For a long time now, thousands of British families of every class and background have been secretly torn apart by this country’s child protection system in one of the biggest scandals of our age (posed by model) Whole Article
For a long time now, thousands of British families of every class and background have been secretly torn apart by this country’s child protection system in one of the biggest scandals of our age.
Children have been dragged off by the State into the care system and, despite the pleas of their parents, often given to adoptive families.
This has been happening increasingly frequently in a process overseen by a network of Family Courts, which operate in secrecy in every town and city in the land, violating the principle of openness which has underpinned British justice for centuries.
As a result of the decisions of these courts, as many as 12,000 children and babies are forcibly taken into care in England each year, the equivalent of 230 or so every single week.
Some are newborns seized by social workers (invariably, flanked by police) in the hospital ward while the mother is breast-feeding or having her first cuddle with her baby.
Many children are removed on the basis of flimsy accusations by social workers: that the parent might shout at the child when he or she becomes a teenager (potential emotional abuse); that the mother has taken a sickly child to the doctor too often (fabricated illness syndrome); or — extraordinarily — simply because the mother has been in the care system herself or suffered depression as a teenager.
In one appalling case in a quiet corner of England, a middle-class mother is currently being threatened with having her children forcibly adopted after she was raped by her husband, who was imprisoned for his crime a few weeks ago.
Social workers say that, despite the fact that her husband has been sentenced to six years and the couple are about to divorce, the wife allowed herself to be raped and therefore cannot protect their children in the family’s home.
It is bad enough that such cruel decisions are being made at all. The fact they are happening in courts where rulings are made in secret is chilling.
Of course, the family courts have an unenviable job — often asked to rule on the most challenging of cases. And some of the parents appearing before them are certainly cruel to their children and ill-equipped to raise a family.
Equally, too many mistakes have been made in a system which can be stacked against the innocent. And the reality is that without transparency, no one will know the truth.
A parent who publicly talks about the hearings (even to a neighbour over the garden fence) or gives documents from the case to their MP, risks prison for contempt — and many have been incarcerated for such ‘crimes’.
And it is not just British parents who have suffered at the hands of secret family courts.
Two weeks ago, representatives of 34 countries, including four ambassadors, gathered at the House of Commons to voice their grave concern to a sympathetic MP, John Hemming, over the astonishing rate that children of foreign families living in the UK are being taken into foster care or sent for adoption.
Representatives of 34 countries have gathered at the House of Commons to voice their concerns to MP John Hemming over the rate that children of foreign families living in the UK are being taken into foster care
And last Friday, foreign parents marched to Downing Street to protest about the 6,500 children born here to overseas families who have been taken into care.
Now, after a decade-long campaign against the secrecy of the family courts by this newspaper, there has been a landmark decision by Lord Justice Munby, the most senior family judge in England and Wales.
The veil is to be lifted and light shone onto the 95,000 hearings held each year which decide the lives of so many children.
For the first time, judges’ written reports (or judgments) on custody battles, care orders and the question of whether a child should be re-homed will be published after each hearing — though not including the families’ names — unless there are ‘compelling reasons’ not to do so.
Parents found innocent (or even those who believe their children have been wrongly removed) will be able to apply to speak publicly and tell their story when the hearing is over.
Local councils running the child protection teams forcibly adopting or putting children in care will have to be named in the published judgments.
Also, the medical ‘experts’ hired at a cost of many thousands of pounds by the councils to produce psychological or health reports on the families, will lose their anonymity.
Now, after a decade-long campaign against the secrecy of the family courts by this newspaper, there has been a landmark decision by Lord Justice Munby, the most senior family judge in England and Wales
Many of these experts have long ago given up their ‘day jobs’ in the NHS or private practice to live off their lucrative court work. Sometimes, they produce a report on a family without even meeting them.
And what of the social workers? They are accused by campaigners of distorting evidence against parents to make a stronger case to take children for adoption, thereby winning brownie points with their council bosses. With more openness in the courts, it will be harder for a rogue social worker to push his or her own agenda based on fiction or fabrication.
The new guidance will also extend to cases which affect the welfare of vulnerable adults in the equally shadowy Court of Protection.
Here, life-or-death decisions such as whether to turn off a life-support machine or whether a woman should be forced to take contraception, are also made by a judge in closed hearings. And those who speak publicly about the case are also threatened with imprisonment.
The UK is the only country in Europe to allow adoption against the will of parents — except ‘possibly Portugal’, according to Baroness Hale, Britain’s most senior female judge, who spoke on the issue in the House of Lords.
Lord Justice Munby’s changes are long overdue. Too many innocent parents are still being dragged through these closed trials with no one to hear their voices (picture posed by model)
In extreme cases of abuse on the Continent, children are given to long-term foster carers or placed in a specialist children’s unit, but the whole ethos is to support troubled families and try to keep them together.
In contrast, parents in Britain — most of whom are never convicted of a crime — are punished with what amounts to a life sentence by losing their children.
Yet despite the huge number of children seized here, a fifth never go to an adoptive family — there are simply not enough to go round. They spend their childhoods inside the care system, living either in children’s homes or with frequently changing foster parents.
While this new guidance is an important step in helping to redress some of these wrongs, there is one crucial area it does not address. In the criminal courts, the accused is presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury. In the family courts, this cornerstone of justice does not exist. Guilt is decided on the balance of probabilities.
Campaigners want to see this changed. As one family court lawyer told me recently: ‘Parents accused of harming their children would rather face a criminal trial with a jury, and have their guilt or otherwise decided on proper evidence given under oath, than take their chances in the family court, where it is a complete lottery as to whether you lose your child or not.’
Jean Robinson, a director of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, who has witnessed scores of babies being taken from their mothers by social workers at birth, says the system is stacked against the innocent.
‘This same group of child protection “professionals” go round the courts,’ she explained. ‘The council social workers know the so-called medical experts and are paying them to give evidence to bolster their case. The judges know them all. It is far too cosy and secretive.’
Lord Justice Munby has rightly declared his determination to alter the public’s view that these family hearings are ‘a system of unaccountable justice’.
His changes — currently in draft but expected to be implemented imminently — are long overdue.
Too many innocent parents are still being dragged through these closed trials with no one to hear their voices.
But the truth is that nothing will turn back the clock for the generations of children who will never know, or have long ago forgotten, what a happy family life means.