Petition Calls On Government To Intervene In Family Courts

A petition created by “I Want My Mummy” (IWMM),  a not for profit organisation providing support for vulnerable people and survivors of abuse is calling on the government to open up the Family Courts. 

Often accused of being shrouded in secrecy, the Family Courts have been heavily criticised over the last decade for its failure to strike the right balance between protecting families’ and children’s rights as they go through these courts, and the appropriate level of accountability for poor practice and wrongdoing inside the system.

IWMM’s Executive Director Zoe Dronfield set up the petition, which has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures. The petition sets out ten recommendations which it invites the government to take up:

Recommendation 1: Open the civil family court to scrutiny and allow an independent third party ombudsman to investigate claims of unjust rulings.

Recommendation 2: Family court to be evidential to include a domestic violence or victim advocate for survivors including child survivors.

Recommendation 3: The Government to ensure that there is independent follow-up after a court ruling to ensure that it was successful.  To be measured by improved experiences for the family.

Recommendation 4: The Government to consider linking criminal and family court proceedings for unified working.

Recommendation 5: The Government to consider creating a new Serial Perpetrator Register which can be accessed by family court for history of domestic abuses.

Recommendation 6: The Government and Ministry of Justice to ensure the adherence to clear and consistent procedure for applications brought to the family court.

Recommendation 7: The Government and Ministry of Justice to ensure DBS checks for all applicants and to be properly considered at the initial and closing stages of applications before the family court.

Recommendation 8: Perjury in the family court to be thoroughly investigated and consistently treated as a criminal offence.

Recommendation 9: The Government to consider that gagging orders do not resolve lack of safe transparency and scrutiny.  They often silence the victim of injustice.

Recommendation 10:  CAFCASS reporters and officials, social workers and other court-appointed experts be held accountable for errors and misleading information.

IWMM has Researching Reform’s full support on this petition, and the recommendations it sets out. If you’d like to sign the petition, you can do so here. 

Many thanks to Zoe for getting in touch and sharing the petition with us. VOTC.png

 

 

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McFarlane Confirmed As New Family Court President

Andrew McFarlane has been approved by the Queen to take on the role of President of the Family Division. McFarlane will take up the position on 28th July, after the current President steps down on the 27th, July.

The decision was made with the support of a panel, which included Baroness Hale, Professor Lord Kakkar (Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission), Dame Valarie Strachan and Mr Andrew Kennon.

His appointment will come as no surprise to this site –  we tipped McFarlane for the Presidency in March of last year. McFarlane replaces Sir James Munby as President of the Family Division.

As a judge, McFarlane looks set to take up Munby’s mantle as a vocal figurehead wading into the politics of the family courts. Unlike Munby though, McFarlane appears reluctant to highlight controversies inside the system.

A member of the Norgrove Review, which was perceived by many to be too narrow in its scope and lacking in innovation, McFarlane is carving out a reputation for himself as a cautious and diplomatic President, trying to please all parties inside the Family Division.

His trademark diplomacy can be seen in some of his judgments. Presiding over the Charlie Gard case in 2017  , McFarlane highlighted grounds which he felt were powerful enough on their own to grant the family permission to appeal, during what were fraught hearings for the parents. In 2012, McFarlane was also one of several judges invited to give evidence at the House of Lords, on the adoption process.

Perhaps the new President feels a collaborative, and non confrontational approach might succeed where Munby’s direct and often powerful calls to action inside the Family Division, have failed. This is unlikely to be the case. Munby began his career as President with the same outlook as McFarlane has now. What Munby discovered, was that the softly softly approach did nothing to address the entrenched and often wilful breaches of policy and law inside the child welfare sector. It’s going to be interesting to see how McFarlane’s approach changes during his term. He may have to pick a side after all.

Welcome, McFarlane.

McFarlane

 

 

 

Lord Soley’s Proposals For Home Schooled Children Dangerous And Naive

A Bill passing through the House Of Lords wants to give local authorities greater powers to monitor home schooled children in order to prevent instances of neglect and abuse. The proposals raise serious concerns about further state intervention at a time when social work malpractice and resource drained child protection departments are at an all time high.

The Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill, sponsored by Labour peer Lord Soley, outlines a duty on parents to register their children if they elect to home school them, and local authority powers to monitor, vet and assess home schooled children:

Duty of local authorities to monitor children receiving elective home 
education 
(1) The Education Act 1996 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 436A (duty to make arrangements to identify children not
receiving education), insert—

“436BDuty of local authorities to monitor children receiving elective home
education
(1) Local authorities have a duty to monitor the educational, physical and
emotional development of children receiving elective home education
in their area.

(2) A parent of a child receiving elective home education must register the
child as such with their local authority.

(3) Local authorities must assess annually each child receiving elective
home education in their area (hereafter referred to as “the assessment”).

(4) The assessment set out in subsection (3) must monitor the—

(a) educational;

(b) physical; and

(c) emotional development of each child.

(5) The assessment may include—

(a) a visit to the child’s home;

(b) an interview with the child;

(c) seeing the child’s work; and

(d) an interview with the child’s parent.

(6) A parent of a child receiving elective home education must provide
information relevant to the assessment to their local authority when
requested.

(7) The Secretary of State must by regulations made by statutory
instrument specify—

(a) the arrangements for parents to register a child with their local
authority under subsection (2); and

(b) the methodology of the assessment.

(8) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is
subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of
Parliament.

(9) In this section “elective home education” refers to education given to a
child at home following a decision by their parent to educate them
outside the school system.”

In an interview published today, on Politics Home, Lord Soley explains why he has chosen to offer the proposals in his Bill. Soley tells Politics Home that the measures are designed to protect children who have been expelled from conventional schooling for under achievement or difficult behaviour, those not receiving adequate education from their parents at home, and children who have been removed from mainstream education in order to be radicalised, trafficked or abused.

If that is really what Soley wishes to achieve, he won’t with this Bill. Asking social workers to take on what is essentially a teaching role in order to assess educational attainment of home schooled children will create more misery and confusion. The task requires social workers to also carry teaching diplomas, and the extra training that social workers will inevitably have to undertake will cost the government a fortune.

And it won’t be money well spent. If Lord Soley hopes to create a new ground upon which child protective services can enter homes, essentially with the purpose of vetting families – because that is really what this Bill is about – he will be opening up a can of worms.

The current tug of war between social workers who are increasingly calling on the government to stop taking children into care, and the Department for Education’s aggressive drive to rev up adoptions through private agency models waiting to make massive profits off the backs of vulnerable children (and offering these children nothing in return), makes this Bill both naive and dangerous.

We already have systems in place to ensure that vulnerable children are identified, but they are not working as they should because social work training and the culture inside the social care system is not efficient enough. It is also riddled with unethical behaviour and malpractice. This Bill would not make identifying abuse more efficient, it would simply offer more opportunities for miscarriages of justice whilst councils continue to rely on adoption incentives to bolster their budgets.

Lord Soley does not have an extensive background in child welfare. Most of his experience centers around government body reforms, with the exception of his involvement in the Draft Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill (Joint Committee), in 2005, as Chair for the Committee. And though we are sure he means well, and genuinely wishes to protect the rights of every child in the UK, measures to protect those rights must always be viewed within the current state of affairs inside the child welfare sector. That is often a large and complex task, which requires a nuanced understanding of the many different factors at play, at any given time.

As a Private Members’ Bill, these proposals are unlikely to be implemented and ratified into law. But it serves as an important reminder that anyone who wishes to improve child protection and secure the rights of every child can only do so with a complete understanding of the system itself.

HE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Least 5,000 Children In Care Have Been Separated From Their Siblings

A Freedom Of Information request has revealed that at least 5,000 children in care in England and Wales, have been separated from their siblings.

The staggering figure was revealed after 50 councils responded to the request. The actual figure, however, is likely to be much higher. There are 125 ‘single tier’ authorities in England and Wales, which all function as billing authorities for Council Tax and local education authorities.

We could not find the Freedom Of Information request (please do let us know if you spot it), however data published by media outlets offer the following insights:

  • Nearly 2,500 sibling groups, at least 5,000 children, are currently split up in care;
  • In 30 of the 50 councils, more than 50% of sibling groups had been separated;
  • In Islington, 73% of their sibling groups are split up;
  • In Oxfordshire 68% of their sibling groups are separated;
  • 60% of sibling groups are split in Cheshire West and Chester.

The debate over siblings being separated in care is not new. In August 2012, Martin Narey, who is also dubbed The Adoption Tsar and is currently the government’s senior advisor on all things adoption, urged policy makers to end the presumption that siblings should be kept together.

Narey’s reasons for calling on the government to end this presumption were so poor that we broke them down on this blog. Here are some of his views on the subject, which he aired in an interview with online magazine, Children and Young People Now:

“One of the instances where separation of siblings is probably wise, is where a particular child has started to parent a younger child, where they have compensated for the neglect and abuse they have received by a parent, essentially becoming a parent for the younger child.” 

Surely the better solution is to support the older child in changing their behaviours towards the younger sibling? This can be done by showing the older sibling that there is someone there to support the younger sibling (the parent or carer), a measure which both prevents the siblings from being traumatised by a separation, and at the same time, allows the older sibling to readjust.

“Sibling groups have to wait on average a year longer to be adopted than individual children, due to a shortage of adopters willing and able to adopt groups of children.”

This doesn’t justify re-traumatising already vulnerable children. If we made our care homes loving, supportive environments for these children, waiting would not be an issue.

And whilst we have politicians and figure heads focusing on profit before child protection, it is likely that this kind of poor policy will continue to dog the system.

The data from this Freedom Of Information request is warmly received, and timely. We hope the government will stop looking at short term solutions and start thinking about the bigger picture.

FOI

Victims: Going To Court Can Be Worse Than The Abuse We Suffered.

Growing concerns about the use of court rooms, and their impact on victims and quality of evidence have emerged this month, with the publication of a damning new report. The document also confirms that victims of rape routinely feel that the court experience leaves them more traumatised than the sexual violence they’ve suffered.

The report, which was organised by The Rape Crisis Network Ireland, and produced by the Vulnerable Witnesses MultiAgency Group, explains that modern psychological research doesn’t support the current view that live evidence produces the best quality evidence, and that much better results would be achieved through pre recording a statement soon after a complaint is made.

The document also observes that the current system relies “too much on memory and performance on a given day, years after the event and on the ability to articulate simple answers swiftly, clearly and unambiguously to complex, sometimes unclear, or even occasionally misleading questions.”

The research Group goes on to recommend the use of pre recorded evidence as a better alternative to live, face to face evidence giving, including evidence given via live video feeds. The report comes at a time when child rights campaigners are calling on the government to stop rolling out live feeds in court for child witnesses, warning that the practice increases the risk of wrongful convictions and unfair sentences. 

The report, which was published in March, also suggests that pre-trial hearings should be placed on a statutory footing, and should be the primary means through which special protection needs are determined.

The measures in the report aim to reduce the traumatic elements of the court process, and deliver the best possible evidence available, and are designed to support vulnerable witnesses, for example those with intellectual disability or mental health difficulties as well as victims of sexual or domestic violence. The measures would also support and protect child witnesses.

Along with the publication of the report, a conference held in Dublin this month, hosted by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, the Bar Council and the Law Society, confirmed that the court experience leaves victims feeling re-traumatised. Maria McDonald, a lawyer present at the conference, called for measures to be introduced such as allowing vulnerable witnesses and children to bring comforting objects like teddies with them to court, to have in their possession whilst being questioned, which at the very least could act as a supportive interim measure until evidence giving in court rooms is properly reviewed.

Researching Reform warmly recommends the measures in the report, and we hope that they will be considered, and piloted, in criminal and family courts around the UK.

You can read the report in full here. 

RCN

 

 

 

 

Question It!

Welcome to another week.

Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, who is also a judge in the Court of Appeal, gave a speech last week, in which he said that the family courts’ focus must be on safeguarding children’s best interests, and that better training was needed for judges.

Ryder also questioned the system’s current adversarial approach, which has historically led to a shift in focus away from children’s needs, and more on individual performances of lawyers representing parties. On this point, he observed that an adversarial approach ‘is challenged in the context of family justice with its more inquisitorial process, where the focus must be, on ‘safeguarding children by securing their best interests’.

Whilst Ryder notes that family courts are increasingly trying to use inquisitorial avenues to process cases, the Family Court still remains largely adversarial, from the processes used, to the working, day-to-day culture inside the courts. The discussion about these two models though, is not new.

Researching Reform started the debate around whether the family courts should remain adversarial, or switch to an inquisitorial model in 2010, where we attempted to offer a balanced view of both. The two systems are not always mutually exclusive, with neither being completely immune to bias, error, or abuse of power. Both models can also share similar characteristics, and unsurprisingly, a more inquisitorial model would hand judges far greater powers than they have at present, which may explain judicial support for an inquisitorial system.

Our question this week, then, is just this: would you like to see the Family Court move away from an adversarial system, to an inquisitorial one? 

face_question_mark

 

 

Former Labour Councillor For Rochdale Suspended By Party After Child Abuse Inquiry Findings Published

Richard Farnell, former council leader for Rochdale and a Labour representative, has been suspended from the party after the nation’s child abuse inquiry found he had lied under oath. 

The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse found he had lied whilst giving evidence about the Knowl View sexual abuse scandal in hearings last year. Farnell claimed he was unaware of ongoing abuse allegations whilst acting as leader of the council between 1988 and 1992.

You can read the inquiry’s report, which was published today, in full, here.

The revelation caused the Labour party to scramble for a response, and suspended their councillor within 30 minutes of the inquiry’s report being published.

Prior to the findings, a petition on Change.org pushing for a vote of no confidence in the Rochdale council leader, outlining allegations of dishonesty and profiteering from his position, was launched.

The inquiry called Farnell’s denial of child abuse taking place in his constituency shameful.

Inquiry Chair, Professor Alexis Jay, commented:

“After listening to the evidence presented by a number of victims and survivors in Rochdale at the time, I am deeply disturbed at the evidence of extensive abuse and the institutional responses to that abuse.

“Many of those who testified to their abuse have never had the opportunity to seek justice through the courts. I hope that the public hearings and this report has offered them some measure of acknowledgement for their suffering.”

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