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April 18, 2010 permalink
A British vegetarian family had to fight two years without legal aid to prevent social services from seizing their son.
Council tried to seize ‘veggie’ child
A COUPLE have won a legal battle to prevent social workers taking their five-year-old son into care after the authorities claimed that his health had been damaged by a meat-and-dairy-free diet.
Social services even tried to get police to investigate the family and threatened to seize the boy’s two older siblings during the two-year ordeal.
The parents, Ken and Marie, were forced to represent themselves in court after their legal aid was removed — simply because they had insisted on contesting the case.
Last week a family court judge removed an interim supervision order on the child previously obtained by social workers and ruled that he must be taken off the at-risk register.
“It has been a nightmare and we feel our experience should serve as a warning that the system is being used to try to break up innocent families,” said Marie, 40, a trainee aromatherapist from Lewisham in London.
Her words echo those of Lord Justice Wall, new head of the family courts, who said last week the eagerness of some social workers to take children into care was “quite shocking”.
The case is seen as another example of social services preferring to seize children rather than risk the type of bad publicity sparked by the case of Baby Peter, the toddler who died in 2007 after his plight was repeatedly overlooked.
Marie and Ken’s ordeal began in March 2008 when their son, then aged three, collapsed at home.
Only after he was rushed to the Evelina children’s hospital in Waterloo, central London, was it discovered that he appeared to be suffering from rickets, with very low levels of vitamin D, zinc and iron. He also had a bronchial condition.
Hospital doctors alerted Lewisham council because they believed the child’s condition was caused by malnutrition.
Social workers from the council alleged that the family’s diet, which included fish but no meat or dairy products, was the cause of the boy’s rickets and said it could put him in future danger.
However, the rest of the family, including another boy, now 10, and a girl, now 8, were found to be fit and healthy despite sharing the same diet.
“They implied we had selectively starved one of our children,” said Marie, who asked for her son not to be named.
“They twisted things, saying we were vegans even though we eat fish. We don’t eat dairy because asthma runs in the family and that can make it worse, but we are not vegans. I always gave the children extra vitamins, too.
“When the social workers found out that we home- educate our children, we were accused of being ‘unorthodox’, which made us even more suspicious in their eyes.
“We were told by social workers that they had obtained an emergency protection order in case we tried to snatch our son from the hospital, which was quite ridiculous.”
The boy remained at the hospital until November 2008 and his parents were kept under supervision whenever they were with him.
Ken, 35, said: “We found out from his dietician that when they initially gave him vitamin D his levels had gone up, but then over a period of months it dropped right back. It strongly indicates to us that he has a problem absorbing vitamin D — but social services continued to accuse us.”
The parents were said to be “in denial” of their role in causing their son’s collapse, which then became a reason in itself for seeking to remove him.
In late 2008 Lewisham council applied to the family courts to have the boy taken into care, but was granted an interim supervision order instead. This allowed the boy to go home from hospital but meant social workers would visit frequently.
“We were told that once they had obtained the care order, they would apply for the same for our other children,” said Marie.
Despite psychological reports that found the parents to be normal, the council attempted to upgrade to a full supervision order.
Lewisham also unsuccessfully tried to get police to investigate the family. A social worker wrote to a colleague saying they should “actively encourage” police to investigate the case in the hope that the parents would acknowledge the “harm” the child had suffered.
Marie, who gave birth to the couple’s fourth child last October, said: “After our legal representation was removed, we [requested] a judicial review of the reasons for the interim supervision order.
“The day before the court hearing last Tuesday, the council called us to say that if we would agree to them ‘monitoring and supporting’ us for a year, they would drop their application for a [full] order. We agreed to a six-month period of monitoring.
“If it wasn’t for the help of other professionals, such as paediatricians outside the Evelina, we probably would not have our son with us today. The big issue remaining is that no one seems to want to find out what the real reason is for his medical problems.”
John Hemming MP, who advised the family, said: “It is just appalling the way parents are being forced to agree to councils’ demands in order to keep their legal aid.”
Lewisham council said: “The court has made no criticism ... and considered that we acted entirely appropriately to protect the child.”
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Evelina, said: “Patients are only referred to social services if a multi-disciplinary team of senior clinicians suspect a child is in need ... No individual doctor makes this decision.”
The Legal Services Commission, which governs the awarding of legal aid, said it could be withdrawn if the chances of success were seen to be too low.
Source: London Times
Addendum: British MP John Hemming comments on a system of legal aid only for clients who plead guilty:
Legal aid as a tool of state oppression
Imagine a criminal court in which you are told that unless you plead guilty your lawyers will be taken off you and you will have to cope with all the procedures without any help.
What we have in the family courts (see link) is a situation where legal aid can be (and is from time to time) removed merely because people are uppity enough to want to disagree with the local council.
In this case (see link) the parents had legal aid refused and acted as litigants in person and won their case.
To me this is another really scandalous situation which the government are clearly responsible for.
The government's response is to change the law to ban the identification of the family concerned.
Source: John Hemming blog
Addendum: A reader comments on the irony of some agencies of government promoting a vegetarian diet to improve health and conserve the earth's resources while another uses the same diet as evidence of neglect.