Be prepared to fight for your child’s and your rights.
1. Write Everything Down. Communicate in writing rather than on the phone. Keep conversations with social services on the phone brief; tell them you would prefer them to put their view/requests in writing. It is a good idea to record all phone conversations and free apps are easily available. If you do speak to them by phone or in person, send a short factual email afterwards confirming what was said by them and you.
2. Record Absolutely Everything. Keep a written record of all interactions with social services, CAFCASS and the child’s father if he is involved, in the order in which the case develops. Don’t rely on conversations which can be denied or distorted, unless they are recorded. Challenge all inaccuracies in writing. If you don’t have email, ask a friend or supporter to set up an account for you. Keep your emails short and to the point so they can’t accuse you of ‘ranting’.
3. File everything too: Keep a written record in date order of all officials’ names, job title/department, emails, phone numbers and postal addresses. Keep all documents from your case together safely in a file/box in date order. Make sure your lawyer gives you a copy of everything, including all the emails between your lawyer and the local authority and anyone else.
4. Build a summary. Do a short written summary of your case – date the social worker came, when the child was taken or threatened, child’s age, what are the charges they are making against you and what the truth is, key injustices, upcoming court hearings, court orders, deadlines. This is useful for all kinds of situations where you have to explain your case and need support.
5. Be careful about who you trust. Social workers can go to your child’s school and speak to teachers or other staff, and are allowed to interview your child without your permission, though they must inform you. However, you, a family member, friend or advocate are entitled to be present and your child should always have someone they trust with them. Do not rely on the teacher being neutral because they may not be!
6. Think about what you post on social media. Keep in mind that social workers and other professionals (or your ex) can get information about you from Facebook or other social media sites, so be very careful what you post there or lock down your account! If you’re already on child protection or in court, do not post anything that could identify your children as this will inevitably be used against you and could also be classed as contempt of court.
7. Do not sign anything. Read very carefully and do not sign anything that is requesting information about you such as medical records. You do not have to allow access to your medical records. Social workers might ask you for them but they cannot force you to hand them over. You can give them a letter from your GP confirming that you’re in good health (mental and physical) and that should be enough. Just be aware that social workers often get you to sign to give permission for them to see your children’s records, which they are allowed access to, and they may include your name too, hoping you won’t notice!
8. Keep a list of ‘services’. Keep a list of mandatory or voluntary classes, counselling or other court-ordered ‘services’, all dates/times you attended, costs to you and proof of completion. If you’re not able to enrol or attend, document the date you tried, the reason you were not able to attend and anything that can confirm you had a good reason.
9. Hold on to your power. Everything you say can be used against you. If you lose your temper, or don’t want to answer all their questions, this can be used to label you as ‘aggressive’, ‘un-co-operative’ and/or ‘unable to work with professionals’. That doesn’t mean you should keep quiet. Speak up and be firm. Don’t give in to provocation, and don’t run off at the mouth! Keep your answers short and to the point. Don’t think that by giving long explanations you will be better understood – you might not be!
10. Keep proof of everything. Recording conversations can be helpful to prove that you were not abusive or threatening or that what is being said about you is untrue. You are entitled to record, overtly or covertly, your interactions with social workers or other professionals if you are discussing yours or your children’s situation. Under the new GDPR rules and the Data Protection Laws , such professionals do not have the right to refuse to consent to being recorded. The judge may refuse permission to use the recording as evidence in court but if you get it professionally transcribed and take copies for all sides this can be admitted as evidence. Remember that you are recording yourself too, so if you misbehave that will be used against you.
11. Never attend meetings alone. Always have someone you trust present at every visit or meeting with Children’s Services. Explain to them beforehand why you want them there. They can help take notes or record or help you make notes after the visit. You may want them to do a private statement on what they witnessed for your records, which can help counteract any misunderstanding, lies or distortion. This may also be used as evidence in court.
12. Request the information. Ask to see information held on you by Children’s Services. You can do this by making a Subject Access Request (see Appendix 1). This involves writing to the Children’s Services department which is holding the information about you or your child, either by letter, fax or email, stating clearly what information you want and that you are asking for it under the Data Protection Act (though your request is still valid even if you don’t mention the law). You should provide some ID as you will be asked for it later and it may save time to send it in with your initial request. It is also a good idea to give any information you have that would help Children’s Services to find the records you want (e.g., date, time and place of the relevant information). Also do say if you want to be sent photocopies, or if you would prefer to receive the data by email or to inspect it in person. You are entitled to have your own copy of everything. If you make your request by letter, make sure you keep a copy. It is a good idea to send your letter by recorded delivery. Keep a copy of any replies you receive in case you need to refer to them later. If they write back and refuse your request then forward everything to the ICO, Information Commissioner’s Office. They control everyone’s data and can issue fines if data requests are not complied with.
13. Build your own evidence. Get statements from people who know you and your child – not only relatives, friends or neighbours, but anyone who can be seen as independent and/or has professional standing to provide evidence of what you are saying.
14. Know your rights on domestic abuse issues. If you are a victim of rape or domestic violence, insist on being treated as a vulnerable witness in court. You have a right to get legal aid so you don’t have to cross examine or be cross examined by your attacker in court. Consider applying for a non-molestation order (see 13.1). If the father is violent or controlling, get as much evidence of this as possible – reports to police, doctors, schools, etc., and any emails, texts, recordings he has sent you. Get as much confirmation from other people as possible. Ask them to do statements of anything they have witnessed. Some basic rights for mothers in family court proceedings are laid out in two documents: Practice Direction 12J, Child Arrangements & Contact Orders: Domestic Abuse & Harm, and Practice Direction 3AA, Vulnerable Persons: Participation in Proceedings and Giving Evidence. These spell out how women who have a violent ex-partner or who are vulnerable in other ways, ought to be treated. If you have a lawyer, tell them about these documents and ask them to use them: they could make all the difference to your case.
15. Continue breastfeeding. If you are breastfeeding, get a statement from a lactation expert. They can highlight the essential benefits of breastfeeding for your child and the trauma caused by interrupting or disrupting breastfeeding and attachment. They will also know about useful national and international decisions you can refer to. Some judges are ignorant and dismissive of breastfeeding, but others are not, and in any case, they should listen to the evidence (see Section17).
16. You may want to speak up about your disability needs. If you are dealing with social services, you should know that adult social care, which is separate from children and family services, are supposed provide support services for ’caring responsibilities for a child.‘ You can ask for support but be ready to challenge them if you are then labelled as being unable to cope just because you asked for help (see 4.2). You are also entitled to accessibility in meetings and dealing with paperwork. Children’s Services should ensure that your access needs are met so you can participate properly.
For family court, you may have disability access needs or special requirements due to being a vulnerable witness – be sure to speak up if you have any difficulty with taking in information because of a health or disability reason that would prevent you from participating properly in court hearings. You may be entitled to extra help (with support from an advocate) and extra time to make decisions. This has to be arranged via your lawyer.
17. Protect your rights during the legal process. If you have legal representation make sure your solicitor collects the evidence, takes statements from witnesses and professionals who can corroborate what you are saying. They must call all your witnesses to give evidence in court and/or submit their statements in time. Make sure the barrister who will represent you in court is familiar with all the evidence and knows what you are fighting for. Try to get a lawyer who doesn’t represent local authorities and ask them if they will commit, as far as possible, to your case from start to finish.
Don’t be pressured into signing a Section 20 or any other document until you’ve had time to go through it properly and get advice about it (see 6.1). Don’t agree in court to anything you do not really agree with – if you later decide to appeal, your case could be undermined by any agreement you made.
If you are representing yourself in court, insist on having a McKenzie friend. This can be a family member or a friend who can support and advise you in court so you are not facing this ordeal alone. If you don’t feel able to speak for yourself, you can ask the judge for permission for your McKenzie friend to speak for you. In any case, a McKenzie friend can take notes, which is invaluable. Some organisations provide McKenzie friends who will charge a fee for attending court but it’s really important to make sure they are knowledgeable about family law and will be on your side. We have seen a rise in McKenzie friends who are actively involved with misogynist father’s rights organisations, and are not the right people to defend women, particularly women who have suffered domestic violence. Their involvement might actively harm your case and we suggest you stay away from them. We also know that some solicitors also act as McKenzie friends, but be careful of high fees. It’s really important to research anyone before agreeing to work with them.
Judges have huge discretionary powers so it’s important that you bring to their attention everything you consider important to your case. If your lawyer is not raising some crucial facts, ask them why. If you don’t agree with their reasons consider raising the evidence yourself. You may upset your lawyer or even the court, but it may be better than the judge ruling without knowledge of the relevant facts.
Don’t give up! Inform yourself, get support, be patient, determined and ready for the long haul.