Afghan Children In Iran Are Being Forced To Fight In Syria.

Iran holds the largest Afghan diaspora in the world, and of the three million Afghans in Iran, one million are estimated to be children. Emerging reports of undocumented Afghan girls being sold into sexual slavery, and research showing that boys are being forced to fight in Syria on behalf of the Iranian government are hugely worrying developments. They are also developments that this site feels deserve more coverage.

The piece was published this week on Kayhan Life, a fully independent media outlet focusing on news about the Middle East. By way of disclosure, Researching Reform’s editor is the managing editor for the newspaper, which also has a strong focus on child rights. If you are interested in child welfare and would like to know more about the obstacles children in Iran face day to day, you can access those articles here.

Our story this week highlights the sexual exploitation of Afghan girls in Iran and the forced conscription of Afghan boys, who are coerced into fighting in Syria by Iran’s government. You can read the article here.  

We wish you a safe, and happy weekend.

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This International Children’s Day, Get The Government To Act.

November 20th is International Children’s Day, an annual event launched to celebrate children, and to highlight the difficulties they face in today’s world.

This year, Researching Reform has chosen to honour Children’s Day by asking the UK government to address three pressing issues affecting children in care:

1. Give all children engaged in child welfare proceedings an automatic right to speak to the judges overseeing their cases.

Researching Reform started campaigning for this right in 2014, after the government failed to make good on its promise to give children going through the family courts the chance to speak to judges about their cases. When we made a Freedom Of Information request in 2017 to find out what had happened to the plans, we discovered that the Ministry of Justice never enacted the policy. After writing an article for Lexis Nexis on the findings, we were then contacted by the BBC, who interviewed us about our Voice of the Child campaign. It’s very simple – if a court is meant to place a child’s best interests at the heart of every decision it makes, and a child wants to share their point of view with a judge, that request should never be denied.

2.  End Forced Adoption in the UK and replace it with consensual adoption instead.

There’s a reason most countries around the world don’t use forced adoption. The practice causes significant distress, re-traumatises already vulnerable parents and children, and is completely unnecessary. If you feel the way we do, please sign our petition.

3. Stop councils advertising children online for adoption and fostering purposes.

It’s illegal, it’s dangerous and it doesn’t actually work. That’s our take on the routine marketing of babies and children by councils and agencies looking to put children up for adoption or fostering placements. It seems to be the view of most people we asked on Twitter, as well.  If you’d like to find out more about why the practice is breaking the law, our article on the subject offers more information. If you’re a smarty pants and you already know, skip a step and sign our petition asking the government to stop the practice. 

While there’s a great deal more that needs to be done, these issues are a good place to start. We know the government is listening. And the public is watching you.

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Father Starts Campaign To Highlight Impact Of Forced Adoption On Birth Families.

A father who lost his daughter through care proceedings has started a campaign to raise awareness of the problems around forced adoption. The campaign features small rocks with slogans about forced adoption, which have been placed outside local authority buildings, hospitals, and adoption and fostering agencies in Norfolk. Some stones include the names of children in Norfolk county council waiting to be adopted.

Forced adoption is a nationwide practice. The policy means that parental consent does not need to be asked for by local authorities when deciding to place a child up for adoption in the UK. The practice is in decline around the world, as emerging research begins to shed light on the damaging effects of forced adoption, on birth families, adoptive families, and the children being adopted through the policy.

The father, who asked to remain anonymous, wanted to use art as a platform to highlight failures by social workers to engage with birth families, who are often disregarded when decisions about a child is being made. As well as painting stones, the father has made hearts containing poems, which he has hung up in areas within Norfolk.

The campaign is an open one, which the father hopes will be extended across the country. He told Researching Reform, “It would be good to encourage people to join in, they don’t have to be in Norfolk to do this. It’s easy to do, peaceful and accessible”.

The father is hoping to launch a new campaign around forced adoption over Christmas.

If you believe that forced adoption should be banned in the UK, please consider signing Researching Reform’s petition. 

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Almost Half Of Seven To Eleven Year Olds Don’t Know Why They’re In Care.

A new survey produced by the University of Bristol and Coram Voice, reveals that of the 3,000 children interviewed, 49% of 4-7 year olds and 33% of 8-11 year olds did not understand why they were in care.

Other findings conclude that over a quarter (27%) of 11-18 year olds had three or more social workers over the last year and a fifth (20 %) of 4-7 year olds didn’t know who their social worker was.

The survey, which has not been made publicly available, is part of the organisations’ ‘Our Lives, Our Care’ study.

While the survey is nothing more than a marketing opportunity for Coram – Brigid Robinson, Managing Director of Coram Voice, makes that clear in the press release for the survey when she says, “For us to improve outcomes for children and young people in care it is vital that we understand their experiences and learn from what they tell us. Our Bright Spots Programme gives local authorities this opportunity” – it is just one more piece of evidence highlighting the lack of child centered care inside the system.

Have a good weekend.

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Special Task Force Launched To Protect Social Workers From Abuse

A new task force in Northern Ireland has been set up by the The Department of Health to protect social workers inside the country from violence and abuse. The committee will look at ways in which employers can improve the safety of social workers.

The task force was created after a survey revealed that almost nine out of ten social workers said they had been intimidated by service users. The survey, which received 259 responses, was included in a report published by The British Association of Social Workers (NI) in June 2018, called “Insult and Injury: Exploring the impacts of intimidation, threats and violence against social workers”. Over half of social workers (51%) who took the survey held positions in Children and Family Services.

The creation of the task force was revealed at the end of last month, by Chief Social Work Officer for Northern Ireland, Sean Holland, during a conference held by the British Association of Social Workers UK. We reached out to Sean for comment, but have not yet received a response.

Despite being instrumental in organising this task force, the Chief Social Work Officer has chosen not to make a loud noise about the development on his Twitter account, choosing only to retweet a radio interview which was aired at the start of the week on U 105.8FM with the National Director of the BASW NI, Carolyn Ewart, who discusses the task force. The decision not to push the campaign on his Twitter account could stem from a concern that service users, who feel they are routinely targeted and abused by social workers, may react angrily to the news.

The report suggests that three-quarters of social workers in Northern Ireland have received threats and half have been subjected to physical violence. Social workers also claim that service users are abusing the complaints process as a way of intimidating them, which they say is undermining their confidence to carry out their jobs successfully. Other intimidation tactics described by social workers included:

  • Behaviour intended to make them worried or afraid, despite no explicit threat being made against them;
  • Subtle attempts to discredit social workers, verbal abuse on occasion with racist undertones, swearing, name calling, and threats to cause harm;
  • Using social media to post false and malicious information about social workers and;
  • The recording of visits to service users’ homes, which respondents claim caused significant stress and anxiety.

The report features several quotes by social workers describing their day to day experiences while carrying out their jobs. A Residential Childcare Social Worker told the authors of the report that, “It wasn’t so much being threatened by the young person, it was.. the relentless abuse of myself and my colleagues, on a daily basis, that was difficult to deal with”.

The findings also include information about the types and frequency of threats, with 75% of social workers surveyed saying that they had received threats of violence against them, their family members, colleagues and the organisations that they worked for. A Children’s Services Social Worker offers her experience of this in the report. She says, “On one occasion when trying to remove a child from a house with police, a service user threatened to get his gun and shoot my colleague and me. Fortunately the police removed the weapon”.

The report makes 13 recommendations which include self defence training, the provision of safety alarms or security apps for social workers, reporting procedures, the production of a guide by BASW NI, and an audit of security features within all social work workplaces. There is also a recommendation to allow social workers to be transferred away from cases if they would like to be moved after experiencing abuse.

The report’s findings will upset families going through the child protection system, who feel that social workers have long targeted them for their personal circumstances, treating them poorly and placing personal and professional interests above the interests of the families and children they come into contact with. Complaints processes are often the only way that families can highlight poor or unethical treatment inside the system, though they are often ignored and more likely to be subjected to abuse and vendetta driven decision making after complaining. The use of police to remove children from family homes is also a deeply traumatic experience for children, and parents can react aggressively to these practices.

The use of recording equipment to make a record of meetings has become increasingly widespread, after families began to notice that their explanations and descriptions of events and family histories were being inaccurately quoted by social workers in child welfare reports. It is not a coincidence that recordings have increased as more confirmed cases of social workers fabricating evidence come to light. There is also currently no right for families who feel targeted by their social worker to be transferred to another child welfare professional.

Families going through child protection proceedings have reacted strongly on social media to the creation of the task force. One service user posted:

“What about the threats [social workers] make and the documents parents are forced to sign under duress or without being fully informed of the consequences?”

A mother with several years’ experience of the child protection sector said, “I think if there was some accountability there would be less anger,” while a family law researcher and expert witness took the view that the abuse was a foreseeable result of poor practice. 

While violence is never acceptable, and our site does not condone it in any context except for legitimate self defence, research looking into social workers’ experiences of their interactions with service users has to be placed within context, and cannot be fully understood in a standalone survey.

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to this development.

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Councils Showcasing Kids For Adoption Are Breaking The Law

That’s what Researching Reform thinks about councils and agencies posting photos and information about children online, with a view to securing fostering and adoption placements. To expose the practice, this site has started a petition asking the government to acknowledge that the practice is illegal, and to end it. 

Our petition explains how the current practice of children being advertised online and publicly, is a breach of their human right to privacy. The practice also ignores other legislation, which says that parents of children in care must be consulted on all important decisions affecting their children. Councils and agencies are routinely failing to get parental consent before marketing children online. The practice is also placing children’s lives at risk, as more and more children are being sourced through the internet to be sexually exploited.

We asked Twitter users what they thought of the practice, in a survey. The majority of those polled (82%) did not think councils should be able to advertise children publicly online for the purpose of finding adoptive families or foster carers, with 43% saying that placements were not about looks, and the remaining 39% believing that the practice put children in danger. A further 16% offered up other reasons as to why they felt the practice was not acceptable, or that it was reasonable, depending on their view. One tweeter thought that it was a pragmatic way to find children carers in an imperfect world, while another suggested that financial incentives for carers was a fair way to compensate foster families. Other survey takers were not comfortable with the fees offered to carers. A small minority of those surveyed (2%) thought that the practice was acceptable, taking the view that it was a buyer’s market.

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When a child goes through child protection proceedings in the UK, names and other details that could identify these children are not allowed to be publicised in the first instance. The measure has been designed to protect a child’s right to privacy and ensure that they are not compromised through their identification, in any way. Most family court hearings are protected, which means that unless a judge gives permission for a case to be reported, and lists what information can be released, every detail that could identify a child remains private.

That right to privacy is taken away from children once a care order (placing a child in a children’s home or with foster parents), or an adoption order is made.

The removal of that right to privacy, which is protected by both the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, amounts to a breach of the law. In addition to these protections, both the UN Convention and the Children Act 1989 make it compulsory for all government bodies to ensure that any decisions made about children are always in their best interests.

If the government wanted to argue that the practice of publicly advertising children online and elsewhere to find them foster homes and adoptive families – and removing a child’s right to privacy to do this – was in their best interests, it would be an impossible position to hold today.

Research has made it clear that the government’s processes for finding children foster homes and adoptive parents are not working. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner confirms that a large proportion of children in care experience more than one placement during their childhoods, with almost 2,500 children in care experiencing five or more changes over a period of three years.

That process includes advertising children online and in physical newspapers and magazines. The advertisements are intended to give prospective adopters and carers a chance to virtually meet these children and see if they like ‘the look of them’, but given the number of adoptions and fostering placements that break down, it’s become apparent that the practice is doing nothing for these children, and very obviously doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

It also puts children at risk of sexual exploitation, and death. The UK is facing the worst child sex trafficking epidemic it has ever seen within its borders. Last year, 10,000 children in care in the UK went missing, sparking fears that they were being sexually abused and exploited. The NSPCC called the internet “a playground for paedophiles”, and in a report published in 2011, The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre confirmed that a disproportionate number of sexually exploited children were looked after by a local authority, before or during exploitation.

Councils and agencies have no formal right to publish children’s photos and details online, especially in circumstances where children are old enough to understand the practice, or where family members still have parental responsibility for a child.

If a school wants to upload a photo of a child who is not in care onto its website, permission always has to be given by the child’s parents before the school can post the image. That is because parents have parental responsibility for their children, and a request by a school to upload an image of a child onto the internet is significant enough for it to require parental permission. Parental Responsibility is more than just a general description of a parent’s duties towards a child. It is a legal term which vests a duty in parents to look after their children and to be involved in material decisions which affect them. That responsibility still belongs to parents whose children are in care and have not been made the subject of an adoption order. This means that most of the time, decisions like posting photos of their child online, still rests with the parents, and not the local authority. If we follow the logic through, councils then, must always ask parents whose children are in care for permission to use their photos in adverts.

The government might also argue that being able to post these photos is no different to a child posting a photo of themselves on social media, but that’s not right. Being placed on a website where people know you’ve been in care, and that you’ve had difficult experiences, carries a stigma and can be extremely traumatic for children. Unlike a child posting a photo of themselves on social media, that breach of their privacy, not only places them at risk of identification from peers in their community, but also signals to sexual predators that they are vulnerable and by virtue of the agency’s details being on the site, much, much easier to locate, and target.

Getting the government to ban this practice won’t be easy. Despite an economic downturn and massive budget cuts to the family justice system, the fostering sector is booming. Valued at £1.7 billion, fostering agencies have become so lucrative that the sector has seen a sharp rise in foster care companies backed by large private equity funds. The adoption sector, too, is driven by financial incentive, as can be seen by these interagency fees from the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies. The government has also introduced adoption targets, which invite councils to hit a certain number of adoptions in order to qualify for a cash prize.

Adoption and fostering agencies count on these advertising techniques to secure placements, often with the addition of deeply misleading narratives about the children they’re marketing. And if agencies are able to make money from multiple placements per child, there is little incentive to stem the high number of placements that break down.

While our petition demands that the government acknowledges that the posting of children’s photos and details online and in public documents for adoption and fostering placements, is illegal, there is more that needs to be done. The following issues are also connected to the marketing process used by councils and agencies:

  • The need to ensure that councils always ask parents’ permission to post these details where parents still have parental responsibility
  • A review is needed to see which aspects of the fostering and adoption process are not in a child’s best interests and which policies and cultural norms inside the adoption and fostering sectors are breaking the law
  • A consultation into better ways forward for finding high quality placements for children who need carers, without breaching children’s right to privacy
  • The current failure by adoption and fostering agencies to be open about these children’s pasts and make sure that their disclosure during the placement process is full and frank, and meets the highest standards of disclosure.

If you would like to sign our petition, you can do so here.

A very big thank you to Jane Doe, and several other parents who very kindly spoke with us, and shared evidence and personal stories for this post.

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“I likened it to arriving at the scene of a car crash”.

Welcome to another week.

An independent social worker involved in a case where a council placed a baby into foster care without telling the child’s grandparents, likened the handling of the case to a car crash, as she gave her testimony in court.

Judge Lazarus ordered the judgment to be made public after she criticised the social workers, lawyers and the child’s guardian for serious failures within the child protection investigation. Lazarus joins a growing number of judges raising concerns about problems inside the child welfare sector.

The case involved a baby who had been the subject of a care order by Kent County Council before being born. The mother’s parents did not know about the baby until after he had been born, and were not made aware of the application to have the baby fostered.

The child was sent to live with foster parents and remains with them today, after the judge decided that it would be better for the boy not to be moved as he had formed attachments with the foster parents and was thriving in their care.

The judgment tells us that had the grandmother and her husband put themselves forward as potential carers for their grandson, it would have been most likely that they would have been accepted as Special Guardians for the baby. This is what Judge Lazarus says:

“The local authority, the Social Worker, the Children’s Guardian, and the Independent Social Worker all acknowledge that had she and her husband put themselves forward in those proceedings and been assessed it is highly likely that they would have received a positive assessment as X’s proposed Special Guardians. ”

Judge Lazarus goes on to outline the law around external family members and investigating placement options for vulnerable children:

“42. THE LAW – INVESTIGATION OF FAMILY MEMBERS

a) In the case of Re R [2014] EWCA Civ 1625 the former President Sir James Munby stated: “The Public Law Outline [Public Law Outline FPR 2010, PD12A] stresses the vital importance of such potential carers being identified and assessed, at the latest, as soon as possible after the proceedings have begun ”, albeit “not requiring every stone to be uncovered”.

b) Re R provided clarification of the principles underlying the reminders as to good practice set out in Re BS [2013] EWCA Civ 1146 and the need to pay particular heed to the factors in the relevant welfare checklist in order to approach such applications through the prism of the child’s welfare interests. Those cases provided appropriate reminders of the extreme interference with Article 8 rights that these applications represent, of the rigour and exceptionality required by Re B [2013] UKSC 33 to interfere so drastically with those rights, and of the principles applicable from Y v UK (2012) 55 EHRR 33 emphasising the need to preserve personal relations and ‘rebuild’ families.

c) In order to comply with what has become known as the ‘ Re BS checklist’, namely the properly evidenced and reasoned analysis in care and adoption proceedings by the local authority witnesses which should include illustrating the pros and cons of the realistic options, the Local Authority’s evidence must first identify those realistic options, and must then place particular emphasis on considering the factors in the relevant welfare checklist.

d) The factors set out in the welfare checklist in section 1(4) Adoption and Children Act 1989 must be considered on an application for a placement order and to dispense with a parent’s consent under section 52, and specifically at section 1(4)(f) requires consideration of the welfare of the child throughout their life in regard to the child’s relationship with other family members, their ability to meet the child’s needs, and their views and wishes and feelings regarding the child.

e) Relevant duties of the Local Authority are set out in the Children Act 1989, at section 17 in particular, that:

(1) It shall be the general duty of every local authority (in addition to the other duties imposed on them by this Part)—
(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

f) And at section 22C:

(1) This section applies where a local authority are looking after a child (“C”). …

(5) If the local authority are unable to make arrangements under subsection (2), they must place C in the placement which is, in their opinion, the most appropriate placement available.

(6) In subsection (5) “ placement ” means—

(a) placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with C and who is also a local authority foster parent ;…”.

Questions remain as to why the council failed to follow the law, and removed the newborn to put him in a foster placement. The case is likely to arouse suspicion amongst families and activists inside the child protection sector, who have long argued that councils are abusing fostering and adoption placements for financial gain. The fostering sector in the UK is currently worth £1.7 billion, and appears to be thriving despite austerity driven budget cuts and pre Brexit uncertainty. A sharp rise in the number of children being removed from parents in the UK with no clear indication as to what factors are causing these removals, is also deeply concerning.

Judge Lazarus chose to put the independent social worker’s quote at the top of her judgment, saying that she felt it summarised the key issues in the case perfectly. This is the quote in full:

“ I likened it to arriving at the scene of a car crash, and wondered what one could do about it. This situation should never have arisen. It’s caused huge tension, including within any recommendation, and I’ve tried to keep X at the centre of it. ”

You can read the judgment on BAILII, which is particularly useful as it outlines the law and guidance in several important areas connected to cases like this one.

This is not the first time Judge Lazarus has spoken about the treatment of vulnerable children and families. Last month, she expressed outrage over the lack of secure accommodation for children at risk of exploitation by gangs, during a hearing involving a 16 year old boy. 

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Family Justice Council To Probe Covert Recordings In Family Cases

The Family Justice Council will hold a debate next month, looking into the use of undercover recordings produced within family law cases. The Council, a public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, was set up to promote an inter-disciplinary approach to family justice and to monitor the system.

The debate, which is going to be held in Leeds, will be chaired by Lord Justice Baker, Lord Justice of Appeal and Deputy Chair of the Family Justice Council. Panelists include a deputy district judge, a family law silk, a circuit judge and a legal services director. None of the panelists scheduled to speak at the event have any first hand experience of the system as a service user.

It’s not clear from the FJC’s event page what kinds of recordings it hopes to discuss, thought it will likely focus on the recordings families make while going through their own cases, most often within child protection proceedings or general interactions with social workers in person, or on the phone.

Currently, there are no laws in place preventing families from recording their conversations with child welfare professionals, who have taken to doing so for a variety of reasons. These can include situations where a family will have been subjected to malpractice or unethical conduct by professionals they’re working with, and decide to record their interactions in order to either prove the malpractice or demonstrate errors made by professionals in their cases. Some families simply need to record the interactions so that they can refer back to them, as it can be difficult to take in all of what is being said at the time.

While best practice in these situations involves asking professionals in the first instance if they can record the meetings, such requests are polite formalities, so if a professional refuses, families are legally entitled to record their conversations without getting consent. CAFCASS has been sympathetic to the recording process, even going so far as to remind social workers that if they carry out their duties competently, they have nothing to fear from these recordings. CAFCASS published this sentiment in 2015 guidance they produced on the recording process, though the document has since been removed from their website.

There are also other forms of covert recording within family cases, which families are not responsible for. These include undercover recordings which are being commissioned by local authorities to monitor families and children. There is no practice guideline that we know of which places a duty on councils to alert families that they are being, or going to be, recorded. A judgment in 2017 revealed that councils were employing private detectives to spy on families engaged in child protection proceedings, raising serious concerns over whether this was in fact legal. 

The debate comes in response to former President of the Family Division, Sir James Munsby’s request to the FJC to look into covert recordings, while he was still serving as President. Munby made the request in a judgment that was published in October 2017. In that judgment, Munby asks the FJC to explore covert recordings, and lists the different situations in which these recordings take place, and why they are made:

“The covert filming or video-recording of personal injury or benefits claimants suspected of fraud has been an established and acceptable practice for many years. But in the family courts the issue has become much more pressing in recent years.

There are, I suspect, two reasons for this. One is the ever increasing sophistication and miniaturisation and at the same time ever decreasing cost of modern recording equipment. For anyone possessed of a smartphone or similar piece of ‘kit’, surreptitious audio recording or filming of events is child’s play.

The other, I fear, has to do with the widespread distrust in too many quarters of the competence or even the integrity of the family justice system and of the professionals involved in it. Here, of course, it is the existence of the mindset rather than its foundation in reality which is the driving force. But it does give rise to important questions of public policy.

That said, it needs to be accepted, with honesty and candour, that there have been in recent years in the family courts shocking examples of professional malpractice which have been established only because of the covert recording of the relevant individual.

It is important to distinguish between open recording and covert recording. In the nature of things, it is the latter which is more problematic. Without seeking to establish a complete taxonomy, there are at a least three categories of covert recording, each of which may raise a variety of different issues: covert recording of children, covert recording of other family members, and covert recording of professionals.

Whatever the nature of the recording, a number of issues are likely to arise.

Again without any pretence to completeness it is obvious that questions may arise as to:

(i) the lawfulness of what has been done;

(ii) best practice outside the court room as it were;

(iii) the admissibility of the recording in evidence; and

(iv) a variety of other evidential and practice issues (for example, as to how the recording is to be put in evidence, problems in relation to sound and picture quality, and, in particular, disputes as to authenticity – who are the people who can be heard or seen on the recording, has the recording been edited or ‘cut and spliced’? – which may necessitate calling expert evidence).

Furthermore, in relation to all this it may be important to identify who is doing the recording and why. Covert surveillance and recording by the police and other agencies, including the Security Service, which in current conditions not infrequently impinges upon the family courts, is one thing. Covert surveillance and recording by others may – I put the point no higher, it being a matter for another day – raise rather different issues.

I draw attention to these matters to show that covert recording in the context of the family courts potentially involves a myriad of issues, very few of which, despite all the judgments to which I have referred, have, even now, been systematically considered either at first instance or in this court.

I propose therefore, as a first step, to invite the Family Justice Council, which as a multi-disciplinary body is particularly suited to undertake the task, to consider the whole question of covert recording from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint.”

The debate is scheduled for Monday 3rd December, from 5.00pm to 7.00pm. If you would like to attend, you can email the FJC at fjc@justice.gsi.gov.uk. The council will not accept requests to attend after 21st November, and will notify those given a seat by 26th November.

If you’d like to access more information on covert recordings in family cases, including a guide for families going through the family courts and how much councils spend on covert surveillance in family cases, enter the phrase ‘covert recording’ into this site’s search bar. 

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