Children’s requests to remain in contact with their birth families as they go through family court proceedings are routinely being ignored by the family courts, leading to children threatening to commit suicide.
This site was inundated by testimonies of children, and parents who said their children had consistently asked for some form of contact with their families, while others begged social workers to be returned home.
Speaking to Researching Reform, one mother said:
“My children haven’t been put first once. My 7 year old threatened to kill himself last month because they won’t let him come home. My 5 year old asks to come home at every contact. They’ve cut my contact, so I only see my boys 2 hours a week and my little girl 3 hours a week. I’m devastated. I’m a domestic abuse survivor. I’ve done all the courses off my own back but my social worker tells lies and bullies me. Cafcass still hasn’t been out to see my kids 8 months on. My children ask to come home at every contact.”
Another parent described a similar experience:
“My daughter tried to kill herself to get away from ongoing abuse. The Independent Children Lawyer refused to speak to the children. This has been going on for over 7 years in the courts. My daughter’s feelings were never recorded, and our child protection meeting took a grand total of ten minutes. She was ignored by the judge completely, despite violent incidents carried out by her father which had all been formally documented.”
Judges are currently not required to speak to children going through family law proceedings, even if a child requests a meeting with their judge. A Freedom of Information request by this site exposed the then coalition government’s failure to secure the right in 2014, despite pledging to implement a duty on judges to speak to children who wanted to talk about their case.
Guidelines were drawn up in 2010 by the former Family Justice Council’s Voice of the Child sub-committee, which allowed children to speak to judges. But the guidelines were heavily restricted, and only permitted the judge to explain the court process, denying children the right to talk about their feelings and express concerns about their case.
Discussions on implementing the right came to an abrupt halt in May, when the former President of the Family Division James Munby admitted that the government had refused to create a right to speak to judges because it had said the cost of launching the policy was too high. The government’s reasoning was widely criticised by child welfare campaigners and the public.
Instances of judges not listening to social workers in court who recommend contact with birth parents have also been uncovered by this site. One parent described an experience where the social worker had recommended contact but the judge had refused to grant it, despite the child having had positive contact with the parent for several years.
“No one ascertained my daughter’s views. She was nine at the time. We had racked up eight years of really good contact logs and the social services reports said my daughter very much wanted to remain in contact with me. All of that was ignored because the other parent had come off better in court.”
A leading study by British social workers confirmed that children in care need ties to their birth families, which are vital for healthy development. The study’s researchers called on the government to ensure that children retained contact with their birth families wherever possible and urged the government to overhaul the UK’s outdated child protection practices in this area.
A comment in the study said: “Adopted children denied contact can experience serious identity issues and when they are free to seek out their birth families at age 18, adoptive parents can be ill-prepared for the emotional consequences.”
Professor Brid Featherstone, who co-authored the study explained:
“You should start from the assumption that direct contact with birth parents ought to be considered… Usually, adopted children go searching when they get to 18 and it can store up trouble if they haven’t had previous contact, enabling them to see their birth parents for good or ill.
They can stop having fantasies about these wonderful parents that they were stolen away from, or equally that they were absolutely terrible people. It’s about their identities. Adopted people told us that identity is a lifelong issue for them. Where do I come from? Who do I belong to?”
Children’s feelings are swept under the carpet throughout their lifetime in care, causing them serious harm. A study published in October by University College London, found that children’s voices were often absent from care records, causing them significant distress.
Adults who had grown up in care and who took part in the study criticised a lack of acknowledgment in their care records. Some said their voices were completely absent from their files, while others said words were put into their mouths by child welfare professionals. Redacted files caused a lot of distress too, with care leavers questioning the validity and usefulness of piecemeal information in piecing together their lives.
One father told us about his son’s experience of his Life Story Book, a record intended to log comprehensive details about a child’s life before, during and after care in a sensitive and compassionate way.
“The social workers just ignored the requirement to compile the Life Story Book. It was never done after over 6 years. By then the damage was done. He didn’t remember me. I felt like he had been conditioned to believe whatever he had been told.”
Some parents who have children in care believe that judges and child welfare professionals are intentionally stifling children’s voices to stem any potential obstacles or challenges to adoption orders.
One parent told this site that their 17 year-old son had written his wishes and feelings down on paper to give to the judge as he was concerned about the validity of his adoption – some paperwork was missing and some documentation looked as if it had been tampered – but the judge disregarded his concerns.
” I’d taken my son’s written evidence to the family court which outlined his wishes and feelings, and him wanting answers to the very serious concerns over whether his adoption had been registered. I though that perhaps this would make the court order null or void, as I also had significant evidence showing the anomalies.
My evidence was rejected – some were audio recordings from a court clerk which confirmed there were problems with my son’s adoption certificate – and the judge just set them aside and told me to ‘let it go’.
I really do think the judge must have heard the audio recordings, and now I feel as if there has been a cover up. I’ve since been restricted from mentioning specific names and places and my son has never got his answers, and neither have I to this day.”
Our thanks go out to Jane Doe, Tum-Tum, and the many parents and children who shared their experiences with Researching Reform.