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?