Who Guards the Guards? Expert witnesses and abuse of power

I am grateful for this post from one of our readers, who shares her own experiences of being assessed by an expert witness and her concerns about those in positions of authority who abuse their positions of trust. She raises some important issues regarding potential consequences that can flow from a relationship where the balance of power is weighted so heavily against the parent. 

I AM therefore I CAN (with apologies to Descartes)

I recently read a blog post on Twitter by @suesspiciousminds. It was about an expert, a clinical psychologist who had misrepresented comments made by a mother and a child in public law care proceedings. In his blog, @suessspiciousminds writes:
“I am genuinely shocked by this. It undermines a lot of credibility of expert witnesses”

Sadly, I am not at all shocked by this. I was up against an expert in his field, a psychiatrist who not only assessed mothers facing care proceedings but who was also an expert witness. For reasons known only to himself, he wanted to have my children put up for adoption.

It started off with an allegation. A false one. My then husband and I had a row over money. We had two children aged 5 and 7 weeks. I was the only one earning at the time and under huge strain to get back to work as I was self-employed and we faced eviction. My husband had been promising for a while that a client would pay him. I found out it was a lie and so we rowed.
It was an almighty row – not physical but a lot of shouting. As he stormed out of the house, I shouted at him not to bother coming back until there was money. An hour or so later, the police came knocking on my door. My initial thought was that my husband must have died in a car accident, such was the speed with which he drove off. I was wrong. The policemen wanted me to come to the station to answer some questions. They would not tell me anything else. My 7 week old baby was already in the car seat asleep as I had intended to drive to see the landlord and plead with him not to evict us.

We were put in an interview room where we stayed all day. Every so often a police officer would walk in the room and tell me that my husband was doing his statement, that when he had finished, they would ask for mine. I remember not being worried. I was desperate to speak to the landlord and saw this as a hurdle to a more pressing problem. My husband lied. It was what he did and they would see it for what it was. At the time I did not know what ‘it’ was.

I started to get anxious after 3pm as my older child was due to finish school. It was all taken care of, the police officer told me. Arrangements had been made for my child to be picked up but they would not tell me what those arrangements were or how much longer I would be. They just kept repeating the mantra: When my husband had finished with his statement, they would ask me for mine. By this point I was getting scared. Why was his statement taking so long? What was he saying? He lies, that’s what he does I kept repeating to myself. They’ll find out.

At maybe around 5 to 6 pm, a police officer came into the interview room that my baby and I had been kept in all day. He told me that my baby was going to be checked over at hospital. I stood up as I fully expected to go too but one of the officers put his hand on my chest and pushed me roughly into a chair.
“You’re not going anywhere” he said.

At this point I became really alarmed as I watched my 7 week old baby being taken away by an officer as the other one kept me firmly in the chair. I started crying, “I need to go with my baby, I’m breastfeeding” I was still sobbing when some moments later the door opened. Two people walked into the room, looked at me crying, went back out. I could hear whispering behind the door. When it did open, I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. I still had no idea what my husband had said.

In the psychiatric ward, I asked for a solicitor and a breast pump. I was told I could ask for a solicitor at 9 am the next morning but was denied a breast pump. “You won’t be needing it where you’re going” the midwife said to me.

By 11am the following morning, I had a solicitor to appeal the detention, a visit from a social worker, a family solicitor and a breast pump. I then found out my husband had alleged I had thrown our 7 week old baby across the room, that I had a history of severe psychiatric illness including schizophrenia. It was actually my sister who was schizophrenic. I also found out that my children had been taken to a foster carer at a secret location as I was deemed too dangerous to know their whereabouts. I asked why the children weren’t with their father. The social worker told me that anyone who leaves a 7 week old baby with someone who has just thrown them across the room was just as guilty.

I was under 24 hour observation to spot signs of aggression and mental illness for 2 weeks, until the appeal hearing. The hearing took less than 10 minutes. They had acted on information giving to them by my husband and they had failed to verify. My 7 week old baby was healthy and well looked after and I did not have a mental illness nor showed any signs of aggression.

End of story? Not quite.

I was told that proceedings had started and it would take about a year before the children could come home to me. I would need to be assessed with the children. The Guardian insisted that I be sent to an extremely expensive residential assessment centre which was run by a highly qualified psychiatrist who was also an expert witness to the court. The children and I would be there for a month.

The psychiatrist lived next to the assessment centre but, apart from watching him jogging, or seeing him when he came into the kitchen to use the washing machine, we hardly ever saw him. It was not until about the 3rd day that I had a ‘session’ with him. I walked into his office and the first thing he said was “You don’t like me, do you?”

I was thrown by this comment and all I could say was; “I don’t think it’s a question of whether I like you or not, I think it’s a question of whether we can work together.” Apparently it was not the answer he was looking for. Observations were done by the (largely) unqualified staff and he would then look over their notes and make his assessments from those notes and the weekly sessions he had with the residents. In my next session he spent the whole time telling me that my husband had not lied and that I had made it all up, refusing to believe me but then ending the session with “If it’s too good to be true it’s not true”. I felt as though he was trying to catch me out, as though there were answers he wanted to hear that I was not giving him. I could only answer as I felt but it felt wrong.

To pass the time, I baked bread and would bake a loaf daily for all the residents to share. One morning a staff member told me that he had cut the loaf in half and taken the half with him. That was the day he chose to keep coming in the kitchen – something he never did. He was obviously expecting a reaction from me so I told him that I had made the bread for the residents and that if he wanted some he should have asked as it meant there wasn’t enough to go round. Perhaps, not surprisingly, that did not go down well. I failed ‘the test’ again when he came in from his customary jog and put his running shorts in the washing machine. He had left his phone and car keys in the pocket and I burst out laughing.

I later found out that it was all deliberate (perhaps not the car keys/phone). He liked to press the residents’ buttons to see how they would react under pressure. This would include giving us various tasks. Asking us to do things when the children were hungry or upset or tired. He would probably justify it as making sure the mothers could cope with day to day life. I got a feeling that he had more than a sadistic streak to him.

The Court hearing was heart stopping. This ‘expert’ psychiatrist diagnosed me as of below average intelligence and it was his recommendation that my children would be best placed if they were put up for adoption. The Guardian agreed with him. The Local Authority did not.
On the day, of the hearing, the Guardian, Local Authority, and the lawyers had a meeting which excluded my solicitor. I remember my barrister, who had caught a train from London so arrived after everyone else, walking straight into their meeting saying something about not having a meeting without him.

I believe that in that meeting, the Guardian was trying to convince the Local Authority that my children should be put up for adoption. In Court, the Local Authority did not agree with the Guardian and the ‘expert’. The Judge agreed with the Local Authority.

I came so close to losing my children permanently based on I don’t know what reasoning. What I do know is that there are people in positions of power, who are trusted by the Court, in their capacity as experts in their field, who exploit and abuse that power. In the case of this psychiatrist, children were removed from mothers he diagnosed as mentally ill, as unable to parent. How many of these mothers were, in fact, capable?

Bullies and abusers use their position of power to intimidate those who, often, are unable to fight for themselves. I was incredibly lucky that a social worker was able to stand up to not just the Guardian but an expert’s opinion. But where this is not the case, who is there to keep us safe from the experts?

13 thoughts on “Who Guards the Guards? Expert witnesses and abuse of power

    1. Anon

      I really was incredibly lucky. I don’t think I realised just how lucky at the time. I’ve known some absolutely dreadful SW’s and some exceptional ones. The good ones don’t get enough credit.

  1. Sarah Phillimore

    Yes, the only comforting thing about this account is that the social worker was able to stand up to both the expert AND the guardian.

    1. Anon

      She was very experienced. The guardian had a reputation for bullying and a less experienced SW would have, I imagine, caved in under pressure. It takes a great deal to stick your head above the parapet and say ‘ I don’t agree’ and bullies count on that.

    2. Anon

      Sarah, I read through an old file today and found some notes I had made of my time at this assessment centre. In the month I was there I had 3 sessions with the psychiatrist. All sessions were without my children and so he was unable to supervise me with them but , and I had forgotten about this as it is well over 10 years ago, in one of the sessions he suggested that maybe my father had abused me. I remember I laughed and said he was barking up the wrong tree but he insisted that my father had abused me and that I exhibited the signs of someone who had been abused and had chosen not to remember. I refused to accept this postulation. The reason I have chosen to add this is because, at the time of the sessions, I did not consider the psychiatrist dangerous, I just thought he was an arrogant prat but at the court hearing, hearing his assessment of me, it made me think : is this how ‘experts’ ‘suggest’ a memory ? Is this ‘normal’ practice for a psychiatrist? At the time I did not give it much thought as I had not considered that some residents/patients may be susceptible to a suggestion but now I actually think about it, the potential for misuse is absolutely horrifying.

      1. Sarah

        There has certainly been a lot of very troubling stuff about ‘recovered memories’ – and of course the Satanic Panic in the U.S. and here, to a lesser extent. It is always good to be reminded that experts are not infallible and can be subject to fads and fashions.

  2. Angelo Granda

    The question is what safeguards are in place to protect children against such abuses ( and parents of course).

    Assuming they are in place,what are they and were they adhered to ? Safeguards and procedures are useless if they can be ignored at will by those responsible ( the authorities).

    Starting with the Police, how could they possibly get Mum sectioned so easily?
    Did they follow procedure?

    Regarding the psychologist,these can be strange individuals.Should she have had a second opinion or something?

    Helen says it sounds barmy and i agree.
    So what are the safeguards against such inhumanity in theory?

    The lawyers and Court are responsible for enforcing them,i think.

    1. Anon

      My solicitor told me it was a knee jerk reaction. What my then husband said was so serious and he was so convincing, they acted first then did the checks. The next day they realised they’d made a mistake and were hoping to find something to justify their actions. The ‘expert’ taking a dislike ( I presume) to me was all they had.

  3. Sam

    This is so scary, but I would not see this as a one off. I should imagine a considerable percentage of parents have been parted from the children because of experts just like this one. I certainly had a psychiatrist who had very minimal knowledge about domestic violence and how someone who had been severely abused would present. What however is even more worrying that both he and the child psychologist deemed it OK to leave a child with a father who manhandled her, threw her out of the house and threatened to kill her whilst proceedings were ongoing. Of course the same applies to the Judge, the Guardian and the SW.
    The author of the article was extremely fortunate, despite the obvious trauma she has been through. At some point hopefully the penny will drop that parents are justified in their concerns and not all conspiracy theorists.

    1. Anon

      There are parents who make allegations out of malice and there are parents who are genuinely concerned for their child’s safety. What worries me is that there aren’t more professionals out there who can or want to differentiate one from the other – there is too much blanket *eye roll* it’s 6 of one half a dozen of the other apathy.

  4. Angelo Granda

    Sám, I agree with you completely. I don’t believe cases like that above are all that rare either and we shouldn’t forget that injustices also happen in cases where dv or marital disputes are not a factor. It sounds as if this poor mum was somehow a victim of mistaken identuty as well as allegations from a lying,manipulative and no doubt very convincing, seemingly honest but deceptive bully.
    Yes,she was lucky and how ironic it is that in her case it was a SW who rescued her and her child. It just goes to show!
    I know of a case where the Police and CS took action and blew a family apart because of just such a mistake . They got the wrong family completely. Yet when the mistaken identity was discovered it did not save them.Not at all!.
    Rather than admit to the mistake and return the children,they said not a word about the error and set about justifying themselves by examining all the peripheral , trivial issues and inflating them beyond reason,
    I don’t like saying this on the CPR about professionals but i want to be absolutely sincere .Like Sarah says, we should never be afraid to express ourselves freely.
    I think the penny dropped a long time ago! Too many parents come on with similar stories.Some of them are obviously not theorists, like Annie, yourself and others.
    The problem is that when faced with injustices and clear examples of systemic malpractice,those professionals with the power to make a real differencd instead choose to prevaricate and avoid the real issues. The lawyers,in particular,tend to look upon the injustices with too much circumspection.I think they underestimate the problem and ‘hope’ they are fairly rare.They look upon it as collateral damage,a price to be paid for saving the other children.That argument is a bankrupt one ,of course . Everyone deserves justice even those who are guilty of neglect etc.
    Cases should always be conducted correctly without failure. Scrupulously. In accordance with the law.
    Children don’t want prevarication.They want their Human Rights and freedoms.
    The real issues to be discussed are how do we ensure the safeguards are followed? Who guards the guards? Also we should be demanding automatic,legally funded appeals in cases where abuses of procedure come to light afterwards.

  5. Sam

    I think the short answer is no one guards the guards. The complaints procedures are baffling and just as open to being fraudulent as the procedures themselves. When the Local Government Ombudsman occasionally gets involved the damages awarded simply do not reflect the severity of the malpractice.

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