CONTACT DURING THE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN

Today I spoke to Natasha Phillps of Researching Reform about the problems parents and children in care are having with contact during this extraordinary time. You can hear The Voice of the Child Podcase here;

You can also read the Part 1 of the report I am writing on the same subject. Part 2 will follow shortly, detailing the results of the survey I recently carried out.

An Examination into the way the suspension of face-to-face contact between birth parents and Looked-After-Children has been handled by the state.

As a mother of two children for whom I was deemed unfit to care, I have had first-hand experience of the Child Protection System and The Family Court in the UK.  I was unaware, as are most who have never had involvement with this sector of public servants, how poorly the system is operating and the major issues which prevent it functioning in the manner it was designed to. My experience led me to begin independently researching the system and inspired me to join with other parents and likeminded people, to raise awareness of the problems that plague the system. I’m currently working on an expose which highlights, in detail, my findings and by using the experiences of other parents and families as case studies, illustrates its failings, its corruption and its lack of accountability.

In Mid-March, what had until now been an International problem, became a UK problem. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson took to the podium for daily press conferences, it became clear that life in our country was about to change dramatically.  As the week progressed, the nation went into panic- mode, there was an apocalyptic-movie inspired week of fear, where many people went to the supermarkets and the shelves were left bare. It was crazy how folk were frantically bulk-buying. This led to a shortage of toilet paper! Really? Yes, really and no I couldn’t understand it either! The following week we went into full lockdown, fearing for our lives and watching as the daily infection and death figures increased.  The Government went into overdrive trying to ensure the nation followed their instructions to “Stay Home- Protect the NHS” and the Chancellor rolled out survival packages for businesses.  Worker’s across the county, especially those on zero hour contracts in the gig economy and the self-employed knew that they were in for a rough ride financially. By the beginning of March only keyworkers were working, the NHS, the supermarket staff and the emergency services were rushed off their feet. Sales of surgical masks and latex gloves soared exponentially.

Whilst all this was happening, was anyone thinking about the children who are not living with their parents? The children the state had removed from their parents care due to concerns of the being” a significant rise of harm”. These children, who normally have only limited, scheduled and often supervised contact with their parents.

The week beginning 16th March Social Services departments nationwide began to cancel face-to-face contact session between Looked-After-Children (LAC) and their birth parents and families. However, with a lack of guidance from above, they were not sure what to do next. Some social workers liaised with carers and organised alternative ways to maintain contact – by utilising digital media. Many others, however, made no attempt to help in any way, leaving parents and children in the dark.  Many concerned parents tried contacting their children’s SW for solutions, yet for many, their attempts were futile. The majority of Social Workers appeared to have no idea what to do, gave little assurance to parents and families half-heartedly agreed to look into alternative arrangements and call back. Very few did as they promised. Some then went into isolation and despite being able to work from home, didn’t take parents calls or answer anxious emails.

Schools closed for usual schooling on Friday 20th March. BUT, the Government kept them open to cater for those children deemed ‘vulnerable’. That included those from families currently registered under Social Services.

That weekend, Michael Gove, Cabinet Minister made a statement to clarify how the movement restrictions and social distancing policy related to the movement of the children whose parents are separated and shared parenting. He confirmed that providing social distancing measures were taken during handover, children could move between two homes as per usual.

Yet, there was no mention of how contact should take place between parents and LAC! As time went on, the MOJ issued formal guidance on a range of issues including shared parenting and the manner in which The Family Court was to continue operating via tele-conferencing.

The Govt even managed to write, pass in the Lords and Commons twice and issue a 300+ page emergency Coronavirus legislation. But not one agency involved in child protection matters bothered to care about the children in care and the impact having no contact with their parents may have on their already fragile emotional state.

Does it not occur to them that those children in care old enough to understand the current situation may be worried for their parents and family. As we know, unless given full information, children are liable to make up the holes in a story using their knowledge and their imagination. Many will be scared that their parents, grandparents or extended family could be ill, or even worse still, dead!!

There have been questions from worried parents and angry rants, all over the many Facebook groups who deal with child protection issues. This led to me taking the decision to write and issue a survey to find out what is really happening in the UK.

And I’m not alone in my curiosity!

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has commissioned a project, which hopes to develop guidance to support families and professionals in managing virtual contact when face-to-face contact is restricted, and to use the findings to innovate “long-term solutions”.

The research will be conducted by Professor Elsbeth Neil and Ruth Copson from the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of East Anglia.

The press release says:

“The research team is looking for families and practitioners to share their experiences of maintaining contact between children and their birth relatives during the crisis. This could be social workers, guardians, contact supervisors, foster carers, adoptive parents, birth relatives or others involved in managing contact.”

They go on to clarify the Governments position and the Local Authorities obligations;

The Coronavirus Act 2020 does not amend either Section 34 or Para 15 Schedule 2 Children Act 1989. These duties therefore remain.

What does the government say?

Guidance published by the Department for Education on 3 April 2020 says:

“What about court orders related to contact for children in care?

We expect that contact between children in care and their birth relatives will continue. It is essential for children and families to remain in touch at this difficult time, and for some children, the consequences of not seeing relatives would be traumatising.

Contact arrangements should therefore be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors including the government’s social distancing guidance and the needs of the child. It may not be possible, or appropriate, for the usual face-to-face contact to happen at this time and keeping in touch will, for the most part, need to take place virtually. We expect the spirit of any contact orders made in relation to children in care to be maintained and will look to social workers to determine how best to support those valuable family interactions based on the circumstances of each case.”

TO BE CONTINUED………….

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