Last summer I was enjoying a drink with a friend in his apartment overlooking the Thames and Canary Wharf. His adorable little three year old daughter was entertaining us with songs and dancing and other antics. At one point she sat on his knee and asked what he was drinking. After he told he it was beer she asked if she could taste it, which is what you would expect a curious child to ask. He said yes, but before he could raise the glass to the child’s lips his wife exploded in anger and shouted “No! What are you doing? Do you want them to take her!?”
It transpired that “them” were local social workers who had taken an interest in the child, lets call her M, after they had discovered some bruising on her back (she had fallen). They had subjected her mother to what she describes as fierce interrogation. Why is she so small, is she being fed properly? Where did these bruises come from etc.
Now two minutes with this family would convince anyone that M is both adored and adoring. One might even say as an only child she is bit pampered. M is healthy, her parent are wealthy working professionals and she lacks for nothing. Despite this he mother lives in fear that the social workers will get the wrong idea. Someone swearing in front of the chid caused near panic because she might repeat the word in front of the social worker, same with the beer incident, “what would happen if they found out we gave her beer!”.
It all seemed a bit paranoid to me, so I gently suggested as much. “They are taking children all the time”, M’s mother told me, ” in secret courts. Parents are genuinely scared of messing with these people”.
I knew that the family courts were absurdly cruel to fathers and that Father For Justice were making good progress in righting the injustices there. But secret draconian courts confiscating children. I thought she had lost her mind.
I was wrong.
In December 2006, Camilla Cavendish, a journalist from the Times newspaper, learned of a dreadful case that just gone through the family courts, a routine case of gross injustice that had come to typify the family courts.
The nub of the case is this. A woman, let us call her Janie, gave birth to her first and only child a year ago. That baby was taken away from her and subsequently put up for adoption. Not because of her own failure to care for the baby — her own love and care never seem to have been in question. No. She has lost her baby because of a suspicion that her husband John may have injured another child in his previous marriage almost ten years ago.
The suspicion was no more than that. John was never charged with anything, let alone convicted. Social workers were never sufficiently worried to take that first child into care. Since his divorce John has shared custody of that child perfectly amicably with his ex-wife. Yet the same local authority which left the first child with him has forbidden him to see this new baby. And his new wife, despite having nothing to do with the first case, may never see her baby again. [Family courts are the B-side of the law, The Times, December 21st 2006]
Cavendish was so outraged by this case started investigating the Family Court and the UK’s care system. What she discovered was so shocking that The Times newspaper launched a campaign for justice in the Family Courts.
As readers have found out more about the family Courts and the care system outrage has grown and the campaign had gathered strength. The issue is now finally getting serious political attention.
The Times published three must read articles and a follow-up 10 point plan to restore justice.
- Family justice: the secret state that steals our children – Every year thousands of children are taken from their parents, largely on the say-so of ‘experts’. It is a secret and sometimes unjust process and the system must change
- Family courts: the hidden untouchables – In the second of the special articles, they explain how family courts operate in secrecy
- Family justice: your word against theirs – In the third of their special articles, they look at the pernicious types of allegation that are almost impossible for parents to disprove
- Family justice: what we can do to protect our children – A ten-point plan to make our courts system fairer
When one reads the 10 point plan, one has to marvel that one has to be campaign for these rights and provisions in a court that has the power to take away people’s children, for many a fate worse than death.
- Open family courts to the press in all but exceptional circumstances (as recommended by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee).
- Let any parent or carer accused of abuse call any witnesses they need in their defence. At the moment, they are routinely refused permission to do so.
- Give automatic permission for parents who are refused legal aid to get a lay adviser to help them present their case. This is routinely refused.
- Remove the restrictions that prevent families from talking about their case (as recommended by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee).
- Review the definition of “emotional abuse” across local authorities, to make sure that it cannot become a catch-all for overzealous officials.
- Provide an automatic right for parents to receive copies of case conference notes and all evidence used against them in court, just as they would in a criminal trial.
- Create an independent body to oversee the actions of social services, with proper sanctions. If that body is to be the General Social Care Council, make it easier for parents to go directly to that body rather than having to face delays from the local authority.
- Let children in care waive their right to privacy if they wish to speak out. For gagging children is surely not consistent with promoting their welfare.
- Restructure CAFCASS, the Family Court Advisory Service, from being an organisation that reports on the parents to the courts to one that actively promotes the parenting needs of children. The primary focus should cease to be assisting the court process. It should be diverting parents away from contested hearings into the making of parenting plans.
- Review the recent legal aid cut-backs that are deterring lawyers from taking on these complex family cases. It is quite wrong that desperate parents are unable to find a lawyer to help them in their time of need.
I hope that Ms Cavendish wins an award for this great and just campaign. If you live in the UK, you really should visit the campaign website and write you your MP.