Parents 'should go abroad to avoid family courts'

  • Published
Amy Howell's son Harrison
Image caption,
Amy Howell's son Harrison was taken away from her when he was six weeks old

Parents suspected of child abuse should flee the country rather than face justice in the family courts, one MP has told BBC Panorama.

Liberal Democrat John Hemming, chairman of the Justice for Families campaign group, said parents should "go abroad", if it is legal.

But the courts advisory service, Cafcass, said going abroad did not solve the problem for most parents.

The government said family justice reform was a "critical priority".

In 2012, local authorities made a record 10,218 applications to take children away from parents.

This figure was 11% higher than in 2010-11 and 61.6% higher than in 2007-08, according to Cafcass, which said applications had been rising since the case of Baby P in 2008.

In some high profile cases where children died, local authorities were criticised for not acting quickly enough and for believing what they had been told by parents.

Large resources

But John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, said the system had become unfair to parents. He has been contacted by hundreds of parents suspected of harming their children who are going through the family courts.

He said the process was so unfair that parents should leave the country to avoid social services and the courts.

"All the cards are held by the local authority. It has large resources to fight the cases - it does all the assessments," he said.

"My advice to people - if they can afford it - is just to go abroad. You can't get a fair trial here, because you can't rely on the evidence being fair.

"It's best simply to go if you can, at the right time, lawfully."

But Cafcass, the organisation that looks after the interests of children in the family courts, said the rise in care applications meant that more children were being protected.

"We can't play poker with children's safety, we've got to have a system that plays it safe to begin with," said chief executive Anthony Douglas.

"I do think we have a responsibility to make our family courts better, to make them more transparent, to build public confidence in them.

"To advocate leaving altogether doesn't solve the problem for the vast majority of children and parents who need our courts to be as good as they possibly can be."

Multiple fractures

When the child protection system makes a mistake it can have devastating effects for the family involved.

Amy Howell, from Bristol, took her six-week-old baby boy, Harrison, to hospital because he was unwell in February 2008.

Image caption,
Amy Howell said local authorities need to be aware that bone conditions like her son's can go unnoticed

X-rays taken to assess him showed he had multiple fractures that Amy could not explain.

Blood tests showed Harrison had severe vitamin D deficiency, a condition that can lead to rickets and weaker bones.

But medical experts said the fractures were evidence of abuse and Harrison and his older sister were taken into care.

The children were placed with Amy's mother, but Harrison continued to be unwell.

The court eventually allowed Amy to appoint an alternative expert, a professor of genetics, who discovered that the family had an unusual history of broken bones and fractures.

Harrison was treated for rickets and a genetic bone disorder. The professor convinced the court and 18 months after they were taken away, Amy got her children back.

"We weren't even aware it was going to happen," said Amy. "I phoned social services and they dropped in, 'Oh, by the way, I suppose we better tell you that we're actually going to drop the case against you'.

Critical priority

"I sort of fell to the floor and everyone stared at me. I just sat there crying with the phone in my hand.

"Obviously things do happen, people do abuse their children, and I'm not denying that, but at the same time they need to be being vigilant because these conditions can go unnoticed."

South Gloucestershire Council said: "We have a duty to ensure that children are safeguarded until the circumstances are clear. The children in this case were always in the care of their family.

"We regret the distress this investigation caused to the family, but we do not enter into this sort of action lightly and we do so on the basis of the evidence we have."

Family Justice Minister Lord McNally said the reform of family justice and child protection was a "critical priority" for the government.

"We are changing the system so there are new standards for expert witnesses, more effective court processes and more efficient provision of advice for families.

"We have also been clear that there needs to be more openness in the family courts."

Panorama: I Want My Baby Back, BBC One, Monday 13 January at 21:00 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.