As soon as the Child Welfare Reporter was appointed, I asked my solicitor what qualifications this person, a local solicitor, had to entitle her to undertake such complex & sensitive tasks involving our children. From my solicitor’s clear discomfort it was apparent I’d touched a raw nerve. As time went on I became increasingly concerned that no-one was prepared to address that question. Later, I was still further perplexed and astonished to be told by my solicitor that it’s not possible to challenge the conclusions and recommendations in a Child Welfare Reporter’s report because the Child Welfare Reporter is, in effect, the sheriff’s eyes and ears outside the courtroom.
By this stage – well into the second year of the case – and fearing I was losing my mind as well as my relationship with our children, I asked what legal status was afforded the Child Welfare Reporter’s report. Was it considered evidence? A deeper, more awkward and longer lasting silence followed. It then became apparent – even to the Child Welfare Reporter herself – that she was completely out of her depth, when at long last a psychologist was appointed and the psychologist’s conclusions and recommendations were the polar opposite of her own. Yet still, neither the sheriff nor the solicitors seemed to think this remarkable and the Child Welfare Reporter was duly appointed Curator ad litem (to safeguard the interests of the children in proceedings).
Apparently undaunted, she accepted her appointment as Curator, but because – by her own later admission – she was at a loss to know what to do, she opted to do nothing at all. In the following 20 months there were 15 court hearings and she failed to attend each and every one. At no stage did she even write to the sheriff to advocate following the psychologist’s recommendations, despite the fact that the children had been assessed as requiring therapeutic help, as a matter of urgency, to address their emotional distress. Nor did she support the professional opinion that specialist parenting assessments should be undertaken or that the children’s contact be re-instated.
At every stage and turn I had asked my solicitor to do something about this person and each time I was fobbed off with some excuse. In the end I instructed my solicitor to write formally to ask her to set out what qualifications and training entitled her to undertake the work she had done with our family. At that point my solicitor refused point blank to challenge her and when pressed, withdrew from acting for me.
It was quite clear to me in that moment that my solicitor had, all along, been prepared to throw me under a bus rather than cause any embarrassment to a local professional colleague. And I could have taken being thrown under that bus had it resulted in everyone involved doing what was right for our children. But they didn’t. They were much more concerned to maintain the benefits they seem to think accrue from such camaraderie. In effect they, collectively, threw the children under the next bus.
It’s now clear the children have been scarred by this experience and especially by the long delays and the court’s failure to provide them with relief from what they were experiencing. So much then for the principle that the best interests of children must be the paramount consideration in these cases.
A Child Welfare Hearing is meant to provide the sheriff with an informal opportunity to settle a family case quickly for the benefit of and in the best interests of children. It is meant to avoid the need for a lengthy and expensive proof (a proof, I understand now, is the Scottish equivalent of a trial in England; a hearing on evidence in a civil matter.) In my experience – and largely, I think, because the private practice solicitor appointed was unqualified, untrained and unskilled in assessing welfare and risk – the Child Welfare Reporter’s involvement actually exacerbated, inflamed and confused the matter, causing years of delay.
That would not have surprised the lawyers or the sheriff in my case since they knew the person to whom they were all looking for answers, was acting way outside her professional competence. In the end the case lasted 5 years. I have heard nothing from our eldest in the 8 years since. More recently I have met with our youngest (now an adult) who continues to struggle to understand what happened to them, why they had to endure all manner of things no one would want to inflict on any child, and why I didn’t stop all of this from happening. I was, after all an adult; they were only children.
But perhaps what astonishes me most, is that everyone would see the problem immediately if we were discussing physical harm to a child. I simply can’t imagine, in those circumstances, that to carry out a medical assessment of a vulnerable child, we would consider it anything other than scandalous to appoint a lawyer, rather than a medical doctor to the task. Yet that’s how this works in Scotland. Private practice solicitors are appointed to make critical welfare assessments based on little or no knowledge, whilst the legal establishment turns a blind eye as the Child Welfare Reporter carries out the appointed task with an air of complete confidence and authority.
This does not “make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up”.