"You can take this child away from me, but I'll have a baby every year until you let me keep one," a mother shouted recently at a district judge, Nicholas Crichton, as she stormed out of his courtroom. The threat was serious, as Crichton knew only too well - he is the only full-time judge at the specialist family court and it is his job to grant local authority requests to take children into care, and to do so as often as is necessary.Wouldn't it be cheaper to...
"It is perfectly usual in the Inner London Family Proceedings court to remove the fourth, fifth and sixth children from their mothers," he said. "Those women become pregnant again and again, with each child following their sibling into the care of social services. It's not unheard of for me to remove the eighth or the 10th child from their parents. In one case, I removed the 14th. I have a colleague who has removed the 15th."
No, I'd best not:
Such numbers might stretch the credulity of those unfamiliar with the world in which the family courts operate, but Crichton finds them grindingly repetitive. In his 15 years at the helm of the central London court, these scenarios have become depressingly familiar. As has their explanation.Damaged children breeding damaged children. Oh, what the permissive society and the abolition of shame hath wrought...
"These multiple cases of removal are usually the result of a mother with a drink or a drug problem, or both," he said. According to government-funded research, 70% of children come before the family proceedings courts because their parent - almost always a lone mother, herself damaged by a traumatic childhood - has a serious problem with drugs or alcohol, or both. Crichton, however, puts the figure in his courtroom higher, at 80% or 90%.
Crichton believes families with drug and alcohol addictions have problems so complex that courts in England and Wales are unable to give them the help they need. "Courts simply take the children away, tell mothers to find a treatment centre and come back when they have been rehabilitated," he said. "This doesn't work because these parents don't have just an addiction problem, they have a whole raft of issues, from housing to domestic violence, learning disabilities and mental health, and so on.All of which, up to now, have been tackled (or not) individually, by seperate sections of the huge state juggernaut.
Crichton set himself the task of finding the solution. After meeting a judge from the drug dependency court in San Jose, California, he hit upon what he believed was the answer: the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, an entirely new court system dealing solely with families suffering addiction problems.Which sounds pretty expensive and specialised.
Until you consider the alternative:
The concept of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court is deceptively simple, yet culturally ground-breaking: instead of sending families off to seek help, the support and services are brought to them. Action is swift and tightly co-ordinated. Westminster, Camden and Islington social services refer a proportion of their most vulnerable families to the court. That same day, the mother - and, very occasionally, the father too - meets the specialist court team and starts drawing up the programme they must follow if they are to keep - or win back - their child.So, no more passing 'clients' from pillar to post, with no department ever liaising or talking to the other.
It sounds promising. But it doesn't sound like the quick fix so beloved of politicians:
In the 17 months it has been up and running, the court has had only three graduates. Although it hopes for 10 more by the end of the year, including one mother who had previously lost six children to the care system but has bonded with her seventh, Crichton admits the figure might surprise some.So, not everything in the garden is rosy.
This, however, is potentially even more worrying:
Held in a simple room with desks set in a horseshoe, two dozen people can crowd into it for early hearings, including court officials, the legal representatives of each parent and each child, and the local authority team.Hmmm.
As the hearings progress, however, the judge encourages the parent and social workers to appear unrepresented. "It's astounding how those parents will engage with us when lawyers are not present," said Crichton. "Initially inarticulate people become very eloquent and open about what help and support they need to make the necessary changes to their lives."
Not sure I like the sound of that…