The mothers’ movement: How women are fighting injustice in the UK’s family courts 

The mothers’ movement: How women are fighting injustice in the UK’s family courts 

Written by Leila Hawkins

Photo under creative license

The bond between a mother and child is the strongest that exists, most experts would agree. However mothers are reporting that this bond is being weaponised against particular groups of women who are unfairly targeted because they have disabilities, are on a low income, or are immigrants. 

Tracey Norton coordinates the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign run by WinVisible, a group that brings together women with visible and invisible disabilities of different backgrounds. Some of the women in the group, like her, faced having their children taken away because they were deemed ‘unfit’ mothers due to their disability. 

“I am a mother with an invisible disability and a severely disabled son,” she explains. “I fought long and hard to get the money that I’m legally entitled to, to keep him at home for his medication and education.” But after battling for, and winning financial support from the government, Tracey was accused of harming her son by child protection services, after an incident occurred at the hospital he was being cared for. He was then placed into care – which she is certain happened because the authorities wanted to stop the funding she had won, as well as cover up medical malpractice at the hospital. “They ripped my child from his loving home and put him in a very unsuitable, not disabled-accessible hostel, with adults who were drug users and alcoholics,” she says. 

She was eventually successfully reunited with her son, but not before a traumatic ordeal with the family court. “The day before my case started my lawyer said, ‘you’ve lost’ when I hadn’t even been to court,” she explains. “I had all this evidence, but my lawyer said, ‘the judge doesn’t like mothers’”. 

“You might ask, how does that happen?” Tracey says. “Family courts are closed and they work in secrecy. They are not based on evidence like criminal law, but on the probability that you might have harmed your child, or that you might harm your child in the future when you’ve never harmed your child whatsoever.” 

Unlike criminal court, in family court the final decision is arrived at through the balance of probabilities – where something is more likely to have occurred than not, rather than the standard of proof that something has happened beyond any reasonable doubt.  

As well as being closed to the public, those involved in family court proceedings must not share any details of their case, otherwise they risk being in contempt of court. While this protects the identities of minors, there are numerous reports of this leading to serious miscarriages of justice

Additionally, research shows that parents with a learning disability are 54 times more likely to have their children removed and placed into care than other parents. The pattern and frequency with which this happens has led campaigners to believe this is a deliberate policy

Forced adoptions in the UK 

Removing a child from the care of its mother can cause untold suffering, as Tracey says,  “my child and I will never get over the trauma of what happened to us and that’s something that’s not recognised.” 

In 2018, a judge deemed the decision to place several children into care by Herefordshire Council to be among the “most egregious abuses of section 20 accommodation it has yet been my misfortune to encounter as a judge.” There are further examples of forced adoptions in the 2017 dossier compiled by Legal Action for Women, and further back in time, in the 2022 report published by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which found that thousands of women had been forced to give their children up for adoption between 1949 and 1976. 

The reports show that the mothers affected are overwhelmingly single mothers, women of colour, women who have experienced rape and domestic violence, or disabled mothers. “All these women are living in poverty and are entitled to resources, but instead of giving the resources to mothers, they take the children away and give the resources to private companies,” Tracey says. 

“That model of setting up agencies that go after children has been exposed in the US and has clearly been imported here,” explains Cristel Amiss, a project coordinator at Crossroads Women’s Centre in north London, where Winvisible is based. 

Placing a child into care can cost tens of thousands of pounds per week. “Whereas if you gave the mother a fraction of that money, you would be doing no harm to the mother or child,” Cristel says. “You have to come to the conclusion that there’s a deliberateness about this, which is to do harm, which is to punish mothers and children.” 

The denial of women’s experiences 

A woman who cannot be named because she is a victim/survivor of domestic abuse, faced a court battle over custody of her children with her abusive ex-husband. “My ex paid no child maintenance and due to the two-child benefit cap, all the benefits together did not cover even part of rent, which he previously paid for. He was able to lie about his finances because he was self-employed. I had to decide whether to pay for rent, food, bills or basics for my children.”

She reached an arrangement out of court for the children to live with their father in exchange for regular visits; however he then stopped her from seeing them for six months. “We went back to court and this time my solicitor actively advised me not to mention his abuses – this ‘advice’ damaged my case and I had to learn the hard way that solicitors often give poor advice.” 

She got in touch with Support Not Separation, a group of organisations and individuals that works to end the separation of children from their mothers or primary carers, and began attending their monthly self-help meetings at Crossroads Women’s Centre. “It became clear for the first time in four years that I wasn’t a unique case,” she says. “That other mothers who’ve lost their children have also faced abuse, poverty and a similar collection of difficulties including serious health concerns or disabilities.”

Thanks to the support provided at the meetings, she won her case. “Finally, my children are able to stay with me overnight once a fortnight and half of the holidays. It has been life-changing for all of us. Of course, I want much more and I’ll carry on fighting. But in the meantime, we are focusing on rebuilding our relationships that were so badly broken down by having an extremely restrictive court order for so long.” 

A system stacked against women

In 2021, a study by Support Not Separation found that of the 219 mothers it surveyed, 10% had children who had been forced into adoption without their consent, and 30% had gone to live with an abusive father rather than remain with their mother. Many of the mothers were women of colour or immigrant women, had mental health issues or had a physical disability. 

Tracey explains that rape and domestic abuse are routinely dismissed by social workers, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), and even solicitors. “If you’re a domestic abuse victim, your own lawyers who you think are there for you tell you not to bring up domestic abuse. But if you don’t, you haven’t got a case, so you’re stuck in a situation where you believe in your lawyers who are part of this corrupt system that you’re not strong enough to challenge,” she says.  

“Mothers are in this permanent cycle of being dragged through family court, and they appear to be the problem even though they are the victims,” she adds. 

A 2023 study led by University of Manchester researchers found that women who accused their partners of domestic abuse experienced serious health problems as a result of biased family court proceedings. Lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Galdarno also found a tendency for courts to side with men, and evidence that CAFCASS may be too close to father’s rights lobbying groups. 

The mothers’ movement 

During the meetings at Crossroads Women’s Centre, various groups including Winvisible, Support Not Separation and Legal Action for Women, work collectively to support each others’ campaigns, but also autonomously on individual cases. “One of the things we are asking for is for the courts to be open,” Tracey says. “While they operate in secrecy you are going to get these continuing miscarriages of justice. We have monthly pickets outside the family court, but what is really important are the monthly self-help meetings.” 

“We discuss tactics that work, like making sure you record conversations with professionals, sometimes saying less rather than more so you don’t say something that will be twisted and used against you, putting everything in writing, and keeping on top of your lawyer at all times because most of them are not committed to defending mothers and children,” she adds.  

“Our case work feeds our campaigning, and our campaigning is crucial to changing the hostile climate against low income mothers and kids,” Tracey adds. “Each time a mother has a victory, even if she doesn’t win everything she wants, it helps strengthen the movement we are building.” 


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