I wrote the following piece for Community Care about my experiences of contact after many years of engaging in sessions with my children. Increasingly, I felt dismay, despair and sometimes disgust at the conditions in which we were expected to repair, rebuild and strengthen our family relationships. Contact felt like a low priority to everyone but us; and it felt geared around what suited the local authority, rather than what was best for my children.
After approaching my local authority with my concerns last year, they invited me to help them to undertake a review into contact venues within the borough. I accepted and have been working with a member of staff from the local authority who has really impressed me with her desire to create a better system for contact for children, and for birth families. A “Parent’s Forum” has been created, and questionnaires gone out to looked after children, their families, social workers and contact supervisors all within the borough. We are hopeful to present our findings and recommendations to senior management quite soon.
This, to me, is an example of my local authority putting their hands up, admitting their mistakes, and then looking to service users to help improve the system. A fine example of co-production and I applaud them for it.
Click on the link below to see the impetus for change:
This story has been the culmination of nine months of tenacious, diligent work by Louise Tickle, a freelance journalist commissioned by the Guardian to write about my fight to have my son, taken as a newborn by the local authority, returned to my care.
Louise has investigated each and every aspect of this case, spoken to everyone involved (except the social worker who disappointingly refused), spent hours and hours in my home, with my children, my friends, my support network and taken tearful calls from me when I felt frightened about speaking out. We’ve been through High Court together to fight to get this story published (see my post here), Louise has sat in Court with me in proceedings I have made against the local authority and has heard sound recordings of my newborn’s case being thrashed out in Court. Every word written in the piece Louise checked with me first to ensure she had it right. I cannot applaud Louise’s professionalism and integrity enough.
But more than just that, Louise has become a source of immense personal support, and has encouraged in me a sense of self-confidence and self-belief I just haven’t had before.
Louise has given me wings; the courage and intrepidity to follow my dreams and the cementing of my own self-worth.
As a parent involved with children’s services; we are generally suspicious of “The Social Worker”. This comes from the fear that they have the power to take our children away and it’s only natural to feel that way when our families are threatened. Social Workers are seen as ‘the enemy’, depersonalised, mistrusted, vilified and viewed with a cautious eye.
But Social Workers are human beings too. And, broadly speaking, entered the world of social work to try and help people. Some social workers find the current “risk-averse” climate and the focus on “timescales” and “permanence” very difficult to work in, because it doesn’t always allow them to help people in the way they want to.
I wanted a post by a frontline, practicing, child protection social worker, because I wanted the families who read my site to get some advice from a social worker not directly involved with their own family. I know how hard it is to listen to someone who has been responsible for taking your child away. But I also know the value of the advice that most social workers can give, and that that advice is given out of a real, genuine desire to keep families together where it is safe enough to do so.
James – not his real name – is a qualified social worker currently supervising social workers and practising with children and families who are the subject of child protection plans and care proceedings. He has previously worked as a court appointed expert undertaking parenting assessments. These views are his own and based on his own experience. I am extremely grateful to James for taking the time to write this post and I hope it helps you.
I first came across Annie when I read this blog and like many readers, I was blown away by her account and the insights it gave me. We have since met when I invited her to talk to some of my colleagues in what was one of the most moving and humbling presentations I have ever seen.
When I was asked by Annie to write this post I accepted without hesitation. I write in recognition of the inspiration and hope that her brave work has given me and many of my colleagues in her journey so far. She writes honestly, speaks from the heart, and provides sound advice; I will try to do the same.
I also agreed to write this because on a personal level, I often find myself struggling to deal with the demands of my work with families. Sometimes it feels like all we social workers are doing is causing further pain and trauma to those families who have experienced and survived so much already. I hope that by writing this post I can help to redress this and enable parents to better understand and negotiate the child protection system and social work interventions with their families. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I or my colleagues have helped a family to make changes to improve their lives and those of their children.
In my career I have worked with parents who have been picking up the pieces of their own difficult childhood experiences, most of whom are still traumatised by what has happened to them.
I have worked with parents who have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, FGM, slavery and exploitation, war and conflict, neglect, and emotional abuse.
I have worked with parents whose own parents have had difficulties with addictions, violent relationships, mental illness and more, and have been unable to look after their children as a result of that.
Sadly, some of the parents I have worked with have experienced abuse from within the care system, the very alternative which was supposed to keep them safe.
My point is this; In my work I don’t think I can recall having come across a parent who has not faced and survived horrendous adversity already in their life. In my experience it is often because of the impact of this adversity that many find themselves faced with child protection interventions and court proceedings. What is frustrating is that these interventions in themselves can be brutal for parents and this is something that Annie’s experience so clearly shows. Some parents can make it through, work with professionals to make the changes asked of them and show professionals and the courts that their children will be safe; some cannot. I have only compassion for those parents who don’t manage it and admiration for those who do.
In thinking about what advice I can give to those parents who find themselves facing child protection processes or care proceedings, I am not aiming to help you ‘beat’ the system, but simply to stand the best chance of navigating through it successfully.
Many of you might have heard social workers talk about ‘openness and honesty’ in meetings or seen it used in reports. It’s concept which is very important, and although on the surface it might seem fairly simple, in reality it is complicated. Sometimes for parents it can involve talking with social workers about some of the most difficult things that have happened in their lives such as abusive childhood experiences, difficult relationships, or things which they have done in the past which they might really regret or feel ashamed of. It can even mean talking about some-thing very exposing or difficult, for example, feeling that you might not like your child.
I understand that:
a) not many people would willingly want to talk about these things
b) parents might be suspicious of why these things are being asked of them.
It must be terrifying to be in that situation and easy to think that social workers are looking for problems or reasons for you not to look after your children. It also must be tempting to hold back on talking about these things in order to present a better picture of yourself and your family. However the reality is that social workers are usually asking about these things to try and better understand your life and to think about how they might be able to help you as a family.
Openness and honesty are important for another reason too. When we have concerns about a child, one of the things that is most difficult for social workers is dealing with uncertainty. Often when we are thinking about whether children are at risk from their parents, we are thinking about what might be happening in a child’s life when we are not there. If we don’t think a parent is being honest with us, it can have the effect of increasing our anxiety about what we don’t know. However, if what we get is an accurate picture of what is happening, it can make a huge difference to how we think about whether a child is safe in a family.
Tell us if you don’t understand
If you don’t understand something that is being asked of you, make sure you tell the social worker. Scary thought maybe? Well the reality is that social work is bogged down with phrases and terminology. Often I think that social workers hide behind this because they themselves do not fully understand what they are saying. I was once at some training where Andrew Turnell (a big name in the profession) said “if you can’t explain something to a six year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself”. I think this is a very important point. Everything a social worker says to you should be explained in a way which is VERY easy to understand. If they are not doing so then it is really important you tell them. If it still does not make sense, ask them to explain it until it does. The stakes can be very high and it is important that you understand what you are agreeing to or being asked to do. It won’t reflect badly on you if you say you don’t understand something, but it might do if you are seen not to stick to an agreement, but in reality have not told anybody you did not understand what you agreed to.
Some people have real difficulties in understanding what is happening when social workers are involved with their family and need some extra help to do this. If you think you might need some extra help then think about asking to be referred for an advocate. An advocate is somebody who can help you to understand what is happening and help you to make informed choices and decisions. They will attend big meetings with you and talk to you about them before and after. If social worker suggests you would benefit from an advocate then I would recommend you consider this. The social worker should be able to arrange this for you too.
Listen to what the social worker is saying and try and understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, (and say if you don’t), but it is really important that you listen to, and think carefully about what they are worried about. You might agree with them and be worried about some of the same things too. Whatever the case may be, it is important that you are able to listen and think about what people are saying to you, no matter how painful it might be to hear. Often in my experience when parents are able to really listen and reflect on what people are worried about, it can be the turning point in our work with their families.
Emotions can run high in meetings with social workers, and often in these situations I would guess that parents can forget what they wanted to say or the points they want to get across. The same happens for me when I am placed under strain. The best way to deal with this is to prepare some notes beforehand and take some notes at the time. It also comes back to my earlier point about understanding what is being asked of you. There is no reason why you should not take notes but if you do choose to during meetings or visits from social workers, then you might want to explain why you are doing so. It’s better to be clear about this than to leave any room for misunderstanding.
Ask for help
This relates back to being honest. It must be really scary to admit to a social worker that there is a problem, but if you can, try to have the confidence to ask for help with any difficulties that you might be having. This can often be the starting point for getting help and making changes. A social worker will always want to help your family and will be able to work with you to think about what you might find helpful.
Build a relationship
Every social worker should treat you and your family with respect, compassion and openness. This does not mean they have to agree with you on everything, but if they don’t agree or if they are worried about something, they should tell you, and do it in a sensitive and respectful way. If you don’t feel this is happening then ask to speak to their manager about it. If you do this, then as I mentioned before, prepare yourself carefully so that you stand the best chance of getting your point across.
There can be many reasons why you might find it difficult to build a relationship with a social worker. This might, for example, be to do with their gender, religion or background. It might also be because of your own experiences (maybe they remind you of somebody or something unpleasant). If there are difficulties, then have a conversation with them about it. If it doesn’t change, then consider asking for a change of social worker. Your relationship with the social worker is so important and it is vital that you feel as comfortable as possible with them.
Talk to us if you are anxious
If you are anxious about a social worker visiting, tell them. The prospect of having a social worker visit can, at times, I imagine, be terrifying for families. It must be so tempting at times for parents to cancel appointments. My advice is that if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening then rather than avoiding or cancelling appointments or meetings, ring the social worker and try to tell them about it. Not always easy I know, but they should be understanding and be able to help alleviate some of your worries about this. It will also help them to understand what is going on for you.
Get sensible advice
I know that Annie is a strong believer in the work of the Family Rights Group and I would thoroughly recommend you have a look at their website www.frg.org.uk.
If you are looking for information online, choose your online resources carefully as there is a lot of misinformation out there. I would recommend reading what Annie and Sarah Phillimore have said about this already on this website.
I hope this is useful and makes some sense to you. Although I am blogging this anonymously, you can contact me via the contact form on this website here. You can also tweet me: @jamesgosingSW
In January I was very honoured to co-chair a “Knowledge Exchange Seminar” as part of Family Potential, the centre for policy and practice research, having spoken at their previous seminar.
I was lucky enough during both to meet Tim Fisher, who has taught me an inordinate amount about Family Group Conferences (FGCs). As such, I asked him to write a Guest Post and I am very glad to present this below and grateful to Tim for taking the time to do it.
Family group conferences –family led decision-making
My name is Tim Fisher and I am the manager of the family group conference service in Camden. I have worked doing family group conferencing (FGC) in a number of places in England and Wales as well working for NSPCC and Advocacy for young people.
I met “Annie” from Surviving Safeguarding during a series of Family Potential events and she really blew me away with the power of what she had to say. Getting her message across about what she’d gone through, its emotional impact and the things local authorities should do better. So I was very pleased when she contacted to me to say that a guide to family group conference would be useful for her blog and this is it!
I have set out a simple (I hope!) introduction to FGC with some quotes from family members who have been there and done it.
What is a Family Group Conference?
An FGC should be an independent meeting organised for you with the family you want to have there. It is not supposed to be ‘just another meeting’; you may have lots of meetings to go to! So, a good FGC should feel different and aim to make a difference where possible.
It can be a chance to get clear information, have your say, offer your own ideas and make a plan that brings in family (including supportive friends).
FGCs are a chance for families to make: Plan A; we support the children’s parent to continue looking after them and set out what support the family can provide.
While also in that same meeting making a back-up: Plan B; if something happens and they can’t stay with the parent the children should be cared for by this family member we choose.
“It got to the heart of the matter” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)
“Everyone spoke and listened to each other” (Female aged between 15-16 years who had an FGC)
What actually happens at a family group conference?
There are three parts to an FGC:
Part 1. Information giving
This is the part of the meeting where you get the information you need to make a plan. A professional most closely involved with your family (usually social worker) should explain why they are worried about your child and tell you the sort of help that they can offer. There should be lots of chances to ask them questions and to be clear about what they are saying. They will then leave the meeting.
Part 2. Private family time
You, your family and friends will be left on your own, without the people who work with you, so that you can talk about the information that you heard in the first part and make plans together for you. The co-ordinator and other information givers stay in another room.
Part 3. Explaining your plan
Your family will share the plan with others at the meeting, including any information givers who were there at the beginning of the meeting. The plan should be agreed as long as it is a safe plan. The plan remains yours whatever happens and you can use the document in court.
Who can have one?
Nearly 90 per cent of local authorities have a family group conference service according to a survey from the Family Rights Group. Most of those are working with families with children on child protection plan, on the whole when care proceedings have started or are likely. There is government guidance that says it’s best that these families have one before they arrive in court.
A plan made in an FGC should always be your plan (the families plan). FGCs work hard for agreement between everyone with the child’s interest at heart, however if you’re going to court and you disagree with the social work viewpoint, your plan remains your plan.
Most people find out about FGCs from their social worker but in some areas a family can request one themselves and some local authorities (like Camden) offer FGC to families earlier on, to help sooner – even sometimes before social workers get involved. It should always be your choice whether you take part or not.
Who organises a family group conference?
The meeting is organised by an independent co-ordinator. ‘Independent’ means someone who should not be involved in the safeguarding decision making. The co-ordinator will meet you and your family to plan and prepare for the meeting and will always be available to help sort out any problems.
It’s important that during an FGC the family group make the decisions!
“The Co–ordinator was really supportive and helpful” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)
“The co–ordinator was sensitive and was skilful at chairing” (Professional who participated in an FGC)
Who should come to a family group conference?
You should be in control of the guest list. The best people will be those who know you and care about you; your family, plus friends and neighbours who feel like your family.
If safeguarding is going to be discussed then your social worker is very likely to want to be at the meeting, this might benefit you (and your family) if have questions you want to ask and important things to say. It is possible that other professionals attend to help with information and advice if you want them to – but the family should be in the majority.
“With everyone in the room, no one could go away saying they did not know what was going on” (Quote from a family member who has been part of a Family Group Conference)
What if I agree to take part in a family group conference?
Your co-ordinator should talk with you about who is in your family network. Whenever possible, everyone important to the child will be invited. The co-ordinator will make sure that the child or children’s views are heard in the meeting. Where appropriate they may arrange for someone to support the child in the meeting, or to speak for them.
You should feel in control of the FGC. After talking with you, the co-ordinator will arrange a time and a place for the meeting, refreshments and crèche for any younger children. The meeting will, whenever possible, be in the language you use at home. There are many trained FGC Coordinators working all over the UK that speak different community languages. A good FGC should be organised appropriately to your culture.
“It reminds me of other cultural family meetings back in my country of origin. It was very important for all of us to have a co-ordinator from our own background. It made everything easy, and there was no barrier of language and culture” (Family Member)
“An advocate is available for young people which means that there is a voice for the child.” (Teacher)
it gives a chance to think about what is happening and plan to make things better. Its gives a space to talk, helping with confidence and being able to look at the future. It promotes togetherness and helps young people”(Camden Young People)
Are FGCs confidential?
An FGC service shouldn’t talk about your problems to anyone unless you ask them, It should be confidential unless there is a risk to a child, You only tell us what you need to and nothing more.
What will happen to your plan after the meeting?
Whenever possible, the social work department should respond to your plan at the end of the meeting. If this is not possible, the social worker will make sure a decision is reached about your plan quickly. Once the plan is agreed, the social work department should work with you to put the plan into action. Later on, another FGC can be held to review the plan and see what still needs to be decided.
“I feel at least some form of dialogue has now begun and hopefully we can begin to work together as a family for our child’s sake.”(Family member)
Why I believe in FGCs
So – I hope that brief guide to FGC is helpful. It is very much the positive side and honestly that is because I believe FGC sets out with good intentions, building on families’ ability to keep their own children safe.
It’s got to be said that the research shows (check out Family Rights Group if you want to see the research) overwhelmingly that people who have had FGC think it helped them – however if you are reading this and you have experience of where FGC could have been better it would be very helpful to hear that too.
If you want yet more info on FGCs click through to the excellent Family Rights Group website.
I am happy to answer anybody’s questions about Family Group Conferences in the comments below or feel free to tweet me!
After first being approached by Louise Tickle on the 1st of June 2015 to write a piece for the Guardian newspaper, it has taken nearly nine months for my story to be published. A significant part of this delay has been due to the battle we had with the LA for the right to tell aspects of my story.
I have linked below a PDF of an article that Louise wrote for Family Law detailing her frustrating and tenacious journey into the realms of the family court. This article is published by Family Law at  Fam Law 1304 and I am very grateful to Jordan Publishing for allowing me permission to use this piece. Readers might also be interested in another article by Louise Tickle and Lucy Reed, ‘Press reporting of care proceedings’ available here.
I was approached by freelance journalist Louise Tickle at The Transparency Project’s CPConf2015 on the 1st of June 2015 who asked to write my story for the Guardian newspaper. After a bit of research of my part, and a bit of discussion with my family and friends, I agreed.
Being a responsible journalist, Louise wanted to apply to Court to ask for permission to report certain aspects of my case. Louise was represented on a pro bono basis by Lucy Reed of PinkTape and The Transparency Project and Sarah Phillimore, also of the Transparency Project, and Child Protection Resource and I was kindly advised by my former lawyer and barrister, but ultimately represented myself.
The shutters in my LA came down; they were desperate not to be named in the article. Evidence was filed late and their legal team would not engage with the other parties, including at one point, the Judge himself. The LA went on to be very unfairly critical of my website, which was upsetting for me. Louise and her legal team made many concessions as to the content of the article but it was not until the eleventh hour that the LA finally agreed to a draft order. I know personally how trying this process was for Louise and how much work went into this case. I am forever indebted to Lucy Reed, Sarah Phillimore, my former lawyer and barrister and – of course – Louise herself for fighting for the right to allow me to tell my story.
On the 19th of October, a Reporting Restriction Order was agreed by parties, drawn up and then approved by Bodey J in Newcastle County Court. I have linked to the Bailii judgement below (please note this does not include all of the Schedules as they themselves contain identifying information):
How To Survive The Christmas Period Without Your Children
Christmas two years ago was a very difficult time for my family. My youngest, “BabyB”, had been removed from my arms at only six days old. He was then placed into foster care against my will and the Final Hearing was due to begin on the very first week in January where the Local Authorities plans were forced adoption. He was under an Interim Care Order, and my contact with him was supervised. This then meant that I was not permitted to see him on Christmas Day because the Local Authority did not have any staff to supervise a contact. This situation was replicated for my other two children in Local Authority care so I was not permitted to see them either, despite having my other children in my care.
Nationwide, many families will be facing what I was in the Christmas of 2013; the agony of being separated from your children on one of the days of the year when family is everything.
This post is written for you all.
Christmas these days seems to start around September, (earlier if you’re on Facebook and you have “those” friends who countdown the days from January) with garish decorations adorning shop windows and Christmas jingles and croons far and wide.
The television adverts then begin, promising happiness for all if you buy X, Y and/or Z, or making you feel substandard if you don’t have X, Y and/or Z. There are adverts boasting about turkeys and assuring the potential customer that these are the best turkeys in the world because they’ve been allowed to roam free, or had massages everyday and dined on steak or somesuch. The television programmes start telling you how to have “The Perfect Christmas” whilst you sit in your jarmies eating a ready-meal and wondering how on earth you caramelise carrots. And, of course, Christmas is not complete without a new sofa, lounge carpet, big screen smart television (with 3D) and dining suite, because everyone has money to buy these things at this time of the year and if you don’t purchase a new solid oak dining table with wingback chairs you will, frankly, ruin Grandma’s life.
The Christmas trees go up, it appears, in November nowadays and god help you if you live opposite someone who comes back from B&Q with 400,000 bright blue “chaser” lights for the outside of their home; from experience you’ll have a migraine until mid-January.
The shops are hot, loud and full of stressed shoppers and confused people picking things up off shelves, shaking their heads, and replacing them, with monotonous regularity, or other shoppers fighting over the latest toy because Little Jimmy’s life will be over unless he has a killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.
The supermarkets are even worse, with people bulk-buying soup and beans because the shops are shut for all of one day, the queues are hilarious, even at 3am when you stand in Asda perplexed at the lack of broccoli and wondering if you can dye cauliflower green. You can’t turn into an aisle without a battery-operated jolly Santa singing you some vile Christmassy song, or a giant inflatable Snowman warbling that he wishes “it could be Christmas everyday” (he can sod right off).
Then there are the “bargain days”, like Black Friday where folk find themselves sitting up at 3am waiting for a “lightning deal” to begin on a pizza cutter in the shape of a motorbike and wondering where their life has gone.
Everything is big and loud and over the top for this one special, magical day of the year and everyone is under huge pressure for everything to be perfect.
When you’re a parent separated from your children, particularly a parent either going through Proceedings, or having gone through them, you don’t see any of the above.
I know, because I have been there.
What you see – everywhere – is loss, pain and grief.
You see happy shoppers buying for their children, and you feel pangs of jealousy, imagining their family all together on Christmas morning. You see television adverts full of happy families, together around a dinner table spending that special day talking, and laughing unitedly. It is a savage pain to know that you won’t wake up with your children on Christmas morning…and your children won’t wake up with you. I remember it, my eyes are filling up and I feel it in my chest as I type.
Everywhere you look is evidence that you don’t fit and all you can think of is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this and how on earth are you supposed to survive that one day, Christmas Day.
How to survive
The very first thing to remember is that you have every right to feel the way you do, no matter what has gone before, or what you, or anybody else, have done wrong. Acceptance is key to being able to move forward and brings about its own peace.
So, no – it isn’t meant to be like this. As a parent, it is normal to want to be with your children on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. As a child, it is normal to want to be with your parents on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. There is nothing abnormal in dreading Christmas, considering your circumstances. Know that you are not alone, that many of us feel the way you do, and many wish the day away as the pain of separation is too much to bear.
If you are able to see your children unsupervised, and depending on your circumstances, there should be nothing stopping you seeing them on Christmas Day. If your children are with relatives (under a Special Guardianship Order, or no Order at all), remember that you will have to fit in around their plans, as they have care of the children. It is very difficult, but very important to be respectful of this, and offer as much give-and-take as you can and not expect too much or come across as “entitled”.
The same applies if your children are in foster care under a Section 20. If this is the case, and you are not in Proceedings, you may very well be able to see your children unsupervised. Speak to your children’s Social Worker as soon as you can; if they say you are unable to see your children unsupervised, ask why. It may be worth taking legal advice at this point as sometimes Local Authorities aren’t quite up-to-date on what powers they do and don’t have under a Section 20. I would absolutely advise though that you do nothing impulsive, or without having first checked out your legal footing.
If you are able to see your children on Christmas Day, try to accept that it may not be the way you want it to be. You might not be able to wake up with them, but that’s not the end of the world, and you are luckier than many who are not able to see their children at all.
Finally, make sure you are well-prepared; for example if you don’t drive and are beyond walking distance, save up enough money for taxis and book them well in advance. Most taxi operators open a booking system for Christmas Day around three weeks beforehand, so get in quick. Money can be tight, so don’t go mad on presents for the children, your presence is worth far far more to them than the killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.
If you are unable to see your children without supervision, there may, however, be a number of things to try during the build-up to Christmas. Some of them will be relevant to you, some won’t, but “shy bairns get nowt” as we say up here, so try anything.
As early as possible, try to find out what the arrangements are for Christmas contact between you and your children. If they are in Local Authority care, you should be given a contact schedule in good time (at least a month beforehand). You will almost certainly be given time with your children in the days around Christmas Day and it is likely to be in a contact centre, supervised. However, you can be creative with this, and I’ve listed some ideas below to help:
If the Local Authority are quite adamant that contact needs to be supervised, whether that be because it is court ordered, written into the children’s care plans, or that they have evidence or concerns, you may have to accept that this is the framework in which you will see your children. However, it is always worth asking – in as much time beforehand as possible – the Social Worker who else may be suitable to supervise the contact session. It may be that someone else could be assessed to supervise the contact, such as a relative or close family friend. The consequence to this is that the contact would be an awful lot more natural, and it may give you a bit of flexibility as a family to think about venue and dates. There’s no promises or guarantees here, but if you never ask, you never get.
Try to be respectful when asking, this may be a new possibility for your Local Authority, which is why it’s so important to ask in good time. Remember, that your children’s cases should be reviewed by an Independent Reviewing Officer every 6 months, just before then may be a good time to have the discussion so that the Team Around The Child (or Care Team, or Core Group as it is also known) can have full involvement. Try to be humble about this too, acting like you are entitled in any way gets people’s backs up and will end up with people feeling cautious and the answer probably being no. Be smart about this; now is not the time to start an argument.
Venue If you are scheduled to have your Christmas contact with your children in a contact centre, you can always ask the Social Worker – as early as possible – if there are any other options available to your family. Remember that the Local Authority are the Council; they run a number of buildings within your borough and therefore there may be some flexibility around where you can see your children. A contact centre is not the most inviting place to exchange gifts, but equally, you might be a bit uncomfortable doing it in your local library. However, there may well be other options. For example, the local library may have a little room you can use, or your local school may have a community room, or training room. You could ask if there were any rooms to use at the council run swimming pool, or leisure centre and combine the time you have with an activity such as swimming, soft play, or five-a-side. Christmas is a special time of year, and so it’s not too much to ask for your family to have some special time together, no matter who did what to whom.
However, if you are to have your Christmas contact in a contact centre, supervised by the Local Authority it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. I have had to deal with this with only two of my children for several years now, so I can completely relate to how soul-destroying it is for this to be the only time and context in which you see your children at Christmas. However, I’ve always made sure I’ve prepared well in advance and we’ve made the best of it. I’ve detailed some ideas below that may help:
Decorations – ask the staff at the contact centre if you can have access to the room half an hour or so earlier than when your contact session begins. Bring tinsel, beads, garlands, whatever can be wrapped around things in the room quickly. In our old room there used to be tables, chairs, as well as equipment used for training staff, broken items and stuff that didn’t have a home anywhere else. I used to cover it all entirely in gold tinsel, stick lights up and even found festive party games to make (stick the nose on Rudolph always provoked a laugh). If the room looks a little more cheery, it will help to lift your spirits.
Food/drink – keep a few quid aside and go to your local supermarket. This time of year there are always party foods which are ready made and your can just stick on a plate which is helpful if you don’t have the room for long beforehand. Bring some fruit juice or fizzy pop and go to a discount shop for Christmas-themed paper plates, cups, tablecloth etc. The children will be glad of a snack, and it can provide a focus once all the present opening is over.
Music – it can been deathly quiet around Christmas in contact centres which can affect everyone’s mood, so ask the staff if they have a CD player and any Chrismassy tunes you could borrow. If they don’t the main radio stations will invariably be saturated with Cliff and Wizard.
Presents – when you lose your children, you lose your child benefits, child tax credits and anything else relating to them and it can be extremely difficult financially to manage. So it’s really important to only buy what you can afford, and not to worry if some of the presents come from charity shops, or discount stores, or eBay. Most of my children have received gifts like that for most of the Christmases they have been alive! In fact, the presents my children have liked the very best have been homemade ones. I made jewellery for them, decorated boxes, I made photo albums and scrapbooks of our memories together, and they loved them all far more than any other presents.
So please don’t put pressure on yourself to provide everything under the sun for them – far far more important will be the time you spend with them. It sounds silly, but take time wrapping the presents and writing out cards for your children and then arranging them all nicely in the contact room. Believe me, having been there, it makes all the difference. The children will see the effort you’ve gone to, and what’s inside the packages doesn’t quite matter as much as that.
Keep smiling – you may feel extremely emotional and you may feel very angry that you won’t be together on Christmas Day, for whatever reason. This is normal.
Everyone I know who has been through this feels exactly the same. Angry, frustrated, helpless. Couple that with the pressure of Christmas itself and the resentment and jealousy towards others you may also be feeling, it’s really no wonder that emotions run high.
However. All of that being said. This is not the time to display these emotions. This is the time – without meaning to sound patronising here – to be a grown up. I’m not asking you to be a robot, and it’s overwhelmingly difficult to keep it together when and if your children are crying to come home – I know, I have been in that exact situation. But you absolutely have to keep it together, for their sakes. They need you to be strong, to show them that it’s ok, that Mum and Dad will be ok on Christmas Day (because they will worry about you), and that it’s ok for them to have fun on Christmas day wherever they are and whoever they are with. Of course tell them you will miss them and you wish you could be together, but it’s not possible. Don’t attach blame to this, and don’t tell the children it’s the Social Worker’s or Local Authority’s fault. You can think it – hell, when the children have left you can scream it from the rooftops. But whilst the children are there, make it fun for them, make it special for them, and make it ok for them. I know how hard that is, I have walked far more than a mile in those shoes, but this was something I had to do, for my children. And as hard as it was, I’m glad that I did.
Surviving when you don’t see them
Two years ago, I saw my youngest child, BabyB, on Christmas Eve, and then not again until the 27th December, then the 30th December and the 2nd of January. He was less than six months old. He spent Christmas Day with the Foster Carers and there is a picture in my hall of him dressed up as an Elf on that day, grinning away without a care in the world. He didn’t, doesn’t, and may not ever know (unless he ever reads this!) just how painful that day was. To have some of my children with me – and some not – was nothing short of torturous punishment. As separated families, we perceive that our children must feel the same pain that we do. And I think, if they are older, there’s some truth in that. But I look at that picture everyday, and it makes me smile. Because I’m glad he was happy, I’m glad he didn’t feel the pain I felt that day, I’m glad he didn’t and doesn’t know.
So, how did I get through that festive period? Where all about me seemed full of joy and where everyone around me were with their families, happy and together?
Honestly? I just survived. Some days, barely. Somedays I just wanted to cry all day and didn’t want to go out because I couldn’t take any more happy families. I was seethingly jealous of my friends who all had their children around them. I hated being alone and felt abandoned. I felt it was all my fault, I felt I was being punished, I felt I must deserve this, I felt dirty and horrible and like the worst mother in the world. Then, within the same breath, I felt angry, I felt this was wrong, I knew my baby would come home and I felt like this was just digging the knife in.
In short? I felt everything you feel being separated from your children, magnified by about 5000.
I realise this doesn’t help.
But the way I got through it? I just survived. I took every day 5 minutes at a time. Get through that 5 minutes and you’re on to the next one. I never looked ahead more than 5 minutes.
I read, I read and read and read case after case on Bailii and Family Law Week, and SuesspiciousMinds and PinkTape Blogs, learning about the law. Then, when I had to stop reading, I distracted myself, watched crappy DVDs and documentaries (ask me anything about the First World War!), I did puzzles on my phone, I read lighthearted books I hadn’t read for years. I took long showers and washed my hair and did my nails.I tried my best not to isolate myself, as it doesn’t help. I didn’t drink and had just quit smoking, so I tried and managed to stay teetotal. I tried to eat regularly, I tried to sleep regularly, I tried my best to look after myself because I was important too.
So that is the best advice I can give to you. Just survive, just get through it. There are no magic formulas, nothing I can say will take your pain away. If I could, believe you me, I would – in a heartbeat. But I can’t. So just know that you are not alone but that you can, you will and you must, just survive.
As I sit down to write this, the seventh set of Proceedings that I have been a Party to (yes…there’s been yet another one folks!) have come to an end. For only the second time in 3 years and six months – I am not in Proceedings.
Indeed, the reason for such a gap between Part One of “How to survive court” and Part Two of the same is because I have needed “time out” afterwards, to recuperate, to repair and to reflect. Having taken a bit of time, I now feel far more able to serve you all better and I hope this next post is useful for any families facing court, and any practitioners looking to understand and empathise better with what a parent goes through during Proceedings.
Part Two – How to Survive Court
In Part One, I tried to deal with the practicalities of how to navigate your way to the Court, both physically and emotionally. In Part Two, I want to look at the experience of a Court Hearing, what to expect, and how to cope with it in the best way.
You will be called, either over a tannoy, or by the Court Clerk, to go into the courtroom itself, often by your case number. Your barrister will know to listen out for it so don’t worry about missing it. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your own number if you can, and actually a good focus when you’re sitting waiting to go in.
In my experience, it tends to be two letters at the beginning, followed by a series of numbers and then another letter. It’s a bit like your National Insurance number and if you’ve got a better memory than me, you’ll recognise it on your court paperwork.
You may never have been into a Court before and may not know where to sit, or how it might look. I’ve designed two floor plans (thank you to floorplanner.com) below to hopefully help you to see how it is all set out. You can click on the image to make it larger. I hope. I’m not very good with technology.
The first plan is what, in my experience, many courtrooms look like. The Judge sits “on high”, in that their seats are raised up. Some people might feel a bit intimidated by this, but try to think of it as being designed so that the Judge can see everyone in the room clearly.
The second floor plan is something I’ve also experienced, and it feels a little less formal. The Judge tends to sit on the same level, and all of the Parties sit around a table. The rooms themselves can be the Judge’s Chambers which are the “Office” of the Judge where he or she can hear certain types of cases instead of in “open court” as in Floorplan 1. How commonly this is done, I don’t know, but I only experienced it in my first set of Proceedings in 2012, and only in the earlier Hearings where there were no witnesses to give evidence.
As you can see in Floorplan 1, it is clear where to sit. The solicitors or barristers (also known as “Counsel” – see my Glossary here for more information) sit on the front row, whilst the parents, the Children’s Guardian and the Social Worker(s) sit in the row behind. It may be that there are more “Parties” to Proceedings such as Grandparents, or Aunts/Uncles. They will have their own representation who will sit at the front and everyone else fills the second row with spare seating being used in the public gallery.
In Floorplan 2, it is less obvious, but if you are presented with this set-up, follow your barrister’s instructions on where to sit. However, in my experience, you sit on the opposite side of the table to the Social Worker.
The seats themselves can be nothing more than wooden benches – they are often not the most comfortable of things. That’s why it’s doubly important to wear something you can sit comfortably in for long periods of time.
There will almost always be water in jugs on the tables with plastic cups. It’s a good idea to pour yourself a cup whether you’re thirsty or not, before the Judge comes in. Once things get underway, it’s best to try and sit as still as possible and you might well find the anxiety of the occasion may leave your mouth a little drier than normal.
It is also a very good idea to take a notebook and a pen into court so you can communicate with your barrister. You cannot speak during a hearing unless directly addressed by the Judge and I personally would avoid whispering to your barrister as it can distract the Judge and the other parties. Writing a quick note if you don’t agree with something (or you want to raise a particular point) and passing it to your barrister is a good way to communicate with them.
And so it begins If your case is heard in open court (as in Floorpan 1), the Clerk will be in the courtroom as you enter, but the Judge will still be in “Chambers”. You are given a few moments to put your bag under the desk, and for the barristers to get their files in order before the Judge will knock on the door from their Chambers to the courtroom. At this point, you must “rise”, or stand up. It is a mark of respect to the Judge and must be observed. The judge will then look to the barristers, give a nod, they will bow their heads back and then everyone can sit down.
This might seem a strange thing to do, but it is an etiquette of the court and, to be fair, court is a strange old place to be.
Another tradition within the court is the different names used to address the Judge, depending on their status or the type of court or hearing it is. This can get a little confusing, so I have put together a table below to hopefully make it simple:
Your case will very likely be heard by a District or a Circuit Judge, so check with your barrister which and try to remember the correct way to address them. This is particularly important when you are giving evidence, as it shows respect.
The opening gambit – and how to deal with this As it is the Local Authority who are making the application to the court, they will speak to the Judge first. This is often a very difficult time for the parents; essentially you have to listen to a barrister list the reasons why they think your child or children should be made subject of a Care Order (or whatever Order is being applied for) and – usually – why they should not live with you anymore.
I can’t dress this one up in any way – it hurts to hear these things. The opening speech from the Local Authority will be quite detailed as they need to very clearly explain their actions. You will inevitably hear things that you don’t agree with, you may hear things you think are lies, or exaggerations and you will probably want to react and respond there and then.
You absolutely must stay calm for the following reasons:
1. Care proceedings are the battle of your life. You have to show strength and resilience that you never knew you had, and you must show it again and again and again. It’s like anything that is emotionally draining – if you do not develop a coping strategy (see below), you will burn out extremely quickly. If you react and respond explosively every time you hear something you don’t agree with, or that hurts, you will burn out extremely quickly. Think marathon, not sprint. The benefit to this is that it will very positively impact upon your parenting because when you learn how to cope in such high-stress, traumatic situations such as these, you also learn not to “sweat the small stuff”.
2. Your actions and reactions are being watched. This element of care proceedings cases really personally frustrates me, because you are under intense, incredible pressure so naturally that’s going to have an impact on you – but you are undoubtedly judged on the way in which you conduct yourself throughout. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. If you react aggressively, or you are emotional to the extreme, it will be used as evidence against you.
Coping strategies These are some of the things I used, and I know of other people using, to have got through this difficult part of the process. One, some or all of these may help you during hearings.
1. Shift your thinking
It is awful to hear bad things about you being said out loud. It is even more awful when they relate to your parenting or your children. It is even more awful when you know you can’t respond, particularly when you’re probably pretty angry with the ones who are saying it.
However. Try to think of it like this… The court is a theatre. The actors are playing to the audience, which is the Judge. There will be some dramatic language used to make their points, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Making an application for a care order, or whatever order they are going for, is taken very seriously by the court, and Local Authorities would be in pretty hot water if they didn’t have a good reason for doing it. So remember that when they are explaining their case, they are also justifying their actions. Don’t forget, there needs to be solid evidence for a Judge to make an Order. His or her head won’t be turned by drama. So, let them have it, let it go. Don’t let what they are saying get to you. Keep this key word in your mind: evidence.
2. Understand your position It is very natural that, when someone says bad things about you and your parenting, you want to prove them wrong in whatever way you can.
However, try to remember this: the Local Authority have their plan, and they will say things that will back up that plan. But, by the same token; you have your plan, and your barrister will say things to back up your plan. This is something that was taught to me by an incredible lady who attended a meeting with me when the Local Authority were saying some terrible things about me. My whole body was itching to respond, but this lady just kept saying quietly to me: “they have their plan, and we have ours”. I can’t tell you how much it helped. So, try to remember that when you are having to listen to these difficult things.
3. Trust your barrister – and if not, change them It takes around six years to qualify as a barrister. That’s a hell of a commitment and a very long time spent learning about the law. As such, your barrister is very well placed to not only advise you, but conduct your case to their best of their ability. Trust them to do this especially when you are hearing very difficult things and you want to object to them, or respond in some way. Write your barrister a note and trust that they will know when is best to raise your points.
Most of the barristers that I have met have been absolutely dedicated to their client – my own most certainly was. They’re also not naive; they know the system is flawed and many of them are trying very hard to change that (organisations such as The Transparency Project, for example).
The two key points to remember are:
a) whilst you instruct them, they are there to advise and help you
b) you are the expert in the subject of your own life, but be mindful that they are the experts in the field of law.
If you’re are not confident about your barrister, discuss this with your solicitor. It might be that they can talk to the barrister about why you are unhappy, or it could be that if the trust is gone, you are able to instruct a new one.
4. Some key strategies:
Remember to control your breathing when times get tough. As I said in my previous post, a good way to do this to to inhale through your nose, pause for a second and blow your breath out of your cheeks. This might sound a bit silly and maybe simple, but under pressure such as this, you’d be amazed at what you forget to do. I couldn’t have told you my name at some points of my proceedings.
Water – obviously! Although, you’d be forgiven for wanting something stronger, quite frankly. Court hearings are very draining, the buildings can be hot and stuffy, and it’s important to keep yourself hydrated. It also provides a useful focus in my experience.
Whilst you cannot eat during a hearing (I wouldn’t advise chewing gum either, out of respect), you must try to eat a little before you go in in the morning, or if you are there all day, during breaks. I was very lucky during my proceedings to have people with me who would remind me to eat, and I will be forever grateful as it fuelled me to keep going physically when emotionally I felt I couldn’t.
Clearly not through the proceedings! But proceedings can mean sleepless nights, understandably. If you’re struggling with sleep try one or more of the following:
i) Sleep App
If you have an iPhone I can recommend: “Digipill” and “Relax Melodies: Sleep zen sounds”
If you have an Android I can recommend:”Relax with Andrew Johnson” (a miracle in my opinion) and “iSleep Easy Meditations Free”
All of the above are free and have far more brilliant advice on them I could ever fit in here.
ii) A good bedtime routine. Whether that’s a bath, a book or a warm drink, think how much better children sleep when they’re in a routine and translate that to yourself.
iii) If all else fails, try Kalms night (here), Rescue Remedy Night (here) or Nytol (here)
As I said above, it’s a very good idea to take a notebook and pen into court to communicate with your barrister. However, it can help some people to take notes during the hearing on what is being said. It can provide a focal point if things get heated or intense, or what you are hearing is particularly painful.
These are some hints and tips that may help you through a hearing. Above all else though, keep in mind why you’re there; your children. The desire to be with them, or keep them with you should be at the forefront of your mind at all times. Remember why you’re fighting – for your family. Remember the bigger picture.
Giving Evidence Lastly, I wanted to give you a few tips on how to give the best evidence you can. I remember very clearly during the Final Hearing of my Proceedings when I first took the witness stand, the Judge turning to me and telling me that this would be the single most important piece of evidence in the whole trial and to try to relax. Thanks Judge (!).
Here are some tips I picked up along the way:
1. Prepare well What’s that saying…”fail to prepare and prepare to fail”..? Well, it’s not a bad sentiment in this case. If you know that you are going to be giving evidence, you need to try and take some time out to think about exactly what it is that you want to get across. Think very carefully about what it is that the LA are saying; what is their argument? And then prepare your defence to that argument. When you have spare moments, think again about the key points in your argument and how you would get them across to the Judge.
2. Before you go into Court Sometimes, when you are under intense amounts of pressure, it can truly affect every part of you, including your memory! So, one thing that I personally found useful was to sit quietly for 20 minutes before I was due to go back into court and give evidence and reread my final statement to court. I asked my barrister and everyone else to leave me alone (in the nicest possible way!) and just sat and absorbed what I had written only a few weeks before. Initially it was like someone else had written it; I couldn’t remember a thing, but the more I read, the more I remembered and the more it made sense. So I would be inclined to do something like this if you can, just to refresh your memory.
3. Ask for advice Your solicitor and barrister have almost certainly been through a parent giving evidence before and will have a good idea of what to expect. In the weeks leading up to you giving evidence, listen to them, ask as many questions as you can and take notes of their answers. If there are particular areas you’re frightened about, or not confident, focus on these as they’ll certainly come up and you need to be as prepared as possible. Lean on your legal team for this part – that’s what they’re paid for.
4. Honesty is the best policy You might be worried about aspects of your case and that if you are asked about them and give an honest answer, you might lose your children.
For example, if your child has suffered harm or neglect and you know deep down you could have done more to protect them against that harm – it is always better to say so. In fact, you might be surprised; it is more likely to go in your favour than against you as it shows you’re willing to take responsibility and you’re able to be honest. I know how difficult it is to do this, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes in my experience, and it’s actually quite liberating in the end.
5. Don’t argue and don’t bitch It is the Local Authority’s (or Children’s Guardian’s) job to put to you difficult questions. Some barristers do that in a careful way and are mindful of not making the process any more unpleasant or upsetting for you…and some barristers just don’t and will ask difficult questions to get a reaction (sorry to my legal followers but we all know it’s true). These barristers will push your buttons and this is your time to rise above it, keep calm and quiet and answer their difficult questions with grace and dignity. Have that as your mindset from the beginning, know that difficult questions will come up and welcome them as an opportunity to show that you are not interested in an argument with anyone, you just want to make your points, that’s all. Try to remember that for the barristers, this is not personal. They are just doing their jobs. So let them do it.
It’s a learning curve, but you could ask your barrister, your solicitor or any of your friends and family to “role-play” with you in the weeks leading up to you giving evidence.
6. Think about the question and stay focused on it When you are asked a question, think about your answer before you open your mouth. Think about exactly what the barrister is asking you, and only answer that question, clearly and concisely. It is likely that whoever has asked you the question will wait after you have finished your answer and simply look at you. This is a tactic used to try to get you to feel awkward and then start talking more and hopefully trip yourself up! It’s not something that’s exclusive to barristers, employers do it when interviewing, the Police are known to do it in interviews, and politicians are subjected to it daily – so don’t take it personally. Answer the question that has been asked of you and no more. This changes the dynamic and puts the ball firmly back in the other person’s court (excuse the pun…).
For example; if someone asks you how old you are, you would answer “21” (if you’re lucky). If a silence follows, you would probably feel awkward wouldn’t you? You would think that asker was perhaps judging you, and it’s human nature to avoid that by filling the silence. However, if you were to keep quiet, the asker would almost certainly start speaking first as they would themselves feel awkward. So, try to remember that!
What are the key points of the LA’s case and how can you answer them?
Reread your final written statement to refresh your memory
Ask your legal team what questions to expect from the LA/CG and practice different ways to answer them
When it comes to it:
– be honest and open
– don’t fill silences, use them to your advantage
– speak slowly and concisely
– when you’re asked a question, pause and think about what you’re about to say before you say it
– stay calm and as relaxed as you can
– don’t argue with anyone and don’t give bitchy answers
– keep your children in mind at all times
I hope this post helps those of you attending court, and perhaps giving evidence. These are simple strategies I myself used to great success. I wish you well with them, and I wish you well with “surviving court”.
After well over three years, my sixth – and hopefully final – set of Proceedings in the Family Court came to an end last week. There were times over the last three years I thought it would never be over, times I thought I simply wouldn’t survive. But I did, and I have, and I hope I can help other parents to survive, too.
As I walked into Court last week, I was reminded of how it felt to attend my first Hearing, that I didn’t know what to expect, where to sit, when to speak, why I wasn’t allowed to respond when the Local Authority said upsetting things about me to the Judge. It was like an alien world where everybody spoke another language and knew the etiquette; I was a stranger in a foreign land.
As such, I wanted to write a “Guide To Surviving Court” to try and give some practical advice to parents who are facing Proceedings and perhaps feeling that same rising panic in their throats as I once felt. I’m splitting this into two parts; the first dealing with the practical issues of attending Court, the second dealing with what actually goes on in front of a Judge. I hope that this may help parents to feel a little less afraid, a little less confused and bewildered, and a little less alone.
Part One – How to Survive Court
Getting the right advice
The first, and possibly most valuable piece of advice I can give parents is to find a good,reputable legal representative. The first starting point I would use would be The Law Society’s “Find a Solicitor” page here – scroll down to Family and relationships in the “Legal Issue” box, input your postcode and up should pop a list of local solicitors. Look for the icon to the right which shows that the solicitor is accredited by the Law Society Children’s Accreditation Scheme. If you struggle with the internet you can also ring the Law Society on 020 7320 5650.
I would always advise you to research your solicitor as much as you can; recommendations, word of mouth and a Google search all help, but most solicitors will be prepared to meet with you for around 30 minutes either face to face, over the telephone, or by email. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to get the right advice. In my own case, after sacking my first legal team, I went out of the area and chose a national firm specialising in Care Proceedings. This turned out to be a very wise move and I’m not sure I would have had the outcome I did otherwise.
NB Often you are represented at Hearings by a barrister and you may not have ever met this person as you will ordinarily deal day-to-day with your solicitor. This can mean that when it comes to the day of the Hearing, you’re not sure who to look for.
The first thing to do in this instance is ask your solicitor to describe the barrister, in advance of the Hearing. If, for whatever reason, your solicitor is unfamiliar with this barrister, there are two options here:
1. Google the name of your barrister as often Chambers ensure up-to-date images of their staff are kept in the public domain. Input (for example) ‘John Smith Barrister Liverpool’, and click on images.
2. Approach the Court Clerks and ask if they know who this person is. As barristers are in and out of Court daily, it is likely someone will be able to point them out.
Plan your journey
Once you’ve found your solicitor, it’s time to prepare for Court. It’s very possible that you’ve never set foot inside a Court building before, you might not even be sure where your Court is. A good place to start is here at the Court and Tribunal Finder. You enter your postcode and your nearest Court(s) are listed.
Once you’ve found your Court, it’s a good idea to plan, in advance, how to get there. If you don’t drive you can try this link – this is Traveline and it’s a journey planner for the UK.You simply input your postcode, the postcode of where you want to travel and the time and date and a complete journey from door-to-door is displayed for you.
What to wear
I’m sure no one needs to be reminded that Court is serious business. Even though it is probable you won’t actually speak to the Judge, he or she will certainly be aware of your presence, so it’s very important to make a good impression. It also helps you mentally, in my experience – if you’re dressed smartly, you hold yourself differently. It might be a small thing, but every little helps.
Men: You don’t need a three-piece suit! Just some smart trousers or chinos, a smart shirt and shoes (not trainers) will help you to hold yourself with confidence.
Women: Dress pants, or a skirt with a smart top work well. Remember to keep necklines high and hemlines low!
It’s very important that you’re comfortable, too. You’re likely to be there for quite some time, so wear something that isn’t going to irritate you. I can’t wear heels myself – I can’t walk in them at all – so whilst I was always very smartly dressed for Court, I would wear flat shoes. It sounds daft, but you need to be completely focused on what’s going on – not that waistband digging in, or your feet bunched into tight shoes. Courts seem often to have their own climate – either freezing or boiling! – so I’d advise you wear layers.
Things to take with you
Support I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have good support around you during the child protection process. Whether you are part of a couple, or a single mum or dad; you will need a strong network of support and this is extremely important when you attend Court.
Unless you are a “Party to Proceedings” (see my Glossary here), you will not be allowed to enter the Courtroom itself, but just having someone with you in the waiting area will help so much. There is an awful lot of ‘waiting around’ during these Hearings; sometimes emergency matters come up that the Judge must deal with first, and it is quite normal for your case to be listed at the same time as two or three others. I’ll be honest with you – the waiting is the worst part.
When considering who could attend with you, think about what you will need. In my experience, you need someone with you who is level-headed, quiet and calm. If you think your mum will end up more stressed than you – leave her at home! What you really need is someone just there to listen, without judgement, and to hold your hand and carry your pain.
Independent advocacy services are – unfortunately – very very rare for this type of situation, but charities such as Families In Care (based in the North-East) and the Family Rights Group (based in London) work immensely hard to support parents faced with the child protection process.
Relevant paperwork Whilst this doesn’t mean that you need to take every document you’ve ever received from the Local Authority, it is a good idea to take anything you think might help your barrister or solicitor. So, if there has been a recent review meeting, or care-team meeting and you have any reports or minutes, do take them along.
It’s a very good idea to purchase a lever-arch file for this purpose. Not only does it keep everything in one place so you can easily find important information, but it also helps you to feel like you’re doing something in the darker days.
The basics As I already mentioned, there is an awful lot of waiting around when you attend Court. For example, at one of my recent Hearings, I arrived at 9.15am, and didn’t leave until 1.30pm – and that’s reasonably normal. The waiting can be very difficult, so I would advise you take some things with you to pass the time. A magazine, a book (or a Kindle), a puzzle book – anything that’s quiet and will focus your mind.
I would definitely advise you take a bottle of water with you, or a cool drink of some sort. Just bear in mind that glass bottles are likely to be taken by security staff as they can’t be taken into the Courtroom.
Some Courts have a small cafe, others just a tea machine – either way make sure you have some change to get yourself a cuppa. It’s amazing how much a hot cup of tea made me feel better during my Proceedings!
I would also advise you take a snack, some fruit, or nuts, a cereal bar, or some chocolate – Court is draining and you need to keep your energy up. Just remember not to eat in the Courtroom itself!
Other things I would always have with me would be tissues, mints, a pen and some paper, some paracetamol and Bach’s Rescue Remedy (click here for more information) which helped me to stay calm. I also always took a small picture of my children with me to remind me to stay strong.
What to expect
These are a few things I wished I’d known ahead of my first few Hearings so I could prepare myself mentally for them:
Security check As you enter the Court building itself, you will need to pass through a security scanner and then a security guard will use a manual scanner too. This can feel a bit uncomfortable but it’s essential to keep everybody safe, and you’ll see yourself that solicitors and barristers have to be scanned, too.
It’s very likely that your bag will be searched as you pass through the security scanner – again everyone has to go through this. If you have anything glass in your bag, like a perfume bottle, it’s likely it will be confiscated until you’re ready to leave Court. You’ll be given a receipt for it though and can pick it up on your way out. Anything that could be potentially used as a weapon will also be taken, and in my experience things like chargers are often taken.
However, if there’s something you have with you you really need, explain this to the security guard who will use their discretion. For example, I used to have to take my hospital-grade breastpump to Court, along with ice packs and a cool bag – I got a few raised eyebrows the first time I took them in, but the security staff allowed me to take them in with me. It actually became a running joke after that!
Waiting… The waiting area in Court is particularly bizarre. There is normally a main waiting area, and then lots of little rooms where barristers and solicitors take their clients ahead of Hearings. In my experience, it is somewhat of a coup to get one of the little rooms – and if you get one, you hold onto it!
If you are in the main waiting area, you will likely hear and see a lot of human emotion. Court is a stressful business – people’s lives are being decided, so don’t be surprised to see people upset. Unfortunately, it is likely you will also hear snippets of conversation from other people cases. This is always uncomfortable, but sometimes can’t be helped.
Try to remember that everyone there is nervous – sometimes even the lawyers! Just keep your head together and focus on your own case and why you’re there. Eyes on the prize, as someone once said to me.
A last (and very important!) note
One of the things I found extremely hard to deal with was when the “Advocates” (which will likely be your barrister or solicitor, the Local Authority’s barrister, the Social Worker, the Children’s Guardian and their barrister) all disappeared off into one of the little rooms together for Pre-Hearing discussions. Very often these people work together every day and so know each other quite well – very often they will therefore have a joke and a chatter before getting down to work. In any sort of work environment this is quite normal, but for a parent, this is incredibly difficult to see. Very often, you are left alone outside of the room, knowing that the Advocates are discussing your child and your life, and there’s nothing you can do.
I know of parents where this has been too much, and they have burst into the room, or caused a fuss demanding to be allowed to sit in and know what is being said. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to keep your cool during times like these as any behaviour like that will go against you. You must try and stay calm and keep your head “in the game”.- Breathing. Focus on your breathing. In through your nose, pause, out through your mouth. Concentrate on the rhythm of your breath and with each breath allow yourself to relax.
– Keep busy. If you have someone with you for support, talk to them. If you’re on your own, read your magazine/book, or find something on your phone to keep you occupied – I used to play solitaire over and over (I was very bad at it) as it was mind-numbing.
– If it gets too much, get up and walk. Stretch your legs, walk from one end of the waiting area to the next. Count how many steps it takes you.
Another trick is to count back from 100 in sevens. I’m not quite sure how that helps, but I used it and it worked for me. Start with 100, minus seven to get 93, and then minus another seven and so on.
Another trick is to make words from a word you spot. So, say you spot the word “Building”, see what words you can make from it (bud, lid, nil etc)
If you smoke, go and have one. Or five, go and have five. I’m not a smoker (I actually quit during my newborn’s Proceedings believe it or not!), and I obviously don’t normally advocate smoking, but this is not a normal situation. Do whatever you have to do to get you through, within reason. If that’s five Malboro in a row, so be it.
Keep calm, and remember why you’re there. Keep your children in mind all of the time. You can do this, you will get through this. This too will pass.
I hope this helps some parents to prepare in their own way for Court. Part Two of this Post will deal with what to expect in front of the Judge, and how best to get through an actual Hearing, including some advice on how to give evidence.
The Proceedings are over. Like me, you’ve survived. Either the Local Authority have agreed to rehabilitation home, or you endured a Final Hearing, fought your guts out and won your case. Either way, the child you’ve been fighting for comes home.
Unfortunately, this is the part that no one tells you about.
Around 2012/13 – when Baby B was taken – the chances of having a young child (or a newborn baby) that had been removed from a parent’s care, placed for non-consensual adoption seemed to be getting higher and higher. Newspapers were full of statistics that showed more children were being adopted, rather than left to “languish” in the system. Most people agreed; no one wants to see children left in foster care and so this was a good thing. Except, of course, if you were a birth parent. From a birth parent’s point of view, if you were in public law proceedings, it didn’t bode well.
However, in June 2013 an appeal case came before the Supreme Court regarding a child who had been removed on a “future risk of emotional harm”. This case, commonly known as re B raised questions about what is meant by future emotional harm, and whether a future risk provides a justification for non-consensual adoption. Unfortunately, the case itself was lost by the parents, but what came out of the case was this:
“Orders contemplating non-consensual adoption are a ‘very extreme thing, a last resort, only to be made where nothing else will do, where no other course is possible in the child’s interests, they are the most extreme option, a last resort – when all else fails, to be made only in exceptional circumstances and motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short where nothing else will do”
[re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria) [2013 UKSC 33] Paragraphs 74,76,77,82,104,130,135,145,198,215]
(Source: Child Protection Resource)
In July 2013, there came another case on appeal, commonly known as re B-S. This case gave a very clear message to Local Authorities and Guardians that there must be evidence of clear and reasoned analysis of all of the realistic placement options:
“Adoption is the ‘last resort’. The starting point must be consideration of the law around Article 8 of the European Convention and the fact that this imposes a positive obligation upon States to try to keep families together. The least interventionist approach is to be preferred. The child’s interests are paramount, but the court must never lost sight of the fact that these interests include being brought up by his/her natural family. There must be proper evidence from the LA and the Guardian that addresses all options which are realistically possible and must contain an analysis of the arguments for and against each option. The court then ‘must’ consider all available realistic options when coming to a decision. The court’s assessment of the parents’ capacity to care for the child should include consideration of what support was available to help them do so. The LA cannot press for a more drastic form of order because it is unable or unwilling to support a less interventionist form of order; it is their obligation to make the court order work.
[re B-S (Children)  EWCA Civ 1146 Paragraphs 22, 18, 23, 26, 34, 27, 44, 28, 29]
(Source: Child Protection Resource)
During my case, even as a lay-person, reading about Re BS on a family law blog I had discovered aptly named “suesspiciousminds”, I understood the significance of it. In fact, after submitting their Final Evidence, the Judge in our case told the LA to “go away and do it again”, as they had failed to explore all of the realistic placement options, nor had they performed a balancing exercise on the pros and cons of each. I remember sitting in that Hearing thinking that I was literally watching the law in action. Were the stakes not quite so high, I would have been fascinated! I can tell you for certain that Re BS was key in my mind when I wrote my final Statement to Court, and I’m sure that it had an impact on Baby B’s return home.
These two cases (and a few before and after!), have certainly changed the state of play somewhat. As a result, more parents are beginning to see their children returned home. More families are reunited, more families given the support they both need and deserve for their children to be raised safely. I think most people would agree; this is a good thing. No one wants to see children forcibly adopted if it can be safe for them to remain within their birth families.
But what happens when your child comes home? The child you fought for…the “subject” of six months of Court hearings, meetings, reviews…a case number…the child you have seen only in a Contact Centre, watched over by a Local Authority Contact Supervisor, for maybe 2 hours three times a week…your child is now asleep upstairs in the bed that remained empty whilst you fought, in the bedroom you couldn’t bear to go into. It’s over. How do you even begin to process that?
I can only tell you from my point of view, and the simplest answer is…you don’t. You just don’t, in the first instance.
Ordinarily, a child will come home either under a Supervision Order (see my Glossary), or at the very least with some sort of Social Work involvement. I don’t think I know of anyone who has “escaped” at least a period of monitoring – which I suppose is both fair enough and to be expected. So, you will most likely spend a good 3-6 months in a permanent state of utter terror that “they” will come and take your child again.
You become Mary Poppins – everything in your day and your life becomes about your child and you do it all with a big jazz-handed-Julie-Andrews-smile on your chops. You know what you’ve been through, and you then assume that your child has seen and felt that same trauma and horror, and so leaving them – even to go to the toilet – becomes an exercise in guilt in case they feel abandoned again. You babywear, you co-sleep, you never get a second to yourself. You become hyper-vigilant and panic over every bruise, scratch or fall your child has in case you have to go to the GP, or the hospital.. 18 months on for us and still every time Baby falls over (which, as a toddler, is a lot), I have a second of utter terror. When you go to baby clinic, or toddler groups, or the school yard you feel every eye on you and you think everyone knows. You panic when strangers admire your child in case they ask you a question about your child you don’t know the answer to. You second-guess yourself; your confidence as a parent is likely to be in the toilet after you’ve had a whole authority tell you you’re not good enough. You don’t feel able to make a decision about your child. The baby that they take is never the toddler that returns.
This is trauma. This is what no one talks about.
Because it should be rainbows and glitter and those jazz hands again shouldn’t it? Come on now – this is what you wanted, what you fought for! He/she’s home now…it’s over.
Except it isn’t. And it won’t be for quite some time.
The biggest and best advice I can give you? Don’t ever work towards “getting over it”, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you either to, or that “one day” you will. You will never “get over” this. Instead, work through your feelings towards acceptance. That’s all. Accept that this happened to you, your child, your family. Don’t fight it, you can’t change what’s passed.
The best way to work through anything is to talk. I would strongly advise counselling to anyone having gone through this. Go and talk to your GP and ask for a referral to your practice counsellor – it’s free (although there is often a waiting list). If you have the financial means, look up local counsellors. A great resource for this is the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy). They have this page in which you can find a local, accredited counsellor. They’re there to help you and it is entirely understandable you will need support.
On that note – support – although at first you may be scared, and it might take you a little while to feel confident enough, I would advise seeking as much support as you can around parenting. The remaining SureStart centres can be found here, many of them offer “stay and play” sessions (which will benefit both of you, enormously), and lots of activities for families to do together. They also have training courses, and many offer the free nursery places for 2 and 3 year olds (for more information on free nursery places, click here). Whether this is your first, or fourteenth child – we’re all learning all of the time.
If your child is of school age when they come home to you, I would strongly advise fostering a good relationship with their school. Often, schools are a wonderful source of support for both parent and child – our schools have bent over backwards to help us over the years. It is likely the school will identify a “learning mentor” for your child – someone your child will get a bit of extra support from. This person will understand that you have been through trauma as a family and the more that you keep an open dialogue going with them, the better placed they are to be able to help you and your child. If your school doesn’t offer anything like that, I would advise you to be proactive and meet with the Head to ask for this provision. Shy bairns get nowt, as they say up North.
Don’t push people away. Keep your family and your friends close to you. You might be sick of the sight of each other as they have no doubt supported you wholeheartedly through your proceedings – but keep the communication going. One of the only useful things my birth mother taught me was “no man is an island”, and this is true here. Don’t isolate yourself. No, the majority of people won’t understand (and to be honest unless you’ve been through this first hand you cannot hope to), but that doesn’t negate their advice, support, kindness and care. Some of my friends absolutely held me together in those early days of baby B’s return, often just with kindness, normally in the form of tea.
Finally, give yourselves time. Time to adjust as a family, time to reconnect, time to bond again. There will be tears, there will be anger, there will be frustration…it isn’t all rainbows. But, just now and then, you will find one peeking out from behind a cloud. And on those days, hang on to it and know that, in time, everything will be ok.