On September 6th 2018 The Sun published an article ‘They Stole my Baby’ – Mum’s heartbreaking tale of how secret courts took her baby away forever – as we reveal children are being ripped from parents in record numbers.
What follows is the usual mixture of scaremongering clickbait, lazy misrepresentations, lots of use of the words ‘seized’, ‘ripped’ and ‘secret’ – but unusually, interspersed with some more measured comment on a story of huge signficance and concern, that desperately needs journalists of high calibre and integrity to report upon and to make people care about. This is the recent marked and significant rise in care proceedings in an increasingly risk averse culture of social work. There is little doubt that the system is in crisis and the courts struggling to cope with the increased numbers of applications for care orders. However, when attempted examination of these wider issues is set alongside inaccurate clickbait hyperbole, then the opportunities for increased understanding and informed debate diminish. This does not of course make children and families any safer.
I do not for one moment wish to disparage or disregard the pain of parents who have had their children removed from their care. I have no doubt that the word ‘devastation’ is rightly used here. However, I remain critical of the ‘case studies’ set out by The Sun. They indicate a sad missed opportunity to do some real investigative reporting about something that really matters. Instead they offer up the same old tired yet terrifying cliches about stolen babies who are seemingly whisked away in a matter of minutes on the say so of a social worker alone. Yet again, any reference to due process and the role of the courts is skated over, in favour of spinning the much more clickable narrative of nightmarish theft of babies.
While it was an unpleasant surprise to see The Times go down this road with their misreporting of the Muslim foster carer case, It is less of a shock with The Sun; their disgraceful reporting around the death of Peter Connelly in 2007 is a significant reason why it is so hard now to move forward with active transparency and to encourage both social workers and lawyers to embrace more open debate about the work they do – why on earth should any of them risk it, if the journalist has already pre-determined that what the ‘story’ demands is their heads on a plate, and will not be distracted by anything as tedious as a fact? One of the journalists responsible for this article, Ben Lazarus, contacted several members of The Transparency Project before writing – and he and the other writer, Jake Ryan, actually spoke for some time with Paul Magrath, who supplied them with links to balanced background material. So there is no excuse for this selectivity.
I understand that people are frightened. I understand that some of the criticisms levelled against a ‘secret’ system that resists scrutiny are well made. I understand that obstacles – some for good reason – are put in the way of journalists reporting fully and fairly on what goes on in the family courts. But how on earth does that justify this? What responsibility are journalists going to take for the way they have deliberately poisoned the well of necessary discussion and debate?
I will make the following points. I don’t pretend to have dealt with everything in the article that caused me unease but these were matters that jumped out at me.
Why won’t journaiists link to source material?
The Sun claims
Devastated families are being torn apart with thousands of children under the age of one alone taken from parents each year – many of those removed after birth from hospital wards.
It is certainly true that there has been a stark and worrying increase in the number of babies taken into care. The BBC reported in 2015 ‘
There has been a “huge” rise in the number of newborns who are subject to care proceedings in England, according to figures compiled for the first time. Some 2,018 babies were involved in such cases in 2013, compared with 802 in 2008, the University of Lancaster said.
However, the impression given by The Sun of ‘thousands’, sows a seed of suspicion that we are talking about many more than 2,018. That figure is worrying enough without additional spin. It also needs to be balanced against the wider statistical picture of live births. In 2008, of 672,809 live births in England recorded by the Office for National Statistics, 0.1% of babies entered the care system. The proportion had increased to 0.3% in 2013 – out of a total of 664,517 births.
With regard to the assertion that ‘many’ being removed from hospital wards – i.e. are very tiny babies indeed – I can’t find the statistics for this and it certainly bears no resemblance at all to my own experience of these cases. Removal of a new born straight from hospital is unusual; in my experience the local authorities will often offer a mother and baby placement or be ordered to by the court. If my experiences are in fact unusual, I would like to know what figures The Sun uses to justify ‘many’ and I would like them to provide a link to the source material so readers can make up their own minds just how terrified they need to be by this.
I also note that The Sun relies as evidence of growing public outrage about the system, upon the case where – as they assert – a social worker tried to take a child away because his mother wouldn’t give him an ice-cream. It is certainly true that Mostyn J offered some very stern criticism of the social work practice in this case but it is equally true that there was much, much more going on than parental refusal to supply ice-cream. The Sun however do not link to the judgment in this case but only to their own previous article which simply repeats such sensationalist mis-reporting.
Use of ‘Personal Stories’
It is real problem for journalists that they are often limited in their access to material to report on family cases as section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 prohibits reporting on what was discussed such cases unless the Judge gives permission. I accept the chilling impact this has had on the ability of many journalists to do their job and this explains why The Transparency Project and many others want to promote debate and discussion about how we can do this better. However, the response of some journalists appears to be to to then relinquish any respect for truth and to base their ‘story’ simply on the partial and often inaccurate narrative of just one party to the proceedings. Andrew Norfolk’s treatment of the Muslim Foster Carer story is perhaps the starkest example of that, but The Sun demonstrates a similar lack of curiosity in the presenting of its ‘case studies’.
The story of mum Jill Goss is used.
WHEN mum Jill Goss visited a GP for a routine appointment to check a swelling on her baby daughter’s arm, she thought she’d be home with her ten-week-old in a few hours.
But after an unimaginable sequence of events, her child was taken from her forever and she was thrust into a living nightmare
This swelling was in fact a fracture. As 10 week old babies are not able to injure themselves, broken bones are either the result of some pre-existing condition or somebody has hurt that baby – either by accident, a momentary loss of self control or something more disturbing and deliberate. It is inconceivable that as a society we should fail to investigate how this happened and to protect the children if we need to. No doubt The Sun would be among the first to raise the loudest cries for more social workers’ heads on plates if another baby dies on their watch.
The ‘unimaginable sequence of events’ is in fact the entirely obvious duty upon the medical profession to refer to children’s services when a child is seriously injured, where there is no immediately obviously medical cause and a parent cannot offer an explanation or offers an implausible or inconsistent explanation.
What may then follow is investigation of what happened by the family and/or criminal courts. The parents will have non means tested, non merits tested legal aid in care proceedings and their children will also have a lawyer and guardian. I appreciate setting all that out takes a lot longer and is a lot less sexy than simply ‘thrusting’ parents into a ‘living nightmare’ but it at least has the virtue of being a more accurate representation of what happens and one less likely to terrify any other parent reading it.
The Sun reports
The GP diagnosed a tiny fracture on ten-week-old Alyssa’s arm and sent her for hospital x-rays which discovered three more fractures on her legs and ribs.
Baby Alyssa had been receiving treatment for vitamin D deficiency but this was dismissed by social workers – despite doctors’ reports saying this may have led to the fractures.
Alyssa’s father Jon then claimed to have accidentally injured the child while holding her after they say a police officer and social worker advised them this was the easiest way for Jill to get the child back.
Jon later retracted the statement but a family court judge ruled he had likely injured the girl and that because Jill maintained he had not harmed his daughter she was not safe to be around the child either.
I don’t care if the fracture was ‘tiny’. And its an odd descriptor when followed by the discovery of three more fractures on her legs and ribs. However any kind of fracture on a 10 week old baby is a matter of really serious concern. There is of course no link to the actual judgment in Jill’s case, if such exists. I accept that the lack of consistent publication of judgments in cases is a real problem, and has been highlighted by the research of members of The Transparency Project.
However, judgment or no, the child is named and reference is made here to matters that were before the court so presumably the Judge was persuaded to lift reporting restrictions – or are The Sun in contempt of court? If reporting restrictions were lifted, then the journalists could have talked to others in the case to get a more accurate picture of how the Judge deals with medical evidence. Whether or not any lawyer or social worker would willingly talk to the The Sun in light of their track record is another matter.
However if there is a judgment, I have absolutely no doubt that reading it would quickly put to bed the damaging assertion that it was ‘social workers’ who determined the cause of the fractures. It isn’t. It is the Judge who does that. The Judge is not forced to accept the opinion of medical experts, but such evidence is usually very compelling and important. I find it very hard to believe that any court would simply ‘dismiss’ the evidence that a baby’s broken bones were in fact caused by a Vitamin D deficiency, certainly because I know that if I – or any other family lawyer I know – were representing such parents any such ‘dismissal’ would lead to an instant appeal.
I would also like to know what the judgment said about the assertion that a police officer AND a social worker told the parents to lie about how the baby was injured as ‘the easiest way’ to get the child back. Why on earth would they do that? And just what do we expect a Judge to do when faced with a parent who lies about how their baby got hurt? Fantastically stupid advice – if indeed that is what was offered – can only mitigate to some degree that a parent was not willing to tell the truth about what happened to such a young and entirely vulnerable child.
I can only speculate about all of this, because of course only one side of the story is given. I appreciate this is not always a journalist’s ‘fault’. The family courts have not covered themselves in much glory about their willingness to shine a light on what they do, and that has to change. But may I also dare to hope that journalists will also accept the very weighty responsibilities that lie on them? Journalists are in the privileged position of being able to attend private family hearings, unlike the public they inform, so it behoves them to have a better understanding of how these cases work even if they can’t report details of a particular case.
If ‘journalism’ is defined as ‘the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information’ then many who wish to call themselves journalists must accept that they are failing to meet the demands of their profession if all they do is publish biased sensationalism. This is a particularly dangerous failing in the light of the acknowledged challenges to the system that threaten to overwhelm it. We urgently need proper debate and discussion about this and that is where the role of a free press can be so important.
If certain journalists don’t agree with this, then in my view they must accept they aren’t ‘journalists’ but rather ‘feature writers’, better suited for magazines that are destined to pile up unread in hospital waiting rooms. Their role in promoting national debate or uncovering real scandal is therefore correspondingly diminished.
Start linking to the judgments. Start having a little more ‘sceptical curiosity’ about the parents you interview – as has rightly been demanded of social workers when faced with parents who deny hurting their children. After all, the most dangerous lies remain the lies we tell ourselves.
Featured image: Freedom, by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr creative commons, reproduced with thanks.