UK Family Law Reform

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Hidden world of Britain's tormented families is laid bare

The Observer gained exclusive access to the only UK court that deals solely with families. Over two weeks, we saw vicious battles for care - and listened as the judges made difficult decisions about shattered lives

By Amelia Hill

Alanna was born doing cold turkey, racked by the convulsive pain of drug withdrawal. Her mother, a prostitute addicted to heroin, had gone on taking drugs throughout pregnancy, encouraged by her partner, a violent dealer and pimp.

Weaned by doctors on morphine instead of milk to help her endure the pain of withdrawal, perhaps the most fortunate thing that could have happened to Alanna took place two hours after her birth, when her mother fled the hospital, abandoning her daughter without a backward glance.

Three and a half years later Alanna is no longer underweight and fretful. In a white party dress with green trim matching ribbons in her hair, she watched as a young couple, looking half dazed by their good fortune, were told their adoption application had been granted: Alanna was now their daughter. As she listened, the child tugged the hand of her court representative and whispered: 'I'm very important.'

Watching was Nicholas Crichton, resident district judge at the only family court in Britain dealing exclusively with children and their families. Having given the family permission to take over the courtroom for photographs, Crichton stood in a corner holding a toy zebra and a certificate, gifts from the court to children celebrating their adoptions. 'This is a rare moment,' he said. 'A happy occasion in a court that deals with so much unhappiness. When it's children you have removed from dangerous circumstances who are going into a loving home with a future ahead of them, it brings tears to your eyes every time.'

Alanna's adoption may have been a happy occasion but, like every case heard by family courts, it took place behind closed doors, subject to a bitterly contested blanket ban on reporting anything that could identify a child or his or her family, now or in the future.

Campaigners for openness say the ban, imposed to defend the children's privacy, makes local authority social services departments too powerful and parents virtually powerless. It is used, they say, to cover up miscarriages of justice, turning the courts into a 'dark corner' of the justice system, dominated by unaccountable social workers and judges with power to take children away from their parents for ever without a jury, the media or the public knowing about it.

The campaigners are being heard; last month Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, agreed to hold a consultation on the issue. This was welcomed by Crichton, and his Inner London and City Family Proceedings Court sought to answer the critics earlier this month by granting The Observer unprecedented and unrestricted access to its courtrooms and its judges' private chambers.

For two weeks this newspaper was allowed to watch as local authorities fought to keep children in some families and battled to remove them from others. We saw parents use their children as weapons in internecine battles, and descend to viciously personal attacks as they struggled to resolve cases of contested contact.

In between each case we were made privy to the confidential deliberations of the judges as they worked to strip away the emotions of each case to uncover the best option for the child at its centre.

'We deal with social dysfunction on a scale that most people would not believe,' said Crichton. 'It's raw stuff and so bloody tragic. If you keep thinking of the children, though, and what we can do for them, it's not quite so tragic. But calling us "secret" distorts the picture and is just not right,' he adds. 'We're a court whose ethos is the protection of children. It's not protective if you allow material to be published which will identify families.

'On the other hand,' he concedes, 'it is impossible to defend a system from accusations of discrimination if it operates behind closed doors.'

The notion of a court dealing solely with care proceedings and family disputes is a unique one, developed by Crichton and others in response to the way the old juvenile courts - later youth courts - lumped together cases involving young offenders with those of vulnerable children taken from parents due to neglect or abuse, and families fighting over contact arrangements.

The inner London family court could not be more different from a criminal one. Designed to calm the heightened emotions of families, its courtrooms are light, airy and contain a horseshoe of tables around which families, social workers, experts and lawyers sit. The judge, wearing a suit, does his best to maintain informality. 'I make jokes and keep the tone personal,' says Crichton. 'My aim is to reintroduce humanity to situations where that is all too often forgotten, with upsetting consequences.'

The court has been working for almost a decade. Last year it heard more than 4,000 public law cases - care proceedings and neglect hearings brought by social services against families - and an undisclosed number of private law cases (about which parent a child from a broken home should live with, and contact disputes). Its total caseload was up by 16 per cent on the year before, following a similar increase on 2003.

But while the court struggles with the mass of cases, it is the relentless tales of abuse, cruelty and degradation that take their toll on the judges. Crichton sits there permanently but the other judges - three or four at a time - admit they cannot bear more than a week at a time. 'We regularly see terrible callousness from parents on a scale you can't believe. Some are wickedly cruel to their children and to each other,' says district judge Bruce Morgan, who travels from his own court in Birmingham for a few weeks a year. 'After seven days, I'm totally emotionally drained.'

After Alanna has happily walked out of court into her new future, Crichton sighs and opens the file of his next case: five-year-old Mia who, although only a few years older than Alanna, will probably never recover from the trauma she has endured. Mia's father, explains Crichton, is an extraordinarily violent drug dealer in jail for offences including severe domestic violence. This man is applying for contact with his daughter, a deeply troubled child who is in care.

A few weeks ago Mia told her foster family about sexual abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of her father. To make an arrest, however, police need her to make the same disclosures to them. Mia had begun to talk to them but, after a visit from her mother, the girl has clammed up again and begun seriously to harm herself, cutting her flesh and throwing herself down a flight of stairs.

Taking advantage of the fact that the police cannot yet charge him in a criminal court, Mia's father has asked the family court for supervised contact with his daughter. Today Crichton must decide whether to allow him to undergo the assessment necessary to ascertain whether such visits should take place.

'I'm torn,' admits Crichton. 'Half of me is screaming: "Stop wasting my time and the public's money". There's no chance this man will be allowed to see his child. But if a dangerous man like this goes away without having a hearing, he will get worse and somewhere down the line that could be detrimental to the child.'

The judge calls in the parents. First Mia's mother strolls into court. A teenager who looks too innocent to have played any part in the horrors detailed in her daughter's file, she clearly understands very little about where she is or why. Then the father is brought in. Handcuffed and with three prison guards, he looks even younger and more childlike.

After the evidence has been heard, Crichton looks straight at the father. 'I can't allow this current application to proceed today,' he tells him. 'I am not passing judgment on the truth of Mia's claims, but now they have been made they will have to be thoroughly investigated before any assessment has a chance of success.'

Mia's mother has grasped nothing of what has been said. She gazes vaguely around the court, smiling. The father understands all too well. His body bristles with aggression but Crichton looks away, refusing to acknowledge his fury.

As the door closes behind the family, Crichton throws himself back in his chair. 'I feel desperately sorry for this mother,' he says. 'She's in the clutches of an incredibly destructive man, but that child will probably never get over the damage she has suffered.'

There is no time for further reflection: two more parents with burning, exhausted eyes are already being ushered in to hear the fate of their baby, who has spent the first five months of her life in hospital suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms. Next comes the case of two sisters, aged 14 and 15, taken into care after it was discovered they were being prostituted by their father. This is a short hearing: just long enough to tell the judge that the night before the father - who was on bail - disappeared, as has the rest of the family. Social services are hunting for the children, but as yet they have no leads.

Changes to legislation introduced after eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was murdered by her carers in 1995 have led to the dramatic increase in cases brought to the family courts. But Crichton says his greatest fear is that many abused children are still slipping through the net.

'Many parents believe social services are in the business of whipping their children away from them, but it's not true. In cases of chronic neglect, I often think: "Why didn't you bring these children to court sooner?" But they are walking a tightrope: they're overworked and underfunded. They have no choice but to constantly operate on crisis management,' Crichton says.

Part of the reason for the increase in cases, Morgan believes, is the increased use of drugs and alcohol. 'Drugs are taking a greater hold on people than ever,' he says. 'Of the first 50 cases I did a decade ago, drugs would have been involved perhaps once. In the last 50 cases, 90 per cent were drug-related. When people take drugs, they lose all rational judgment. It's terrible what they will do to their children.'

Another problem, Crichton says, is that the concept of family and society is breaking down. 'I see 12-year-old mothers, 33-year-old grandmothers. I dealt with one 12-year-old child recently who shared a classroom with her great-aunt.' Yet 'the mistreatment of children is no longer seen as a private, family matter,' he says. 'The peripheral vision of neighbours, relatives, schools and shopkeepers regularly saves children's lives.'

Nevertheless, the power to remove children from parents is seen as involving the key unfairness at the heart of the family courts. In a criminal court, defendants are innocent until proved guilty and can be convicted only if that guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt. A family court, however, 'convicts' by deciding the balance of probability is that a child is suffering significant harm or is at risk of doing so.

The campaigners point out that parents cannot plead 'not guilty' and are often penalised. Few judges, they say, allow families to call experts in their defence. This means new medical research that suggests innocent explanations for apparent examples of abuse, such as bone fractures, is not heard.

Such criticisms are compounded by the irreversible nature of the courts' judgments. It is generally accepted that once a child has been adopted the natural parents cannot see their offspring again - even if they manage belatedly to prove their innocence.

Crichton himself calls their power to remove a child 'draconian', but insists it happens only in the most extreme circumstances. 'It's not about "Do these parents parent in the way we think is right?" Instead, it's "Do they parent up to a good enough standard?" What we're asking is whether the children are safe, well-balanced and healthy.'

But in at least one case seen by The Observer that was not the question addressed by social services. One lawyer acting for Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, justified her view that a small girl should be removed from her family by saying: 'This is not a home in which I would want to be bought up in. It's not a room that I, as a three-year-old, would want to call my own.'

Outside the court Markanza Cudby, the mother's solicitor, who has practised family law for 25 years, is enraged: 'I worry that the local authorities have a tendency to socially engineer families. They have a middle-class view about what the right sort of parenting is, and believe that if a parent isn't supplying that level of care the child would be better off with a "nice" adopter.

'Of course, social services would fiercely deny that, but it's what I see,' she insists. 'It doesn't, however, mean that children are removed from their parents unjustly: judges generally see through prejudicial reports from the social services and are extremely scrupulous about not falling into these same traps.'

Crichton rejects complaints of bias over fathers' rights. 'We bend over backwards to accommodate fathers,' he says. 'If fathers are refused contact, the reasons have to be extremely compelling.'

There is more truth, he admits, in mothers' claims that contact arrangements continue to be made with fathers who might well be abusive. 'Our hands are tied by the Human Rights Act which means family courts have to operate under a "presumption of contact",' he says. 'Family courts require exceptional circumstances to overrule this.'

Mothers in such cases, however, are frequently guilty of implacable and unscrupulous hostility towards former partners. 'The problem of mothers not keeping to contact arrangements is a very difficult one,' says Crichton. 'But how is it in the child's interest to be told by its mother that their father made her a jailbird? If, on the other hand, I fine her, that only affects her ability to meet the child's material needs.'

However, he pointed hopefully to the Children and Adoption Act, which has just received royal assent and suggests penalties for breaking contact orders, from compulsory parenting classes to community service.

Stories in family courts are so unrelentingly depressing that light relief is welcomed: Crichton sings the Cole Porter song 'Let's Do it (Let's Fall In Love)' before a particularly antagonistic couple enter the room, while Morgan tells of a mother who named her child after entire passages from the Bible: 'At the doctor's, she was known as 'HallelujahChristHasRisen' [sic] while the dentist knew her as 'MaytheGloryOfTheLordBeUponYourHeartForever,' he says.

Morgan's favourite tale, however, is of a couple whose discussions in court to agree a handover point for their small son descended into prolonged bickering. 'The father suggested a bus stop but the mother said it was on the wrong side of a busy road,' he recalls. 'Then the mother suggested a McDonald's but the father said he didn't like the smell of frying.

'Eventually I asked for a map, a ruler and for each parent's address. I drew a line, found that a derelict gasworks lay equidistant between the two houses and told the parents that, unless they came to their own agreement in 10 minutes, that would be the handover point for the next 13 years.' The couple were back in court with their own deal in three minutes.

Morgan laughs as he tells the story, then pauses. 'It's difficult to believe something that begins with an intimate act of love can descend to such bitterness in sometimes such a small amount of time,' he says.

One problem is that, in private law cases at least, families continue to be enamoured of the court process, maintaining a belief that once they have their day in court they will receive release from all the injustices they suffered in the family break-up. In fact, according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, court orders fuel conflicts rather than resolve them. The family courts system, the study said, is not there to make the parents feel better; its role is to establish what is best for the child.

Crichton believes the time and money spent trying to impose solutions through the courts would be better invested in services to improve relations between parents and children, enabling them to find answers for themselves. A pilot Family Law Resolution Court he set up last year failed, however, because it was not compulsory for parents to attend.

The project was, he says, inspired by the case that has haunted him most. 'It was a case of sheer, calculated vindictiveness between parents. It happened years ago but still affects me as though it happened yesterday.' The case involved a mother who abandoned her husband and two young boys. The father gave up his career to care for his sons only for her to reappear two years later and demand custody. Reluctantly the father agreed, only for her to stop all contact between him and the children a few months later. 'The arguments between them in court raged for days when, suddenly, the mother looked straight at her former partner and told him the youngest boy wasn't his,' says Crichton. DNA tests proved this was correct. Back in court, however, the father insisted that he still loved the younger boy and wanted contact with him.

'Then the mother leaned forward a second time and revealed that the oldest son wasn't his either. I had never seen a man collapse from the inside-out before, but that's what happened: it was like he had been hollowed out. He was a husk of the man he had been just seconds before.'

Day after day Crichton deals with cases like these, starting with paperwork at 6.30am and occasionally not finishing until close to midnight. 'People say the only way to survive doing this job day in, day out, is not to get too involved,' he says, gazing at the rows of photographs sent to him by grateful parents over the years, showing their beaming, healthy children. 'But just look at them: they're heaven,' he says. 'I don't think you can do this work if you don't care deeply.'

Three children snatched on a family day out

When courts work well, they can save children's lives and mend broken families. But some parents accuse them of having children seized unjustly. Here one mother, who is unnamed to protect her children's identity, tells of an 11-month fight by her husband and herself for the return of their daughter and two sons:

'It all began when our car was pulled over by police on a visit to London last September. My husband had had his licence removed and reinstated two years before after driving through a red light but police records had not been [updated].

'We had moved from Northampton to Dublin that May. We left some trouble behind: that January, our six-year-old daughter had suffered a range of minor illnesses. For some reason, her headmistress told social services I suffered Munchausen's syndrome. Social services looked into the claim but refused to act. When we left the country, they said if we returned they would reassess the children. We were unaware of this; we only found out now because of documents we demanded under the Freedom of Information Act.

'When our car was stopped, we were taken to the police station and social services were informed. In the middle of discussions about my husband's driving licence, we were suddenly confronted by a social worker who told us our children were the subject of a police investigation.

'We immediately organised a solicitor, unaware that the kids were already on their way back to Northampton, where they were put in separate foster homes. The courts assigned us a social worker, who turned out to be unqualified and is being investigated for malfeasance in public office, which you can be jailed for. The court gave the children a solicitor, who saw them for half an hour over the whole 11 months.

'The children were also given a children's guardian to present an independent report in court. They were so unhappy with the way this guardian treated them that they exercised their legal right to ask for a new representative. The court denied their request. We have since discovered that the guardian had never been officially registered, and our complaint against him has been upheld by [Cafcass,] the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.

'When our case came to court in August, the local authority and the new social worker recommended the case be withdrawn.

'However, because there is no mechanism for [evidence to be proved] "false" in a family court - which accepts all statements made by the social services as true - and because parents have no automatic right of reply in the court process, the false allegations against us still lie on many files. We have been told that, although we can complain, we will not be told the outcome of the investigation.

'Our children are now at home. They have nightmares about being taken away again and so do we. Our family will never be the same.'

· The children's names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

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