As an adoptive mother I never in my wildest dreams believed that help seeking for my child to have specialist therapy, and for us both to have accessible respite that did not re-traumatise him, and gave me a break I desperately needed, would see me taken to court by the LA and confronted with allegations that I suffered with a mental illness. The fact of this being able to happen so easily, is not something the general public seem to be aware of. I did not have a mental illness and had nothing to fear from an assessment that took many months to complete and saw my child suffering great distress by his removal into foster care and then a children’s home under an Interim Care Order. I am saddened that people with mental illnesses and their children are put through such ordeals and feel something is going terribly wrong with ‘Safeguarding’ that this should have ever happened to us. It should not happen to anyone who is asking for help for themself and their child. The ease with which the local authority were able to misappropriate the court to call into question my mental health shocks and terrifies me to this day. Especially when no law firms will step up to the plate and support my child now, who wishes to make a complaint about what happened to him with his Rights of a Child being violated for years on end. I am not sure which shocks me more – the way the court was so easily misled, and my son removed against his wishes and mine, or the fact that law firm after law firm refuses to represent him/us.
Once in court we were on a conveyer belt – and all cases would be dealt with in the same way. My protestations of innocence came across like the ravings of a lunatic it seemed – as there could be no smoke without fire. Just “play the game” I was told by the barrister allocated to the case. Rectifying misunderstandings about me and my child, including those of the legal professionals supposedly representing me, was not an easy task.
In court the local authority and Cafcass guardian had the upper hand – one reason for this being, as the judge explained to one of my witnesses in later proceedings, when I battled so hard to get the Order discharged: “the court does not believe parents”. The only way I could succeed to get the Care Order discharged, was to get the case re-assessed by an expert who had the right sort of expertise. This was not straightforwards and I failed to do this in the first unsuccessful application, thwarted by the local authority and Cafcass guardian who both had legal help I could not access.
I am sure there must be Cafcass guardian’s who do have an appreciation of trauma, adoption and disability issues, but my child did not have the fortune to be represented by such an individual once a Care Order was given. And how could it not be given when the threshold of ‘Beyond Parental Control’ is so hard to disprove, for a child who was traumatised in early life? So many of our children with hidden disabilities, such as autism, which is much higher in adoptions than the general population, seem to fall foul of this threshold, and are severed from their families. Members of the judiciary clearly struggle with this threshold too, with inconsistencies in the way the threshold is interpreted and applied in different cases. So, our children must grow up in foster care (if foster carers can be found who are willing to care for our children), or children’s homes, often miles away from us, usually privately run, costing around £3k per week (according to Sir Martin Narey’s review on residential care), where they are vulnerable to exploitation and we cannot protect them. They won’t receive therapy either if this can be avoided by the local authority, as it is a cost that they will not wish to pay for. If it is provided it will be through therapists who are funded by the local authority, and who will never question the decisions of a court. These providers do not look favourably on a parent with a Care Order against them.
As a parent, the Care Order is a mark of shame that is very difficult to live with. It has major ramifications for employment and carries such stigma. Parents will be continually reminded of this Order by the local authority – and regardless of circumstances and context, they will be denigrated and humiliated. We will be shamed with it – over and over again, even in courts it seems – by well remunerated legal professionals and court judges, if we apply for its discharge. Proving ‘changes’ is nigh on impossible when it was the local authority’s negligence and intransigence that led to the Order being necessary. These legal professionals who judge us and go against us in court, or play devil’s advocate when they represent us, seem so prepared to imagine the worst about us on the basis of awful cases they have dealt with. This is presumably how they justify their persecution of us. They do not have to deal with, or live with, the consequences of their decisions and actions – as the child and family must.
The recent case of parents being unable to spend time with their dying baby in York shows the way these orders are being applied. Formal complaints can be made of course, as they were in this recent case – but by the time a formal complaint is actually investigated, it is already too late. The damage is done and cannot be undone. Apologies are given and the mantra of ‘lessons learned’ along with meagre compensation given, which barely compensates the parents for the efforts they must make for these complaints to even get to the LGO. The whole process of investigation can easily take a year.
Is there an alternative to adversarial courts that seek fault in help seeking mothers and fathers, driven to despair by lack of provision of services under austerity when they parent or care for children who are hard to care for? Is there a kinder way to implement public law orders – if they are deemed necessary because of problematic thresholds, or when our children must live apart and go into secure accomodation?
As an adopter I was struck by the disparities between the adversarial processes of family courts and the much kinder and more humane adoption process. This process does not lack rigour and will also have life changing consequences for a child. But in the adoption panels, with one panel that approves the parent(s) initially as potential adopters, and another panel for the match with the child, there is a goal of bringing a family together not separation. Importantly, this is a situation of all involved working together towards achieving the best decision and a common goal of a successful outcome. There is no disagreement or fighting parties, even though parental capacity and what support is needed will be the central part of the decision for a matching panel.
As the care crisis deepens perhaps it is time to reflect on how families where children that live apart from their parents and carers, especially where there are disabilities on the part of the child, can be supported to come back together safely. Perhaps, with a much wider remit, adoption panels could be a resource in these cases as they have so much more experience of bringing families together than the family courts do – this is after all their purpose. Could we have a system of ‘reunification panels’ that consider the application of public law orders and makes recommendations for rehabilitation and reunification? Surely this should be the common goal in all cases when children have disabilities and have suffered so much already in their early life? But why not for all families? Why are we treating mothers and fathers who struggle to cope with mental health problems as child abusers? Why not think about what support they might need to care for their children? Importantly, there are people with lived experience that sit on these panels to advise. Parents also do not need legal assistance for such panels where they are treated with courtesy and respect, not adversaries of the State. Parents like me cannot get legal help for court if we were reliant on benefits because of the demands of our parental/ caring role – but owned property. To pay for legal help I would have had to sell the family home. Barprobono took on the case, after the MP wrote to them, but explained they could not help due to high demand.
When organisations like Legal Action for Women, who have been helping women for 40 years, have started a ‘support not separation’ campaign and regular picketing of the Family Courts, I think it is time we thought about why this group feel it is necessary to do this. It was heartening to see shadow Minister Emma Lewell Buck at a recent event organised by this group at Westminster, which drew hundreds of people. It is so positive that politicians are taking this seriously.
As a result of our experiences as a family, and the many other equally harrowing cases I read about on social media peer support forums, I would personally like to see quite radical reform of the family justice system. I strongly feel that the emphasis needs to be on the family rather than the child in isolation. This should be the case in all families but it is especially important in adoptions, special guardianship and kinship care where children can no longer live with their birth parents or grow up with their brothers and sisters – a tremendous loss for any child, which can have serious long term health consequences as we now know through the ACE’s research. This is something we should be “going after like a bear” according to the film Resilience, which is about this research.
What is the way forwards? I am very impressed by the work of Haim Omer which challenges the way we have put our efforts on the child over the last 30-40 years. In order to help the child we must care for, and enable, the child’s parents. Parents in particular have been subjected to systematic blame in recent times according to Omer, which is so unhelpful for their children. This short film explains the approach beautifully.
I hope that policymakers and legislators will now think very carefully, with the latest figures of rising numbers of children in care, about whether the current approach of focussing on children, rather than those who parent and care for children, is the right way.