Courts won't reveal rulings in adoption cases
from: The Sunday Telegraph
By Ben Leapman, Home Affairs Correspondent, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 2:13am BST 06/08/2007
Family courts are refusing to tell mothers why their babies are being taken away and put up for forced adoption.
Two mothers have told The Sunday Telegraph that their pain at losing their children was made worse by not knowing the grounds on which judges took the decisions.
Both women had their requests for copies of the judgments turned down repeatedly. As a result, they were prevented from launching legal battles to win their babies back, because appeals cannot be lodged without -written judgments.
Critics claimed that the cases are an extreme example of the secrecy that runs throughout the family court system. Earlier this summer, the Government abandoned plans to open up hearings to the media.
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of Justice for Families, said: "It seems quite strange that somebody can have their child removed and adopted, and the system will not give reasons.
"This arises from the secrecy of proceedings and the fact that people are allowed to misbehave professionally in the family courts without any fear of sanctions against them."
The cases are the latest in a series highlighted by this newspaper which have raised concerns about the workings of the family courts and social services.
It included a professional couple who had their daughter taken away because the mother has a history of mental illness and the father was "confrontational" towards social workers, while another couple were told they cannot have their two daughters back despite being cleared of allegations of abuse.
Last year, 2,120 babies were taken for adoption before their first birthday, almost three times as many as a decade ago. Adoptions leapt after councils were offered cash incentives to increase the number.
One of the latest cases involved Pauline Goodwin, 39, from Merseyside, who suffered a breakdown after her marriage ended. As she struggled to cope, her baby girl, born in 2005, was taken away by social services at birth.
At a court hearing in June last year, held at a time when she was temporarily homeless, Judge Wallwork ruled at Liverpool Family Court that the baby should remain in foster care.
The mother says she was told that despite the outcome of the case, the judgment would not be critical of her. However, in the 14 months since the hearing, her repeated requests to obtain a copy of the judgment have proved fruitless. She has been told by social workers that her daughter has now been adopted.
She said: "They had my baby adopted, then they said they make no findings against me, but they won't give me the court order. I need the judgment because I want to lodge an appeal. It's supposed to be within 28 days but it has been more than 12 months.
"If they give me the transcripts I can prove the whole thing was wrong, and my baby wouldn't be where she is now, she would be with me."
Sharon Harkness, 37, also from Merseyside, won the first round of her courtroom battle when social workers tried to take her baby son away. In August 2005, at the High Court in London, Mr Justice Holman turned down a bid by a local authority to take the boy, then only three months old, into foster care.
However, at Liverpool Family Court in November, Judge Roddy reversed the earlier decision and granted the council a care order. The baby was removed from his family and is now living with prospective adoptive parents.
In the intervening 21 months, repeated requests by Mrs Harkness for a written judgment have been refused or ignored. She said: "It's within my rights to at least see the kind of care order they've put my son on. It's like they've taken my baby and forgotten to give me the receipt."
At one point she tried to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, only to be told that the court could not consider her case because she had no written judgment on which to base it.
At the end of last week, after The Sunday Telegraph took up the cases with the Judicial Communications Office in London, officials issued an apology within hours and finally pledged that both women would receive the vital documents within days.
In Miss Goodwin's case, a spokesman said: "Her Majesty's Court Service would like to apologise that in this case, the transcripts were not provided as requested. There appears to have been a breakdown in communications. The transcription company will prepare the transcripts next week and once they are approved by the judge, the court will send them out."
Regarding Mrs Harkness, the spokesman said: "There was an ambiguity in the original order which had not been corrected and caused a delay in the process. The transcript has now been produced and is with the judge, prior to being sent to the family next week."