A few days ago a certain national tabloid newspaper ran a story to the effect that a child had been taken into care due to his or her parents being addicted to video games. The same story also informed us that two children have been taken into care because they had bad teeth and that ten children had been removed because their parents smoked. These facts were given added credence by a quote from former MP John Hemming, who said that “Silly reasons are often given for taking children.”
The story was repeated in at least two other national newspapers, including one that is generally considered a ‘quality’ broadsheet. Leaving aside any other papers that may have run the story, the total daily circulation of the three national papers that definitely did is about four million, excluding the many more that read the papers online.
Clearly, our local authorities are removing children from their parents for the flimsiest of reasons, and our family courts are colluding with this state child snatching. At least, that will be the view of many of those millions who read the stories. After all, what you read in a newspaper is true, isn’t it? Newspapers always tell the whole story.
Except that they don’t. As any family lawyer will tell you, courts do not sanction the removal of children from their parents without very good reasons.
Let us just go back to basics. Children are removed from parents after care orders are made (note that not all care orders result in the removal of children – sometimes the care plan provides for the child to remain with the parents). Courts can only make care orders if they are satisfied that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to:
(i) The care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
(ii) The child’s being beyond parental control.
Note the words significant harm. A bit of minor neglect due to the parents spending a lot of time on their Playstations is not significant. The odd bad tooth is not significant. Inhaling a bit of cigarette smoke is not significant (Marilyn Stowe has already debunked the suggestion that a court took a boy into care solely because his parents smoked, in this post). In short, courts do not remove children from the care of their parents for frivolous or silly reasons.
So the headlines in the newspapers give an entirely false impression of what the family courts do (I will leave it to you to judge whether they mislead intentionally, or through ignorance). What the headlines do show, however, is the futility of putting a lot of time, effort and resources into trying to educate the public about what the family courts really do – the process that goes under the general name ‘transparency’.
The public believe what the newspapers say. It doesn’t matter what efforts the proponents of transparency make to educate and put right the public, they simply are never going to be able to compete with the enormous reach of national newspapers, or the credulity of the public when it comes to newspaper headlines. It is therefore futile to even try to do so.
Now, I’m not for one moment saying that we should stop telling the truth to the public, to newspapers and to anyone else who will listen. We should of course continue to do this, just as we always have (and as I myself have done above). All I am saying is that the transparency drive is a waste of time, effort and resources that we could better spend elsewhere, for example helping those who can’t afford access to lawyers.