Your mum and dad
by Jen Lexmond
30/07/09 There is a smarter way than sterilization says Jen Lexmond.
The Sun’s front cover today describes a couple who have had 12 children taken away from them by social services – and are now pregnant with their 13th. ‘You can take this child away from me, but I’ll have one every year until you let me keep one’, is the mother’s reply to social services. With the costs of taking children into care, and the associated costs of unemployment, crime, and rehabilitation support services that children in care go on to absorb, the Sun supports sterilizing the mother as a more efficient option.
Besides the inherent gender bias (why not sterilize the dad who is as much a part of the problem as the mother?), mass sterilization of ‘unfit’ parents doesn’t strike me as the most just – or realistic – solution. I say ‘mass’ because unfortunately, Theresa Winters, 36, mother of 13, from a Luton council estate, is not an anomaly. Family court justices find this an all too familiar story.
One such justice, Judge Nicholas Crichton has an alternative. In 2007 he founded the Family Drug & Alcohol Court in Islington, London. Crichton has taken 12th, 13th, and 14th born children away from parents on occasion and regularly takes 5th, 6th, and 7th born. He says that around 80-90 per cent of these parents have serious drug or alcohol addictions, or grew up with abuse or neglect in their own childhood, or all three. Today, over one million children come from families with serious drug or alcohol problems. The result is parents with out proper parenting skills and children who fail to develop social and emotional skills, don’t achieve at school, and are likely to end up in a similar situation as parents themselves.
A big part of the problem is that standard courts are not set up to deal with such complex issues: they take a decision, take the child and send parents away to seek help. Parents feel as if their children are being ‘stolen’ from them by the state, with out understanding why they are unfit to be parents or what to do to improve. What the new court does is turn the traditional approach on its head by bringing support to parents themselves – parent mentors, rehabilitation schemes, housing benefits, parenting classes.
They approach cases in a far more humane and far less alienating way. Parents and social workers are encouraged to represent themselves directly, to have an honest conversation in a comfortable environment (the court room is small, simple, and without the intimidating trappings of regular courthouses), and judges and staff have backgrounds in social care, mental health, education, housing and domestic violence.
The programme will always see limited success – if success is defined by returning children to their birth-parents. In 17 months, there were only three graduates of this kind. But many more cases have been successful in other ways: prompting wives to extricate themselves from abusive relationships, or - as the Sun will be glad to know – in convincing parents to stop trying for another child by helping them to realise why they are unfit to raise them.