Herefordshire Council children’s services and other agencies were heavily criticised this week by an independent panel of experts convened by children’s inspector Eleanor Brazil.

What distinguished this from the many previously critical official reports was that this gave the opportunity for families involved to put on record their own experiences with the department.

In the event 20 people, including one child, gave their testimony. Here is what they had to say.

  • When families reached out to the council for help with difficulties at home, they were “met with coldness, at times hostility” by agencies treating their problems as a child safeguarding issue.
    “They didn’t understand I needed a break,” one parent said. “I lost them forever instead.”
  • This meant the police were often involved early on in cases. But officers were accused of “being judgemental, abusive to wider family members, not showing any empathy or understanding”, and reducing one recently bereaved family member to tears.
  • No attempt was made to ask the children themselves what they wanted. “My children’s voices have never been listened to,” one parent said.
  • “Rapid” family separation often meant children put unsuitable placements “with extended family the child(ren) did not get on with, or with family members who had their own challenges, or who didn’t have the child(ren)’s best interest at heart”, with siblings in some cases separated, against court orders.
  • These drastic actions impacted on children’s wellbeing and development, with “toddlers stopping talking, teenagers’ mental health deteriorating, and some children exhibiting self-harm behaviours and/or suicidal thoughts”, the report said.
  • Parents were given documents to sign with little explanation, which were later used against them. “I was hoodwinked into S20 [an agreement temporarily relinquishing care of a child] and then a Care Order,” one said.
  • Families’ records were sloppily maintained, with “significant” factual inaccuracies remaining even when challenged, which one parent put down to “laziness… a cut-and-paste culture”.
  • Professionals cast any evidence from parents in a negative light, with one who admitted drinking too much labelled an alcoholic; another who admitted once taking an illegal substance, a drug addict; while a third was labelled aggressive for asking too many questions – labels which “would follow them through the system” including into court proceedings.
  • Children’s services failed to take account of abusive relationships that underlay family problems. “I was told I had to support contact [with the other, abusive parent] or it would be taken very seriously,” one parent said.
  • Social workers regularly gave parents “false hope” by telling them children would return home on a certain date, or that they could see children for a birthday or Christmas, “for it then not to happen”.
  • Parents were “fobbed off” when they attempted to complaints to Herefordshire Council, whose complaints procedure was described by one as “a toothless tiger”.
  • Parents did however praise the role of some agencies – schools, GPs, charities, along with “pockets of good practice” among social workers themselves. But this was “the exception rather than the norm”.

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