Special Edition Thomas Croft & Diana Skelton

Poverty, the right to family life, and the need for poverty-aware guidelines for child protection policy and practice

All of us want children to grow up with a sense of belonging, connection, and roots. And yet in Britain today, more children are being removed from their families and put into care than at any time since the 1980s[1] when policymakers began to argue that families should be kept together and the removal of children should be a last resort.[2] Children and families in poverty, especially those suffering from multiple disadvantages, are significantly more likely to be the subject of state intervention in the form of child protection investigations and care proceedings than those not living in poverty.[3] Children in the UK’s most deprived communities are over 10 times more likely to enter the care system than those from the most affluent areas.[4]

Poverty leads entire families to feel neglected by an austerity-based society rife with inequality and discrimination. At a recent symposium run by Royal Holloway University of London[5], a parent activist from ATD Fourth World, Lareine Kenmogne, described how the pandemic has amplified the challenges of parenting in poverty, beginning with the increased costs of groceries, heating and internet during a year with children mostly schooled from home. The financial insecurity exacerbated by these costs can lead to situations that she called “invasive, degrading and humiliating. […] You feel like you have to do something; and at the same time you feel like you shouldn’t be doing it. Because of the situation, you are forced to feel shameless”.

A year into this pandemic, virtually everyone is struggling with unending uncertainty, loss of normal social interactions, and constant fear of the future. In the face of these hardships, parents in poverty have even fewer resources than others. Lareine laments the psychological effects of lock-down on children:

The knots of anger just build up inside them. […] With nowhere to go and no choices, they feel forgotten. They lose hope. […] The whole family loses good habits of family dialogue. […] We would do anything for our children; we just need help. My social worker has said, ‘Sorry, we have no funding, my hands are tied’. Please can I know: why are you here if you can’t help me? If you can’t give any support, the situation will deteriorate. A lot of us are left abandoned, and good parents and children pay the ultimate price.

Families that ATD Fourth World supports perceive the majority of child protection interventions as hostile, unfair and extremely damaging to the well-being of the whole family; this experience is reflected in various studies.[6] There is also a clear link between the number of children entering the UK’s care system and the rising rate of forced non-consensual closed adoption.[7] Closed adoption means direct contact between the adopted child and their birth family is severed.[8] Such a link suggests that the UK’s poorest families also bear the brunt of this draconian measure, something which is backed up in our experience on the ground supporting families in severe poverty.

Despite children being taken into care at a record rate, the numbers of cases where parents are accused of physical or sexual abuse of their children are falling.[9] The surge in child protection investigations, which have more than doubled since 2008[10], consists of large increases in the number of accusations of neglect and of emotional harm. Together, these two categories of abuse account for over 80% of child protection investigations. However, indicators of neglect are often conflated with indicators of poverty. Within the child protection system, both neglect and emotional harm are too often seen through the prism of parental failings, rather than through a lens which seeks to understand how the structural, psychological and social dimensions of poverty impact harmfully on family life.[11] Moreover, tackling poverty and inequality is often not seen as the ‘core business’ for child protection workers or policy makers. Instead, in the context of individualised neo-liberal discourse, poverty can also be used as a further source of blame.[12] This invariably leads to more hostile interventions where parental failings are spotlighted and parents are under enormous pressure to evidence change, with little attention given to what it means to parent in poverty.

The impact of this regime on the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable families and children is catastrophic in terms of the lasting emotional and psychological harm that it causes. Much greater scrutiny and debate in the UK is needed on the link between poverty, marginalisation, and state intervention in family life. This debate must include the voices of children and parents in chronic and persistent poverty who are disproportionately affected by the UK’s care crisis. However, the voices, experiences, and knowledge of families living in poverty involved in the child protection system are mostly ignored by both policy makers and social work practitioners. Moreover, most of the academic research exploring the links between social inequality and child protection involvement tends to be quantitative and overlooks the knowledge and agency of parents and children involved in the system.

The Terms of reference for the independent review of children’s social care state that “the review should consider the capacity and capability of the system to support and strengthen families in order to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily”. It is parents like Lareine, with lived experience of poverty, who can help social care professionals understand what kinds of support families need most. In addition to volunteering with ATD Fourth World, Lareine is part of the Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN). This network is led by parent activists who have experience with building peer support and offering parent-to-parent advocacy to struggling parents. Most of the allies in PFAN are social workers who choose to be led by parents in striving to develop more progressive and supportive approaches. Last fall, PFAN carried out research for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory about how parents in poverty are experiencing remote family court hearings during the pandemic. During the aforementioned RHUL symposium on Inequality and Rights, PFAN parent activist Taliah Drayak said:

These parents spent the pandemic trying to jump through hoops to meet the needs of their children, sometimes to impossible heights. Some were required to attend support groups that closed or moved inaccessibly online. Others were meant to complete courses that inexplicably ended without final assessments needed to fulfil their responsibilities, leaving these parents unable to continue taking the steps needed to achieve the best outcome for their families. Families are the building blocks of our communities, of our country; and yet, to be with your child is a privilege we deny many parents in this country. […] We need to ensure that our most vulnerable people, our children AND their families receive the support and care they need to thrive. […] And we must address the many factors the broaden the divide and continue to marginalize and keep people impoverished.

It’s a matter of justice that we owe support and protection to families in poverty, and in particular to ensure that children are able to maintain relationships with loving parents. When children are removed into care, damage is done over decades, not only to parental relationships but often also to their bonds with siblings and other relatives.

Sir James Munby, lately President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales. Speaking during a Royal Holloway University of London Symposium,[13] he said:

It is, unhappily, notorious that the State – I say the State, for local authorities are not provided with financial support sufficient to meet their needs and the needs of the children for whom they are responsible – is failing far too many of the children in its care. These serious failings are the subject of increasing concern and frustration by judges and increasing criticism in the media. I do not shrink from saying [that these] are serious failings by the State, failings which increasingly put into question our right to call ourselves civilised and compassionate.

To become civilised and compassionate, and to remove the barriers to justice currently affecting socially and economically vulnerable families engaged in the UK’s child protection system, we need to bring social work practitioners and academics together with parents like Lareine, Taliah and others with experience in the child protection system in order to co-produce and facilitate the implementation of poverty-aware guidelines for child protection policy and practice.

Thomas Croft and Diana Skelton

ATD Fourth World

[1]     Curtis, P., “The Poor Parents”, Tortoise Media, 27 April 2019.

[2]     “The troubling surge in English children being taken from their parents”, The Economist, 22 March 2018.

[3]     Morris, K., Mason, W., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., Daniel, B., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Hooper, J., Mirza, N., Scourfield, J. and Webb, C. (2018) ‘Social work, poverty, and child welfare interventions’, Child & Family Social Work, 23(3), pp.364-372.

[4]     McNicoll, A., “Children in poorest areas more likely to enter care”, Community Care, 28 February 2017.

[5]     ‘Inequality and Rights – Contemporary Challenges in the Child Protection and Family Justice Systems before and during the Pandemic’, held remotely on 16 March 2021.

[6]     Smithson, R., & Gibson, M. (2017). ‘Less than human: A qualitative study into the experience of parents involved in the child protection system.’ Child & Family Social Work, 22(2), 565-574.

[7]     Bilson, A., & Munro, E. H. (2019). ‘Adoption and child protection trends for children aged under five in England: Increasing investigations and hidden separation of children from their parents’. Children and Youth
Services Review, 96, 204-211.

[8]     Featherstone, B., Gupta, A. and Mills, S. (2018) ‘The role of the social worker in adoption – ethics and
human rights: An Enquiry’, BASW

[9]     Department of Education, “Characteristics of children in need: 2018 to 2019 England”, 31 October 2019.

[10]  Bilson, A. “Future emotional harm: the statistics”, The Transparency Project. 

[11]  Gupta, A. (2017). ‘Poverty and child neglect –- the elephant in the room?’ Families, Relationships and Societies, 6(1), 21-36.

[12]  Saar-Heiman, Y., & Gupta, A. (2020). ‘The Poverty-Aware Paradigm for child protection: A critical framework for policy and practice.’ The British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 1167-1184

[13]  Munby’s speech will be made available on the Royal Holloway website.