THE PERILS OF BEING SLAP HAPPY

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IT was the lightest of taps, intended as a simple short, sharp shock to stop our seven-year-old in his tracks before his angry outburst evolved into a trip to the local A&E for one of us and then B&Q to repair damage to what’s left of our house.

He’d flared up out of the blue – every parent knows how it can happen. Suddenly, arms and legs were flailing in all directions, doors slammed, drawers yanked open and shut. When one little fist connected with his exasperated dad’s cheek, my husband did what neither of us has ever done before.

He pulled his son to one side and lightly smacked his bum. It probably happens in homes across the land every day: a light tap to regain a little control. Afterwards, while our seven-year-old headed to bed to ponder his behaviour, no-one felt worse about it all than hubby – particularly as he then had his fuming wife to deal with.

For us, that’s as far as it will ever go. But, it emerged yesterday, for one Midlothian father, the moment he recently chose to slap his naughty six-year-old son’s bottom had far-reaching and disturbing ramifications for all his family.

His chastising slap led to the boy running off and set in motion a bizarre sequence of events that involved social workers, foster carers, legal intervention and, most disturbingly, his children being removed from the family home for three weeks.

Today the children are back living with their relieved father after weeks of wrangling that only ended when he boldly walked into a social work department office in Dalkeith and, surprisingly unchallenged by staff, brought them home.

But the incident has raised interesting questions concerning social work tactics at the local authority, which currently has more children per head of population on the Child Protection Register than any other council in Scotland.

And it may leave many parents wondering where they stand when it comes to disciplining their own naughty children.

Details of what happened emerged yesterday when the man’s lawyer, Lisa Rae, of South Bridge law firm Thorley Stephenson revealed that social workers had removed the children without either the father’s consent or the necessary court order to allow them to take them into care. The man has custody of the children after splitting with their mother a few years ago.

As Ms Rae battled to establish the facts – hitting, she recalls, a wall of silence from the department – what became clear was that this was a situation which, in her own words, she’d “never seen before”.

“Normally if there are real concerns about children, if there has been some sort of incident that caused social work to be so concerned that emergency accommodation was necessary, then the normal route would be to apply to the court for a Child Protection Order and to have that granted.

“I don’t have any way of finding out if they applied for a Child Protection Order – they may well have – but it was not granted by a court.

“They were unlawfully detaining the children,” she insists.

“They had no legal authority to do so, and our client was repeatedly, both through ourselves and directly, requesting that the children were returned to him.”

It’s enough to make any parent wonder whether this could happen to them should that disciplinary smack reach the ears of the local social work department. But what’s particularly curious is that this is not the first time the council’s methods have raised concerns.

Last year the parents of a seven-year-old girl complained about their treatment by the authority’s social workers after they were prevented from taking her home from school on the basis of a playground rumour.

The little girl was detained in school while they were quizzed at home after a teacher overheard her tell a friend that her “dad had beaten up her mum”.

The allegations were completely unfounded and the case closed but the parents hit out in the Evening News at the “heavy handed” tactics used. Just a month later, we told how another couple were called to their son’s Midlothian school and kept separate from their six-year-old boy while police and social workers quizzed them about bruises on his legs.

The minor injuries were the result of typical childhood play, the case was dropped but the parents were left furious at what they called “appalling” treatment by Midlothian social work staff. The incident, the couple said, had left their son frightened that he was going to be taken away by social workers.

All of which comes against a background of rising numbers of Midlothian children being placed on the Child Protection Register. In 1996 the figure stood at 50 young people, a rate of 3.2 per 1000 population; by last year the figure had soared to 96, up to 6.2 per 1000 and significantly higher than the Scottish average of 2.8.

The Midlothian figure certainly dwarfs that of Glasgow City at 3 per 1000 and Edinburgh City, which runs at 3.6 per 1000.

For his part, the father in this incident, a single dad who cannot be named to protect the identities of his children, is said to have been left “distraught” by events resulting from a smack so minor it did not require formal police involvement and for which no criminal charges have been brought.

The exact reasons behind the social workers’ actions are shrouded behind rules which prevent open discussion of their work. In a statement released yesterday Midlothian Council repeatedly points out it cannot discuss individual cases.

It adds that, in general, “social workers would not remove children from their parents following a simple ‘smack on the bottom’.”

A statement from Councillor Jackie Aitchison, Midlothian Council cabinet member for social work, adds: “Social workers would not remove a child if this action did not comply with the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Having reviewed all the circumstances, I am entirely satisfied that we responded appropriately and proportionately to the information presented to our officers.”

Indeed, perhaps Midlothian should be applauded. After all, it’s just four years ago that its social work department was lashed by a damning HM Inspectorate of Education report into its child protection services which found vulnerable children at risk of abuse, harm or neglect, and criticised a lack of leadership, poor communication and staff with excessive workloads.

The report resulted in the resignation of the director of social work Malcolm McEwan and the councillor responsible for the service, Danny Malloy.

Certainly Cllr Aitchison supports social workers at the authority and, instead, opts to criticise media coverage for making their jobs more challenging.

“Social workers can have incredibly difficult jobs helping to look after the most vulnerable people in our society,” she says. “It is a shame that negative coverage in the media can make these jobs even harder. It’s also difficult because we are restricted in what we can say in our defence due to data protection.

“While we can’t comment on the specifics of individual cases it is worth noting in general a ‘smack on the bottom’ is normally deemed reasonable.

“I want to reassure the public, particularly the most vulnerable people out there, that the Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders Executive Group procedures to protect children do work.

“Whilst I appreciate that it can be very difficult for people caught up in the early phase of an investigation, these procedures are in place to stop tragic cases, and I will not apologise for that.”

sdick@edinburghnews.com