UNDER SCRUTINY: Some black parents feel they have been unfairly targeted by child protection services resulting in their children being taken away
IT IS a nightmare for any parent who is told that their child has a terminal or life-threatening illness.
For the parents of five-year-old Ashya King, who has a brain tumour, their nightmare worsened when they were excluded in the decision for their son’s treatment and were thrown into prison when they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Their experience has since sparked a debate about the rights of parents and the power of child protection services.
Parent-of-two *Sarah, who was subjected to a child protection investigation after she called the NHS Direct service a number of times seeking advice over the well-being of her son, believes there is a lack of common sense and communication within the system.
She said: “The situation was that my son had started having convulsions. He had the first fit while in hospital and he had been admitted on the following occasions when he was ill, so they knew about his condition. Yet they concluded that my calls for advice were a signal that I was abusing my child.”
The concerned mother added: “All I was doing was trying to protect my son, but I was treated like a criminal and it took months and a great deal of stress, before I could sort it out. And I really wondered if it had something to do with my strong Caribbean accent and this perception that black people abuse their children.
“In the end they got an independent party to listen to my calls and concluded that I was just a concerned mother. But I know of other families who were not so lucky and whose children ended up being taken away from them, not because they are bad parents, but because of misunderstandings or the way they are perceived.”
According to The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), there has been a record number of applications for children to be put in care in recent years. There were 10,255 in 2011/12 and 11,109 in 2012/13.
REALITY: Concerned social worker Sylvia Smith
Other statistics show that black children and those of mixed heritage are more likely than any other race to be subjected to child protection measures and who end up in the care system.
Joy Warmington, director of the equalities organisation Brap, said this is not a new problem for the black community.
She added: “The incident involving Ashya King may have highlighted certain issues around child protection, but this is a problem that’s been with us for years. Around 2004, for example, black children were twice as likely to be looked after by local authorities than the makeup of the population might suggest. A decade on, this is still largely the case.”
Mor Dioum, head of the Victoria Climbie Foundation, said culture and faith is one explanation for the disparity. “No culture or faith should override the protection of the child, but we cannot ignore the issues of faith and culture. What we have seen is children being removed because of a lack of understanding of the family’s cultural practices.
“For example, in some cultures it is normal to speak loudly, but this is often perceived as shouting at children and can be classed as abuse.”
He added: “Racism is also a big problem, people have talked about it but no one has come forward to address it.”
But social worker Sylvia Smith feels that the black community “needs to take some responsibility and to examine our child rearing practices”.
She explained: “I am not saying perception of certain communities is not an issue, but I think today in areas where there is a larger black population; there is also a significant number of black social workers practising. And this increased diversity within the profession has come a long way in providing the insight into minority communities.”
ORDEAL: Parents Brett, left, and Nagheme King, right, with their son Ashya
Smith said: “I have had to deal with some very difficult cases where there is so much dysfunction and abuse that the only thing to do is to remove the child.”
She explained further that “there are practices within African and Caribbean families such as those based on the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ principle, and I think parents have to understand that they have to be careful how they apply those beliefs to parenting, because abusing a child will get them into a whole heap of trouble.”
But Warmington says the reasons behind the overrepresentation of black children in care are “complex”.
She said: “In our experience, practice varies from council to council. In some local authorities, for example, it is clear that parents in particular families (i.e. non-white or working class) come under more scrutiny than others. In other areas the problem is almost the reverse – the actions of individuals and communities are ignored and dismissed out of hand, sometimes because of fear of being accused of discrimination, and also because of our mistaken belief that cultural practices are acceptable even if they lead to the harm of children or abuse of their rights.”
Warmington added: “However, all these communities do have one thing in common: poverty. Black children are more likely than other groups to live in low-income families and this means they face the challenges associated with that – poor health outcomes, a lack of a support network, the stress and strain of living with unemployment, and so on. We need to solve these problems if we’re ever to see equality in terms of child protection.”
*Name has been changed