Denise Robertson: The future of children and families is hanging by a thread

Journal columnist and TV personality Denise Robertson on the heartbreak and unfairness that is all too common in the legal system

The High Court in London
The High Court in London

Last week a grandmother wrote: “My only hope now is a miracle, which is unlikely, as since this happened to my family I have met so many innocent parents and grandparents who have lost their children to forced adoption. Why do the courts, who are supposed to protect us and make sure justice is done, ignore us.”

I get at least one letter like that every week. I know that children are sometimes removed for good reason but I also know that mistakes are made.

A while ago Sir James Munby, the President of the High Court Family Division, said judges were becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of social services departments attempting to have children adopted apparently without even considering less “drastic” measures.

It was time to “call a halt” to the tendency to apply for adoption orders based on “sloppy” or non-existent assessment of alternatives which would not irrevocably break up families.

Under a Bill currently before Parliament, local authorities will soon have a legal requirement to complete the process within six months, from taking a child into care to securing an adoption order from a court.

How does that allow social workers to make the reasoned judgement they strive for? After Sir James Munby’s statement, decisions to adopt fell from 1,830 in the three months to September 2013, to 960 by the end of June 2014.

Sir Martin Narey, the government’s principal adviser on adoption, suggested the decline was caused by councils misinterpreting Judge Munby’s remarks but some in the social-work establishment are concerned that a policy focusing on adoption at the expense of other forms of care is misguided.

Last week a social worker who falsely accused a father of abusing his six-year-old daughter admitted she made the accusation up “because she was in a mood.” Before that admission the father had been thrown in a cell and banned from seeing his child.

Cafcass, which is funded by the Department of Justice, sacked the social worker and paid the father £86,000 in damages but she has since worked in child protection and adoption and the father is angry. “It is unbelievable. I was arrested for sexually assaulting the most precious thing in my life. People where I live think I am a paedophile.”

If that social worker had not retracted her accusation that child might have been placed for adoption. She let down not only father and child, she let down her profession.

Last week too, Judge Munby said a couple fighting the enforced adoption of their three-year-old son could be forgiven for thinking they are trapped in a system which is “neither compassionate nor even humane.” For the past 10 months, they have been struggling to get legal aid, without which they would be left to face the local authority’s application without proper representation.

Munby called the delay unconscionable. “The human reality is that a little boy has been separated from his parents pending a final decision for far too long – and for a period which is manifestly excessive.”

The couple were disqualified from receiving legal aid because the father earns £73.94 a month too much to qualify. How much representation could they get for £18 a week?

Now, justice minister Shailesh Vara says the parents can have aid if they pay £96.38 monthly and a one-off contribution of £133.77. As Judge Munby said “Is this really the best we can do?”

The future of children and families should not hang by such a thread. That is another example of the ‘sloppy practice’ Munby wants to eliminate. Surely he is right to wish to do so.

:: Inspiring sight in a dark week, Jew, Muslim, Christian, people of all faiths and no faiths standing shoulder to shoulder in Paris’ Grand Mosque. The forces ranged against them, against us all, may be strong, but solidarity is stronger.

:: Last week’s Any Questions panel was made up of prospective candidates in May’s forthcoming election. Con, Lab, Lib Dem, Ukip and Green.

I’d like to say they filled me with hope for the future. In truth, they scared the pants off me, especially the one who sounded exactly like Mandy Rice Davies, complete with the ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he!’ catchphrase.

If this is the future of politics in this country, God help us all.

But I’m all in favour of the minor parties being included in any debate. The sooner we can question them and find out what they really stand for, the better.

Registering a protest vote is one thing, giving your vote to an untried party which could well have power in a Coalition is quite another.

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