Family courts: the hidden untouchables

Family courts: the hidden untouchables

In the second of our special articles, we explain how family courts operate in secrecy

Camilla Cavendish, The Times Online, July 7 2008

I wrote yesterday about my gradual realisation that the child protection system is a sort of secret state. Many social workers, psychiatrists and judges are doing their best to help families. But given their power to tear families apart, the lack of accountability is astonishing.

In March 2006 a High Court judge, Mr Justice McFarlane, condemned social workers who had removed a nine-year-old girl from her parents for 14 months in the erroneous belief that her mother was suffering from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy. They had jumped to this conclusion after the mother took the girl to hospital for stomach pains, and a nurse found nothing wrong. They asked magistrates for an emergency protection order to remove the child without telling the parents or seeking any medical opinion. It was granted.

The judge found that every one of the assertions made by the social services team leader was “misleading or incomplete or wrong”. He criticised magistrates for granting the order to take the girl. But he did not name the social workers. So we can never know who they are, or whether they are still working. It is a fair bet that none of the people involved has been disciplined.

Frontline social workers are employed by councils, which are theoretically controlled by elected councillors. But in child protection cases, councillors can be kept out of the loop. John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP who campaigns on these issues and has also been a Birmingham councillor, says that officials routinely refuse to answer questions. “Even as a councillor and member of the relevant scrutiny committee, they say no, we’re not going to tell you anything, because of the secrecy of the family courts.” The privacy of the child has become synonymous with the privacy of the professionals.

Parents who want to complain have to go first to the local authority that they are complaining about. Most fear that to do so will entrench the local authority’s dislike of them. The few who are brave enough to complain receive a routine response saying that the matter has been investigated internally, and that the local authority is satisfied. Chris Smith, who lost his children to adoption, discovered that the investigator appointed by the local authority was not allowed to see any of the crucial court documentation. When he challenged the council concerned to release key papers under the Data Protection Act, they delayed for so long that the evidence arrived too late for his appeal. Many parents believe that their conversations with social workers have been distorted. But they are denied access to the case notes, even though these can be crucial in the courtroom.

Few parents have heard of the General Social Care Council, which has the power to remove workers from the Social Care Register. Since 2001 it has removed 17 people, mostly for inappropriate relationships with service users. There are 82,000 social workers on the register. Some of these seem to believe that they are above the law.

In February this year, a single mother called Louise Mason was reunited with two of her three children after a five-year battle against social services. It had started when she took her four-week-old baby to hospital. Doctors at first diagnosed a fairly common abdominal tumour. But they sought a second opinion in Belfast, where a doctor suspected that the injury might have been deliberate. Social services and police were called and her children were removed.

It took a year for the police to interview Mason under caution, and another year for her to be tried. During that time her access to her children was tightly curtailed. At worst she was allowed only an hour and a half with them once a month. Eventually a jury unanimously found her not guilty of causing grevious bodily harm. But social workers stuck to their own “guilty” verdict. They pressed on and served adoption papers. It took another two years for her to get two of her children back, with the help of the doctor who had made the original diagnosis. But the middle child had been allowed to see so little of her that he is likely to be adopted rather than returned.

What this case demonstrates is that parents can still lose their children even after being acquitted in the criminal courts. It is impossible to know how common this is. We know about this case only because the High Court judge who heard the appeal ordered that Louise Mason should be named.

It is not only social workers who are unaccountable. The secrecy of the family court system means that there is too little scrutiny of the psychiatrists and paediatricians who give evidence. A small but powerful group of radiologists, for example, believes that certain types of “greenstick” fracture are caused by parents twisting and wrenching a child’s limbs – even if there are no bruises, cuts or broken bones. These fractures are often picked up when a child is taken to hospital with an unexplained head injury and given a full skeletal X-ray. One mother who took her baby to hospital with a nosebleed was accused of abuse after an X-ray showed three such fractures. There are now grave doubts about whether these painless fractures are caused by adults at all – yet courts still tend to consider them as absolute proof of abuse.

In 2003 Sally Clark, Trupti Patel and Angela Cannings were all cleared of murdering their babies. Lord Justice Judge declared that no one should go to prison again solely on the basis of expert witness evidence, and the criminal law was changed. But there have been no such changes in the family court system. “Expert” evidence almost always takes precedence over evidence from relatives and people who actually know the family.

The problem is compounded by the fact that judges are also acting in private. Unless they choose to make their judgments public there is no way of scrutinising the quality of those judgments.

Parts of the legal profession are concerned. In March 2005, a seminal report by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee stated that “a greater degree of transparency is required in the family courts. An obvious move would be to allow the press and public into the family courts under appropriate reporting restrictions”. It advised that the restrictions on the discussion of their cases by parents should be removed entirely.

The Government launched a consultation but local authorities, the NSPCC and some family lawyers lobbied successfully against openness, citing the “welfare of the child”. In June 2007 Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, stated that a survey of 200 children had shown that many would be anxious about the presence of the press in the family courts. He stated that he wished to concentrate on “improving the information coming out of family courts, rather than on who can go in”. This meant giving more information about how the court has reached its decision to the people involved, and encouraging more judges to make their (anonymised) judgments public. A year on, ministers cannot say whether a single shred more information has been forthcoming.

The oldest law of bureaucracies is “first protect ourselves”. The need to shed light into dark corners is made all the more pressing by some particularly pernicious allegations that parents find almost impossible to disprove – as I will describe tomorrow.

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