Are they? The plain fact is that we don’t know. No-one who does not work there knows what happens in the family courts. Cases are conducted in utmost secrecy. Both north and south of the border, the press and public have no right of access. Unlike, say, industrial tribunal cases, which are reported and which inform people’s understanding of employment law, custody cases cannot be reported. The new package does nothing to address this problem.
People who feel they have been unfairly treated in the children’s hearings in Scotland or the family courts in England cannot seek a wider audience. This is one reason why Fathers 4 Justice disguise themselves in fancy dress.
An example of what this secrecy means comes from a woman who contacted me to tell the story of her husband, now dead, whose life was destroyed by his Kafkaesque struggles with the children’s- hearings system in Scotland. I cannot identify them, so I will refer to them as Tim and Susan.
Tim had several children in a previous marriage, all of whom were temporarily taken into care because he and his young wife were not coping. For a while, the children shuffled between home and children’s homes. Then one of the girls had a fall on her bike. A bruise led to an allegation of sexual abuse by a social worker. Specialist police officers accepted the explanation, did not make a report to the procurator and did not even bother to interview the father.
But the children never came home again. Their father was allowed one supervised hour’s contact a month when social workers sat in on the meeting and told him what he could say. For instance, when the children said they had been to an ice- cream van, their father was not even allowed to ask what they had bought in case they gave away details of their location.
When the social workers cited sex abuse as one reason for taking the children into care, the father protested and there was a court hearing where the allegations were flung out in half a day. But, a few days later, at short notice, a children’s panel reduced access even further.
Then the social work department applied to take over parental responsibility. At a court hearing the sheriff ruled in the parents’ favour, saying that parents, even inefficient ones, can do for their children what the state can’t, for instance love them. Despite this ruling, the semi-literate father was “ambushed” by screeds of documents arriving days before yet another hearing without legal support. Background reports still referred to abuse of the children. This hearing accepted the social workers’ request that access be reduced even further.
One daughter told a “safeguarder”, appointed by the court to find out her feelings, that she wanted to see her father. The father waited but heard no more. The next time she had contact with him was four years later at his funeral.
Susan is still furious. She carries around a pile of documents a foot high but finds it hard to get anyone in authority to take an interest. She believes there are huge problems with Scotland’s volunteer children’s panels, which, in her experience, mostly rubber stamp social- workers’ decisions. Reports presented to the children’s hearings by social workers, she says, were misleading and did not give all the relevant information, making it hard for the panel to disagree with them.
It is certainly the case that children’s panels do not have to meet legal standards of proof for allegations against parents – they must simply regard them as true “on the balance of probabilities”.
There is no redress for parents if they feel the panel has acted on the basis of sloppy evidence and defamatory allegations based on suspicion and hearsay. How many of the Fathers 4 Justice protesters are fighting allegations of abuse? These are easy to make but hard to prove. It is a sad fact that this is one kind of hardship that drives friends away – it can be hard to defeat the old adage that there is no smoke without fire.
The reason these cases are hushed up like this is that it is supposedly in the interests of the children. But the family courts and our own children’s hearings have been shut in the dark cupboard of secrecy for too long. They should open the door and let the daylight of open inquiry illuminate their work.
The Scottish Herald
January 19th 2005