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I Want My Child Back – Panorama and the Exploitation of Tragedy

Did you see the Panorama programme last night on BBC?  I Want My Child Back was billed as an investigation into the secretive family courts and the families that may have lost their children forever. There was a bit of stir before it was aired, and Martin Narey released a statement through The Times. There has since been a flurry of news articles related to it as well.

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One adoptive parent and foster carer – Suddenly Mummy – watched last night’s programme and has this to say…

I gave up watching Panorama years ago because I felt that the standard of journalism was so poor that it was no longer worth watching. I watched tonight because the subject was child protection. What I saw did not alter my opinion at all.

It’s the mood music, the soft focus, the earnestly-spoken pieces to camera by a concerned presenter with knitted brow. If this is investigative journalism, why do we need all the gimmicks? To hide the fact that the journalism is far from rigorous? For too long, Panorama has existed purely to promote whatever agenda has caught the producers’ attention, with stories, experts and evidence carefully selected to support their story. Balance and real investigation into all sides of the story no longer features in the thinking of those who produce this show.

As I see it, here is the crux of tonight’s programme. There are cases where babies have been taken to medical professionals and found to have unexplained multiple fractures. Doctors have assumed physical abuse and babies have been taken into care. At least one of these was later proven to have been caused by a medical condition.

This is just about all we have in terms of provable facts. And Panorama never reveals how many families have been affected by this. Or indeed how many children have been saved from injury or even death by prompt intervention of medical professionals.

The rest? Conjecture. Could these fractures be caused by low vitamin D levels? Conjecture – the research evidence isn’t there, doctors don’t agree. Should it be investigated? Yes, and the results of thorough medical (not journalistic) investigation should be used to inform future protocol, because if children are being removed from parents unnecessarily then that is something that requires action. Absolutely nobody wants to see that.

So far, fair enough. I don’t like the tone or style of the reporting, but there does seem to be an issue here that requires attention.

However, some of the other implications of the programme raise serious concerns.

Firstly, there is no attempt to deflect the blame from social services professionals to the medical professionals where it should lie if the programme’s allegations are true. Social workers are not medical professionals – they are not able to second guess the conclusions of medical personnel. They have to act on the information they are given.

Secondly, there were several references to the ‘secrecy’ of the family courts and child protection system, without any attempt to explain that this ‘secrecy’ exists to protect the children, not the social workers or any other professional involved. For ‘secrecy’, read ‘confidentiality’.  It is this same emphasis on protecting children through strict confidentiality that means that no representative of social services was on the programme to present a balanced view. In fact there was virtually no balance in the programme whatsoever. Only edited words from social services statements were included with no context.

Thirdly, no attempt was made to explore the actual scope of this problem. It was claimed that ‘hundreds’ of families have contacted MP John Hemming, thus allowing the implication to stand that hundreds of families have experienced the same situation as described in this programme when in fact no figures are given. For me, this is one of the most serious shortfalls in the programme. The message to parents seems to be clear – if you take your child to the GP or hospital, there is a likelihood that your child will be taken into care. How high is that likelihood? We don’t know. I wonder how many parents will now be afraid to seek necessary medical attention because of the claims in this programme? How many children will be put at risk because scared parents dare not get them the treatment they need for fear of losing their children? In my eyes, Panorama will be culpable every time that happens. Stories like this must be put into statistical context or else the fear will completely outweigh the reality. Panorama gratuitously plays on that fear in this programme.

Finally, nothing was said about the complex procedures that are followed in child protection cases. Much was made of “these people” being “a law unto themselves”. They “do whatever they want”. I wouldn’t expect grieving parents to say or think anything different, but the reality is very different. As a foster carer I have witnessed chance after chance being given to birth parents. My own adopted son was returned to his birth mother after eight months in care, only to be neglected and utterly abandoned again after just three weeks. Children wait in foster care for months, and sometimes years, as parents are supported to make the necessary changes. And even when all that fails, social services must then exhaust all possibility of another family member caring for the child. The protocol is that, wherever possible, children should be returned to birth families.

The sobering truth is that this protocol fails many children. As Sir Martin Narey reports in The Times (January 13th), researchers at the University of Bristol followed 138 children returned from care to their birth families. Two thirds were abused or neglected again within two years.

Sadly, miscarriages of justice will occur – the participants in this process are human beings and with the best will in the world, perfection may well be beyond our abilities. But for every child mistakenly taken into care, hundreds and hundreds will have been rescued from a horror the likes of which we can only imagine.

Panorama would do well to produce a programme about that. But they won’t, because their thirst for sensationalism could never be satisfied by such a story.

What are your thoughts? Did you watch any of the programme? Do you think a balanced view was given? Will this have an impact on children’s safety? What do you think of MP John Hemming’s suggestion that parents should go abroad to avoid UK family courts? We’d love your thoughts (in the comments below, or a blogged reply) and if we get enough, we’ll present them to Panorama as a collective response.