The worrying trend of social care tactics to target SEND ‘problem parents’

Recently on SNJ's Facebook page, someone accused us of being too hard on local authorities who were 'trying their best'. Actually, I know first hand that many, many people working in LAs really are working diligently and with very large caseloads. I would encourage parents who have had a good experience to tell us about it, so we can herald good practice.

However - there's always a however, unfortunately - too often parents are still being told the wrong information or LAs are not playing by the rules (i.e, the law). Too many in SEND and in social care departments are still behaving as if the Children and Families Act was just a bad dream, best ignored. This is very perplexing to me as the law is clear to read and to follow, so what's happening to make compliance a bonus rather than the minimum expected?

Recently, I heard about something happening to a number of families regarding attempts to get social care help, that needs to be highlighted. Hopefully those who ARE doing good work in LAs can make sure it doesn't happen in their departments.

Nathan Davies of solicitors HCB, has written to explain what, in his experience, has been happening.

Threatened with care proceedings after asking for support...

It is common, in my experience, for parents of children with autism to feel that concerns expressed to local authority professionals are often discarded, or that there is a distinct lack of understanding of the condition itself. This leads to disputes and disagreements between the parties. These issues tend to arise once parents have realised that they cannot continue without extra support or an alternative placement be sourced for their son or daughter. The request being made is often the trigger point for intervention in some form by the authority; usually via its social services department.

The prevalence of social services intervention has steadily risen in recent times. In practice, the possibility of it being initiated by the authority remains on the increase, despite this being a highly controversial, and often inappropriate, tactic.

Your word against theirs

The problem parents in this position face is that it is often their word against that of school staff or local authority professionals and  that is never a good starting position. The root issue however, is the aforementioned lack of understanding of the condition itself.  Those on the high-functioning end of spectrum often present very differently across a variety of settings. The fact that a child presents as very shy and reserved in school and then explodes into one exhibiting challenging behaviour at home, is very hard for some professionals to fathom and can lead to them questioning parenting ability.

Parents struggling to cope and requiring additional support in the family home, are often deterred by the threat of intense scrutiny and criticism by social services. The possibility of raising child protection issues or launching even care proceedings (in extreme cases) are tools local authorities are increasingly using, especially during these times of austerity and public sector cuts. But cuts can in no way be an excuse for such unnecessarily heavy-handed approaches being employed.

Nathan Davies
Nathan Davies

Professional guidelines

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) has guidelines relating to standards of conduct, performance and ethics each registrant must uphold (this includes social workers). One of the pillars of practice is for the professional to ‘work within the limits of their knowledge and skills’. Given this, it is fundamental to ensure that each professional is appropriately trained and/or knowledgeable to a reasonable degree in autism to discharge their duties to the child and family appropriately.

If this is not done, one cannot expect a proper assessment of their social care needs to be undertaken; thereby polluting the entire process. Without such understanding of the condition, the HCPC guidelines specify that the matter should be referred to another practitioner if what the chid needs would be beyond the scope of their practice but this is rarely, if ever, done. It cannot be emphasised enough how important this is, especially when it is a requirement for each HCPC registrant to ‘promote and protect the interests of service users and carers’.

Below are some anonymised case examples which show how these strategies are being used by local authorities throughout the UK:

Case Study 1:

This concerned parents in England of a child with high-functioning ASD. Given her high-achievements at school, the child had attended mainstream school well into her teenage life (without an EHCP). Even when concerns were raised over challenging behaviour in the home as a result of her inability to cope at school, these were immediately treated as the parents over-exaggerating the child’s difficulties, even after they had secured a diagnosis for her from a multi-disciplinary team in the private sector.

The local authority, when requested to assess her additional learning needs, took action; they proceeded with social services intervention, a flawed and malicious assessment and subsequently placed the child on the Child Protection Register.  After seeking legal advice, the family challenged the authority, ultimately leading to a retraction. The child has now been issued with an EHCP with the SEN Tribunal agreeing that a specialist ASD placement be named.

Case Study 2:

This related to a family in South Wales, who again experienced great difficulties with their local authority.  The child had a diagnosis of Pathological Demand Avoidance but the parents had been unsuccessful in securing a specialist placement for their son via the Tribunal process, with the assistance of an advocate.

Given the extreme levels of aggressive behaviour in the home environment (and his inability access a school at all), it was imperative for the authority to accommodate the child, pursuant to section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The authority did so, but thereafter sought to target the family with a variety of unfounded allegations, unlawful s.47 investigations and blame for the child’s behaviour was attributed to perceived ‘bad parenting’, a manifestly unreasonable position to hold.

These issues were appropriately resolved in the parents' favour, who were issued with a comprehensive and unreserved apology from the director of social services. The child now attends a suitable local provision and is thriving.

We need to be aware...

Unfortunately, scenarios such as the above are becoming more common and intimidation of parents who are simply trying to get help for their child is often difficult for many to comprehend. Parents being penalised or vilified for seeking support for their disabled child is not right in any society, yet it appears that in 21st century Britain this is perfectly acceptable in some LAs. Awareness of this issue being made known to the public can only help parents in similar situations.

Nathan Davies, Education Law Solicitor

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Tania Tirraoro


  1. Susan Mason

    We experienced this when our oldest son (who has PDA/ASD/ADHD/Tourette’s) was 8, both school and social workers were desperate to help us (our son was displaying extreme behaviour both at school and at home) but because our son did not have an EHCP/statement at the time we cane under the child protection team. The case was taken to child protection and at the conference it was agreed that the family had “done nothing wrong” but the case was still taken to child protection for 3 months – even at child protection the social workers could offer no support as, by their own admission, they had no funding to do so, they just came round and visited every 2 weeks. Being under child protection was one of the worst experiences of my life and achieved nothing but must have cost a huge amount (along with the 50 odd professionals meetings we have had over the years), I can think of far better uses for that money in supporting our son.
    When our son started high school (he now had an EHCP) he had another breakdown, the school placement failed and he was facing permanent exclusion, at home, due to his breakdown we had to move his brothers to his grandparents (with mum and dad going between the three boys). This time we reluctantly sought help from the child disability team who were fantastic (because we were facing family breakdown they had funds to help) and his social worker has provided support at meetings and at home, a carer, a personal budget for a PA 4 hours a week and an autism specialist support worker.
    I am deeply saddened (but not surprised) that families are still being treated this way by the child protection services, where CAMHS are refusing to assess or support children with ASD (“we are not commissioned to work with children with ASD”) and schools have had their budgets slashed child protection social services are seen by other professionals as the only agency with money to support families though in our experience this was not the case. The child disability team can help but only in crisis, we are extremely blessed that we get the support we do as our son’s social worker told us she is only meant to work with children with learning difficulties and our son is seen as high functioning.

  2. Marie

    Thanks is for this. It really helps to hear it.i also think that the years pre-diagnosis for children experiencing anxiety for reasons that could include autism or reaction to unexplained pain or even social factors due to divorce or separation, are ripe for ‘professionals’ to blame the parent.
    For a year I heard the school tell me that there was no evidence that my child could not attend school. Her paediatrician didn’t know why she was in pain, he certainly did not pick up her anxiety. He said she should try to get on with life. She waited 9 months to get to the top of the psychology waiting list and then anxiety was diagnosed! By this time, I’d narrowly held off education statutory involvement and was still juggling work, caring for her and my other children. What bothered me most though was that there was evidence that she was unwell – both she and I were describing it but our voices were not accepted.
    Another year later and we do have an EHCP but are still waiting for it to be implemented. I’ve had to source private support for her anxiety as CAMHS and Tamhs have ignored her needs, as she doesn’t meet their narrow service definitions.
    I could scream. The impact on my family is immense.

  3. Planet Autism

    “the possibility of it being initiated by the authority remains on the increase”

    Should the word ‘initiated’ be ‘investigated’?

    Yes, this scenario is shockingly common. Here is a petition for a case where this has happened, and where the LA acted entirely unlawfully in the S47:

    One of the petition updates has the original article by that law firm cited.

  4. Planet Autism

    When professionals are dealing with autistic children, they may well also be dealing with an autistic parent (who may be undiagnosed) and there is immense disability discrimination against autistic parents, by criticising them according to NT tick-boxes and misprepresenting autistic traits as e.g. signs of being a difficult character, which by extension they assume means bad parent.

  5. Carrie

    It appears to us they all work in tandem. The true face of ‘Integrated Working’ and ‘Agency partnership’. In our experience things do not improve following the transition from children’s to adult’s services. We believe what happened to our daughter (and to our whole family) was malicious. Put simply, at the point of her transfer from children’s to adults services, the LA was in the process of appealing a SEND Tribunal decision notice to the Upper Tribunal. Suddenly our daughter was being told by health officials she had only met 10 weeks previously that she would be sectioned under the MHA if she did not agree to inpatient treatment. Absurd. Truly absurd. And, then we discovered (through a DPA SAR) that, although she had appointed us to act as her advocates (because of her ASD and anxiety related communication difficulties – and a decision she had full mental capacity, as a young adult, to take) the health authority was in liaison with LA officials (AMHP’s) to reduce her rights even further and to have us, as her legal nearest relatives, formally displaced. In other words, not only did the HA intend to deprive our daughter of her right to make decisions about her treatment options but they also intended to act in such a way as to ensure she also had no family support at a legal level. Yes, I hear you say, no smoke without fire. The bottom line was that we had submitted a complaint to the HA and we were dealing with adult services who did not know her, and did not know us. But ask yourself this: Why threaten to section someone under the MHA when they have no history of self harm or violence and the In-patient care pathway criteria is not met in the first place; and why make enquiries about displacing nearest relatives when no hard evidence exists to validate (the apparent professional) concerns about their possible objection to MHA detainment. Malice a forethought. Or malice a purposeful NHS strategy? Personally I have no illusions. On the plus side, she was lucky as she had capacity and retained control of her situation as far as possible – she accepted informal IP treatment and self discharged when she felt safe to do so. As an informal IP she was not subject to a CTO (Community Treatment Order) and she has since refused all further NHS MH input. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the PHSO investigation into our complaint will be.

    1. Planet Autism

      None of this surprises me. There are many, many dirty tactics being used by LAs and NHS.

      Shocking what you have been through and appalling that health authorities think they can get away with breaching the law. I hope you quoted the law to them.

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