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How a family court stole my family.
By CORINNA HONAN
Millionaire lifestyle. Holiday home in Provence. Four beautiful children...on the surface this fillm producer's life was idyllic.
Then his wife set in train a catacylsmic legal action that plunged him into the nightmarish, secretive world of the family courts.
That night, after the children had been put to bed, George and his wife had a row.
Ignited by something trivial, it was one of those quarrels that owe more to everyday strains than anything fundamentally wrong in a marriage.
In fact, he can't even remember what they were squabbling about, though he has a clear memory of Kate suddenly lobbing in: "I want a divorce."
Well, of course she didn't really mean it, thought George later. But next morning, as he was getting the children ready for school, a letter arrived from Kate's solicitor.
Clearly written before the row, it confirmed her intention to end their ten-year marriage.
Such was the opening sally in a divorce case that would, within a matter of months, leave George jobless, penniless and effectively homeless.
During the course of it, he would be deprived of the right to see his three youngest children until they were grown-up. He would regularly be threatened with imprisonment.
And he would lose his eldest son, Alex, who was physically dragged out of his bedroom by a court official, handed to the police and then taken into care.
At this point, you may well be thinking that the awesome might of British justice is not triggered without good cause.
But, as the Mail has verified from legal sources, George has never been accused of being a bad father.
Conventional, solid and hardworking, he was committed to his marriage and imagined that he would grow old with Kate.
If he was guilty of anything, he reflects without irony, it was of not being more solicitous of her happiness.
It is a measure of George's remarkable strength of character that, from the moment he realised divorce was inevitable, he refused to accept that he should be cut out of his children's lives.
There could, he felt, be only one solution: shared custody, with the children spending equal time with each parent in adjoining houses.
For three years, he put everything else in his life on hold to battle for more time with his three sons and one daughter - aged between five and nine at the start of proceedings - through more than 40 court hearings before 20 different judges.
And, finally, when most men would long since have accepted the inevitable and moved on, he won.
Amazingly, the children are now all back with him for good, making him that extreme rarity: the father who triumphed within a system that nearly always sides with the mother.
I meet George, a former film producer, on one of those bright days when the English countryside is at its most luminous and all seems right with the world.
But as his story unfolds, it is hard to dispute his conclusion that the family court - mired in antiquated practice and shielded from public view - can be the source of untold misery and injustice.
His ex-wife - who chose not to return my calls - may well have different perceptions. But even allowing for the heat and smoke of an acrimonious divorce, George's testimony raises crucial questions about how the courts deal with custody disputes.
Still furious - in a quiet, steely way - at its treatment of his family, he has contributed many of the details of his nightmarish experience to a guide-book for divorcing fathers (I Want to See My Kids!, published this week).
"Any father who's relaxing in his comfortable home with the babble of his children in the background," he warns, "needs to be aware that in a few weeks, he could lose the lot."
Now in his 50s, George is a softly spoken man who would no more dress as Batman or scale the roof of Buckingham Palace than would the average vicar.
Like many middle-class men of his generation, he is uncomfortable speaking about emotions. Kate, on the other hand, was "highly-strung" and 12 years younger - "the same age difference as between Charles and Diana," says George, and one readily imagines that this was not the only parallel.
They had met in Asia, where George was producing a film in which Kate - then an actress - had a part. Love ripened quickly in this exotic setting, and marriage followed five years later.
When the first of their children was born, Kate gave up work.
George, for his part, had set up a production company, and was earning £150,000 a year until foreign rivals started undercutting him.
Not unnaturally, he became increasingly anxious as he tried to scrape together enough for school fees and two mortgages - on their £1 million five-bedroom London mews house (in fact, two joined together) and a £250,000 holiday home in Provence.
The marriage, which had never quite regained its momentum after the birth of their fourth child, began to falter: they spent more time apart and George admits that he could be uncommunicative.
However, once he realised that Kate was in earnest about a divorce, he resolved to do anything he could to change her mind.
They tried marriage guidance counselling for three months, but Kate attended the sessions with little enthusiasm.
Indeed, says George, her behaviour changed so dramatically that he could barely comprehend the new reality.
"I think she just wanted the counsellors to convince me the marriage was over," he says. "At home, I felt like an unwanted guest. She'd frequently describe me to the children as 'your f***ing father' - which horrified me.
"But I'd already sought advice from a lawyer and been told not to rise to the bait - because once you leave the family home, you will be portrayed as having walked out on your family."
Six years ago, around the time of their first appearance before a judge - at which George argued for shared custody - he had an unexpected phone call from a neighbour in whom Kate had confided her problems.
In all fairness, said the man from across the street, it was time George knew what was going on. Not only had Kate been having an affair with a solicitor for the past two years, but she had also told the neighbour and his wife that she was hoping to get the London house.
"It was a pretty awful phone call. I couldn't believe it, really. I felt punchdrunk," says George. (As it turned out, Kate broke up with her lover soon afterwards.)
Next, the family was visited by its first court-appointed welfare officer, whose brief was to look after the interests of the children. Both of the older boys told her they wanted to live with their father.
To his amazement, George discovered-that welfare officers are not required to have any qualifications beyond a two-day training course - and yet judges almost always follow their advice.
In the vast majority of cases, this means the mother is awarded custody.
Which is exactly what happened. "No reason was really given by the judge, except that Kate had looked after them more as babies than I had," says George.
He was ordered to leave his house within 28 days - but, in fact, was ejected without notice. (This was the result of a spurious allegation, which the law forbids us from reporting.)
With only the clothes on his back, he was taken in by his brother and sister-in-law, who live in a sizeable house in the Home Counties and have no children of their own.
The company he had fought so hard to save was in ruins. Money from the eventual sale of the French holiday home would be eaten up by expenses, and all the profit from one of the conjoined mews houses used to pay off the mortgage on the other.
George had lost everything - even, it seemed, a chance to have a normal relationship with his children. Without consultation, the judge decreed that he could have them for just one overnight stay a fortnight - and for two hours on Wednesdays.
There had been no thought given to the practicalities of picking up four children who finished school at different times and then delivering them through rush-hour traffic to Kate.
Often, when George drove the children back, they refused to leave the car. "I never quizzed them about that. But I gathered that Kate was finding it hard to cope.
"By then, she had no nanny. She was on her own, she was struggling financially and the children were being unco-operative. They'd refuse to go to school and she'd scream at them."
Kate's reaction on the two occasions that he phoned ahead to say he'd be late bringing them home was to call the police and claim he was abducting her children.
Over the next year, there was a procession of hearings about adjustments in the amount of contact he could have, with inconsequent victories for both sides.
"'But I was made to feel like a baddie. I was even called a vexatious litigant by Kate's barrister because I wanted more time with my children," says George.
With dawning horror, he began to realise that he could never win. The mother, as far as the family courts were concerned, was always right. And even when she was patently in the wrong, she could never be penalised because that would not be in the interests of the children.
Which meant that when Kate told him that the children were ill or too busy to see him, the courts had no inclination to intervene.
Worse still, if the children were playing up and she claimed that was due to seeing him, then contact could be reduced still further.
"Like most of the fathers I know, I'm completely absorbed in my children," says George. "But having contact every other weekend reduces a father overnight to being a distant relative.
"And if the divorce is acrimonious, other contact is curtailed: phone calls are permitted only at certain times, the mother can stop your contact with your children's school, she can stop you having access to their medical records. You're swept out of their lives overnight."
Week by week, inch by inch, George was losing his children.
Then, two years into the proceedings, his eldest son, Alex, started running away from home. The first time, he called his father from a railway station and was duly collected and returned to Kate.
The second, Alex turned up at the building where George's sister-in-law worked and refused to leave. Again, George had to take the weeping 11-year-old home to his mother.
The third time, George could bear the boy's misery no longer and went back to court to apply for temporary custody.
"The judge, who didn't seem to take much interest in the case, refused and ordered me to bring Alex to court the next day. But I knew very well that if I did, Alex would be handed back to his mother by force - so I went back alone.
"The judge found me guilty of contempt of court and threatened to send me to prison."
After that, Alex decided to live like a fugitive. Every time he heard a car coming up his aunt and uncle's drive, he locked his bedroom door and barricaded it with a chest of drawers.
The first official sent by the court to prise him out left empty-handed. But the judge - who announced that he was "not prepared to be dictated to by a young boy" - planned the next attempt carefully: while George was in court yet again, he sent two tipstaffs (court officials) and two police officers to remove Alex by force.
"Alex's aunt let them in. She was told to stay in the kitchen or she'd be arrested. Then, while the police guarded her, the tipstaffs kicked down the bedroom door - it was in splinters - and drove Alex off to a police station.
"My sister-in-law said he was crying and his legs were like jelly as they brought him down the stairs.
"She has never really recovered from this brutal invasion of her home and her devastation at being unable to do anything for him.
"Meanwhile, I was held in court for hours, not knowing what was going on. Then the same judge came back and said:
'I'm sure we're all pleased to hear that Alex has been removed from his father's house [in fact, his uncle's] and is now in a safe place.' He said it with a sort of sneer. He had no interest in what Alex wanted: he was punishing the boy in order to punish me."
For days, George could not find out where his son had been taken. "Eventually, I was told he was in a foster home, under lock and key. I don't want to be snobbish, but it was a rough home, an alien environment.
"There were about six other children, including a 16-year-old who'd just been released from prison. To start with, Alex wouldn't even eat - but he refused to go back to his mother. This went on for three months."
At this stage, the custody battle took a surreal twist. A new court welfare officer went to see each child in turn and asked them to draw pictures of their mother.
And when George's daughter, then aged nine, sketched Kate's body as a circle, the officer pounced. Look, she told the judge: the drawing showed that Kate was fat - whereas, in fact, she was slim!
Therefore, concluded the officer, Dad must have described Mum to the children in unflattering terms, and this clearly amounted to "abuse".
"I couldn't believe it," says George. "Here was an unqualified person interpreting a picture, which is a highly specialised skill. It was a joke.
"But the judge made a finding that my daughter was at risk of significant harm because I must be alienating her from her mother.' In fact, George says, he has never criticised his wife in the children's presence.
As the coup de grace, the judge banned him from seeing his three younger children at all.
Hope arrived from an unexpected quarter: a pair of social workers who initially seemed just as biased as everyone else.
Indeed, said one of them, it's always better for children to be with their mother, even if she's a drug addict.
But at least these social workers, who had become involved when Alex was placed under a supervision order, were not part of the labyrinthine family court structure.
After interviewing Alex, one of them even confessed to George that the boy's story had made her weep.
Cautiously, they arranged for George to see Alex for brief periods at a family centre, where father and son were observed behind a two-way mirror.
"I hadn't seen Alex for about a month," recalls George, "and he more or less jumped into my arms. He was puffy-faced and obviously disturbed.
"And when it was time to go back to the foster home, he became very distressed, crying and clinging to me."
Later, after a three-month separation, the other children were allowed to see George at the family centre, too. The social workers' conclusion?
That Alex clearly needed to be with his father - and, furthermore, that the circumstances of the other children needed investigation.
But George, by now, was no favourite of the courts. When he bought his traumatised eldest son a puppy for Christmas - the Labrador he'd always wanted - the judge interpreted the gift as an attempt to manipulate Alex's affections.
The social workers now formed an ingenious plan: the quickest way of getting Alex back, they said, was for George's brother and sister-in law to become the boy's foster parents.
"They had to go through the vetting procedure. Absurd. But it worked," recalls George.
Under the auspices of the social services, a qualified psychologist was asked to interview the children - all now adamant that they wanted to be with their father and showing physical signs of distress, such as eczema and bed-wetting.
Finally, says George, "the court didn't have a choice': he was given shared residence for the three younger children and full residence for Alex. It was over.
Today, Kate still has the family house - but the children refuse to visit her.
So they live with George at the home of his brother and sister-in-law, where he is trying to write a book in the gaps between cooking, housework and school runs.
At 3.30pm, I join him (and Alex's patient Labrador) for the second run of the day. As we wind through dazzling-green woods, up and down country-lanes, we scoop up one child after another, decanting a couple to pursue after-school activities.
They are polite, good-looking children who are all doing well at their private schools (paid for by a legacy from George's mother).
Occasionally, Kate comes to sports days: a sad figure who brings chocolates and hovers uncertainly on the edge of the playing-field.
The children don't really talk to her, says George. But he continues to "make overtures", hoping they will one day be reconciled.
Disturbingly, he says, the children seem to have blotted out their past. "They almost can't remember their early childhood. It's almost as if there is a year zero for them, and they can only remember things from then on."
There's no chance, though, that their father will blot out the past few years. "I'm still single," he says. "and I think I'll remain single.
"The children are my focus, now I've got them back, and I wouldn't want anything to divert from that."
All he ever wanted, he says wearily, was shared custody - but the system encourages women to fight for a bigger slice of the financial cake rather than work things out for the sake of the children.
And almost everyone involved, from the " case-hardened" judges downwards, he believes, starts from the premise that children are always, always better off with their mothers.
"I just want people to know what can happen," he says. "What that judge did to Alex was cruel beyond words, and it's inexcusable that this kind of thing goes on in secrecy in a civilised country."
Not long ago, he roughly totted up the cost of the custody case: the judges, the social workers, the police, the foster care, the care centre, the lawyers (mostly paid for by Legal Aid), the court staff, social security for the entire family.
It came to £1 million of taxpayers' money.
Had he and Kate been permitted to share the children, it wouldn't have cost more than a few thousand to divide their mews home back into two.
The children would still have a mother, George would still have a career, and years of anguish and heartbreak would have been avoided.
15 people have commented on this story so far. Tell us what you think below.
Your marriage finished because your wife decided to end it.
Your children are taken away from you.
Your house is taken from you.
You spend thirty thousands pounds on unscrupulous solicitors.
Then from the public purse one hundred thousand pounds in legal aid money is given to your partner to continue her unjust actions in a Family Court.
Then you move into a tiny dirty bed-sit because its all you could afford after paying the CSA for children you couldn’t even see or sent presents or letters to.
You are accused of domestic violence in which with no evidence you are criminalised in a family court.
Where every penny and possession you ever worked for in your life is taken away from you.
Then you are made so ill and depressed you are prescribed anti-depressant tablets for years in order to cope with your situation.
You write and speak to numerous politicians who will ignore you and fog you off down the same road to despair.
- Layton Bevan, Neath, Wales
When are the family courts going to realise that there is no standard formula in these types of cases? I can't believe that this still goes on. Are our courts antiquated because our judges are antiquated and out of touch with society? My parents divorced in the '70s and my mother automatically got custody. I was 8yrs old. She used to call my father on access days and tell him I was ill.Then she'd let me stand outside the house and wait for him to pick me up. For years I thought he didn't care about me because that's what she told me when he didn't show up. Get wise family court system. The parent who gets custody also gets the power to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Plus if you can't employ qualified professionals to evaluate these situations then you shouldn't be making judgements on other people's lives.
- Anon, Seattle USA
This is a very common story and there are many accounts to be told far worse than this one, which it would, of course, be illegal to discuss. About 2,000 couples each day commence disputes in the Family Courts, largely unaware of the years of misery and injustice to which they are committing their families. The secrecy of the Family Courts has enabled them to operate free from scrutiny and accountability, and their practice has become entirely corrupt. It is vital that more of these stories are told, and that a little daylight be shed.
- Nick Langford, Portsmouth, England
Yes, we have had to deal with the SS, and for no good reason. Yes, they brought stress and upset into what was a perfectly happy family. Trying to deal with them is like talking to zombies - it's all one-way. The damage is done, as evidenced in this story. Those children have to carry what has happened for the rest of their lives. The SS in this country really must be sorted - no more secrecy. I'm afraid it's one of those things you have no idea about until it happens to you, and I would not wish it on anyone. Today, as we hear on the news, families are now at risk from the SS if their children are 'overweight'. We are not in a Nanny State - it's Big Brother for real.
- Bryan Lawrence, Hampshire UK
Oh my god, I truly am sickened by this article. How on earth can decisions affecting a child's life be taken by someone who knows absolutely nothing about them? A child, distressed and running away and obvioulsy wanting to be with his father is stuck in a home? Someone really needs to look into cases like these. I'm sure it happens an awful lot more than we're made aware of and people must feel so helpless. If I hadn't read this I wouldn't have believed it. George, my heart goes out to you and your children and I think you're an amazing father, your kids really couldn't wish for more. Good luck in the future.
- Judith, Carlisle
The sad fact is that this story will not come as a shock to millions of men and their families up and down the country. I, too, am in the middle of such a story; horrid false accusation, without redress and having to ‘fight’ for mere scraps of contact with my daughter, and the continued focus remains on “supporting mother”, even at the neglect of the father. At a time when our society so desperately needs fathers in the lives of children, the courts actively discourage their involvement and in fact harm our children not help them.
- Paul O'Callaghan, London, UK
My husband couldn't afford the lawyers to keep pursuing his case throught he family courts. He now doesn't see his kids and their mother has manipulated them into thinking its all his fault. The family courts in this country are appalling, kids are suffering because of them. There should be an immediate assumption of 50:50 custody unless there is a (proven) case not to do so.
- Clare, Derbyshire
Again, the same with me. Over fifty court appearances, incompetant CAFCASS reporters who are intent on misleading the Courts out of spite and their own agendas. How come no one is able to sort this out. If only every interview or meeting was recorded as are our conversations with insurance companies, most of the problems would never arise, but I guess thats against someones human rights, i.e. the reporters who derive some sick pleasure out of destroying families. The children live with this for the rest of their lives and the leagal system get paid their monthly sdalaries and forget about the damage they've done. It is impossible for them to have a concience, yet their retort is that they're playing a politically correct game. Let's face it, who in their right mind wants to become involved in someoneelses real life drama. If we're too stupid to go legal, then the establishment treat us as fair game. Divorce creates £4bn per annum for solicitors, therefore it will never change.
- Nigel Maine, Rickmansworth, Herts
Very sad to hear georges story my heart goes out to him, however there are two sides to every story and his wife has been condemed by her silence, she has now lost her children maybe we should also pity her as she is now in the same position as George.
- Jean Lancashire, Rochdale
The courts fail to accept that children can have a tigther bond with father than with mother.
There is also the issue, indeed a failing, in British Courts to accept that mother has implacable hostility to contact. Much too often the court will allow a mother to undertake parental alienation for months or years - if once the father challenges this behaviour in court he is accused of being suspicious and marked as the 'awkward squad'.
Let father once fail to return a child and the judge will use the full force of the law. If mother fails to then the judge will order another expert or another hearing.
The key to solving this issue is for judges to be required each year to state how many time they have changed residence and how many times they have imprisoned a parent with care and a non-resident parent for failing to obey a contact order.
- John Michaels, Worcester, UK
Thank you for an excellent article on a subject which is, regrettably, far too common in this country. The matter of fathers being totally excluded from the lives of their children by vindictive mothers and a biased judiciary is all too common in this country. All the laws on this issue are heavily weighted in favour of the mother in view of the fact that they were drafted and implemented by 'feminists'. The very basics of the fathers natural rights and even there 'human rights'in this issue are being undermined. If the circumstances were reversed the bigoted feminists in government at the moment would be screaming blue murder. A closely related issue is the CSA and their targetting of so called 'absent fathers'. If this government applied basic justice there would be a simple test for the CSA to apply "NO RIGHT OF ACCESS, NO MONEY"
- Roger Thackray, Farnham UK
This is far from common. The mother has enormous power within the British Family Courts to attack the father using the children. In some cases it is simple finacial leverage and in other cases it is pure malice following a relationship breakdown. The courts don't seem to recognise and act when a mother is simply using the children to be malicious. It is child abuse and needs to be recognised as such.
- Alastair, London
My husband had a similiar case with his ex wife, we wanted to go for access but were told (by our barrister) even if the court agrees to access, she doesn't have to allow it. We were also informed that if that happened, the court would not enforce it as punishing the mother, would in turn punish the child. We didn't stand a chance. He even said there is no point, the only people that win are the lawyers and barristers.
- Samantha, Milton Keynes
This is happening on a grand scale across the country and destroying kid's relationships with their fathers.
Too many times this issue is push to the sidelines and all the while children are losing out to a very important part of their childhood.
It does not stop at the father's either, the child misses out on all of the relationships of their extended family on the father's side.
And do not think that this is just a lower class yob problem as if to blame it on a lack of intelligence. Every level of society, upstanding people, even the famous such as Bob Geldof, and even a judge have all experienced the way in which the family court is intent on sidelining the father and in some cases destroying their lives.
Please do something, it's about time our children deserve better.
- S, UK
I am currently in a similar position although not as graphic as your own but a lot of your experiences are my fears too. Tomorrow (22 June 2007) I have a meeting with Social Services to discuss the state of mind of both my two young children. I have great fears that the system will side with my ex-wife but after reading your article, it has given me renewed hope that if you refuse to give up, and keep battling away, you can prove to the system that a father has exactly the same rights as a mother. I will be purchasing your book as a reminder that even when it's at its worst, it can and will get better.
- Steven, Essex, UK
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