Family justice: the secret state that steals our children
Every year thousands of children are taken from their parents, largely on the say-so of ‘experts'. It is a secret and sometimes unjust process and the system must change
Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a woman I hadn't seen for four years. She was calling to tell me that she was moving abroad, unable to bear the pain of living in the same country as the daughter she is no longer allowed to see. “I wanted to thank you,” she said, “for being the only person who ever gave me a fair hearing.” I was seized with guilt. This woman had asked for my help, and I had utterly failed her. Her story had been just so incredible. She described a world where courts need no criminal conviction to remove your child, only the word of a psychiatrist or doctor, and can deny you the chance to call any expert in your defence. A world that uses the “welfare of the child” to gag you from discussing your case. Where even if you prove yourself innocent on appeal, your children may already have been adopted: in which case you will never be allowed to contact them again. A world which had treated her so badly, this rather pretty and utterly normal young woman, that she was sincerely thanking me just for listening.
It had taken three calls from this lady and her boyfriend, a clean-cut army bloke, before I had agreed to go down to their provincial semi. We sat in their front room with the curtains drawn while they got out box after box of papers. And I got my first inkling of what it is like to go through the door into the secret state.
This particular case had started, as many do, with a custody battle. The mother had started to worry about her ex-partner's behaviour during his visits to their daughter. She approached social services to ask if they could supervise his visits. When the child then told a teacher that her father had touched her in bad places, the police were called. They filmed the child repeating the allegations. The upshot? A psychologist who watched the film but never met the mother, father or daughter wrote a report alleging that the mother had coached the daughter to lie. He never appeared in court, and was never crossexamined. Yet the court, encouraged by social workers, accepted his view. The judge ordered that the daughter should go to live with her father - a man the mother was convinced was an abuser.
My bitter regret, now, is that I did so little about that case. At the time I couldn't help wondering if there was not more to it than the mother had let on. And there may well have been. But today, I'm not so sure. Because so many elements of her story fit patterns that I have since heard again and again. The reliance on experts who have never met the accused. The stormtrooper behaviour of some social workers. The legal aid solicitors acting for parents who are always in a rush. This mother was plunged into a world of acronyms and organisations that she knew nothing about. She was always on the back foot. Having been the person who reached for help from the system, she became its victim.
The tale niggled away at me. I started asking questions. Soon after this encounter I met Denise and Nigel Clarkson, who had lost both their daughters after one sustained an unexplained injury, and who fought like tigers to get them back. Through the Eaton Foundation, which they founded, I met American doctors and radiologists who were challenging many of the assumptions made by British doctors who were diagnosing abuse from so-called “shaken baby syndrome” and certain tiny bone fractures.
I began to write about cases where judges were speaking out publicly about the failings of social services. In early 2006, Mr Justice Ryder denounced Oldham Council for taking a baby away from his parents because of a doctor who “strayed from the role of expert into the role of decision-maker” and a family court judge who “failed to detect that that was what had happened”. Two courts refused to let the parents seek a second medical opinion. It was a year, the most formative year of that child's life, before the Court of Appeal allowed them to call a neurologist who proved that the injury was caused before birth. We know of that blunder only because the judge involved chose to make his judgment public. Few judges do.
The stories began to pour in. People left messages on my answering machine saying that the system was rotten but that they dared not speak out, because they had managed to get their children back. Some had taken a sick child to hospital, only to be accused of physical abuse. Some had been accused of “emotional abuse”, a category that has no definition in British law but which has jumped 50 per cent in the past tenyears as a reason for taking children into care. Quite a number had complained about their local authority, for letting them down over special-needs education, for example, only to find themselves in turn accused of neglect. One woman in Sheffield sobbed that her two autistic sons had been robbed of their mother, as well as the care they needed, because she was accused of making up their symptoms.
Some parents complained about social workers and hospitals refusing to give them copies of any papers or X-rays in their cases, which they needed to mount appeals. Every single one felt that the system was set against them before they could even assemble a defence. Some had real problems: violent ex-partners or unreliable new ones, low IQ, brushes with drugs in the past. Many had never been known to social services or the police before. All were desperate to be given the chance to prove that they were good parents, some begging the local authority to install CCTV cameras in their homes.
Many alleged that their children were treated far worse in care: unloved, not allowed to do homework, some with a new bruise almost every time they came for supervised contact, bruises that were never explained.
Since local authorities generally would not talk to me, citing confidentiality, I still had only part of the picture. Was there really a problem, or were these people all lying? I looked for figures. Were particular local authorities taking above-average numbers of children into care, for example? How many of these proceedings were contested? How many mothers were being accused of having Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, a psychiatric disorder that is supposed to be rare but seemed to be cropping up too often in my conversations? I would call the Home Office, which would refer me to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which would refer me to the various incarnations of the Education Department, which would usually refer me back to the Home Office. Many of my questions were met with the answer that the data was “not held centrally”. This whole area started to look more and more like a hole inside government that ministers were simply not interested in.
Telling the stories was fiendishly difficult. First there was the legal requirement to avoid publishing anything that might even indirectly lead to the identification of the child involved. This is understandable, but it means that what journalists can write is sometimes so thin, so patchy that it is hard to ask anyone to believe us - because the most pertinent facts are often very distinctive. It also means that we can never humanise stories with photos, of the kind that helped to secure the freedom of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark. This is despite the fact that children can be pictured and named in adoption magazines, even while their frantic parents are trying to mount an appeal to get them back. Secondly, there were often additional reporting restrictions. Some of these were sought by local authorities as soon as I called them to try to get their sides of the stories. Some of these orders were so badly drafted that our lawyers simply could not tell what we could say. Some bore no relation to the draft that we had been sent before the hearing. It costs money to fight such orders, money that local media may not have and nationals are reluctant to commit.
The more often my articles were spiked or denuded of interesting detail, the more incensed I became. I began to feel that we, the liberal press, were part of a conspiracy of silence against people who had no voice. Worse, their children had no voice.
Some of these children were being told that they were in care because their parents no longer wanted them. As soon as a care order is made, the local authority controls all communications between parents and children. In many cases contact is gradually reduced, sometimes from a few hours a week to an hour or so a month, at which point social workers can return to court and claim that the child no longer has a strong bond with his family. Such tactics are unbearable. Clearly there must be some protection for authorities that work in extremely tough territory. Social workers are lambasted as often for failing to protect children from danger as for misjudging the innocent.
The problem is when laws that are meant to protect professionals from malicious allegations become an armoury against truth. There are good reasons why it is illegal to name a child involved in family court proceedings. Family law cases are fraught enough, without publicity adding to children's suffering. But it is quite wrong that laws framed to protect child privacy are being used to protect the professionals. Two years ago, when the children taken into care by Rochdale Council in the fabricated “satanic abuse” scandal left care and publicly attacked the council for removing them, the council argued that it would be wrong to name the social workers because that would breach the children's privacy - even though the children were desperate to speak out the minute they were free.
It does not have to be like this. The media cannot name the victim in rape cases. But we do report the evidence. Family courts, which operate in camera, have a lower standard of proof than criminal courts. They “convict” on a balance of probabilities, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. A lower threshold is thought acceptable because civil courts cannot send people to jail. But to lose your children, and for them to lose you, because a court finds that abuse is a “probability”, is a life sentence of another kind. This makes it even more vital that the system is accountable. Yet I cannot think of another area of public life that operates with so little scrutiny.
The main piece of legislation governing child protection is the 1989 Children Act. The Act was passed in the wake of the Cleveland scandal, in which allegations of sexual abuse by two consultant paediatricians at one hospital led to 121 children being removed from their homes. The Act clearly states that there should be “minimum intervention in family life” and that a court order should be made only if “it can be shown that this is better for the child than not making an order”.
Yet some parts of the country seem to have strayed a long way from that. This year, the education watchdog Ofsted became the regulator for Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that provides guardians ad litem for children in care cases. Ofsted's first two reports so far have been devastating. “Inspectors could not find evidence,” Ofsted says, “about how service managers satisfy themselves that family court advisers are reaching sound conclusions in order to make the right recommendations to courts about children's lives”. It found that “most reports contain recommendations to the court that fail to take account of a key principle of the Children Act that there should be minimum state intervention in family life”. There is much more in similar vein. The hapless state of Cafcass is failing both children of innocent parents and children who are genuinely at risk.
Cafcass is one safeguard in the system that is manifestly failing. Another safeguard is that local authorities cannot remove children without a court order. But the manner in which these court orders are sought means that they are rarely refused (the Government has been unable to give me a single example of a refusal). Parents are not always informed that an order is even being sought, so are not able to defend themselves. Even if they are there, the momentum is unstoppable.
Bill Bache, the indefatigable solicitor who acted for Sally Clark, explained it to me this way. “Court proceedings are initiated within a day or two. The local authority knows the ropes. Most parents, including the brightest and most articulate, are often too distressed and shocked to think straight. They may well turn up unrepresented. The local authority makes its case, often in lurid terms, stressing that the children are in acute danger and they are requesting an immediate interim care order. There is no time sensibly to evaluate the evidence, therefore, no doubt wishing to be safe rather than sorry, the court grants the order. Suddenly the children are gone.”
It is impossible to describe the shock, the isolation, that parents feel once their child is gone. Even educated people who can afford a good lawyer struggle to think straight. They feel alone against the system. Judges rely on reports by experts, social workers and guardians, many of whom are used to working together. This can produce a fatal lack of objectivity. I have spoken to some exemplary social workers and judges in the past few years. It is not my intention to demonise them all. But we must be able to spot whether the same individuals are reaching erroneous conclusions over and over again. At the moment any expert, social worker or judge who makes mistakes, goes beyond their brief or is on a crusade against parents is virtually immune from scrutiny. They do not expect that their evidence or their judgments will ever be made public. Remember that Professor Roy Meadow was only uncovered because he gave misleading evidence in the criminal courts, which are open. If family courts remain closed we will never be able to feel sure that justice is being done.
Over the next few days I hope to paint a more detailed picture of the pieces of the secret state, offer some explanations as to why mistakes are made, and to outline some solutions. The Times' interest is more than theoretical: we will continue to challenge various injunctions in the courts. But we also need your help by asking you to write to your MP. We will not give up. Because to sever a child from its family without due cause is licensed state oppression of the worst kind. It is, in fact, child abuse.
Why the Government must act
Privacy laws are designed to protect at-risk children. Yet these same laws are cited to prevent local authority childcare professionals, expert witnesses and guardians from being subjected to scrutiny for decisions that can tear families apart.
The system claims that the welfare of children is paramount. But the only way to make the welfare of children paramount is to make childcare professionals properly accountable for their decisions.
The press is allowed to report the workings of the criminal courts, even in rape cases, where victim identities are kept confidential. Yet it is denied access to the family courts that make decisions with far-reaching consequences. In 2005 the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee advised that more transparency was needed and that family courts should be opened to the press in all but exceptional circumstances.
The Government consulted on the proposals, recognising that public confidence was plummeting. But it lost its nerve. The Ministry for Justice has yet to publish the results of a second consultation, which ended last October.
Eight months later the Government cannot even say when it will respond to the consultation.