Industry News: The Telegraph - New family court guidelines won’t improve a rotten system for children
Lord Justice Munby's proposals won't change the fact that far too many children are taken into care for no good reason
Excitable coverage was given last week to new draft guidelines issued by Sir James Munby, the judge in charge of our family courts, which it was claimed would be a groundbreaking move towards lifting the blanket of secrecy that has allowed our “child protection” system to become such a national scandal. The welcome given to Lord Justice Munby’s draft guidelines to answer “the charge that we have a system of secret and unaccountable justice” – entitled “Transparency in the Family Courts (and Court of Protection)” – came from two opposing directions. On one side, two newspapers proclaimed it as a victory for their own campaigns to open up our family courts to greater public scrutiny. On the other was one of the chief cheerleaders for the system, Sir Martin Narey, now Michael Gove’s chief adviser on childcare, who wrote an article for The Times, “Family courts don’t take enough children into care”. The new “transparency”, he argued, would enable the public to see how desperately needed is the vital work our courts and social workers are doing.
All Lord Justice Munby is proposing, however, is that all judgments in these cases should be published, unless a judge finds “compelling reasons” otherwise. Just how confusing his proposals are can be seen from comparing section 21, where he says that “public authorities and expert witnesses should be named” in all published judgments, with section 24, which says “no person other than advocates or solicitors instructing them may be identified by name or location”. So, no naming of those “expert witnesses” or local authorities.
Far more important than this seemingly glaring contradiction, however, is that all Lord Justice Munby is saying is that the outside world should be allowed to see more judgments – still entirely at the discretion of the judge. To anyone familiar with the peculiar workings of these courts, this will leave 95 per cent of what is so shocking about what goes on in them as secret as ever. Still completely hidden will be the way all the normal rules of British justice can be suspended: as in allowing judges to accept damning hearsay evidence, however absurd, without it being put to any proper test; as in how parents whose children have been taken from them are too often not allowed to challenge untruths or the tendentious opinions of “hired gun” psychologists, who may not even be qualified; as in how too many parents find themselves facing the cruellest ordeal of their lives being treated by judges and all present like criminals, without being given any proper opportunity to plead their case.
Almost nothing of the ruthlessly enforced blanket of secrecy that has allowed our family courts to become so corrupted will be affected in any way by Lord Justice Munby’s proposals. Even the judgments he wants to see published cannot be properly understood by an outsider unaware of all that has gone on in the courtroom, and how what may well be a shockingly one-sided and selective judgment was arrived at. In words I have quoted before from a disillusioned family court barrister, who spent 10 years defending in vain the right of hundreds of families to stay together, the system is so rigged against the families that it is like “seeing lambs led to the slaughter”.
One of the more unfortunate consequences of the secrecy that hides the workings of this system from public view is that it makes it so easy for its defenders, such as Sir Martin Narey, formerly head of Barnardo’s, one of the largest beneficiaries of our lucrative fostering and adoption industry, to claim, as he did again last week, that only in “a very small minority” of cases are “children wrongly taken away by the authorities”. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests to those who follow these matters closely, such as John Hemming MP, of Justice for Families, or Ian Josephs, who advises thousands of families through his Forced Adoption website, is that, since the number of children being yearly taken into state care in England and Wales has soared to nearly 30,000, those being removed from their families for no good reason now run into many thousands.
Sir Martin last week told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “a myth” that “social workers and local authorities intervene unnecessarily to take children into care”. He went on to say dismissively that this “myth” had arisen only through “misunderstandings” over “attachment theory” (ie, that there is some kind of special bond between children and their parents); over “the human rights of parents” (ie, Articles 6, 8 and 10 of the Convention on Human Rights that guarantee “a fair trial”, “respect for family life” and “freedom of speech”); and “the myth that care can make things worse”.
Not the least terrifying feature of the system Sir Martin so blindly defends is the mountain of evidence to show that children taken into care can too often be subjected to physical and emotional abuse far worse than anything alleged against the parents from whom they have been removed. Of course, where fostering and adoption are genuinely necessary and work, they are admirable and can save children from a life of misery and neglect. But too often the very reverse is the case. On the very day Sir Martin was being deferentially interviewed by the Today programme, I received two more handwritten letters, smuggled out to her family from her foster home, by a bright 13-year-old girl who has now, for quite ridiculous reasons, been in state care for more than two years.
In one she wrote: “I miss you sooo much and I love you even more, I’m so sad and I don’t want to live any more, I can’t take it any more, I have so many scars, I’m so scared, Daddy, please help me! I’m so sorry I’m so scared. I should be brave!” In the second letter she writes: “I’m so scared, my heart is shattered to pieces. I love you infinity itself, and miss you infinity itself.” This is an articulate, utterly distraught girl, who was never harmed by her family, who has been repeatedly ill-treated in foster care and who has been repeatedly refused her right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to put her own case to a court.
Her story is just a tiny part of the reality of what goes on behind that wall of secrecy that our child-protection system has erected – way beyond anything it is authorised to do by Parliament – not to protect the children, but simply to protect itself. Lord Justice Munby’s guidelines will do not a jot or tittle to change it.
An article in the Staffordshire Sentinel gives a very telling impression of the way we increasingly seem to be looking at children in care. Titled Youngsters in care aged 16 and 17 are to be moved out of children’s homes to save £1.6 million in just two years it explains how children in Stoke-on-Trent are being moved from children’s homes and foster care into supported accommodation. The article explains the cumulative savings to be made from doing this.
There is however something missing. At no point does the article say that these moves are in the children’s interests or give any indication that they have been consulted with. These are not niceties, these are obligations under domestic and international law. These are vulnerable children, the majority will have experienced abuse or neglect before coming into care. We owe these children more than moving them around according to what is cheapest. Even if failing to mention these considerations was an oversight, it is indicative of where priorities seem to lie.
As the UK’s largest specialist charity provider of fostering and adoption services, TACT has increasingly seen decisions about where a child lives apparently based on financial motivation rather than putting their interests first. We are even seeing local authority contracts saying that placements shall be ended, however secure and beneficial to the child they might be, if they are not satisfied with an annual review of fees.
We understand that financial constraints in current times places increasing obligations on local authorities to find savings. However, children are not commodities. Their rights are not negotiable according to cost. As a society we are in danger of forgetting that our overriding consideration should always be to act in their interests.
The Fostering Network is taking Don't Move Me, its campaign to help young people in England stay with their foster carers post-18, to the House of Lords.
The charity’s amendment to the Children and Families Bill has been tabled by the Earl of Listowel and will be debated in the House of Lords following their summer recess. The amendment was recently debated in the House of Commons in June and received a huge amount of cross-party support and now the Fostering Network wants to build on this by working with peers raise awareness of the issue and generate backing for the campaign.
Vicki Swain, campaigns manager at the Fostering Network, said: "We called on the fostering community to tell the Government what they wanted done for our vulnerable care leavers, and we were delighted with the response.
"We are sorely disappointed that children's minister Edward Timpson, refutes the need for legislation and instead wants to encourage local authorities to adopt a voluntary approach to setting up these schemes in their area. With only one in 20 young people remaining with their foster carer past the age of 18 years old, it is clear that this approach is not working.
"The Fostering Network regularly hears from foster carers and young people themselves the current voluntary system does not work, and intends to publish a report demontrating this. We are currently are asking all local authorities in England asking their provisions for "staying put", including the numbers of young people still living with their foster carers and the financial support in place."
Please help us win this campaign so that another generation of care leavers does not have to face the same struggle as they enter adult life. There is still an awful lot to do. You can help by:
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