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 I can tell you that when he first moved in with his foster carers he was withdrawn and struggled to communicate.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.
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.