Wronged parents need the oxygen of publicity

From The Times

March 6, 2009

We hear the tragic details of children left in danger. But we must not silence the families of those removed unjustly

By Camilla Cavendish

“They’re ripping lives apart and no one knows,” says one kind colleague who has rashly offered to return some of the phone calls I get from people trying to get their children back from social services, or to stop them being taken away. She is staggered by the volume of misery, powerlessness and desperation that this issue provokes almost every day. And that it is almost invisible outside.

We all see the tragedies that go the other way. Baby P is imprinted on our minds. When the Audit Commission warned yesterday that thousands of children may be at risk of neglect and abuse in parts of the country because of shambolic child protection systems, we all have vivid images of the horror that can result if social workers do not intervene.

Yet we have almost no idea of what happens when the same shambolic systems intervene in the wrong lives.

When children die, they have no “privacy” left, so the media tell their story. But if children are taken from loving families and placed with strangers, their “privacy” makes their views the property of the State, to be translated only by the State.

I know one child, now back with his mother, who was told by social workers that she didn’t want him any more because she had a new baby. I have heard others say, on reaching 18, that they had assumed they were in care because they were evil. Many suffer the cruel ratchet of family contact visits being relentlessly reduced from maybe a few hours to an hour a week, to an hour a fortnight – awkward meetings in municipal rooms. This is done to wean children from their parents, for ostensibly good reasons but it also helps the State to claim that the “family bond” is weak and that the child would be happier with strangers. Of these things done in our name, we know almost nothing.

When we do find out, it is often too late. On Tuesday I went to the Court of Appeal to observe a strange case in which two teenage boys are protesting that the State is punishing them by keeping them in care.

The council apparently became concerned that the boys had refused to see their mother after she left the family home. A judge decided that their father was poisoning the boys’ minds, encouraged by a psychiatrist who, it was said in court, had exceeded her remit. They were taken into care. The boys have since run away from two foster homes, repeatedly stating that they want to live with dad, not mum. The system has deprived them of both.

The mute expression of disbelief and fury on the face of the older son on Tuesday, when the judges dismissed the appeal, was eloquent. By that stage, my feelings mirrored his. But it was hard to be sure. This was the first time any of the evidence had been made public, because only now has it gone to appeal.

We need proper regulation of the care system. The Audit Commission report demonstrates that regulators are too weak to improve performance in children’s services. We need a regulator who can spot problems early and make social workers accountable. We also need scrutiny of the courts. Here, there is progress. From next month secrecy will no longer be the default mode. Jack Straw is the first Lord Chancellor to have had the courage to stand up to vested interests and insist that all family courts be open to the media.

“If justice is open,” he told The Times at Christmas, “there is a greater chance that standards will rise and that egregious practices may be spotted before they become harmful.” He is also freeing parents to seek advice from a wide range of people, including MPs, some of whom dare not touch constituents’ cases at present. The ability to see who is involved will allow campaigners to track whether some experts and councils routinely jump to questionable conclusions.

Mr Straw is making a historic change from secrecy to openness. As of April 1, the onus will be on judges to restrict the press only if absolutely necessary. So it is strange that his proposals contain a sting in the tail. When court proceedings end, he is considering changing the default setting from openness to secrecy – by reversing a 2006 Court of Appeal ruling called Clayton v Clayton.

This states that parents and children who want to tell their stories can be named at the end of a case (as long as the children are not in care or have not been adopted). Judges can impose reporting restrictions, if they fear that an egotistical parent might take advantage of a child’s privacy; so there is still protection for children. But the ruling put parents in civil cases in a similar position to those in criminal ones – such as Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, who were cleared of killing their babies in 2003 after a huge campaign in which television played a vital role.

TV is a tremendously powerful medium for demonstrating suffering and mistakes. It was crucial to Nicky and Mark Webster – who made headlines two weeks ago for trying to overturn the adoption of their three eldest children – in being allowed to keep their fourth child. The Websters owe their success not to the Clayton ruling but to the courage of the reporter John Sweeney and the BBC in getting round the law, publicising the case for a brief period when the couple fled to Ireland and putting so much into the public domain that it became a public interest matter.

But the Clayton ruling has helped others, such as Fran Lyon. She was an Edinburgh student who was threatened with losing her baby because she was said to be in danger of developing Munchausen’s syndrome, a diagnosis disputed by her own psychiatrist.

What matters most is being able to prevent miscarriages of justice. By opening up the family courts, Mr Straw is taking two huge steps towards that. But reversing the Clayton ruling would be a step back. If we have to alter voices and black out faces, we will be treating wronged parents like IRA terrorists. That would be a victory for the privacy lobby, but not for justice.

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