by John Hemming Lib Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley
Sunday Mail – July 15 2007
Whenever local authorities are challenged over a decision to take a baby or young child away from their family the response is always the same: ‘It is in the best interests of the child.’ And that’s it – no further discussion is permitted. Yes, they have to give their reasons to a judge sitting in the Family Court, but these hearings are held in secret, so journalists are never allowed to attend. The judgements of the courts are never published.
Outside the family court system, local authorities in England and Wales do not have to justify themselves to anyone. Officials, along with the Family Court’s judges and lawyers, are essentially accountable to no one.
Over the past year, during which I have been studying the workings of the system in England and Wales, I have spoke to many hundreds of parents in my constituency and elsewhere who have been ‘service users’ as the jargon used by social services staff goes.
And in many cases I have discovered, to my horror, the removal of young children and babies is not only unnecessary, but actually unjust and harmful to the children involved.
The story of ‘Pauline’ described overleaf, is a case in point. Having studied 300 pages of documents relating to her case, I am entirely satisfied that her children where removed from her without any justifiable cause.
I then agreed to chair a campaign called Justice for Families, which alongside many other groups is working to expose injustices in the Family Courts and to end the secrecy which allows wrongdoing to go undetected and unpunished. Justice for Families has a small number of volunteers to talk to people who claim to have had their children wrongly removed. So far, we have had details of over a hundred cases where miscarriages of justice do most certainly seem to have occurred.
Two weeks ago, I lodged papers with the High Court asking for permission to inform professional bodies such as the Bar Council and the General Medical Council about alleged wrongdoings by professionals who make a living from allegations of child abuse. I need permission because as the law stands, I could be sent to jail for lodging any complaint relating to actions in the Family Court.
In May, I also reported England and Wales to the United Nations for contravening its Charter on Human Rights and have requested a UN investigation, similar to the one in Australia into the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their placement with white families – an international scandal which came to be known as ‘The Stolen Generation’.
In my view and that of many other campaigners, ‘stealing’ describes actually what local authorities are doing to children in England and Wales today.
Of course, no body objects in any way to social workers and other council officials removing children and placing them in care where there is any suggestion of abuse or maltreatment.
Indeed, whenever cases of horrific long term abuse of children come to light – such as the case of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl beaten, starved and tortured to death by her aunt in North London – many of us wonder why Social Services staff did not intervene more energetically and competently.
What is utterly unacceptable to campaigners though, along with an increasing number of concerned judges, lawyers and MP’s, is the clear evidence that social workers are literally snatching newborn babies and children from good, stable, loving homes, such as the one highlighted on these pages.
The fact that these children are then placed in care homes and with foster parents, where, abuse does sometimes occur, further adds to the sense of outrage at what is happening in England and Wales today.
I realise that many people’s first reaction is to say: ‘Surely this sort of thing could not be happening in any modern society, particularly one as sophisticated and enlightened as ours.’
But unfortunately, due to a toxic combination of money, incompetence and secrecy, this is exactly what is happening here, over and over again.
Many millions of pounds in grants are available to local councils if they hit badly thought-out Government ‘targets’. These grants are meant to act as an incentive to councils to find adoptive parents for older children left languishing for years in care homes.
The brutal truth, however, is that healthy white babies and children under the age of five are far easier to place for adoption than older children, particularly older children who are actually physically, emotionally or psychologically damaged by parental maltreatment.
Last year, the number of children under five taken into care and swiftly adopted was more than double the number in 1995 – which strongly suggests to me that babies and young children are being deliberately taken into care in order for councils to hit adoption targets and get their extra money.
This may seem an outrageous allegation. Yet how else to explain newborn babies literally being torn from their mother’ arms on no other grounds than that the mother ‘might’ get post-natal depression, or that the child is at ‘risk of emotional abuse in the future’?
Financial considerations also taint the work that lawyers do on behalf of those families whose children have been snatched. What families often don’t know until it’s to late is that these same solicitors sometimes get a lot of money from the council for other work. If this Solicitor upsets the council, the work may well stop.
So when the case goes to court, the solicitor says the family do not oppose an application for a baby to be placed in care and fast-tracked for adoption – even though they do.
I recently asked the Law Society if this behaviour was acceptable and in my surprise it said it was. I currently have three firms of solicitors I wish to report to the regulatory authorities for behaviour out of this sort, but I am forbidden to do so by the secrecy laws.
There are excellent social workers, lawyers, doctors and judges working in the Family Courts, but there are also some very bad ones. Yet action is rarely taken against conduct that is incompetent, misguided or even – to use a very strong word which I nonetheless believe is warranted – corrupt.
Another problem is that the system is biased almost entirely upon opinion. In judging future risk of possible harm to a child, the court hears from social workers and their paid experts.
He who pays the piper normally calls the tune. So parents end up battling against a battalion of people paid to say how bad they are as parents.
The scandalous case of Mark and Nicky Webster, from Norfolk, who lost three children after being accused of child abuse on medical evidence that was later proved to be wrong (a case brought to public attention by the Mail on Sunday ), shows how things can get skewed up by ‘expert’ opinion.
But the most damning issue to emerge from a recent court battle over Norfolk County Council’s attempt to take the Websters’ fourth child was the pressure placed on a care worker to change a positive view about the Websters.
Injustices of this sort are going on all over the country and it will take a lot of effort to get things right. But that just strengthens the resolve of campaigners to keep fighting.
Sunday Mail Review