The BBC’s Panorama programme this week investigating the quality of expert evidence in the family courts has got everybody rather flustered.
The public have by and large expressed anger and sadness at the way the system functions. One politician in particular, used the programme to make a stark point about the alternatives to facing the family courts and social workers all over the land cupped their heads in dismay at yet more disparaging comment on their sector.
John Hemming MP’s statement on Panorama this week that parents who felt unfairly treated by the family justice system should flee the country with their children has caused outrage. Again.
Lawyers continue to relish the chance to ridicule Hemming’s simplistic sound bites, and this comment was no exception. Alex Verdan QC, a family law barrister and Head of a set of Chambers took to Twitter on Monday as the programme was airing:
Julia Thackray, also a family barrister, tweeted:
So John Hemming MP hasn’t heard of Hague Convention re child abduction? recommending parents flee country??.
And it wasn’t just lawyers reacting to the ‘advice’ Hemming offered. One social worker has now written an open letter to Hemming, asking him why he felt the need to criticise social work and the system and asking him whether he understands the effect his comments are having on her sector. In short, she accuses John Hemming of undermining social work and the people who practice it.
The trouble is, having worked with John Hemming for two years, I understand exactly where he’s coming from and why he says the things he does. The way he expresses himself though, is a bit of a problem.
In person Hemming is highly articulate, intelligent and fully cognisant of the nuances inside the system. He understands there are good people who do good work and that professionals aren’t bad by virtue of their profession, but by their practice. Spend a few minutes talking with this man and you realise something: he is a fountain of knowledge on both the legal and policy driven aspects of the family justice system. And for the duration of the time that I worked with him, he did everything by the book.
What comes across though, is a man who seems to advocate the protection of child abusers and has very little respect for the law. Having been kicked off MumsNet this month for outing a couple of mothers who had contacted him for help in private and uploading confidential documents relating to the now infamous case of the Italian mother who was forced to have a C-Section, anyone would be forgiven for thinking Hemming hasn’t a clue.
And in the world of PR, that may very well be the case. Fishing around forums like NetMums to garner more votes and issuing irrational sounding and sensational statements to get the press to focus on issues is a dangerous business and one which requires finesse. Having been banned from one of the UK’s largest parent focused forums and causing yet more anger within the family justice system, Hemming’s kudos has taken a severe hit. Much of what he says is now largely ignored, after it is met with an initial flurry of fury.
And that’s a shame. But everyone is missing the point.
This is not about social work, or politics. This is about children. As the angry social worker writes her open letter to John Hemming, she focuses on her own pain and frustration at being denigrated. It’s personal for her. In her letter, Esther Clarke tells John Hemming, “you have in one interview utterly undermined our work and purpose.”
But what about her role in this scenario? Social work has been under immense scrutiny for its poor practice and its lack of focus on child welfare. Countless news items, reports and research all indicate that social work has to a great extent undermined itself, with some mitigation relating to the lack of resources it currently suffers with.
Yet how refreshing it would have been had Esther written something different, had she acknowledged the problems and the errors and with dignity, focused on the potential damage statements like John’s could do, to vulnerable children involved.
And how insightful it would have been, had John chosen to explain that for many parents, the reality today is that poorly trained, overworked, understaffed social work teams are not able to deliver the kind of service that these families, these children deserve and that for many who are wrongly accused of child abuse, fleeing is the only option.
In a race to pass the buck, the system has consistently put baby in the corner. And despite the welcome news that the Supreme Court has delivered a judgment in which it asserts that children’s mindsets should be considered in cross border custody battles, it seems we still have a long way to go before we become a truly child-centered nation.