U.K.: Child Takings for ‘Risk of Emotional Harm’ Increasing

September 16, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

It’s not just the camel’s nose that’s inside the tent; now the whole smelly beast is living with us.  It’s eating our food and drinking our wine.  How long before it asks us to leave our own tent?  How long after that will it be before it simply shoves us out?

I refer of course to child protective authorities.  What began as a laudable effort to protect children from abusive parents has become a multi-billion dollar industry that grows larger every year.  To do that, it’s had to identify an ever-increasing number of parental behaviors that qualify as abuse.  Or neglect.  Or the risk of abuse.  Or the risk of neglect.  Or emotional harm.  Or the risk of emotional harm (The Guardian, 9/14/18).

It appears that the number of children being subjected to state oversight of their upbringing has been increasing in the U.K. and the major justification for that is “emotional harm” or the risk thereof.

The number of children put on to local authority care plans because their parents have been accused of emotional abuse has soared over the past decade, research has found, amid warnings that some families are being broken up without justification.

Analysis of national care statistics shows that the use of “emotional abuse” as a reason for starting a child protection plan has increased by 164% since 2007-8.

Unsurprisingly, the increase in findings of emotional abuse or the risk thereof isn’t evenly distributed.  The poor and less-educated, as usual, bear the brunt of the state’s interventions.

Andy Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, who compiled the statistics, said the chance of a parent being found to have emotionally abused their child depended on where they lived. “There’s a postcode lottery which means children in some areas of the country are at much higher risk of being taken into care for emotional abuse than they are if they live somewhere else,” he said.

Just as predictably, authorities seem to believe that families should be broken up, not because of what has happened, but because of what they say they believe might happen in the future.

The use of “risk of emotional harm” as a reason for applying to a court for a care order before any harm has happened has become increasingly contentious as care numbers have risen.

How is “emotional harm” defined?  How is “risk of emotional harm” defined?  The article doesn’t say, but I’d be very surprised if the definitions are in the least rigorous.  Here in the U.S., children supposedly must have been actually subjected to abuse or neglect in order for CPS to step in.  But of course even those fairly easy to understand terms are routinely expanded in individual cases or ignored altogether.  The point being that, if that can happen when terms are reasonably clear, imagine what can happen when they’re muddy and amorphous.

But, as is usual with child protective authorities, the question is whether state intervention makes matters better or worse.  It is the tendency of caseworkers to, when in doubt, intervene.  As a practical matter, that means taking children out of their homes and away from their parents (and often from their siblings).  Doing so is emotionally traumatic for children even when the circumstances of their home lives require it.  Because of that trauma, caseworkers should be extremely cautious about taking children from their parents.  That should be done only when it’s clear the parents are abusive or incapable of caring properly for their kids. 

But inevitably, it becomes more than that.  Cases thereof are legion.  Children are taken from parents because the adults allowed them to walk to a nearby park by themselves, because, under Mom’s watchful eye, they were allowed to play in a cul-de-sac, because they had to walk across a driveway to access sanitary facilities.  And on, and on, and on.

That children may suffer emotional distress at home does not justify state authorities ensuring that they suffer emotional distress by taking them from that home and lodging them with strangers.  And yet, that is what is going on in the U.K.

…Bilson said many families were suffering without reason.

“There were nearly 120,000 investigations last year in England that didn’t lead to a child protection plan, so there’s a lot of collateral damage going on here,” he said. “It’s not just that we’ve had more findings of emotional abuse, it’s that we’ve had a huge increase in investigations that don’t lead to any child protection concerns.”

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