UK Family Law Reform

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British justice: a family ruined

A chilling example of our secret State where a mother and child are forced
into hiding

Camilla Cavendish

Last autumn a small English congregation was rocked by the news that two of
its parishioners had fled abroad. A 56-year-old man had helped his pregnant
wife to flee from social workers, who had already taken her son into care
and were threatening to seize their baby.

Most people had no idea why. For the process that led this couple to such a
desperate act was entirely secret. The local authority had warned the mother
not to talk to her friends or even her MP. The judge who heard the arguments
from social services sat in secret. The open-minded social workers who had
initially been assigned to sort out a custody battle between the woman and
her previous husband were replaced by others who seemed determined to build
a guilty case against her. That is how the secret State operates. A
monumental injustice has been perpetrated in this quiet corner of England;
our laws are being used to try to cover it up.

I will call this couple Hugh and Sarah. Neither they nor their families have
ever been in trouble with the law, as far as I know. Sarah's only fault
seems to have been to suffer through a violent and volatile first marriage,
which produced a son. When the marriage ended, the boy was taken into
temporary foster care for a few months - as a by-product of the marriage
breakdown and against her will - while she “sorted her life out” and found
them a new home. But even as she cleared every hurdle set by the court,
social workers dreamt up new ones. The months dragged by. A psychologist
said the boy was suffering terribly in care and was desperate to come home.
Sarah's mother and sister, both respected professionals with good incomes,
apparently offered to foster or adopt him. The local authority did not even
deign to reply.

For a long time, Sarah and her family seem to have played along. At every
new hearing they thought that common sense would prevail. But it didn't. The
court appeared to blame her for not ending her marriage more quickly, which
had put strain on the boy, while social workers seemed to insist that she
now build a good relationship with the man she had left. Eventually, she
came to believe that the local authority intended to have her son adopted.
She also seems to have feared that they would take away her new baby, Hugh's
baby, when it was born. One night in September they fled the country with
the little boy. When Hugh returned a few days later, to keep his business
going and his staff in jobs, he was arrested.

Many people would think this man a hero. Instead, he received a far longer
sentence - 16 months for abduction - than many muggers. This kind of
sentence might be justified, perhaps, to set an example to others. But the
irony of this exemplary sentence is that no one was ever supposed to know
the details. (I am treading a legal tightrope writing about it at all.) How
could a secret sentence for a secret crime deter anyone?

Sarah's baby has now been born, in hiding. I am told that the language from
social services has become hysterical. But if the State was genuinely
concerned for these two children, it would have put “wanted” pictures up in
every newspaper in Europe.

It won't do that, of course, because to name the woman and her children
would be to tear a hole in the fabric of the secret State, a hole we could
all see through. I would be able to tell you her side of the story, the
child's side of the story. I would be able to tell you every vindictive
twist of this saga. And the local authority knows perfectly well how it
would look. So silence is maintained.

And very effective it is too. The impotence is the worst thing. The way that
perfectly decent individuals are gagged and unable to defend themselves
undermines a fundamental principle of British law. I have a court order on
my desk that threatens all the main actors in this case with dire
consequences if they talk about it to anyone.

Can that really be the way we run justice in a country that was the fount of
the rule of law? At the heart of this story is a little boy who was wrenched
from the mother he loves, bundled around in foster care and never told why,
when she appears to have been perfectly capable of looking after him. When
she had relatives who were perfectly capable of doing so. In the meantime,
he was becoming more and more troubled and unhappy. To find safety and love,
that little boy has had to leave England.

What does that say about our country? The public funds the judges, the
courts, the social workers. It deserves to know what they do. That does not
mean vilifying all social workers, or defending every parent. But it does
mean ending the presumption of guilt that infects so many family court
hearings. It does mean asking why certain local authorities seem unable to
let go of children whose parents have resolved their difficulties. It does
mean knowing how social workers could have got away with failing to return
this particular boy, after his mother had met all the criteria set by a
judge at the beginning. It is simply unacceptable that social services have
put themselves above the law.

We need these people to be named, and to hear in their words what happened.
We need to open up the family courts. We need to tear down the wall of
secrecy that has forced a decent woman to live as a fugitive, to save her
little boy from a life with strangers, used like a pawn in a game of
vengeance. Even if the local authority were to drop its case, it is hard to
see how Sarah could ever trust them enough to return. At home, for their
God-fearing congregation, the question is simple: what justice can ever be
done behind closed doors? And in whose name?

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