Written by Wayne Hollingsworth, Child Care Law Specialist and Director.
“I want my baby back “ the title of last night’s Panorama programme dealing with the emotive subject of taking children into care. The programme followed three families who had all suffered from having a baby taken from them due to fractures, discovered when the baby was taken into hospital with a swollen limb which, after X rays were taken showed that each child had fractured bones.
The programme sought to suggest however that these injuries may have been caused by Ricketts due to Vitamin D deficiency and that this was not properly investigated. It gave the impression that this area was never investigated, or if it was, the investigation was undertaken poorly and that parents had no chance against the might of the “system” with unlimited resources and social workers. Parents had a dilemma – their child was ill and needed hospital treatment, but if treatment was sought then any fracture would potentially lead to their child being removed. It further suggested that the system had become worse due to cases such as Baby P and that those involved in child protection were more likely now to come to the conclusion that there was child abuse and to remove than before.
The problem with this programme was that it was entirely subjective in the families it chose to show. It concentrated on one specific area and dealt with families who had not previously been known to child protection agencies such as social services or the police. It gave the impression however that all care cases were likely to lead to children being removed and adopted and that parents had no chance once they were sucked into the system. John Hemming MP was interviewed and suggested that the system is so flawed that parents needed to consider moving away from the UK if their child was at risk of being removed as they would be unable to get justice in the UK.
What it did not make clear was this:
- If the child has been born, leaving the country will not help – it is more likely that parents will be found quickly and returned, especially if in the EU. A mother cannot be stopped from leaving if she is pregnant (which seemed to be the case in the programme). To do this may simply move the problem from one jurisdiction to another.
- The government, with its reforms, has made it more difficult to obtain alternative, objective evidence. Cases have to be dealt with more quickly, the requirements for an expert are stricter and the fees that are available to experts from legal aid have been cut drastically.
- There are many other reasons why children are taken into care, often from less well off families and they do not have the option of leaving the country.
As a solicitor, I also felt that my profession was shown in a very poor light. The only legal view came from a QC and an opportunity was missed to have a specialist solicitor who is a member of the children panel on the programme to discuss the system, because most cases are dealt with by those types of solicitors. They did show someone that they described as a paralegal who had helped one of the families in their case; why I am not sure.
Overall I felt that the programme lacked balance. I, like many other solicitors, have represented parents in court who have lost their children. We are passionate about our clients and do all that we can to reunite families. The removal of a child, especially the permanent removal, is traumatic and the hurt that parents suffer is palpable. But often court can be avoided if early and specialist legal advice is obtained in the majority of cases. That message however does not have the headline grabbing effect of “I want my baby back”