A more open family court? Ideas from mothers who have survived the system

This is a guest blog by Ember Rose, of the group Mothers Unite. Ember took part in the first Open Family Court workshop I held at UWE in Bristol, and I’m very grateful to her for asking members of her group for their thoughts and ideas on what a more open and transparent family court might look like.

These views, clearly, come from mothers. Interestingly, at the Open Family Court workshop I held in London on Saturday, the one father who attended spoke to say that many of the concerns expressed by the women on the day were also felt keenly by fathers who had experienced the family court system. I hope to have a guest blog from fathers in the near future: if you are a father or organise a fathers’ group, and would like to offer your perspective on ways forward for a more open and accountable family court system, I’d be keen to hear from you – please email me at openfamilycourt@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, here is the Mothers Unite contribution to the debate.

_______

I help to run a group for mothers, 90% of whom are domestic abuse victims, have children who have been subject to or witnessed abuse from the father, and under private law are being taken through family court by the perpetrator.

We have over 1000 members and know there are many who contact other charities and organisations facing the same problems. I asked members what they thought an ‘open family court’ would look like. There were many thoughts, mainly centering on accountability for the decisions professionals make which are currently hidden and unchecked, allowing abuse to continue from the perpetrator and children to be placed in unsafe contact or even residence.

Many members have found that court professionals are uneducated in the dynamics of abuse and have attitudes based on deeply entrenched beliefs that women are vindictive and abuse rare. Many of those professionals, in our experience, appear to have a mindset that defies reality and normal life, and so the ordinary person entering family court finds they are in a ‘parallel universe’ or ‘an alternate planet’. An open court would allow some common sense and logic to enter this arena.

Some had concerns that the press would not report correctly or would base their reports on court orders which are frequently not a representation of reality, as Mothers Unite members experience it. However, others thought that this was the only way for the truth to be exposed and that they would be given the chance to speak out.

Many would not want children to be named – however most felt that the distress and abuse children are currently subject to is worse than being publicly named.
It was thought that the courts could be open to the press but perhaps not to the general public due to fear of perpetrators family and friends turning up at court.

A jury was mentioned, but there was concern that many members of the public may not have a full understanding of domestic abuse, and so the problem of victim blaming would continue.

We would like to see a panel of experts who are independent of family courts and who have an understanding of domestic abuse, child abuse and types of abusive personalities. They could be involved at an early stage of the process whereby an application is made to a family court: they could advise – as happens now – but they would be properly trained and experienced. Alternatively – or additionally – they could hold meetings with parents and children, examine the situation and family dynamics, including any relevant evidence, and then present a report to the courts. This, we suggest, would reduce the number of stressful hearings, and give the family a better and more natural chance to talk. It would also reduce the expense of lawyers, or the deeply unfair situation where one party has a lawyer, and the other is self-representing and unable to put their case well.

Other measures to ensure openness in family court proceedings could be the recording of all meetings with Cafcass, social workers, contact centre sessions etc, and transcripts of hearings to be available at no cost to the parties.

Another action that would enable more transparency is the end of ‘gagging orders’ and the threats to mothers of losing their children if they speak out. This threat, in our members’ experience, can come from Cafcass, judges, social services and lawyers. It happens like this: if a mother does not agree that a father should have contact or a child is refusing to spend time with him, then the mother is given a warning that the child’s residence will be changed to the father if they don’t support contact, and/or don’t stop talking about abuse.

In our group many have lost residence of their child for these reasons. We often have to advise mothers to continue sending a child to contact where they are being abused (sometimes very serious abuse) because there have been these threats.

Once there has been a threat – which may come in the form of a ‘recommendation’, especially within a Cafcass report – we know that losing our child is a real danger, and the aim at that point becomes not losing your child to full-time abuse and trauma. Alongside this, there is usually the accusation of ‘parental alienation’ in some form. Some solicitors tell mothers not to talk about abuse because courts ‘don’t like it’ and mothers tell us they are frequently told contact will be expected to go ahead whether there is abuse or not.

This is a use of children that is unacceptable. The general silencing of abuse victims is felt as sinister and terrifying by many victims.

In summary, it seems to our members that the fears of bad publicity and the naming of children is a risk they feel they would be willing to take, for them to have a better chance of a childhood free from years of abuse, worry and distress.

Above all, we want our children’s voices to be heard – and this does not happen in the current climate of hidden ‘goings-on’ in family courts.

Ember Rose, Mothers Unite UK

Advertisements

How Ireland does transparency in its family courts

Many thanks to Dr Carol Coulter, director of Ireland’s Child Care Law Reporting Project and adjunct professor of law, NUI Galway, for this guest blog.

Dr Coulter recently spoke to the Association of Lawyers for Children conference in Bristol about how the project works.  I’m also hoping to make a trip to Ireland to observe, and interview the various people involved in this particular mechanism for achieving better scrutiny and accountability in the family Courts.

For more information about the project, Dr Coulter can be contacted at info@childproject.ie.

 

Ireland, like England and Wales, has struggled for decades with the conflicting demands of the need for transparency in the family courts and the need to protect the privacy of children and their families. Reform of the in camera law (hearings held in private) was piecemeal, took place over a decade and followed two distinct paths, designed by two different Ministers, both distinguished lawyers. One was a former Attorney General, the other one of the leading family law practitioners in the country. Both of them introduced changes to the in camera rule, one in 2004 and the other in 2013. This has led to a situation where there are now two parallel regimes for reporting family law in Ireland.

Under the 2004 regime a person nominated by one of a number of bodies named in legislation (legal bodies and academic and research institutions), and approved by the relevant Minister, can attend both public and private family law proceedings in order to report on them, subject to protecting the anonymity of the parties. While the court may give directions relating to the reporting, there are no other restrictions on what can be reported. This law did not permit journalists to attend.

A law was later passed, in 2013, permitting “bona fide journalists” attend and report on all family law proceedings, again subject to protecting anonymity of all parties and all witnesses, but also subject to a long list of types of evidence that could not be reported. Penalties for breaching these restrictions are severe. This, combined with the fact that in a small country it is difficult in a contemporaneous report, especially in a regional media outlet, to exclude details that may be identifying, means that very little direct family reporting is actually done by the media.

A journalist for 30 years who specialised in legal matters for over a decade, I have  undertaken two projects reporting on family law proceedings under the 2004 regime. The first was at the request of the Courts Service, and was a year-long pilot project in 2007 reporting on private family law proceedings. A report on this project, and on the implementation of its recommendations by the Courts Service, are on the Courts Service website, http://www.courts.ie.

In 2012 two philanthropic organisations came together with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to propose a similar project on child protection courts, and asked the me to run it. The Child Care Law Reporting Project was set up in November 2012 and has been running ever since. It involves attendance at a randomised selection of child protection court proceedings, collecting data for later analysis and also taking notes in order to write journalistic-style reports on the individual cases which are published on the project’s dedicated website, www.childawproject.ie. As well as myself as the director of this project, a small number of part-time reporters (mainly barristers with an interest in child law at the beginning of their careers) assist in reporting and collecting data.

A protocol outlines the measures to be taken to ensure that the children and their families are not identified in reports, and includes not identifying the location of the court. Because we have no agenda other than providing objective reports on the proceedings, and we report routine as well as contentious cases, we have very cordial relationships with all stake-holders in the process.

For the first three years volumes of case reports were published at three-monthly intervals. The intervals between them are now six-monthly. The project also published annual reports analysing all the data collected, and a “Final Report” in 2015 analysing the first three years’ data. It also published a special report in June 2018 on exceptionally lengthy and complex cases, with a series of recommendations for reducing delay and minimising complexity. All these reports, along with the case reports and the protocol, are on the website, which is on open access.

The publication of each volume of case reports and of the analytic reports is accompanied by a press release, with synopses of the most significant cases and a summary of the main themes emerging from our work. These receive extensive coverage by both local and national media, with interviews with the project director on both public and private broadcast media. The reports have also sparked debate in the national parliament on child protection matters, and the director has regular discussions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the state’s Child and Family Agency (which takes care proceedings), members of the judiciary and legal practitioners. Our reports are used in university departments teaching law and social work.

The case for transparency and accountability in child care proceedings, where the State exercises enormous coercive power in relation to families, is overwhelming. The media plays a crucial role in seeking accountability from public bodies and institutions. In any democratic society citizens need to know and understand how the laws passed by the politicians they elect work out in practice. Without this, there can be no way of knowing whether and how they should be changed. But the media is severely restricted in terms of resources, and is unlikely to be able to station a reporter in family courts on an ongoing basis.

In my view, and in the Irish experience, transparency in child protection proceedings requires a body dedicated solely to reporting on family and child care law, which then makes the reports available for re-publication by the media. Having a single unit doing so allows for the reporting to be governed by a protocol that protects the anonymity of the children and their families, and that filters the information reported so that the media do not have access to identifying or sensitive information. Such a unit also in our case allowed for information not otherwise collected to be obtained for further analysis of child protection proceedings generally, leading to recommendations for change.

The role of the Child Care Law Reporting Project has been, in a sense, to act as a filter between the raw material of the court proceedings and the reports that reach the public domain. We remove the identifying information and the disturbing details not essential to the decision in the case, while reporting comprehensively on the exchanges that reveal shortcomings on the part of state agencies and the reactions of parents to the proceedings. Only a dedicated body can follow cases that may go on for years and can devote resources to mundane as well as dramatic cases so that a representative picture is painted.

 

Advertising a child – where’s the privacy in that?

Guest post by foster carer Martin Barrow

Getting the balance right between privacy and public scrutiny in family law is absolutely critical. The state’s intrusion into family life must not go unchecked but poor decisions are less likely to be challenged if the public is deliberately excluded from the process. Those responsible for judgments that may tear families apart say reporting restrictions are vital to protect the identities of some of society’s most vulnerable.

Let me introduce you, then, to Jay. He has been in care for two years and lives in London. I can tell you that when he first moved in with his foster carers he was withdrawn and struggled to communicate. He wouldn’t let people touch him but would push them away. He would not ask for food, even if he was hungry. It is clear that he suffered severe neglect in the first two years of his life.

Jay has no close relatives who are able to care for him long-term, so children’s services are now seeking an adoptive family for him. He is subject of a Placement Order. It is a reasonable deduction, I believe, that conventional means to find an adoptive family for Jay have failed, for whatever reason.

I have never met Jay. But I know all these things about him because his story appeared in a national newspaper, the Daily Mirror. The article (which you can read here ) includes a number of photos of him with his foster carer, who is also named. The internet being what it is, Jay’s story and pictures will remain in the public domain forever.

Jay was featured in the newspaper during National Adoption Week, an annual event to raise awareness of adoption and to encourage more adoptive families to come forward. His case was put forward by First4Adoption, the national information service for adoption. The service is managed by Coram and Adoption UK and funded by the Department for Education.

Gemma Gordon-Johnson, Head of National Programmes at First4Adoption, assures me that “all relevant consents and authorisations were obtained” in relation to Jay’s case and one other case also featured in the Mirror the same week. Gemma also says that best practice dictates that at least one birth parent should be informed, although this is not a legal requirement.

I am both a foster carer and a journalist, so I know that a decision to identify a child in care is not taken lightly. There are no conceivable circumstances under which I would be able to identify any of our foster children or the particulars of their case in an article or on social media. This would apply as strictly to those children in our care who have been approved for adoption as to those whose futures have yet to be decided by the family court.

Complex issues

Yet here is a newspaper article, available to millions of readers, which gives intimate details about the early life of a vulnerable child. By implication, it also makes serious allegations of neglect, which may, or may not, have been put before a court of law.
I am sure that this initiative has the best of intentions and I hope that there is a happy ending for Jay. But it does raise complex issues about the circumstances under which children may be identified and their cases made public. In this instance, a joint decision was taken by a local authority and other agencies involved with Jay that this was in his best interests. Jay himself is too young to be able to give informed consent, of course. At his age, he cannot be expected to understand the implications of what has been done in his name. However, he will have every right to ask questions when he is older if this newspaper article is found by schoolmates or even a prospective employer.

Breaching a child’s privacy – who gets to decide?

More broadly, how can we reconcile this practice with the normal restrictions and culture of secrecy that surrounds our family courts? Is a last-ditch attempt to secure an adoption justifiable grounds for what does amount to a breach of privacy (the child’s, his birth family’s and, potentially, his adoptive family’s)? The local authority may have parental responsibility but this does not necessarily mean it has the right to breach confidentiality in Jay’s supposed best interests.

How was this decision taken and who was ultimately responsible for signing it off?

These are important questions as we begin a broader conversation about what we must do to prevent miscarriages of justice in family law. Nowhere is this this more urgent than in fostering and adoption.

These have become increasingly marketized as authorities try to find a good, permanent home for a very vulnerable child, an increasingly rare commodity.

My concern is that we are drifting towards an American model, where children are advertised with scant regard for their right to privacy. Yet, at the same time, the process that leads to a child being permanently removed from their birth family is becoming more secretive and more difficult to unpick.

Austerity, which has brought punishing cuts in funding for children’s services, means cases are more likely to be poorly prepared. Cuts to legal aid mean families find it increasingly difficult to get the legal advice they are entitled to in court.

It would be easy to dismiss Jay’s story as a misstep by an overenthusiastic PR during an adoption themed week. But I think it raises profound issues about who decides what information we have access to in a family court and why.

As he grows up, Jay may be happy to share his experience of care and to talk openly about why he was removed from his family. On the other hand, he may feel that he wants to leave this behind as he builds a new life for himself.

But decisions taken by grown-ups when he was too young to have his own voice have compromised this choice.

Martin Barrow is a foster carer and former Times news editor. He tweets at @MartinBarrow

The opposite of transparency

An appeal against a reporting restriction order, and a crowdfunder to help with the costs.

All last weekend, I physically itched to write this blogpost.

I waited, because I knew it couldn’t be bashed out quickly. I’m having to be extremely careful in what I write here, and will need to leave out lots of details. One detail in particular is important in terms of understanding the degree of public interest in this story. But I’ve decided that, under current circumstances, I will have to leave it out.

This is incredibly unsatisfactory in terms of readers understanding the full significance of what has happened in a particular public law case where a local authority asked a court to place a child for adoption – a case moreover that has taken several years to reach a permanent decision for that young child.

Eventually I wrote this post on Monday, and took formal legal advice that night as to whether it might place me in contempt of court. With enormous thanks to family barrister Sarah Phillimore, who researched and wrote the advice without charging for it (her blog and the advice are here) I’ve decided to publish what I’ve written. But I’ve still spent two difficult days worrying whether I could be found to be in contempt of court as a result.

The sanction for contempt is a fine or jail.

I don’t mind about taking that risk for myself, but I’m also taking it on behalf of my family. While ending up in court is, I would hope, unlikely, knowing  that I might is an unpleasant place to be as a freelance. I’ve had to discuss the prospect with my partner: I’m lucky that he understands and has said to go ahead.

Because this matters. And it matters because it’s the state’s intrusion into one family’s life that I’m writing about – an intrusion that very nearly went very wrong. And what went on in court last week, when the media attempted to report it, was the polar opposite of transparency.

I intend to appeal. There is a crowdfunder to help with the costs , and if you feel able to contribute, I’d be hugely grateful.

Please donate here

The background

On Friday just gone, I drove a couple of hours to a city court to sit in on a family hearing. I was accompanying another freelance journalist, Melanie Newman, offering her a bit of moral support as she sought to relax the statutory reporting restrictions which mean that normally, publishing “information relating to proceedings” in any family court matter is prohibited.

The BBC also attended.

Melanie Newman was interested in the case because, earlier this year, she’d discovered via a judgement published on the legal website Bailii that an adoption placement order had been successfully appealed.

The mother in the case knew that unless she won the appeal, she would lose her child to the care system; if an adoptive family was found, their relationship with each other would have been extinguished for ever.

There is no legal aid for a parent to appeal a lower court’s decision in this situation. The mother (who was not wealthy) had somehow managed to find a huge amount of money – a sum I’ve decided not to specify, but which would be utterly prohibitive for most parents in care proceedings – to pay for advice and representation in the appeal.

She won. I don’t know how often this happens in an appeal against an adoption placement order but I don’t expect it’s common (I’d be pleased to hear if anyone has stats). And because she won, the case was remitted back to the lower courts for a rehearing of the council’s application to have her child adopted.

At this point in a blog or an article, I would normally link directly to the appeal court judgment as published on Bailii. It is always best practice to link, so that readers can see in as much detail as possible what the judge or judges said. But I can’t do that here. And that’s because in their ruling, three appeal judges, presumably deliberately, opted to specify a number of details. They named – quite normally – the local authority (which again I have decided not to specify here, in an attempt to make it harder for any reader to locate the judgment – the opposite of good practice).

Rather less usually, they also decided to name a social worker and an expert involved in the case. I’m not actually all that bothered about this aspect, and might well not report the identity of either, but the fact remains that these two professionals are named in a judgement that is in the public domain. This is relevant given what comes later.

The appeal judges also gave the ages of the child and mother. The age of the child, certainly, is of particular relevance for reasons that I am now ordered not to explain. This constrains me from explaining the extreme importance of the timings in this case.

Thirdly, the judges specified the mother’s ethnicity, as indeed they had little option but to do to given that she was, at least at first, contending that there had been an element of racism towards her on the part of the council.

The hearing

On Friday, the local authority, the mother’s counsel and the Guardian asked the judge to make reporting restrictions in relation to this final hearing. The judge who was presiding over what it had emerged was not a renewed application for an adoption order but an agreed order whereby the child was to go home to her mother – then ordered that the media could not report:

  • the names of any professionals
  • the ages of those involved
  • the ethnicity of those involved

And this despite the fact that those details were already a matter of public record, placed there by the Court of Appeal.

The problems that arise

The judge did not restrict the media’s right to freedom of expression after undertaking a sufficient, or indeed any balancing exercise between the family’s Article 8 rights and the media’s Article 10 rights.

He could not, because the parties’ barristers did not offer any evidence as to how the details they sought to restrict would create a risk of identifying the child. They simply said they were worried that they might.

The judge did not then probe them for evidence of those risks. The upshot was that no analysis or evaluation of that evidence could be done, because no evidence was offered. That meant that the judge could not then assess whether the restrictions sought were proportionate to the risks, or look at how those risks might be mitigated. So that proportionality exercise wasn’t done.

The judge also did not give reasons for imposing the reporting restriction order. We are left to assume that he felt that the details would contribute to identification.

Also, importantly, the judge did not directly address Melanie Newman’s application that she had made with notice to relax Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act, which prevents the media from describing what went on in court that day.

And all this is why I wonder now, with heart in mouth, whether I am in contempt for even writing this.

Opaque transparency

Given the reporting restrictions that were imposed, the media can now either:

a) report on the final outcome of this care case.

or

b) we can report on the detail of – and link to – the appeal court judgement, which provides all the identifying information that has been proscribed.

But we cannot, safe from the risk of being in contempt, do both.

I have deliberately withheld the name of the local authority, and many of the details of this case, as a protection from any charge that I am contributing to jigsaw identification. Given what research findings have found about this particular local authority – which again, I cannot specify – the fact that I feel unable to identify it is a very serious problem. The public interest is undermined.

Overall, this reporting restriction order means that a case where, thanks to poor local authority evidence and poor judicial analysis and reasoning, a child would very likely have lost its relationship with its mother…

…and where that same child is now at home with its mother only thanks to her having been able to scrabble together an enormous sum of money to fund an appeal that the state would not pay for – cannot be properly reported in the detail it merits and that the public deserve.

It is for these reasons that I am enormously concerned at what transpired in court in that hearing on Friday, and intend to appeal the judge’s order.

Other considerations

It is worth pointing out at this point that after the reporting of the “Muslim foster care” case, trust in media reporting of family law has taken a serious hit. Unsurprisingly, as a result, journalists are now being asked to evidence their reporting on family law cases.

When the media highlight failings in the family law system – whether failings of public policy that disadvantage parents due to the lack of legal aid in appeals, or failings of local authorities and the courts in adoption applications – we are being asked to show that what we say is accurate, fair and balanced. And there should be no objection by any journalist to making available a published judgment on which they have drawn for their information. I always take care to provide links.

It is also vital, when reporting on such important matters, to offer readers as much opportunity as possible to make their own mind up. Linking to judgements, and being able to describe the detail contained in them to enhance understanding of family law, is a critical tool in giving the public more information rather than less.

As the immediate past President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, said in the 2013 case of Re J (http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed116450) :

“There is a pressing need for more transparency, indeed for much more transparency, in the family justice system…. One [aspect] is the right of the public to know, the need for the public to be confronted with, what is being done in its name. Nowhere is this more necessary than in relation to care and adoption cases. Such cases, by definition, involve interference, intrusion by the state, by local authorities and by the court, into family life. In this context the arguments in favour of publicity – in favour of openness, public scrutiny and public accountability – are particularly compelling. The public generally, and not just the professional readers of law reports of similar publications, have a legitimate, indeed a compelling, interest in knowing how the family courts exercise their care jurisdiction.”

Making reference to the loss of trust in the family law system, in the same case he later stated:

“It is vitally important, if the administration of justice is to be promoted and public confidence in the courts maintained, that justice be administered in public – or at least in a manner which enables is workings to be properly scrutinised – so that the judges and other participants in the process remain visible and amenable to comment and criticism. This principle, as the Strasbourg court has repeatedly reiterated, is protected by both Article 6 and Article 10 of the Convention. It is a principle of particular importance in the context of care and other public law cases. (my emphasis)”

Given that family cases are heard in private, being able to link to judgements is, therefore, while not perfect, at least a halfway decent tool when it comes to holding the state’s power to intrude so drastically into our family lives to account.

By knowing more about the decisions that are made in court and how they’re reached, we all stand a better chance of working out whether we agree with the way that draconian state powers are being invoked in all our names.

Court is a lonely, and a frightening place

This wasn’t my life. I wasn’t fighting for my family. The state hadn’t told me that it wouldn’t fund my appeal against a judgement that I felt was weak and that would take my child from me for ever. But I got a tiny, tiny taste of the terrified powerlessness a parent must feel when they pitch up at court, with their family’s entire future at stake.

On the day, as it happened, I thought I was prepared. I had written out some arguments. I had the print-out of Re J, with the relevant parts highlighted (there are a lot of them). I had also been in courtooms before, asking for reporting restrictions to be relaxed, so had a  bit of experience.

But everything happened so fast. There was no opportunity to say  I didn’t think the process that should have been followed had been followed. I had no idea at the time of a procedural  requirement that I was told about over the weekend, which is that if you intend to appeal, you should normally say so on the day. I was so gobsmacked that the judge had said the media could not report details that were already public that my jaw was simply scraping the floor.

There is no doubt that the media was hampered by being up against three qualified and experienced lawyers, without any representation of our own. And so I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah Phillimore, for saying that she will represent me pro bono in the appeal.

But.

While my time and Sarah’s will be unpaid, there will be costs. I anticipate these will be:

  • the fee for an application to set aside an order, at £255
  • our travel costs to hearings, between £500 and. £1000
  • if the appeal fails, the possibility of a costs award being made against me.

This last one is particularly scary. And yet this is an important fight.

We cannot end up in a situation where there is less transparency in family law cases, rather than more. The charge of poor processes carried out in secret courts will stick if this kind of thing carries on – and they will be right.

Most particularly when a court system operates in private – in effect in secret – I don’t believe it is acceptable that it can operate in this way.

Funding my appeal

Please will you help to fund my appeal against these reporting restrictions, and a possible fine if I am found in contempt?

Any money that is donated but not used in funding the appeal and a possible costs award will be donated to the charity Advocate (the new name for the Bar Pro Bono Unit) which enables people to get access to justice when they can’t afford to pay.

Please donate here

Thank you so much.

Louise

Second Open Family Court workshop – London

Workshop organisation is galloping ahead – I’ve just confirmed a London date for the second Open Family Court workshop, which will be held on the afternoon of Saturday 8 December. It’s a venue just off the Strand, so very central.

Family members, adopters, adoptees, care leavers, social workers, journalists, family lawyers, academics and campaigners, who would like to attend to discuss ways towards more openness, and thus, hopefully, better scrutiny and accountabilty in the family law system, I’d be delighted to see you there.

Send me an email: openfamilycourt@gmail.com to register your interest –  it’s  really helpful too to have a brief precis of your interest in the project.

Hopefully see you on Dec 8th!

Louise

 

 

 

First Open Family Court workshop announced

I’m thrilled to announce that the first of four Open Family Court workshops will be hosted by the Social Justice Research Group at UWE Bristol.

It will run on the afternoon of Saturday 3 November, and as promised in an earlier blogpost, there will be cake (or possibly a selection of gingerbread Cyclops, depending on whether me or the kids get to the baking cupboard first).

cyclops.jpg

 

Huge thanks to Professor Lauren Devine, the Group’s director, who has very kindly made the space at UWE Bristol available.  Lauren gave the keynote address at the Transparency Project’s first ever Child Protection Conference, Is the Child Protection System Fit For Purpose, which I attended back in 2015; she made a compelling presentation on Policing Parents, Protecting Children: Rethinking Child Protection Strategy, which was instrumental in me becoming deeply involved in reporting on family law, so it feels particularly fab that this first Open Family Court workshop will be the inaugural event hosted by her new Social Justice Research Group.

The Group was founded in 2018 to research and report on contemporary issues of social justice, and its work is co-led by Stephen Parker and Elizabeth Green. It is currently researching vulnerabilities and hidden vulnerabilities in child protection, funded by grants from the Nuffield Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council.

In its projects, ’Care Cases Crisis’ and the ‘Risk of Risk’, the Group’s researchers are looking into the rise in care order applications in the family courts, and the legal, ethical and statistical issues arising from the use of risk algorithms in identifying families for state intervention.

Workshop structure and purpose

Workshops will have a maximum of 20 people, so that everyone can participate fully.

I’m hoping for a mix of people with different experiences of and perspectives on family law as its practised today: family members, care leavers, foster carers, adopters, adoptees, social workers, lawyers, experts, and social work and legal academics.

I am hoping to create a specific forum where children’s voices can be heard, but for this workshop it’s important that everyone who attends is over the age of 18.

The idea is that we will explore what greater transparency could mean for the family law system; what people would like to see changed about the way that those working in family law are scrutinised and held accountable; how people perceive the risks of greater openness, so what we are scared of; and, the elephant in the room question… what degree of risk might society be willing to accept to achieve a more visible, open, accountable and robust system that engenders greater trust in those who use it, and which therefore makes better decisions for all children and families.

I already have a list of people in and around Bristol and the west country/Wales who have  approached me to say they’d like to take part, but there are spaces left and I’m particularly keen to hear from more family members with experience of both private and public family law who might like to take part, as well as from family solicitors, barristers and children’s guardians.

If you’re interested, please email me on openfamilycourt@gmail.com, and I’ll be in touch.

Beyond the blame game

Ryan Wise, a social worker and practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, replied via Twitter when he first heard about the Open Family Court project in the first couple of tweets I put out. He had some concerns about the impacts more transparency might have, and said so.

I asked him if he’d take a look at the launch blogpost, to which he very kindly responded by email, as follows:

“My interest stems from practice… I am keen to think more widely about how organisations can … improve to ensure the experience of children and families in the system is both proportionate and helpful. I am currently thinking about how to develop ideas of co-production into social work practice. I am therefore interested in this project… as I said on Twitter, I do have reservations about how greater transparency to courts in order to achieve accountability may lead to more problems but that is not to say I don’t appreciate the possible benefits. This is definitely is an area which needs greater discussion and debate and I would love to be a part of that.”

We ended up having a phone chat, and rather than writing a blogpost, I suggested we might post a quick overview of our conversation, which was illuminating for me and touches on important themes that I’ll want to draw out in the workshops.

These aren’t our exact words, but will hopefully give a sense of what was said. Ryan has seen it and agreed that it’s an accurate representation.

_____________

Ryan “There is so much anxiety and pressure in the child protection system that anything about extra scrutiny and openness can feel overwhelming. But improving what goes on within the system is important because it’s also clear that numbers of children in care are rising, so the stakes for families are very high.”

Louise “What do you think that social workers’ main questions might be about greater transparency around what goes on in family law?”

Ryan “‘What does transparency mean in practice?’ would be one question I’d ask. ‘What is more transparency trying to achieve?’ is another.”

Louise “Yes! These two questions are absolutely central to the project. Thanks for encapsulating them so neatly. I’ll use them in the workshops.”

Ryan “Being completely honest, there’s going to be an element of concern about where the scrutiny and accountability is going to land, if there’s more openness around what social workers do. The child protection system is complex, and it’s also flawed, and that’s increasingly because of perhaps not enough money going in at an earlier stage. So I think a major concern social workers might have is, are we laying ourselves open to lots of scrutiny at a late stage, when there are things many of us may well not agree with in the ways we’re often forced to work. Social workers can be left with no option but to do their best within a system which has many elements they may not agree with.

“We can’t always do the social work we know would really help, and that’s because of resource constraints. That means that the idea of hauling social workers over the coals for their recommendations to a court at the end of a process would worry me. Because social workers know the flaws. Social workers are working with what they have. It’s fair to say that I have concerns about the quality of some social work, but ultimately it’s the system that needs scrutiny, not the final threshold recommendations for a child who by the time we all very reluctantly end up in court, is in a situation where there are huge concerns for their safety.

“By contrast, having greater transparency around the culture and context of what goes on •overall• in the family courts would be useful in enabling better scrutiny of some norms that can be really destructive and can add to a ‘them and us’ mindset.”

Louise “Can you give me a couple of examples?”

Ryan “Yes. Something I’ve noticed is that the emotional impact on families of going to court can be completely disregarded by the professionals involved.  The atmosphere in court can feel formal and even frosty. Sometimes even as a social worker you feel isolated, so for families the sense of being ‘on your own’ must be far worse. I sometimes wonder if lawyers have ever thought about how it feels for a parent who is terrified that they might lose their child, to have to listen to them chat on about the next fancy holiday they’re about to head off on. Or laugh and joke about the social occasion they were at together the night before. It can sound heartless and it’s completely disrespectful to someone who’s dealing with incredibly painful emotions.

“If family courts were more open and transparent in their workings, maybe this sort of thing wouldn’t happen so much because professionals would know they were more visible and so behaviour would improve. Also, some judges are good at talking to families, but I’ve noticed that others really aren’t, which isn’t great.  Overall there can be a lot of anxiety and worry which simply isn’t addressed by the court.

“On the social work side, I think greater scrutiny could encourage practice which isn’t so formulaic and process driven. Of course we go to court sometimes because the risk is too high and so it becomes necessary, but what I’m more interested in are the times we go to court when we don’t know what else to do. We may think actually this parent may be able to do it, we just need x, y or z, or maybe more time, but in my experience, in this situation we still sometimes go to court because we feel we are encouraged to be risk averse and make defensive decisions.

“We go from child protection to initiating care proceedings because there’s a sense that “if something bad happens at least we can show we were in the court arena.” Greater scrutiny may encourage greater discussion about this slide towards court, and also encourage the kind of leadership which works to support social workers to hold more risk. If greater scrutiny can help us think more about our relationship with risk and improve our decision making, that would help children and families.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Reminder: Open Family Court Workshops

I’m planning a series of workshops to explore how  transparency, scrutiny and accountability might be better achieved in the family law system.

If you’ve had experience of family law, whether as a family member or a professional, and would like to be involved (they will be held around the country) please get in touch with me on openfamilycourt@gmail.com.

Thanks!

Louise