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.
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.
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.
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.
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.