The Times, online April 29th 2009
Parents fighting in the family courts for contact with their children are being denied access to their personal files by a corrupt system, a leading parental rights campaigner has said.
Alison Stevens, head of Parents Against Injustice, has called for Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to force social services and individual courts to comply with the Data Protection Act.
She said: “Local authorities have to send the requested files within 40 days . . . but they are often not following public law guidelines. It’s corruption within the system. They are playing God, and there must be some reason why — perhaps to hide things they have got wrong in the cases.”
Evidence is gathered from a variety of sources before children are taken from their parents in family courts. Tracking down and obtaining these documents can be very difficult because they are held by various bodies and must be applied for in different ways.
Ms Stevens said: “Parents should be entitled to their files — not just social services files but all files: from health visitors, GPs, different hospitals, the ambulance trust, psychologist reports, paediatrician notes and so on.”
The Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has written to all MPs calling for a parliamentary review into the operation of the family courts. He said: “One of the ways legal practitioners prevent parents from fighting cases is by not giving them the paperwork. Often the paperwork doesn’t add up, so if parents got hold of it they would see what was going on.”
Many parents have welcomed the call for greater accountability. Roland Simpkin (not his real name) received his social services files seven years after his children were taken into care in 2001 amid allegations of abuse.
When the allegations were shown to be unfounded, he sought to obtain the evidence held on him by social services to find out why he was still not allowed to see his children.
He was sent his files last year, after pursuing his case through a series of letters, complaints and court orders, but he found that parts of the notes had been crossed through with black pen, words had been deleted and sections of paragraphs had been removed during photocopying.
Mr Simpkin said: “Despite being repeatedly found not to have harmed or posed a risk of harm to children or anybody else’s, the sheer amount of delay introduced by the sluggishness of the social services department to share information is likely to be a serious negative factor in any potential repeated contact .”
In another case, Marc Tufano, an actor who has appeared in EastEnders and The Bill, has not seen his two sons for seven years because he cannot obtain the documents that he needs to bring his case to appeal.
His children were given residence with his partner in 2003 after their relationship broke down. Though he immediately tried to launch an appeal, he said that he had found it impossible to obtain transcripts of the original court hearings because the court authorities had been slow to reply to his requests and had since claimed to have destroyed the documents.
Mr Tufano said: “I have begged these government agents to leave me alone so as I can see my sons without being harassed by endless arguments over the paperwork they require. It is made impossible for parents to get hold of the documents they need.”
Case study: I fired six sets of solicitors
Sezgi Kapur’s two daughters were taken from her in 2003 amid allegations that her violent attitude towards care professionals could be harmful to her children, allegations she denies.
Before the hearings in the family court, her requests for her social services files were ignored or denied, and she was forced to apply for court orders to disclose the documents. Without them, Ms Kapur was unable to respond to the evidence gathered against her by social services and care workers, and so was unable to fight her case effectively.
After the files were provided, she discovered that the minutes from high-level social services meetings about her case had been withheld and that memos had been circulated to those who attended asking them to “destroy all previous copies” of notes from the meeting.
Ms Kapur said: “These meetings painted a picture of me as a volatile, aggressive, threatening individual who was alienating professionals, who might one day emotionally harm my children through this purported alienation. It was incredible to read this.
“I fired six sets of solicitors because they failed to get disclosure of all my documents. If the parents do not get a fair trial, the children do not either.”
Shaun O’Connell, a lay adviser working on behalf of Environmental Law Centre, said: “If you’re not familiar with the Data Protection Act and you don’t know the format and structure, it’s impossible.”
Names have been changed