Additional Themes arising from the Survey Results
There were additional emergent themes not as common in the existing literature on experiences of child protection involvement.
The Challenges and Agonies of Doing Contact
The effort that goes into establishing and maintaining contact is superhuman given the obstacles when children in foster care may be many hours and miles away (“the two hundred mile journey there was too much for me” (S1. FT21) and children placed in separate foster homes in separate towns (S1. FT85). In the questionnaire’s section on Contact, one grandparent said:
Contact was in unsuitable venues and supervised by unqualified overly interventionist staff. Contact with wider family members (who needed to travel distances) were obstructed by social work. There was no desire to maintain contact with cousins and wider family despite the children’s isolation and distress in care. Absolutely inhumane (S2.FT4).
Contact sessions are reported to be slow to set up (four months for siblings to wait to see each other S2.FT 44), held in poorly equipped and unsuitable premises by overly interventionist staff, painfully awkward and “continually interrupted for the smallest of reasons” (S2. FT15) with no positives recorded (“My sons cuddle me but this is not reported” S2. FT18). And as widely known, moves within care were frequent (26 weeks in 18 different placements in one case).
There were also reports of injustices large and small, such as respite provided for carers of their children but not for the parents whilst their child was with them, Facetime provided for carers to be introduced to children but not made available to parents to speak with their children. One response concludes: “Just hard all round, I grieve before I see them and I grieve afterwards and I’m always left to think/feel what is the purpose of it and would it be better off I didn’t see them at all” (S2. FT23).
The Frequency of Misunderstanding ADHD, Autism and Associated Conditions
This theme emerged in six accounts: “School told social services I was mentally ill and making up his autistic traits so he was denied support – apart from respite which made his behaviour worse” (S1. FT21). Another commented: “The social workers have no training in Autism, ADHD yet they are writing reports saying she gets upset after telephone contact so it must be the family causing her distress. When the calls are stopped, her behaviour is just the same. She has autism” (S4.FT37).
Despair, Helplessness, Hopelessness and Resignation
The depth of these emotions is striking (“if the government wants my child I have no choice” – S1.FT59) and there is a sense of being brought as low as possible:
Contact is always so hard, my kids are happy but very confused, huge identity issues and academics have been effected also. Writing letters is a tedious task and serves no real purpose as my kids aren’t told anything I write and aren’t given the photos I send anyway. Just hard all round, I grieve before I see them and I grieve afterwards and I’m always left to think/feel what is the purpose of it and would it be better off I didn’t see them at all (S2.FT23).
As noted earlier there were frequent belittling of or damning references to social workers and social work behaviour, many of these expressed a depth of feeling that social workers were engaged in a personal campaign of vindictiveness against the family or parent (“hell bent on getting my kids” (S3.FT34), “they just like taking babies from vulnerable people” (S4.FT6). The ascribed actions of social workers are unable to be confirmed or denied, as are the claims made in the survey, however the feeling of being the target of individual purposeful malice is strong:
The majority of the time the SW never answered her phone which is ridiculous as I would phone her office saying I’m the child’s mother wanting to speak to her to be told she wasn’t in the office then I’d ring back and ask to talk to her due to a private matter and not stating who I was and she’s answer the phone straight away so she was purposely ignoring my calls (S4.FT38).
Eruptions of invective are undoubtedly common and unavoidable given the adversarial nature of UK child protection processes, however, care needs to be exercised over using these as further evidence of malfeasance on the part of parents.
The idea of having one’s ‘cards marked’ surfaced in the study by Broadhurst and Mason (2020). Parents stressed over never being permitted to be a parent again after a child protection investigation and removal of a child. This surfaced in the survey in brief remarks: “continual lies still held on file” (S1.FT68), “even years later, once statements are proven as false, they remain on file” (S4.FT32) and in despair over feeling never being able to be free of child protection investigation:
I was never told about an investigation, I was allocated a social worker when I moved back to my own area. He had removed my older children years before & said from the start he would have my other children removed from my care (S1.FT25).
The Diminution of Social Capital
Lastly, the survey has uncovered worlds where considerable amounts of time must be taken off work with the prospect of losing a job or a detriment to a career, lost partners, lost friends (“lost a lot of friends as social work wanted to run checks on anyone that came into my house. I have no social life now” Q1. FT2), the inception of poor school-family relations (“assumed by the school that they were abused, but in reality had significant additional needs” 1QFT68), neighbour hostility (“verbally abused”, “partner was labelled a paedophile by neighbours because people were trying to guess why the children had gone” 1Q.FT82) and damage to members of wider family (“it affected my parents’ depression” 1Q. FT27).
The ‘ripple’ effects of a child protection investigation can then be understood as emanating outwards from parent and child to adversely affect relationships with next of kin, friends, neighbours, other universal services such as schools, but also to place a brake on present and future career prospects.
This paper has been designed in two halves that hopefully hold together. What we already know of parents’ experiences of child protection processes and the first survey of these involving Scottish parents. The survey’s limitations have been pointed but nevertheless they provide further weight to, and expand, the themes in the existing literature and as such ought to be afforded attention. The survey analysis has also thrown up items that are less frequent in the literature. These items are offered as potential signposts for future investigation. Taken as a whole it is hoped that the survey has given a platform to people whose voices are rarely heard and opened a window on practices that ought to change for the good of everyone involved in protecting children and supporting families.