Family groups - Are we failing the family?
I knew Paul Sieghart in the 1950s and 60s and well remember
his dedication to law reform and human rights. I am honoured
to be asked to give the annual lecture in his memory. I also
feel some anxiety at being asked to speak which was considerably
enhanced by listening to last year's speaker, Professor Dworkin,
who spoke without a note for about an hour. On the other hand,
you cannot expect such a high standard every year.
I have a confession to make. I am a convert to the Human Rights
Convention and a recent one at that. I remember the early
years of the Convention and the discussion for many years
thereafter as to whether it should be incorporated into English
law. I could see no good reason to do so. I have no doubt,
however, that the incorporation of the Convention into English
law by the Human Rights Act has added to and enhanced the
English law. It has opened up and illuminated some dusty corners.
It is also fair to say that many aspects of Convention rights
were to be found enshrined in our domestic law prior to the
passing of the Human Rights Act.
In the sphere of family law to which I propose to devote my
observations this evening, I believe that there was not much
wrong with the framework but the application of domestic legislation
or procedures to individual cases may leave much to be desired.
A particular benefit of the introduction of the human rights
legislation is the opportunity it has given judges and lawyers
to revisit concepts we took for granted and to rethink the
way we do things.
I propose to look at whether we are doing enough for the rights
of families, by asking the following question: "Who are
we failing?" The spectrum of vulnerable families and
family members is vast, but I shall focus on two broad themes
- firstly, children, and secondly, excluded families. I am
afraid that, as I prepared this paper, my especial interest
in children has led me to spend a disproportionate amount
of time on them and you will have to forgive an imbalance
in dealing with the subject. The requirement to be here this
evening has concentrated my mind wonderfully and has crystallised
my thinking on these issues. I have of course learnt much
from others whose lectures and papers I have read, but this
paper represents my own views on where we are and what our
objectives should be.
Most of us don't think much about children. As parents and
grandparents we love them, cope with them, watch them grow
up with a mixture of pride, amazement and from time to time
intense irritation. Children are, in my view, what makes life
worth living. If we did not have children, there would be
no future and, I would suggest, no purpose other than the
day to day superficial purpose of being alive. It does not
matter whether we are or are not parents. We live in a world
which can only survive beyond ourselves if children are born
into it and can take over from us in due course. That realisation
requires all of us to take an interest in what is happening
to children today, many of whom will be the parents of the
future. The question has to be asked - what sort of parents
will they be? What sort of future will they give their children?
I would suggest that children are viewed with some ambivalence
by society generally. Indeed it was a very long time before
society bothered to give children much thought at all. Even
in the relatively recent times of the nineteenth century,
children were viewed as mere possessions. It has been said
that the nineteenth century was the age of the father. Sanctioned
by the courts, a father was said to have "sacred rights"
over his children and probably spent more on his horses than
on his children (certainly on the education of his female
There is today a kindly, even it might be said, sentimental
approach to the darling baby and the innocence of childhood.
It is however well known that the RSPCA and the PDSA receive
vastly more money than the NSPCC. We give more for donkey
sanctuaries than for children in need. We have a donkey sanctuary
in Devon with a counterpart on the island of Lamu off the
Kenyan coast. The English donkey home does not know how to
spend its money and the farrier visits once a fortnight.
There is a link between poverty in childhood, poor health,
low educational attainments and future opportunities. There
are more risks of mental health problems, early death and
childhood accidents. Here are a few facts about the reality
of life for some of our children against the background that
the UK has the fourth richest economy in the world. More than
one third of British children live in poverty. Many poor children
do badly in education. Over a million children truant from
school and about 9000 are permanently excluded. Such children
tend to live in the areas of highest deprivation where there
is a high incidence of drugs and crime. About 2800 children
aged between 15 and 17 are in Young Offender Institutions.
Over 100,000 children in the UK live in temporary accommodation.
Around 5000 children under the age of 16 are used for prostitution
in the UK, including those moving across borders. The UK has
the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe.
Well over a million school children are working illegally.
Two children die each week from abuse or neglect within the
home. There is no time to discuss in a paper of this length,
the problems of asylum children, those under a mental or physical
disability with special needs, children born to mothers in
prison or ethnic or many other minority groups.
I was asked recently whether I believed that we were putting
children first. The immediate response would be, I suppose,
yes of course. Look at all the legislation. Look at all the
court cases. Look at all the resources ploughed into child
education from the nursery to tertiary education. Yes, of
course. But that does not answer the question of whether we
are failing them.
I propose to look at children under three main headings: children
in care; children in trouble and children whose parents part.
I turn first to the position of some of those engaged in care
proceedings. Many of those children to whom I have just referred
have been the subject of state intervention by social services
departments of local authorities. Other children should have
been but were not identified and assessed in time to save
them from death or serious injury. In other cases the damage
was done after the children were placed in care or accommodated
by local councils. There have been over 70 public inquiries
into severe child abuse since 1945. Over and over again, distinguished
and highly qualified professionals produce reports, highlighting
the root of failures which have had such devastating consequences.
I take a few quotes: - in 1974, "communication failures",
in 1984, "the attitude in regarding the parents of children
in care as the clients rather than the children in their own
right, may be widespread among social workers.", in 2000,
reporting on the decades of sexual, physical and emotional
abuse of children in North Wales resulting from "abuse,
neglect and mismanagement" whilst the children were in
care, which the government itself has labelled "truly
horrifying"; in 2002 that the two year old had died from
neglect and abuse after a "lack of communication"
Most recently, of course, Lord Laming's Inquiry has reported
on the death of Victoria Climbie who died last year. The Laming
"The extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable.
Tragically it required nothing more than basic good practice
being put into operation... doing the basic things well saves
lives... Victoria died because those responsible for her care
adopted poor practice standards."
It set out a state of affairs described as "widespread
organisational malaise" and the agencies as "under-funded,
inadequately staffed and poorly led". The major blame
was attributed to senior management of the agencies involved
who were unwilling to accept any blame for the failures, described
by Lord Laming as "breathtaking". The answer of
the Report was:
"...a clear line of accountability from top to bottom,
without doubt or ambiguity about who is responsible at every
level for the well-being of vulnerable children... [and] managers
with a clear set of values about the role of public services,
particularly in addressing the needs of vulnerable people,
combined with an ability to 'lead from the front.'"
These comments were made against a background of repeated
failures of the agencies to protect children in the community.
There is a reported average of 78 children killed every year
by parents or minders, a figure that has not changed since
Maria Colwell's death in 1973. Clearly, we are still doing
something very wrong indeed. These are not invisible children:
they are often known to police, social services, education
authorities, housing officers and medical professionals. The
latest report provides us with yet another awful warning of
what is and has been going wrong for some time. Somewhere
between the brilliant ideals of policy and the horrific results
of failed implementation, there are some very important gaps,
and we must strive much harder to fill them. The lessons are
the same as those we learnt in Cleveland so many years ago:
there are communication breakdowns between professionals and
agencies; failures in the care process; failures in the court
process (sometimes called administrative abuse); and a lack
of a joined-up approach to the welfare and rights of children.
Of course, it is not all doom. The Children Act 1989 is the
primary legislation which provides the framework for the management
of public law applications. Looking back over the Children
Act's performance, it is clear that the framework of the Act
itself has needed little in the way of overhaul. It provides
a careful balance between parents, children and the state.
Some changes have been made with the recent introduction of
the Adoption and Children Act 2002; but overall, the legislative
structure in place is quite workable. Many recommendations
from earlier inquiries have been accepted and taken up by
the Department of Health which publishes excellent guidance.
Much of it is carried out by Social Services round the country
and on the ground is working well. There are many instances
of good practice in local authorities, hospital staff and
police and between Social Services Departments and, in particular,
the police, on joint investigation and joint interviewing.
I believe we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to social workers,
who are chronically undervalued, but whose contribution to
child care and child protection is irreplaceable. But the
picture is uneven across the country. The problem remains
one of culture and of implementation, which of course brings
into focus the interminable dilemma of lack of resources.
As one might imagine, many of the failures are in deprived
urban areas. Victoria died in a poor area of North London.
It is worth remembering that the United Nations Convention
on the Rights of the Child, Article 19, gives the child the
right to protection from abuse and neglect.
One group of children gives me particular cause for concern
because they may individually and collectively be forgotten,
those who are the subject of care orders and have not yet
been placed either for adoption or other long-term arrangement.
Some children are left in limbo, without final plans for their
future, not just for months but for years. Some have multiple
moves. I heard of one child who had 40 moves before he was
eventually placed. It is not surprising that such children
present 'problems'. I hope the Adoption and Children Act 2002,
which is not yet in force, with its emphasis on speeding up
permanency, will go a long way to improving their situation.
I also see a trickle, which may become a trend, of the use
of the free-standing application under section 7 of the Human
Rights Act 1998 for some at least of those children and I
shall watch with interest how it may develop.
The NSPCC has recently been conducting a comprehensive audit
of the operation of the Children Act 1989, and the child protection
system. Unusually, it has conducted its research via surveys
of both adults and children. The interesting findings, from
my perspective, were in the comments from the young respondents
themselves. The survey was distributed through a magazine
sent to all children in care. The sheer volume of responses
received - over 700 so far, from young people aged 6 to 20
- in itself tells us that young people are extremely keen
to have their feelings and opinions heard, to tell the adult
world about what it means to be in care, and to voice their
feelings about the changes they would like to see to the system.
The kinds of things that young people had to say in this survey
are very instructive. Throughout the survey were many heart-rending
statements from children, some of whom had spent a large proportion
of their lives in care. As you might expect, the level of
detail and literacy in responses ranged enormously. For the
6-year-old, when asked "What would you have liked to
have been different?", the answer was a simple: "Everything".
Many young people said that they wished they'd been able to
have a "normal" life. On the other hand, there were
also some rather nice, positive comments - such as the child
"I think being in care is Brilliant and I wouldn't change
The issue of contact with family and friends emerged as a
very significant one for these young people. A staggering
60% of children said they did not see enough of their father
and would like to see him more often. Many said they did not
see enough of their mothers, their siblings, their friends
or a previous carer who was important to them.
Another clear message from these young people is that they
need to have certainty and stability in their lives as early
as possible. A number of children referred to the need for
permanency. One child said:
"I hated being moved about not knowing where I was going
next and who these people were, so sometimes it was quite
scary and upsetting as I could never settle down."
"I would like my Forever Family straight away instead
of lots of short term family".
It is a sobering reflection on our system that less than half
of the young respondents said they thought they had been listened
to and their rights had been respected. In light of such evidence
it is safe to say, I am afraid, that we in England cannot
yet claim we are doing enough for children in care. The preamble
to the UN Convention recognises the right of children to be
brought up "in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance,
freedom, equality and solidarity". We have to ask ourselves
whether we can say that we provide that to the children in
our care system and I fear the answer in respect of the children
I am talking about is we are failing to do so.
There is a link between children who may be or ought to be
in the sights of the protection agencies because they are
living in unsatisfactory circumstances and because they are
also offending. Children in need of protection often become
children in trouble with the law. How does our society deal
with child offenders? I would suggest that we have a punitive
approach towards children who commit offences, however young
they may be. This punitive approach was starkly illustrated
in the two cases of Mary Bell who, aged 10, killed two small
children and Thompson and Venables who equally both aged 10,
killed Jamie Bulger. In both cases the tone of the Press and
the tone of those who responded to the Press was that such
children were the embodiment of evil and should never be released
from imprisonment for life. In the absence of lifetime injunctions
protecting anonymity, I have no doubt whatever that, if either
Thompson or Venables were to be identified and located, he
would be seriously injured or probably killed for the murder
of Jamie Bulger. It was an appalling act but the period of
retribution, I would suggest, is now past. The approach of
this country is vastly different from parts of Scandinavia,
for example Norway where such children would more easily be
reintegrated into the community.
I am not suggesting that we should mollycoddle children who
commit crimes, particularly very serious crimes. The state
and the public have a legitimate interest in the administration
of criminal justice. I also have no doubt that some children
need to be brought up short and to be faced with the consequences
of criminal behaviour. I do not, however, believe that there
are many, if any, children who are intrinsically evil - although
there may be some who suffer from severe mental or behavioural
disorders or have other problems so that they may be unmanageable
other than by draconian measures. We should, nonetheless,
be very concerned that we have almost the highest numbers
of young people under 18 in Western Europe in Young Offender
The difficulty is that children in trouble, and particularly
persistent offenders, are also children in need of help. Whilst
we consider how to contain them for the sake of the public,
we also need to be asking why they are offending. We must
be careful not to write them off as beyond redemption. A better
understanding of offending by children and its causes is required
if we are going to be able to take strong and effective steps
to reduce re-offending.
I should like to see a holistic approach to the family without
the present rigidity between children who need help in the
Family Proceedings Court by the intervention of the state
through local government, and children who are prosecuted
for offences. There was a policy decision at the time of the
Children Bill in 1988/9 to make a clear division between care
and juvenile crime, but I would suggest that it is too rigid.
In many cases where children offend, particularly the persistent
offender, there is most likely to be difficulties at home
caused, for instance, by alcohol or drug dependency, domestic
violence, mental health problems of a carer and so on. The
most basic difficulty is the failure of the parents or parent
to control the child. It may be that those families would
benefit from assessment and assistance by the Family Court.
I believe that we must move to
an overall appreciation that children in trouble need to be
caught early and their problems dealt with in the context
of the problems of their families. If we were able to do this
we would have a chance to improve the behaviour of children;
to reintegrate or in some cases, for the first time, integrate
these children into the community and save years of adult
offending with the enormous cost to the state. I should like
to see the Youth Court given the jurisdiction to require the
relevant local authority to investigate the family in accordance
with the requirements of the Children Act and that in serious
cases the local authority should be obliged to make a care
application in the family court.
There is no doubt that this Government is in the process of
making constructive efforts to look at what needs to be done.
There are very good Government and charitable initiatives
in various areas dealing with early intervention. There is
a Cabinet Committee on Children and Young People's Services
and there is a new Children and Young People's Unit. There
is an Office of the Minister for Young People. There are several
Departmental working parties. A Green paper on Children at
Risk is due later this year. There has been a welcome Prime
Ministerial initiative on adoption. The new Courts Bill and
the integration of the magistrates courts with the Crown Court
will give an impetus to the Youth Court in respect of which
there are initiatives, I believe, in the pipeline. I just
hope that they are all talking to each other across Departments
and co-ordinating their efforts. There is a danger that resources
will be used on individual enterprises and not on joint endeavours.
The Home Office's recent White Paper on Anti-Social Behaviour
contains some interesting ideas on working within the community
as well as punishing offenders. Many of these offenders will
be children who commit acts of anti-social behaviour including
repeated vandalism, graffiti, and joy riding, who are indifferent
to school, not properly controlled at home and not receptive
to help from outside agencies. These are a difficult group
to manage, and the wider use of Restorative Justice and other
constructive community-based alternatives to imprisonment
might just help. Some charitable initiatives, such as Youth
at Risk or C-Far in Devon, have already made a real difference
to many such young people. If community-based initiatives
were embarked on as a joint endeavour and not just limited
to anti-social behaviour, they might conceivably do a great
deal for problem families in need of help. This would require
the initiatives of various Government Departments to be co-ordinated
and streamlined. It would also require changes in the allocation
of resources, but it has to be considered if we are to provide
a reasonable life for those who follow us.
One final point I would make is that the bill for public funding
is already too big and there are strains upon it which are
difficult for the Legal Services Commission and the Government
to control. It is worth however pointing out that those obliged
to appear in the Youth Courts and in the family courts hearing
care cases are usually the most socially disadvantaged groups
in society and there has to be enough remuneration to obtain
suitable legal representation.
I want to turn now to a wholly different area of concern that
I have about children - those whose parents separate. This
is a situation which does not get much publicity since other
areas of child problems are clearly more immediate and more
obviously serious. I have a number of worries about the effect
on children, whose needs at the time of the parting of their
parents and thereafter are often not uppermost in the minds
of the parents who are locked into a failed relationship which
has turned sour and acrimonious. Many parents do not realise
that their children love both of them and do not want to choose
between them. There are, of course, many good plans made by
sensible parents for a continuing relationship with both parents,
but there are also depressing failures that range from inadequate
arrangements to downright hostility on one or both sides.
This is itself an enormous subject and I do not have time
in this lecture to address it.
At the point of and directly after the separation of the parents,
there are various ways in which children are disadvantaged.
Where violence between parents has been a factor in the breakdown
of the family, children suffer quite seriously from a range
of negative effects on their ability to live normal lives,
do well at school, have confidence and self-esteem and when
they grow up to make suitable relationships and become good
enough parents. There is very disturbing research to the effect
that children living in families where there is violence and
intimidation do less well than their peer group and may do
extremely badly. This may, of course, include offending.
Even where families are relatively "normal" and
there has been no violence, children still suffer obvious
disadvantages:- that they do not have their parents together,
that they may have to move away from their home, school, and
friends; that there will usually be less money.
There are equally important but less obvious disadvantages:
- they may lose permanently or only see infrequently the non-resident
parent not through long drawn out disputes but through parental
decision. 60% of fathers have little or no continuing relationship
with their children post-separation. Like children in care,
I have no doubt that many children would wish to keep up this
relationship. I am as worried about parents who fade from
the lives of their children as that small group whose litigation
makes the life of children a misery. That group includes the
unreasonable applicant for residence or contact and the unreasonable
respondent who refuses to allow the child to have a reasonable
relationship with the non-resident parent. There seems little
that can be done to galvanise absent parents to take an interest
in the children left behind. But at least it should be more
Another disadvantage is the paucity of information given to
children at the time of parting or divorce. A most interesting
video made by a group of court users in Michigan several years
ago taped the views of children of all ages who voiced their
displeasure at being denied basic information about what was
happening. The information was revealing and very sad. Some
children believed that they were to blame for the parting.
Other children were very distressed. Some children were angry.
Few of the children knew the basic facts of what was going
to happen to them or even whether they would ever see the
non-resident parent again. Some fathers never said goodbye
and they did not hear from the father again. It was worse
than the death of the father since there was no opportunity
for the bereavement process.
The longer term effect for some children of separated parents,
many of whom were under stress, was to do less well at school
and in their personal relations. Some of them were doubtful
about forming adult relationships and how to become good parents
themselves. Their role models in some cases had not been reassuring.
When one looks at the state of children - whether they be
in care, in trouble, or in separating families - the conclusion
is inescapable: Children have a right to expect better.
When I wrote the Cleveland Report in 1988, I said:
"The child is a person and not an object of concern."
In the light of multiple moves experienced by some children
in care, I would add, children are people and not packages.
As people, children are entitled not only to protection of
their welfare, but also to respect for their human rights.
The perception of children as individual citizens with individual
rights is one which has been very slow indeed to catch on.
Perhaps that's because citizens' rights normally entail responsibilities
too, which does not sit well with our view of children. Many
philosophical questions could be posed as to the moral foundation
for children's rights, their extent, and their compatibility
with the concept of childhood and dependence upon others.
Some are troubled by the dichotomy between rights and needs.
I would subscribe to the simpler approach of Professor Hugh
Bevan of Cambridge University who sets out two main and mutually
compatible categories, protective and self assertive, that
is to say the needs of children and the claims of children.
The decisions of adults inevitably have a considerable effect
upon children whether directly aimed at them or as part of
the consequences of the decisions made. The impact of parental
breakdown, the decisions of the courts, schooling or exclusion
from school, the effect of Government policy, legislation
and guidance: each of these has a direct and resounding effect
on the lives of children. In making our decisions, we concentrate
on their welfare and our perception of their welfare. We do
not try to think for ourselves what children would, if asked,
and they are not usually asked, actually want for themselves.
I am not advocating child power or child decision-making.
Clearly that would be wrong. Younger children would not be
of sufficient maturity to be able to make important decisions
about their future. Not even older children with sufficient
maturity are always equipped to make such decisions, and nor
should they be expected to take on such responsibilities.
But I am recommending that children have a right to be informed
as to what is going on and to have their views taken into
account - even if, on many occasions, what they want cannot
At the moment I do not think that those of us who make any
sort of decision about a child or for a child are sufficiently
putting the child's point of view and perspective into our
thinking and our planning. I would suggest that it might be
summed up as simple paternalism: we continue to think of children
largely in terms of needs and welfare, with little thought
of their rights. There are nonetheless organisations which
have a concern for the rights of children as well as their
welfare. The Committee of the United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child is working to raise the profile of
the rights of children - as can be seen in its second and
far from positive report on the UK made in October 2002. The
European Convention on Human Rights, perhaps oddly, does not
refer to children, but the European Court at Strasbourg has
certainly held that children have rights as well as welfare
considerations. The government has not gone so far as to appoint
a Children's Commissioner for England yet, although Wales
has done so. Scotland and Northern Ireland are about to do
so, and I hope we shall not be too far behind.
I do not believe that an awareness of children's rights has
sufficiently trickled down to all levels yet. All disciplines,
including judges and legal practitioners, should be asking
ourselves these questions: are we really child-orientated,
or are we somewhat condescending and complacent about our
approach to children? Are we thinking about what is best for
them, including having regard to their perspective, or are
we simply imposing our own perspective? What are we doing
about the rights of the child, and particularly on hearing
the voice of the child? Do we respond properly to children?
This is an area in which we could undoubtedly do better, and
it is one to which we should all be turning our attention.
I want very briefly to remind you that the concept of family
is far wider than a heterosexual couple of father, mother
and two children, sometimes termed rather oddly the "nuclear
family". A family may consist of one parent and children,
a couple without children, members of the same biological
family sharing the same home such as grandparents and grandchildren,
uncles and aunts, or friends who choose to share and may well
create a different sort of family. The permutations are endless.
For the purpose of this lecture, I propose however to limit
myself to referring to three types of family who are excluded
by and disadvantaged in our present legal system. These groups
create a family life which is not sufficiently recognised
in society and certainly not sufficiently respected by legal
structures. These are families who do not or cannot marry.
The most obvious couple is the one who probably could marry
but chooses not to do so. If they have children, their position
with regard to the children is in most respects similar to
those who are married. There is however no specific legal
framework within which to deal for example with tax, separation
or death, in such areas for instance as pension rights, and
post-separation division of assets including the ownership
of the family home. The current state of the law is complicated
and often by no means clear. There is a widespread erroneous
belief that there is a category of relationship called 'common
law marriage' which is thought to carry with it rights and
obligations. As far as I know, a common law marriage does
not exist. Those who live in such relationships are often,
especially the female partner, in ignorance of the paucity
of legal remedies available if the partnership fails.
The two groups I feel are particularly placed in an unfair
position are those who cannot marry and have no recourse to
any system of law which gives them protection if they form
partnerships, sometimes lifelong, which in their turn create
a family structure.
The first of the two groups is the same sex relationship.
There is no specific legal framework to cover any family situation
which may arise between those who form a same sex partnership.
As with cohabitation there is no provision for pension rights
or division of assets after separation other than the existing
complicated law which has evolved over centuries for a somewhat
different purpose. The House of Lords has given decisions
helpful to tenancies after the death of the other partner.
Otherwise, in the absence of a will or other disposition,
there is no recourse - our legal system is not equipped to
deal specifically with such a family. The Government has announced
that legislation will be introduced to remedy this position.
That is welcome news to all who feel, as I do, that the present
situation is a continuing breach of the right of same sex
partners to have a legal framework within which to make and
to maintain their family life.
The second of the two groups is transsexuals. On birth it
is necessary for the newborn baby to be registered as male
or female. For most babies it is obvious. For a few babies
there are physical abnormalities and it may be very difficult
to make a decision as to in which category to place that child.
The law provides a remedy for that person by application to
the court for the rectification of the birth register. There
is a further small but disadvantaged group who have no such
redress. They are people who from their physical characteristics
were correctly identified at birth but from an early stage
find themselves to be psychologically attuned to the other
category. Having been correctly identified at birth, they
cannot change their registration from male to female or female
to male later even if they have received hormonal treatment
and sometimes undergone surgery. I believe we are the only
country apart from Albania which does not provide for registration
of change of gender in such cases. The European Court has
been very critical for a number of years of the UK's failure
to legislate for this group, and the Government is now pledged
to bring in legislation. This will right a wrong to this small
group of people who, amongst other disadvantages, cannot currently,
even after gender reassignment, marry as they would wish to
The answer to the question in my title is 'yes'. We are failing
the family. We are failing its most vulnerable members, children;
and we are failing it in its traditionally less acceptable
relationships. I hope that the adult groups, once the government
initiatives to which I have referred are implemented, will
finally be able to enjoy their rights to family life. I fear
however that our attitude to children will take some serious
At the root of the problem, I'm afraid, is a cultural attitude
that it's 'not my problem'. Children are seen as the responsibility
of their parents and immediate family; and when that fails,
the state. But has our ethic of individualism and relative
morality taken us so far? To apply this view rigidly is to
ignore the role of society, and the responsibilities which
its membership entails.
What is needed is real in-depth reconsideration of how our
justice system and the wider community should be responding
to the needs of children and their parents. The ethos which
infused the drafters of the European Convention after the
Second World, many of them from the UK, is now part of our
legal system. It has to move on and become part of our ordinary
thinking. We need to be asking: Who is our neighbour? What
are our obligations, as a community, to our neighbours? If
we do not respond, we shall continue to fail the children
and the families who need and deserve our help. The failure
to take action will have consequences for succeeding generations
and perpetuate the problems we face today.