Child protection is a fine tightrope and the consequences of getting it wrong are horrific. Panorama shown on Monday night looked at whether faulty medical evidence associated with bone fractures in infants had resulted in parents being wrongly accused of abuse. It was clear that some had, with devastating results. It was utterly heart-breaking to watch.
It is a story that should be told, especially in the context of the secrecy of the family courts. Parents expressed their experience of feeling bull-dozed by the system, kept in the dark over crucial evidence and silenced. There has been a campaign to open up the family court to more scrutiny so that justice where families and children are concerned is done in public. With the right safeguards in place, this is the right way to go.
The problem with secrecy and silencing is it creates a vacuum which gets filled with conspiracy theories (fools rush in) and sloppy and sensationalist reporting. Miscarriages of justice, without proper public scrutiny and opportunity to learn lessons are translated into frightening fantasies about baby-snatching social workers. An environment of mistrust and hate develops and before you know it we are all in a state of panic: good (parent) is pitched against evil (social worker). Parents are given terrible advice (‘leave the country’). The bests interests of children are not served.
Opening up the family courts to more scrutiny will take bravery and care. In return we must come to a more thoughtful and less simplistic understanding of a complex subject. Social Services may have to find more courage to defend their decisions, the media will have to give them the right to reply, medical experts may have to exercise a little more humility and the public and the media will definitely have to ready themselves to face some uncomfortable truths.
My own experience is this. I am an adopter. Our children were abused and neglected in a way which is not pleasant to read about in a newspaper. Their birth family were given many, many opportunities to improve and did not. The children stayed in their care for too long. The court process took too long. The consequences for the children have been devastating and will be life-long. There were no doubts over the medical evidence and social workers acted professionally and as quickly as they were able to. Birth family members professed their innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Justice in the true sense of the word was not done but our children were found a place of safety, by the state. Child protection is by it’s very nature imperfect, messy and complicated.
This is not an experience which fits the moment or suits the conspiracy theorists but it’s one which will have to be faced, just like the miscarriages of justice, when the family courts are opened up.
Panorama was right to highlight the issues it did but it was annoyingly sloppy and sensational in parts. It blamed social workers for what was faulty medical evidence and it suggested that miscarriages of justice were associated with panic surrounding the deaths of children such as Daniel Pelka and Peter Connelly. It also failed to robustly question advice given by a Member of Parliament that families who believe themselves to be wrongly accused take their child overseas, out of the reach of social services. Some people abuse their children and lie about it . And that’s an uncomfortable truth too.