Parental responsibility: State vs. Parent

Recently, I was informed of a child protection case from conflicting angles. Both arguments from the father and the local authority fall within the agreed rights of a child and uphold the paramount importance of the child’s needs and interests.

The background to this case involves a father who left his family home after the mother’s mounting dependence on alcohol which managed to drive a wedge in the relationship. Instead of a bitter divorce and custody battle, the pair decided to share custody of the children and it was agreed they ought to remain with the mother whilst the father finds adequate accommodation for two young children. Nothing here is out of the ordinary for parents who wish to settle their ties outside of a courtroom and the pair enjoyed this contract for another year.

In the second year though, this arrangement began to breakdown as the mother began seeing another man. The father noted increasing aggression towards his visits to see the children and that the home was increasingly untidy. The mother’s reactions were proving erratic and the children were becoming disruptive, unlike a year before. Over the course of that year the mother became more abusive towards the father. After a relationship of just four months, the new boyfriend moved in. Not by coincidence, the mother blocked all access of the father to the children asking him to write instead and the new boyfriend threatened to break his legs ‘and more’ if he continued to bother them.

Six months later; the mother was dead from a heroin overdose and lying in a pool of vomit with her children locked in, in front of her on the sofa, for two days.

Unbeknownst to the father, he continued to try for contact for another 8 months but after not receiving any response, he decided to try other means of contacting the children. After no success and thinking the mother had moved the children away without telling him, he contacted his local authority to trace the children. Social services informed the father of the news and that both children aged three and four, had been placed into foster care together. After asking to see them, he was told that the children had been placed on the adoption register and the foster parents were keen to adopt, therefore he was not allowed access because it may destabilise the situation.

At the end of the previous paragraph it may appear that social services have been demonised, but this is far from the case. From social services point of view, when they assumed parental responsibility after the discovery of the dead mother, they had taken on two severely, emotionally damaged children who were stunted in both cognitive and physical capabilities. What the children had been exposed to in their living environment was extreme neglect on all counts. From the post-mortem results, it was clear the mother had been taking class-A drugs for a sustained period and had been victim to domestic violence. She was also suicidal, and there was evidence of scarring on her wrists.

Social services immediately set about to find a suitable fosterer to provide the children with the loving, safe and secure environment that the children so desperately needed. No trace of the father could be found, for whatever reason.

Assessments of the children completed a few months after their placement found that their development was accelerating well above the normal pace. The children were flourishing physically and emotionally. One account even says “…it’s a pleasure to see them smile, something I never thought I would from the misery we dredged them out from.”

So with evidence to prove that the children were making positive progress in their new stable and loving environment, it is right that social services are acting in the children’s best interests by keeping them in the environment that they have become accustomed to.

However, doesn’t the father have natural, biological rights? Doesn’t the father have a right to family life under EU law? Don’t the children also have the same right under EU law? Don’t they, too have biological rights? He, after all, didn’t neglect the children; he didn’t abuse the children and he wasn’t the perpetrator of their stunted physical and emotional health.

One could argue that he should have done more in the first place – something I do not disagree with. However, when dealing with the here and now, there is no reason that a primary school teacher with no convictions; evidence of substance misuse, or mental health issues not provide for the children in the same way that the prospective foster parents can, and do. Social Services’ counter-argument to these claims is that “placing the children with the father will destabilise them further”. And the father’s argument is that studies show that children fare statistically better when placed with biological or kinship parents.

As you can see, both arguments are well-balanced in what is the golden rule of ‘the child’s best interests’ and the conclusion to which will only be seen when the children reach adulthood. Compromise between the state and the father is possible, but this grey area clouds what the children’s interests actually are. What is certain, however, is that delay is causing more harm than necessary to all parties involved – especially the children. 

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