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Postby Marina » Sun May 11, 2008 11:50 am

. ... 419698.ece

From The TimesFebruary 23, 2008

False accusation that changed mother’s young family for ever

Louise Mason is reunited with two of three children taken into care but it may be too late for the third ever to returnDavid Sharrock, Ireland Correspondent
Louise Mason is finally a mother again, leading a family life for the first time in more than five years.

She presents a calm — if brittle — front as she talks of her ordeal since she was falsely accused of harming her baby and having her children disappear into the care system one by one.

The long battle to clear her name and have her children returned to her has left this 38-year-old single mother utterly drained and emotionless. She pauses before answering questions, chooses her responses with caution, and, even as she insists that she is happy, can barely raise a smile.

Shadowing her happiness is the knowledge that, despite being cleared of all claims, she may never have her middle child — taken from her at four weeks — returned. He has bonded so well with his foster family that she may lose him permanently into enforced adoption.

Ms Mason’s agony began when her four-week-old baby was taken ill one Saturday afternoon. “She made a strange cry and was very pale, very cold,” she told The Times in the office of her solicitor, Carmel McGilloway.

Her GP instantly alerted Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry. “It was touch and go that night, the baby was bleeding internally and had to be given a transfusion. A lady in the hospital gave me a picture of St Teresa and said, ‘She never fails you’.” Ms Mason, a devout Roman Catholic, began praying.

Her baby was transferred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, 60 miles (97 km) away, with a preliminary diagnosis of neuroblastoma, an abdominal tumour most commonly found in infants.

But in Belfast, a different diagnosis was made. “A doctor told me that the police and social services had been called.” It was suspected that her child was the victim of a non-accidental injury — the acronym NAI would pursue her for years.

Mother and baby returned to hospital in Londonderry, where the child made steady progress. Meanwhile, her eldest, 20-month-old, child had been signed into voluntary care. After six weeks’ medical care Ms Mason was allowed to go home but her baby followed the sibling to a foster family.

Six months later her solicitor advised her to withdraw her consent to fostering, forcing the matter into court. Nevertheless, it took another seven months before Ms Mason was finally interviewed under caution by the police — more than a year after her child fell ill. And another year passed before she was tried on two charges of grievous bodily harm. Throughout, Ms Mason’s access to her children was tightly curtailed and supervised. At worst she was allowed only an hour and a half with them once a month in the presence of a social worker.

At her trial it was suggested that her baby had been kicked or punched with such force that the damage was equivalent to having been dropped from a first-floor window. She was facing a custodial sentence, yet after telling the court that she was prepared to take a lie detector test, the jury delivered unanimous “not guilty” verdicts.

The ordeal was not over. Within a fortnight she was notified that Foyle Health and Social Services Trust was pressing on with plans to have her children permanently removed from her. In December 2004 adoption papers were served.

“The judge was faced with a huge amount of medical evidence, all of which pointed to NAI,” her solicitor said. “At least five doctors were all singing from the same hymn sheet.” So, cleared of committing the alleged crime that had torn her family apart, there seemed no way back. “This was a hopeless case,” Ms McGilloway said. “Then out of the blue I was called by a consultant radiologist at Altnagelvin Hospital.” “Doctor D”, as he was called in court, revealed that he remembered giving the initial diagnosis of neuroblastoma — which had been overruled — in Belfast.

Ms Mason returned to court to appeal against the care order, which was quashed. The issue was sent back to the family court.

In June 2006 Ms Mason faced her third and final trial in the battle to recover her two children, who by then had a third sibling five months earlier. Ms Mason spent ten days in hospital with her newborn baby before it was also removed from her and placed with foster parents.

Foyle Trust told the family court that it was no longer pursuing the NAI aspect of the case. It was agreed that the family’s reunification should start at the children’s pace.

Louise Mason got her youngest child back in July 2006. The eldest of the three returned home in time for Christmas. And the third, the child who was rushed to hospital at just four weeks old? “There’s no sign of the child coming back,” Ms Mason said. “The child tried an overnight stay and was so distressed, it was awful.”

Her solicitor said: “A very grave miscarriage of justice may have occurred. We must not forget she could have lost all of her children.”

Ms Mason said: You simply do not think that one moment you can be a normal mother bringing up your children and the next moment your whole life has been turned upside down.”


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Postby Marina » Sun May 11, 2008 12:00 pm

. ... eed=uknews

Paediatricians 'scared of giving evidence in court'

Staff and agencies Society Guardian, Monday February 18 2008 Article historyAbout this articleClose This article was first published on on Monday February 18 2008. It was last updated at 00:02 on February 19 2008.

Paediatricians need greater protection from parents and the press or many will refuse to act in child abuse cases, an expert warned today.

Professor Terence Stephenson said the government and the General Medical Council (GMC) must do more to stop intimidation of paediatricians in the difficult field of child protection.

Stephenson, a child health expert and dean of the faculty of medicine at Nottingham University, said paediatricians had been vilified for speaking out in high profile child abuse trials. Some faced threats of litigation, loss of livelihood and persecution by parts of the media.

But support for paediatricians was crucial if the government was to make tackling child abuse a priority, he added.

"We need explicit backing from the government saying the rights of children come first and that means reassuring specialists like myself, that we shouldn't fear giving expert evidence in child abuse cases," he said.

"Child protection depends upon fearless, unbiased clinical evidence provided by professional paediatricians and it's no exaggeration to say that if doctors are intimidated by litigious parents or are vilified by campaigners and an ever-eager media, then the risks of suffering and death for the weakest members of our society will increase."

Several high profile paediatricians have come under fire in recent years over their child work.

Last December, Dr David Southall was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the medical register by the GMC. He was judged to have abused his position by accusing a mother of drugging and murdering her son.

Three years earlier he had been suspended from child protection work after accusing Stephen Clark, husband of the late solicitor Sally Clark, of murdering his two sons on the basis of a television interview Clark had given.

Another doctor, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, was found guilty by the GMC in 2005 of giving incorrect and misleading evidence in court during Sally Clark's trial. He was struck off the medical register but later won a high court battle, with the judge saying the GMC should not punish experts over evidence given in good faith.

Professor Stephenson, who is also a vice-president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, attacked the GMC which he said had allowed itself to be exploited by campaigners.

"The GMC's determination to show it doesn't favour doctors over patients has played into the hands of parents and their campaign supporters who use litigation to counter evidence which doctors offer without prejudice to the courts," he said.

A spokesman for the GMC denied the council was unfairly persecuting paediatricians involved in child protection work.

"Paediatricians attract complaints like other doctors. But it is untrue that large or disproportionate numbers of paediatricians are represented in our fitness to practise procedures," he said.

"It is extremely rare for a paediatrician to appear before a panel in connection with child protection work. Since 2004, panels have considered more than 600 cases. Only two could reasonably be said to have been about paediatricians involved in child protection."

Stephenson called for a poll of paediatricians to determine how many feel intimidated about giving evidence in child abuse cases, or have felt deterred from giving such evidence in court.

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Postby Marina » Mon Jun 30, 2008 7:51 pm

. ... le/3990762

Our Legal System

June 24, 2008
I don't understand our legal system in the family courts. You have a father that has not been found unfit and denied custody of his natural son, the mother of this child had all of her children removed and placed in her sisters home. Why wasn't this father given a chance he already has custody of his other son. This father has been fighting for 2 1/2 years since the baby was 8 months and the judge ruled that the aunt have custody.
Approximately 2 weeks ago my daughter was ask to take her neice because they were removing her from her dad.My daughter,although she is divorced from the girls uncle,took her in with open arms.The father found out that it make take longer then he thought to have her placed back in the home with him, ask for the courts to place her with her mother. The courts said that it is in the best interest of the child to be placed with the natural mother or father, she had not seen this mother more than 5 times in her 15 years of life. It took 2 police officiers to place her,screaming and begging not to make her go,in a running van with her mother at the wheel so they could lock her in and drive away quickly.She beg to take her to the Detention Center, she said she'd runaway, she said she would hurt herself, but she was forced to go to another state,why wasn't this natural father given custody or given a chance.


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Postby Marina » Tue Jul 08, 2008 6:17 pm

. ... 271773.ece

From The Times
July 6, 2008

Family justice: the secret state that steals our children

Every year thousands of children are taken from their parents, largely on the say-so of ‘experts'. It is a secret and sometimes unjust process and the system must change

Camilla Cavendish

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a woman I hadn't seen for four years. She was calling to tell me that she was moving abroad, unable to bear the pain of living in the same country as the daughter she is no longer allowed to see. “I wanted to thank you,” she said, “for being the only person who ever gave me a fair hearing.” I was seized with guilt. This woman had asked for my help, and I had utterly failed her. Her story had been just so incredible. She described a world where courts need no criminal conviction to remove your child, only the word of a psychiatrist or doctor, and can deny you the chance to call any expert in your defence. A world that uses the “welfare of the child” to gag you from discussing your case. Where even if you prove yourself innocent on appeal, your children may already have been adopted: in which case you will never be allowed to contact them again. A world which had treated her so badly, this rather pretty and utterly normal young woman, that she was sincerely thanking me just for listening.

It had taken three calls from this lady and her boyfriend, a clean-cut army bloke, before I had agreed to go down to their provincial semi. We sat in their front room with the curtains drawn while they got out box after box of papers. And I got my first inkling of what it is like to go through the door into the secret state.

This particular case had started, as many do, with a custody battle. The mother had started to worry about her ex-partner's behaviour during his visits to their daughter. She approached social services to ask if they could supervise his visits. When the child then told a teacher that her father had touched her in bad places, the police were called. They filmed the child repeating the allegations. The upshot? A psychologist who watched the film but never met the mother, father or daughter wrote a report alleging that the mother had coached the daughter to lie. He never appeared in court, and was never crossexamined. Yet the court, encouraged by social workers, accepted his view. The judge ordered that the daughter should go to live with her father - a man the mother was convinced was an abuser.

A Conspiracy of Silence
Allowing the family courts and social services to operate in secret allows miscarriages of justice without the possibility of redress

My bitter regret, now, is that I did so little about that case. At the time I couldn't help wondering if there was not more to it than the mother had let on. And there may well have been. But today, I'm not so sure. Because so many elements of her story fit patterns that I have since heard again and again. The reliance on experts who have never met the accused. The stormtrooper behaviour of some social workers. The legal aid solicitors acting for parents who are always in a rush. This mother was plunged into a world of acronyms and organisations that she knew nothing about. She was always on the back foot. Having been the person who reached for help from the system, she became its victim.

The tale niggled away at me. I started asking questions. Soon after this encounter I met Denise and Nigel Clarkson, who had lost both their daughters after one sustained an unexplained injury, and who fought like tigers to get them back. Through the Eaton Foundation, which they founded, I met American doctors and radiologists who were challenging many of the assumptions made by British doctors who were diagnosing abuse from so-called “shaken baby syndrome” and certain tiny bone fractures.

I began to write about cases where judges were speaking out publicly about the failings of social services. In early 2006, Mr Justice Ryder denounced Oldham Council for taking a baby away from his parents because of a doctor who “strayed from the role of expert into the role of decision-maker” and a family court judge who “failed to detect that that was what had happened”. Two courts refused to let the parents seek a second medical opinion. It was a year, the most formative year of that child's life, before the Court of Appeal allowed them to call a neurologist who proved that the injury was caused before birth. We know of that blunder only because the judge involved chose to make his judgment public. Few judges do.

The stories began to pour in. People left messages on my answering machine saying that the system was rotten but that they dared not speak out, because they had managed to get their children back. Some had taken a sick child to hospital, only to be accused of physical abuse. Some had been accused of “emotional abuse”, a category that has no definition in British law but which has jumped 50 per cent in the past tenyears as a reason for taking children into care. Quite a number had complained about their local authority, for letting them down over special-needs education, for example, only to find themselves in turn accused of neglect. One woman in Sheffield sobbed that her two autistic sons had been robbed of their mother, as well as the care they needed, because she was accused of making up their symptoms.

Some parents complained about social workers and hospitals refusing to give them copies of any papers or X-rays in their cases, which they needed to mount appeals. Every single one felt that the system was set against them before they could even assemble a defence. Some had real problems: violent ex-partners or unreliable new ones, low IQ, brushes with drugs in the past. Many had never been known to social services or the police before. All were desperate to be given the chance to prove that they were good parents, some begging the local authority to install CCTV cameras in their homes.

Many alleged that their children were treated far worse in care: unloved, not allowed to do homework, some with a new bruise almost every time they came for supervised contact, bruises that were never explained.

Since local authorities generally would not talk to me, citing confidentiality, I still had only part of the picture. Was there really a problem, or were these people all lying? I looked for figures. Were particular local authorities taking above-average numbers of children into care, for example? How many of these proceedings were contested? How many mothers were being accused of having Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, a psychiatric disorder that is supposed to be rare but seemed to be cropping up too often in my conversations? I would call the Home Office, which would refer me to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which would refer me to the various incarnations of the Education Department, which would usually refer me back to the Home Office. Many of my questions were met with the answer that the data was “not held centrally”. This whole area started to look more and more like a hole inside government that ministers were simply not interested in.

Telling the stories was fiendishly difficult. First there was the legal requirement to avoid publishing anything that might even indirectly lead to the identification of the child involved. This is understandable, but it means that what journalists can write is sometimes so thin, so patchy that it is hard to ask anyone to believe us - because the most pertinent facts are often very distinctive. It also means that we can never humanise stories with photos, of the kind that helped to secure the freedom of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark. This is despite the fact that children can be pictured and named in adoption magazines, even while their frantic parents are trying to mount an appeal to get them back. Secondly, there were often additional reporting restrictions. Some of these were sought by local authorities as soon as I called them to try to get their sides of the stories. Some of these orders were so badly drafted that our lawyers simply could not tell what we could say. Some bore no relation to the draft that we had been sent before the hearing. It costs money to fight such orders, money that local media may not have and nationals are reluctant to commit.

page 2

The more often my articles were spiked or denuded of interesting detail, the more incensed I became. I began to feel that we, the liberal press, were part of a conspiracy of silence against people who had no voice. Worse, their children had no voice.

Some of these children were being told that they were in care because their parents no longer wanted them. As soon as a care order is made, the local authority controls all communications between parents and children. In many cases contact is gradually reduced, sometimes from a few hours a week to an hour or so a month, at which point social workers can return to court and claim that the child no longer has a strong bond with his family. Such tactics are unbearable. Clearly there must be some protection for authorities that work in extremely tough territory. Social workers are lambasted as often for failing to protect children from danger as for misjudging the innocent.

The problem is when laws that are meant to protect professionals from malicious allegations become an armoury against truth. There are good reasons why it is illegal to name a child involved in family court proceedings. Family law cases are fraught enough, without publicity adding to children's suffering. But it is quite wrong that laws framed to protect child privacy are being used to protect the professionals. Two years ago, when the children taken into care by Rochdale Council in the fabricated “satanic abuse” scandal left care and publicly attacked the council for removing them, the council argued that it would be wrong to name the social workers because that would breach the children's privacy - even though the children were desperate to speak out the minute they were free.

It does not have to be like this. The media cannot name the victim in rape cases. But we do report the evidence. Family courts, which operate in camera, have a lower standard of proof than criminal courts. They “convict” on a balance of probabilities, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. A lower threshold is thought acceptable because civil courts cannot send people to jail. But to lose your children, and for them to lose you, because a court finds that abuse is a “probability”, is a life sentence of another kind. This makes it even more vital that the system is accountable. Yet I cannot think of another area of public life that operates with so little scrutiny.

A Conspiracy of Silence
Allowing the family courts and social services to operate in secret allows miscarriages of justice without the possibility of redress

The main piece of legislation governing child protection is the 1989 Children Act. The Act was passed in the wake of the Cleveland scandal, in which allegations of sexual abuse by two consultant paediatricians at one hospital led to 121 children being removed from their homes. The Act clearly states that there should be “minimum intervention in family life” and that a court order should be made only if “it can be shown that this is better for the child than not making an order”.

Yet some parts of the country seem to have strayed a long way from that. This year, the education watchdog Ofsted became the regulator for Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that provides guardians ad litem for children in care cases. Ofsted's first two reports so far have been devastating. “Inspectors could not find evidence,” Ofsted says, “about how service managers satisfy themselves that family court advisers are reaching sound conclusions in order to make the right recommendations to courts about children's lives”. It found that “most reports contain recommendations to the court that fail to take account of a key principle of the Children Act that there should be minimum state intervention in family life”. There is much more in similar vein. The hapless state of Cafcass is failing both children of innocent parents and children who are genuinely at risk.

Cafcass is one safeguard in the system that is manifestly failing. Another safeguard is that local authorities cannot remove children without a court order. But the manner in which these court orders are sought means that they are rarely refused (the Government has been unable to give me a single example of a refusal). Parents are not always informed that an order is even being sought, so are not able to defend themselves. Even if they are there, the momentum is unstoppable.

Bill Bache, the indefatigable solicitor who acted for Sally Clark, explained it to me this way. “Court proceedings are initiated within a day or two. The local authority knows the ropes. Most parents, including the brightest and most articulate, are often too distressed and shocked to think straight. They may well turn up unrepresented. The local authority makes its case, often in lurid terms, stressing that the children are in acute danger and they are requesting an immediate interim care order. There is no time sensibly to evaluate the evidence, therefore, no doubt wishing to be safe rather than sorry, the court grants the order. Suddenly the children are gone.”

It is impossible to describe the shock, the isolation, that parents feel once their child is gone. Even educated people who can afford a good lawyer struggle to think straight. They feel alone against the system. Judges rely on reports by experts, social workers and guardians, many of whom are used to working together. This can produce a fatal lack of objectivity. I have spoken to some exemplary social workers and judges in the past few years. It is not my intention to demonise them all. But we must be able to spot whether the same individuals are reaching erroneous conclusions over and over again. At the moment any expert, social worker or judge who makes mistakes, goes beyond their brief or is on a crusade against parents is virtually immune from scrutiny. They do not expect that their evidence or their judgments will ever be made public. Remember that Professor Roy Meadow was only uncovered because he gave misleading evidence in the criminal courts, which are open. If family courts remain closed we will never be able to feel sure that justice is being done.

Over the next few days I hope to paint a more detailed picture of the pieces of the secret state, offer some explanations as to why mistakes are made, and to outline some solutions. The Times' interest is more than theoretical: we will continue to challenge various injunctions in the courts. But we also need your help by asking you to write to your MP. We will not give up. Because to sever a child from its family without due cause is licensed state oppression of the worst kind. It is, in fact, child abuse.

Family justice

Why the Government must act

Privacy laws are designed to protect at-risk children. Yet these same laws are cited to prevent local authority childcare professionals, expert witnesses and guardians from being subjected to scrutiny for decisions that can tear families apart.

The system claims that the welfare of children is paramount. But the only way to make the welfare of children paramount is to make childcare professionals properly accountable for their decisions.

The press is allowed to report the workings of the criminal courts, even in rape cases, where victim identities are kept confidential. Yet it is denied access to the family courts that make decisions with far-reaching consequences. In 2005 the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee advised that more transparency was needed and that family courts should be opened to the press in all but exceptional circumstances.

The Government consulted on the proposals, recognising that public confidence was plummeting. But it lost its nerve. The Ministry for Justice has yet to publish the results of a second consultation, which ended last October.

Eight months later the Government cannot even say when it will respond to the consultation.


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Postby Marina » Tue Jul 08, 2008 6:25 pm

. ... 288255.ece

From The TimesJuly 7, 2008

Family courts: the hidden untouchables
In the second of our special articles, we explain how family courts operate in secrecy

Camilla Cavendish

I wrote yesterday about my gradual realisation that the child protection system is a sort of secret state. Many social workers, psychiatrists and judges are doing their best to help families. But given their power to tear families apart, the lack of accountability is astonishing.

In March 2006 a High Court judge, Mr Justice McFarlane, condemned social workers who had removed a nine-year-old girl from her parents for 14 months in the erroneous belief that her mother was suffering from Munchausen's syndrome by proxy. They had jumped to this conclusion after the mother took the girl to hospital for stomach pains, and a nurse found nothing wrong. They asked magistrates for an emergency protection order to remove the child without telling the parents or seeking any medical opinion. It was granted.

The judge found that every one of the assertions made by the social services team leader was “misleading or incomplete or wrong”. He criticised magistrates for granting the order to take the girl. But he did not name the social workers. So we can never know who they are, or whether they are still working. It is a fair bet that none of the people involved has been disciplined.

A Conspiracy of Silence
Allowing the family courts and social services to operate in secret allows miscarriages of justice without the possibility of redress

Frontline social workers are employed by councils, which are theoretically controlled by elected councillors. But in child protection cases, councillors can be kept out of the loop. John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP who campaigns on these issues and has also been a Birmingham councillor, says that officials routinely refuse to answer questions. “Even as a councillor and member of the relevant scrutiny committee, they say no, we're not going to tell you anything, because of the secrecy of the family courts.” The privacy of the child has become synonymous with the privacy of the professionals.

Parents who want to complain have to go first to the local authority that they are complaining about. Most fear that to do so will entrench the local authority's dislike of them. The few who are brave enough to complain receive a routine response saying that the matter has been investigated internally, and that the local authority is satisfied. Chris Smith, who lost his children to adoption, discovered that the investigator appointed by the local authority was not allowed to see any of the crucial court documentation. When he challenged the council concerned to release key papers under the Data Protection Act, they delayed for so long that the evidence arrived too late for his appeal. Many parents believe that their conversations with social workers have been distorted. But they are denied access to the case notes, even though these can be crucial in the courtroom.

Few parents have heard of the General Social Care Council, which has the power to remove workers from the Social Care Register. Since 2001 it has removed 17 people, mostly for inappropriate relationships with service users. There are 82,000 social workers on the register. Some of these seem to believe that they are above the law.

In February this year, a single mother called Louise Mason was reunited with two of her three children after a five-year battle against social services. It had started when she took her four-week-old baby to hospital. Doctors at first diagnosed a fairly common abdominal tumour. But they sought a second opinion in Belfast, where a doctor suspected that the injury might have been deliberate. Social services and police were called and her children were removed.

It took a year for the police to interview Mason under caution, and another year for her to be tried. During that time her access to her children was tightly curtailed. At worst she was allowed only an hour and a half with them once a month. Eventually a jury unanimously found her not guilty of causing grevious bodily harm. But social workers stuck to their own “guilty” verdict. They pressed on and served adoption papers. It took another two years for her to get two of her children back, with the help of the doctor who had made the original diagnosis. But the middle child had been allowed to see so little of her that he is likely to be adopted rather than returned.

What this case demonstrates is that parents can still lose their children even after being acquitted in the criminal courts. It is impossible to know how common this is. We know about this case only because the High Court judge who heard the appeal ordered that Louise Mason should be named.

It is not only social workers who are unaccountable. The secrecy of the family court system means that there is too little scrutiny of the psychiatrists and paediatricians who give evidence. A small but powerful group of radiologists, for example, believes that certain types of “greenstick” fracture are caused by parents twisting and wrenching a child's limbs - even if there are no bruises, cuts or broken bones. These fractures are often picked up when a child is taken to hospital with an unexplained head injury and given a full skeletal X-ray. One mother who took her baby to hospital with a nosebleed was accused of abuse after an X-ray showed three such fractures. There are now grave doubts about whether these painless fractures are caused by adults at all - yet courts still tend to consider them as absolute proof of abuse.

In 2003 Sally Clark, Trupti Patel and Angela Cannings were all cleared of murdering their babies. Lord Justice Judge declared that no one should go to prison again solely on the basis of expert witness evidence, and the criminal law was changed. But there have been no such changes in the family court system. “Expert” evidence almost always takes precedence over evidence from relatives and people who actually know the family.

The problem is compounded by the fact that judges are also acting in private. Unless they choose to make their judgments public there is no way of scrutinising the quality of those judgments.

Parts of the legal profession are concerned. In March 2005, a seminal report by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee stated that “a greater degree of transparency is required in the family courts. An obvious move would be to allow the press and public into the family courts under appropriate reporting restrictions”. It advised that the restrictions on the discussion of their cases by parents should be removed entirely.

The Government launched a consultation but local authorities, the NSPCC and some family lawyers lobbied successfully against openness, citing the “welfare of the child”. In June 2007 Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, stated that a survey of 200 children had shown that many would be anxious about the presence of the press in the family courts. He stated that he wished to concentrate on “improving the information coming out of family courts, rather than on who can go in”. This meant giving more information about how the court has reached its decision to the people involved, and encouraging more judges to make their (anonymised) judgments public. A year on, ministers cannot say whether a single shred more information has been forthcoming.

The oldest law of bureaucracies is “first protect ourselves”. The need to shed light into dark corners is made all the more pressing by some particularly pernicious allegations that parents find almost impossible to disprove - as I will describe tomorrow.


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Postby Marina » Tue Jul 08, 2008 6:27 pm

. ... 295839.ece

From The TimesJuly 9, 2008

Family justice: your word against theirs

In the third of our special articles, we look at the pernicious types of allegation that are almost impossible for parents to disprove

Camilla Cavendish

I wrote on Monday about the many desperate parents who have app-roached me after losing their children to social services. One thing that they all have in common is shock at how quickly the system seems to decide against them, and at how doggedly it sticks to that view despite all evidence to the contrary. Some parents find that minor issues are magnified until the conclusions reached are out of all proportion. The opposite also seems to hold true: some children come to terrible harm because the system systematically underestimates the risk to them.

Why does this happen? Eileen Munro, a reader in social policy at the London School of Economics and the author of Effective Child Protection, says that “child protection work inevitably involves uncertainty, ambiguity and fallibility”. She believes that it is human nature to form a view based on first impressions, and stick to it. “This has a devastating impact in child protection work,” she says, “in that professionals hold on to their beliefs about a family despite new evidence that challenges them. It can be equally harmful whether they are over or underestimating the degree of the risk to the child. They may continue to believe parents are doing well, even though there are successive reports of the child's being distressed or injured. Innocent parents wrongly judged abusive can face the frightening experience of being unable to shake the professionals' conviction, however much counter-evidence they produce.”

The risk of groupthink makes it all the more important that decisions are transparent and open to review. We all know of the tragic deaths of children such as Victoria Climbié, who with hindsight should have been saved. We know much less about the tragedies of children wrongly separated from their families, because of the secrecy of the system.

There are several types of allegation that are almost impossible for parents to disprove. One is “emotional abuse”. You can see why the category exists. Ill-treatment comes in many forms, not all of which leave visible scars. But in that nebulous phrase lurks the potential for injustice. In the past ten years there has been a 50per cent increase in the number of parents or carers accused of “emotional abuse”. It now accounts for 21 per cent of all children registered as needing protection, up from 14 per cent in 1997. Yet the term has no strict definition in British law.

Emotional abuse is not “neglect”: that is a separate category. The Department of Health defines it as “persistent emotional ill-treatment ... [that] may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or inadequate ... and may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being placed on children ... Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of illtreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.”

Local authorities interpret this in different ways. In Nottingham, emotional abuse is “an ingrained pattern of interaction ... which it is essential to observe and understand over time”. In Enfield it includes “swearing”, “conditional love” or “discriminatory remarks”. I have heard anecdotally of councils, including West Sussex and Cambridge, that almost never use the term. There are no statistics to confirm this. But it seems that child protection is as much of a postcode lottery as cancer screening.

Expert medical evidence is also notoriously difficult to disprove, even where there is no circumstantial evidence. Lord Justice Judge (who was named as the next Lord Chief Justice yesterday) has warned against an “over-dogmatic” approach in the criminal courts, when we are “still at the frontiers of knowledge”. But it is less clear how family judges should treat syndromes such as Munchausen's syndrome by proxy (MSbP).

Since the discrediting of Professor Sir Roy Meadow, who first defined it, Munchausen's has been relabelled as “fabricated or induced illness”. This is a perverse disorder in which an adult invents or deliberately creates a child's illness to draw attention to himself or herself. Even the experts agree that Munchausen's is rare, likely to affect no more than 50 people a year. But campaigners fear that far more people are being accused of it. For the traits of the Munchausen mother are broad enough to cast suspicion on many whose children are genuinely ill. They include a reluctance to leave the sick child's side, familiarity with medical terms and, most devastating, the denial of accus-ations of abuse.

Two years ago, a group of MPs with falsely accused constituents asked the Government how many people nationally were accused of having MSbP. The Government replied that it did not collect such data - even though Department of Health guidelines tell charity workers, nursery nurses, teachers and even pharmacists to look out for the condition.

Last year, social workers in Hexham told a pregnant student at Edinburgh University that she was in danger of developing MSbP when her baby was born, so they were thinking of removing the baby at birth. The student, Fran Lyon, had developed self-harming and eating disorders seven years earlier, after being raped. But these are disorders from which she has fully recovered. The psychiatrist who treated her as a teenager states that she poses no harm to her child. So does another psychiatrist, who knows Lyon through her charity work. The only person who seems to have entertained the idea that she could develop MSbP is a paediatrician who has never met her. But social workers have given his evidence more weight. Lyon fled to Europe last year, unable to trust her own country, and is now in a legal limbo.

To err is human. To refuse to acknowledge that is inhumane. No professional can be right all the time, particularly in this fraught territory. That is why wholesale reforms are needed - as I will explain tomorrow.


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Postby Marina » Thu Jul 10, 2008 3:49 pm

. ... 303324.ece

From The TimesJuly 9, 2008

Family justice: what we can do to protect our children
A ten-point plan to make our courts system fairer

Camilla Cavendish

Over the past three days The Times has set out some of the ways in which it fears the child protection system is being subverted by forces that are largely unaccountable. We believe that the Children Act has unintentionally handed enormous power to local authorities and experts, which some are using arbitrarily. And that secrecy keeps injustices from public view.

Opening up the system sounds easier than it is. Yet there are concerns that it could lead to paediatricians and other experts being vilified and refusing to do child protection work, social workers becoming demoralised and the exposure of families' private troubles. That journalists would not keep confidences. That reports by local papers might inadvertently add to the suffering of children by revealing their identities to people living near by.

These are valid concerns. I know two couples who have adopted children in very difficult circumstances. The natural parents of those children are quite unable to care for them, but they are also vengeful. Those couples and those children should not have to live in fear of being tracked down. They have made me think very carefully about the nuances of this. But I feel that these considerations can no longer outweigh the risk of grave injustices being perpetrated against children. And that we can put safeguards in place that will work.

When the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee heard evidence on this issue three years ago, many of the respondents seemed to assume that media access would inevitably hurt children. That is wrong. In the Court of Appeal almost all family law hearings are in public with reporting restrictions imposed. The press attends family proceedings in magistrates' courts, again with reporting restrictions. The press simply does not identify children when it is illegal to do so. Many of my articles may seem incomplete precisely because I am bending over backwards not to publish information that might identify the child.

The Australian and Canadian family court systems are open and transparent. Children's identities are protected but judgments are public, and so is the evidence on which they are based. That means that justice can be done, and be seen to be done. Their press apparently takes no interest at all in the majority of cases. This would surely be the same here.

The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee took the view that courts should be opened in all but exceptional circumstances. In July 2006, the Government seemed to agree. It published a consultation paper stating that greater openness was required in family court proceedings “so that people can understand, better scrutinise decisions and have greater confidence”. It proposed that the media should attend proceedings “on behalf of and for the benefit of the public”, with reporting restrictions to keep the parties anonymous. Almost a year later, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, rowed back, citing a survey of 200 children in which a slender majority had expressed anxiety about letting the media into the family courts. He said that openness would be improved “not by numbers or types of people going in to the courts, but by the amount and quality of information coming out of the courts”. A second consultation paper proposed keeping courts closed, but encouraged judges to release anonymised judgments.

That was a tragic loss of nerve. For there is no way that the growing lack of public confidence in the system can be solved by the publication of a bit more information that the authorities decide to let us see. Publishing an anonymised judgment without the evidence will not let ordinary citizens see what is being done in their name. We cannot tell, for example, whether witness X repeatedly goes beyond their remit or offers hearsay evidence. We cannot tell whether local authority B or judge C repeatedly gives X's evidence undue weight. If it was felt too risky to reveal their names, I would suggest that each expert witness could be given a unique code. That would deter the sensationalist hack from malice, but would enable the determined truth-seeker to track the behaviour of individuals over time, and hold them to account.

Many of the children's charities and lawyers who lobby against openness are trying to protect vulnerable people from damaging publicity. It is a tricky balancing act. But the clincher for me is this. One of the most draconian decisions the State makes is to deprive a child of a parent's love and care. Removing a child from its family is not simply a private matter. It is a decision that demands the very highest standards of accountability and transparency.

I believe that wholesale reforms are needed, which can be summed up in ten points:

1. Open family courts to the press in all but exceptional circumstances (as recommended by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee).

2.Let any parent or carer accused of abuse call any witnesses they need in their defence. At the moment, they are routinely refused permission to do so.

3.Give automatic permission for parents who are refused legal aid to get a lay adviser to help them present their case. This is routinely refused.

4.Remove the restrictions that prevent families from talking about their case (as recommended by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee).

5.Review the definition of “emotional abuse” across local authorities, to make sure that it cannot become a catch-all for overzealous officials.

6.Provide an automatic right for parents to receive copies of case conference notes and all evidence used against them in court, just as they would in a criminal trial.

7.Create an independent body to oversee the actions of social services, with proper sanctions. If that body is to be the General Social Care Council, make it easier for parents to go directly to that body rather than having to face delays from the local authority.

8.Let children in care waive their right to privacy if they wish to speak out. For gagging children is surely not consistent with promoting their welfare.

9.Restructure CAFCASS, the Family Court Advisory Service, from being an organisation that reports on the parents to the courts to one that actively promotes the parenting needs of children. The primary focus should cease to be assisting the court process. It should be diverting parents away from contested hearings into the making of parenting plans.

10.Review the recent legal aid cut-backs that are deterring lawyers from taking on these complex family cases. It is quite wrong that desperate parents are unable to find a lawyer to help them in their time of need.

Thank you for listening. As Jeremy Bentham said, where there is no publicity, there is no justice. If you support these ideas, please do go online, support our campaign and e-mail your MP.


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Postby Marina » Thu Jul 10, 2008 4:00 pm

. ... 305392.ece

Beware the politician who reaches for religious phraseologyAlice Miles

From The TimesJuly 10, 2008

Europe to begin investigation of secrecy in family courts
Sam Coates, Chief Political Correspondent, and Camilla Cavendish

Britain faces an investigation by Europe into secrecy in family courts, amid growing political pressure to overhaul the system.

The Council of Europe has stepped in after allegations that gagging laws designed to protect the rights of children are allowing miscarriages of justice and children to be removed unnecessarily from their parents.

The Times has been running a series of articles this week about the consequences of the system that keeps reporters and the public out of many family court hearings and obstructs people from seeing evidence against them or obtaining copies of judgments. Opponents of the system say that judges can be too ready to side with social workers and experts who want a child removed but whose evidence is rarely made public.

Family courts in England and Wales hear 400,000 cases a year, mostly divorces and child custody cases. In about 20,000 cases a year, however, local councils apply to remove children from parents on the ground that parents are abusive or neglectful.

The council’s investigation was initiated by Paul Rowen, the Liberal Democrat MP who is one of Britain’s representatives, and will begin in September. It could involve hearings by a committee that will take evidence and be able to visit courts.

It will come at a critical time for campaigners who are fighting to open up the system. The Government has promised to respond to a long-delayed consultation after the summer.

Three years ago the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said that greater transparency was required and restrictions on the discussion of their cases by parents should be removed entirely.

Moves to open the courts up were quashed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton in one of his final acts as Lord Chancellor in June 2007. He stated that a survey of 200 children had shown that many would be anxious about the presence of the press in the family courts.

Evidence taken by the Children and Schools Select Committee last month heard how pregnant women who missed antenatal classes were being threatened with referral to social services. What we can do...


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Postby Marina » Sun Aug 24, 2008 7:43 pm ...

Baby joy for couple whose children were stolen by social workers
Last updated at 11:20am on 17.08.08

They fought a landmark legal case for the right to keep their youngest child after the forcible adoption of their first three children in what has been described as ‘an appalling miscarriage of justice.’

Now Mark and Nicky Webster are celebrating learning that Nicky is pregnant once more.

The news comes as the couple prepare to launch their Appeal Court bid to be reunited with their three oldest children, who were all under the age of five when they were removed from their care by Norfolk County Council four years ago.

The children, who can only be referred to as Child A, B and C for legal reasons, were adopted in 2004, following a Family Court hearing that lasted just one day and relied almost entirely on now discredited medical evidence that a fracture sustained by Child B could only have been caused by violent abuse.

The Websters have since been granted legal aid to appeal against the original care order, the freeing order that followed and the adoption order that led to the devastating loss of all three of their children.

Speaking last night at their home in Cromer, Nicky said: ‘We’re thrilled and excited about the new baby. This is something we’ve been hoping for since January.

'We never intended our son Brandon to be an only child. I’m one of five and I don’t want to deny Brandon that joy of growing up as part of a larger family.

‘He has a sister and two brothers but they’re strangers to him and he’s too little to understand what happened.’

It is now two years since Nicky, 28, and Mark, 35, fearful that they would lose their fourth child in a similar fashion, fled to Ireland, where Brandon was born.

Now the couple are once again considering travelling to Ireland, for the birth of Brandon’s younger sibling, due in April.

Nicky explained: ‘Our experiences here in Norfolk have been so difficult, I would love to give birth in Ireland again.

‘It was very traumatic in so many ways. But the Irish have a way of making you welcome and we felt that in spite of everything. That’s where Brandon was born, so it has good associations.’

In the meantime, they are still working to bring their other children – now eight, six and five – home. Nicky said: ‘We are just waiting for our Appeal Court date now. I’m being as positive as possible about it. Nobody has tried to reverse an adoption in a situation like ours.

‘There is no precedent, so it’s not as if anybody has tried and failed – it just hasn’t been done. Of course, we’re very conscious that if we are successful and the children are reintroduced into the family it will be hard for Brandon if he suddenly has to share us with three other children.

‘He’s very much a mummy’s boy and I think it would be easier for him to get used to the idea of sharing us if it starts with a baby.’

But, however delighted the couple are with the prospect of another baby, it has meant making a painful decision. Mark and Nicky had left their daughter’s room untouched since the moment she was taken from them.

In her darkest hours, Nicky would retreat into the room and lie on the bed that, she said, still smelled of her little girl.

Nicky and Brandon celebrate the good news

Now, with the prospect of another arrival, practicalities have had to take precedence.

Nicky explained: ‘We moved Brandon into our daughter’s room a few weeks ago. I have to admit it was really, really hard. We painted the pink walls blue for him and moved out her toys and put them into the smallest room, which will be the baby’s.

‘She’ll be quite a big girl now, really, and I don’t suppose she’d still want her room that way any more, anyway. But it doesn’t mean we’ve moved on or don’t believe we’ll get her back.

‘We’ll fight to get all our children back. We owe it to them and to Brandon and to the little one on the way to do everything we can.’

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Postby Marina » Sun Sep 07, 2008 6:19 pm ... l?ITO=1490

Mum on the run: Pregnant teen flees to Ireland to escape social workers she fears will take her baby

By Neil Sears
Last updated at 8:12 AM on 01st September 2008

A mother-to-be has fled to Ireland because she fears social services are planning to seize her newborn child and have it adopted.

Sam Thomas, 19, left Britain alone, despite being heavily pregnant.

She discovered that her social worker had told the local hospital not to let her leave the maternity ward with her child - a girl - without social services being involved.

The county council has not obtained a court order giving it authority to keep Miss Thomas in the hospital, and she has no history of being a danger to children - yet social workers appear convinced she is unfit to care for her baby.

Last night an MP who is campaigning against local authorities' power to remove children from their parents and have them adopted said he was aware of the case.

Liberal Democrat John Hemming claimed that the local authority had been heavy-handed.

In some cases, he said, fearful parents feel they have no option other than to flee to Ireland or Sweden, where it is difficult for councils to take children away from them.

'Miss Thomas is right to worry that if the new baby is taken into care after birth she might end up getting adopted,' he said.

Miss Thomas, staying in bed and breakfast accommodation in Ireland, said: 'All I want is the opportunity to prove I can be a fit mother - but I feel like I'm on the run.

'It's the only way to make sure I can have my baby girl and be with her in peace.'

She had been living in Yeovil, Somerset, with her mother Carol Hughes and looking forward to the birth of her first child.

She became concerned, however, at Somerset County Council's growing interest in the birth, due in early October - and says it soon became clear that there was a risk she would not be able to keep her child.

Miss Thomas accepts that she has harmed herself and taken an overdose in the past, but insists she has not been troubled by problems related to depression for two years.

Yet council documents show her past difficulties are still considered serious.

There is a further issue surrounding claims that she has failed to take medication for a health condition related to blood-clotting.

She feared a child protection conference arranged for today would result in her child being taken from her.

A letter sent by Somerset County Council social worker Carly Barrett to Yeovil District Hospital earlier this month instructed that after the birth 'under no circumstances must Miss Thomas be discharged without Children's Social Care involvement'.

Miss Thomas fled to Wexford last week, where she is signed up with a GP and is in contact with Irish social services. She plans to name her daughter Ellie-Jay.

She said: 'I don't want to be here - but I feel I have no choice.

'Social services have made me out to be an unfit mother but everything in their reports is either wrong, or out of context. They're not listening to anything I've got to say.'

Miss Thomas's mother Carol is supporting her emotionally and financially from back home in Yeovil.

Somerset County Council said it could not discuss individual cases.

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Postby Marina » Mon Nov 17, 2008 6:58 pm

Baby P

A child died while in the Child Welfare System in UK.

There are too many articles to post, but they describe the horrible state of the Agencies.

Do a news search for "Baby P."

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Postby Marina » Tue Nov 25, 2008 6:18 pm ... slims.html

Pictured: How runaway mum and her five daughters disguised themselves as Muslims

By Paul Sims
Last updated at 1:26 AM on 19th November 2008

A mother who went on the run with her five daughters to stop them being taken into care disguised herself in a Muslim-style robe and headscarf when she fled.

Natalie Bracht, 35, disappeared from her home six months ago after being told social services were preparing to remove her children.

Police sources fear they could be in 'grave danger'.

A CCTV picture, taken on May 17, shows Natalie Bracht with her five daughters at King's Cross station in London
Miss Bracht, who has a personality disorder, vanished minutes before officials arrived at her home in Sunderland.
As the search intensified yesterday, police issued CCTV images of the family as they arrived in London at 6.20pm on May 17.

Miss Bracht and her children - aged five to 13 - had changed into robes and headscarves while on the train to King's Cross from Newcastle, where she had been pictured in a red anorak.

On Monday, in a rare move, the High Court overturned a ban on publicly identifying Miss Bracht's children to help the search.

They are Manjuh Vossing, 13, Naomi Joy Sharan Vossing, 12, Indira Zoe Pirijo Bracht, ten, Naima Sina Isis Marjaleena Anutosch Bracht, nine, and five-year-old Margo Noemi Elinour Chrisanty Bracht.

Detective Chief Inspector Ian Bentham, who is leading the search, believes Miss Bracht and her children may have repeatedly changed their appearance.

He said: 'We can release for the first time these CCTV stills without obscuring the girls' faces. In them Natalie is seen wearing a flowing white robe and headscarf. Some of her daughters also seem to be wearing headscarves.
'We don't know how Natalie and the girls are dressed now - they may have altered their appearance several times.'

Miss Bracht, who speaks English with a German accent, moved to the North-East with her children in 2006 from Dusseldorf, Germany.

But after being contacted by Sunderland City Council social services, medical experts recommended that the children be taken into care because of her personality disorder.

Fleeing: The family have been sighted in London and the South West of England
They feared for the children's welfare while they were in her care.

Since disappearing, Miss Bracht has posted messages on the internet criticising the authorities and writing about her family, claiming her father was a Libyan spy and that the father of three of her children was an Israeli nuclear scientist.

Her British father, John Brown, denies all of her claims and has urged her to give herself up.

Since fleeing, she and her children have been seen at a London mosque while thought to be staying in Harlesden, North London.

At a commune near Yeovil, Somerset, she spoke to a reporter who posted the interview on the internet. The reporter was later arrested for refusing to give police her location.

In June Miss Bracht and the girls had moved to Moretonhampstead, Devon - the last known sighting.

Miss Bracht, whom police say is an accomplished storyteller, may have talked people into helping her hide from the authorities.

An interim care order on her girls has been granted.

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Postby Marina » Mon Dec 01, 2008 7:46 pm ... 267977.ece

From Times OnlineDecember 1, 2008

Baby P death: Haringey chief sacked and councillors quit

Three senior figures from Haringey Council lost their jobs today over the Baby P tragedy, including the social worker in overall charge of children's services in the borough.

Sharon Shoesmith, the £100,000-a-year director of children's services in Haringey, was pilloried after conspicuously avoiding saying sorry for the fact that her organisation failed to prevent the toddler's death.


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Postby Marina » Sun Dec 07, 2008 5:56 pm ... d-injuries

Couple fight adoption 'injustice'

David Pallister The Guardian, Friday December 5 2008

A couple who claim they suffered a miscarriage of justice when three of their children were adopted after they were accused of inflicting multiple fractures on one of them yesterday went to the appeal court to reunite the family.

Mark Webster, 35, and Nicola, 28, say the injuries to the boy, referred to as B, were due to scurvy, brought on by his acute eating problems, which saw him existing on an exclusive diet of soya milk. Their views have been supported by five eminent consultants.

Doctors who originally discovered the six fractures said the injuries were non-accidental. The Websters have not seen the children since January 2005, when they were aged five, three and two.

The couple, from Cromer, Norfolk, fled to Ireland in 2006 to have their fourth child, Brandon, fearing that otherwise he too would be taken from them. When they returned to England the family was closely monitored but Brandon is now allowed to stay at home permanently.

Their counsel, Ian Peddie QC, said it was time for a court to publicly acknowledge they were victims of a "terrible miscarriage of justice". He added that, even if the court ruled it was too late to go back on the adoptions, the children should learn the truth and the Websters and Brandon should be allowed to see them.

Peddie said the Websters wanted to thank the adoptive parents and they "recognised the anguish" that the case presented for them. "They desperately want to reunite the family even if only visiting contact is established."

The judges will reserve their ruling.


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Postby Marina » Sat Dec 13, 2008 9:47 am ... l?ITO=1490

Baby P council pays £19,000 for spin doctors as police probe new Haringey abuse allegation

By Kiran Randhawa and Benedict Moore-bridger
Last updated at 10:31 AM on 08th December 2008

The council that failed to protect Baby P spent £19,000 on spin doctors hired to rebuild the image of former head of children’s services Sharon Shoesmith, it emerged today.


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Postby Marina » Sat Dec 13, 2008 5:59 pm ... l?ITO=1490

Baby P council faces fresh probe over child taken from caring foster mother and handed to 'abuse' couple

By Keith Dovkants
Last updated at 3:51 PM on 09th December 2008

Damning new evidence of the incompetence of Haringey child protection services has been reported today.

The council at the centre of the Baby P scandal snatched another child from a loving foster parent and put him into the care of a couple now caught up in an investigation into abuse, according to the London Evening Standard.

Baby C was taken after social workers acting on the orders of disgraced children's director Sharon Shoesmith launched a court battle to take the baby boy from his foster mother, who had applied to become his guardian.


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Postby Marina » Wed Dec 17, 2008 6:10 pm ... ounce.html

Veil of secrecy on family courts to be lifted, Jack Straw to announce
The veil of secrecy surrounding care proceedings and the family courts will finally be lifted, Justice Secretary Jack Straw is expected to announce.

By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 2:47PM GMT 16 Dec 2008

At the Labour Party conference in September Mr Straw promised to 'shed more light' on the family courts Photo: PA
Media are to be given access to the courts at all levels for the first time after Mr Straw pledged to "shed more light" on the hidden legal system.

Press are likely to still be subject to tight reporting restrictions surrounding anonymity but it will mean being able to sit in on cases currently barred to all but those involved.

The role of care proceedings has been thrust back in to the public arena in the wake of the Baby P scandal.

Although that tragic case never reached the courts system, observers believe improved access and independent scrutiny will encourage more local authorities to be more thorough in their child protection decisions.

At the Labour Party conference in September Mr Straw promised to 'shed more light' on the family courts reigniting an issue that has run for more than two years.

The following month, Justice Minister Bridget Prentice told MPs one step in that direction would be to publish final judgments in some family cases after the hearings.

Among other roles, it is the family courts that make decisions around parents' access to children and care proceedings but the secrecy of the hearings, designed to protect the vulnerable, has led to accusations in some cases of injustice.

The higher courts, such as the High Court and Appeal Court, can sometimes grant access to the press but not in the more regular, initial hearings.

Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division, has said previously he is in favour of increased openness by allowing in the media.

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Postby Marina » Wed Dec 17, 2008 6:43 pm ... 354057.ece

From Times OnlineDecember 16, 2008

Family courts: case studies
Fiona Hamilton, London Correspondent

The opening up of the family courts will be welcome news for one couple whose case - currently before the Court of Appeal - has been highlighted by The Times after their baby daughter was placed into foster care earlier this year.

But although it means the couple will now be able to discuss their case with the media the reforms do not go far enough for their MP.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for Suffolk South, told The Times that his efforts to help the couple had been thwarted by a system which “prevents natural justice”.

Although the couple have given Mr Yeo permission to access information about their case, the authorities have denied his requests and have refused to justify their actions on the grounds of confidentiality.

Mr Yeo said: “They continue to decline to make any information available to me despite authority by the parents.

“They’ve consistently refused to share their reasons [for placing the child in foster care]. Obviously not publicly, but not even privately with me.

“This makes it very hard for me, as the representative of the parents, to assist them."

The mother first lost custody of her young son to her ex-husband (his biological father), who claimed that she suffered from a condition known as fabricated or induced illness.

When she fell pregnant to her new partner, social services monitored the family. During a conversation with social workers, she explained her fear of losing her newborn daughter by saying that her new partner felt like killing them all if she was also taken away. The couple have no history of violence or abuse. They say that they would not dream of hurting their baby and the remark was merely an attempt to explain the full extent of their agony if she was taken away.

The child has since been taken into foster care. The mother has access to her for just three hours a week and the father has not seen her since. The couple, who have not been given full reasons for the removal, are appealing the supervision order.

Mr Yeo said: “It seems extraordinary that people can have what is a sort of life sentence, in losing their baby daughter, without really knowing what the evidence is against them and without being able to refute it.

“There is this cloak of secrecy in which social services conduct their activities. They would have more rights if they were up on a murder charge.”

page 2

At 17 years old, Curtis is old enough to move out of home, travel around the countryside for his job and have a girlfriend.

Yet, adult as he is, Curtis is prevented from speaking publicly about his past and the sister that he did not know for much of his childhood, ostensibly for his “protection”.

A month before he was born, his 17-month old sister was taken away from his mother and placed into foster care after social services expressed concern about a bruise on the child.

At three-year old his sister was adopted following proceedings in the family court, despite a judge’s misgivings, because she had “bonded” with her foster carers after social services denied the mother access. Curtis was only recently reunited with his sister after she tracked down her family.

He approached The Times to tell his story hoping that his case would raise awareness after he found out that social services also tried to place him into foster care despite there being no evidence against his mother.

However, he cannot be named until his 18th birthday and his social services referral sheet, which nearly separated him from his biological mother, cannot be published under restrictions by the Administration of Justice Act.

Curtis told The Times: “It’s disgusting. It’s my life and I want to talk about it, I want people to know so that maybe this sort of thing can be avoided in the future. It took me ages to get my court documents and even though they’re mine, I can’t make them public. Social services just get to cover things up and its wrong.”


Matthew, a working professional in his fifties, was fighting a custody case for several months before he became aware of the damaging allegations against him on his court file.

A supporter of his ex-partner had written the judge a letter in secret making various spurious claims including that Matthew was not to be trusted with his children.

Matthew only became aware of the allegations when he requested other correspondence from his file.

“I was able to reject the allegations and the judge said he wouldn’t consider them, but it was highly inappropriate and quite a concern,” he said.

“If I hadn’t have asked for other information and if this letter hadn’t been included with it, I would have never known of its existence.”

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Postby Marina » Wed Dec 17, 2008 7:15 pm ... mment=true

From Times OnlineDecember 16, 2008

Family courts: what changed on the long walk to freedom

Jack Straw's long-awaited decision to open up proceedings is a welcome one, fuelled by an ever-increasing lobby of which The Times has been at the forefront

Some years ago when he was Home Secretary, Jack Straw wanted to visit a Youth Court in the South of England. It was to prove a salutary lesson in the extent to which the family courts are closed even to a government minister .

Recalling the occasion in an interview with The Times, Mr Straw - now Justice Secretary - said: "The bench had a debate about whether to allow me in. I thought they were being ridiculous. Justice has to be seen to be done. That is regarded as a cliche, but it's actually a very profound point about the operation of the justice system."

As Justice Secretary, he is now in a position to right the balance. In one of the most fundamental reforms to the way the family courts operate, he announced today that from April 1 reporters will be able to attend family court proceedings and report on cases.

The main stipulation is that they do not name the parties or give out the kind of personal details which would allow nosy neighbours to identify them. "It will be open to parties to apply to court for specific reporting restrictions," said Mr Straw. "But my hope is that the courts are reluctant to grant these".

It is a move for which The Times has campaigned vociferously, arguing that keeping the media out of certain courts has led to miscarriages of justice.

The Times has received hundreds of letters from people who have been gagged and powerless to challenge the decisions of social workers and other experts.

For a long time, pleas to open the family courts fell on deaf ears. Questions about how social workers and other experts make decisions, and whether the right children are taken into care - raised most recently by the cases of Shannon Matthews and Baby P - were met with the mantra that family privacy is paramount, and that professionals must remain anonymous. Yet if you are a parent wrongly accused of abusing your child, you do not want the kind of privacy which gags you from discussing your case. If you are a child tortured by a relative under the nose of the state, you do not want the kind of secrecy which protects professionals from scrutiny.

So what has changed?

Talking ahead of his announcement in the House of Commons, Mr Straw credited The Times with bringing the issue to his attention “more graphically than it would otherwise have done”.

He said: "You have to deal with shedloads of issues in jobs like this…if something isn't a particular issue at the time, you don't go searching around for it. I commend The Times for running such a professional campaign".

But it is also clear that this is an issue Mr Straw feels passionately about.

"It has been a closed world," he said. "If justice is open, there is a greater chance that standards will rise and that egregious practices may be spotted before they become harmful".

page 2 ... =12&page=2

Does he believe there are egregious practices? "I don't know, is the answer. You can't know, because not even I would be able to enter a family court at the moment. The jargon is 'private not secret' - but the public could be forgiven for not making the distinction".

As dramatic in its way as the decision to allow the media in, is the second big change announced by Mr Straw. At the moment it is rare for a judge to even name the local authority, let alone the social workers or the expert witnesses in a case. Court of appeal judges have made stinging criticisms of social workers without saying which council they work for. The media cannot discover which council it is, and elected councillors remain unaware that their own staff have been condemned.

"Local authorities aren't routinely named at the moment" said Straw. "My view is that they ought to be. There should be no restriction on naming social workers or medical experts unless it could lead to the identification of [children]. A structural engineer at a planning enquiry puts his or her professional competence on the line in public. People who are professional have to accept that what goes with being professional is the public task."

I suggested that there would be strong opposition to this move. One of the most powerful lobbies against openness has been from expert witnesses and local authorities. But Mr Straw was prepared for the question. "I know there are arguments in the medical profession, that doctors would be less willing to come forward if they were going to be named, but I happen to think that if you are professional you have to justify your professionalism in public".

What about parents being able to speak out about their cases? It is currently a grey area with some MPs nervous about helping constituents because they are unsure of where the law stands. Mr Straw himself has been involved in trying to help constituents where he wasn't sure where the line was. This will be addressed under his reforms.

"Parents will be able to disclose information for the purpose of advice and support," he said. Did that mean they could go to someone who is not their MP and say 'I need your advice on this?' "Yes. They can pass on the information".

Not everyone will welcome the reforms. Won’t the new policy be portrayed as a charter for busybodies, for tabloids wanting salacious details?

Mr Straw was firm. "My view is that the vast majority of proceedings will still go unreported and the major interest will be from local newspapers and I think that is entirely right. It is worth bearing in mind that public law proceedings are paid for by the taxpayer. The media is a proxy for the taxpayer, beside the fact that there is a genuine public interest which the media has to represent, in finding out how the system is operating. I think all these objections would have validity if the parties were going to be named, but because the parties are being protected it is very different".

There is one clear disappointment. A clause in the 2002 Adoption Act means that journalists will not be able to sit in on proceedings if and when a formal application to adopt is made. That is usually the last stage, but some of the most controversial cases are those which end in adoption. Mr Straw is promising primary legislation to overcome this problem. But he will need to remain firm if he is not to be derailed by the parliamentary timetable.

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Postby Marina » Thu Dec 18, 2008 8:57 pm ...

'Lifting the veil' over family courts in Leeds

Published Date:
18 December 2008
By Mark Hookham

COURTS in Leeds are to be among the first in the country to publish the judgments of family cases on the internet, it has been announced.


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Postby Marina » Mon Dec 29, 2008 2:36 pm ... public_rss

Children taken from parents with no evidence of risk, judge says

article: Print By Kim Arlington

December 26, 2008 06:39am

Kids taken from parents by child welfare
Judge says no evidence they were at risk
Says it was a gross abuse of power

A JUDGE says it was a "gross abuse of power" for child welfare staff to forcibly remove two babies from their parents' care when there was no evidence they were at risk of harm.

Ordering that the children be returned to their parents immediately, Supreme Court Justice George Palmer said the New South Wales Department of Community Services officers' actions had "gravely imperilled" the children's best interests.

"My principal concern is that young children who have been well cared for by their parents have been removed from their care for some three months and, if the DOCS officers have their way, will be kept out of their parents' care for another three months, for no good reason," Justice Palmer said.

Although the parents were recreational cannabis users, the judge said there was no evidence that it posed a direct risk of harm to their children - a 15-month-old girl and a month-old boy.

He said there was no evidence the children, who were given the pseudonyms Georgia and Luke, were neglected or physically or emotionally abused.

Given that the parents were not mentally ill and had no relevant criminal history, he questioned why their children were forcibly removed and why DOCS was pursuing a care plan that would keep them in custody until May.

He said there had been "a serious abuse by certain DOCS officers of the department's power to take children into custody".

The court heard that DOCS sought to meet the parents on September 12 but did not respond to their attempts to reschedule. When the couple failed to show up, three officers came to their house.

The mother denied her children were at risk but the officers returned with two police officers and removed the children.

The parents, who cannot be identified, applied to the Supreme Court to have their children returned, a move opposed by DOCS.

Officers' attitude showed "an intransigent refusal to acknowledge a mistake, regardless of the consequences to the children", Justice Palmer said.

A psychologist who assessed the children and their parents noted: "Both parents are well able to provide for the safety, welfare and wellbeing of their infant children."

Justice Palmer last week ordered that Georgia and Luke be immediately returned to their parents.

DOCS declined to comment on the case, saying it would carefully examine the judgment and consider whether to appeal.

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Postby Marina » Wed Dec 31, 2008 5:39 pm ... y-son.html

British social services tried to kidnap my son
Last week, we reported the case of Mrs W, the desperate mother who fled abroad with her six-year-old after he was taken into care – even though she poses no threat to him. Now, as she prepares to plead before a judge for her son's return, she explains why they were forced to go on the run.

By Patrick Sawer
Last Updated: 12:14AM GMT 28 Dec 2008

Mrs W and her son L in south-east Ireland. 'Irish social services say the only unusual thing about him is a dread of social workers,? says campaigning MP John Hemming Photo: PATRICK BROWNE
Gazing out of her kitchen window across the rolling hills of the Irish countryside, a young woman with long dark hair and steely blue eyes wraps her arms around her six-year-old boy and takes a deep breath.

"We can't run away any more. I'm too exhausted for that now," she says. "My son needs stability and this is where I'll stand and fight to save my family."

The 33-year-old, who for legal reasons can only be referred to as Mrs W, has spent the past 18 months running. In June 2007 she fled the country with her son after social workers had taken him into care and placed him with several foster families.

Social services maintained that the boy, who has to be known as Boy L to protect his identity, had been in danger of "emotional harm" after witnessing his father's alcoholic rages against his mother, and had to be removed from
her care.

Social workers accept that she presents no danger to her son. One of their many reports states as much, noting: "There is nothing to suggest that Mrs W is anything other than capable of meeting her son's physical needs. All concerns have been based on the volatile and sometimes violent relationship between her and her husband."

Despite this, and Mrs W having now permanently separated from her husband, they have continued to pursue her through the international courts, demanding that she return the child.

She is now preparing to make her case before a judge in Ireland, where she has sought refuge after criss-crossing Europe in a bid to stay one step ahead of the British authorities.

Social workers, overloaded and often working without adequate support, face a difficult task in trying to protect the best interests of a child. But while in some cases – such as that of Baby P – social services appear reluctant to step in and remove a child from violent and abusive parents, sometimes with tragic results, in Boy L's case their zeal threatens to deprive a child of a
loving mother.

It is cases such as this that have persuaded Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, that the secretive family courts where such decisions are frequently made need to be opened up to greater scrutiny. From April, journalists will be able to report on proceedings, while still protecting the privacy of the children involved.

It is a move welcomed by Mrs W, even though the proposed changes come too late to affect her case. Two hours' drive south of Dublin, there is little about the sturdy stone bungalow where Mrs W and her children now live that suggests she is a fugitive from the law.

Two puppies play on the lawn, overlooked by a paddock where neighbours graze their horses. Christmas toys have been cleared away and Boy L is busying himself with a colouring book while his baby brother takes an afternoon nap.

But, for all the impression of domestic tranquillity, their mother remains plagued by the fear that, should the Irish courts decide against her, her son will be taken away, placed under a permanent care order and given away for adoption.

Leafing through a bundle of legal documents and witness statements, Mrs W, a striking and determined young woman, the daughter of a successful Leicestershire businessman and a public sector accountant, tells me what drove her to snatch him away from social services and flee Britain.

"Social services took my son into care in October 2006 because they claimed he was in persistent danger of suffering emotional trauma through seeing my husband's violence towards me," she says. "The violence was not frequent and fortunately L had only seen it on a few occasions when he was very small. As it happens, I was the one who had approached social services asking them to help my husband battle his drinking.

"They should have enforced an exclusion order against him. But instead, by taking L away from me, they caused him far worse emotional trauma than if he'd stayed with me."

A family court initially placed Boy L with his grandmother, Mrs W's mother. But when another judge reviewed the case in November 2006, he granted social services an interim care order, allowing them to place him with a foster family.

Mrs W made the fatal mistake – based on legal advice – of not attending this crucial court hearing, believing it to be only an administrative formality.

Although she had by now left her husband and moved out of her home in Leicestershire to start a new life in Devon, social services argued in court that his visits continued to pose a threat to the emotional welfare of the boy.

At 5pm on the day of the hearing, as Mrs W – unaware of what had taken place in court – was preparing to pick her son up from nursery, she received a call from a social worker informing her he had already been taken into care.

"I was absolutely devastated," she said. "It was legal kidnap. They had just turned up at the nursery to take him without telling me. They even stopped the nursery staff from ringing me to let me know what was going on.

"When I found out, I was in pieces. I thought I would never see him again."

Over the next seven months, Boy L was placed with three foster parents
and moved to three schools. According to his mother, the effect on him was traumatic.

He began wetting his bed and suffering nightmares. On the rare occasions he was allowed to see his mother, he would cling to her, begging to be allowed to go home with her. Their telephone conversations were filled with tears, as he pleaded to be allowed to be with her.

As the weeks passed, she had less contact with him. Visits were cancelled at the last minute by social workers
and on occasion, she says, they failed to turn up with her son at the arranged location.

His fifth birthday marked a particularly low point for her.
She had gone with her mother to meet a social worker in a car park, from where the pair expected to be driven to see the boy at a contact centre. But on arriving, Mrs W was told she was barred from seeing him because approval had only been given to her mother. "I was left on my own in this empty car park. I was in bits," she explains. "L was so upset, asking my mother where I was and why I hadn't been there for his birthday."

Desperate to re-create a stable family environment in the hope of winning the court's favour, Mrs W allowed her husband to move back in with her. It was a brief and, by her own admission, ill-judged reunion. But as a result, Mrs W fell pregnant.

On being told social services
planned to take the new baby into care, Mrs W decided to flee with L. Over the previous weeks she had saved what she could, sold most of her possessions and quit her office job. Obtaining several credit cards, she withdrew enough money to see her through the next few months, running up debts of nearly £30,000.

Knowing that her mother had been granted an unsupervised visit with Boy L, she met the pair at Buckfast Abbey, in Devon. While her mother went to the lavatory, not knowing what her daughter had planned, Mrs W walked out with her son and drove over 150 miles to a port on the south coast, from where they caught the first ferry to France.

"I was petrified," she says. "I knew I only had a few hours before social services could obtain a court order allowing them to issue an all-ports alert for us. I was going into the unknown, but at least my boy was with me, away from the misery of being in foster care."

After a few weeks, moving from hotel to hotel, the family crossed into Spain, where Mrs W gave birth to her baby son.

Social services traced her after she registered the children with the Spanish authorities for medical care and schooling. Although they have no jurisdiction over the baby, the Foreign Office's Child Abduction Unit served Mrs W with papers in August this year, demanding the return of her son.

"L was petrified. He hid his passport, packed his things and said we should run away. He didn't want to go back," she says. "By this point he was going to a Spanish school and had started to settle. His confidence was starting to come back after months of insecurity. Now he was petrified again of being taken from me."

On the run once again, Mrs W and
her children drove across the border into France, where she dumped her £17,000 BMW and flew to Sweden before moving again after a few weeks, this time to a small town in the south-east of Ireland.

Here she settled and began to build her and the boys' life anew, supported in her legal fight by her family and even her estranged husband. Boy L is now happily settled at his local school, where teachers say he is making good progress. Mrs W says that Irish social workers who have examined the case recommend that he be allowed to stay with her.

John Hemming, Lib-Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley, who has long campaigned for greater transparency in the working of the family courts, agrees. He told me: "If social services had the best interest of Boy L at heart, they would let him stay with his mother. She poses no threat to him at all.

"Irish social services say the only unusual thing about him is a dread of social workers. Unfortunately, British social services seem determined to place the law above the interests of the child."

As his mother clears away her file of papers, Boy L bounds into the room with a beaming smile, ready to play. I ask him what he thinks of the idea of a social worker coming to take him back to England.

His face darkens and he gives me the thumbs down. "I don't want to live with a foster family. I want to stay with my mum," he says, as clearly and simply as only a child can.

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Postby Marina » Wed Mar 11, 2009 10:22 am ... ouple.html

Social services remove young children from grandparents and arrange adoption by gay couple

Social services have removed two young children from the care of their grandparents and arranged for them to be adopted by a homosexual couple.

By Lucy Cockcroft
Last Updated: 2:45PM GMT 28 Jan 2009

The five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister were being looked after by their grandparents because their mother, a recovering drug addict, was not considered capable.

But social workers stepped in after allegedly deciding that the couple, who are aged 59 and 46, were "too old" to look after the children.

Teenager placed with foster parents raped their son, 2, and sexually assaulted daughter, nine.
Social workers do not have to check backgrounds of vulnerable adults placed in family homes
Toddler killed by mother's lover could be alive if reported earlier
Mother's anger over gay couple's adoption of her children
Christian couple 'felt forced' to give up grandchildren for adoption
Adoption rules remain a scandalThey were allegedly stripped of their carer's rights and informed they would be barred from seeing the children altogether unless they agreed to the same-sex adoption.

The distraught grandfather said: "It breaks my heart to think that our grandchildren are being forced to grow up in an environment without a mother-figure.

"We are not prejudiced, but I defy anyone to explain to us how this can be in their best interests.

"The ideal for any child is to have a loving father and a loving mother in their lives."

His wife added: "It's so important for children to fit in, and I feel our grandchildren will be marked out from the start when they draw pictures of their two dads."

The case raises fears about state interference in family arrangements, and concerns about the practice of adoption by same-sex couples.

Social workers at the City of Edinburgh Council have been accused of waging a "two-year campaign" through the courts to strip the grandparents of their legal rights as carers of the children.

Social services intervened because of concerns over the age and health of the grandparents, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the children.

The grandfather is a farmhand who has angina while his wife is receiving medication for diabetes.

The children have been in foster care for two years while their grandparents battled the social services department in court.

However, the cost of legal bills forced them to drop the case and relinquish their rights.

The grandparents reluctantly agreed to adoption, provided the children were found a "loving mother and father".

They were told last Thursday that two homosexual men had been chosen as the adoptive parents.

Social workers dealing with the case told them that approved heterosexual couples had also been keen to adopt the children.

When he protested to social workers, the grandfather alleges he was told: "You can either accept it and there's a chance you'll see the children twice a year, or you can take that stance and never see them again."

On another occasion he was allegedly told: "If you couldn't support the children [back the gay adoption], if you were having contact and couldn't support the children, and showing negative feelings, it wouldn't be in their best interests for contact to take place."

The City of Edinburgh Council said that it could not comment on individual cases.

A Catholic Church spokesman has accused social services of "politically correct posturing".

He said: "There is an overwhelming body of evidence showing that same sex relationships are inherently unstable and reduce the life expectancy of those involved.

"With this in mind, the social work department have deliberately ignored evidence which undermines their decision and opted for politically correct posturing rather than providing stability and protection for the children."

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