Torn from their mothers' arms What are social workers for? Charles Pragnell considers some disturbing cases

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Is social work out of control? This question has again been raised this week with reports of a series of events in Lancashire in which social workers are alleged to have acted intrusively and wrongly towards mothers and children.

Now, more than 60 families have formed an action group,Mothers In Action, each with a story to tell of overt interference by social workers which has often resulted in the parents being separated from their children for long periods. In many cases children have been placed with adoptive parents.

So what is going wrong in Lancashire? The Children Act, which was passed in the wake of the 1987 Cleveland child abuse affair and came into force in October 1991, was supposed to control many of the abuses of power by social workers.

The Act placed duties on social workers to promote the welfare of children and families and to interfere as little as possible in their lives. If social workers have to become involved, then the Act requires that their intervention is minimal to prevent family breakdown and avoid the separation of children from their families.

Even after a child is removed, social workers are required to involve parents, and grandparents where appropriate, in the planning of the child's care and future placement - primarily they should be seeking to restore the child to the family.

And of course in all these decisions social workers are required to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child.

Many of the cases examined in Lancashire, however, indicate that legal principles are not being applied. In fact, in some cases, the law is being used to separate families, and children are being placed with adopters before any reasonable attempts have been made at reunification.

The evidence and versions of events which follow were provided by the families and may not coincide with the recorded perceptions and views of events of social workers.

CASE STUDY 1: A single mother, divorced from a violent former husband, arrived at school one afternoon to collect her eight-year-old son; but he did not appear with the other children.Worried that he might have had an accident, she entered the school, tobe informed that he had been taken away.

She was confronted by social workers and police who accused her of sexually abusing her son and questioned her for many hours. She did not deny that her son occasionally slept in her bed but explained repeatedly that since her son had endured the violence present in her marriage he had become anxious and incontinent during the night, and when his bed was saturated he came to join her in her bed. It is something which probably occurs in thousands of other homes each night throughout the UK.

The situation had arisen when the child had told a schoolfriend about sleeping with his mother in a conversation that was eventually relayed back to the school by another child's parent.

The mother vehemently denied the accusations of sexual impropriety and was extremely upset that such accusations could have been made against her. The social workers refused to believe her and although no charges were ever brought, her son remained in care for five years, during which time she was allowed to see him on only three occasions.

On their first visit he rushed to her and she cuddled him in mutual comfort, only for social workers to separate them and order that they must not touch each other. On other visits social workers constantly supervised and observed them while they were together and intervened immediately if their conversation touched on matters the social workers did not want them to discuss.

For some years social workers repeatedly asked her son leading questions about how often he had sex with his mother, to which he invariably replied, "You're daft, I've never had sex with my mother!"

After three years in care, social workers pressured him to become adopted. He resisted, stating: "I want to go back to my Mum."

This child was not in imminent danger of serious harm, there was no proven case to warrant keeping him in care, and there was a notable absence of any attempts to work in partnership with the mother or the child, whose wishes and feelings were constantlyignored.

CASE STUDY 2: A young mother of 16 years, living with her mother and stepfather, had a baby and decided to keep it. She grew increasingly concerned, however, that she could not find accommodation for herself and her baby, and that her stepfather's drunk

e n sessions at home with various friends were having an effect on the baby.

She asked the social services to look after the baby until she could find accommodation and have the baby back. Her search took longer than she thought and when she sought the baby's return, her request was refused.

Social workers began proceedings for the baby to be adopted. By this time the baby had bonded with the foster family, and this probably influenced legal decisions for her child to be adopted.

Some time later the mother married and was soon expecting another child. This child was removed shortly after birth by social workers, who again placed the child for adoption. She was pregnant again within two years, expecting twins, and this time the social workers arranged an abortion at a hospital. The mother claims this was despite her family doctor disagreeing with such drastic action.

The twins were removed and, after considerable pressure from social workers, the mother was sterilised. The mother is now 28 years old, has lost four children and may never be able to have other children.

Little in this situation seemed to justify the oppressive and almost ruthless actions of the social workers. From the outset they had shown little inclination to support or help the mother, instead actively working to separate her from her children.

CASE STUDY 3: When children are accommodated by local authorities, parents have a right to expect they will be well cared for and protected. This did not happen in this case.

A young mother found she could not cope with the demands of her two young children after she had undergone a serious operation and asked social workers to help while she recuperated.

The children were placed in a foster home; but after three weeks the mother was visited by a social worker and a social work manager who accused her of sexually abusing her small daughter. They questioned her in detail about her sex life, but distorted the information she gave.

It transpired that her four- year-old daughter had developed a vaginal discharge and had begun scratching her genitals because of the irritation. This was construed as "vigorous masturbation" and she was subsequently examined and questioned by a social worker, police officer and the foster parent.

When the mother eventually saw her daughter, she immediately requested a medical examination. This revealed that her daughter was suffering from a vaginal infection, which responded to treatment within a short time.

After finally securing the return of her children, the mother complained to the social services. Her complaint was investigated by the same social work manager who had originally accused her of sexual abuse.

Not unnaturally, she did not feel her complaint was investigated fairly and impartially, so she persevered with her complaints, even unsuccessfully appealing to a Member of Parliament, who clearly did not wish to become involved.

Eventually, she was able to take her case to a Review Panel, where her complaints were upheld, but she received only a partial apology from the social services. No disciplinary action has been taken against the social workers.

The families involved with and seeking help from Mothers in Action are growing daily. From the evidence so far gathered by MIA there is already sufficient to warrant a full public inquiry into these events.

In the longer term, there is certainly an increasingly powerful argument for a Children's Ombudsman. We must also examine how we assert better and more effective control over the activities of social workers. This could most effectively be done by a system of national registration and discipline where families could take their assertions of misconduct and malpractice, and if these are proven, social workers could be removed from practice.

The writer is a social work consultant. He is a former senior manager of social work and is the The Independent consultant on Channel 4's `Dispatches', to be shown tomorrow night at 9pm.

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