Press one of the expand buttons to see the full text of an article. Later press collapse to revert to the original form. The buttons below expand or collapse all articles.
Publicize your Case!
June 19, 2006 permalink
This British article should be a lesson to anyone who thinks secrecy is the way to protect your child. Publicity is the weapon child protectors fear most, and the one most likely to save your children from their abuses.
In the shadows of justice
The government has announced plans to open up the opaque family courts system. John Sweeney reports on the parents who are caught up in the web of secrecy.
John Sweeney, Monday June 19, 2006, The Guardian (UK)
In Tom Stoppard's play, Night and Day, Guthrie, the old hack, questions whether any story is worth dying for. And then from the bottom of his cynicism out it comes: "I've been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it's worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light."
Ask "the social". Social services departments have the power to go to the family courts and take all your children away, for ever, without a jury, the press or the public knowing about it. Hostile adoptions take place behind closed doors, to protect the child.
But what if the social gets it wrong - and its experts assert abuse without properly investigating natural causes? Then a family may lose all of their children on the basis of false accusation, and they cannot go public and protest without fear of prosecution for contempt or other retribution. For example, if the social has taken Child A, B and C, and the family protest that was a mistake, the social could take Child D, too, again to protect the child. If the family hold their tongue, they might get to keep Child D ...
The pressure to remain silent in the face of losing your children for good is great, perhaps too great. Too many people complain to me that social services are too powerful, and families accused of abuse are too powerless, for every complaint to be without merit.
Reporting this kind of nightmare is not easy. Living it is unspeakably worse. Nicky and Mark Hardingham are an ordinary, extraordinary working-class couple. He drives a forklift, she tests the prawns in the same little factory in Norfolk, and appears meek and shy until you get to know and appreciate her gentle, mocking wit. They used to have three children, who they have to call in public Child A, B and C. They lost all three behind closed doors in a hostile adoption, but the couple protest their innocence. The family could not satisfactorily explain sinister, metaphyseal fractures in their son, Child B. To no avail, they pointed to a long history of brittle bones in their family - 100 fractures over four generations - and the fact that Child B was lactose intolerant. If he could not drink milk, and was not given a dietician - even though the family had asked for one - could that have affected his bone growth? No: it was abuse. (During the family court case, which I cannot report, Nicky's then lawyer applied for and got a job with Norfolk social services. She and it deny any potential conflict of interest.)
When Nicky became pregnant last year - an accident - she became terrified that Norfolk social services would take her fourth child away, too.
Last November I reported on their case for Radio 4's File On Four and also investigated that of Ian and Angela Gay, who had been convicted in the open, criminal court of poisoning their adopted child with salt. Last year, we could not identify Nicky and Mark because A, B and C had not been permanently adopted and we gave them fake names. The contrast between the two cases - one in the open and the other in the dark - was shocking.
We found fresh evidence of natural causes in both cases. The story of the Gays caused something of a national outcry. As well as the File On Four, I covered it for Newsnight, BBC TV news and the Daily Mirror, and it was followed up by the Mail, the Telegraph and others. The convictions against Ian and Angela Gay were quashed. Although they face a retrial, they are out of prison now. The story on Nicky and Mark died. They can never get A, B and C back.
I first came across the family court "black hole" in 2001 when, working for 5 Live, I started investigating the claims of people who said they were victims of Professor Sir Roy Meadow's law, that the more cot deaths you suffered, the more likely it was that you were a murderer. He gave evidence against cot death mothers Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Antony in the open criminal courts. We could report his evidence, find other experts who said it was "barbaric" "like stamp-collecting" and "just plain wrong" and report the belief of friends and families that the mothers had been wronged.
Meadow also gave evidence in the family courts. His victims could not appear on camera, they could not speak out under their own names. We could only report Meadow's evidence by risking contempt actions, which we did, time and again. Slowly, the net tightened. Blobbing out a mother's face, as she mourns the loss of a child taken from her at 25 minutes old, on the say-so, in part, of the evidence of Meadow, may have been in the interests of the child. It felt like censorship.
Back to the Hardinghams, who still protested their innocence. In April this year, Norfolk finally told them that A, B and C had been permanently adopted. By mistake or design - who knows - they had sent round a video, advertising the couple's children to adopting strangers, to Nicky and Mark. For BBC1's Real Story, broadcast last month, we filmed them watching that video and we filmed Nicky in her daughter's bedroom. We filmed, too, Nicky's grandmother, Joyce, talking about being falsely accused of child abuse in 1946 because she could not explain a mystery fracture in her daughter, Nicky's mother. And then their whole family standing by the couple.
Our film could go out because Norfolk had no children to protect: A, B and C had gone for ever and the one in Nicky's womb was not yet born and legally did not exist. Two and a half million people watched Nicky and Mark tell their side of the story.
After the show went out, the family met Norfolk and they say that a chance remark by a council officer implied that Norfolk planned to take the fourth child - an allegation Norfolk denies. The couple went to Ireland to try to keep the fourth.
When the baby was born, Norfolk arrived in Ireland the very next day. Nicky and Mark were confronted with a cruel choice: stay in Ireland, and face the Irish authorities, or go back to England, to the people who had already taken the first three children, where their parenting skills would be assessed. They chose England and drove to Dublin airport. However, at the check-in desk they were told that the new baby was too young to fly - and so the next night we were able to broadcast our second Real Story on the case.
Lisa Christensen, head of Norfolk Children's Services, has repeatedly reproached the couple for going public because it was "inappropriate".
Professor Carolyn Hamilton of the Children's Legal Centre told Real Story: "We have real concerns about more transparency and more access to the family courts because obviously children need to be protected, and so do parents from very intrusive press reporting or from gossiping about their case in the locality where they live. I don't see why having the public or the press in the courts would make it any fairer or less fair."
But others disagree. As a result of going public, 100 people supported Nicky and Mark by attending a local meeting, a thousand have signed a petition declaring their innocence and 3.7 million people watched the second Real Story - a quarter of everyone watching the telly at the time. Fresh experts have come forward, including a bone surgeon and a professor of medicine, gravely unhappy with the original medical opinion against the couple. One member of the public came forward showing that his family had gone through a second genetic test, for the LRP5 brittle bone mutation, which Nicky and Mark did not know existed. Going public to protest against claimed injustice may be inappropriate. It is certainly inconvenient. But it does help.
Information is light
After the first Real Story went out, Norfolk changed tack. Christensen wrote to Harriet Harman, the minister of justice, saying: "We would actually welcome more information being made public in this case ... allegations can be made against public bodies, but because of the confidentiality of proceedings in family courts, the full facts cannot be revealed."
The moment the couple arrived back in England, Norfolk went to court, to get an injunction requiring further reporting restrictions in the case. The injunction stated: "If you disobey this order you may be found guilty of contempt of court and may be sent to prison or be fined or have your assets seized." It is not even clear whether I can ask Nicky or Mark "how are things going?"
A website in support of the couple is in the line of fire from the council, and local reporters are now anxious about covering what happens next. For example, if Norfolk does take the fourth baby from the couple, can we report that? Or would that be against the interests of the child? 3.7 million people might like to know.
Perhaps Norfolk and other social services might care to reflect on what the constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman said on our Real Story when she set out plans for allowing the press in to the family courts: "For justice to be done, it must be seen to be done."
I asked if she was going to change the law, and she replied: "yes".