It’s time to bring family law to book
By Christopher Booker
Families are being torn apart by a system veiled in secrecy, says Christopher Booker
I have never, in all my years as a journalist, felt so frustrated as I do over two deeply disturbing stories of apparent injustice that cry out to be reported but which, for legal reasons, I can refer to only in the vaguest terms. To cover them as they deserve, and as the victims so desperately wish, would challenge a part of our legal system shrouded in an almost impenetrable veil of secrecy.
Two weeks ago I recounted four examples of what I described as one of the greatest scandals in Britain today – the seizing of children by social workers from loving families, on what appears to be the flimsiest and most questionable grounds. The children may then be handed on to foster carers, who can receive up to £400 a week for each child, or are put out for adoption, in a way which too often leads to intense distress for both the parents and the children involved.
One case I referred to concerns a north London couple whose five children were seized in April by social workers from Haringey council and sent into foster care. The mother was then pregnant, and her baby was born last month. Shortly afterwards, according to her account, nine police officers and social workers burst into her hospital room at 3am and, as she lay breastfeeding, wrested her baby from her arms with considerable force. Discovering they had nowhere to put the baby, the authorities took it to another part of the hospital, where the mother was escorted four times a day to feed her child, until she was discharged four days later.
Having talked at length to the mother, I found this story so shocking that I put a series of questions to the council, to get their side of the story. The response of Haringey (which, since the national furore over its failure to prevent the battering to death of Baby P, has been somewhat sensitive on these issues) was to ask the High Court to rule that I should not be allowed to write about the case at all. In the end, the court did not go that far, but The Sunday Telegraph was reminded of the comprehensive restrictions on reporting such stories.
After spending several hours with the parents, looking at their neat home, the little beds where their children used to sleep and the cot prepared for the baby, I came away more convinced than ever that something was seriously amiss. I found the wife impressive in her detailed account of the events, clearly a devoted mother who feels herself and her children to have been the victims of an extraordinary error – the nature of which, alas, I cannot reveal.
This week, two days have been set aside for the mother to put her case to a judge. Despite the tragedy that has torn their family apart, the parents have never previously had an opportunity to challenge Haringey council’s version of the story. I only hope the court takes particular care to check out the evidence put before it, and that in due course I can fully report a case that sheds a revealing light on a system supposedly devised to protect the interests of the children but which too often seems to result in the very opposite.
Also this week, the fate of another family hangs on another court hearing. This is the story of a couple who last January were rejoicing at the birth of their first child. Some weeks later, concerned that the baby’s arm seemed floppy, they took it back to the hospital to seek medical advice. An X-ray confirmed a minor fracture. This proved to be the start of a nightmare, which led to them being arrested, handcuffed and driven off separately to a police station, where the mother was held for nine hours without food. The father was imprisoned overnight.
It emerged that the doctor they saw had reported her suspicion about the child’s fracture to Coventry social workers. The couple were put on police bail, ordering them to surrender their passports, forbidding them to be unsupervised in the presence of anyone under 16, and only allowing them to sleep in one of two named houses (the other being the father’s family home). But because no charges had been brought, the social workers allowed the baby into the care of its Irish grandmother, a respected primary school headmistress. To avoid the baby being seized, she took it to her family home in Dublin, where it has been supported by a band of relatives.
Determined not to be thwarted, Coventry’s social workers then asked the Irish courts to rule – in a case to be heard this week – that the baby must be sent back to them in England. The hospital doctor has meanwhile contacted the Irish medical authorities demanding that in no way must they carry out specific medical tests on the baby which might account for its injury.
In the House of Commons last week I met the one politician who has done more than any other – as this kind of story grows disturbingly frequent – to expose what is going on. John Hemming, the Lib Dem MP for Yardley, Birmingham, not only set up the Justice for Families website, which contains details of many similar cases, but recently assembled an official all-party group of concerned MPs to campaign for the radical overhaul of a system which seems so horribly off the rails, and too often to be betraying the very principles it was intended to uphold.
Not the least startling feature of this system is the secrecy with which it has managed to hide away from the world almost all it gets up to. As is confirmed by Ian Josephs, a remarkable businessman who runs the Forced Adoption website and has helped hundreds of families in similar plight, one of its most glaring flaws is the extent to which aggrieved parents are deprived of any right to put their case, not just to the courts but to anyone who might be able to help them.
It is a system hermetically sealed off, in which the fate of parents and children can be decided by an incestuously closed community of social workers, police, lawyers, doctors and other professional “experts”, who all too often seem to work together in an alliance which is ruthlessly oblivious to the interests of the families who fall into its clutches. Again and again I have heard of the misery of children torn from their distraught parents, forced to live unhappily in the hands of inadequate foster carers, and whose only wish is to be returned to those they know and love.
It is high time the veils of secrecy were ripped from this national outrage; that politicians intervened to call the system to order; and that the press was free to bring properly to light family tragedies such as those I have only been allowed to hint at above.
Forced adoption is a truly dreadful scandal