Subjectivity and family law

‘It is not uncommon in contested family proceedings that one side, and occasionally both sides, are of the opinion that the judge’s decision was wrong.’  So says Judge Jeremy Lea, the bloke at the centre of the Samantha Baldwin family law case.  And just like that he invites the public to swallow whole the court line on Samantha Baldwin.

Many will, because it sounds quite compelling. Twelve day fact finding trial. Fourteen witnesses. Two thousand pages of documents. Competent council for all parties. What’s not to like? Other than the outcome.

With a wave of his gavel, Judge Lea stamps all over the public perception of Samantha Baldwin by releasing a limited amount of information into the public domain. Enough to make you shake your head in disbelief. Not enough to allow you make an informed opinion, but that’s his job.

So what did Judge Lea actually say today? In short – He doesn’t believe Samantha Baldwin and by inference, the children she is speaking for. In what appears to be a particularly gruesome move, he also chooses to believe that the indisputable drug traces found in the boys’ system were put there by Samantha Baldwin herself. So there you have it folks! Samantha Baldwin’s bat shit crazy! That’s why the state had to steal her kids.

For a minute there, it seemed to be suggested that the Family courts were regularly transferring custody from caring, protective mothers to paedo dads. But that is not the case here. It reminded a lot of people of the Rebecca Minnock case. Same idea. Pockets of the public thought that was about a paedo dad and a loving mum, until the judge put them right. She wasn’t crazy though, more ‘manipulative and attention seeking’. It even reminded some people of the Victoria Haigh case. Another mother claiming her daughter had been sexually abused by her father. Not a runaway mother, Victoria Haigh was just a very defiant one. She was named and shamed and her ex given custody and exonerated. What all these women have in common is how little information was ever released into the public domain about their stories, and how censored and edited the released data was.

Thus a carefully cultivated, if tired image emerges. Crazy lady with massive chip on her shoulder accuses doting dad of unspeakable acts. That is the family court default position every time news gets out that all is not well behind those gilded, closed doors.

What anyone who has ever seriously supported Samantha Baldwin needs to remember is nothing has changed. The woman who ran to protect her children because she was desperate and left without choice has not changed, nor have her motives for running. All that has happened is the man who forced her to run has released a public statement saying, that after listening to twelve days of testimony and submissions, in his subjective opinion, also known as a family court judgement, he doesn’t believe her.

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We need to keep talking about Sam.

Anyone who knows me, or who has ever met me, or who has had the misfortune to share my space at a bar counter ten minutes past last orders, knows I’m obsessed with family law. There’s a reason for this. I have a family. What I struggle to understand is why everyone who has a family isn’t obsessed with family law, especially mothers.

Family law affects mothers deeply. It is one of the few bastions of power the patriarchy have not relented at all. Law in general is still a man’s game, as is evidenced by the lack of successful prosecutions of crimes that women are disproportionately victims of, and the continued framing of women as unreliable in the narrative about these crimes.

According to The Rape Crisis centre only 15% of victims of sexual violence report it to the police. This suggests the vast majority of rape victims, a group that is overwhelmingly female, do not trust the criminal justice system. If we do not trust a system that is open and accountable, at least in theory, to deliver justice for our women then how in hell can we trust our family law system, which is closed and lacking in anything but the most cosmetic form of accountability, to deliver justice for our children? We can’t! We can’t! We can’t!

Forgive the dramatic repetition, if we were in the pub now you’d be backing away! It’s just so obvious to me, that as a society, we need to be having this conversation. We had a chat, for about five minutes last week, when absconded mother Samantha Baldwin hit the headlines. ‘Why has she run?’ normal people asked, by normal I mean – not by nature family court obsessives. ‘Because family law courts are dark places run and staffed by deviant, dangerous people,’ the obsessives replied. ‘You would run too if it happened to you.’

There’s a great deal of confusion around family law, as befits any system that’s run in secret. In fact, unless you work in it or live in it, which is what it feels like if you’re involved in a family law dispute, you will most probably have no understanding of it at all.  And that’s the way the establishment would like to keep it.

It’s for the good of the children, we are told, but that makes no sense. The children, like all other sections of society, would benefit more from an open and accountable system. In its absence, how can we protect them? Seriously, if we don’t know what’s going on in these courts, and if when we find out, we are not allowed to print it, then how can we insure the safety and well-being of the children whose lives are determined by it?

The children have a right to privacy, it is argued, and they do. When children are either victims or perpetrators in criminal law, we can report on them and protect their identity simultaneously. It gets slightly more complicated when we have to protect the identity of the adults involved as well, which is the only fool proof way to protect the children on the ground. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge. It’s certainly not a valid reason for keeping the courts closed.

Samantha Baldwin’s five minutes of reluctant fame is over and I mean that in its most literal sense.  It is now illegal for Samantha Baldwin to talk about why she did what she did. It is illegal for anyone to talk about why Samantha Baldwin did what she did. Mumsnet, who have removed their thread on Sam due to reporting restrictions, are a very pertinent example of how effective the state’s censorship of Sam has been. In a nutshell, Samantha Baldwin has lost her children and her right to free speech in one fell swoop. She has been forever silenced.

To be clear, this isn’t the draft notes for the plot of a play set in some repressive foreign regime. This is Britain in 2017. This is how a democracy treats some of its most vulnerable citizens, namely children when they disclose abuse, and mothers when they believe their young. Where’s the public outcry? It’s hard to be outraged when your access to information has been cut off, it’s like what am I outraged about again? ‘I can’t tell you,’ a family court obsessive might say, but that itself should be a source of outrage. Censorship is outrageous, especially when it’s sold as a benevolent child protection measure.

Now I know, as you sit in your safe suburban semi, with a good man and an even better postcode, you truly believe it couldn’t happen to you. But here’s the thing, just like no kid ever dreams of one day being a junkie, no mother ever imagines standing before a family court judge pleading to be allowed to continue to raise her children.

In an extract from what is described as a summary of the courts principal findings in the Samantha Baldwin case Judge Lea says the following, with regard to the allegations that Sam raised, namely that her children’s father, and multiple other persons drugged and abused her children.  ‘I also found that the mother genuinely believed that he had done so, but that her belief was irrational and that the evidence of abuse was unreliable.’  What’s really important about this statement is how it exemplifies the damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to allegations of child abuse in family law. Sam believed that her children were being abused. Therefore she was morally, and more importantly, legally obliged to protect them. To not do so puts her at real risk of losing her children to social services if anyone else discloses the same concerns.

But she drugged her own kids! ‘I also made a finding that in order to try to prove her case against the father the mother had caused the boys to ingest substances that would give rise to a positive testing for benzodiazepine products and zolpidem.’  Drugging children, as we all know, is a criminal act and there is no clear reason why such an issue would be dealt with in a family court. The statement also implies that it was Sam who introduced the drug evidence, which again feeds into the damned whichever way it plays analogy.  The suggestion, alas now ‘fact’ that Sam drugged her own children in order to prove they had been drugged is akin to the rapist explaining the victim’s bruises with the well worn and often accepted defense that ‘she liked it rough’.

In the middle of delivering my judgement on that morning, the mother abruptly left court. It is now apparent that she picked up her sons from an unknown location and disappeared with them. This put her in breach of the Court order. The police are investigating how she did this and I make no further comment save that it is my assessment that was plainly pre-planned and carefully executed.

Unlike much of Judge Lea’s statement, which is not open to any level of scrutiny and relies on a few self chosen extracts delivered sparingly and without context, this opinion can at least be independently questioned. Sam and her boys were found fifteen, count ’em, fifteen miles from her home in Newark. By any measure of what good planning might be, trapping herself at the epicenter of the search base isn’t it. Either she was very stupid or very desperate, but she most certainly was not very well organised. Unlike the tracking team that were looking for her. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was the most dangerous person in Britain so extensive and rigorous was the search, so limitless the resources spent locating an unarmed mother with no previous history of violence.

It begs the question, if the original police force investigating the original allegations raised by Sam, details of which are now subject to a gagging order, had been even half as thorough, had used even quarter of the manpower, or even a tenth of the resources to fully and completely investigate Sam’s claims, might this story have had an entirely different outcome?

Savile should have fixed it but he didn’t.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ A bloke called Edmund Burke said that. Of course, it would have to be a bloke ‘coz he did that men meaning people thing. But that was probably because of the times. In those days men were people. Women were less than that. Tied to domesticity. Excluded from playing any shape or form of meaningful role in society. Unable to vote. Uneducated. Lacking any autonomy over her identity, her body or her destiny, women were most definitely not whole people. Part mirror, part vessel. To reflect his greatness. To satiate his desires. To carry on his blood line.

Fast forward a few centuries and it’s quite a different picture! Women are whole people now. We’re everywhere. Running economies. Throwing general elections. Throwing referendums. We’re in boardrooms and law chambers and university facultys. We have most definitely arrived. This is optimum time in pockets of the West to be a woman. Or so it would appear.

It’s actually a bit more complex. It’s probably not a bad time to be a certain type of woman, I’m just not certain which type. Not poor. It’s absolutely a bad time for women to be poor as is evidenced by the #sexforrent. Some argue that swapping a few sexual favours for a pad in the city is an entirely valid arrangement. I’m sure even they wouldn’t disagree that it’s not as valid as a lease, a third party deposit holder, and a yearly safety inspection.

It’s also not a great time to be a woman fleeing domestic abuse given that they are closing women’s refuges and reducing their access to related support services.

It’s a pretty crap time to be a woman who ages because they are clamping down hard on that. Fighting the signs of aging is not only a legitimate pastime of the aging woman, it’s her moral imperative. Her face a battleground. Her hard earned living a mortal enemy.

It’s absolutely the worst time ever to be a mother. Whilst we wage futile war on our waist-lines and our tits, there is an actual ongoing all out assault on motherhood, and we are indifferent, if not complicit. Whether the British Medical Association is trying to take the woman out of motherhood, or the Women’s Equality Party is trying to sell equal parenting as a feminist objective, or the men in capes are banging on about the golden uterus. For the record, mine is not golden but it is functional making it one hundred percent more effective than the male uterus which does not exist.

No-where is the war on mothers more obvious than in our family courts. No-where is the war on mothers less obvious than in our family courts. It’s that behind closed door thing. We can only imagine what actually happens. For some reason, most people imagine things are ticking over just fine. The absence of free flowing information, combined with the presence of one authoritative narrative seems to be enough to allay most fears. North Korea, anyone?

Samantha Baldwin, and yes I am still banging on about her, is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with our family law system. The single narrative that now exists about her case comes from the mouth of one man. Not just any man, an important one. A wig wearing high flyer who could site powerful and influential people as referees. Someone who we should trust, solely because of his standing in society.

Then, it starts to sound a bit more like the seventies. Do you remember that time? And anyone who has had access to British media at any point in the last five years will “It appears to me that the culture of the times both within and without the BBC was such that incidents of this kind were not treated seriously.” explained establishment figure Dame Janet Smith. She was referring to the B.B.C’s willful complicity in sex crimes including sex crimes against children over the course of four decades, but especially the seventies. They were real bad. We should all feel real good that it’s not like that now.

Before we reach our hands the whole way round and pat ourselves firmly on the back for our speedy evolution, we should take a moment to reflect. The so called seventies culture existed straight through till 2012, when the Saville story broke. Right up to that point, the establishment, across multiple including very high levels, had protected a paedo.

The Rotterham child abuse scandal didn’t reach public consciousness till a year later. That’s four years ago. As in not very long at all.

What the Saville and Rotterham and every other type of vaguely related inquiry have in common is that no-body believed the victims. They were liars. All of them. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Until we realised they weren’t. Turns out we were just really crap at believing them, recording their crimes, investigating their crimes, prosecuting their crimes and offering them any chance of meaningful justice, often within the lifetime of their perpetrators.

So we don’t know the ins and outs of the Samantha Baldwin story. But we do know from the state approved narrative that she made a number of very serious allegations against a number of men. I want to know how that initial investigation proceeded. Was it with the speed and precision of an episode of ‘Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit?’ Were there mobile phones and laptops seized at the earliest possible moment? Given that there were allegations against multiple perpetrators in a potentially small geographical area, what special measures were taken to prevent potential suspects disclosing information to each other? How were the children treated? What level of expert training and support was offered to such young potential victims of such a potentially huge and heinous crime?

Now, I know all these things cost money, but what price the protection of our young? Also, we’ve got money. If there’s one thing the hunt for Samantha Baldwin taught us it’s that. If we are happy, as a society, to throw maximum power and resources at anyone who dares violate the orders of a civil court then we should be equally as happy, dare I say happier, to throw everything we got at anyone who is suspected of being involved in a paedophile ring?

When people say they want justice for Samantha Baldwin, what they mean is they want mothers to be able to safely report sexual abuse without fear of losing their children. Which is what most of us assume happens anyway.