February 12th, 2012

Talk her out of breeding and well avoid the pain of taking her baby

There can be few things worse than having your baby forcibly taken away by someone who thinks you are not fit to care for it. I was once acquainted with a woman to whom that happened.

Her lasting anguish was terrible to see. Yet it was clearly right to take her baby away: she could hardly take care of herself, let alone a baby and still less a child. Social services did the only thing they could. Nonetheless, the mother’s face as she repeatedly showed a crumpled photo of the baby to strangers, trying but failing to tell them something, still haunts me.

There’s another image that haunts me. It’s of a young mother in a busy London Underground train with a toddler, a couple of years ago. The little boy was restless, staggering about the carriage, dropping his dummy on the filthy floor and getting under people’s feet when the doors opened.

Mostly his mother ignored him, pushing him away when he wanted to sit on her lap and staring vacantly at nothing. At times she slapped him or shrieked at him, and once or twice she grabbed him, covered him with kisses and clumsily tried to force a biscuit into his reluctant mouth. Watching this miserable scene and imagining the damage that the little boy was suffering, I could not help feeling that his mother should not have been allowed to keep him.

Nobody can take such a decision lightly. I am sure that social workers in this country rarely do so. If anything, one could argue that for too long social workers were too much inclined to leave children with obviously disastrous parents. But the terrible death of “Baby P”, Peter Connelly, in 2007 has changed that. Since the trials of his abusers and the inquiry, social workers have started removing babies from their parents in much greater numbers, recently at record levels.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) released figures last week showing that the number of children referred into care in England rose to 903 last month, the first time it has passed 900. The figure was 698 in January last year and in the high 300s for the first half of 2008.

This increase can partly be explained by social services being more vigilant and trying to avoid another Baby P disaster. But much of it has to do with a new understanding that bad parents damage their children not only by abuse but also by neglect.

As brain science progresses, new academic theories about cerebral development in a baby’s earliest months are being put forwards and often accepted.

It is now conventional wisdom that neglectful parents do lasting damage to their children by failing to love them and cherish them — which means providing their babies’ rapidly growing brains with the proper stimuli to enable them to learn to love, to trust, to talk, to listen and empathise and to develop intellectually and socially.

Children deprived of such stimuli suffer permanent cognitive and emotional loss. Apart from the unhappiness and fear they suffer, they will grow up permanently damaged, to damage others in their turn.

Both the head of Cafcass and the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said last week that the rise in the number of children taken into care was directly related to a better understanding of child development and the damage that parental neglect can do. Better late than never, is all one can say.

For how long is it right to expose a baby to the risks of permanent damage in a clearly damaging family? In the past social workers have tried to keep chaotic families together as far as possible, believing that, with the right help, children could be left even with very troubled parents — which has led to some terrible, well-documented results.

Underlying this policy was a strong belief in parents’ rights and an ignorance of what irreparable damage was being done. Rather than tear a child from its parents, better to wait and see.

That’s what has changed. Fewer and fewer people involved in child protection now think that way. Problem families should get all the help they need, but the central question, for babies, is one of time. For how long is it right to expose a baby to the risks of permanent damage in a clearly damaging family?

It is not enough to wait for signs of bruising or burning. A parent such as the mother I saw on the Tube is doing daily harm, invisibly but surely and permanently.

How many days or weeks should she be given to change her behaviour entirely — assuming that she is capable of such change? And assuming that effective help is, in practice, available to her? It takes months or years to recover from mental illnesses and addictions, and a person can rarely recover from the cognitive impairment that’s termed a learning disability. Babies can’t wait. Nor can their brothers and sisters.

With extreme reluctance I’ve come to the conclusion that very damaged parents — and the damage must be quite unmistakable — should have their babies removed at birth. However terrible, it is worse to let them keep them. From the child’s point of view, there is no time to be lost: early weeks of damage, followed by the breaking of the child’s earliest attachments, cannot be justified.

Worse still, in a sense, I’ve also come to believe that very damaged adults should be actively discouraged from having children; they should be warned in advance that they are almost certain to have them taken away.

A documentary in an outstanding BBC2 series on this subject, Protecting Our Children, recently showed an unhappy young father watching his disturbed toddler being (rightly) taken away by careful, admirable social workers. Weeks later the child’s mother, now single, voluntarily but tearfully relinquished both their son and her baby daughter. Neither parent could cope with looking after their filthy dog, let alone a child.

It would have been far better if, long before this tragedy, social workers had explained to both why parenthood was not for them, and encouraged them to use long-term contraceptives. Maybe it would even be possible to offer incentives to certain people to use such contraceptives: recent memories of forced sterilisations in India and China chill the blood, but there is a great difference between that and moderate, closely controlled, unforced persuasion.

Rather than respond with cries of “Eugenicist!” and “Nazi!”, people of good sense and feeling should admit the painful truth that some people, sadly, are not fit to care for their children. If that is the case, they should not have them, and they should be actively discouraged from doing so. Hardly anything is worse than having your baby taken away.