May 17, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Here's yet another story about a children's welfare agency gone wild in its efforts to take three children from their loving parents (Daily Mail, 5/10/13). But there's more to it than just that. Indeed, in this story, the social services agency for the Devon, England Council has a reasonably good excuse for its tactics, but the case also reveals just why those tactics recur in case after case in which they're inexcusable.
As usual, the family can't be named. They have three children, a twin girl and boy age two, and a son who's one. Back in 2011, the twins were born and seemed to be healthy and thriving. But suddenly one day the little girl stopped breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital. That led eventually to an MRI scan of the child's head that showed intra-cranial bleeding. And X-Ray of her showed a fractured rib and elbow. That led to suspicions on the part of the doctors, so they gave the boy and MRI as well. It too showed bleeding in the brain and fractured ribs.
Now, to any reasonable physician or social worker, those conditions fairly scream "child abuse!" More to the point, they scream "shaken baby syndrome." In the mind's eye, it's all too clear. These are infants; they cry, the parents pick them up by their torsos and in their frustration, shake them. The parents' fingers grip the little chests so tightly they break ribs. The brain is shaken so violently, blood vessels rupture. It's perfectly obvious.
So the children were taken from the parents by social services and at least one police officer called it "the worst case of child abuse I have ever come across in my 16-year career." Fortunately, the children were placed with their grandparents, but the parents weren't permitted to see them unsupervised.
But there was just one problem; the parents never harmed their children. They were kind, loving parents "besotted" with their children as the judge in the case finally said. Ironically, some of the fractures were probably the fault of the doctors struggling to intubate the children.
Then the woman became pregnant again. She gave birth to a son, but when he was three weeks old, he somehow fell out of his cradle. That fall resulted in - you guessed it - bleeding to the brain.
At that point, social services figured they had two serial child abusers, and after all, who could blame them? The council social workers asked a court to place the babies in what we in the United States would call foster care. The judge refused, but social services had the bit in its teeth.
As the mother says now: ‘It has been a nightmare. So many mistakes were made. We have lived for months under this massive terror that council social workers would take our children away. I was made to feel an evil woman by social workers. They treated me like a liar. We were accused of being child abusers by the police.
It was left to her to hop on the Internet and research the children's medical condition for herself. That led her to an appointment with a rheumatologist who diagnosed her with a rare condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which can cause bones to be fragile and bleeding in the brain.
Into the bargain, it turned out the babies' father also has a condition that results in low calcium density in his bones. Each condition apparently can be passed on to the children. The upshot was that, unknown to all, the children were predisposed to fragile bones and bleeding in the brain. Their parents didn't hurt them, the doctors did. They did so because all were unaware of the uniquely fragile condition of the children. The parents are kind and loving and would never harm their children. Eventually, a judge so ruled and returned the little ones to their rightful home.
So, all's well that ends well, right? Not quite.
[A]s this family get on with their life, there is another worrying aspect to this case.
It concerns the judge’s decision that the family cannot be identified and that their whereabouts must be kept secret until the children are grown up — even though they have done nothing wrong.
The ruling, by Mr Justice Baker at the High Court in Exeter, means that if this family allow the media to use their real names, they will be in contempt of court and risk being sent to prison.
That's right. Per the judge's ruling, everything that happened is top secret. Why? That's a good question, but I suspect it has to do with the old theory that any court case concerning children has to be kept from the public because some harm might come to the kids if someone were to learn of it. That's always seemed like patent nonsense to me, a claim that's utterly unproven and certainly not suficient to trump the public's right to know what their paid officials are up to.
Whatever the reasoning behind the gag order, it's common as dirt in English cases.
These gagging orders have become normal in such family court cases where parents are eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing. Last week, Bill Bache, the family’s lawyer and an expert on family courts, said: ‘This ruling impinges on this family’s freedom of speech. This is very troubling.'
And John Hemming, the Lib Dem MP campaigning against court secrecy, added: ‘These rulings stop innocent families talking openly about their experiences and they protect the doctors, social workers and police who wrongly pointed the finger of blame at them.’
His views are endorsed by Alison Stevens, who runs the charity Parents Against Injustice.
She said: ‘Most innocent parents who win their children back face a gagging order from the family courts. It means the mistakes made by social workers, doctors and the family courts are concealed.’
Just so. The secrecy with which British courts and social services agencies operate in cases involving children has far less to do with protecting the children than with protecting social services workers. Remember how the mother described her and her husband's ordeal? She called it "a nightmare," "massive terror." "They treated me like a liar."
Those are typical tactics used by state employees who know they can't be called to account for their abusive misdeeds. They know they operate in secret and can get away with virtually anything. That's how secrecy works. People who don't fear their actions being exposed to the light of public awareness typically behave worse than those who do.
The article asks what the cause of this scandal was. The answer is clear: secrecy that allows social services to act with complete impunity.
Ask another question. How will these social workers, police, etc. behave the next time they're faced with a questionable case? What will encourage them to be more balanced, to question their own conclusions? Nothing that I can see. They're free to visit another nightmare on innocent parents. Again and again and again.
The British willingness to hide the behavior of child welfare workers from public scrutiny paradoxically creates a situation that often encourages the abuse of children by those very workers. After all, that's what taking children from innocent, caring parents is - abuse.
We're a bit better about this in the U.S. Yes, child protection agencies are covered by a veneer of secrecy, and they ceaselessly lobby state legislature for yet more. But here, the press actually can get hold of information about what CPS does in cases and what it doesn't do. It's often not easy, but there's seldom a court order that results in prison time if it's not obeyed. The auditor's report on the Richmond Department of Social Services I wrote about recently is a good example.
Like every other governmental entity, child welfare agencies function better if We the People know what they're up to. And, like every other governmental entity, child welfare agencies don't want any part of it. Their ace in the hole is kids, whom they claim to be protecting by keeping secret what we all should know. The case of the British couple and many others graphically show that to be untrue.
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