When is it right to take away a child from their parents?

10:45 am - June 30th 2010

by Carl Packman    

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Stories in the media about children in care are seldom talked about unless a tragedy has taken place, notable examples being the case of Baby Peter or the two boys in Darlington.

But on Monday Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, saying that he wants the number of UK children in care to increase somewhat from around the 62,000 mark where it is currently.

Narey said: “Contrary to popular belief, and for all its inadequacies, care does make things better and can and does create stable, nurturing environments for children.”

On first glance it would seem unbelievable that someone so well regarded would say something like that.

Historically children in care have achieved lower academically than their non-looked after peers, and care leavers are disproportionately represented in prison or on unemployment statistics.

But what might seem like an utterly bombastic and counterintuitive statement by Narey turns out to be in fact correct. A report commissioned for Barnardo’s by the think tank Demos, published yesterday, found that delay and indecision in the care system can have deleterious effects on children in need as well as potentially costing up to £32,755 per child each year, almost four times the cost of a positive care experience.

Local authorities intervening early means problems can be identified sooner rather than later when other problems start to arise, particularly loss of attachment, which could jeopardise a child’s ability to form successful relationships with other children and adults later in life.

There are financial benefits to why early intervention is preferred for children in need. A report last year said investment in early intervention and universal services for children and families would save the economy £486bn over 20 years.

There is of course a strong ethical dimension here: when is it right to take a child away from a parent? Demos in their research look at what is called ‘concurrent planning’ – designating adoptive parents who plan on being permanent carers at the same time as the local authority works with the birth parents to explore possible reunification.

As is recognised in the report ‘concurrent planning’ is based on children and families in crisis being identified very early on, which is rather idealistic, but what the report makes no bones about is that there are plenty of occasions when a child should be taken away from a parent for the safety of both.

While the Tories talk of big society, what we really should be looking at is how the state can be a responsible parent for vulnerable children for the greater good of families, as worrying as that might sound at first. While a contentious subject for many, stronger action and risk adversity today could be the best thing for the child in the future.

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About the author
Carl is a regular contributor. He is a policy and research analyst and he blogs at Though Cowards Flinch.
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Reader comments

1. Shatterface

‘There is of course a strong ethical dimension here: when is it right to take a child away from a parent?’

If there’s such a strong ethical case for taking children into care why not lay that out for us before you tell us how much money we can save?

And just how does putting a child in the care of the State help them cope with issues of ‘attachment’?

This headline:

“When is it right to take away a child from their parents?”

needs to be changed, because surely if it’s “a” child (singular) then it’s incorrect to use “their” (plural) to refer to it. Intead it should (surely?) be “When is it right to take away a child from its parents?”

But as that sounds rather cold, let’s just settle for “When is it right to separate children from their parents?”

Pedants of the world…


‘Its’ is incorrect, whilst ‘their’ actually is a modern acceptable shorthand (unfortunately), for what should actually be ‘his or her’, English not having a gender neutral possessive and the traditional ‘his’ as a catchall having been abandoned quite a long time ago.

Ultrapedantry completed…

And in answer to the question posed in the article, when there is clear indicator the parent is more harmful to the child and his or her development than being in care would be.

Have to say, I favour easier adoption as it would allow for less children in care, and combined with more effective (read judgemental if you wish) interventions by social services would produce better results than merely keeping children in care and returning them to parents. I never understand the concept that parents have rights – if they prove unable to properly care for children, why should people be considered to be parents?

I do wonder however whether cost is the appropriate way to justify any changes. Outcomes for the children is surely best?

This is one of those issues you basically can never win on, no matter what you do. If you reduce the threshold for taking children into state care you’ll definitely save some lives and help others. You’ll also take a higher number of children away from their families absolutely unnecessarily and cause them great harm. If you increase the level of monitoring to make it more likely that your decision is correct, then you may cause additional stress and harm to the families that didn’t need extra attention.

As far as I can tell the current threshold tends to be applied more harshly against working-class families, against single parents, and against families with disabled parents, which is not necessarily an argument against tightening the threshold, but the effects of doing so would need to be very carefully monitored.

Watchman/3: whilst ‘their’ actually is a modern acceptable shorthand

Pre-1500s, according to the OED, as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in its own right. There was a more recent movement against it – from the same sorts of people trying to apply Latin rules about split infinitives and prepositions to English – but I ignore them.

More inclusive of people who are neither male nor female than “his or her”, too.

I can sympathise with the motivation for taking more children into care but consider the (worrying) trade-offs:

“The children, schools and families committee’s report says that children in care aged 10 and over are more than twice as likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence, and blames the government for the “disproportionate criminalisation of young people in care”.

“An often-quoted statistic is that although less than 1% of children are in care they make up almost a quarter of the adult prison population.”

“One quarter of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison).”

7. James from Durham

The relevant comparison here is not between children in care on the one hand and children living with parents on the other. It is between children in care on the one hand and children who are being “monitored” by social services on the other. That would be an interesting statistic.

As Cim says, there are always going to be mistakes, what kind of mistake is made will depend on where you draw the line.

As for cost, the long term benefit of a person living a productive, law-abiding life rather than being a screwed up substance abuser or criminal outweighs almost any cost, even in crass money terms.

Thanks all for showing interest in this subject.

@shatterface (1)

you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be) how many people’s arguments on this topic are based on value for money and not social value. I’ve written it this way to highlight the facts first (Narey’s opinion, Demos report, spend to save argument) before my opinion on ethics, and the shortfall of big society.

To your second point, it’s true that it doesn’t necessarily follow that state care equals attachment. But secure placements, brokered by the state, can do more for attachment early on, than having to do it later.

@Paul (2)

You’re probably right, but when you take the ed from pedants, you’re left with pants.

@Watchman (4)

There is a foster carer shortage, so though I favour easier adoption too, it would be wrong to not seperate a child from its parents to save it from harm, on the basis that there is problems in the current fostering market.

I also don’t think costs is a good way of looking at this also,but it is a way to show spending waste, particularly at a time when coalition is going for jobs first. A bit of strategy, and listening to professionals, the coalition could avoid its destruction on jobs and cut waste in others, I name just one, but there are more.

am happy to discuss further in another post.


@3: ‘their’ actually is a modern acceptable shorthand (unfortunately), for what should actually be ‘his or her’

Not that modern actually — it’s been around since the 1300s. And it’s more aesthetically pleasing (to me at least) than the ghastly “ess slash he”.

10. the a&e charge nurse

The Children’s Act is a formidable (and very lengthy) piece of legislation – this bit sets out criteria for protection of children;

I’m glad I’m not a social worker – especially one working in a problematic service like Haringey or Doncaster.
The current fight for resources only makes a difficult task even harder;

11. anonyperson

Barnados protect themselves, their jobs, their income. Children’s charities often have self-protection agenda’s that conflict with what is best for children themselves. I’ve learned that over and over again over the past few decades, and I admit I have become cynical. It’s my own self protection cutting in, I wouldnt wish them on my worst enemy.

My experience, anecdotal but pretty vast, of children’s charities and of the care system, tells me that actually it is usually better for a kid to live with abusive or neglectful parents, or even on their own and below the radar, kipping on sofas – as miserable and unhealthy and unsafe as it all is – than with any social workers or charity workers or any of that system and paperwork on their case. ‘Care’ rarely makes things better, it just adds a whole bunch of extra shit for these kids to deal with. A whole bunch of jobsworths, meddling and making things worse and not fucking listening at all.

And it costs a fortune too. The care system – making kids even more confused and depressed and exposing them to even less secure and safe environments for much more money! How wonderful.

Then you add in all the stuff someone else has mentioned – the fact that financially poorer homes, homes where a parent or a child is disabled or has learning difficulties, or where there is only one parent (especially where that parent is very young, or out of work), or where a parent has been in care themselves, these are the homes most targeted for intrusion from the care industry. Not because the parenting is poorer, or because the children are less happy or more in need, but because they are considered ‘unconventional’ people by the care industry. Unconventional being anything that doesnt fit the perfect image of nice contemporary middle class values and attitudes and habits. If a parent can fake it, fill in the forms, present the house just-so, have a reasonably middle england accent, have been through higher education, can make a good well spoken academic argument on the spot for any unconventionality, then they’re likely to be left alone. The amount of bigotry in the care industry is appalling but unquestioned, because, like children’s charity Barnados, they’re doing ‘good works’ for ‘poor children’ and are therefore beyond examination or reproach.

Those of us who’ve had them round our necks know different. Don’t believe the hype. What this information amounts to is – Barnados want to take more kids into care based not on evidence of harm but on speculation that one day a child might be at risk of harm. This is something that they and some other children’s charities have been pushing for a while and this is not good for families, not good for kids, not good for those considered ‘unconventional’ by nice middle class do-gooders.

And when Social services have tried to take away children from their parents all the Tory twats like mad mel scream ” Communists are taking are children away”

Social workers get blamed what ever they do.

@11: quite.

“But on Monday Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, saying that he wants the number of UK children in care to increase somewhat from around the 62,000 mark where it is currently.”

Barnardo’s, as an organisation, gets most of its money from government for looking after children who have been taken into care.

Can you think of any CEO, ever, anywhere, who has argued that that organisation of which he is CEO should become smaller or get less money from its major customer?



Bob B: You’re not really comparing like with like there, though. If we assume that the care system – while it inevitably makes mistakes – is not completely random as to who is taken into care, then the children taken into care will usually be those from an extremely bad family environment.

The comparison should not be between these people and the general population but between these people and people who were in similar situations as a child but were not taken into care. Otherwise you’ve no way of knowing whether the likelihood of criminality was “caused” before or after they were taken into care.

Tim, I sat next to you at the libcon conference, I hope from what little I did say you got the feeling that when a CEO deserves a bash, my opinion is he or she should get a bash, I had helped form a small socialist bloc that day with Dave Semple and Paul Cotterill, but you walking a very tight rope saying putting more kids in care is a new profitable business model for Barnardo’s.

This line of argument is not really helpful for measuring when a CEO is deserving of a bash.

“Tim, I sat next to you at the libcon conference,”

Snigger, no, I seriously, seriously, doubt that. Not only wasn’t I at LibCon (the riot that would have occured if I was would have been interesting though) I wasn’t even in the country.


“The P&L on page 12 of their 2008 accounts shows income of £119,247,000 for “fees and services” out of total income of £175,190,000. On page 3 they brazenly state that they “… aim to increase the amount of income generated from statutory sources by 4.5% in 2008/9, contributing to the 16% growth target for 2007-10 and increasing the proportion of expenditure funded from statutory sources. “”

I should probably have been taken into care – and my siblings definitely should have. But then, I grew up in Doncaster 😉

Watchman @ 4

“Have to say, I favour easier adoption as it would allow for less children in care ”

As you freely admit to super pedantry, can I humbly suggest it would be better if we had fewer children in care?


haha sorry Tim, I know where the confusion is now about libcon conference.

As for your point, speculation aside, won’t you engage with the topic of debate here which is, can there be a case for taking in children early on to save in the long run, or put differently, is Martin Narey right for what he says (not why he says it)?

“can there be a case for taking in children early on to save in the long run”

Sure, there can be. But not while the alternative is State care. That’s as foul as what most (but not all, as Baby P tells us) of the children taken into care, fouler in fact, than what they were suffering before care.


As you freely admit to super pedantry, can I humbly suggest it would be better if we had fewer children in care?

Whatever that law about pedantry is strikes again…

Carl (way back @8),

I was not arguing for leaving children with poor parents, but that as part of that adoption needs to be made easier. I’d actually say more action to remove children whilst very young would be the best solution, as these are easiest to place. Whilst ideally we would also have the necessary resources to provide fostering/decent care in between removal and adoption, I am with you in arguing that regardless of that the welfare of the child comes first.


Can I point out you are the only person here who has mentioned the ‘evil social worker’ theory. Most of us on the right respect the rights of the individual rather than the rights of parents (I tend to think of those as duties myself – rights over children kind of implies they are property). When social workers get it wrong, the usual idiots kick up a fuss, but since the last I saw was them deciding that Jordan is correctly Palestine, I think we can ignore them.

22. vulpus_rex

So now Tim Rand is attacking Barnardo’s.

There really is no end to the idiocy of the fake libertarians.

Built thanks again Tim for showing us that Compassionate conservatism is about as real as the idea that trickle down helps the poor.

24. anonyperson


Martin Narey earns a fortune from the care industry, he came to it direct from the prison industry. His interest in this is not as an oh so caring voluntary charity worker but as a man who earns 6 times the average wage in this country from putting kids into care. People are pissed with quangos and fake charities and cuts are coming, so this is him justifying his job and his wage.

Every single kid in this country could be as happy as larry and he would still be saying we need to put kids (from certain ‘unconventional’ types of homes) into care on the off chance that one day they might be at risk (the earlier the better because its easier to place them). His priorities are all fucked.

Every single level of what he is saying relies on nice but dim folk nodding. Oh, his hearts in the right place, and Oh! think of the children, and all those stories of families being split and children being abused in the care system – well it will never happen to our family because we’re the right sort of people. If it wont be you or your kids being carted off, then stfu. I’m rude, because I’m angry.

If there is no evidence that a child should be removed from their family, if the best Barnados can come up with is ‘its easier to place them young, we have targets to meet for adoption, and you never know do you’ – it’s stealing children. What you’re talking about is stealing kids from the ‘unconventional’ families so that the ‘nice’ ones can adopt them. You’re talking about punishing families for crimes there is no evidence of, just in case. You’re talking about taking kids out of their homes – with no evidence of abuse or even unhappiness – and putting them in an insecure (but box tickingly ‘conventional’) environment for the sake of targets.

Even in the shit families – its nearly always better for kids to not be involved with the care industry than the opposite. If you haven’t had any contact with it – or if your only contact is as a representative of it – then you do not know what youre talking about.

As for the evil social workers. Social workers are as bigoted as the general population and weild a bunch more power. I’ve met some srsly fucked up social workers, and some who genuinely do have their heart in the right place, even if they are a bit clueless. They’re basically like the family police. Thats how I think of them, thats how most people i know who’ve had the misfortune to deal with them perceive them. I have no doubt whatsoever that the poor social workers who realise that feel hard done by and vilified, but we aren’t going round their homes judging them and we have no power over them, so why should their poor feelings be relevant in this discussion?

And it always is. Whenever anyone criticises the care system, theres always someone banging on about social workers hurt feelings. Ditto the education system (but teachers are all nice people!) and the health system (nurses are all lovely!)

The feelings of the representatives of the system are irrelevant to the discussion of what that system does. The care system fucks kids up. Thats not a judgment on poor social workers, its a statement about the system that they represent and get paid by and take their orders from. If their guilt about that shows up as hurt feelings, well good.

Sorry to rant but what the fucking fuck.

25. whatever


Why don’t we just get rid of social workers and be done with it! Baby P,T etc are much better off now then with adoptive parents. The rest that are unlucky enough to survive can just be given over to the state on Section 20 – which is when parents cannot or will not put up with their kids uncontrollable destructive behaviour. Then the state has to parent these kids but its very late and in some cases too late so care is just a holding place for prison.

I’m sorry for your bad experience anonyperson but I don’t think you know what’s happening. I refer you to Winston Smith’s Blog on children in care.

“Can you think of any CEO, ever, anywhere, who has argued that that organisation of which he is CEO should become smaller or get less money from its major customer?”

Energy companies promoting energy efficiency measures.

Adam Sampson of Shelter famously argued that taking too much money from the state compromised the ability of a charity to be critical. It is a discussion that occurs internally quite regularly in numerous charities, and all the time at conferences on the sector etc.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that the notion of using external contractors to deliver public services is a thatcherite notion, and thus its a bit hypocritical of right wingers to start moaning about these external contractors using PR methods to try and increase their business. It is particularly hypocritical when the right wingers concerned completely fail to apply this logic to areas of government spending they are in favour of like defence and law and order, regarding concepts like the military industrial complex as left wing conspiracy theories.

Martin Narey is doing nothing more than the equivelant of a soldier in afghanistan asking for more and better equipment.

27. anonyperson

“Martin Narey is doing nothing more than the equivelant of a soldier in afghanistan asking for more and better equipment.”

For a gross comparison it’s actually pretty apt. Kids and families faced with Barnados and social workers probably do feel similarly about them as Afghan civilians likely feel about our soldiers. Theyre both a sort of police. Whether theyre the nice kind or the nasty kind, they all still use whatever equipment theyre given to meet targets set by their bosses, using rules that the civilians had no hand in writing.

There was evidence that baby P was in danger, but it was ignored. In those sorts of cases there is always evidence that is ignored, real evidence from neighbours and friends and family and doctors etc that is ignored for whatever reason, sometimes its accidental (because people, being fallible, and social workers, being people, miss things) and sometimes its deliberate (because people have their own motives – maybe they just wanted to go home early that day, or maybe they were already snowed under and didnt need the extra paperwork). Thats not what this is about. You cant save every kid, you can only do your best. Accidents happen, horrible crimes are committed, and we cant always stop that, just like we cant always desperately find someone to blame. Life is complicated, and sad, and people get hurt. We have to find a way to deal with that that isnt constantly monitoring everyone and searching for scapegoats to blame and harass.

Narey is not asking for more equipment. He’s asking for the right to be able to remove babies from their homes without evidence that it is necessary, and I suspect that he wants that because it would make his job easier and make it seem as if his position was worth the money we pay for it. Its all win for him. Im very suspicious of his motives and maybe that makes me a bitch but i’d rather be a bitch than a mug. I dont have the luxury of being able to afford to trust him or people like him. The only people who have that are the ones who know theyre safe whether hes honourable or not. They dont have to deal with the consequences of trusting to him or the changes he advocates.

The consequences to the children and families who will have to deal with it are apparently irrelevant, anecdotal evidence from the recipients of all this ‘care’ being worth so little noone bothers to measure their experience so that it can be recorded as a proper study with statistics and everything! Every one of them who stands up and tells you not to believe the hype can just be told their ‘bad experience’ is unique, and every one of their peers they point to is just another unique anecdote. Wicked.

For every one kid that the care industry actually helps, who measures how many other lives suffer a negative impact from that same involvement? Too much of the time it does make a shit situation worse. That needs to be taken into account when youre talking about giving the care industry more rights to involve themselves with even less evidence. The negative impact they have on the lives they interfere with is relevant. Their hurt feelings at the suggestion that they might not always be a positive force is not relevant. Nareys motives in using his influence to push for more power is relevant. That the other side of the discussion is usually shut down or not investigated is suspect.

Kids in care have the worst outcomes of all kids. People always want to point to their lives before care as the reason for that. But the nature of the care industry itself is a factor too. Some people (who have never been subjected to it) want to believe that its filled with really good people doing their very best to heal the world, but thats naive as fuck. Narey and other people who represent the care industry have their own motives, personal and professional, and these do often conflict with the needs of those they claim to be protecting. Thats just a fact about any bureaucratic system, especially under capitalism. There are so many factors here that are rarely considered because children’s charities etc are considered untouchable. Theyre Good People, you dont question the motives or the actions of Good People.

Im guessing by the title that this is a liberal (progressive?) site? Whats progressive about taking children away from their families with no evidence just because it makes some bureaucrats lives easier?

“We have to find a way to deal with that that isnt constantly monitoring everyone and searching for scapegoats to blame and harass. ”

Well I completely agree there, but blaming the problems on the alleged financial self interest of charities seems to me to be just a different form of scapegoating. What I was mainly objecting to was the slightly more clever form of ad-hominem that Tim W was using to suggest that Narey was only saying what he said out of self-interest, and therefore we could ignore it. Deal with the argument he made, not widely speculate on the reasons he made it.

29. anonyperson

But his motives are relevant to his argument. He isnt a machine, he’s a man with his own interests to protect and promote. He isnt presenting his ideas from a neutral position, so examining his motives is valid.

This isnt a man who has devoted his life to charity. He’s a well connected well paid high up bureaucrat who came to Barnados after impressing a bunch of other bureaucrats with his reforms to make the CPS work faster.

He’s basically trying to introduce another version of his CPS reforms (theyre even named after him) to the care industry. Fast tracking into court, fast tracking into prison: fast tracking into care. Children and families shouldnt be messed about with for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency. There’s not even any evidence that it would be more efficient, its an experiment as is pretty much everything these days – but he himself has nothing to lose from such reforms. Noone will be fast tracking his own kids into care without evidence.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. earwicga

    RT @libcon When is it right to take away a child from their parents? http://bit.ly/ayI2e0

  2. Raincoat Optimism

    RT @libcon When is it right to take away a child from their parents? http://bit.ly/ayI2e0

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    When is it right to take away a child from their parents? http://bit.ly/ayI2e0

  4. Niall Millar

    RT: @libcon: When is it right to take away a child from their parents? http://bit.ly/ayI2e0

  5. John Belford

    RT @libcon: When is it right to take away a child from their parents? http://bit.ly/ayI2e0

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