An Intractable Conflict?

I’m despondent. Not because of my recent first hand experience of cyber nastiness, but because the prospects of having any real debate, and of finding new ways to improve the lot of children and parents caught up in the family justice system are receding ever further into the distance. Or so it seems. There are moments when it seems as if we are communicating, learning, listening. But they always seem to be fleeting. And almost in the same breath that something sensible is said somebody gets ornery.


i hate you cake, thanks to kayepants

i hate you cake, thanks to kayepants

There is a lot wrong with the system, notwithstanding the efforts of those who work within it to make the best of limited resources in the face of hostility from government, press and large chunks of the public. It is right that the system should be criticized and it is right that those within the system should hear that criticism. We can learn from it.


But we can’t do that by shouting at one another and by engaging in endless circular “discussions” about how “I’m right” and “you’re wrong”. That’s a waste of everyone’s energy and a source of yet more frustration – for practitioners who feel under fire, and for fathers (and mothers) who feel they have been ignored and done over by a failing system.


No, what we NEED is dialogue, not a playing out of competing cases in adversarial style. It’s like an intractable contact dispute. Neither side really wants to engage. It’s all about their issues and not a lot about seeing it from the perspective of the other. It’s all about blaming the mendacious, malicious other side. Neither can conceive that the other could be motivated by anything but selfishness. Sound familiar?


And so. There are two separate conversations going on – the one amongst professionals: how can we make things work better, cut delay, focus on the needs of children, divert cases from court etc? And the one amongst the disgruntled public, mainly fathers: how can we make them listen? How can we expose the system for what it is?


But actually, what we desperately need is to pool our knowledge, skill and experience.


The blame does not lie with one side. It lies with both.

The professionals for their part largely pretend that the other conversation is not happening – avoid fathers rights groups and members at all costs: “Don’t engage, it’s pointless, dangerous even”. They pretend that the public debate about the injustice in the secret family courts is not raging across the internet. “Don’t read the rants. They are deluding themselves and nobody is really listening”. But it is out there, and it is massive and it is corroding public confidence in the justice system, and not just on the margins either. And this is happening because we let it. Because we do not redress the balance by telling our own story. Because we do not challenge the obvious fallacies and false logic. Because we do not listen to the voice of the activist and of the disillusioned for long enough to try to sift out the grains of truth in the badly expressed complaints. There is a sort of prejudice against those who aggressively pursue their points outside the established legal pathways, a prejudice that allows us to consign them all to the “loony” category.


And the critics, who wage their campaigns on facebook and blogs and by direct action? They are also to blame. For expecting their viewpoint to be accepted without question and for seeing conspiracy in everything. Good points obscured, opportunities to change minds wasted by point scoring, personal attacks and a poor use of evidence. Too much anti-lawyer, anti-female prejudice. And a lack of realism about what can be achieved with limited resources and a tide of new cases and an upsurge in family breakdown. And sadly, a few far too vocal loonies, who the sensible majority seem powerless to tackle.


There is a lack of respect and paranoia on both sides, an inability to deal with criticism – it’s met by a combination of denial, ridicule and aggression. But you know what? If you ignore it it’s still there.


There have been a number of comments on the blog recently from lawyers fed up with the unconstructive attacks on lawyers that characterize the father’s rights movement’s approach. They are almost all anonymous. Not because they are cowardly, but because they are fearful or at least just don’t want the hassle. It comes to something when a lawyer is not prepared to express a view. The state of communications between professional and lay stakeholders in the family justice system is critically dysfunctional.


And it’s not just dads versus lawyers. CAFCASS too are under perpetual heavy fire (sometimes from me but more often from parents of both sexes) and they appear sometimes to adopt a bunker mentality. There are many reports that CAFCASS staff feel unable to express their own strongly held views about the direction in which CAFCASS is travelling, which is another problem in itself.


I don’t know how to fix this dysfunciton. I wish that a critical mass of professionals were prepared to stand up and be counted, to publicly explain what their job is really all about, what they are trying to do and the obstacles they face. To try to redress the balance. Because at the moment the professionals are talking to themselves. I join in those discussions and then I step into the internet and it’s like another dimension.


And I wish that a critical mass of those who are agitating for change could keep a lid on the urge to blame for long enough to make constructive suggestions.


It’s chicken and egg. I don’t blame any lawyer for observing silently or for commenting anonymously. Or for just getting on with the day job and letting someone else deal with the big picture. As a result of being verbally attacked by Matt O’Connor I am now being approached at court by worried colleagues asking if I am “keeping safe” who themselves have had bad experiences with activists. We aren’t in this for the money, but by God we aren’t paid enough to count as danger money. There is enough mud slinging and agro in the job already without inviting more of it. It’s easier to leave it to someone else. For my part, having already attracted the ire of the dads, I feel I might as well continue. I’ve been under attack for pretty much the whole time I’ve run this blog, although much of that has not been public until recently. It hasn’t stopped me so far and it’s not likely to do so now. I’ve never been able to keep my gob shut for long. And I’m a bit bloody minded.


The problem is bad enough now. But what happens when LASPO goes through and everyone but the Djanogly family is unable to afford legal representation? They’ll be seeking information and guidance from the internet. And they’ll have plenty of time to find that guidance whilst the court service sinks under the weight of its own caseload. We will not only have a tide of litigants in person, we will have a tsunami of litigants in person who view the system as not just imperfect but corrupt, and who are fully expecting the system to fail them (and they may be right). It’s not the kind of public legal education that we need.


We can turn away from the conversation, but we will be forced to confront it one day.


Part of the reason for the delay in posting this is because I’ve been pondering for some time whether there is another way to address this issue. There may be better ways, but I’d like to start by inviting those who work in the system to give their accounts, anonymously if it encourages frankness. Not as some kind of propaganda exercise, but as an exercise in helping people to understand what motivates those people, what practical and ethical difficulties they face, what they really think about the strengths and weaknesses of the system and how we can sustain and improve it and how we can better engage with stakeholders. There are lots of accounts out there of the poor experience of parents going through the system, but few accounts of the other side of the coin. So maybe it will be a small first step if those accounts could be made available through Pink Tape.


Any professional reading this blog who wishes to participate can email me using the email address given on the About page, or by tweeting me (DM me or email me if you wish to remain anonymous). Whilst I wait for the probably underwhelming response I will ponder on a list of broad questions that each respondent might use as a framework for their post.

Book Review: Bubble Wrapped Children – How social networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption

Sarah PhillimoreThis review is a guest post written by  Sarah Phillimore, barrister at St John’s Chambers (@svphillimore), Bristol. Sarah joined St Johns Chambers in January 2011 from Coram Chambers in London. She has experience of all areas of family law and is training to become an accredited family mediator.

Bubble Wrapped Children: How social networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption

By Helen Oakwater, MX Publishing 2012


Helen Oakwater is the parent of three adopted children. She thus has immediate and practical experience of the difficult issues adoptive children can face overcoming the trauma of their early years and establishing healthy attachments to their adoptive parents. She is also well versed in the theory as (amongst other roles) a former member of the government’s Adoption and Permanence Task Force.


book coverThe ‘bubble wrapped’ children of the title refers to the traumatised adopted child who has tried to protect himself by a metaphorical wrapping of protective layers. The  adoptive parent must help to peel away these layers to allow the child to form healthy attachments to a new family.


The stated purpose of this book is to discuss and analyse the impact of unregulated and unexpected contact from birth families via social networking sites such as Facebook. Again, the author has direct and painful experience of this, her own children having received such communications just days before Christmas in 2009.


I discussed some of the issues around adoption and Facebook in an earlier guest post. I do not doubt that this is a serious issue which requires urgent engagement from all those who work in this field. However, I wonder whether attempting to present the book as one with a single issue focus is in fact doing it a disservice.


This is more than just an analysis of the particular impact of social networking sites. It has to be, because the implications of such ad hoc contact cannot be fully understood without some appreciation of how adoptive children might be different to those raised with uninterrupted and healthy attachments to their primary carers.


The book inevitably has to cover a very wide range of topics in order to allow the reader to fully understand the full potential for harm from such unexpected contact   to children already traumatised by earlier life experiences. The author sets out to  explain the likely nature and extent of trauma suffered by the adopted child and the ways in which the child can be helped to make sense of his or her world. She also puts herself in the shoes of the birth parents and considers how they might be thinking and feeling and how this can influence their actions.


The book is thus an excellent resource for those coming new to the system and who require an introduction to the psychological theories around attachment and trauma. The author is able to present a number of quite complicated concepts in direct and vivid language, making good use of metaphor and diagrams to aid understanding; I found illuminating the example of child development as a river. Some rivers flow smoothly to the sea, others are turbulent with additional murky tributaries. Which river would you rather navigate?


Thus, the book goes much wider than just the single issue of the ‘Facebook question’.  For me, its true core and most urgent call to action is found at page 111 where the author states:


‘Even though parents don’t have the professional expertise and knowledge of attachment and trauma trained therapists, they are, in the most part, expected to raise traumatised children without support or therapeutic in put from professionals’.


Indeed.  With an adoption disruption rate of about 25% we can’t afford to ignore this stark and sad reality.  I would recommend this book to anyone who needs an introduction to or refreshment of their understanding of the current psychological theories around trauma and attachment, be they lawyer, social worker or a potential adopters.

The Caucus Race

It’s been a bit “Alice in Wonderland” around here lately. I last posted on 22 February and it was like the moment when Alice ate the cake. Quite apart from my sudden and unexpected monstering for succombing to temptation, I feel as if I have been caught in an interminable caucus race ever since. I could indulge in some extended metaphorical comparison between Alice’s incomprehensible experiences in Wonderland, with impenetrable rules, bizarre notions of justice and undeserving authority figures and the experiences of the litigant in the family justice system – but I fear I might never emerge from the rabbit hole.

So back to the caucus race. Debate continues to rage, or at least continues intermittently, on the seemingly interminable and rather circuitious comment thread on the 22 Feb post. I appear to have delighted and outraged in equal measure (although the outraged have been both more persistent and more vocal). I confess that I am considering closing comments on the post, not to shut down discussion but to move it on. It’s been interesting (in places) and it will result in further posts on the several topics that it has generated, but comments are a pain to follow and not a great format for articulating considered views (particularly since my blog theme doesn’t nest comment threads). There are some things that have given me pause for thought and I shall go away, cogitate (as work commitments, the demands of small children and energy levels permit) and write. But not in haste.

But I’m also thinking I need to draw this chapter to a close because I want my life back now please. I’ve spent 2 weeks diligently moderating comments, editing where necessary for legal reasons, and responding to most of those comments. It’s been quite wearing to be the focus of so many people’s loathing of lawyers in general and family lawyers in particular, to be the cipher for their anger – those who have commented in support have generally done so from a position outside family law or anonymously, which I think says a lot about the way in which widespread hostility to legal professionals has stymied necessary and healthy public debate about family justice, debate that needs to involve both users and professionals. Anyway, I hope I have taken it all with reasonably good grace. I wish others would join me in trying to participate in debate (by which I really do mean debate not proselytising) but this last two weeks has worn me out and I’ve had enough of Wonderland for now. It’s no wonder others in my profession avoid such engagement – we get enough conflict already.


‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.