The Unverifiable Truth

Another article from Camilla Cavendish at The Times today about Family Justice. And again more heart rending tales of injustice which are completely unverifiable. She writes of Ann who was accused by her violent ex husband of having Munchausens by proxy (Fabricated or induced illness) – on the basis of her account it seems a terrible wrong has been done to Ann and her family in the removal of their children on the basis of false allegations. But in order to conclude that this is so (as Camilla Cavendish has done) one must assume firstly that Ann did not suffer from FII – the tenor of the article tends to suggest that the Munchausen’s allegation is self-evidently untrue because it was initially made by a violent ex-partner.

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I don’t know what the true facts are – and in point of fact neither does Camilla Cavendish. And although this unverifiability is itself one of the points the article is seeking to highlight – is it responsible journalism when emotive stories of this kind are presented as factual reporting when the sole source of information is the individual most likely to see things in a highly subjective way – the parent whose child has been removed against their wishes?

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On a more general level I recognise many of the accounts contained in this article as very similar to cases I have dealt with – Cavendish is right that often victims of domestic violence find their ex-partners attempting (successfully) to maintain their control over them through court proceedings. (As an aside I am however amazed to read of a Judge ordering disclosure of the address of a refuge to a father – it is commonplace for women to withold the child’s address from the abusive ex but for the court to keep a confidential record of that address on the court file not to be disclosed to the abusive parent. This is usually so even though allegations of violence are unproven. Given that the refuge were almost certainly not directly invovled in the the court proceedings I think it is more likely that there has been an element of misreporting down the chain here and that in fact court staff have wrongly disclosed an address held in this way than that a Judge directly ordered that disclosure.)

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I agree that the ongoing controlling or abusive behaviour of ex-partners through court proceedings or contact can be very difficult for victims of abusive relationships to deal with, and it can make them unwell or can make an already difficult fresh start even more so – but how can Camilla Cavendish justify her sweeping assertion at the conclusion of her article that ‘too often, power seems to tip the wrong way. The abusive partner gets custody. The innocent new father loses his child…’ Whilst one case of injustice is one too many, the clear insinuation is that these cases occur with frequency. And although that could be correct I do not think that there is an evidential basis for asserting this in the national press. It may be frustrating for a journalist not to be able to get behind the inital report by a parent and to fully establish the veracity of an account, but hey, that’s journalism and its the way things are at the moment. Cavendish is shortlisted for an award for Campaigning Journalism: I’m not a journalist myself, but it seems to me that her key campaigning tactic in demonstrating the need for an opening up of the family justice system is the reporting uncorroborated and contentious information that would not be considered sufficiently robust under normal journalistic standards.

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I say this primarily because I would guess that the overwhelming majority of parents who have had their children removed by the courts or social services (to the other parent or to care) will consider that decision to have been wrong and unjust. Some of them I am sure will be rightly aggrieved. However it is sadly the case that many of them will be in denial, unable to see or to accept the whole picture. Examples of the ‘right’ decision being made are going to appear few and far between to Ms Cavendish when the only source of stories is a group of people who are very naturally going to feel deeply wronged regardless of the reality. And the more aggrieved a parent is the more likely they are to gravitate towards a journalist campaigning for family justice. It is Tim Yeo MP’s duty to his consituents to give them the benefit of the doubt when trying to assist them in that role, but a journalist’s responsibility is to the pursuit of truth. 

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There ARE cases where real injustice is done. They should be exposed and righted. But not in this manner. The premise behind The Times Family Justice Campaign for greater openness is valid. However I find it increasingly troublesome that the fact that journalists can’t get access to the information at present somehow translates into carte blanche to print any account of injustice that comes their way. The repeated appearance of uncorroborated hearsay in the press in this way in unhelpful and I think it erodes the public’s confidence in the Family Justice system. It is corrosive and it contributes to a deep distrust and suspicion of the authorities which is damaging for everyone involved in court cases, particularly care cases (including the children). It often contributes to a parent’s inability to work constructively with professionals (which can be their downfall in care cases).

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The sooner that the Family Justice System is opened up for scrutiny the better – whilst I do not expect the press to be interested in reporting the cases where things actually work as they ought, at least the press will be provided with the information resources to do a proper and balanced reporting job, and will no longer have an excuse for printing potentially misleading information about matters of public interest.

POSTSCRIPT 6 NOV:

Camilla Cavendish has been announced as the joint winner of the Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism. See here. According to one of the Judges: ‘There is a frighteningly strong lobby against openness. It includes lawyers, judges, doctors and charity workers who seem to genuinely believe that protecting inadequate public servants from scrutiny is somehow in the best interests of children’. I’m not sure that such a sweeping misrepresentation of the motivation of the many professionals involved in child protection work deserves any substantive response.

2 thoughts on “The Unverifiable Truth

  1. family law custody

    family law custody…

    Good post. I am looking into these issues on my blog….

  2. […] accurate then don’t say nothin’ at all” (I’ve posted on this before, one example here). As for the article in The Mail, if it had not been so comprehensively covered by Nearly Legal and […]

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