Oft goes the cry ‘Social Services should take that child into care’; or ‘parents like that shouldn’t be allowed to have children’ – though I doubt that you would find too many children who have been ‘in care’ echoing the demands. They know the reality, and it can be a long way from the ideal of the wooly minded Liberals – that you can pay individuals, and suitably regulate them, to provide a semblance of normal life when parents fall short of the ideal.
A judgment has been published which lays bare – to those used to reading the sometimes obtuse words of the legal profession – what actually occurs. I shall do my best to put it into plain English.
I shall call the young lady ‘Sally’; it will make the tale easier to follow than the usual alphabet soup of initials.
Sally grew up in a rumbustious, chaotic household as one of seven children; shortly to become eight. She had a step-father, who appears to be the Father of the five children who followed her and who has always played the role of parent. Not a million miles away from Rochdale as it happens.
She wasn’t an easy child to care for, she could be difficult; but when you are fighting for attention amongst six others it pays to be argumentative and assertive. As she grew into her teenage years, Sally frequently fell out with her parents.
‘Something’ occurred, nobody knows what, for Sally resolutely refuses to discuss the matter, on a school trip when she was 14. Her behaviour grew more rebellious and Sally would tell you that a year later her Mother resorted to physical violence after one argument. Whether this was a slap on the face or more serious, we don’t know – but Sally turned to Social Services and demanded to be helped to leave home.
Social Services swung into action and provided her with food and accommodation, and money to deal with the usual causes of teenage angst – the need for specialist shampoo to make your hair thicker/thinner/curlier/straighter and the cream to rid you of that bright red spot firmly in the centre of your chin; all of which may seem trivial to you, but are of earth shattering importance when you are 14.
That she was ‘deemed to be a ‘looked after child’ pursuant to s20 of The Children’s Act 1989′ was no doubt of intense interest to the army of Social Workers, CAFCASS senior officers, Children’s Guardians and Local Authority Solicitors who spend their life at case conferences swopping acronyms over a pot of coffee. An army of law students will be in despair as they are forced to pore over the minutiae of Her Honour Judge Singleton’s painstaking judgement for their Family Law exam, the citation will be quoted in endless academic articles fulfilling the need for university Professors to keep up their ‘peer reviewed publication’ rate – all that will have mattered to Sally was whether the shampoo that Social Services now paid for did in fact make her hair thicker/thinner/curlier/straighter and whether that spot was really disappearing or not.
Anybody with teenage daughters will know how narrow their horizons are at 14. I doubt that she ever questioned who was paying for the shampoo.
Meanwhile, Sally’s ‘argumentative and rebellious’ nature was taking on darker connotations, she was self harming; psychiatrists were called in and decided that she was suffering from an ’emerging emotionally unstable personality disorder of the borderline type’ – or as her Mother might have put it, had turned into an impossible to handle ‘right little cow’…leading to her being detained for assessment under s.2 of the Mental Health Act and then to detention under s.3 of the Mental Health Act for treatment.
So Sally moved from one soulless room to another soulless room in a different building – and along the way she did tell people that she would be a lot happier if she could see her brothers and her sisters – for all their alleged faults as parents, they had brought up a family of close siblings – and she went on washing her hair, as teenage girls do.
Until one day, the bottle of shampoo ran out, and whilst she was complaining about that, for to a teenage girl it must be someones fault, she complained that she still hadn’t seen her family of brothers and sisters and when was someone going to bring that army of youngsters to see her?
That empty bottle of shampoo has given birth to endless case conferences, engaged an army of lawyers and the finest legal brains. It was beyond the wit of the combined forces of Social Services, the NHS, District Judges, High Court Judges, the Local Authority and a bucket load of children’s guardians to solve.
Once upon a time, a practical person would have taken a quid out of the office biscuit fund, and pausing only to load the remaining siblings into their battered car and drop into the chemist shop on the way to see Sally and give her what she needed and wanted – a couple of hours with her brothers and sisters, and a flipping bottle of shampoo.
Instead of which, she has ended up with a copy of a 51 paragraph judgement that will have been double dutch to her and useless in terms of straightening/curling hair or having a giggle with her little brother as aids to ‘getting better’.
The judgement ends with the (possibly) forlorn wish that publication of it will end the legal impasse by which Local Authorities believe that their difficult ‘charges’ are no longer their responsibility once they are subject to s.3 of the Mental Health Act rather than s.20 or even s.17 of the Children’s Act. In the words of the judgement:
It seems to me right that the plight of children who are subject to both the Mental Health Act because they are ill and need to be detained for treatment and to the Children Act because they are likely to suffer significant harm attributable to being out of control or by reason of parental default is one that should be brought to the public attention.
None of those sections are of the slightest use whatsoever when you are having a ‘bad hair day’ and you miss your brothers and sisters – which is what really matters to Sally – now 16 and still waiting for the situation to resolve.