On October 21st 2015 The Times published an article by the journalist Mike Pattenden who quotes Jacque Courtnage and me – somewhat to my surprise. I had not realised that our conversation was in fact an interview. Of course, this was very naive of me and I will know better next time.
But its a useful insight into a small part of the irritation and frustration parents must feel when their conversations with professionals are misreported. Seeing words attributed to me in direct quotation marks that I did not say, made me feel very uneasy.
But it wasn’t that Mr Pattenden had fundamentally misquoted me. He had ‘more or less’ set out the gist of our conversation – it was very interesting to see how he had chosen to condense what I said and what words he had chosen to insert.
It suggests to me that we still have a very long way to go in terms of the debate about the family court system. There are still widespread and fundamental misunderstandings about the system and how it operates. As we have recognised before at the Transparency Project – this is not the ‘fault’ of journalists. They have (in my view for far too long) been prevented from any kind of responsible and accurate reporting of family cases because they are not usually permitted access to the information that is discussed in proceedings itself.
Reporting of a miscarriage of justice?
The article concentrated on what had happened to Jacque Courtnage and her children. Jacque is behind the organisation TakenUK and she has made some thoughtful and interesting contributions to the Child Protection Resource website.
In 2008 her youngest child was thought to have suffered head trauma inflicted by one or both of his parents when he was 9 months old. In 2011 both her children were finally adopted after three years of court proceedings.
There is no doubt that this must have been a nightmarish experience for Jacque Courtnage and her husband particularly as she now feels strongly that there was a miscarriage of justice because information was withheld from the original proceedings.
What is alarming however is the way that the history of these proceedings are described:
A month later, on October 30, an application was made to put their children into care. In court it was decided to proceed with the immediate removal of the boys. The couple were given half an hour to say goodbye.
“It was one of those days that will always live in my memory,” says Jacque. “The expressions on my boys’ faces, particularly the oldest — they hauled them out in hysterics.
There simply has to be more going on here. We don’t know who gave evidence at this hearing, or how they were challenged. We don’t know what documents were before the court. We don’t know why other family members weren’t considered – either to care for the children or to help supervise the parents. We don’t know why the boys had to be ‘hauled’ out; the youngest was presumably a non mobile baby so there should have been no question of ‘hauling’.
Predictably John Hemming then makes an appearance, who is described as saying a ‘scandal has unfolded prompted by targets and financial incentives’. Disappointingly we then have the usual woolly statistical ‘analysis’:
As of March 31 this year, 69,540 children were in the care of local authorities and 5,330 children were adopted from care in the previous year. The Department for Education, which collates the figures, says it does not record the number of those that are contested, but estimates run to several hundred — some suggest a thousand — each year.
Whose estimates? Who is doing the suggesting? On what basis do they make these estimates or suggestions? We don’t know as we aren’t told. We simply can’t have any meaningful debate with this lack of attention to detail and ‘suggestions’ about figures that in time harden to become a truth.
Then comes my bit:
Sarah Phillimore, a barrister at St John’s Chambers in Bristol, and a specialist in family law who set up the Child Protection Resource website, has spent two years researching the child protection system. “I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that there is corruption or a conspiracy to steal babies from sound families,” she says. “However, the system does not work properly. The Cox case highlighted the situation. In the past the reaction has been to say we have to keep things private because of the child, and I’m not sure we can afford to do that any more.
“The fundamental problem is there’s not enough money and no will, and good families are losing children. Child protection has moved away from the principle of supporting families into a child rescue scenario.” (emphasis added)
What is my problem with this? I would – I hope – never describe families as either ‘good’ or ‘sound’. This kind of moral judgment on the worth of a family is precisely the kind of reasoning that has been so rightly criticised in the courts as unacceptable. The State cannot remove someone’s children because it makes a moral judgment that the family is ‘unsound’ or ‘no good’. Children can only be removed without parents’ consent on the basis that they have suffered significant harm or are likely to suffer this in the future.
It may sound like a small point, but I think it is a very significant one. Words are important. They mould how we think about things. To give the impression that the child protection system sets itself up to determine a family’s moral worth is untrue and can only increase the distrust and dislike so many feel for it.
The description of why proceedings are kept private is also clumsy and makes little sense as it is written. I am pretty sure I never said that. Proceedings are kept private because it is not in the child’s interests to allow all the embarrassing and shameful stories of his family life to become public knowledge.
However, I think we certainly need more discussion about what we can do to increase the flow of accurate information into the public domain about the family courts whilst at the same time doing all we can to allow children to grow up without being able to google every horrible detail of their family trauma.
Without access to all the information, how do the gaps get filled?
Why is it so important to improve the flow of accurate information? Because without it, people like John Hemming come to fill in the gaps.
As Jacque Courtnage describes it, it certainly sounds as if something very wrong happened with her children’s case. It would be illuminating to be able to see the actual judgment.
When the case was originally presented to the family law court, it decided on the balance of probability there might have been fractures and that the child was at risk, despite a follow-up x-ray taken in Royal Derby Hospital revealing no fracture (this was not examined as evidence).
Over the course of four unsuccessful appeals, the Courtnages sought to question the veracity of the evidence. “I wanted to know how he could have a skull fracture,” Jacque says. “I asked for a second opinion because I couldn’t understand it. What we didn’t know was there was a second report which later came out, post fact-finding, that said my son had a fissure. Following the investigation, no one gave me access to my children’s records. I was told I couldn’t have them.”
However, the challenge that was made to this was by John Hemming, described as ‘her MP’ (although presumably he could not have been as she did not live in his constituency).
Her MP John Hemming alleged in Parliament that her then solicitors colluded with Derbyshire county council to keep this evidence from the parents. The council and the solicitors strongly denied the allegation. The council insisted that the issue as to whether the child had a fissure or fracture was fully brought before the court and the decision taken by the court was the right one.
Little wonder that a LA and solicitors accused of ‘colluding’ to hide evidence would put up strong denials. I assume then that people’s energies became directed to either maintaining or denying serious allegations of deliberate wrong doing, rather than actually looking at the evidence.
In 2013, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner’s Office found that the local authority had withheld information. When Jacque was finally able to access the records she sought, expert medical advice revealed a family abnormality. Over the years she had suffered severe bone problems, including a broken back. Tests in 2014 led to the diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a rare genetic condition that affects the connective tissue supporting bones and tendons.
Armed with this new evidence, the Courtnages hope to mount another appeal, although their solicitor, William Bache, says that “it’s almost impossible to appeal an adoption order”.
It is impossible to say without access to the original judgments and medical evidence whether there really has been a miscarriage of justice here. I do not know what the implications are for a mother’s diagnosis with EDS for her children and particularly whether that would have provided an explanation for her son’s head trauma which had nothing to do with abuse. I do not know why these issues were apparently not explored at the original hearing; presumably Jacque Courtnage was well aware of her own severe bone problems and would have brought this to the attention of her lawyers. I would like to know what happened in the ‘four unsuccessful appeals’ – what arguments were raised and why they failed.
The sadness of Jacque Courtnage describing the Christmas presents that remain unwrapped at her home, her hope that one day her boys will come to open them is tangible in the article. I do not seek to diminish or disrespect that sadness and nor I hope would anyone who had even a small amount of compassion.
But articles like this don’t get us much further forward. There is still so much we don’t know and aren’t told. It is simply unacceptable that all journalists can do to fill the gaps is turn to John Hemming and his persistent narrative of deliberate collusion between professionals to meet ‘adoption targets’.
It shows me we still have a long way to go in terms of transparency and reporting.