One of the memories which remains most vividly with me about the
time when we were attempting to become foster parents, was how
incredibly long everything took.
You would make an appointment; it would be cancelled, once, twice,
maybe three times. The social worker was on holiday, or had a cold,
or the meeting which needed to have taken place to move the issue
on hadn’t happened.
On one particularly memorable occasion the guy who was supposed to
be coming to see us to assess our home situation claimed
subsequently that he couldn’t find our house; this despite the fact
that we weren’t living out in the wilds, or somewhere up the
Zambezi, but on a perfectly ordinary signposted council estate. The
fact that it was the night of the European cup final, and that our
worthy interrogator happened to come from Liverpool – who just
happened be in the final – I’m sure had nothing to do with it! And
it wasn’t just meetings, but almost everything to do with the
process, which seemed to take forever.
What struck me, but didn’t seem to be striking anyone else about
all this, was that if it was frustrating and unsettling for us, a
supposedly mature couple, what must it be doing to Fiona, the
10-year-old we were trying to include in our family.
Unsettled enough, with the prospect of becoming part of a family
having been dangled over her for the previous two years, this must
be just placing her in the most agonising limbo.
For children, and I strongly remember this, uncertainty is highly
unsettling. People seem to forget that when you’re not in control
of a situation, as you very rarely are as a child, people’s
cavalier attitude toward explaining to you what’s supposed to be
going on, and when exactly it’s supposed to be happening, is
infuriating and highly upsetting.
Particularly the when. I can remember now vividly the fury when
someone you thought you could trust would promise that they would
take you out, or read you something, and then apparently without a
care in the world, oblivious to the effect on you, would simply
say, “oh, I’m sorry; can’t do it now; too busy”. They would then
wander off to do whatever was so vital it couldn’t wait, blissfully
unaware that they had left behind a seething child, who would never
totally trust them again. All this is bad enough when you’re just
talking about a treat, or a bit of help with your homework, or a
trip; but when it’s something which is likely to affect where you
live, who you live with, or possibly intended to remove you from a
situation which is actually dangerous, it’s a positive scandal. And
when it’s systemic, as almost anything tied up with the courts is
bound to be, it’s even more difficult to nail down. You can never
find the individual who cancelled the meeting, didn’t produce the
appropriate document, hadn’t got round to ringing a colleague. The
reflex reaction with the courts, it seems, in all kinds of
situations, not just those involving children, is: “Something
needful for the law’s majesty is missing; move on to the next
case”. But perhaps the law’s majesty is not as important as the
leaving of a child, almost certainly already upset by the
fecklessness and unreliability of adults, in a kind of limbo.
It is good that at least we do now understand how important it is
to seek the views of children when it comes to which parent they
might prefer to live with, or whether they would rather be in
foster care or with their granny, or perhaps in a children’s home:
there was a time when we might not even have thought of bothering
to ask. But we must also understand that representing children is a
sensitive business with delays having damaging repercussions.
Of course, this problem of delays, adjournments, and technical
ruses to slow proceedings down by one side or the other, runs
through our court system. Surely, it ought to be possible to impose
legally enforceable time limits on proceedings and the protocols on
timings to be implemented this November are very welcome.
Legislation is not slow in imposing such time limits over the
payment of fines or the giving of certain undertakings, so why
shouldn’t courts and professionals face similar pressures
themselves? It’s time to scupper the idea that the law’s delays are
somehow an inevitable fact of life.
Peter White is the BBC’s disability