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.
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