The heartache of losing a child through death must be unimaginably painful. For women who have had their children taken by social services the terrible pain is no less intense. They long for their children. They miss their children. They feel a suffocating loss, but often compounding this is shame. These mothers carry the judgment that no woman would ever wish society to make against them – ‘you are unfit to be a mother’. As a woman this may very well be the ultimate stigma.
Most people have no understanding or even compassion for a woman who loses her child because a court has ordered her child to be taken away. They must have deserved it. They should have changed. Right?
What I discovered as a barrister specialising in Family Law was that these were women who had experienced great trauma in their lives. Many were let down by organisations and professionals in their early lives and had very little friendships or support around them. Often they experienced control by abusive partners who stripped them of their worth and dignity. Is it any wonder that they found themselves struggling to parent, let alone flourish as a woman?
My experience at court would invariably involve looking at the woman’s background. This would be highlighted as ‘facts and reasons’ that she should not parent. How many times did I read, “She was sexually abused”, “Her childhood was one of serious neglect”, “She grew up in a home where there was domestic violence”, “She was taken into care”, “She experienced violence and abuse at home”, She began experimenting with alcohol/drugs at an early age”. “She was raped as a teenager”. “She complained of being bullied at school” etc…
A chronology detailing the numerous occasions she was abused, harmed, arrested, failed to seek help, etc would form part of the court papers. Professionals would then prepare reports on her present inadequacies. “Her mental health is poor”, “She doesn’t recognise risk”, “She continues to form relationships with unsuitable partners”, “She was unwilling to acknowledge the concerns of the Local Authority”, “She is hostile to professionals and does not work in an open and honest manner”. The sentence “there are a constellation of concerns about this mother” would regularly feature in reports.
Very often this would lead to a conclusion that the mother required some sort of therapeutic help but it would be deemed ‘not in the timescales of the child’. Even when an expert would state a period of 6 – 12 months of therapy was required so that the child or children could be returned to their mother this would be deemed too late for the children as they needed to be placed ‘now’.
Most of the women I represented (and I stress ‘most’) were trying to show that they could change. They would attend the Freedom Programme (a domestic violence awareness programme) have regular drug/alcohol testing, attend anger management, allow professionals into their homes, go to numerous appointments with solicitors, barristers, social workers, Guardians and psychiatrists or psychologists. They would find themselves questioned about the most intimate and painful parts of their lives and be expected to share this with any professional who asked. And while all of this was going on they would be expected to have supervised contact with their child. This might involve travel involving 2 buses across the county. The contact would be for around 1.5 hours in a room observed by a person writing down whatever they deemed important. How would anyone fare emotionally in the midst of all of that?
If at the final hearing the Local Authority’s plan, supported by the Guardian (an independent former social worker), was for permanent removal it was a no brainer. The court was faced with one vulnerable woman pitted against the overwhelming professional view. The mother would sit in court listening to the litany of evidence that she is defunct and can’t offer her children good enough care. She would then go into the witness box with the aim of convincing the court that they all have got it wrong and it isn’t really that bad and “I can change just give me time”.
And what did I do at the end of the hearing when the Judge would make the decision that the children would invariably be adopted or placed in long term care? I would go outside with the woman, explain how sorry I was, shake her hand and tell her to go and see her GP to get put on a waiting list for counseling and wish her the ‘best of luck’. And that would be it.
Until one day, I decided that was this just was not good enough. It was actually unacceptable for me to continue to ignore the plight of women after the proceedings.
I knew that once the proceedings were over the woman would lose her legal representation, she would not receive ongoing support from social services (they would stress their concern is the child not the mother) and she would be told to try to access therapy (which everyone knew was almost impossible for her to obtain).
I knew the court would allow a goodbye visit where photos might be taken of the child and mother together. The mother would know at that visit she would never see her child again. I could not even begin to imagine what that would be like.
And so the mother would return to an empty flat where previously she had cared for her children. Some of the women at BEAM have shared some of their very painful experiences after their children have been removed. These have included taking an overdose. One mother shared of the moment she broke down sobbing when she found her baby’s little sock behind a cupboard. One told of walking past the school seeing other mums waiting for their children and no one waves or speaks to her. And a neighbour shouting out in the street, ‘so where are your children then?’ Someone asking who the photos of the children are and the mother lying and saying they are her niece and nephew. Due to shame and loss others assert they don’t actually have children. Staying in bed all day Christmas Day as it is just too painful to face.
So BEAM began out of a desire to provide support to mothers in a safe place where they can talk about what has happened to them and importantly talk about their children. There is no judgment. It is confidential and it is caring. In a community of women who alone know the depth of pain and hurt due to the loss of their children there is a possibility of healing and change. Forced adoption does not have to mean a life of anger and bitterness. There is hope when mums can come together and start to rebuild. This takes time and a willingness to listen and keep listening.
What I have learned is you can have all the counseling in the world but if you feel no one cares and you are all alone how far are you going to get in dealing with some of the deepest wounds in your life? BEAM provides this support so that women might be able to grow and be empowered and to ultimately move forward despite the pain.
I want to see these forgotten women being not only understood but championed because they deserve our care and concern. But also because some day, maybe at some point, an adopted man or woman will be earnestly seeking for their birth mother and what will they find?