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.



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.

18 thoughts on “I Want My Child Back – Panorama and the Exploitation of Tragedy

  1. Sarah Griffiths

    Very well written peice I couldn’t agree more. my experience as an adoptive parent has showed me the great lengths social services go to to keep families together. What a shame the programme failed to highlight the multiple chances birth families are given. As you say when children in pain are not taken to hospital over irrational fears instilled by panorama I hope they realise the harm they have done.

  2. Grandparent Support

    I agree with most of your article, I too loathe sensational journalism.
    BBC Panorama nonetheless raised an awareness of a medical diagnosis hitherto unheard of.
    As an adopted person and later on a grandparent who used up her retirement fund to maintain contact with her grandchild, to eventually securing that contact by representing myself in court, with a far better outcome than I had previosly paid for, I was dissapointed in Panorama for not tackling the true nature of the problems within our Family courts.
    They are wrapped in a cloak of confidentiality and rightly so to protect children, but all too often that cloak is used as a weapon ” a juggernaut” that ordinary families with problems cannot fight against making a situation far worse than it need be!
    I do not like to see social workers or others, in this case the medical profession, to be made scape goats for what was promised in previous justice reviews ” an overhaul” that is sadly way overdue!

    1. Suddenly Mummy

      Thanks for your comment and your perspective. You are right about raising awareness of the potential medical issue – this is important. I do think it could be done with a lot less emotional manipulation of the audience and the participants!
      And you are right about there being issues in the family court system – we could benefit from some measured, serious-toned exploration of that by BBC1’s flagship investigative programme. It is in everyone’s best interests to make sure that the child protection system and family courts are as effective and rigorous as possible. Nobody would want to lose their child in error. No adopter would want to find that their child had been unfairly taken from the birth family. Nobody wants or benefits from mistakes on either side of equation, including the professionals.

  3. Sarah

    I was in complete shock when I saw last nights documentary! From my experience of parenting 3 adoptive children, one of whom was sent back to her birth family, severely neglected, hurt and abused – because it was believed that the mother had turned a new leaf! 3 years later, she arrived traumatised, grief stricken, aggressive, and unable to allow herself to be loved and looked after. We of course have had to mend all her internal breaks and bruises, and after nearly 3 years on into the adoption we are seeing some very positive changes – but her trauma has taken us all with her and we have endured unimaginable difficulties on the way.
    Children who inexplicably show physical signs of injury, clearly must firstly be carefully diagnosed before it is presumed a birth family member could be responsible, but in this extremely rare case of an un researched medical condition, anybody who was responsible medically for that child has to be concerned and take the matter further. If only the doctors responsible for Baby P and Victoria Climbie had been as efficient! The documentary came across as “anti-adoption” and for those that don’t understand the impact of neglect and abuse on babies and children, it creates a very unrealistic impression on the huge majority of extremely vulnerable children who are adopted today. The many children and babies that do not get removed immediately from dangerous homes are what concern me most, and this very one sided documentary will not help the children suffering brutally today, into a safer environment. Panorama should make a documentary about the children who fail to be removed from their birth families, because of the complexity of the procedure, preventing social workers to act on their suspicions unless they have enough evidence. These children are the ones we need to be concerned about, because there are too many children that simply don’t ever get to live a life in which they are loved and taken care of, where their needs are placed ahead of their parents needs. These are the children who need our urgent help, and in my opinion the laws need to be changed in order to reach these children from the moment they are born, as opposed to five, six, ten, twelve … years of neglect and abuse.

  4. inspired Foundations

    Sarah, there are many programmes like this, only by this time they are focussed around subjects like school exclusion, mental health, prisons etc.. Because this can be the result when children are left within neglectful and abusive homes.

  5. Three Pink Diamonds

    Where to start?! I think last nights programme was hard to watch for a number of reasons:

    I agree with Suddenly Mummy that a lot of parents/carers will be scared to seek medical help for their children, in fear that they will be questioned unfairly and their children removed from them.

    I also agree that facts/figures/stats needed to be provided as people need to know how often children get wrongly taken into care and how often social services get it right and ultimately protect children.

    I agree with the point that Sarah has made that the programme came across as anti-adoption. I wonder now how many people will now see adopters as an extension of social workers that are keeping these children from their loving birth parents. That’s not how I wish to be seen and I am sure no other adopter does either.

    As a social worker I have seen that birth families are given chance after chance to improve their parenting even after a child has been placed into foster care. It is impossible to know the truth in the cases shown last night and the programme may have fared better if it had interviewed the social workers involved and had gone into family history further. In all honestly my heart went out to the families in the programme. If they are innocent I can not imagine what they must be going through.

  6. LastMum

    Fantastic piece! I completely agree with everything you wrote

    I’ve joined in a forum discussion about the ‘system’ and this program today, and ooooh, already we’ve had parents admit they are terrified to take their child to A&E, ‘forced adoption’, it’s all really common (NOT!), a few idiots making attempts to diminish the role of the adoptive parents and make them into the enemy by claiming that we aren’t real parents and we adopt so we can have blonde haired, blue eyes possessions, people arguing that all adoptions should be reversible and so on. It’s just…well, it’s extremely frustrating

  7. Andrew

    I agree that this kind of reporting is inexcusable, but the subject matter is of growing concern. Birth parents fighting adoption is gathering momentum, and I myself have been subjected to some fairly scathing attacks from people who don’t know any better. Children in care and adoption is hugely complex and most of us don’t fully understand all of it. Last year Daniel pelka’s face was plastered all over the news and social services took the brunt. Now too many children are allegedly being removed, again the finger of blame is pointing squarely at social services. They are in a thankless job and unless this whole issue is checked, we may find ourselves without anyone wanting to take the responsibility on. Great post, well done. If you want to see what some people have written in my site about this, check out my link http://www.theonehandman.co.uk/adoption/forced-adoption-post-response-to-kellie/

  8. Helen

    Couldn’t have written this any better. Agree totally that medical misdiagnosis is not in the hands of social workers to correct. Family courts are confidential to protect children not to maintain secrecy. As an adoptive parent I know how much work went into my daughters case before she a court ruled that she should be adopted. I commented on the programme last night on twitter and have had a fair few comments sent back to me stating adoptive parents only go for young cute kids. Wish they could see the reality of what we as adoptive parents really get into and how social workers support families like ours. A very misjudged and unbalance programme

  9. GreenJoni

    I agree totally with your analysis.
    It was heartbreaking to see parents in that position if there is a medical reason for the fractures. Clearly more medical research is desperately needed to stop miscarriages of justice.
    However as a piece of journalism it was appalling. The clear agenda was to blame social services for a “conspiracy” to steal children which is simply not the case. Babies with fractures that are caused by abuse are in real danger of death, so social services have to intervene quickly. And they go on the medical opinions of experts – this is where attention should have been more firmly directed.
    There aren’t words for the completely irresponsible behaviour of the MP – I was gobsmacked by his comments. And the lawyer representing the parents who inferred that because they looked respectable they couldn’t be capable of child abuse. Unbelievable and unprofessional.
    There was no opposing viewpoint from the social services sector, no facts or figures, just a blind faith in what the parents were saying. And perhaps they were telling the truth, but I’m sure every social worker who suspects a child is being abused by the parent is lied to by that parent – injuries are denied, excused or justified. I think the media needs to stop scapegoating social services, do proper journalism, and stop all this Daily Mail rabble-rousing.
    I’ve heard on Mumsnet that one of the children in the programme who was adopted had their real name and photograph used – heads at the BBC should roll if this is true.
    I cried with empathy at the poor grandma who won’t live to see her grandson by the time he turns 18, and the parents who had their last contact visit with their son. It’s terrible, but it isn’t social services fault – they’re just doing their job, which is to protect children – the most vital job of all. I hope that the medical establishment and the family court lawyers will work harder to establish the causes of injuries in such cases so that innocent parents are not put through this in the future.

  10. Suddenly Mummy

    I must add that I am deeply concerned about John Hemming’s advice to parents to flee abroad to avoid family courts. The poor mother hiding out in Spain has a daughter who was taken into care as a baby who, if I remember rightly (and please correct me if my memory fails – I can’t bear to watch again to check!) is still in foster care four years later. I wonder at this situation. How often are children taken into foster care as babies and then not eventually moved onto adoption? I would expect this to be quite a rare situation unless investigations are still ongoing and there is the possibility that the child could be reunited. Or is it that SS cannot place the child as they are unable to inform the mother (as I believe they have a legal responsibility to do) of their intention to free the child for adoption? The programme alleged that vitamin D deficiency was a factor in this case. Is it at all possible that SS are still investigating and that there’s a chance that the child could be rehabilitated to BF? By fleeing abroad and refusing to engage with SS, parents would surely be giving up any chance of children who have already been removed being returned to them. I don’t know enough about how it all works to give a proper informed opinion on this, but it really raises concerns for me.
    I also find it interesting that in the case that the child was returned to BF after 18 months, a significant difference was that the child was placed within the family rather than within foster care. To me, this suggests that there was something different about this case from the others from the beginning. SS do regularly place children with family where appropriate so why was it considered for this family but not the others? Were there other factors in the other cases that gave SS extra cause for concern? Of course we can never know because SS, quite rightly, will not disclose details of individual cases.

  11. chrisdad

    These cases of suspected non accidental injury are difficult. The important thing is that children are protected. The general medical opinion seems to be that fractures are not caused without a significant level of force. Vitamin d deficiency is now tested as a matter of course. The courts not only look at medical evidence but also whether the parents explanation of how injuries occurred is plausible and equally if the parents have given a number of different versions. If there are numerous fractures over different timescales that raises suspicions. Every case is different and they have to be looked at separately. It is the parents lawyers job to question and challenge medical evidence. I do not like the programme highlighting cases where parents have fled abroad potentially to avoid child protection measures or findings.

  12. Laura Jones

    I read your article with interest – personally I have always wanted to adopt, but recently have thought of having a child of my own (I’m 32) and then I saw this Panorama programme, and also more stories like it in (apologies) but the Daily Mail in this story – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2567147/Did-social-workers-middle-class-familys-adored-child-meet-adoption-targets-Four-year-old-boy-torn-loving-mother-hospital-no-one-hurt-him.html#ixzz2uL6TcJXq

    And it put the fear of God into me! To have a child and to have it taken away would ruin my life – I know that, so it makes me wonder whether I should just not have one in the first place and have an okay life – better than a life in hell having my child taken from me unfairly.

    So I have begun looking for the alternative view – what I hope to goodness is the truth – so thank you, as you have made me feel better, I was really worrying about this.

    It seems to me to be a slight media frenzy over this at present, before the Panorama programme I hadn’t even thought about this, then I watched that, then I read the article above, and saw many others like it popping up – what is going on?

    I’m worried now about taking any future children to a GP with anything I am not 100% sure where it came from.

  13. Laura Jones

    I think the programme was 100% sensationalist journalism and not balanced at all – but from my side, as a prospective parent, I can tell you categorically that yes, it does make me fear taking a child to a GP – now I am an educated person, I’m not easily taken in my things like this as a rule – but I think with the other reports coming out of the woodwork – articles I’ve come across without searching for them – it really seems there must be some agenda going on here and I wonder what that is, why this fear mongering all of a sudden on an issue we haven’t really seen much of in the mainstream media?

    I always thought/assumed that social services do try to ensure families stay together – indeed I know personally a social worker who I intend to speak to – she said at dinner once she saw a family with an alcoholic mother, but nevertheless the children were better off with the mother – I found this fitted with what I already thought of the practices – the mother may be far from perfect, but it would harm the children to be removed from her all the same.

    I am happy to now realise this is probably scaremongering – and I intended to do a lot more research about this prior to having children.

    I also found book though about the “secrecy of the family courts” – this also propagates the view that social services “are a law unto themselves” – I do feel that the burden of proof and the situation that there is no jury could be quite unfair though, don’t you think?

  14. Belinda

    “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.”
    So why is it that a Social Worker is responsible for writing a medicalised report for the medical experts? Th errors demonstrated quite clearly at least ten major errors in thinking and she couldn’t navigate the notes to give a coherent narrative! Instead, a report so biased in our case it screamed ‘abuse’ and the returned reports screamed, ‘we didn’t look for anything to prove otherwise’. Shouldn’t these reports be written by a medical expert, with a SW writing about the family only? I was unhappy with the programme, but our experience of this paragraph is like salt in a wound that will never heal. We still have no answers!

  15. Patricia Martin

    My son is in foster care now for three years now I am still fighting through the courts to get my son back back I miss and love my son so much


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