Every so often a video is circulated on Facebook or Twitter that shows the distressing removal of a child from its parents by police or social workers. Yesterday was one such day.
The video in question came with no context to speak of, though it was clear the mother from whom the child was removed alleged abuse by an ex partner which it appeared had not been accepted by the court that ordered the removal. There is no judgment, nor really any narrative (probably just as well as that might have breached privacy rules). I don’t know if the child was removed because of her refusal to allow contact to the ex, or if there was some other unconnected reason that the court thought her child had to be removed. I don’t know if this mother and child were the victims of a miscarriage of justice, or whether allegations were made that could not be proved or were proved false. I don’t know why this child was removed or what the risks were. Maybe it was a necessary decision and maybe not. I don’t know if an appeal has been pursued or is pending.
What I do now know however – as a result of this mother’s action – is the name of the child, the local authority involved, the region the child lived in, and what she looks like. People in her local community may know her or may recognise the adults. They may know who her other parent or the ex partner is and think (rightly or wrongly) that this person is domestically abusive. They may confront the person now caring for her with the approval of the court, causing her distress and disruption.
Maybe this child should never have been taken, and maybe she needs desperately to be returned home. But if that is the case this video doesn’t evidence it. And nor will it help this mother to make her case. What it might do is reduce the chances of her being able to progress her contact, or to see her child unsupervised. it might get her into difficulty with the court because of breaches of the privacy rules that attach to court cases about children.
I understand why an increasing number of parents turn to social media to vent, to seek support and to campaign about the injustices they feel they have experienced, I understand on a human level why this seems like a good idea to those in pain and desperation, especially where trust in the system has broken down. But I worry these parents will only be making things harder for themselves and their children in the long run. Judges do not overturn their decisions (and nor do appeal courts overturn those of lower judges) because of a video being shared on social media. They overturn decisions or change orders for two reasons : somebody demonstrates using evidence and law through the proper channels that the decision was wrong in the first place, or something changes that means a decision that was right at the time needs to be updated. Campaigns like this serve two entirely different purposes : they make people in pain feel better (at least in the short term), and they might (in rare cases) bring about a change for future cases (but probably not in a way that will help the specific parent or child in question).
It’s important to say that such videos are always upsetting to watch. Removals are always difficult, whether they are necessary and skilfully handled, or unjustified and botched. Children love and are attached to their parents, even those whose parents are sometimes frightening, neglectful or abusive. Even abused children cry when they are taken away by strangers and when they see the distress of their parent. And of course sometimes children have to be taken temporarily away from a parent for their own protection whilst an investigation is carried out – and it may later be shown that the parent has never harmed the child at all.
I do watch these videos from time to time, because I think it’s important to be in touch with the reality and consequences of a court order on a piece of paper, of what happens outside the courtroom. And because if removals are being carried out inappropriately, well I just want to know.
It’s in the nature of this sort of event that people only switch on their phone to record part way through, or only circulate a clip of the most distressing part of a removal. It is very difficult to tell whether what has gone before has contributed to the distress we see playing out – and that might be inappropriate remarks or behaviour by the taking professionals, or things said by a parent which have the intent or effect of increasing the emotional temperature and turning a removal into a standoff, or which give a very clear signal to the child. Such signals to a younger child might simply make them fearful and audibly upset, and in an older child might prompt acting our or active resistance. Some children are taught by their parents from early on to fear social workers and police. Sometimes a situation becomes drawn out and upsetting and an impasse develops and those responsible for taking the child elsewhere have to take steps to bring the situation to an end safely, if not happily. Those of us watching the clips later have no idea of the risks that the social workers or police officers are trying to protect the child from. How do we weigh the wrongness of those immediate heart wrenching cries and wails against an unknown risk of harm? When people hold pre-existing doubts about social workers, about the family courts or about the justice system generally, the answer can seem – in the moment – obvious. But whatever the failures of courts and social workers are, it is undoubtedly true that some parents harm their children, and some of those children desperately need to be taken somewhere safe. How do we know whether this is one of those situations?
I’ve been working in this field for sixteen years, sometimes representing parents and sometimes children and sometimes social services. Some attempts at removal seem justified, some over zealous. Some are allowed, whilst others are rejected or avoided when we put a Plan B in place. In those sixteen years I have read about and heard about interventions by social workers and police which have been badly handled, bullying and cack handed, but I have also represented clients who are able to appreciate that if their child is going to be removed they are the person who can make that manageable for the child by packing their favourite things, by saying goodbye calmly and by reassuring them. Those parents are brave indeed. I should also say that whilst I have met social workers who have given real thought to how a removal should be best achieved to minimise the upset for all concerned, it is probably fair to say that often the focus is (necessarily) on whether or not the court will permit removal, which then takes place in a rushed way at the end of a court / school day with limited time for packing, planning, calming. I’ve also spoken to social workers distraught by the reality of their first removal. It is not a job that they relish even if they hold a strong view that the safety of a child makes it necessary. I don’t think either social workers or police officers get sufficient training in this area, and suspect that often the drive to get in and get out without compromising the physical safety of anyone involved overrides more subtle considerations.
Those of us who are parents also know that a child’s distress in the moment can be viscerally upsetting and extreme – but over in five minutes. Any parent who has done those difficult nursery drop offs or contact handovers knows that transition can be upsetting for little ones and it is so, so hard to leave them and to let them go because it feels so cruel. I don’t underplay the very real distress and harm that removal itself can cause, but it is perhaps sensible not to over interpret tears and crying at the point of removal.
So, for all sorts of reasons, when we see these videos on the internet there is huge potential for misunderstanding, outrage and harm.
What has upset me most about this particular video being shared is not the mother’s (unwise but understandable) decision to publish it – but the decision by a prominent public figure involved in the justice system to retweet it, apparently without any investigation of the background facts or the status of any proceedings (and thus the applicable law) on the basis it ‘looks like an example’ of how courts ‘collude’ with abusers. This person’s click has validated the mother’s tweet and emboldened far more people to distribute it more widely. If this mother, who has enough pressure upon her already, has inadvertently (or even knowingly) broken privacy rules and laws, this public figure has made the consequences of her error that much worse. Because the breach of privacy involved is now far more extensive – and it is far more likely that the named local authority will become aware of this emerging campaign and take action to prevent wider dissemination and protect the child and carer from unwanted attention from the public or media. I can tell you for sure that no lawyer representing a parent seeking more or unsupervised contact with their removed child wants this as a backdrop to their application.
It’s also worth saying that the unnamed ‘abuser’ in the background here might be a very nasty piece of work who represents an ongoing risk to the child (which for some reason the family court hasn’t appreciated), OR they might themselves be a victim of inaccurate or false reports of their behaviour and personality. That person might now be very worried about how to protect themselves and the child in their care.
Whether this public figure was motivated by a wish to help this particular mother or by a wish to use her case as a springboard for reform around the wider issue of how the Family Court deals with domestic abuse (both legitimate aims), she would have been far better able to advance those causes had she first checked out the case and the restrictions that might apply to it in private – and thought a little bit about whether it was helpful to circulate a video of an identifiable child, who is on any basis caught up in some sort of conflict and potentially a victim of either domestic or emotional abuse. For any person whose role centres around victims (as this person’s does), it seems a good idea to think about who the victims really are before hitting that button.
Whilst I don’t know enough about the case to know which particular provisions apply to the publication of information about this child, it is worth saying that retweets of the original video or accompanying messages are potentially a contempt of court or a criminal offence. Something that most people seem oblivious to or don’t care much about. Whoever the real victims are here (and the child is obviously one of them), promoting trial by social media is not a reliable way of protecting them.
For obvious reasons I’m not naming or linking to anyone involved in this. The prominent person who retweeted the video has not responded to queries as to their prior research, and at the time of writing the video and the retweet remain. The mother has blocked me, but I hope very much she gets some legal advice. If something has gone wrong here (and even if it hasn’t) she needs some advice to help her think through her realistic options.
LEGAL FOOTNOTE :
I’m not able to accept any comments that attempt to argue or advance the specific facts of this case or identify those involved.