More than 100 British families who say they have been treated unfairly by social services departments and the family courts are preparing to launch an unprecedented case at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, arguing that their human rights have been breached.
By Rebecca Lefort
Published: 8:33PM BST 19 Jun 2010
‘Alison’ at her home in the north of England. Her three daughters have been taken away in family court rulings. Pregnant with her fourth baby, she fears it will be removed as soon as it is born Photo: Chris Neill
When ‘Alison’ developed post natal depression she pleaded for help from those she thought were there to assist her.
But instead of gaining support she ended up losing custody of her three beloved daughters.
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Social workers said the children were at risk of suffering “emotional abuse”, even though they conceded that she cared deeply for them and had worked hard to be a better parent.
Now the 22-year-old, whose real name cannot be used for legal reasons, is pregnant for a fourth time and is terrified that social workers will refuse to give her the chance of caring for the new baby once it is born.
This week the mother, from the north of England, became one of hundreds of parents who have joined an unprecedented class action, suing the family courts and local authority social services departments.
The claimants hope the action will lead to greater transparency and accountability in the family court system, as well as the possibility of being reunited with the children they believe have been taken unfairly.
More than 100 families have now signed up to the claim, which will be lodged on July 1 at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where political leaders are tried for genocide.
Alison, who is 15 weeks pregnant, said: “I’m pleased someone’s taken action, because they’ve taken my children.
“It’s about showing that they’re using claims like ’emotional abuse’ when they’ve got nothing left to put against you.
“You have to prove it 150 per cent that you’re a perfect parent, and there’s no such thing as 150 per cent. I don’t know what would be good enough for them.”
There were no problems with Alison’s first baby, but after the birth of her second child she suffered from post natal depression and was not able to care for the baby properly.
She said she asked social services for help and support, but instead officials decided she was unfit to be a mother. Both Alison’s baby and her 18-month-old toddler were taken into care.
The judge at the family court hearing which decided the fate of Alison’s first two daughters, in September 2008, recorded in her judgement that the mother had turned up for appointments, assessments and all her court hearings, adding: “She loves her children and has shown a commitment to them in contact.”
The judge also praised Alison for enrolling on a health and social care course, and staying on top of her finances. Nevertheless, her judgement concluded that the girls should be taken away from their mother because if they were left with her they would be “at risk of emotional harm and physical harm, as a result of her neglectful and poor parenting”.
The two girls were first put into foster care, then put up for adoption. After the decision Alison received counselling and took a series of courses which, she now says, made her a better parent. When she had a third daughter, and fought to keep the baby, she had the testimony of a psychologist who said she had improved greatly. But again social services said there was a “risk” that harm could come to the child, and again a family court ruled against her.
Now Alison is only allowed to receive a letter and picture of her three girls once a year.
The first three girls shared the same father, with whom Alison had a volatile relationship. She has now split up with the man and is in a more settled relationship with a new partner, the 26-year-old father of unborn baby.
“I’m petrified about being pregnant just because I think they’ll take the baby away,” she said.
“I’m scared of them coming for it, I don’t know what to do and I’m constantly thinking of ways I can help myself. Sometimes I think about running away.
“No one’s perfect, but I’ve been trying so hard and I’ve done so much, but they don’t even seem to care.
“There are some awful mothers out there who hurt their babies, and I’ve never done anything like that.”
The court action Alison is now part of is being brought by Freedom, Advocacy and Law, which claims that parents have suffered “constant denial of freedoms” which ought to be protected under the Human Rights Act.
The action alleges that British courts and local authorities have breached the legislation, which gives the right to a fair trial and the right to respect for private and family life.
Sam Hallimond, of Freedom, Advocacy and Law, said: “Families have been destroyed by the actions of family courts, and no one has been held to account.
“Considering what’s at stake at these hearings we need to see some sort of definition of the criteria under which action should be taken by social services.
“The possibility of future emotional neglect and abuse is not good enough, unless courts have a crystal ball I don’t know how they can justify that.”
He said he hoped the class action could result in financial payouts to some claimants, but the main purpose was to expose the flaws families saw in the system.