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A system that abuses the whole family

October 19, 2006 permalink

Cassandra Jardine writes on England's secret family courts.



A system that abuses the whole family

Cassandra Jardine on the scandal of parents presumed guilty and children rushed into care

'One minute we are a family, the next thing we know, social services are taking the children away," said Tim Williams, the father of three from Newport whose children have spent two years in foster care following false allegations of sexual abuse.

Children playing on swing
'Parents say the secrecy surrounding the family court systems encourages bad practice'

The unusual aspect of this case is not that the parents were summarily accused of the crime – even though it was the father who reported to the police that he'd found an 11-year-old boy lying on top of his five-year-old daughter. It is that a judge in Cardiff, acting on the evidence of an American expert on child abuse, exonerated the parents and ruled that the children should never have been removed in the first place.

In the two years since I first wrote about our child protection system, whereby parents are treated as guilty until proved innocent, a day hasn't gone by without my hearing of a similar case from mothers and fathers who have come under suspicion for harming their children – whether physically, sexually or emotionally.

Most have had children swooped upon with terrifying suddenness – a trauma in itself – and put into care, where some of them then really have been abused. Once separated, these children have been allowed to see little or nothing of their parents and, in the worst cases, have been speedily adopted (local authorities get gold stars for boosting adoption figures) while their parents struggle in vain to clear their names.

Many, like the Williams, say they are kept away from crucial child protection meetings as an emergency protection order is superseded by a series of interim care orders. Within a year, the child's future will be decided at a final hearing in the now notorious family courts, whose secrecy rules make it hard for parents to challenge evidence or to appeal.

The couple about whom I wrote initially had their baby taken from them and adopted because when the woman took her son to see a doctor he discovered the child had a fractured skull and leg.

Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal published an article explaining how such "fractures" can be entirely normal bone fissures. Those parents, however, may never see their child again, because he has been adopted.

The couples who contact me are doing so in desperation and defiance of the law, which prevents them from discussing their cases. Until recently, they couldn't even tell their MPs about their plight.

What they tell me is that, protected by secrecy and goaded by fear of another scandal like that of Victoria Climbie (the 10-year-old who was abused and murdered by her aunt and the aunt's boyfriend in 2000), social workers act first and think later.

And when they do come to think about the cases, many have a tendency to assume the worst about parents – who are often understandably hostile to them – and back up their prejudices by assembling evidence which supports that view.

The children may have bruises or fractures that cannot be immediately explained, or behavioural problems that could suggest abuse – but that could also result from mild autism or some other disorder.

They could have been made ill, not by parents who fed them salt or induced illness to attract attention – the infamous Munchausen's syndrome by proxy diagnosis – but by doctors who don't fully understand the side-effects of drugs they have administered for another complaint. British experts are quick to diagnose child abuse.

Those from other countries – as the Williams case shows – may be more open minded, but judges are rarely willing to call them.

Maybe some of those who write to me in heart-rending detail about their cases are guilty – parents have, of course, been known to harm their children – but I very much doubt that they all are. They are too anguished, too angry, too determined to do anything they can to clear their names – feverishly fighting against the clock to be allowed a fair hearing within a family court system which they believe to be stacked against them.

The ruling earlier this month that solicitors acting in the family courts may not charge by the hour for their services and must instead put in a bill of just £1,000 for their pre-hearing charges makes it still less likely that parents will get the kind of representation that will allow them to clear their names.

Two weeks ago, just after this new ruling was announced, I took part in a debate in Portsmouth about the secrecy of the family courts, attended by judges, solicitors and barristers who work in them. The speakers defending the current system evoked warm murmurings of approval when they described our system of family justice as "universally admired" and the "envy of other countries".

When I told the assembled company what parents who are ensnared in family court proceedings have to say, I was jeered. The professionals did not enjoy being told that parents frequently liken the social services to the Gestapo, or that they find reports on their history or relationships with their children to be biased.

Parents find it hard to challenge reports because the rules of evidence are not as rigorous as in the criminal courts: meetings are not tape-recorded or videoed, so a social worker (often young, childless and overworked) can present personal interpretation as fact. Secrecy allows bad practice to avoid detection.

Nor did they like being told that many solicitors in this field seem to do the bare minimum for their clients, that children's guardians, who supposedly take an independent view on what is best for the child, often appear to be closely linked to social services, or that medical experts may have their own agendas. As for the judges, parents say that some simply rubberstamp the findings of the local authority; when I told them that, there was a roar of derision.

It was only afterwards that one judge stood up and acknowledged the importance of knowing how their work is viewed by those in whose lives they are interfering. He was followed by a solicitor who said that, although not true of the Portsmouth area, the shortcomings I had described fitted her experience elsewhere. One judge in the South, she said, was actually known as Mr Justice Rubberstamp.

The Portsmouth lawyers voted to retain the secrecy of the family courts. Their arguments were based on fear of press sensationalism and of troublesome individuals who would exploit openness in undesirable ways.

Those are legitimate concerns, but so are those of the parents whose lives – and whose children's lives – are blighted by a system which presumes guilt, often on slim evidence.

Tim Williams and his wife, Gina, may now sue the local authority for taking their children into care. It would be good to think that such an action would make local authorities more careful in future, but I fear that many more mistakes will have to be exposed before that happens.

Source: Daily Telegraph