Innocent but presumed guilty - the first article

A couple days ago Kerry posted Family justice: the secret state that steals our children and was impressed with the article. I found out that Camilla Cavendish, the author, had just recently published another article on the same subject:


Back in January 2006, we asked how many homes were being broken by closed and secretive family courts

Camilla Cavendish
THE 1990 ROCHDALE abuse scandal, brilliantly documented last night in Real Story on BBC One, is one of the most extreme in the lexicon of social service disasters. One minute a little boy is telling ghost stories, the next he finds himself in care amid rumours of satanic abuse. Even when a judge throws out the case, he is kept in care for ten more years, because the social workers change their story and claim that his parents are unfit.

We all hope that things have changed since then. But the almost complete censorship of what goes on in the world of “child protection” makes it impossible to know even how many cases go through the family courts. And 15 years on, the BBC’s court battle to identify the Rochdale social workers shows that the professionals still close ranks just as they always did.

The full Rochdale story is only being told because the children are now over 16 and are free to cry out against the social workers who refused to tell them why they were in care, or why they could see their parents for only an hour a month. Rochdale Council claimed that the social workers could not be named because to do so would hurt the children. The mantra of “child privacy” was used to protect the professionals. Now that the children have gone public, the council argues that the BBC is wrong to broadcast something that might put people off social work. Right.

To acknowledge that decent people make mistakes, as the Rochdale judge did in 1991, is not to “demonise” social workers. It is to lessen the likelihood of miscarriages of justice that tear innocent families apart. Family courts, which operate in camera, generally have a lower standard of proof than criminal courts, because they cannot send people to jail. But to lose your children, and for them to lose you, is a life sentence of another kind.

In the past year I have been approached by several parents who have had children taken away. Even those who managed to get them back are still too frightened to talk publicly. They describe what it is like to find yourself on the other side of a one-way mirror, innocent but presumed guilty, by professionals who are almost completely unaccountable. Your instinct is to cry for help, but you are told that talking to anyone could jeopardise your case. It is impossible for me to judge the merit of these cases, since I am not permitted to read the legal papers. Even if I could, I suspect that not all would be clear-cut.

The courts struggle daily to weave solid judgments from the strands of frayed, imperfect relationships. But what is unbearable is the bewilderment and helplessness of parents who can be plunged overnight into a world of acronyms, key workers, guardians, counsellors, summonses, complex reports and, for many, an ever-changing cast of legal aid solicitors who are always rushing to the next case.

A mother (I shall call her Sarah) entered this world voluntarily, when she began to suspect that her daughter was being abused by her former parter, father of the girl. She approached social services for help. But they ended up taking her daughter away from her, and placing her with the very man she had accused. I have heard only her side of the extraordinary story. The expert psychiatrist appointed by the court decided that Sarah had coached her daughter to make false allegations — something that is not unknown. But he did so without ever having met Sarah, her daughter or the boyfriend her daughter accused. He never appeared in court to be cross-examined. He merely watched the police video of her daughter’s interview and posted his report. Yet the judge apparently considered this a sufficient basis on which to take Sarah’s daughter away.

The business of interviewing young children about abuse allegations is an extremely delicate one. It has become more sophisticated since Daniel dreamt about ghosts in Rochdale in 1990. Children are rarely put through more than two interviews at most, to spare them the trauma and to lessen the likelihood of embellishment. The language they use is analysed to see, for example, whether the words they use are too mature for their age and likely to have been suggested to them. But in the end professionals have to make notoriously tricky judgments. And they are not always right.

Sarah is now desperate. She believes her daughter is living with an abuser. Sarah has been offered no counselling, though that would surely be a logical outcome of the court’s conclusion. She communicates with her daughter only by postcards, some of which have been returned by social workers as unsuitable. In a situation that would make me physically sick with fury and fear, she still does not look like the unstable liar she is accused of being.

It is not surprising that a judge would rely upon an expert that they knew. But insulating child protection professionals so completely does increase the likelihood that they will sometimes reinforce in one another a mistaken view. The veil of secrecy also spawns a host of rumours. I know mothers who have not taken their child to A&E after a minor accident, for fear of some spurious allegation being made against them. I know mothers who have stopped themselves admitting the extent of their post-natal depression, when they saw a certain look in the doctor's eye.

The media has been kept out of the family justice system to stop prying eyes making delicate situations even messier. But the secrecy is too complete. In 2004 Mr Justice Munby said: “We cannot afford to proceed on the blinkered assumption that there have been no miscarriages of justice in the family justice system. This is something that has to be addressed with honesty and candour if the family justice system is not to suffer further loss of public confidence.”

Allowing journalists into family courts, even on a restricted reporting basis, could make both sides more honest. It could give the innocent a chance to cry for help and be heard. The media must keep its mouth shut much of the time but we should let it keep its eyes open, not only to what happened 15 years ago, but also to what may be happening today.


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