Monday, July 21, 2014

What I think about the LSCB report into the case of Family W as it relates to the law relating to home education.

The report is here [pdf]; the Serious Case Review 'overview' is here [pdf] and there are news stories on the case here in the Guardian and here on the BBC.

I think what went wrong with regard to child protection procedures in this case is best summed up in the first two sentences of the BBC report:

The authorities missed opportunities to intervene in the case of a mother who forced her adopted child to impregnate herself so that she could have another child, a serious case review has found.

Social services were contacted four times with concerns before the 17-year-old girl gave birth to a son.

And again in the Guardian one:

On four occasions social services were alerted over concerns about the children's welfare but on each found no immediate child protection concerns. On two of those occasions, a neighbour, worried about the children's isolation and the mother's shouting and swearing, had called. On another, the mother's GP raised concerns about who was looking after the children when the mother was admitted to hospital for a month.

The local authority was also alerted by an anonymous acquaintance who wrote to agencies and officials in the country from which the mother was seeking to adopt a fourth child, apparently raising concerns over her suitability. This ultimately resulted in her being denied approval. The court heard there were also questions over whether the third adoption had been legal, or if it had flouted international loopholes.

It really could not be clearer that - after the adoptive mother - the local authority is firmly in the hot seat in respect of failures in its duty of care towards these children. Social services alerted on no less than four occasions, and insufficient action taken.

So, what does the Local Safeguarding Children Board do? Use the case to call for a change in the law on home education, in an attempt to shift the blame onto that for its own mistakes.

Were it not for the fact that reports like these are probably used to lobby governments to follow through on such ridiculous suggestions, they would be far better treated with the contempt they deserve but as they are, it seems some sort of response is in order, of which I'm sure mine won't be the only one.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that all three children were adopted from abroad, and that the mother tried to adopt a fourth, but was turned down in the adoption procedure. So there was a reason she was turned down (the 'anonymous acquaintance' mentioned in the Guardian) and she presumably underwent scrutiny by an adoption panel for the first three children. This was not, therefore, a family who was completely unknown to the authorities.

Point 1.5 states:

The LSB is concerned that as identified in the SCR the current legal framework provides serious limitations upon the degree to which local authorities can lawfully and effectively investigate to establish the suitability of the education being provided to home educated children, and so also be aware of any child protection issues which may arise from the nature of the education and the home in which it is being provided.

So I agree with this statement, but disagree that the situation should be changed. The LA had *four alarms* about this family prior to the birth of child D and the weird behaviour of the adoptive mother which finally triggered its action. Blaming the law on home education for limiting its ability to carry out its duties after that degree of failure just reeks of spiteful blame-shifting I'm afraid.

The legal procedures for child safeguarding are in place and are perfectly adequate - the Serious Case Reviews prove this again and again and again. They just aren't - in these Serious Cases - properly executed by the authorities. What is needed is not a change in the law, but better training of social workers and other officials to apply the law and guidance to good effect.

2.4 The older children are articulate and literate. It is a fact though that prior to their removal into care neither had achieved any formal qualifications at an age they would be expected to do so. In particular by the time of the birth of D, by which time ordinarily she might have been sitting "A" levels, A had no qualifications at all, even at GCSE level, despite subsequently being assessed as being in the intellectually gifted range.

Having no qualifications is NOT an indication of a failure in the education provision. As this report itself later states:

a "suitable" education is one that "primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so".

Neither statute nor case law say anything about the compulsory taking of GCSEs or A levels. I have particular interest in this point, since my three now adult children all opted out of taking GCSEs and A levels, preferring to continue pursuing their own individual learning paths. On reaching adulthood, one set up his own IT company, one used his self-taught skill with the Russian language to become a translator and one used her experiences as a home educated child to become the local home education nanny. All three are self-supporting and extremely well equipped for a life within the community of which they are members and their future options to do other things are not foreclosed due to lack of qualifications, which they can take at any time they wish.

Had they been forcibly diverted from their own individual paths of study in order to take GCSEs and/or A levels against their wishes, this would have impeded their chosen goals: to be an IT expert, a translator and a nanny. They may have still achieved their goals in one form or another, but these would have been much delayed due to unnecessary unrelated coursework.

So no more about lack of qualifications indicating lack of suitability please, safeguarding boards.

The points in section 2.6 just scream to me "School Attendance Order":

2.6 The degree to which M was offering "suitable" or "efficient" education to her adopted children is highly likely to have been impeded given the following factors described in the judgments of the civil court:

  • The significant over reliance upon A to care for her youngest adopted sister C
  • The significant amount of time that was taken by M in seeking to adopt children, including travelling for extensive periods with A and B to the country of C's birth in order to adopt C
  • The occasions when M either left A or C alone in order to holiday with B (travelling to Arizona, for which she was later to be convicted of child cruelty)
  • The period in which M was hospitalised in 2009, leaving the children alone for weeks without any arrangement for their education.

The authorities were aware of every single one of these - or should have been - and yet failed to set in motion the process for issuing a School Attendance Order.

I don't actually think this would have solved the problem. As the report itself later admits:

attendance at school is no guarantee of a child's safety

and these children obviously needed far more intervention than a School Attendance Order. Which proves my next point: that education and welfare cannot - canNOT - sensibly be conflated. Education neither causes nor prevents child abuse and the same is true for schooled children as it is for home educated ones. The two issues are treated differently in law and should be treated differently and separately by local authorities.

2.8 This dreadful scheme was instigated and controlled by the sole person responsible for the children's education, and took place in the same environment in which they were in receipt of elective home education.

Where do I start with this?

Firstly, the sole person responsible for a child's education is always the parent. Sending a child to school only delegates that function, but it doesn't absolve the parent of the duty according to Section 7 of the Education Act:

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable —

(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

That's the parent, not the local authority. Would the child safeguarding boards really like to overturn that responsibility, given all of the legal repercussions that would cause?

Secondly, it might be called home education but many home educated children are actually mostly educated at groups and activities and venues and in the car and at the bus stop and in the supermarket aisle and so on and so forth.

Thirdly, two unrelated things happening in the same space can't be said to impact each other just because they happened in the same space. If I eat a delicious meal in the same room as someone was murdered, the murder doesn't taint the food. I do kind of take the point that a woman who was capable of coercing her adoptive child to be artificially inseminated to produce another adoptive child for herself to raise should not have been home educating, but then again I don't think she should have been parenting either. And there are procedures in place to remedy this, and enough information was known to the authorities to set them in motion.

Also if my point there was the one the report wanted to make, it should have made that point instead of coming up with nonsensical ideas about "environment".

3.1 ...................

"This was of course a key issue in this case. A and B were "off the radar" until they were twelve and eleven yeas old, when the first child protection referral was made."

3.2 Thus it appears that there was no opportunity for any evaluation of the suitability of the home education being provided until A and B were already of secondary school age, by which time it is now known that they and their youngest adoptive sibling C had already experienced significant harm in M's care.

If there were issues regarding their well being, these should have been pursued. The education could have been looked into then, since there would also have been reason to believe the provision was unsuitable - as per section 437 of the education act:

(1)If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.

Back to the report. I am now onto the section which looks at the law pertaining to home education.

4.11 Firstly if children have never attended school local authorities may not be aware of their existence:

"Parents are not required to register or seek approval from the local authority to educate their children at home."

This is increasingly less likely to be the case and needn't be at all. The local authority keeps databases of school attendance or has access to them. It can also easily acquire access to child benefit data. Put the two together and you have the children not attending school. The authorities can therefore very easily be made aware of their existence. Indeed, it has a duty to ascertain this "so far as it is possible to do so" set out in the unfortunate Section 436A of the Education Act:

(1)A local education authority must make arrangements to enable them to establish (so far as it is possible to do so) the identities of children in their area who are of compulsory school age but -

(a) are not registered pupils at a school, and

(b) are not receiving suitable education otherwise than at a school.

And as the report goes on to explain, the associated Children Missing Education Guidance [pdf] directs local authorities to the home education guidance in the case of (b) above. And it's with the home education guidance [pdf] that it has a problem.

And yet this guidance does extrapolate the law on home education very well. Even this report does not dispute it. So it is essentially calling for a change in the law.

4.17 The issue arises how the suitability of home education can be established if a parent does not wish to voluntarily enter into a dialogue which allows the authority to properly verify the suitability of the education using methodology which goes beyond accepting what the home educator indicates at face value.

The local authority must wait, as the law and guidance tells it to, until it has cause to believe the education might not be suitable. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, because section 7 makes parents and not the local authority responsible for the child's education. And parental decisions enshrined in law cannot be constantly second guessed by officials or there would be no parenting left to be done. Secondly, those about whose provision there are no concerns would never be able to provide our children with individually tailored and focused provision if we had to keep taking time out to convince the local authority of its suitability, thirdly we should be innocent until proven guilty, and fourthly there are already sufficient legal remedies for child abuse, which only need to be correctly followed!

4.19 This leaves local authorities with the unfortunate conundrum that where home education is said to be being provided, they are required to intervene if there is reason to believe that the education provided to the child is "unsuitable or inefficient", but under the Guidelines such reasons can only be established in the first place if there is already evidence of this. As described above, such evidence must apparently be discovered without having monitored the education provided, without having a right of access to the child, and without having a right of access to the home in which they are being educated.

They don't need to get evidence from monitoring. Concerns about home education provision can come to local authorities from a variety of sources, often relatives, neighbours and other acquaintances. And it stands to reason that if there are concerns about the child's welfare, the suitability of their home education provision might also be in doubt, which *should* trigger the section 437 response described above. The fact that the law was not properly applied in this case does not logically mean the law therefore needs to be changed.

As for having a right of access to the home and the child to assess the educational provision, this is madness. Educational provision is just that. It can be set out on paper, described in a meeting, over the phone or on a website. It does not need to be tested and verified by inspections of the home and the child unless the author of this report is asserting that no parent is ever to be trusted and that the word of parents is always to be disbelieved as a matter of course. Luckily, the law disagrees and so we live in a relatively sane society not a crazy Orwellian one. Or not quite.

4.20 This means that unless local authorities have grounds for monitoring of the child on child protection grounds, there are no powers to insist on entry to the home for an evaluation of the suitability of their education.

What's with this obsession for entering our homes? Should all families have their homes inspected for signs of child abuse? Should the contents of everyone's fridge be evaluated for nutritional suitability? Their beds for the thread count in the sheets? I am starting to think that the authors of this report would wish it could be so. Armies of people given free and open access to officially evaluate people in their homes like the Stasi. It's quite chilling.

4.21 It is also clear that the legal duty upon local authorities to "safeguard and promote the welfare of children" under the Education Act 2002 "does not bestow on local authorities the ability to see and question children subject to elective home education in order to establish whether they are receiving a suitable home education"

Yes. Amazingly, the law states we parents should be believed unless there is reason to think we might be lying. And our children can be protected from routine interrogation by official too. Hallelujah!

4.27 The nature of what is considered suitable is extremely flexible as identified at paragraph 2.9 above. The current Guidelines indicate that in their consideration of parents' provision of education at home -

Local authorities may reasonably expect the provision to include the following characteristics:

  • consistent involvement of parents or other significant cares
  • recognition of the child's needs, attitudes and aspirations
  • opportunity for the child to be stimulated by their learning experiences
  • access to resources/materials required to provide home education for the child - such as paper and pens, books and libraries, arts and crafts materials, physical activity, ICT and
  • the opportunity for appropriate interaction with other children and other adults.

4.28 It is unclear however how local authorities can properly resolve whether or not these elements are in place without any independent verification. Currently local authorities are expected to consider these matters on the basis of a paper report provided by the home educator alone.

Yes. We are innocent until proven guilty. We are not all automatically under perpetual suspicion of mendacity.

5.2 The LSCB considers that the current statutory framework hampers the capacity of local authorities to exercise effectively their primary function to protect children from harm, including the harm to their development which arises from an unsuitable education. The limited nature of the legislation in this area effectively acts as a straightjacket on local authorities where there is not yet a referral which meets the criteria to justify an investigation of a child's welfare under the Children Act 1989

Some local authorities (with the evident exception of the one discussed in this report!) apparently need to be straightjacketed when it comes to protecting children from harm, when there is no suspicion that any harm is occurring.

The report itself earlier admits that

5.1 The premise of this report is not that parents who home educate their children are prone to abuse their children, or that the nature of home education is abusive. The premise of this report is that as with society as a whole a very small minority of parents are abusive, and that this is likely to be the case irrespective of whether a child attends school, or is educated at home.

So we have effective child protection procedures for all children, which - when exercised properly - provide the best protection for children whilst balancing this with our article 8 "right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence."

5.7 The issue for local authorities is how within the constraints of the law they can have sufficient information to trigger the power under Section 437 Education Act 1996

No. The issue for local authorities is how they can follow the law when there are no good reasons not to. They should have set in process the Section 437 action directly upon receiving the referral in 2007 and evidently did not. Was it because this is a bit arduous and they could not be bothered?

5.12 In the area of the local authority with responsibility for A, B and C, almost one in five referrals which lead to the assessment of children by Children's Services under the powers conferred by Section 17 and Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 arises from referrals from schools.

Only one in five? 20%! So 80% of such referrals come from sources other than school - sources just as likely to report on home educating families. Indeed, one could argue that they are more likely to report on home educating families since these are often out in school hours and thereby attracting special attention to themselves.

5.13 If children are not in school, are not given access to adults beyond those selected by their abusive parent, are rarely seen by other public agencies with a duty to promote their welfare, and only then in the presence of an abusive parent, it is clear that there is effectively little if any means to evaluate their welfare beyond the hope of a child protection referral from a member of the public.

And yet, since 80% of referrals come from non-school sources, it seem there is a very high hope of a child protection referral from a member of the public. Indeed, the children in Family W were subject to no less than four such referrals, none of which was sufficiently acted upon.

5.16 This approach whilst correct in so far as the parents' legal right to refuse access is concerned, is contrary to the usual safeguarding approaches, where (informed by decades of research) refusal to allow access to a home or child may very well heighten concern. This is made more acute because, under the framework described above, the request to see the home or children may very well only be occurring after local authorities already have reason to believe that the education being provided may not be suitable.

But a Section 17/47 action involving social workers and always on receipt of child welfare concerns has a completely different status to that of a request for information about home education provision, and so it should. I agree that a refusal by parents to allow access to the home or child after welfare concerns have been expressed and particularly in the case of section 47 possibly should heighten concern. But this is after concerns have been reported. A common and initial request for information on the educational provision for a child comes before concerns have been reported. The first denotes a healthy function of the state (although it worries me that we seem to rely increasingly on the state to perform it in our ever fragmenting society) and the second would effectively relate to a police state. It's a subtle but important difference and one which I hope the LSCBs can soon master.

5.19 The sad reality is that abusive parents have a vested interest in restricting access to their home.

We ALL have a vested interest in restricting access to our homes! These are supposed to be safe and peaceful havens for our families, which are essential to our health and well being, hence this being enshrined in human rights law. Inspections and interrogations are invasive and damaging to our peaceful family lives and to use these as part of a screening process is abusive in itself. The ends do not justify the means. And anyway, Eunice Spry the abusive, home educating foster mother had annual visits from local authority officers seeking information on her educational provision in which the children were seen, and the abuse was still not detected by them. So unrestricted access to our homes is not only a breach of our families' Article 8 rights, it has also been shown to be utterly ineffective in detecting abuse.