Melanie McDonagh

The forced Caesarean case proves that light must be shone on social services and the courts

The forced Caesarean case proves that light must be shone on social services and the courts
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It’s no joke, having a Caesarean, and I’ve had two. So the news that Essex County Council social services obliged a pregnant, mentally ill Italian woman to have her baby in this fashion – normally, you talk the thing over with a consultant – was perhaps the scariest element of the case when I first read about it. I mean, unless there was a medical emergency, that would count as assault by most people’s reckoning. But after reading more it’s hard to know which bit of the story to be most outraged about: the forcible removal of a child from the woman whose bipolar disorder is now, apparently, under control and who desperately wants to keep her daughter, or the assumption by Essex social services that they cannot hand the baby over to the care of her father (the woman’s ex-husband) and grandparents who are, right now, looking after her two siblings. Or indeed, the very fact of taking a child away from a foreign national in the first place and putting it up for adoption to a British couple.

Essex social services department say that they had ‘exhausted all other options’ before taking this course, including liaising with the child’s extended family in Italy. Really? One of the umpteen things about this case I don’t believe is that they did any such thing. How’s their Italian, for one thing? Did they bring in the Italian ambassador to provide assistance in this case, and possibly language skills? Did anyone actually go to Italy to talk in person to the family? We don’t know, of course, but we should. As for the council’s contention that it had told Italian courts about the case – for the woman had always intended to return to Italy, so it’s a moot point why Italian courts aren’t deciding the matter – I’d rather like to know about that contact in full.

The story began when this unfortunate woman, who suffers from bipolar disorder, came to Stansted Airport to take a course. She was pregnant at the time; in August, she was sectioned after showing signs that her disorder was out of control, and a judge in the Court of Protection – yep, that secretive outfit that makes decisions for  people who don’t have the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves – ruled that she should undergo a Caesarean section. Social services sought to take the baby from the mother as soon as she was born; they were backed by county court judges. And when, in February, a Chelmsford county court heard the mother’s appeal  to have her baby back, Judge Roderick Newton ruled that the child should be placed for adoption instead, even though the mother was by then taking medication and had a job – she might, you see, stop taking her medication. As for uniting the baby with her father and grandparents this was ‘not a starter’. Er, why, exactly? Were the grandparents actually there, or the father? We hear a lot nowadays about fathers’ rights in terms of getting paternity time off work – Nick Clegg’s big thing; well, excluding a father from a decision about losing his child forever seems at odds with this trend.

Now, thank God, a manifestly sane judge, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, has said he wants to hear the case before the adoption goes any further. He at least seems to recognise the gravity of the situation. But as John Hemming, the LibDem MP who has championed the woman in all this, points out, many decisions taken by the family courts – actually, the Court of Protection is specifically to do with mental incapacity – are taken by the magistrates court and appealed in the county court. Not quite the high-level appeals system you need for a really grave case then.

Naturally, I do see that the interests of the child must take precedence over every other consideration. And mentally ill mothers can and do harm their children. But even if the decision were justified, and given what we know about our social services I’m not wholly confident on that one, I should like to know how it was arrived at and whether other options really were explored. What this appalling case – downright embarrassing, given it involves an Italian citizen – demonstrates is the wisdom of Sir James Munby’s views on these matters. He has said that family hearings should be held in public, that social workers should be named in court and that families should be able to speak out about their treatment. Yes! Yes! Yes! Open the system up to light and air.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor. Irish, living in London.

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