Secret social worker: removing children

Lila Halliday says removing children is traumatic for all

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I remember the first time I wrote an assessment for court that concluded with a recommendation that the children not be returned to their mother’s care. I had never removed a child at this stage in my career, nor had I completed an assessment with stakes so high. I paused before I wrote it – for a long time. Who was I to make such a decision?

I had spoken to this woman for hours, heard the harrowing tale of her life and understood completely that her inability to parent her children was not her fault. I understood that she needed mothering as much as her two small children did. This crushing blow of a sentence would add another hellish chapter to her sorrowful life and I wrote it anyway, with much sadness and a massive sense of responsibility. The children had their happy ending and have grown up with family to be bright and healthy. I do not know the fate of their mother.

Since then I have removed many children from their parents’ care and I remember every last one of them. The most surprising and heart-breaking thing about many of these instances is the compliance of both the parents and the children. We would all like to think that in that situation we would fight to the death for our children but many parents, in the face of powers bigger than them and possibly with the realisation that they can’t keep their children safe, just give up and let it happen. And children, wanting to please the adults around them, just go with the social worker into the unknown.

Of course it doesn’t always happen like that and some of these situations can become extremely dangerous for the children and everyone else involved. Parents will hide their children, encourage them to run away and can become extremely and understandably aggressive. When this marks the start of a child’s life within another family, it’s little wonder that things don’t always work out. Much planning goes into avoiding a traumatic removal for a child, while acknowledging that the act itself is a trauma. No matter how bad things are at home for a child, that is their home, their normal and their parents.

Sometimes people I speak to about my job think we get some sort of kick out of removing children. Some even think we get commission for it! In reality it is traumatic for us to facilitate these separations. No one comes into social work wanting to be the cause of so many tears. Social work isn’t punitive. We are not punishing parents who haven’t done as they are told – we are keeping children safe and separating them from their parents is a last resort.

The terrible farewells before we take them away is something that stays with you forever. They should be private moments but we can’t let them be, so the intrusion in their lives lies not only in the act of removing their child but also in watching them say goodbye.

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