Current legal aid restrictions mean that special guardians and adoptive parents may only have legal representation during initial care proceedings to try and challenge the threshold in these proceedings. Once threshold is proven, there is no further legal aid, help or advice for special guardians or adopters, even those whose children would like to be reunified with them. These parents/carers who offer permanence must often rely on a McKenzie Friend if they are over the threshold for legal aid, and cannot afford legal help, which may run into many £thousands. There is such high demand for the charity, Bar Pro Bono Unit, that an application, even if accepted, may not result in support.
All this means that the McKenzie Friend may be the only person in court taking a holistic family perspective who behaves in a way that is supportive and empathetic towards parents or special guardians under great duress. A McKenzie Friend is not legally qualified, and their role is one of support. They cannot address the court unless the Judge allows this, and if other parties object, then it is likely they will not be able to speak – even if this is what the parents explain is what they need and prefer, purely because of the emotional duress of care proceedings. From the parent’s perspective it can feel the whole court is against them, and the one person that could help is not allowed to speak – and it was a great relief in my own case, when I got too upset to speak, that the Judge invited my McKenzie Friend to address the court, and he was invited to participate in proceedings as a witness by me, with this being allowed by the Judge when other parties did not object. Nevertheless, getting my child out of the care system, after I had asked for help, and when he wanted to come home, was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The whole system seemed to work against me. This is why I wanted to try and be there, for these other parents, as a McKenzie Friend, when I heard of their case – at least someone could bear witness to the situations they were put in when they applied to discharge the Care Order.
The court in which I acted as a McKenzie Friend was not as flexible as the court that had dealt with our case, and this had the effect of making me feel the ‘best interests’ principle, the most abused of all the Rights of a Child, by UN member states, was less important than the letter of the law in some of our UK courts. It felt as if legal advocates could take advantage of the vulnerable litigant parents much too easily, without being called to account. It felt there was no one to protect them from the persecution they had to endure – and I felt powerless to assist. It also made me feel that natural justice for the child and family was less important than adhering to the letter of the law – which of course we did not know or fully understand. There was always a reason why something that seemed to us to be likely to be positive and beneficial to build shared understanding, was not possible or not ‘necessary’. The court was too much ‘role oriented’ rather than task oriented – we should all have been able to work together, as surely we all wanted the same beneficial outcome for the child. This was not possible and any productive dialogue between the other parties, who behaved in a way that was entirely adversarial to the child’s loving parents for the many months of the proceedings, was impossible to achieve. It was just a ghastly experience for me in the end and one that made me think it is important that changes are made to legistlation for families where children cannot safely live with the family, which can be the case for many of our children in the turbulent teenage years, and important that there is immediate policy review.
When I first got involved with this particular case of a young Muslim boy it seemed obvious to me, as an adoptive mum who had achieved a much long for reunification with my son, against the odds, that unless the ‘rescue the child’ approach was replaced with a kinder, more family centred approach, the child’s future looked very bleak indeed.
Children need parents and families. Why could the Court not appreciate this?
Why replace adopters that were clearly committed to their child with foster care, when foster care was evidently not working in this case (three placement breakdowns already), and there were no Muslim Foster Carers to care for a Muslim child?
Why fight so hard to keep a child in care, especially when the child had wanted to go home for two years since being removed?
Why refuse to work in partnership with loving committed adoptive parents, or give them any support now their child was living away from home?
Why, instead of supporting a positive relationship between child and parents, did the local authority reduce contact as soon as the application for discharge was made? Now it was only once a month, supervised, when the child wanted more, and inevitably these arrangements meant his parents could not properly support his faith?
Why was the court allowing any of this, and being so condemnatory of loving parents that had reported and sought help?
In short, nothing made any sense in this case to me – and it seemed totally unwinnable unless the right experts could be instructed with appropriate instructions on which to make sound decisions.
Who were the right experts in this case and what questions needed to be asked?
Because of the identity issues, the matters of faith, and the fact that this was an adoption reunification, it seemed to us (the parents and I), that the right experts were an adoption expert and a Muslim expert (ideally a psychologist), to comment on what might need to happen for the boy, who we shall call Ali and is 13, to potentially come home – as he had wished to do for so long before the application was made. In case Ali could not safely come home, advice was needed on the best sort of placement for him and what sort of work could be done to perhaps achieve reunification as a future ultimate shared goal achievable or not. Selwyn (Beyond the Adoption Order, 2014) recommends reunification should never be ruled out in adoptions.
It was a matter of concern to me that any attempt on the part of the parents to support their child’s faith was considered with suspicion and one professional even described it as ‘back door’ contact. The professional, who was providing ‘therapy’ to the child in his secular inter racial single parent foster care placement seemed to be unaware that the child was adopted and referred to the adopters as ‘birth parents’. As well as feeding him foods that were prohibited because of his faith, the foster carer did not even use the child’s given name to address the child, and the adopted child was also allowed to call the foster carer ‘mum’. All this upset the parents greatly, although they wanted their child to be cared for and in a stable home environment if he could not live with them.
The approach seemed unlikely to ever succeed and saw adopters replaced with a stream of unsuccessful foster care placements.
It was blindingly obvious that the LA and Cafcass Guardian knew very well that all they had to do was prevent the experts the parents proposed – an adoption expert and a Muslim expert – as not ‘necessary’ and the case was in the bag. Basically, the court relies on experts, and if they could prevent anyone from taking part in proceedings that posed a challenge to their rather partial and negative views of Ali’s adoptive parents, which they continually presented to the various Judges involved with the case, they would win.
To give a bit of context, Ali, was six when he came to the UK (Ali’s birth mother was ill and Ali was cared for by wider family until he could come to the UK), to be raised by his uncle and aunt, who were unable to have children of their own. He would have come sooner but our laws and policies prevented this – so it must have been quite a challenge to come to the UK at six, and he would have missed his family in India dreadfully. But his adoptive father was a refugee from early 1970s from a country he was no longer allowed to live in and knew exactly what it is like to come to a strange country as a young boy. There was so much empathy for Ali from his parents.
Diagnosed with attachment disorder and complex trauma, Ali was very hard to care for. Suggesting the parents could not cope was the obvious way to go when these parents had so much to cope with, and had asked for help. So help seeking did not have positive consequences for Ali’s mum and dad, who initially faced care proceedings instead of support, which concluded, only after a period of two years in foster care for Ali, with the Adoption Order being made and his return home. No adoption support was provided for the reunification, and the family ran into problems again when life story work had a destabilising impact on Ali. Threshold was proven and a Section 31 Care Order was made.
By the time I became involved in this case, it seemed Ali no longer wanted to come home and it was clear no one was wanting to see this outcome, except for his parents who remained totally committed to their child and continued trying to achieve the best outcomes for him.
There is a vast difference between parents that abuse their children and hide this from professionals and loving parents reporting, in good faith, that they are struggling to cope with austerity cut backs to services, and asking for help, in order to prevent harm. But the Family Court does not seem to be very sensitive to the differences between these cases and it was heart-breaking for me to see the condemnation that was being heaped on these two parents, striving to do their best for their child – and their relationship with him was being severed by those with a duty of care, in case Ali’s relationship with his adoptive parents was a threat to the stability of the foster care placement. At one point, I witnessed the father having an anxiety/panic attack in court and clutching his heart. I found myself frozen in disbelief.
All efforts on the part of Ali’s parents to bring in experts that might have helped achieve shared understanding of Ali’s complex needs as a young adopted person, his faith needs, and a more family centred approach, were successfully thwarted. An appeal was unsuccessful and this certainly eroded our confidence in judicial fairness and the potential for a just outcome. We felt so dismayed by the conduct of the legal professionals and all those involved.
Then in the week before the final hearing, the parents and child learned that the foster care placement had broken down. The foster carer had handed in her notice nearly a month before – and Ali, having just said he wanted to stay with her until he was 18, had nowhere to go. In a contact session he told his parents he wanted to go home to them and gave his mother a beautiful Mother’s Day card. He also confided to her, in a rare moment they had alone when the contact supervisor was getting drinks with the father, that he had recently tried to take his own life. No reports had been given to the parents of any suicide attempt so it was hard to know what to make of it.
However, the position of the Local Authority had not changed, and the Cafcass Guardian submitted a very late statement that sealed Ali’s fate. Ali had apparently had a complete turnabout after his contact session with his parents and now, in speaking with the Cafcass Guardian, he rejected his Muslim faith and his parents. He wrote to the Judge explaining this and said he did not wish to return home. He had been away from home for nearly three years by now and any fears about another unsuccessful reunification must have been in his mind. It was perfectly understandable that he had a wobble, and my son had the same after the five months of the initial care proceedings which ended in a reunification planned by the LA, with no input from me or my child. It was just foisted on us. At least I was able to talk to my child and say that if he did not want to come home it was fine and I would support him wherever he lived. He then made it clear he wished to come home and did. These parents cannot speak to their child except once a month in supervised contact. But when my son was taken into care after I asked for help again and the Care Plan was not being implemented in a timely manner, it was much harder to get him home. Only in a second application for discharge, after it became obvious to my son, through me discussing the Guardian’s position statement with him, that his wishes and feelings were being misrepresented by the Cafcass Guardian, and he was allowed his own solicitor – this was a turning point in the case. But this is not what happened here where the Cafcass Guardian and his solicitor, working together with the LA for the duration of the proceedings, were too strong as adversaries for the litgant parents.
The final Judge, at last, said it was not the parent’s fault, and used the parents’ application for discharge to pressurise the Local Authority into finding a suitable placement – temporary foster care followed by another foster carer. A long-term Care Order is made.
The Judge speculated that Ali would not wish for the Judgment, for a long-term Care Order to be published, saw no advantage to publication and does not encourage such an application. What a pity Ali’s wishes and feelings were not given more consideration in the two years before the application was put in (the court proceedings took nine months), when Ali consistently wished to be reunified.
Ali’s father is left suicidal and his mother is in complete despair.
I have no idea how they will ever recover from the ordeal they have been put through and I am left feeling secondarily traumatised. The holistic family centred adoption sensitive approach that was needed in this case for a beneficial outcome was entirely missing.
We have already, before the final hearing, made the Chief Social Worker, Children’s Commissioner, and Family Rights Group/Care Crisis Review chair aware of this case and of the Local Authority involved – who misrepresented me to the court in their Written Opening, as purporting to be ‘an expert’, when I did no such thing.
Shutting out and pushing away anyone that might consider the long term impact on the child and family, of a child being removed, and speak up for help seeking parents, in cases like this, where a child is hard to care for and may be rejecting of parents and carers for reasons to do with attachment difficulties – this is not ever going to benefit any child. The Muslim aspects of this case, the child’s rejection of his faith when cared for by the state, and the lack of input from Muslim experts, make this case an especially demoralising one in our multicultural society. How tolerant are we really when we allow a Muslim child to give up his faith in care, where it is totally unsupported, and do not question why this is – other than accepting at face value his rejection of his parents, when he had just suffered such a massive rejection from his foster carer. The care proceededings had to end early when she was due to go on holiday and the priority was finding him accomodation.
We hope lessons can be learned. We feel that changes are needed that protect children like Ali and support their parents and families much better.