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Stalin and Mao in Family Court

April 14, 2010 permalink

In the case of a British mother who applied for the return of her children taken by social services Lord Justice Aikens likened the attitude of social workers toward families to Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.



Is justice being done for the parents who lose their children?

The new top family judge has a track record in standing up to social workers, says Cassandra Jardine.

Mother with baby
Once parents have their children taken away, it is extremely difficult to get them back
Photo: Rex

Any journalist who writes about the family courts dreads looking at their emails. Often I find long cries of pain from parents whose children have been removed by social services. A spot judgment has been made on their competence as parents, they say, following some incident or injury to a child. From then on, nothing they do or say will change the social workers' opinions.

The new President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall, offers such parents a ray of hope. Before taking up his appointment yesterday, he criticised the way in which a "warm and loving mother", who was seeking to keep her two children, had been "quite improperly rebuffed" by Greenwich social services. Having ditched their violent father, she wanted to start again – but was receiving no help.

Also in the Court of Appeal, another mother from Devon was told by Lord Justice Aikens that she too should be allowed more time to prove that she could care for her children. The obdurate refusal of social workers to believe in the possibility of change he described as: "More like Stalin's Russia or Mao's China than the west of England."

There have always been accusations of over-hasty or unnecessary removal of children, but since the torture and death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly (Baby P) came to light in November 2008, there has been more reason to fear injustice. The number of children being taken into care has shot up by 40 per cent, to more than 8,000 last year.

At the same time, the number of infants not in care who died of neglect or abuse actually increased from 46 in 2007-8 to 56 in the first 10 months of 2009. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in some cases, the wrong children are being removed from their families, and the wrong children being left in abusive homes.

One judge told me that that he thought the increase in care orders was not a cause for alarm: "These are cases that should have been dealt with years ago." But it sounds as if Lord Justice Wall will not allow the family courts to be viewed as mere rubber-stampers of judgments made by social services departments. Chronically understaffed, social services are liable – some social workers admit – to take action against soft targets while fighting shy of seriously threatening or elusive parents.

Sir Nicholas Wall is a contentious appointment. Within the family-justice system, where he has spent his whole working life, he is admired for his passion and commitment. But he is less popular with politicians. In December, he urged his colleagues to "come off the bench" and speak out about the "parlous state of family law" – prompting Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to attempt to block the promotion of this potentially turbulent judge.

The family courts are the cinderella section of the legal system. Hearings are often worryingly brief because courts are so overstretched. Family law is neither highly paid nor glamorous but, as Lord Justice Wall knows, it can have a devastating effect on lives. Parents whose children are taken from them feel it as keenly as a bereavement. If young, those children are likely to be adopted and lost to their birth parents for ever. Those too old or troublesome to be found new families will stay in the care system, where their chances of emerging educated or well-balanced are slim.

A perfect system in which every judgment is correct will never exist. But the broken-hearted deserve fair treatment. At present they often do not seem to get it. One mother from Essex, who recently emailed about the loss of her children, described social workers thus: "From day one they decided they were judge, jury and (sic) exocutioner. They have caused so much hurt and upset and totally destroyed our family."

Poor spelling does not necessarily make a poor parent. Nor does writing to a newspaper prove fitness to care for children. But, as Sir Nicholas Wall is well aware, he needs to restore confidence in family justice.

Source: Daily Telegraph

Stalin and Mao
Social worker team