Family courts will always
favour a child’s birth parents
The number in care is a third lower than it was 30 years ago
Published at 12:01AM, January 13 2014
The BBC’s Panorama this evening will investigate the “secretive world of the
family courts” and ask whether some parents have lost their children to care
despite never harming them.
This comes only a few weeks after the case of the Italian mother in the UK, who
apparently had a panic attack, leading to her having a Caesarean section against
her will, with her infant being taken into care. In that case deeply misleading
initial commentaries were balanced within days by a few calm facts — the mother
was mentally ill and the Caesarean decision had been taken by doctors, not social
workers. But the damage to the reputation of the family courts and social workers
was done. I fear that Panoroma may inflict further damage this evening.
This is not to deny that the system can sometimes get things terribly wrong or
that parents have sometimes, tragically, lost children they loved and cared for. I
have seen such cases and been deeply troubled by them, but they are relatively
rare and should not give the impression that social workers and the family courts
are too keen to remove children from birth parents. Nothing could be farther
from the truth.
When I left the Prison and Probation Services to go to Barnardo’s I was
determined to try to reduce the number of children in care. But my time there
opened my eyes to the extent to which the family court system, far from being
cavalier in removing children, gave birth parents the benefit of any doubt,
sometimes over and over again. There has been a modest and welcome shift in
the past few years, shown by the rise in the number of children in care. But that is
still a third lower than it was 30 years ago, reflecting the reality that children are
taken into care only when all other options have been explored.
I have never met a social worker or judge (and I have lectured to most judges
working in the Family Courts) who has not preferred in every case to keep a child
with the birth parents. Indeed, the evidence is that we are too optimistic about
the capacity of birth parents to care adequately for their children. Recent
University of Bristol research followed 138 children returned to their parents
from care: two thirds were neglected or abused again within two years.
Sir Martin Narey is a former chief executive of Barnardo’s 2005-2010