This is a post by “Annie”, one half of our Project Coordination team at the Transparency Project. Annie is a birth mum who has experienced several sets of public and private law proceedings including a new-born removal, and that baby’s rehabilitation home. Annie writes “Surviving Safeguarding: A parent’s guide to the child protection process”, is a Trainer and Consultant for several local authorities and organisations and is the Parent and Relatives Representative on the Family Justice Council.

Late last week, an article appeared in several news outlets about a case involving a father’s refusal to register his new-born baby’s birth. The Guardian article linked to the judgment in the case, heard by Mr Justice Hayden earlier this month.

The local authority, in this case Tower Hamlets, were already involved in public law proceedings with the family and that case itself is ongoing. The parents are undertaking residential assessments with the baby, born in Spring of this year, who is subject to an Interim Care Order. These are independent parenting assessments whereby a person is assessed and observed by professionals while living in a residential assessment unit.

The main issue here was that the father would not register the child’s birth as one does, normally shortly after giving birth. The 1953 Births and Deaths Registration Act requires a birth to be registered within 42 days of a child being born. After that time, a reminder notice is sent out to parents. Failure to register your child’s birth after 12 months has elapsed can result in a fine of up to £200.

It was the father’s firm belief that registering his baby’s birth was akin to an “entry into a ship’s manifest, in which the child becomes ‘an asset to the country which has boarded a vessel to sail on the high seas.’ ” He felt that registration will “cause his son to become controlled by a State which he perceives to be authoritarian and capricious.”

F has strong beliefs surrounding the concept of “sovereignty”. This is a very particular concept for him. It has nothing at all to do with contemporary debate. It is essentially a personal ideology. F believes that central to the concept is the power and writ of the individual. ‘We are each…’, he says, ‘our own sovereign. We come from the Earth, we are the creations of the universe. We are governed by a Common Law but only to the extent that we depart from three principles. These three imperatives are: to do no harm; to cause no loss; to inflict no injury.’ In circumstances where they are proved to have occurred, to the criminal standard of proof, F asserts that what he calls the Common Law is then triggered.

Hayden J.

This might sound like the stuff of nonsense; a nuanced interpretation of archaic law. One might be inclined to poke fun, or dismiss these beliefs as a bit bonkers. Some may feel that this is evidence of justification for intervention by the State and the commencement of care proceedings.

This is where it gets a bit tricky for me.

I was told, on the 24th of May 2013 that the local authority’s plan for my baby, due on the 30th of June, was removal and ultimately adoption on the basis of a “future risk of emotional harm”. I hadn’t harmed my baby and was taking the relevant steps to ensure I did all I could so that he would not be. I scoured the internet for advice on what to do. I was desperate, frightened, powerless. I didn’t know what I was dealing with; I didn’t understand the law, the systems and the processes in place.

I came across a number of social media groups, all titled as such to suggest that their members were going through similarly frightening times. I frantically joined everything I could and posted questions about the law, mainly asking how a baby could be removed on a “future risk of emotional harm” (that’s another post entirely!). A few responses said: Run – flee the country whilst you still can. Others told me to leave my local authority and go somewhere else where I might stand a better chance. Some said not to tell anyone nor seek help when I went into labour, and to give birth at home – with only my 16 year old son in the house – after baby was born I was advised to go into hiding.

A few other people said it was too late to run and that when I gave birth I should simply not name my child at all, nor register his birth. I was told that as soon as I did, he became “property of the State”. He was no longer “mine”. That way, the local authority could take him from me. If I didn’t name him, or register his birth – they couldn’t. I can recall, at the time, this sounding like a great option. I didn’t have to run (read: waddle) anywhere, and I didn’t risk staining my carpets and traumatising my 16 year old. I couldn’t believe more people just didn’t do this. It was so simple – and it made sense to me, in my heightened, vulnerable state where I would have done anything to keep my child.

I looked further into it and (after about 5 minutes) realised I was being rather poorly advised and that this claim had no basis in fact, nor in English law as it is today. I was pretty cross that I had been very nearly “led down the garden path” as it were, but, quite frankly, had bigger things on my mind at the time. In fact, I had all but forgotten about it, until I read this story last week.

I revisited the issue on researching this piece and a quick Google showed me that people are still giving out this advice on social media sites and parenting forums. Mostly, the advice is ridiculed or dismissed as crackpot by other readers and commenters. But, some parents genuinely do believe it. And my worry is that some of these parents who are embroiled in care proceedings are vulnerable and seeking alternative resolutions rather than looking at why they are in the position they are in.

However, to some parents, this is the way they choose to bring up their children. To some parents, it is felt that registering their children means they will become “property of the State”, and that the State will control how their children’s lives will play out. To many of us, this is eccentric, even paranoid, and a little worrying. But is it right that we judge this negatively?

‘The best person to bring up a child is the natural parent. It matters not whether the parent is wise or foolish, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, provided the child’s moral and physical health are not in danger. Public authorities cannot improve on nature.’
There are those who may regard that last sentence as controversial but undoubtedly it represents the present state of the law in determining the starting point. It follows inexorably from that, that the current legal starting point was that children were best brought up within natural families: it followed that society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent, and that some children would experience disadvantage and harm, while others would flourish in atmospheres of loving security and motional stability. It was not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting; the compulsive powers of the state could only be exercised when the significant harm criteria in s31(2) of the Children Act 1989 (the 1989 Act) had been made out.”

Lord Templeman, in Re KD (A Minor Ward) (Termination of Access) [1988] 1 AC 806, [1988] 2 FLR 139, at 812 and 141 respectively

It is clear from the judgment in Re T that this is a complex and ongoing case with a lot of history. The issues are far more wide-ranging than a father simply refusing to register his child’s birth because he believes in a set of laws that are outdated.

Indeed, Hayden J says:

Here I am concerned with parental obligation to comply with a statutory duty as required by law. This does not require, in my judgment, the oversight or approval of the Court. With respect to the father, it is a simple requirement in law. Nonetheless, in the light of the very disturbing history to this case and as there were various applications before the Court in any event, the Local Authority has chosen to seek the Court’s approval regarding the registration of T’s birth.

The issue that needs to be unpicked and looked at in further detail in my opinion is that so many vulnerable people turn to the internet in times of crisis, when it is awash with bad advice.

How do we, as practitioners in our field, try to help parents discriminate between “the good, the bad and the ugly” advice? How do we help parents to resolve their issues, whilst also respecting the individual way they choose to bring up their children? And who decides what’s “normal” anyway?

Much to think about.