Behind Closed Doors: Why We Break Up Families – and How to Mend Them by Polly Curtis - review by Nora Duckett

Nora Duckett

Think of the Children

Behind Closed Doors: Why We Break Up Families – and How to Mend Them


Virago 320pp £16.99

In Behind Closed Doors, Polly Curtis tells the story of how families are broken down by poverty and broken up by social workers. Her book is based on the premise that children who need the state to intervene to care for them are being seriously let down. We learn about risk-averse social workers taking too many children away from parents whose ‘biggest crime in society’s eyes’ is ‘poor parenting’. (In fact, the power to order that children be taken into care resides solely with the police and the courts.) Curtis believes that children’s services in Britain are at breaking point and that, owing to the absence of adequate resources enabling children to remain at home safely, too many are removed and placed in care, where outcomes may be as poor as in their family homes. ‘Rather than fixing a housing issue,’ she states, ‘we remove a child.’

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios in which social workers may be required to intervene to safeguard a child’s wellbeing. They may be confronted with a teenager who cuts herself, runs away from school and refuses to go home, alleging ill treatment by family members; with a pre-mobile infant with an unexplained bruise; with a young person caring for a drug-dependent parent; with a parent repeatedly arriving at school drunk to collect children; with a disabled child considered morbidly obese, whose parents are unable or unwilling to provide a healthy diet; or with a teenager who sexually abuses a younger sibling or is physically threatening and violent to other family members.

A thread throughout Curtis’s book is that a child removed from their parents and placed in care is not necessarily any better off than one remaining in the family. She states, ‘no one is really confident that we are consistently making the right choice between an abusive or

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