…We were supposed to be eternally grateful and forever ashamed…
In the UK you use the term taken into care. For the vast majority of mothers and children it’s cash that’s lacking, not care…I was taken out of care at birth…’
She encouraged mothers not to give up because
‘Even if it takes years, the fact that you fought will mean so much when you and your child find your way to each other.’
Jean Robertson-Molloy (Movement for Adoption Apology) brought to life the thousands of single mothers whose ‘illegitimate’ children were taken in the 50s and 60s.
‘Everything that happened to us was exacerbated by secrets and lies…We were told “you’ll get over it” and “don’t talk about it”…I am delighted to be with this group. I feel that what happened to us was a forerunner of what’s going on now…We are still fighting for an apology…[and] with you people involved I feel we have a chance…There’re so many people that still can’t come out and talk about it.’
Donna Clark, whose granddaughter was adopted against her wishes, has joined monthly self-help meetings at Crossroads and is using her experience to support younger women who are under the scrutiny of child protection. She described how different social services were in the 90s, when she was a young mum, compared to now.
‘Back in 1996 there was the money and the will to help struggling families like ours…We had access to services such as mental health, extra support with schooling and respite care. We were given money so we could have days out together as a family, help with travel costs to appointments, and the social worker even bought Christmas presents for my kids. We were being helped and supported to stay together as a family as that was what was best for children…
In 2012 I saw a massive change of attitudes from social workers and social services. We were made to feel like criminals and the social workers behaved like detectives closely investigating a crime that hadn’t been committed but which they wanted to prove would happen in the future. There were no offers of help, there was no care, just the drive to remove my granddaughter from us. It was a cruel and heartless process.’
From the chair, Nina Lopez (LAW and Global Women’s Strike) pointed to flaws in the Children Act 1989 and how it is being implemented:
· The Act doesn’t mention mothers despite mothers being the primary carer in 90% of households.
· The family courts are misapplying the law. The ‘welfare of the child’ is supposed to be paramount. Separating children from their mother, or other primary carer and siblings, is deeply traumatic and should be avoided. But the serious harm caused by such separation is often dismissed in favour of speculative claims of ‘future emotional harm’.
· Families are not getting the support and resources they are entitled to under the Children Act. Instead they are accused of neglect.
Selma James (Global Women’s Strike and a founding member of SnS) underlines the centrality of the relationship between child and mother, or other primary carer, who is the first provider of emotional security and protection. Without that protection, a child can be vulnerable to every abuse of power by state institutions, violent predators and profiteers. The child rape scandals which have rocked the UK in the past years – from Saville, Rotherham and Wales to Belfast, Glasgow and Jersey – tell us how little our children are valued and how dependent they are on the protection of those who will fight for them.
Breastfeeding advocates are also part of SnS. Solveig Francis (The Milk of Human Kindness) has previously raised that the courts often dismiss breastfeeding even though it is essential to the welfare of the child; they disrupt the child’s breastfeeding by insisting on overnight contact with the father and have even taken breastfeeding babies from their mothers.
Zurina Ali (Lactation Consultants of Great Britain) thanked SnS:
‘We really want to support the Coalition because we are fighting to raise equality for everyone, for every child. It’s a human right for babies to have breast milk, especially for low income families…We need to work together to make this happen, to help mothers…We are hoping to raise the breastfeeding rate in the UK which is the lowest in the world: 1% at 12 months…We need to do something for our future generations.’
Lisa Longstaff and Nicola Mann (Women Against Rape) have highlighted that mothers who report domestic violence or rape are most at risk of having their children taken from them on grounds that they ‘failed to protect them’ from witnessing the violence; yet courts often insist on violent fathers ‘right’ to contact with their children – 19 children have been killed by their fathers in the past 10 years as a result of court enforced contact.
Cristel Amiss (speaking for Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape), condemned the courts:
‘Mothers have gone to the authorities for help – the police, social services, the mental health team – only to have their lives examined, found wanting and the children taken away…Traumatic conditions which any of us would suffer if we had been victims of rape or domestic violence are misdiagnosed… and used to say you are an unfit mother…
‘So often the courts side with the men; even when the man is a convicted rapist he is somehow still a better parent than the mother who may be struggling to put her case forward…The only way this will change is by naming the judges that are doing this and shaming them.’
Dr Felicity de Zulueta (Emeritus Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust), attacked the political context where
‘Anything that makes money, including people’s disasters, is ok; capitalist fundamentalism is what’s going on…
‘My work is based on attachment, this bond that children have with their parents…They’ve cut services to parents, legal aid’s been removed…And then you go into huge profit making in adoption services and care homes, now privatised…
The abusers in these care systems, private care systems of all types, are abusing with impunity. I have a patient from Jersey, and the police are very involved in the whole racket…there is collusion by the state to keep the system going.’
Claire Glasman (WinVisible), spelled out what disabled mothers face when seeking help:
‘Both disabled mums and disabled children are not getting financial or support services that we need…Under Universal Credit, they say it’s simplifying benefits but it’s actually cutting in half the disabled child tax credit allowance; it will affect 100,000 disabled children. They are expecting mums to manage…
‘Under the Care Act 2014 you are supposed to get extra support if you are a disabled person who cares for a child, in reality disabled parents are frightened to approach social services because the mums immediately get threatened with fostering and adoption. The mums with learning disabilities are among the first to lose their children…
We are for this Coalition pressing for resources and to debunk that myth that there is no money for care services. The money is there; it’s priorities.’
Kim Sparrow (Single Mothers’ Self-Defence – SMSD) is a key founding member of SnS. She condemned the impoverishment caused by benefit cuts and sanctions which is then used to accuse mothers of ‘neglect’, and described the protest outside the family court in Holborn which takes place on the first Wednesday of every month:
‘To be outside the family courts that are doing so much damage in secret has been wonderful…There is a massive movement against having our children taken away…we hear of mums going on the run with their children, of children as adults and also younger searching for parents they’ve been separated from. Kids in care are rebelling because they are furious…
We are protesting together to strengthen all our cases…We are able to break the silence, to know that we are not facing it alone, to expose what’s being done to us…If we could do these pickets outside the family courts all around the country, it would be terrific.’
Child welfare is a devolved issue but similar injustices are going on in Scotland where thousands of children are removed every year, though more are placed with relatives than in England. The Scottish Kinship Care Alliance has been working with LAW, SMSD and the GWS in England over the last few years. Micheleine Kane from Glasgow has fought for years to keep her daughter’s children within the family and for financial support for kinship children.
‘We´ve lost our kids to austerity, to addiction, to alcohol, to a Thatcher government …My [disabled] daughter was taken into intensive care when she was having a baby…I’m sitting there and in come two social workers ready to take the baby. My daughter hadn’t yet woken up to see her baby! I said you come back when you’ve got paperwork. I knew they didn’t have paperwork because they wanted mum and dad to sign to let the baby go voluntarily, to “rehabilitate” the family.
‘They don’t give me a penny for keeping [my grandchildren] but they’d pay £50,000 to take my granddaughter out of her family who love her, who can care for her, without a thought.’
A message from Dr Lorna Brookes, founder of a support service for the children of prisoners in Liverpool, was read.
‘Children with mothers in prison are particularly disadvantaged and many are left distraught and emotionally scarred from being separated from their mothers.
Positive contact arrangements are crucial for most children of prisoners to cope and survive this trauma, yet I have consistently seen their needs and rights ignored by the system and those who have decision making powers over them. I’ve been refused access to court proceedings to offer my views, despite the fact that I have been the lead practitioner supporting a child.
‘I sincerely hope the needs of prisoners’ children can be seriously reviewed and supported as part of this worthwhile coalition.’
Robyn Kemp, Centre for Social Work Practice, now in SnS, commented.
‘Such deeply moving stories. As social workers we don’t go into the profession to cause this kind of harm and this level of distress. We are looking to redefine the task of social work. It has moved so far away from our original ethical aims, it’s unrecognisable to me…Your story [Donna] in particular resonated with me because I was a social worker throughout the 90s and I’ve seen it, what you described, just beautifully described, and I thank you for it. The only way we are going to change things is by joining together because together we are a much louder voice.’
Michael Coleman, a former social worker now in Payday men’s network, has spoken out exposed how taking children into care was considered ‘high status’ while keeping families together was ‘low status’.
Jean Robinson, Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (AIMS) and founding member of SnS, was unable to attend but sent her love. AIMS has a long history of opposing health professionals becoming health police, not only examining the health of pregnant women but making a judgment on their suitability to be mothers.
MP Emma Lewell-Buck, who worked with LAW and others to successfully stop the further privatisation of child protection, got a big round of applause. Speaking as a former child protection officer, she said:
‘I was really proud that my party listened to me and others and made the manifesto pledge to bring focus for social work to work with families in local communities to prevent children being at risk of going into care in the first place. ‘We’ll also give a commitment to support all forms of care, not just adoption because for far too long there’s been an assumption from government that adoption is the gold standard. There have been over twenty policy changes alone in this area since 2010. But importantly, this has been against a backdrop of cuts to family support, cuts to local authority projects, cuts to early intervention and a complete diminishing of access to legal support.’
She pointed to recent research showing that children in the poorer Northeast of England are 70% more likely to end up in the care system than their Southern counterparts. She called on the government which has said they want to ‘empower social workers’, to also ‘empower children and families’, and said that working together we can achieve that.
MP Sarah Champion, Rotherham and shadow minister for women and equalities, was so affected by what she heard that she felt ‘compelled to speak’.
‘There are a number of young women in my constituency who have been grossly abused, trafficked and exploited by perpetrators…We are starting to get convictions. I’m incredibly proud and I don’t understand how they have the strength to go through that process, but I am eternally grateful that they are…
‘Those girls as a consequence of the repeated rapes that they endured had children, and the immediate assumption was that those babies would be taken off these young mums. Lactating young mums are still coming to my surgeries, who have had their children taken from them…In many cases, I believe, there [should] be steps put in place so that [these young mums] can be reunited with their children, rather than an automatic process of “these women are not going to be good enough” – because they’ve had that for years.’
SnS offered to be in touch with the young women and do what we can in their defence.
‘At the age of about 24, I was the house father of a children’s home looking after about 10 kids. It was a revelation… Most of them had been in at least six, if not more, individual placements, usually by the age of about six or seven.
‘[With my then partner] we took a very conscious decision that we would not allow a child to be moved on to another placement…
‘It was to try and re-establish connection with their parents and their families, and to build into the system sufficient support and flexibility to enable that to happen…
‘What came as shocking in the recent years is almost the reversal of all that…We deal with cases in my constituency, or Helen [Lowder] who runs my constituency office deals with them, where there is an undue haste to have children taken into care and then to be adopted within a time scale that’s set almost like a production target…That is related to austerity, to the cutbacks in support services, particularly from local government…and health agencies as well…
‘What we’ve got to do now is exactly as the campaign is seeking to do, is expose what’s going on and then get back to what the root causes of this are, which is the nature of austerity and the nature of withdrawal of care and support within our society. It’s almost like going back in time.’
Comments from the floor were wide-ranging. They included: victims of child rape, a teacher who reported a disabled child’s injuries and was told nothing would be done because the family is middle class, men supporting women facing separation, immigrant mothers threatened with deportation without their children, a refugee mother whose children were taken into care after false accusations by racist neighbours, a community organiser who pointed to homelessness being used to take children from their families…Social workers, including a whistle-blower, lawyers, psychotherapists, councillors who sit on adoption panels and other professionals were in the audience and want to work with SnS.
Support not Separation has been launched with a bang. There was strong support at the meeting for all it proposes to do:
· Monthly self-help meetings at the Crossroads Women’s Centre with mothers and other primary carers facing the removal of their children.
· Appealing to professionals for help. Some have come forward but the need is huge.
· Continuing and spreading the monthly protests outside family courts.
· Publicising the injustice of rulings based not on actual harm but on biased assumptions.
· Challenging rulings that disregard the bond between the child and the primary carer, usually the mother, and the trauma of separation when considering the welfare of the child.
· Demanding that mothers and families get the resources they are entitled to so they can keep their children in safety. Mothers’ poverty is not neglect; government austerity is.
Working with similar sister organisations in the US and elsewhere. , US National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, spoke at the launch of the Dossier, reminding us that the UK has followed the punitive US model in both social work and welfare ‘reform’, leading to increased child removals, benefit sanctions and food banks.
|Suffer the little Children & their Mothers: A dossier on the unjust separation of children from their mothers is available from LAW http://legalactionforwomen.net|
1. There were 143,440 children in care, adopted from care or in special guardianship in 2016. Research by Dr Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Care and Community, University of Central Lancashire, quoted in Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers (see footnote 2 below)
2. Bilson, A., Featherstone, B., Martin, K., (2017) How child protection’s ‘investigative turn’ impacts on poor and deprived communities. Family Law 47: 316-319 http://bilson.org.uk/Family_Law_prepub.pdf
3. Liz Hilton is from Empower, a sex workers’ collective in Thailand.