Parents in England and Wales involved in remote family court hearings due to coronavirus had poor legal representation and unjust and unfair hearings
Consultation with parents involved in remote hearings September 10-30, 2020
Overview of consultation
The timescale for the consultation was very tight. We were able to do some informal engagement prior to the start of the 21-day consultation period but could not widely advertise until the consultation was announced. This set some limitations on how many parents could participate.
In total, we have had contact from 53 parent participants who contacted PFAN. Some made contact by email but the majority by phone. We initially planned to hold focus groups using Zoom and to have parents sign up and give some basic information and their permission using an on-line form. This approach did not work as some parents signed up and for various reasons did not attend groups – some had social workers who set up meetings at short notice which they felt obliged to attend. Others failed to sign up and we realised that many had difficulties accessing or using the internet. Others seemed unable or did not want to engage on-line. We therefore started to do individual interviews by phone with two interviewees. Many parents seemed more comfortable engaging in this way.
We have been able to hold focus groups and individual interviews with 21 parents, with 11 in three small focus groups and 10 individual interviews. One of the facilitators took hand-written notes in interviews and focus groups and, in some cases, parents gave permission for recordings to be made. These recordings were used to aid recall and check accuracy.
At the beginning of the consultation, we were contacted by 7 parents who had hearings cancelled due to covid-19 restrictions. We sought clarification on whether they could be included in the consultation, however, on replying to request they join us, the parents felt that there was little they could say and did not choose to participate.
Parents felt that many of the issues around the court process and key decision making occur before court and particularly in their relationships with social workers. Thus one Mum said, “This is stupid. Social work has all the power and wrecked our lives before we even get into court, but nobody cares about that.” Another said “I had one social worker that was great, she earned my trust, we had ups and downs, but then the social worker changed. … I went through 23 social workers since I was 9 weeks pregnant … They are saying about us trusting them, you can’t trust everyone, I had a social worker smiled when my kids where getting taken, don’t do it, it’s not good practice.”
There were several parents who contacted PFAN in crisis. These parents were not in a stable enough emotional situation to participate and this highlights the lack of support that is available to parents. In searching, there is no available helpline to call and parents do not have a clear point of contact for support in such challenging times. We offered telephone support and helped them to find support services and in some cases to engage a legal representative.
One of these mothers called just five days after her son was removed from hospital post-birth. She received this news by telephone from the social worker, after a hearing had taken place. She had not received any paperwork to tell her that a hearing was going to take place, and she did not have any legal representation or support. The baby was taken just hours after the mother received the news from a social worker, who the mother said wasn’t even the social worker she spoke to before.
This mother did not know who to call or where her baby had gone. After we encouraged the mother to contact the social worker, the social worker told the mother that she was the baby’s social worker, not the mother’s and could not help the mother. PFAN’s coordinator for the consultation advised the mother that she should be allowed to call and ask for an update on how her baby is doing and that the social worker should, at least, be able to answer questions about what is happening and about contact. The mother never had the opportunity to speak with the judge or to take advice. The mother’s immediate family were not notified. This mother spoke to us at length in a very traumatised state and as such, our focus was on establishing support around her and we did not engage her in a focus group or interview.
Two other parents made contact while in a very vulnerable state of mind. Both confessed that they were suicidal, and both felt there was no hope. Both parents had experienced remote hearings over the phone. These parents did not have any support after the hearings to help them process the information they received. The parents were not entirely clear on what had happened at the hearings. One parent felt they didn’t know how to find out what had been written in the court order. These issues are common for parents involved in remote hearing as illustrated in the summary below. These two parents were offered individual interviews which they did not feel able to attend.
These 3 parents, as well as 9 others, were put into contact with mental health advocacy services and we provided ongoing support.
We also spoke to 1 grandmother whose first language was not English. She was very distraught and confused. It seems there was a hearing in early September. She did not know what had happened except that the children were removed from her daughter. She was there with her daughter who had a phone hearing. Her daughter is angry and humiliated will not speak to us further. The grandmother did not understand about legal aid and did not feel able to access legal advice.