The story of the magic judge

– Photo by Creative-Touch

None of us want to live in a society where poverty shipwrecks loving families, stranding them apart from one another — and yet it happens again and again, causing lifelong damage in the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and parents who are weighted down by poverty.

‘Pamela’* has two children, aged 5 and 7.  About 18 months ago, while she was experiencing domestic violence, they were removed by social services and placed into care. Even though she was the victim of her partner’s violence, she felt treated as a villain for having failed to protect her children from witnessing this.

Recently, social services told Pamela they were ready to return custody of her children given that she has managed to leave her abusive partner. But this presents a new challenge for her. She grew up in poverty herself and left school early.  She feels she doesn’t deserve to be treated well, and she lacks resources and community support.

Even though she is aching to have her children home again, at the same time, when Pamela sees the material means of her children’s foster carers, she fears that she can’t afford to give them the decent life that all children should have. Given the cost-of-living crisis, for now, she has not dared to bring her children home.

The long arm of the law

‘Olivia’ has a disability and is the sole carer for her 8-year-old son. Social workers were very concerned about her ability to meet his needs, because of their poor housing conditions in an insalubrious council flat.

The case was brought to a family court judge who was asked by social services to make an order for the boy to be taken into care. In court, an ATD activist with lived experience of poverty accompanied this mother as her parent-to-parent advocate. This woman, ‘Amy’, was allowed to address the judge. She recalls:

“I’ll be honest, I was really nervous because I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say. The mum felt very, very fragile. And so I’m up in front of this judge, and I’m telling him that there’s been no care order made yet. And we actually do want him to make an order. We all agree on that; but what should go into that order?”

Losing a dog or getting ice cream?

Amy addressed the judge, saying:

“Before you make this order, you need to remember that, to this child, you are magic! If the order you make removes him from his home, he’s gonna lose his mum, he’s gonna lose his friends and his school, he’s gonna lose the dog. And the child is gonna feel like he’s being punished, because his mum wasn’t supported to give him what he needs.

“You also need to know that the council is charging this mum rent for an accommodation so damp that she’s had to bin mattresses. Every time she puts wallpaper up on the mouldy walls, it slides back off because of the damp. And remember that the council has never assessed her for support, even though she’s disabled.

“So this child does need you to make an order, but please be magic for this child. Your order could compel the local authority to give them a new flat. If you ordered the child to have chocolate ice cream every Friday, they would have to give it to him. You can ask for anything, because you’re magic, so please be magic to help this family.”

A new perspective

Amy continues: “The judge did it! In the order, he compelled the local authority to rehouse the family and he compelled them to make a grant to the mum to buy new beds and mattresses. And now the family is no longer on an order at all because the mum finally has disability support, and so  it’s covered for her to have a cleaner.”

Before going to court, Olivia and her son were at a high risk of being separated. People experiencing financial hardship are far more likely to be targeted by social service interventions ending in the removal of their children. Olivia’s son might have joined the 82,170 children who were removed from their parents in 2021-2022 (which was 22.5% more than in 2012, and 37.6% up from 2002).**  But the judge’s order lifted this family out of the vortex. With one order, he completely redesigned their relationship with the local authority so that it would work better for all of them.

As a parent-to-parent advocate, Amy has now met the same judge on several other occasions. She says:

“One of the things that strikes me is that every time I’ve come in front of that judge he says, ‘You think I’m magic!’ and he winks at me. Every case I’ve had in front of him has been treated much better because this changed his perspective, too. This is why telling stories matters so much.”

Our society is now at a critical moment where we should all be able to help design the future we want, not only for Olivia’s family, but also Pamela’s and so many others across the country. We hope to find enough magic to support the aspirations of all vulnerable parents to nurture their own children.


*Although these stories are true, all names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
**To learn more, please see this report by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre.