Judge’s interactive drama shines compassionate light on closed world of family court

Collaborative theatre production by senior family judge highlights need for early help and lack of aftercare for parents who lose their children to care proceedings

Image of scales of justice (credit: BrAt82 / Adobe Stock)
(credit: BrAt82 / Adobe Stock)

Anguish curdles the atmosphere of the courtroom as the judgment comes down –  that a baby boy is to be adopted.

His mother, Angie, who has now lost two children to care proceedings by the age of 20, remonstrates furiously with the judge and then her world-weary social worker, as the jargon is unpicked and reality dawns that she will only have a few scattered hours with her son before saying a permanent goodbye.

The boy’s father, Phil, who has a brain injury, and, like Angie, addiction issues, has already stormed out. Near the seat he has vacated, Angie’s adoptive, middle-class parents weep, their hopes of securing a special guardianship order for their grandchild having been crushed by the judge’s five-point dismissal of their abilities.

Despite the unforgiving statements he has just made, the judge himself looks close to tears as he stammers final instructions to lawyers and rises to leave the scene of misery. Unusually – for these events usually take place behind closed doors, off-limits to non-participants – an audience of perhaps 100 people sits riveted.

But while the judge – HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC – is real, we are not actually witnessing him at work. We’re sitting in a Cheltenham lecture theatre watching Wildblood’s latest effort at distilling what he sees day in, day out into interactive drama that shines a light into the hidden workings of the family court system.

The play, Who Cares?, has been developed by Wildblood in conjunction with Gloucestershire council’s social work academy and local charity the Nelson Trust, which supports people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

It provides no easy answers, but invites the audience – especially in its second part, an in-character Q&A session – to look deeply at the circumstances and decisions that shape people’s lives, and to question their own assumptions.

‘Our lives can be condensed to compassion’

“People don’t see how the family court works,” explains Wildblood, the senior family court judge for the South West – renowned for admitting in a 2017 BuzzFeed interview that the cases he presides over do in fact move him to tears.

“[This is about] show don’t tell, feel don’t think, and make up your own minds,” he says of his motivations for pulling back the curtain.

“The whole purpose of our lives can be condensed to compassion,” adds Wildblood, who has now staged several productions examining the issues with which the family court grapples. “There is no us and them – [these people] could be any one of us.”

Who Cares? centres on young mum Angie, opening with a heated exchange between her and social worker Annette, who has only recently been assigned her case and arrives to break the news that the council will be seeking to remove her child, Kai.

The production does not shy away from the impact of decisions Angie makes, particularly around her apparent non-engagement with children’s services. But, through its sequence of brief scenes – which end on a note of hope – and then through the Q&A section, it gradually interrogates elements of the context in which those choices take place.

Were Angie’s adoptive parents supported enough by professionals after they took her on as a child who had already experienced four years of abuse? Why does she blame them for her ending up on the streets and addicted to drugs?

Have children’s services worked in a sufficiently informed and joined-up way with Angie’s recovery worker, pre-proceedings, to give her the best chance of not losing Kai? And why, after the adoption order is made, is there no aftercare for Angie beyond the brusque offer of a place in a hostel she fears will be full of “tramps and paedos”, leading to her to return to sleeping rough?

‘The main work needs to be done before court’

The latter point is one that Wildblood has been particularly incensed by – to the extent that, he tells the audience, he has previously refused to make orders in cases similar to Angie’s because no one has considered where the mother might go.

Yet, as the judge – who has been looking into establishing his own therapeutic early intervention charity – emphasises, “the main work needs to be done before court”.

Angie’s social worker, Annette, has little time and space to do that work.

As a clinician in the Cheltenham audience points out, she maintains an effective focus on Kai after being handed the case at short notice following the sudden departure of another social worker, whom we are led to believe she does not meet.

But Annette’s relationship with Angie is antagonistic from the start – in the opening scene, the mother pushes and intimidates the social worker out of the room.

The tensions between Annette’s motivation for pursuing her career – “to do something valuable, worthwhile, and empower people”, she says in the in-character Q&A – and the realities of the job are convincingly exposed.

‘Everyone is in a bind’

Rob Tyrrell, Gloucestershire council’s principal social worker for children and families, who has been involved in Who Cares?’ development, is full of praise for how actor Gemma Reynolds, who plays Annette, has got under the skin of her character.

“[It’s] very interesting – when we ran through [the script] the first time, it was fine,” Tyrrell tells Community Care when we meet after the play’s penultimate rehearsal. “This time though, she has taken on characteristics and, when questioned, is coming out with answers I would recognise from a social worker – not positive responses, but I understand where [they] would come from.”

For her part, Reynolds says, there was “lots of support” from Tyrrell and others at Gloucestershire while preparing for the role.

“It’s the second time I’ve played a social worker this year, which meant I was already thinking along those lines and had done a bit of research into what it is to take on that job,” she says. “But it was about boiling down things like, what made the decision to recommend adoption – [it’s not one thing but] a series of things, as the judge mentions in his reading.

“It seems to me that everyone in the play – in that system – is in a bit of a bind,” Reynolds adds. “The thing I find easiest about playing that role is that I find it easy to prioritise Kai – so people within that system, I can see how, as long as they know they are prioritising the child, it’s easier to do ‘the right thing’. [But] there never seems to be enough time and resources.”

‘Acting was quite therapeutic’

At one point in Who Cares?’ gestation, Tyrell says, his department had been planning to perform an earlier version of the play in conjunction with the University of Gloucestershire.

True to the rigours of the job, the ‘inadequate’-rated council’s focus on its improvement journey got in the way of this reaching fruition. But Tyrrell says those who took part benefited from their experience, and that he hopes that ongoing participation in drama – possibly involving care leavers and, in the longer term, families involved with services – can form part of Gloucestershire’s social work academy learning programme.

“The real social workers [doing rehearsals] were involved in a complex child abuse investigation, so the opportunity to come out of their [job] into acting was quite therapeutic,” he says. “They found it useful to step into a different role, and to consider what it would be like to be seen to be a social worker, by an audience.”

At the final production of Who Cares? in Cheltenham, well over half of those watching are social workers or social work students. What does Tyrrell think practitioners can learn?

“I think that awareness that relational practice has to be about more than being superficially nice to people,” he says. “The whole thing about fair process, from restorative practice, that the more people are aware of why things have to happen, the more they are likely to understand it.

“The message to new social workers is that this is a complex job, but a great opportunity, and our privilege is bringing something into a profession that relies on the power of language, and how we use words to create change,” Tyrrell goes on. It also offers a sharp reminder to practitioners around not othering the people they work with, and of the “ridiculous” power imbalance the court experience can inflict on people, he adds.

More broadly, and echoing Wildblood, Tyrrell notes the play’s powerful implicit message that much more thought needs to be given to the impact on mothers of being repeatedly put through care proceedings.

“[The interactive format means] this is you shaping, thinking about, and being challenged back as an audience, around what is this job, what does it feel like to be this parent?” he says. “It’s creating this dialogue around how we can do things differently, and better?”

A revised version of Who Cares? is due to be performed at the University of the West of England in Bristol on 28 January, 2020. Tickets will go on sales shor in conjuction with the University of the West of England.

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3 Responses to Judge’s interactive drama shines compassionate light on closed world of family court

  1. Kal December 15, 2019 at 1:40 pm #

    Where else can we see this? Not living anywhere close to Bristol, but would love to see this touring the UK.

  2. Liane Swainland December 16, 2019 at 10:01 am #

    Sounds really interesting and what a realistic time of year to be advertising such a performance.
    I am a relinquished female. I persist in the family courts for contact arrangements after a period in a womens refuge and complete revamp of my life. The age of the young mother also touches a reality nerve as young parents is often what the court deals with. My eldest is now Gillick Competent and I wonder if by seeing such a play she and her parents would be minded more regarding the immense pain of such proceedings.

  3. Ed December 17, 2019 at 4:37 pm #

    But how many cases are not the stereotypical addict parent(s) where a child is genuinely at risk. So many cases of normal, caring parents being targeted for removal of their child are happening. It’s so easy to portray a worst case scenario to garner sympathy for the social worker. Who wouldn’t expect a drug addict mother with a hostile and uncooperative personality to risk losing their child. But plenty of parents who shouldn’t be losing their babies and children are losing them. Sometimes they have health issues or learning disabilities, but are devoted to their children and maybe just need a little bit of support. Babies are taken from clean, caring, safe homes with decent parents. I’ve come across many cases. Support groups and charities are speaking out about it. But nothing changes. There are dishonest social workers (and whistleblowers have proven this) where reports are written full of falsehoods in order to justify removal of babies and children. How about Wildblood does a play about those cases.