Author Archives: Sarah Phillimore

The interplay of ‘Gillick competence’ and ‘parental responsibility’

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

And what are the dangers for children of ignoring this?

TLDR: Any guidance which ignores or downplays the importance of both Gilick competence and parental responsibility is probably unlawful and probably harmful to children and should be challenged, for all the reasons that I set out below.

Safeguarding Children.

As a general point, safeguarding of children demands robust risk analysis. Failures in child safeguarding usually involve an inadequate risk assessment which has failed to either understand or share relevant information. Risks approached on the basis of untested assumptions are unlikely to be properly assessed. The welfare of children is generally held to be the paramount concern in most situations pertaining to decisions that concern a child, but this does not by itself absolve an individual or organisation from considering the impact of its decisions or actions on other legal rights.

Any guidance which asserts that it promotes safeguarding of children in the context of choices children aspire to make, ought to be clear about two very important issues:
a. ‘Gillick competence’
b. Parental responsiblility.

Gillick competence

Gillick competence refers to the recognition that the capacity of a child to make serious decisions pertaining to his or her welfare will increase as does the age and understanding of that child. It derives from the decision of the House of Lords in Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1986] AC 112,

Most – but not all – 14 year old children would be ‘Gillick competent’ to make decisions across a wide range of issues. Most – but not all – 7 year old children would not. Determining ‘Gillick competence’ is fact specific and depends on the circumstances of each individual child.

Once children reach 16 they are held by various statutes as able to make their own decisions across a range of issues. These are set out in the judgment of Lady Hale at para 26 of D (A Child) (Rev2) [2019] UKSC 42 (26 September 2019). For example Section 8(1) of the Family Law Reform Act 1969 provides that the consent of a child of 16 to any surgical, medical or dental treatment “shall be as effective as it would be if he were of full age”

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is defined at section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.”

The House of Lords in Gillick approved the following dictum of Lord Denning MR

… the legal right of a parent to the custody of a child … is a dwindling right which the courts will hesitate to enforce against the wishes of the child, and the more so the older he is. It starts with a right of control and ends with little more than advice.

This is a significant matter of status as between parent and child and, just as important, as between each of the parents. (see W (Children) [2012] EWCA Civ 999).

Interplay between Gillick competence and parental responsibility

These two concepts are thus intertwined. The younger the child and the less capacity he or she has to make decisions, the greater the extent of the exercise of parental responsibility. This is important for two main reasons.

  • Most parents, most of the time, have their children’s best interests at heart. Parents are likely to be an important part of decisions around keeping children safe. Who else is advocating for the child?
  • Families are also the ‘breeding ground of diversity’ and entitled to special protection – see Baroness Hale B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35.

Thus the importance of parental responsibility is recognised and protected by domestic and international law.

As was set out by Lady Hale in para 72 of The Christian Institute & Ors v The Lord Advocate (Scotland) [2016] UKSC 51 (28 July 2016):

Many articles in the UNCRC acknowledge that it is the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Thus article 3(2) requires States Parties, in their actions to protect a child’s wellbeing, to take into account the rights and duties of his or her parents or other individuals legally responsible for him or her; article 5 requires States Parties to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, other family or community members or others legally responsible for the child to provide appropriate direction and guidance to the child in the exercise of his or her rights under the Convention; article 14(2) makes similar provision in relation to the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 27(2) emphasises that the parents have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development;

And at para 73:

Individual differences are the product of the interplay between the individual person and his upbringing and environment. Different upbringings produce different people. The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way.

I would therefore expect to see any guidance directed at the safety and welfare of children to give due consideration to both these issues. A failure to do so, risks diluting the effectiveness of advice around safeguarding, and being an unlawful infringement of parental responsibility.

The younger the child in question, the more serious both these failings.

Safeguarding concerns around transitioning children need careful assessment. These could involve:

  • parental pressure to transition due to homophobia or wish for attention
  • lack of parental support or understanding for a child who wishes to transition
  • failing to consider risk to other children of ‘gender neutral’ spaces, either within a school or on residential trips
  • failing to involve parents in discussions about the safety of children
  • a younger child who wishes to take puberty blockers

It is neither ‘kind’ nor ‘inclusive’ to pretend that risks don’t exist and to fail to have a clear eyed and open minded approach to how to deal with them. On the contrary, it is both dangerous and stupid – and, I assert, unlawful.

Children aged 4 are very different to children aged 14. Children are not kept safe by a refusal to discuss – or even admit – this quite basic fact. Any guidance or advice that does not deal clearly with the interplay between Gillick competence and parental responsibility should be approached with caution.

Be wary: guidance and commentary which fails

Trans Inclusion Tool Kit for Schools and Educational Settings 2019 – makes only superficial reference to Gillick competence and only one glancing reference to parental responsibility at page 15. Is explicitly aimed at primary school children.

No one, no issues is off the table when it comes to safeguarding – ‘advice’ from a social worker published in the BASW journal that issues around transition are ‘not’ safeguarding issue. No mention of either Gillick competence or parental responsibility.

Only adults? Good practices in legal gender recognition for youth – explicitly urges for removal of any minimum age requirement for access to services around transition.

When should a trans child’s identity be permitted to be a material issue in a family case? – blog by the legal adviser to the charity Mermaids. The answer is – rarely. If a child of any age says they are trans, they are trans.

Please do let me know of any other examples you can find.

And support the Safe Schools Alliance in their legal action against the Trans Inclusion Took Kit.

After the Adoption…

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

What are the legal options or implications for an adopted child who wishes to spend more time living with their natural parents?

I read recently a very interesting post on the MummyTigerBlog about ‘When is a mum not a mum?’

The blogger adopted two girls and managed to forge a relationship with their natural mother – ‘mummy Jo’. She writes of the importance of that relationship for the girls and the questions they now ask:

The trauma of separation from natural family, their experience of foster care and subsequent adoption has had a lasting impact on my children, an impact that, despite rebuilding the severed natural family relationships that are so important to them, continues to hurt for both girls, although in very different ways. For both girls the re-established relationships with their natural family has been a huge help in their healing process and for their identity as they approach adolescence and the teen years but still brings up many questions of why? Why me? Why weren’t we kept together? Why weren’t we allowed to see our brother?  And more recently why can’t I live with Mummy Jo?

The emotional and legal implications for children in this situation are likely to be complicated. I cannot speak to the emotions, other than to agree that the importance of relationships with birth parents and siblings can be positive and significant and we need urgently to reconsider our historical clinging to adoption as ‘a closed shop’ – I have written about this in more detail in this post, Contact Post Adoption – Time for a new Default Position?

However, I thought it might be helpful for other families in this position to consider what are the legal implications of an adopted child wishing to spend more time with his or her family of birth – or even move to live with them.

The starting point is to remember the consequences of an adoption order – this removes parental responsibility from birth parents and the adopted child becomes the child of the adoptive parents. If the adoptive placement breaks down, this does not restore the parental responsibility of the birth parents. Some judges have gone so far as to say that adoption destroys ANY consideration of an Article 8 right between parent and birth child. Given that Article 8 protects psychological integrity, I have always doubted that this could be correct in law, but so far as I am aware there is no case that has looked at this point in the Court of Appeal or beyond.

Can adoption orders be overturned? Yes, but it is rare.

It is possible for the court to revoke an adoption order – i.e. discharge/end that order –  using its ‘inherent jurisdiction’ but this is a very exceptional and very rare step for the court to take given that ‘adoption’ is a statutory process that is supposed to facilitate the creation of the new ‘forever’ family.

The case of PK v Mr and Mrs K [2015] EWCH 2316 is one of the rare examples in case law where an adoption order was revoked – it highlights how exceptional this is. PK was nearly 4 when she was adopted by Mr and Mrs K in May 2004. However in 2006 Mr and Mrs K sent her to live with other family members in Ghana where she was subjected to significant abuse. In mid July 2014 PK returned to England and was reunited with her biological mother and grandmother. She became a ward of court on her own application and her mother was granted full care and control. PK was very clear she wanted to revoke the adoption, live with her mother and change her name. The court had no doubt that this was the right outcome for PK.

An adoption order was also revoked in the case of Re J (Adoption: Appeal) [2018] EWFC 8 but again, the circumstances of this were unusual; the child had been adopted by his stepfather and his mother had lied about the father’s whereabouts. When the father found out he applied for the adoption order to be revoked and the court agreed – but it made no difference to the child’s day to day life as he remained living with his mother.

But does the adoption order need to be revoked?

The situation described by the blogger is not one where the child is reacting against an adoptive placement where she has been mistreated – rather the child, now a teenager is expressing a wish to live with her natural mother. It’s interesting to speculate what the court might do if the child did want the adoption order revoked in these circumstances – but I am not aware of any similar reported case.

This is unsurprising, given how rare it is for an adoptive and birth mother to be able to work together in the way that the blogger and Mummy Jo have been able to do. But it may well become a more usual situation; and I hope it does. For a long time now I and others have thought that the ‘closed shop’ model of adoption does not serve children well.

However, this puts the blogger in the uncomfortable position of trail blazer. I am not aware of this situation ever coming before the courts before. What are the legal options or implications for an adopted child who wishes to spend more time living with their natural parents?

This does need to be thought about. A weekend here and there is unlikely to cause many problems – but if a child spends many months or moves permanently to live with a person who does not have parental responsibilty for them, this has the potential to cause problems.

There is a limited form of parental responsibility under section 3(5) of the Children Act 1989 which states that someone who has the care of a child but no PR may (subject to the provisions of this Act) do what is reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare.

But this may not be sufficient to allow the carer to make decisions for the child that the child needs to be made – particularly if the child isn’t Gillick competent.

Could this situation be a private fostering arrangement? This is an arrangement whereby a child under the age of 16 (or 18 if the child has a disability) is placed for 28 days or more in the care of someone who is not the child’s parent(s) or a ‘connected person’. A connected person is defined as a ‘relative, friend or other person connected with a child’. A relative under the Children Act 1989 is defined as a ‘grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt (whether full blood or half blood or by marriage or civil partnership) or step-parent’. The blogger writes:

Mummy Jo is very much a parent, blood relation and a ‘connected person’, the girls were connected to her via the umbilical cord however does this stand up legally? Currently she has no legal connection. What if the girls stay for over the 28 days, a month? the six weeks of the summer holidays? is this a ‘private fostering’ arrangement or just the girls staying with their Mum, because that’s who she is in their eyes, but not the eyes of the law. Any private fostering arrangement needs to be reported to the Local Authority to assess and monitor… an option none of us would relish!

I don’t think this is a private fostering arrangement – I agree that Mummy Jo is a ‘connected person’ – simply by virtue of her friendship with the adoptive mother or by her biological connection.

How should – or could – this situation be regulated?

So how could or should this situation be regulated? I discussed this with a newly qualified social worker and her reaction was very interesting – one of great concern for the emotional welfare of the child and what would happen if the living arrangements with her birth mum broke down. We discussed whether any local authority should get involved and whether the child’s school might want to refer it on. In this particular case, there seems little doubt that Mummy Jo is a tried and tested ‘safe parent’ – but what of cases where there is more doubt?

We batted back and forth the question of whether this kind of situation requires professional intervention. I argued that an adoptive parent has been assessed as able to be a child’s parent and should be allowed to get on and do what they think is right for their child – the state should not intervene without evidence of significant harm.

The social worker responded that I could not treat an adopted child in the same way as a biological child, as it was inevitable by the very fact that the child had been adopted that there had been significant trauma in that child’s life and there ought to be some professional oversight of any such move.

I can see the force in that argument. There is no doubt in my mind that social media has made it very easy for children to find their biological parents. I have no doubt that situations are going to arise where there is not the good working relationship between adoptive and birth parent that we see in this situation. We need to start thinking more about the legal framework whereby a child moves from adoptive to birth parent.

We ended our discussion by thinking that the solution here was a child arrangements order. That would provide a legal framework for the birth mother and also some oversight of the process by way of a section 7 report.

However – as the blogger comments, this route does not solve all the problems

Do we go to court to get a Child Arrangement Order (previously residence Order)? A child arrangement order would only last until the girls were 16 and they still wouldn’t have the legal ties to their natural family. Can an adoption order be dissolved in the UK? Where would that leave the girls if one wants to stay with me and another return to Josephine, their relationship with each other and their big sister legally severed if the adoption is no longer in place? What about visits, if they want to come back to stay with me for 28 days or more, or come abroad on holiday with me and their sisters, would we have the same issues? Wherever the girls live, they will always be family, we’ve shared good times and bad, learned from each other, laughed and cried together, and as long as any of my children want I will always be there for them, severing the adoption would allow them back to where they belong but in my heart, as with Mummy Jo, the girls will always be ‘our girls’, unfortunately legally it isn’t so easy!

In the end – is the only solution for the adoption order to be revoked and the birth mother to then apply to adopt her own child? This cannot have been a situation envisaged by any of those drafting the Adoption and Children Act! Although at para 20 of the PK case the court comments:

PK has extremely strong feelings about her legal status. It is very important to her that the court takes account of her wishes and firm views which are that she should no longer be the adopted child of Mr and Mrs K but instead revert to having legal status as a member of her biological family.

I do not know what the court meant by ‘revert to having legal status as a member of her biological family’ as revocation of the adoption order does not – so far as I know – restore the PR of the birth parents. So what is meant here by ‘legal status’ ? Am I wrong about revocation of an adoption order not restoring a natural parents’ PR? Or presumably, the powers under the inherent jurisdiction being theoretically limitless, the High Court could restore PR?

Maybe someone has to volunteer to be a test case.

I would be very interested to hear other’s views – particularly if there are any reported cases I have missed which deal with this situation. I am pretty confident that this will not be the first or last example of the complexities that can follow the ‘happy ever after’ adoption order.


Child Protection Resource: 2019 The Year in Review

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

It has certainly been a busy year. 2019 made me think again and hard about some of my previously unchallenged assumptions – that the people I met on this road were invariably to be trusted to fight the good fight. I have seen instead increasing polarisation and promotion of narrative over substance. I have seen examples of cowardice and dishonesty from those I previously admired that has made me gasp.

But it is always better to know. I have certainly dialled down my ‘crusading’ given my realisation of just how tricky things are out there. I will remain very interested in what the 3 month ‘Inquiry’ into the FJS can possibly achieve, particularly given the ‘capture’ of many campaigning groups by people I know to be criminal and dangerous.

I remain sceptical that journalists have the ability or even the will to report on the FJS accurately or responsibly. While I was very pleased to be part of the appeal that lead to new October guidance on Reporting in the Family Courts, this may yet be a phyrric victory if journalists cannot be persuaded to move away from the salacious headline over accurate and fair reporting.

But the aim of the CPR is not to provide a platform for me to moan about things, although I will happily admit to hijacking it on a few occasions to do exactly that.

The aim of this site has always been to provide accurate and useful information for everyone in the child protection system – parents, lawyers, social workers etc. So its interesting to look at what posts were popular this year.

What did the audience want?

In 2018 the three most popular posts, with not much to divide them, were

interestingly, the post about section 20 of the Children Act 1989 – which in previous years had vied with the post about mental health as the most popular, had slumped to 4th place – which I hope reflects the growing unease and greater knowledge about the use and misuse of section 20.

So what was the picture in 2019?

This is – for me – pretty interesting. Its the first time since the site’s inception in 2014 that the post on mental health in care proceedings has been knocked from the top spot – to be replaced with ‘The Social Worker is Out to Get Me – Common concerns we hear from parents’ . In 2019 that post had gathered about 10K new views. I can only speculate why that is but guess that it may be a reflection of the growing awareness of ‘fake news’ and manipulation of social media. It’s interesting to note that all Top 3 posts are now from the ‘Mythbusting’ menu of the website.

The post meanwhile that continues to provoke the angriest comments was from June 2018 where I attempted to break down an argument that mothers abused children more than fathers – I concluded that it was pretty even but fathers just pipped the mothers at the post. The degree of consistent abuse and vitriol I have received from this post indicates that it is a very sensitive area and those with a stake in it often express themselves in very worryingly aggressive tones.

The massive dip in users in November 2019 is explained by a switch to a different host and the site went off line for 2 days.

Hopes for 2020

In 2019 the site had 390,871 users, the vast majority – 87% – new users coming from organic google searches. This is an increase from 2017 at 340,024 but a decrease from 2018 when this number was 437,338.

Again, I can only guess at the reason for this dip. It may be due to Twitter now refusing to publish anything with a link to this site; this censorship began around April 2019 and has never been explained by Twitter, despite frequent efforts to contact it. The noticeable ‘dip’ in users around that time as can be seen above, supports that view.

It may also be that other and better sources of information are spreading and available.

I really hope its the latter. As I keep saying – either we simplify our laws and our procedures or we provide better support for those who have no choice but to go through the system. Once the analytics show me that no one is reading anymore, then I will close down the site.

But for now, I think the need is still there. Let’s see what 2020 brings now we can finally focus on something other than Brexit. One thing I hope to see in CPR’s future is its own podcast!

A Happy New Year to all my readers.

Who Cares? An interactive play by What Next Theatre Group

On December 4th I travelled to see the production of the ‘What Next Theatre Group’ who describe themselves as ‘a new and exciting company working with Gloucestershire County Council and the Nelson Trust to present a new play in three scenes called ‘Who Cares?’ The play deals with the difficult issues surrounding adoption and the real consequences for the family and professionals involved’.

it was clear that the intent went beyond the mere presentation of a piece of theatre – after the play the actors and real life professionals gathered on stage to take questions from the audience – the actors remaining in character.

As the Theatre Group says:

We think that there is a rapidly increasing interest in the work of the family court and in the social issues with which it deals. We want to work together to show what may be done to help people through the most difficult ties of their lives – times when they experience extreme loss and degradation. We hope that by combining legal knowledge, theatre experience and the important work of the Nelson Trust, we can help the audience to consider new ideas and practice changes and understand some of the social issues that arise in this difficult area

So what follows are my impressions about how this enterprise met its stated goals.

It was certainly a bold idea. I do not wish to criticise its staging as that would clearly be unfair – this is a group which was set up about 8 weeks ago and presenting its work in a brightly lit lecture theatre with a very difficult and small stage on which to work. I would like to see it performed in a more sympathetic environment – the actors alone cannot do all the work of enabling us to suspend disbelief and even a punchy script and talented performers will struggle against these surroundings.

I am also entirely unclear what the random ‘trans’ character Ella/Ed bought to the narrative, other than to enable some members of the audience to signal their deep understanding around issues of inclusivity and identity by putting questions to Ed about how his (fictitious) family coped with his search to know who he was.

One of the most powerful strands of the script was the fact that the mother was herself adopted at the age of four, and how her adoptive parents had struggled with apparently little support with her behaviour as she grew. This is worthy of more exploration.

I also felt that the way in which the scenes were ordered detracted from rather than powered up the narrative – the court scene came second, after a very powerful opening in the hospital where the social worker was assaulted by an angry and terrified young mother, facing the removal of her second child.

I would have liked to have seen the court judgment as the final scene – it was well done, and an uncomfortable experience to be forced as a member of an audience to consider how the legal language and dry rejection of the birth family as ‘suitable’ to care for a child, must feel to those who have to sit and listen and struggle to understand.

I suspect that a more accommodating stage would have allowed for the court scene to have more power, regardless of where in the time line it came.

However, I can see that the drive of the production was to explore how after these proceedings the mother was simply left behind – the circus packed up and moved on, her only option to find temporary hostel accommodation once her mother and baby foster placement came to and end. The court is not the ‘end’ for parents.

‘Show not tell’

Leaving the limitations of staging aside, how did this production succeed on its aim to ‘show, not tell’ and to educate people about the work of the family justice system?

Without interviewing the entire audience its hard to say for sure. But I think I picked up enough information to reach some tentative conclusions. I was able to interview two of the audience who had no choice but to answer my questions as I was driving them home. This was interesting. One was a teenager who claimed to have only come because I bribed her with steak. However, she was able to provide an animated response and the evening had clearly piqued her interest. She found that language used by the mother challenging – she appreciated that this was no doubt realistic but it put up a barrier for her being able to feel compassion and sympathy.

The other was a newly qualified social worker who was very enthusiastic and said it had been a ‘great learning experience’ for her. She felt frustrated that she hadn’t been able to ask questions of the cast and wanted to know much more about why the baby’s grandparents could not have cared for him and what underpinned the social worker’s relationship with the mother in the first scene.

She asked – and I thought this very interesting – why no one had commented on the fact that the social worker was physically assaulted in the very first scene. Why this is something that is just seen as ‘what happens’ to social workers,

During the question and answer session with audience and cast, I was struck by how many in the audience appeared to be social workers, given the laughter or angry murmuring that followed some comments. One of the biggest laughs followed a question to the social worker about why she wanted to do the job. When asked how she coped she replied ‘I have supervision’ which bought another cynical chuckle from many.

The assertions of the Nelson Trust that social workers were ignorant about ‘trans’ and addiction issues caused a definite ripple and some passionate responses that it was simply wrong to expect social workers to know everything about everything – they work in multi agency teams and part of their job is knowing when they DON’T know and where to send people to for help.

So I asked if the audience would give me a show of hands as to how many were social workers. It was about half the 150 strong audience.

And that is interesting. Because its part of why I am concerned that these efforts to help people understand will not bear the fruit that is hoped. Its part of the reason that I abandoned active campaigning earlier this year – as I was so depressed by the refusal of many to challenge their own narratives, how they used every attempt to widen conversations as simply support for that narrative, rather than a challenge to it that ought to be accepted.

HHJ Wildblood was asked by the audience why he had become involved. His answers were interesting – I paraphrase here:

People don’t see how the family court works, just don’t understand the system, so I put this on stage … feel don’t think, make up your own minds…really wanted to make the point for after care, parents matter too. The main work must surely be done before court.

The whole purpose of our lives in one word – compassion. There is no ‘them’ there is only ‘us’ – want to try and send out that message.

It is powerful to hear these words spoken by a serving and senior member of the judiciary. I do not disagree at all with his distillation of the central message into one word – compassion.

But what the audience reaction showed to me is that efforts to make people ‘feel’ rather than ‘think’ may do nothing else but cement their already strong ‘feelings’ about why the system doesn’t work or who is to blame. It was clear where the Nelson Trust thought the blame should lie – parents aren’t given ‘enough time’ to make changes. In one uncomfortable exchange with the birth mother the social workers were referred to as ‘fuckers’ – this made the newly qualified social worker very uneasy, coupled with the complete lack of reaction from anyone to the fact that the social worker faced a physical attack on meeting the mother.

Nor do I think the ‘enough time’ argument has any weight. When I started out, 20 years ago, care proceedings routinely took one or even two years to drag to conclusion. This helped no one, least of all the child. ‘Time’ alone cannot turn around a person’s life. ‘Time’ plus ‘effective intervention’ may well do so. But this we do not have, for a variety of reasons – none of which say anything good about us as a species.

The reasons the system is failing are many. But as a species we cling to simple narratives to try and make sense of chaos and pain. It was clear that some in the audience (and cast!) clung to that narrative that its the ‘fault’ of the social workers – their arrogant language that they made the ‘decisions’ rather than recommendations to the court. And social workers don’t help themselves by this constant refrain that ‘we are child focused’. A child doesn’t exist in isolation from his family. A system that leaves the parents behind is cruel and ineffective. As the parents go on having children.

But. As the real life Team Manager said ‘We have to make the decisions that no one else wants to make’.

I think there is a real risk that social workers are being blamed for each and every social ill that has led us here. The saddest comment of all, for me, was to here the Team Manager talk about the difficulties of working with people from other agencies – the lack of time, the lack of trust.

And this chimes with my fundamental concern. Most people, most of the time appear to be on broadcast mode only. To open up space in their heads for real thought, to challenge their dearly held narratives is hard. Not many people seem able or willing to do it. I hope that events such as these do push at the door for some. Without a willingness from all concerned to be honest about what is happening, the situation can only get worse. But already it is quite beyond the efforts of any one group to change.

However, whatever my fears and cynicism – which certainly I also have to be open to challenge – at least 150 people traveled on a cold winters evening to participate with enthusiasm in a pretty unique piece of theatre. It is no small thing that a serving member of the judiciary has taken this step and is trying to do something to make us remember – there is no ‘them’. There is only ‘us’.

If you tolerate this – then your children will be next

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

The end of safeguarding for children?

Young children do not have capacity to make decisions

A child is a person between the ages of 0-18. Older children may be considered ‘Gillick competent’ and able to make serious decisions about their welfare needs which may then override parental objections and give adult doctors etc the necessary lawful consent to treatment or other interventions etc.

A very broad approach is this. A child under 6 is vanishingly unlikely to have the capacity to make serious decisions. Children between 6-12 will vary in their ability to understand and weigh information. Children approaching their teenage years are likely to be ‘Gillick competent’ and able to give consent to medical treatment etc but even the wishes of a ‘Gillick competent child’ are not automatically held to be determinative of every case.

Parents have a legal obligation to protect the children in their care.

Parents have ‘parental responsibility’ for their children. This is set out at section 3 of the Children Act 1989

In this Act “parental responsibility” means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.

In Christian Institute v Lord Advocate [2016] UKSC 512017 SC (UKSC) 29, paras 71 to 74, the Supreme Court recognised the responsibility of parents to bring up their children as they see fit, within limits, as an essential part of respect for family life in a western democracy.

A parent who fails to exercise parental responsibility for their child may find their children removed from their care by the State or even that they face criminal charges of cruelty or neglect. For example, The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 deals with ‘cruelty to a child under 16’

If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and has responsibility for any child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats (whether physically or otherwise), neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated (whether physically or otherwise), neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (whether the suffering or injury is of a physical or a psychological nature), that person shall be guilty of an offence, and shall be liable—

It therefore remains very surprising and alarming to see a constant stream of ‘advice’ and even court proceedings which appear to start from a very different basis entirely. That for one issue alone – that of ‘gender identity’ – a child of ANY AGE should be given the power to make decisions, this cannot be a safeguarding issue and any parent who stands in the way of this should find themselves the subject of legal censure.

If you are talking about children’s rights – which children do you mean?

The state of ‘childhood’ covers a very wide canvass. Children of 6 are not the same, on any level, as children of 16. I have written about this before. See:

No one, no issue is off the table when it comes to safeguarding – I discussed my alarm at a social worker suggesting that parents supporting a child around issues of gender identity was ‘not’ a safeguarding issue.

You had better make some noise; Abusers will eploit bad laws and poor safeguarding

So it was with enormous unease that I read about the latest comment on parental responsibility via issues of gender identity for children. Because this appears to be spearheaded by a major law firm, Dentons.

Roll on Friday reported on November 29th 2019 about the production of a document headed : ‘Only adults? Good practices in legal gender recognition for youth’. This purports to be a ‘report on the current state of laws and NGO advocacy in eight countries in Europe, with a focus on rights of young people’.

The authors of the report recognises with thanks whose who have contributed to it.

IGLYO and Thomson Reuters Foundation wish to extend their thanks and deep gratitude to the legal teams and activists who contributed their time and knowledge to create this report.

The report was prepared by Dentons Europe LLP with the assistance of Dentons UK and Middle East LLP, and the NextLaw Referral Network. Our special thanks to Dentons trainee lawyers Jennifer Sim, Anna Mackinnon and Madeleine Macphail and to the Dentons Europe Pro Bono Trainee, Margaux Merelle.

There is a disclaimer:

This report does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Readers wishing to act upon any of the information contained in this report are urged to seek individual advice from qualified legal counsel in relation to their special circumstances.

This report does not necessarily reflect the personal views of any of the lawyers, staff or clients of Dentons, Thomson Reuters Foundation or other lawyers, law firms or organisations that contributed to the development of this report.

Regardless of such disclaimers. this report is clearly intended to be used as a significant lobbying tool with the aim of changing the law. That is the explicit aim of the report.

GLYO’s aim was to create user-friendly resource for itself, its members and the broader advocacy community for use in campaigning efforts for better gender recognition laws across countries in the Council of Europe.

The report wishes to eliminate protections for children based on their age and understanding.

I went through the report to see what mention was made of children by age. There is no attempt to distinguish between the preschool child or the teenager. This is not surprising when you come to page 15 which calls to end the legal minimum age requirement.

Eliminate the minimum age requirement.

Where legal recognition procedures require prior medical treatment or investigation, these are often only available at the legal age of maturity and thus discriminate based on the age of the applicant. In other cases, where there is no medical requirement, minors are barred from legal recognition unless they have parental authorization. This remains a huge hurdle for young trans people who are yet to reach the age of maturity.

See also Page 9: Children and teenagers need to be allowed to define themselves however it suits them, both in social and legal terms

Page 13: The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in legal procedures, and the child’s view should be given proper weight, taking into account their individual maturity and development. A child’s best interests must include respect for the child’s right to express their views freely and due weight given to said views in all matters affecting the child. In practice this would mean, for example, that a statement from a public authority suggesting that children of a certain age are too young to be aware of their identity is contradictory to the “best interest” principle and the right to be heard. 

There is no doubt that the authors of this report see protections for children based on their age and understanding, do not apply when it comes to the issue of gender identity.

I can find no understanding or assessment of the impact this has on the legal and moral obligations of parents to protect their children, apart from a few vague references to the welfare of children. I can see no mention of the Article 8 rights to respect for family life.

The report wishes to punish parents who want to take responsibility to protect their children

Not only does this document appear to be ignorant of or uncaring about the young child’s lack of capacity to make serious decisions about their physical or mental health, there is even a call for parents to be punished if they do not accede to the demands made by their child – regardless of age or understanding – see page 14.

For example, states should take action against parents who are obstructing the free development of a young trans person’s identity in refusing to give parental authorization when required.

This is confusing, particularly when Norway – a country lauded for its progressive approach – sets out clearly the age restrictions considered important.

Norway is the most liberal, with legal gender recognition being available at any age, although with certain conditions for different age groups. For example, minors under the age of 6 can only have their legal gender altered if they are intersex. For minors between 6 and 16, it is available with parental consent, and for those over 16 a self-determination model operates. In contrast, in Belgium, legal gender recognition is unavailable for minors under the age 16, and for those between 16 and 18 years old parental consent is required.

Do the authors of this report agree there is a distinction between a 6 year old and a 16 year old? I am not sure they do. Rather, this distinction becomes irrelevant as their work is ‘to educate the public that legal gender recognition is a purely civil process’.

This is probably the most dangerous fudging of reality of all. The main reason many share my fears about removal of any age limits when considering transition is that the current model of engagement in the UK is ‘affirmation’ only – and a child set along a pathway of puberty blockers, cross sex hormones and surgery. These issues and the frightening lack of clear understanding about what is motivating every increasing numbers of children to want to change sex were recently investigated by Newsnight and File on Four, when looking at those who now wish to ‘detransition’.

What does it say when you want to keep your arguments hidden?

The report is clear that those campaigning must ‘fly under the radar’ to avoid uncomfortable scrutiny:

The most important lesson from the Irish experience is arguably that trans advocates can possibly be much more strategic by trying to pass legislation “under the radar” by latching trans rights legislation onto more popular legal reforms (e.g. marriage equality), rather taking more combative, public facing, approaches. 

Advice is given about activism ‘behind the scenes’:

Another technique which has been used to great effect is the limitation of press coverage and exposure. In certain countries, like the UK, information on legal gender recognition reforms has been misinterpreted in the mainstream media, and opposition has arisen as a result.

What of any benefit is done in the dark? This says to me loud and clear that the authors of this report know that what they are recommending cannot stand up to scrutiny. It says to me that they risk being motivated by something other than the welfare of the children they profess to be fighting for. When you bring in slick professionalism from law firms and others motivated by profit, it rings some very, very loud alarm bells for me.

Always ask yourself – who stands to benefit from from any change to the law? If the people pushing this are seeking professional or financial validation, always be wary. If the people pushing it wish to ‘fly under the radar’ – always ask yourself why.

There are clear parallels between the recommendations of this group and how cults and predators operate. Those who are to be successfully recruited into the cult must be isolated from friends and family who do not share the cults aims and beliefs.

Unless and until there is a significant body of evidence that the ‘affirmation’ model is one that operates in the best interests of children, we should all be extremely wary and worried about this.

And parents should continue to take responsibility for their children and protect them from making potentially harmful decisions with life long consequences – regardless of what is threatened by lobby groups who do not appear to know or care about the law.

Further reading

Working with young people questioning their gender? Ditch the label and understand the child’s world CAFCASS website March 2018 Anthony Douglas CEO – fails to distinguish between Gillick competent and non Gillick competent children and contains alarming phrase We have to understand whether we should support a fast track transition, which can for example mean we recommend immediate use of hormone blockers so that transitioning does not become more complicated biologically if there is delay.

NHS staff being advised to ignore parents’ wishes if children self-declare as different gender, guidance shows The Telegraph January 2019

Dentons campaigns for kids to switch gender identity without parental approval Roll on Friday 29th November 2019

The document that reveals the remarkable tactics of trans lobbyists The Spectator December 2nd 2019

When will violent men be prevented from taking part in care proceedings?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

I was recently asked to write a summary of a case called LA v XYZ (Restriction on Father’s Role in Proceedings) [2019] EWHC 2166 (Fam) (18 February 2019). I thought this was a useful case to discuss the legal framework about how you can stop a child’s father being involved in care proceedings.

This issue was subject to wide public discussion in November 2018 when Sammy Woodhouse asserted that her child’s father (in prison at the time of the application by the local authority for a care order) had been ‘offered contact’ with their son in care proceedings. A number of politicians took this up and there was manufactured outrage about this so called ‘rapist’s charter. The reality – as ever – was more complicated than that. The child’s father retains a right to know about care proceedings unless application is made to the court to expressly disallow this.

I think this is a useful illustration of why its so difficult to present issues around the family courts in a way that reflects reality. Deciding whether or not to allow adults to continue to have a role in a child’s life requires careful analysis about competing ECHR rights. There is no ‘rapists charter’, there is no demand that violent men have contact at ‘any price’ – but you would not know this from the various ‘campaigns’ now on going which seek to change a law that doesn’t actually exist.

So how is it that we can’t just ignore the existence of fathers who are violent or abusive? And if we do want to restrict their access or remove them entirely from care cases, what are the requirements we have to fulfil to make this lawful?

This case involves the child Z, who was in the home when her mother was murdered by her father. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, to serve a minimum term of 22 years. The Local Authority applied for a care order and did not want the father to be a party to those proceedings. The LA didn’t want the father to have any contact with Z and made an application under section 34(4) of the Children Act 1989 to stop this.

Finally, the LA asked to be released from its statutory duty under section 22 CA 1989 to consult the father about or give him notice of any future decisions relating to Z. This would mean the court needed to use its ‘inherent jurisdiction’.

The Guardian supported the LA position and reported that Z had said she wanted no further indirect or direct contact with her father and did not want him to know anything about her.

The father argued that he did not wish to cause harm to Z, but simply wanted to participate in proceedings. He could not interfere in his daughter’s life as he did not know where and with whom she now lived. He would accept continued redaction of documents to maintain that position.

The court decided to grant the LA’s applications. It is clear that such orders are ‘exceptional’ but in this case were necessary; having conducted an analysis of the various considerations the court was clear that Y’s continued involvement in these proceedings was ‘deeply harmful to Z.’

It is important to consider such issues as early as possible. If such an exceptional application is made, it should set out the terms of order sought and evidence must then be provided to set out the evidential foundation for why such an order is necessary. It may be necessary to re-allocate the case to the High Court.

General legal framework

The court considered the general legal framework if you want to stop a party to proceedings seeing some or all of the documents – or if you want to stop someone being a party at all.

Part 12 Family Procedure Rules [FPR] 2010 sets out who should be an automatic party to proceedings and who should be given notice of any application. A father with parental responsibility is an automatic respondent to care proceedings while Practice Direction 12A sets out that the LA should inform fathers who do not have parental responsibility about the application for a care order. See further the discussion in CD (Notice of care proceedings to father without parental responsibility) [2017] EWFC 34

The court has case management powers under rule 4.1 and 12.2 FPR 2010 to restrict a party’s access to material filed within proceedings. But this is an ‘exceptional’ course of action.

As the former President of the Family Division Sir James Munby commented in Re B (Disclosure to Other Parties) [2001] 2 FLR 1017. such cases will remain very much the exception and not the rule. It remains the fact that all such cases require the most anxious, rigorous and vigilant scrutiny.

With regard to exercise of the inherent jurisdiction, the court referred to the ‘extremely helpful analysis’ by Knowles J in Re X and Y (Children) [2018].

The LA required permission to make the application and needed to satisfy the requirements of section 100(4) CA 1989. The court was satisfied the relevant grounds were made out; the declaration sought can only be made under the inherent jurisdiction, and the welfare of Z was clearly engaged.It is clearly a serious matter to permit the LA to be released from its duty to inform and consult with parents pursuant to section 22 CA 1989.

Hayden J stated in Re O (A Child) [2015] EWCA Civ 1169 (paragraph 27)

The objective of the process here is to ensure not only that there is proper planning but the plan for the child continues to be the correct one, developing and evolving as the child’s needs change. It is to fortify the rigour of review that the section imposes a wide-ranging duty to consult, not least with the parents. Even a parent who has behaved egregiously may nonetheless have some important contribution to make in the future. The requirement to solicit the views of a parent is not contingent upon a moral judgment of parental behaviour; it is there to promote the paramount objective of the statue as a whole, i.e. the welfare of the child. These duties are a statutory recognition of the need appropriately to fetter the corporate parent.

Of particular relevance in this case was the evidence that the father had continually attempted to breach an order of 2015 which set out the limited parameters of his involvement in Z’s life. In January 2018 it was suggested that the father’s associates tried to force their way into Z’s new address, causing her significant distress. The court commented on the father’s inability in any of his written documents to recognise or understand the impact of this on Z.

The court therefore accepted the submissions of the LA – Article 6 would, all other matters being equal, favour disclosure to the father of information about Z, but when looking at the competing rights, in particular the Article 8 rights in relation to Z, there was ‘weighty justification’ for compromise of the father’s rights.

Human Rights and Adoption

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

It’s what we don’t know we don’t know that gets us every time

I was asked to speak at the recent Open Nest Collaborative Conference on Monday 14th October in York – just five minutes on human rights. O easy I thought, just a quick chat about Article 8, job done.

But then Amanda Boorman, founder of the Open Nest Charity showed me what she had written down as important to get across to the audience.

Protocol 1 Article 1 of the ECHR provides

Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

Amanda, rightly, thought this was very important from the perspective of the child in the care system, who finds their treasured possessions lost or thrown away as they are moved about from placement to placement.

She also wanted to talk about Article 14 

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this European Convention on Human Rights shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

This was clearly very important in light of the growing concern about the impact of poverty on how likely it was to find yourself referred for a child protection concern.

I was shocked to consider that it had simply not occurred to me – the lawyer – to discuss either of those two issues. I was content to trot out our old favourite Article 8 – the right to a family and private life, to psychological integrity – but the right that cuts both ways for the child in the care system; their ‘right’ to retain some kind of link with their birth family, considered of less or even no importance when balanced against their need for a ‘warm, loving forever family’.

So I had to confess my embarrassment that it had not even occurred to me to examine either of these rights, despite the impact both had on children and families in care and adoption proceedings.

I recalled earlier unease when I discussed  the ECHR with social workers on Twitter and found that they did not seem aware of the importance of such rights- I wrote about that here. 

This concern had also been stated by Brid Featherstone that day, in her talk about the BASW Inquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption

She asked the audience what do YOU think we need in this framework? At every stage of process, to ask – what should social workers be doing?

Andy Bilson then raised the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child -this has has 54 articles setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children everywhere are entitled to.  It is ‘the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history’ . The Social Services and Well Being (Wales) Act 2014 makes specific reference to the UN Convention in its ‘overriding duties’ at Part 7 –   a person exercising functions under this Act in relation to a child falling within section 6(1)(a), (b) or (c) must have due regard to Part 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989 (“the Convention”).

However I don’t think I have ever made reference to the UN Convention in any English case in my now 20 years of practice.  Hopefully the consideration by BASW of a new framework for social work education about human rights can bring the UN Convention more sharply into focus.

 

Why are Human Rights important?

But if I , the lawyer, couldn’t see the importance of Protocol 1 and Article 14 in the context of adoption,  without it being pointed out to me – how can I criticise social workers for not being as alive to the ECHR and its implications as I would wish?

So I thought it worth a reminder of why the human rights framework is so important when looking at State intervention in family life – particularly when the State intervenes to remove children permanently from their family of origin on a low standard of proof.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe – this is separate from the European Union and is larger, it has 47 members as opposed to the EU’s 28 (or shortly 27). Therefore it will NOT disappear if  Brexit actually happens.  This may be a disappointment to those who scoff at human rights as some kind of namby pamby pandering to snowflakes, but anyone who takes that view is revealing a disturbing ignorance about events still in living memory – when a European nation, home to great literature, music and scientific discovery, decided that it would categorise a number of its own citizens as ‘untermensch’, round them up, send them to concentration camps and kill them.

The ECHR was the response to the horrors of the German ‘Final Solution’ to eradicate the Jewish  people. It was largely drafted by British lawyers and came into force in 1953.

The Convention guarantees specific rights and freedoms and prohibits unfair and harmful practices.

  • the right to life (Article 2)
  • freedom from torture (Article 3)
  • freedom from slavery (Article 4)
  • the right to liberty (Article 5)
  • the right to a fair trial (Article 6)
  • the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t against the law at the time (Article 7)
  • the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
  • freedom of expression (Article 10)
  • freedom of assembly (Article 11)
  • the right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
  • the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights (Article 14)
  • the right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
  • the right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
  • the right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
  • the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13)

Although Article 6 and Article 8 will continue to be the rights of overarching importance in care and adoption proceedings, all of us who work in this field have an obligation to become familiar with ALL the rights and freedoms protected.  I note for example the right to education and the negative impact that care proceedings often bring to a child’s continuing education, ending up in a foster placement far from a much loved school.

As Elie Wiesel said, having survived the Holocaust – it is by denying our essential humanity that makes it easy to destroy another.   Taking someone’s child away is an act that strikes against the psychological integrity of both parent and child. That child may urgently need taking away, the sooner the better; but if we persist in mechanisms of removal that deny both parents and child their fundamental human dignity, then we do great harm.

We don’t fight to preserve the human rights of others simply for their sake – it is also for our own.

 

Further reading/listening

An interesting roundup of the day from the Adoption and Fostering Podcast. 

A letter to the President of the Family Division: No unregulated expert shall be allowed to report in a family case

We, the undersigned have experience of experts in the family courts as either professionals or parents.

We are writing to request an amendment to Practice Direction 25 B so that no person may be permitted to submit an expert report involving the assessment of any child unless that person meets minimum standards of professional practice, which we assert are as follow. The expert must:

  • submit to an external regulatory or supervisory body which requires adherence to a Code of  Conduct
  • meet professional obligations as data controllers
  • provide clear and accessible formal complaints procedure

We are troubled by the number of experts involved in family proceedings who do not appear to meet some or all of these basic requirements.

Practice Direction 25B sets out the standards expected of expert witnesses  – see Annex paras 4 and 6.

The expert is up-to-date with Continuing Professional Development appropriate to their discipline and expertise, and is in continued engagement with accepted supervisory mechanisms relevant to their practice.

If the expert’s area of professional practice is not subject to statutory registration (e.g. child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, mediation, and experts in exclusively academic appointments) the expert should demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis.  Registering bodies usually provide a code of conduct and professional standards and should be accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (See Appendix 2). If the expertise is academic in nature (e.g. regarding evidence of cultural influences) then no statutory registration is required (even if this includes direct contact or interviews with individuals) but consideration should be given to appropriate professional accountability.

We feel strongly that the requirement to consider such regulation on a ‘case by case basis’ is potentially unfair to parents who may be acting in person and who may not initially appreciate the potential significance of a failure by any professional to submit to external regulation.

We are very concerned that parents who wish to raise significant concerns about the conduct of an expert who is not subject to external regulation, have no where to go other than the appeal process, which is clearly not a suitable mechanism to deal with the majority of complaints against an expert’s conduct.

We would be grateful if you would give our letter consideration.

SIGNATORIES as of 17th October 2019

Sarah Phillimore, Barrister

Professor Lauren Devine

Stephen Parker Senior Lecturer

Dr Sue Whitcombe  CPsychol AFBPsS

rob@voiceofthechild.org.uk

Carine Moller

Vinice Cowell

Ruth Tweedale, family law solicitor and lecturer

Alison Bushell, expert

Nicky Sole, parent.

Alice Tew

Deborah Hope

Mike Flinn , Child and Family Therapist , MBACP ( accred)

Roy Mackay, Family Law Reform Campaigner

Belinda Jones, FMC Family Mediator, AFCC Parenting Co-ordinator, GDL, LPC.

Trish Barry-Ralph ISW, expert witness

Ruaidhri Magee, Parent

Helen Taylor Social Worker

Dr Nick Child, BSc MB ChB MRCPsych MPhil Retired Child Psychiatrist and Family Therapist

Debi Richens, parent and grandparent

Tracey McMahon – Housing and Welfare Rights Practitioner

Nick Burke Social Worker

Rosie Dixon Psychologist

Alicia Leal Parent

Jennifer Cole, Midwife

Charlotta Bolton – Parent

Emma Cleaver – Parent

Julia O’Connor – Parent

Rachel Barnes

Dave Gwilliams

Amanda Hewitt-Coleman

Andrea Brougham

Rachel Gough

Simon Cushing

Shelly Wieczorek

Zainab Hassan

Tracy Stapleton Childcare Professional

Doreen Langford

Carol Newton

Lisa Blakey

Sofia Nilsson

Helen Woodhouse NHS Nurse

Emma French

Moira McCann Registered Childminder

Harriet Hughes

Maria Denny

Therese Lindberg

Samra Soliman

Izy Soliman

Marie Howell

Helen Green NHS

Hazel Rhoades

Louise Edwards

Jurate Puodz

Caroline Howe

Becci McFadyen

Sarah Tolson

Nina Coulianos

Padmini Baker

Charlotta Bolton

Lynn Aicorn

Anna Bradshaw

Heather Murray

Ekaterina Crawford

Laura Brooks Deputy Headteacher

Leah Moyse

Zoe Elisabeth

Alexander McKee

Maria Rosberg

Amanda Fakeerah

Alison Elstone

Laura Low-Douse

Sue Roberts

Victoria Cushing

Mark Howell

Nina Ayalon

Christina Lamb, parent.

 

 

 

 






No one, no issue is off the table when it comes to safeguarding

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

I was sent a copy of an article this evening. It appears in the October edition of ‘Professional Social Work Magazine’ which I am told is a publication for those who belong to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) a powerful and influential organisation which claims over 20,000 members, ‘committed to the highest standards of practice and ethics’.

The article was written by someone who did not want to reveal their identify, in order to protect that of their child, which I can quite understand. The article is titled ‘Listen to children on gender – what being the parent of a trans child has taught me’.

It is the account of a teenager who struggled with a ‘gender identity’ that did not ‘match the sex they were assigned at birth’ and how the parents supported the child to transition from female to male after the child made his wishes known at 12 – having spent ‘months, if not years’, ‘thinking about his body as wrong’.

It is a sensitive account from a parent about how they responded to their child who, on this account clearly did appear to be expressing strong views that had been held over time. I have absolutely no difficulty with this. It is clear that ‘gender dysphoria’ does exist and a small percentage of people will benefit from surgery to bring their physical body more into alignment with what they believe their body should be.

However, there will, I am equally sure, be those who profess a wish to ‘change sex’ who have other issues and difficulties that medication or surgery will not alleviate. Such intervention may have permanent and life long consequences and should not be entered into lightly. Enormous caution should be taken around ‘supporting’ a child who is not Gillick competent into making any serious decision about their lives.

And this is where the article began to make me feel very uneasy. Far from restricting it to an account of one child’s journey, it is clear that the author wishes to offer far more general guidance and does so on the basis of assertions that are – in my view – profoundly misguided and actively dangerous.

The author raises as a ‘myth’ that hormone treatments are given to children under the age of 16 or surgery is considered only at 18. Possibly she or he is unaware of the activities of Dr Helen Webberley and what appears to be a growing number of activists who demand that ‘puberty blockers’ should be available to children as young as 12. Ironic also is the fact that the CEO of Mermaids Susie Green took her child abroad for surgery when the child was only 16.

Offering up these age limits of 16 and 18 as some kind of inviolate barrier beyond which people cannot pass is simply naive – particularly given the inevitable ‘drive’ for increased intervention at a younger age as that will make it easier for a child to ‘pass’ – particularly a boy who wants to become a girl.

But my real fears are raised by the ‘bullet points’ at the end of the article

  • Just because a child is telling you they are transgender, does not mean they are too young to know this
  • Its not possible to force a child or young person to be trans
  • parents supporting their child in their gender identify is not a safeguarding issue

I wonder if the author of this article has read the judgement in Re J?  I wrote about this in more detail in this post – In whose best interests? Transgender children: choices and consequences – and the issues around bear repeating here.

This is an important case – J (A Minor), Re [2016] EWHC 2430 (Fam) (21 October 2016).

The Transparency Project wrote about the case and the media response here and summarised the court’s approach in this way:

Mr Justice Hayden heard the case over a number of days in the summer and, based upon the experts and professionals whose evidence he heard (along with that of the mother herself), the judge concluded that J was a little boy whose mother’s perception of his gender difference was suffocating his ability to develop independently – and was causing him significant emotional harm. He was placed with his father, where he quickly began to explore toys and interests that were stereotypically “boys”. The judgement is very clear that the father had brought “no pressure on J to pursue masculine interests” and that his interests and energy were “entirely self motivated” (pa 47). So, not forced to live “like a boy” (whatever that means) – but choosing (there is more detail in the judgment).

Importantly, Hayden J acknowledged that there are genuinely children who are transgender or gender dysphoric, and who present in this way from an early stage, but – and here is the crux of it – this child was not one of them. This was all about the mother’s position.

At para 63 of the July judgment, the judge commented on the expert opinion of the mother and how she presented:

When stressed and distressed, [M] becomes controlling, forceful and antagonistic. This reflects her underlying anxiety. She is actually very frightened and upset. She tries to sooth herself by taking control of situations but her interpersonal style is counter-productive. She does not negotiate well. She finds it difficult to compromise and situations become inflamed rather than de-escalated. In situations of interpersonal conflict, she protects herself from loss of confidence or face by unambiguously perceiving herself as correct which means that from her perspective, the other party is wrong. To acknowledge her flaws, even to herself, feels crushing and devastates her self-esteem so she avoids this possibility by locating responsibility and blame elsewhere. When she is unable to achieve the outcome that she wants, she resorts to formal processes and/or higher authorities: complaint procedures, The Protection of Human Rights in Public Law, the European Court of Human Rights, Stonewall and so on.”

It is clear that the mother was insistent with all agencies that J ‘disdained his penis’ and was being subjected to bullying at school etc. She could not provide any proof of this and the school denied it was happening. She was supported throughout by Mermaids who played a significant role in the development of a ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ that J – at 4 years old – wished to be a ‘girl’. That view was found by the court to have no bearing in reality and was a product of both ‘naivety and professional arrogance’

Mr Justice Hayden was highly critical of the local authority for getting swept up in this prevailing and false orthodoxy, commenting at paragraph 20 of the July judgment

This local authority has consistently failed to take appropriate intervention where there were strong grounds for believing that a child was at risk of serious emotional harm. I propose to invite the Director of Children’s Services to undertake a thorough review of the social work response to this case. Professional deficiencies to this extent cannot go unchecked, if confidence in this Local Authority’s safeguarding structures is to be maintained.

No one and no thing is exempt from safeguarding

I am profoundly worried by that last bullet point in the article – “parents supporting their child in their gender identify is not a safeguarding issue”.

The mother in re J was supported throughout by Mermaids, who issued an angry press release after the judgment and said there would be an appeal. There was not. The author of this article refers its readers to Mermaids as a useful resource.

It is surely the antithesis of any responsible social work or safeguarding policy to set up groups of people or particular issues that are immune from examination or critical regard. While the author’s 12 year old child may have thought long and hard about the issue and demonstrated his Gillick competence beyond doubt – I suggest the same certainly cannot be offered with regard to a 4 year old. But is the issue of ‘trans’ now off the table for social workers? Whatever the child’s age or level of understanding – if he or she declares they are trans, then that is that? No further investigation or assessment is required? How can this be right? How is this good social work?

I am really worried about this. I would be interested to hear from other social workers about what they think, and how they would approach a case involving a very young child who wished to embark upon a path of ‘changing sex.’

 

 






After 5 years as a ‘crusader’ I am admitting defeat – and this is why.

In 2014, with the support and encouragement of mumsnet users I set up the website Child Protection Resource online. We had considerable concerns about the lack of reliable information which was easily available for parents facing care proceedings and real fears about the way in which people in positions of authority and power seemed happy to promote false narratives to make people afraid.

I had such high hopes. Surely all people need is to see the facts set out before them, clearly and simply and all will be well! In pursuit of this dream I organised 3 multi-disciplinary conferences in 2015, 2016 and 2018.  It seemed to go well. The first conference was a genuinely energising and positive experience when for the first time parents, social workers, experts and lawyers gathered in one room to speak honestly about their experiences in a system of children protection that we all agreed was not working and was brutalising those within it.

But as the years went by, my naivety has been revealed for what it was and my enthusiasm has dimmed. It is clear to me now that professionals do not operate in isolated silos, failing to engage with others, because they are forced to – it is because they WANT to.  Stepping out of your comfort zone and facing some hard and uncomfortable choices about your profession and the choices you make within it is very difficult. I can see why many are simply unable to do it.

And that’s ok. I am not here to berate people for not being willing to risk their homes and their jobs on some crusade. I appreciate it is very difficult for many to speak out. Family cases are particularly difficult to engage with in public due to the many necessary rules that exist to protect identification of children.

So I get that. But I wasn’t asking people to be warriors. I was asking people to be authentic. To be honest. To connect. And it is sadly clear to me now that this is never going to happen. There are not merely the concerns about possibly being in contempt of court – which I quite understand – but there is something much darker going on. A lack of honest recognition of problems and difficulties because this might challenge a prevailing orthodoxy or a funding stream or a personal ‘brand’ – or simply be embarrassing.

And I will not be complicit with this. Because I think its really harmful. Not only to the possibility of driving forward any real change to a brutalising system, but because there are real people – real children – who get ignored if people are more concerned about embarrassment and saving public face than they are about engaging with what is going wrong.

As I have already indicated, I have withdraw support from any journalist who wishes to campaign to open up the family courts, as the last five years have shown me that journalists are either unwilling or unable to accept the harm they do to this area in particular, by click bait appeals to the lowest common denominator.  I will no long be willing to sit in conferences and talks by social workers that preach the importance of relationships when key members of that profession seem unable or unwilling to recognise that the fundamental building block of any relationship is honesty and trust. I will not sit by in silence when even the Ministry of Justice does not appear to understand its own system of laws and I will continue to object very loudly to those who push fake and partisan narratives at the expense of the rule of law.

I will keep my site going and updated. For the parents who may benefit from it. No parent is responsible for this system and its failings. No parent should be asked to care about this. They need a system that can operate fairly and efficiently, to either remove those children who need protection their parents cannot give in the least cruel way possible, or to step away from those families who have unfairly been the subject of state scrutiny. Better yet, not ever have to engage in punitive measures against families which may have been able to make it with some guidance and support.

I have been deeply disappointed by the last five years. But I don’t regret for one moment embarking on this experiment. It has opened my eyes and my mind and both before were, to a large extent, closed. It has enabled me to meet many people of great wisdom and courage that I would otherwise never have met. To all of them, I offer my thanks.