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Behind the Screen

    Tammy Mayes’ presentation to the ATD Fourth World UN Webinar “Behind the Screen: Grassroots Experiences Accessing Social Services and Education in a Digital World”

    Monday 15 February 2021

    Hello, my name is Tammy Mayes. I am an activist in the UK with ATD Fourth World, fighting against poverty and for human rights.

    I am also part of the Parents Families and Allies Network (PFAN for short). At PFAN we are parents, social workers and academics all fighting for change in the UK child protection system and offering parent advocacy to families going through the child protectionsystem.

    Last March, at the start of the first national lockdown, the UK’s Family Court System moved on-line due to Covid restrictions. 

    PFAN was approached by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to carry out a consultation with parents involved in remote Family Court hearings.

    I was one of the parent activists from the PFAN that did the research with parents. We all have experience of the child protection system ourselves.

    We interviewed 21 parents, half in focus groups on Zoom and half individually by telephone.

    Myself and other parent activists from PFAN led the interviews and focus groups.

    People would sign up to be take part. We would find a time that suited them and send a link privately. There would be a small group of us online, we would do introductions and then ask questions following a questionnaire that we had. The interviews took one hour but we always had breakout rooms if needed because the subject was so hard for lots of people.

    We quickly realised that the focus groups were a chance for parents to offer support, encouragement and understanding to one another. So we always made sure that there was plenty of time for people to just talk and connect with one another.

    Doing things this way meant we had a more chilled environment that put parents at ease and allowed them room to say exactly what they wanted to. It is important to feel safe and comfortable when talking about something so sensitive.

    It was the same when we did the phone interviews. We spent a long time just listening and offering support.

    What did we learn?

    We found that parents had severe problems with their legal representation and felt their hearings were inhumane and unfair.

    The impact of digital exclusion on standards of justice for parents, many of whom are in poverty and extremely vulnerable, was very clear.

    The consequences of these difficulties for parents were diabolical. Everything is more difficult when you are not tech-literate and don’t have the support you need.

    One mother, who had one child removed but still had 2 at home, was in the middle of fact-finding proceedings. Stuff was said that wasn’t true, but she couldn’t tell her solicitor because they weren’t in the same physical room and she had no way of communicating with them! Then the decision was made that the child who had been removed was not coming home! Then she had to go out of her living room and stay strong for her other 2 children at home. She had no support.

    There was another mother who had to listen to the court hearing on her phone and then use her partner’s phone to speak to her solicitor! They didn’t have money for a laptop or tablet. A lot of the parents I spoke to could not afford laptops or tablets and were using their phones! A lot of them couldn’t afford internet, so had to borrow money from friends and family so they could go online and attend their cases! They had no support from the social services. They where left on their own with no support and without the right devices to use.

    It was heartbreaking hearing what the parents were going through. The things wrong with the system really do need to change. How can they make decisions during lockdown about where a child lives? Some parents didn’t even know who was on the video call due to having such a small screen that they couldn’t see everyone. In one case the internet kept cutting out and the judge themselves didn’t know who was on the call!! How is that right?

    Privacy is a big concern during remote hearings. Who is actually on the call? Who else can hear what is being said? Sometimes, because a solicitor or a social worker had their children at home because the schools are closed, their kids appeared on camera in the background. Parents in cramped living conditions couldn’t easily protect their own children from hearing the proceedings. This all shows that confidential cases can not be confidential while in someone’s home.

    I am lucky that my family’s court case finished in February 2020, before the pandemic happened. There are issues with the court procedure when face to face, let alone with them being online. I was thankful ours had stopped before the pandemic. I would not have coped with it being on line it was hard enough face to face.

    One thing I found when doing the research was how many did not have good internet or even have internet and they weren’t offered internet. Many of the parents lived in poverty. They couldn’t afford the internet and so got into debt. More needs to be done on this. It’s not right. Then they didn’t have the correct devices and couldn’t afford to go out to buy the stuff they needed. Where are the funds to help these parents?

    I don’t think any case, unless it’s a matter of life and death, should be heard online. It’s not a fair system. Parents can’t see the expressions on peoples’ faces and the judge can’t see the face of the parents or the body language of any of them.

    For more information, you can follow the links to read the full report from everyone involved.

    Thank you for listening.