‘I felt like an alien, an outsider’: a parent’s experience of care proceedings

A parent whose been in multiple care proceedings reflects on the experiences and how it compares to a recent inquest, and how parents can be better served

family court
Photo: designer491/Fotolia

by Annie

I can very distinctly recall the first time I ever walked into a court, at Newcastle Quayside; a tall, foreboding building standing proudly on the banks of the Tyne. I needed to be scanned, my bags searched, before I was permitted entry, so I stood in line amongst people in well-cut suits and in gowns, looking important, holding boxes of files or wheeling trolleys full of paperwork.

I wore a dress and jacket bought from a charity shop and scuffed shoes.

I was there because the local authority had issued care proceedings in respect of my children.

When I arrived in the waiting area, I felt like an alien, an outsider. Everyone seemed to know where they were going, the besuited striding confidently; chatting, laughing and having hushed discussions in corners.

Slowly, like a fog clearing, I started to see other people who looked like me; alone, watching the important people with fear, awe, hatred, frustration, pleading, with furrowed brows on faces that were etched with pain and anguish.

Terrified

I had met my barrister an hour before walking into the courtroom and was entrusting my family’s future with this man. I didn’t know where to sit, when to stand up, when to sit down, when to speak, when to be quiet. It was a lot like going to church for the first time, but with less musical interludes and floral displays.

Everyone else around me had either done this before, or had been to University, had training and engaged in role-plays and had the benefit of a team and resources right behind them. I was terrified, the sheer realisation of how serious this was had hit me like a ton of bricks and the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness sought to overwhelm me.

Some parents in this position cry, some parents are struck dumb with terror, some parents get aggressive and defensive. I took the piss. Slagged off the social worker, made jokes, laughed at the absurdity of the situation. All to mask my fear.

Fast forward to 2018 and I have endured 8 sets of proceedings.

Two care proceedings cases, including a new-born removal ICO – 6 days after my youngest son was born and mere weeks after the first set of proceedings had concluded, two private law proceedings in respect of my now 9 year old daughter where I acted as Litigant in Person, a non-molestation case, two cases against the local authority to allow my children still in the care system to firstly have unsupervised contact with me and their siblings who were at home, and then to discharge the original care order, and finally a Reporting Restriction Order to allow me to do the work I do without compromising my children’s identities.

I have endured all of this in part down to my own failures, my own poor decisions and actions, and my struggles with mental health, but also in part because of a punitive system while up against a local authority who were not prepared to trust me, give me a chance and had written me off.

Fighting

I have been in court every single year since 2012. To say I am unfamiliar with the courtroom is akin to stating, with authority, that a deep-fried Mars bar is a healthy choice of snack.

I got to a place where I was, sadly, my most comfortable in a courtroom, fighting. It was all I had known for years. However, I am also extremely fortunate to have been gifted with strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to learn a whole new language. The language of “Court”. Not every parent can do that. Some have the capacity, but not the support, some the support, but not the capacity.

Some are just plain overcome, and it shows itself in hostility and belligerence.

I was also privileged to have, on my doorstep, an advocacy service called Families in Care without whom I would not have weathered the storm at all. Advocacy services are not universal, nor nationwide, nor is there any statutory onus on the local authority to provide or fund this service. I’d like to change that.

Support network

On the 18th of January this year, I walked into the courtroom for (what I hope to be) the last time; my eldest son’s Inquest. I was still wearing a charity shop dress and jacket and the same shoes. I was so frightened I could barely speak.

I had four friends, practically holding me up, fortuitously this included two lawyers, a social worker and a journalist so I felt I was in good hands. I had hand-picked these women as I needed an impenetrable fortress of strength around me.

Never underestimate the value of a support network, especially formed from strong, independent, empowered, feisty women. I was keenly aware that this could never have happened in the family courts, because of the issues of confidentiality and as such I felt blessed to have this gift of physical support.

Yet, when we were called in, time suddenly stood still. I felt white with fear.

‘Back in the first courtroom’

As I write this, my 20-year-old son has been dead for 290 days. He travelled to London one morning and jumped in front of an oncoming training.

I know exactly the time he arrived, exactly when he bought his ticket and to the second when he leapt in front of the train that would take his life.

I know this all for two reasons. Firstly, because I have watched it myself on CCTV. I last saw my son on the 26th of May at 10pm, just before he left to go to London to see a play. The next time I saw him was 11 days later, when I identified his body in Westminster Mortuary.

I needed to “fill in the gaps”, I needed to see him alive again, I needed to watch him make his decision and opt-out. It was not bravery, not ill-advised stupidity, it was a raw and basic need.

The other reason I know this information is because it was presented as evidence in a court at his Inquest.

In my mind and my body, I was back in that first courtroom for the first time. I was back at the Issues Resolution Hearing in respect of my first set of care proceedings.

I was back sitting on the witness stand, 6 days after giving birth, bleeding, leaking breastmilk, exhausted, fighting for my new-born to be allowed to come home from hospital with me. I was back at the Final Hearing of that same little boy 6 months later – the biggest day of my life at that point. I was back in a position of powerlessness and weakness. I was back in a state of terror.

It hit me, right then. The parallels between my eldest son’s Inquest, and my youngest son’s Final Hearing. I was walking into the unknown.

I was unrepresented, as some parents choose to be during care proceedings. The “other sides” were all represented, even Union Reps (in the inquest) had turned up with clipboards and a nervous smile in my direction. The “other sides” had resources I did not have. The “other sides” had a very clear case on what they believed the verdict should be. The “other sides” had all done this before.

This hearing did not involve their son or daughter so they had little, if any, emotional attachment, and it seeped out of their pores. This was just another case. Just another unfortunate death.

After this, they would lunch at Pret and move on to the next case requiring their attention, probably never thinking of my son again. The verdict meant everything to me; it would change my whole life; to them, it was unimportant. I could cross-examine the witnesses, without any legal knowledge or training.

Power

I could fight for what I believed to be right. But one single person would ultimately give a judgement that I could do nothing about. This one person had all the power.

Once all the evidence, including my own, was heard, the Coroner began her summing up. I recognised the feeling within me. A feeling of being entirely at the mercy of one human being.

I was desperate that the verdict would not be “Suicide”, just as desperate as I had been that my children would come home, that my new-born be permitted to leave the hospital with me, instead of being taken out of my arms and given to foster carers. It mattered so much to me.

Once a verdict is passed, once your children become subject to Care Orders, once your new-born is removed, once your son’s death is categorised as “Suicide”, that’s it. It’s there, forever. And there is nothing you can do about, unless the Judge has erred in law.

My son’s verdict was passed. The Coroner narrowed it down to the last few minutes of his life, making it clear that she believed he had no intention to kill himself before then. My son’s verdict was Suicide.

Throughout the “summing up” and the verdict, a deep and guttural weeping came from me. My whole body shook. It was all I could do to shout “No….no…no”. The Coroner left immediately after passing her verdict. The “other sides” left, none even looking in my direction. I could barely stand.

Held up by my friends, I was lead out of the courtroom and into a side room, sobbing helplessly and repeating the word “no”.

‘My new-born removal all over again’

In that side room, I was lost in a sea of echoed voices. Hands and arms rubbing my shoulders and back, exchanging opinions, thoughts and trying, desperately and in vain to comfort me. It was my new-born removal all over again. It was my elder children’s Issues Resolution Hearing.

Were it not for my friends, I would have been alone, in despair and deep distress, and around the corner from where my son had himself leapt in front of a tube. It was my friends who got me out of there safely. It was my friends who got me fed, watered and on a plane home. I’m not sure how well I would have fared without them.

Sarah Phillimore, a family law barrister of St John’s Chambers, author of Child Protection Resource and founding member of The Transparency Project, attended with me that day as my friend:

“For me, what struck me was the similarity to some kind of rehearsed theatre that I sometimes feel in care proceedings – that we know the outcome is inevitable and everyone is just playing a part. I was struck by how much of the evidence Annie hadn’t seen [despite Full Disclosure] and how quickly some of her questioning was struck down as not relevant. It didn’t strike me as a ‘real’ attempt to find answers but more to legitimise a decision that had already been made.”

“I think I was definitely wearing my lawyer’s hat which is for my own protection. To try and take on even a tiny part of the raw misery and pain felt by parents in care proceedings would lead me vulnerable to some kind of mental health breakdown. And maybe that is a big part of the problem. That those of us habituated to these proceedings have to numb ourselves to at least some degree.”

“And in that way lack of compassion, even callousness seeps in.”

“But when it is not your son who has died or is being adopted, the grief of a mother is hard to comprehend. When you know you are part of the process that is the vehicle for much of that grief, it encourages you further to close off. I did feel emotionally detached that day, as I do most days when I have to confront this. That is what I have to do to survive. But the fear is that you surrender an essential part of your humanity when you do so.”

Anna Gupta, Professor of Social Work at Royal Holloway, and an Independent Social Worker who also attended with me agrees:

“You and your son’s lives were laid bare in the most painful of circumstances, but to what end for you? It was ultimately a limited-frame procedural process that did not seek to explore any of your questions or concerns. As a friend who is also a professional working in the courts, my overwhelming sense was of your powerlessness, and the inhumanity of the process.”

Sarah and Anna make important points.

Who do we become in a court room?

Who do we become when we step inside a courtroom? Opposing sides? Do we forget our humanity?

Are we all merely cogs in a machine, mindlessly functioning? And how on earth are parents supposed to deal with this, when the stakes are so high for them? We cannot possibly numb ourselves or close ourselves off. This is our family. These are our children.

Too many times, I have been presented with evidence at court which I had never seen before, yet the “other sides” had had the luxury of reading and dissecting. Too many times I have felt that a decision had already been made by the “other sides”, and this was simply an exercise in dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

Too many times I have been abandoned after a court hearing which would change my family’s life forever.

Why should it be so?

How can we creatively work with parents to educate them on the court process? To reduce their fear, their distrust, to truly work in partnership, to level the playing field somewhat, to give families a better chance at staying together, to support and understand, rather than castigate, punish and alienate, to act as human beings with kindness?

How do we help families through the most vulnerable times of their lives without our own humanity ebbing away to protect ourselves?

Something to think about.

Annie is a pseudonym. She runs the training and consultancy service Surviving Safeguarding. She tweets @survivecourt

13 Responses to ‘I felt like an alien, an outsider’: a parent’s experience of care proceedings

  1. Angus Skinner March 22, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

    Bravely and beautifully written. Despite all, your children remain the focus.

    Thank you for sharing this. Your last line gripped me. ‘How do we help families through the most vulnerable times of their lives without our own humanity ebbing away to protect ourselves?’

    That is what I and others sought to do from 1968 when I first became involved as a social worker.

    Angus Skinner

  2. Loving mummu March 22, 2018 at 6:42 pm #

    I agree with this. As a parent you are scared and worried and wondering why and what to do. The most.painful memory for me is all the solicitors and professionals laughing and joking inn the very first day in the waiting area. My son had been removed 2 days earlier by police for poor home conditions and I was lost. I was promised to be abke to sign a section 20 by a manager but instead the duty social worker took it to court. They went for a emergency protection order. But because I agreed to a section 20 believing it was temp I was shocked when they went for a interim care order 4 weeks later. I was promised untill the assessments I need led he was coming home. He never did and now I suffer from reactive depression caused by the trauma I been through with losing my babies to adoption and my health issues including cancer.

  3. Lydia Lewis March 22, 2018 at 7:07 pm #

    I applaud the above heart breaking story about Annie’s experience through the Coroners Court and prior to that the Safeguarding Process. I also am in awe of those who were there for Annie at this very trying time. It reminds me of my first experience at a Family Court as a student, when I came across a parent crying in the toilets. Questions went through my mind i.e. “Who is there for this lady at this traumatic time in her life?” and “surely there ought to be a better system that treats parents in a humane manner regardless of the reasons why they find themselves going through the safeguarding system.

  4. Diane Jackson March 22, 2018 at 10:06 pm #

    Annie your experiences make you so wise, your survival against so many odds make you strong, your ability to recognise those who help and those that hinder make you someone who can help others begin to challenge the stories they have foisted on them rather than accepting the negativity they have to face every day. You are amazing, keep going, keep challenging and keep knowing your worth. Change must come alongst side work to support families and overtake the removal of children, and the poverty/lack of preventative resources that underlies it. When the duty to prevent children being removed from their families under section1 of the Children Act 1963,was replaced by the 1989 Act that was the beginning of the end of preventative work. I worked in an amazing office that took the preventative duties seriously, I hope that ther may be a shift in thinking and RESOURCES that makes that possible agani.

  5. Sw111 March 22, 2018 at 11:38 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your story, it was very touching. Parents experience so much trauma going through the court process and there is no support for them. The values and ethics taught to be inherent part of the profession is simply dismissed when there is us (local authority – powerful and controlling and decision maker) and them who are on the spot.

  6. Suzanne March 23, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

    Sometimes, the ‘”professionals” get it wrong. I didn’t have to go through the trauma the writer went through. But, my oldest child had a CAF and would have gone to a MASH because apparently the home life was bad and causing her to self harm and display other behaviours. Actually in reality, home was my oldest child’s safe space because she was getting bullied at school for being transgender and also suffers with BPD. Home was/is where she could escape the pain of her world. The multidisciplinary team were too quick to judge our family, when really it was the school not giving her the proper support and making sure she was safe.

  7. Dee Speers March 23, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    My beautiful son lost his fight for life in 2005 I have the Inquest to dwell on….horrendous! Am so pleased you are addressing this as you come from a very powerful position with your Salutary writing. Thanks again!

  8. julia March 23, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    A s a social worker you try very hard to build a working relationship with parents. However once in court, it is difficult for social worker and family to even talk due to the adversarial nature of the system and with both sides feeling there is so much at stake.
    I would much prefer the style of the FDAC to be available in every case, when the judge speaks to the parents with the other professionals around a table and the support is intense in order to gain the changes that are required. Everyone works together and all can share their thoughts, feelings and progress on a weekly basis. Much more humane.

  9. Krissy March 23, 2018 at 9:24 pm #

    This is a powerful and harrowing read and my complaint here is not directed at Annie who writes with such eloquence and passion but at the community care editor. I speak as the partner of a train driver who has had the terrible misfortune to twice encounter those who chose to die by suicide by jumping in front of trains.
    Annie writes about “the train that killed my son”. As social workers and/or or service users or those with an interest in social work, we all know the power of language, particularly negative language and the need not to apportion blame or judgement. But the phrasing of this sentence apportions blame on the train driver yet the Coroner’s verdict was one of suicide. My partner and his colleagues, who torment themselves daily with the sights they have seen and their inability to prevent the deaths of those who chose to die by suicide, do not need the extra burden of language in articles that the vehicle they were in control of “killed” someone. I really think it was incumbent upon those editing this piece to be more sensitive to the train driver given that that individual is easily identifiable to her/his colleagues because of the amount of information revealed as to the date of the incident and the inquest etc.

  10. Emma stoney March 24, 2018 at 4:16 am #

    It’s heart breaking to read this mothers perspective but children aren’t removed lightly there are no details about the reasons why she bas been through 8 sets of proceedings. There absolutely should be more support for parents but children’s safety must remain paramount. But what a brave lady to speak about her experiences

  11. Karen March 24, 2018 at 3:26 pm #

    I trained in Scotland and was appalled at the English system when I moved here. It’s hard to work alongside people in a system that is adversarial from the start and is so callous. I have always felt we have failed when we remove children and since all the preventative resources have been stopped, more and more families are going through this. I am a seasoned social worker and always try to work with people and not against them but the present climate and reluctance to take any risk leaves me very disillusioned and sad.

  12. Sw111 April 10, 2018 at 8:30 am #

    Social care can be very callous and under the pretext of saving children from abusive parents, children are removed. There are instances where the team has be jubilant when they have succeeded in securing the interim or full care order. They have failed to acknowledge the pain and trauma parents have been put through.
    Child protection has become adversarial and the support where afforded to parents whose children have been removed is tokenistic, mere paper exercise.

  13. MAUREEN April 15, 2018 at 10:51 am #

    If more support was to be put in place to these families I’m sure our government would save a lot of money
    Parents should have more support when it comes to court cases
    Parents should not be discriminated for having disabilities
    Parent should not be discriminated for having violent partners
    Parents should not live in fear of taking there children to AE when they are ill
    Parents also should not be judged of there past from years ago
    Parents should not be lied to from ther local Authority
    Parent shoul he handed information packs once ss are involved
    Parents need to see justice in the courts when ss are found lying
    Most of all children should be listened to with a witness when talking to socail workers.