Mothers are having their newborn babies taken into care after remote family court hearings from their hospital bed during pandemic, report reveals
- Almost half of parents or relatives didn’t understand well proceedings by phone
- Many parents participating in life-changing hearings by phone rather than video
- In some cases mothers told babies would be taken into care from hospital beds
Mothers are having their newborn babies taken into care following virtual family court hearings from their hospital beds, a new report shows.
Around half of parents or relatives involved in remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic admitted they did not understand exactly what was happening in the proceedings, a study published today by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found.
Around 88 per cent said they had ‘worries and concerns’ about the way a case was dealt with, while the majority of professionals believed ‘fairness and justice’ was delivered on most occasions.
The report, commissioned by the President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, was undertaken as courts in England and Wales rapidly adapted to using telephone and video hearings following lockdown in March.
In the two-week period between March 23 and April 6, audio hearings across all courts and tribunals increased by over 500 per cent, and video hearings by 340 per cent.
The report said parents were often having to participate in life-changing hearings about their children by phone rather than video link, with many struggling to understand what was going on in the court.
Mothers are having their newborn babies taken into care following virtual family court hearings from their hospital beds, a new report shows. Pictured: Stock image
It noted particular concern about hearings in which newborn babies were taken into care shortly after birth. In these cases, the mother would often join by phone from the hospital.
‘There is nothing fair about a remote hearing which requires you to remove a newborn baby from its mother,’ one judge said. ‘Remote hearings do not enable you to show empathy.’
A barrister added: ‘I was required to represent a mother who was in hospital having given birth where removal was sought. She had no support and she took part by phone.’
The study, for which 1,100 professionals and 132 family members were contacted, added ‘mothers have frequently not been able to have any physical contact with their babies following their removal.’
One barrister said contact had ‘generally been virtual’ between a mother and child throughout the pandemic, which they dubbed ‘inadequate.’
‘The children are not able to develop or maintain a bond with their parent on a screen – particularly young babies and toddlers. It can be very confusing for the children,’ the lawyer said.
Social workers also condemned a lack of contact as ‘horrendous’, describing how one baby removed at four months old had no contact with its mother for six months.
In another case, a barrister said: ‘[The] mother posed no risk to the child and the [local authority] was incredibly slow to even think about facilitating in-person contact, relying on the lack of resources.
‘The judge was sympathetic to the lack of resources issue and told me that she could not make facilities available that simply weren’t available.
‘I accept that, but this child was under one year old and had not seen its mother for five months.’
Around half of parents or relatives involved in remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic said they did not understand well what was happening in the proceedings
The majority of parents and relatives said they did not believe their case was dealt with well
The report noted particular concern about hearings in which newborn babies were taken into care shortly after birth. Pictured: Stock image
Concerns were also raised about ‘the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment’ in remote hearings, particularly when parents are participating by phone in proceedings where care or adoption orders are made.
One barrister said: ‘The orders made are the right ones but it is deeply stressful intrusive and unpleasant for parents to have to attend hearings from their own homes, and without the support of their legal representative being with them.’
Another social worker witnessed the ‘harrowing’ ordeal of a parent who ‘sobbed alone’ in their flat after hearing a judge rule that they would not be granted custody of their baby.
One judge added: ‘I worry about making orders which may be very distressing to a participant, e.g. the removal of their child.
‘In court, they’d at least have a lawyer with whom they could grieve, rant, consider appeal, and have support.
‘By phone or video, they may be in remote hearings in the family justice system … in their bedroom, alone and in despair, perhaps with the child and now awaiting a visit from a social worker.’
The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew, said in response to the report: ‘This emergency is without precedent. Judges and others have worked tirelessly, and continue to do so, so that the Family Court has continued to function without a break since the start of lockdown in March.
‘We have adjusted, developed and adapted our methods of working as the crisis has persisted. Much of the work of the Family Court cannot be left to wait as many cases, involving the welfare of children as well as adults, are urgent.’
He added: ‘Encouragingly, most professionals, including judges, barristers, solicitors, Cafcass workers, court staff and social workers, felt that, overall, the courts were now working more effectively and that there were even some benefits for all to working remotely.
‘However, the report highlights a number of areas of concern that need to be addressed. There are clearly circumstances where more support is required to enable parents and young people to take part in remote hearings effectively.
‘It is worrying that some parents report that they have not fully understood, or felt a part of, the remote court process. Whilst technology is improving, there is clearly still work to be done to improve the provision of Family Justice via remote means.
‘I am very alert to the concerns raised in this report, and I will be working with the judiciary and the professions to develop solutions.’
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