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I once read an article in the Sunday Times that ruined my otherwise very pleasant day.

The piece by concerned a mother who was being imprisoned because of her “over indulgent” behaviour towards her three children following the breakdown of her marriage.

The unnamed woman had, according to reports by social workers, encouraged her children to make “serious allegations” about her former husband that transpired to be false. The judge remarked that she had “serious concern about [the mother] infantilising the children…and encouraging them to want to take an inappropriate part in these proceedings.”

Banned from seeing her children for three years, it appears that the mother is also facing a second jail term for posting a video of her plight on YouTube.

The articles I read were the first I had heard of this case; therefore my opinions are based solely upon the facts as they are laid out in the newspaper.

Even if there have been some exaggerations or omissions, it strikes me as wildly inconsistent that, when the courts are overloaded by cases of child neglect, cruelty, perversion and kids in care without parents, a mother who has been shown to love her children (albeit too much, presumably as an overreaction to the breakdown of her marriage) has now been stopped from seeing them?

Why?

Because she doesn’t fit what is expected of her by the court and social services.

Let me say immediately that I’ve acted for people who are regarded by the courts as very difficult parents. They are usually in a minority, but I concede that they can be alarmingly difficult clients to represent.  Everything they say and do is exactly what objectively, advising them in their best interests, they shouldn’t. They are perceived to make the wrong remarks, to behave wrongly — sometimes very wrongly, with issues such as alcohol abuse — when in their often fragile and weakened state of mind they just can’t cope any more and don’t know how to communicate their feelings. They don’t understand why, having been decent respectable parents for years, divorce requires them to jump through hoops they frankly just can’t.

They get on the wrong side of the Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) officer who reacts with increasing and heavy disapproval as the case blunders on hampered by the constant flow of frustration — often in torrents of e-mails — about their spouse and the children. And finally when it comes to court - often I am very sorry to say, with the other spouse sensing blood — they get on the wrong side of the judge because, having become weakened by their experience, they don’t know how to play the game in court. Or even if they know, they can’t. They go off at tangents; they don’t answer the questions in the right way; they don’t know when to shut up: they damn themselves. But they can’t see it. And finally if a judge believes their authority has been continually flouted — even with the most sensible judge — that’s the fastest way to prison.

In this particular case the mother was required to attend a “parenting course” to learn the error of her ways, because she was deemed to be too permissive to her children. She failed the objective tests. And so she lost her children.

I know from my own experiences with clients who have been unable to adapt to the requirements of our legal system, that such parents can suffer the worst of punishments. The very thing they are utterly condemned for doing — rightly or wrongly, trying to alienate the children from the other parent — becomes their punishment. The children become alienated from them. The worry for that parent is the alienation will last forever. It becomes an uncontrollable, all-consuming nightmare.

This mother, if what she says is true, is not backing off. She is utterly desperate, but she is going nowhere. Or rather to jail if she has to.  She wishes to see her children and for the life of me, I can’t think why — as a parent who isn’t going to disappear from their lives — she shouldn’t. Or why they shouldn’t see her. Even if she isn’t Mary Poppins.

And I say this also because it seems clear that she was, objectively, a fine mother until the marriage began to break down. In the article she seems to be blaming herself for her “post-natal depression” — but that sprung out at me too and reminded me of other client’s experiences.

Depression is frequently made worse if there is no helping hand. No comforting partner. No-one to help them through. It’s certainly my experience that many people wrongly blame themselves for the breakdown of the marriage without appreciating that perhaps — just perhaps — a stealthy hand is giving them the push.

We don’t know anything about the real circumstances of this woman and her marriage, but we do know from the article that as a direct consequence of the court’s orders, the unnamed father is able to complain to the court repeatedly about the children’s mother, knowing that the court will back him up and could keep sending her to prison. Is that, with the benefit of hindsight, the right approach to deal with this case? Should she, as their mother, be cast in this light with the welfare of the children always being paramount in law?

In view of how serious this case appears to have become, perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal in the High Court.

Ironically, in our child care system we assist our children to know their roots and we encourage them to have contact with their birth families, warts and all. No amount of “parenting courses” will ever influence a mother’s natural behaviour towards her own children and nor should it. Furthermore, these children shouldn’t have to police their mother and report her behaviour to their father or the authorities. These children have a right to know their mother as she is, because nothing will change her. I also believe, strongly, that she has a right to know them before much more damage is done to their relationship.

Children are far stronger than we give them credit for. I have no doubt they will survive and thrive knowing her once again, without barriers.

But if the emphasis needs to shift in this tragic case, I would look more closely at the father. So far he has had the full sympathy of the court, despite the ghastly plight of the woman he once loved and had children with. If anyone can bring this unhappy case to a sensible resolution for the sake of the children, it could be him. Because in the final analysis he too stands to lose out. Statistics show that children alienated from one parent during their childhood often bitterly regret it later in life — and lay the blame on the parent who was the policy architect.

 

Nicknamed "The Barracuda" for her tenacity, Marilyn Stowe is one of the UK’s most sought after divorce lawyers, and is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law.

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