Parents and children are being failed during the coronavirus crisis, according to Lisa Harker, Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which aims to improve the evidence for decision-making in the family justice system.

Face-to-face contact between children in care and their families was the first thing to stop after lockdown, as well as final contact sessions between birth parents and young children about to be adopted. As family courts were closed, almost all cases were heard remotely, raising concerns that legal proceedings to take at-risk children into care would not be robust or fair.

“As soon as the [coronavirus] crisis hit, we realised that this basic human need to connect with people we cared about was likely to be affected by restrictions”, says Harker. Adding, “The abrupt halt to face-to-face time with their families overnight will have had an immense psychological impact on vulnerable children”.

The president of the family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, wanted to ensure that only suitable cases would have to go ahead remotely. He asked the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to conduct a rapid review of how all court users were experiencing ‘virtual’ family hearings held from the confines of their homes during lockdown.

In her interview with The Guardian, Harker explains how her team surveyed more than 1000 judges, lawyers, parents, social workers and other family court users. The report, published last month, uncovered examples of cases heard in the early days of the crisis that many felt should never have been conducted in the way they were.

In one example, a mother had to give her evidence from her garden shed, because she had nowhere else to go where her children couldn’t hear her. Another woman, still in hospital after giving birth, had to attend a remote court hearing at which the local authority was applying to remove her newborn child. Without legal representation, she missed hearing the outcome that the newborn had to be taken into care.

Harker believes there is a strong consensus that virtual hearings are “not justice, and not a humane approach that professionals want to take”. This is highlighted in the report in cases when judges are asked to make drastic orders (which might end up with a child being taken into care or placed for adoption) or any situation where evidence is contested and cross-examination of witnesses needs to be done.

In the initial rush to hold remote hearings, technical unpreparedness caused parents and professionals huge stress. However, immediate safeguarding concerns demanding urgent applications for the removal of children, while far from ideal, would need to go ahead, according to the report. In April there were 1374 applications to take children into care in England, slightly down on the same month in 2019 and 2018.

Harker believes there needs to be an urgent focus among child protection professionals on the negative impact of lockdown on younger children and infants. “It needs to be a national conversation because digital contact for very young children – and particularly for babies – is not meaningful in any sense. So, we have to think about balancing the health risks against the psychological risks for children who are not living with their families. How can we be more creative in managing socially distanced contact? And we need to give really urgent thought to ‘Is physical contact possible?’”

For Harker, improving the child protection and family justice system at all times is deeply personal. “I’m an adoptive mum. That’s opened my eyes to the lifelong impact of a child being removed from a family”, she says.

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