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The Conservative MP Tim Yeo gave an interesting speechin the House of Commons on Wednesday denouncing the social work practices of Suffolk County Council. Often social workers are criticised for being too slow to remove children from their birth parents where this is necessary (and then often to slow to place the children for adoption, keeping them in temporary foster placements for years on the off-chance that their birth parents may get their act together.) Yeo feels that in Suffolk there is the opposite problem of children being seized without justification.

Some might therefore shrug off such complaints and conclude: "Poor social workers get criticised either way." I think the link between such terrible errors is that social workers can put their ideology ahead of common sense. Yeo feels greater accountability is the answer. Unfortunately the trade off would mean less secrecy which of course one can understand the value of. Yeo agrees with the journalist Camilla Cavendish that: "The privacy of the child has become synonymous with the privacy of the professionals." He says: "The secrecy surrounding the process, together with the appalling lack of scrutiny and accountability in the social care and family court system, is made worse by the fact that Members of Parliament are prevented from having proper information in relation to 'child protection' cases.

While Yeo complains about secrecy he managed to find out enough about one particular case to convince him that a terrible misjudgment had taken place. He told the House of Commons:

The appalling truth is that, in Suffolk in 2008, social workers and police could burst unannounced into a home to snatch a nine-week-old baby from the arms of her mother-a mother who is not only totally innocent of any offence but who is not even suspected of having harmed her child. Such is the extraordinary power of the social workers that all of that happens in a way that cannot be challenged. When the innocent victim asks her Member of Parliament for help, his inquiries are met with a wall of silence. This wall of silence is said to be in order to protect the privacy of the child. The truth is that it serves to conceal the actions of social workers from public gaze.

It is very probable that if social workers had to operate with the same level of transparency and public scrutiny as every other profession takes for granted, some of the terrible cases where a
failure to intervene, as opposed to the problem of unnecessary and unjust intervention in the case that I am describing, would not take place.

To make matters very much worse, the circumstances of the raid were seriously misrepresented when council staff gave evidence in August this year to the adoption panel considering Poppy's future. Following the removal of Poppy from the care of her parents, a bitter legal battle took place, which continues to this day. Throughout this process Suffolk county council has repeatedly changed the grounds for removing Poppy, alternating between blaming one parent and then the
other.

The council's search for a justification for its cruelty became increasingly frantic as one initial diagnosis was overturned and replaced with another. Numerous contradictions arose which cast serious doubt on the soundness of the case against the couple. The first doctor's psychological assessment of Carissa declared that she qualified for a diagnosis of factitious disorder. Then a consultant forensic psychiatrist decided after the briefest of assessments that she fulfilled the criteria for the much more catch-all narcissistic personality disorder. The first doctor assessed that Jim was "a pathological liar". Later, a consultant clinical psychologist "would not endorse the expression".

Expert witnesses also expressed misgivings. At a professional meeting on 18 March the doctors wanted to go on record "as being very concerned about the fragmented process of this case".

Only Dr. B had seen both parents. Dr. D had only interviewed Jim and Dr. S only Carissa. Dr. B remarked that the fragmented information was a 'disadvantage to the professional assessment as each had only part of the picture'.

Astonishingly, however, at no point has the ability of Carissa and Jim to care for Poppy been questioned. It is acknowledged that in the few weeks in which they were allowed to look after her, they did so in an exemplary manner.

18 comments for: Should there be less secrecy in child protection?

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