Sunday 5 June 2011

The Care System Scandal

At half past 10 one night, the week before last, several cars drew up outside a family home “somewhere in southern England”. A 12-year-old girl was asleep in bed upstairs. Earlier in the day, she had been fetched home from school because she was ill. Also in the house were her disabled father and her two brothers, in their twenties. One of them, I am told, recorded the events on video as the house filled with eight policemen, helping two social workers to drag the girl to a car. She was crying and protesting, “What have I done wrong?”

She had grabbed her mobile phone, but it was confiscated from her as she was handed over to a council foster-carer. Being a resourceful girl, she managed to smuggle two handwritten notes to her family over the next few days, saying that she was constantly crying at being “taken from my dad and my brothers, the only family I know and I love since I was born”. “I feel like I get punished for something I haven’t done, as I feel they are treating me like a prisoner.” She also briefly managed to get to a phone, to claim – her remarks were recorded – that she had been hit by her African foster-carer (the girl is white).

What made this truly bizarre was that it had never been alleged that the girl was in any danger at home. Social workers had only become involved with the family when she was maltreated by her mother, who left the house two years ago. Since then, social workers have maintained contact to confirm that she was being well cared for. They repeatedly told her, in her own words, that “my dad was a good dad, that my brothers looked after me properly and that I was not going to be removed from my family”.

Only a few days before she was snatched, the family had agreed to a care plan whereby the social workers would continue to keep an eye on her while she remained at home. But everything suddenly seemed to change after the father sent a confidential note to one of the social workers, making comments critical of the judge in the case. The note was apparently shown to the judge, and the following day the child was seized.

We have heard much recently, from judges and others, about human rights, notably Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, guaranteeing the right to privacy and to enjoy family life – free not least from interference by the state. It was under this right, for instance, that one judge released a burglar from prison to look after his family, while others granted super-injunctions to celebrities caught out in sexual misbehaviour.

The great black hole at the centre of the edifice of humbug built around Article 8 is the quite astonishing way in which judges and others involved in our peculiar “family protection” system too often manage wholly to disregard the human rights of children. No one can object where agents of the state intervene when children are genuinely in danger. But children may be snatched, far too readily, from loving homes, to be imprisoned in a “care system” where they are not only miserable and confused but are too often truly abused. The taking of children into care has soared in recent months to record levels. Meanwhile, ChildLine reports that the numbers – in their thousands – who annually complain of abuse in local authority care has risen in recent years by 32 per cent. In the dozens of cases I have been following, it is a story I have heard again and again.

The way such children are treated makes a mockery not just of the 1989 Children Act, which states that the interests of the child must be paramount, but also of the Human Rights Act. If the story told by this girl is as true as the evidence that I have seen and heard suggests it is, it might be argued that her rights have been infringed not just under Article 8, but Articles 3, 5, 6 and 7 as well. She ends one of her heart-rending letters pleading to be “represented in court by a solicitor of my choice”. “I strongly wish for the judge to respect my human rights, and to be present in court [for him] to hear my wishes.” But will the judge who placed her in this plight allow her that right (as enshrined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)? And should this man alone have the right to decide whether her rights are to be respected?

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