Friday, 27 January 2012

Take three victims

Over at Ambush Predator, a story is being discussed.  A young father (not married) was ruled to be unable to care personally for a child and so the child was released for adoption against his wishes. He reacted violently to this and gruesomely attacked the social worker.

The case may be more complex than if first appears; consider these possible settings.

The same objective fact is settled in all cases: due to injuries, the father is personally unable to care for the child without the help of  a full time nanny or nannies,  which is what  the Queen used when she was unable to look after her own children due to being away on state business. We aren't prepared to fund that for this man so it is argued that it is in the child's best interests to be adopted away in to a couple who can care for her personally.

Story (i) Mr Thug

Drunken lout of 20 starts scrap on journey back from nightclub, having regularly indulged in fighting. This time he receives a thumping which results in a stroke.

The stroke permanently damages his ability to communicate but not his intellectual understanding of speech or his ability to move about. This is quite common with stroke patients. 

The social worker was communicating with the father and that the father understood what was being said.  The man was held fully liable for the attack in court.

However, there is an inconsistency: the child was being removed because it was argued the disability made the young man an unsuitable carer,  but if he was a lout he was in fact always unsuitable, regardless of whether he came off worst in a fight.

Yet we generally do not remove children from the care of louts, including those with a history of crime and making threats.   Maybe we should, but we don't. Or at least, not routinely.  Should the penalty for starting a fight be the removal of a child?

Story (ii) Mr Innocent Victim

Young man of 20 is walking home one evening when he is set on by three youths.  The youths shout "Kill Whitey" but despite their colour and the shouting testified to by horrified witnesses, the crime is not classed as racially aggravated.  No other explanation is ever discovered for the random attack.

As before, the youth sustains an injury which results in a stroke and the permanent damage of his ability to communicate but not his ability to understand.   The best interests of the child are thought to lie with being brought up in a much richer household by parents without disabilities.   The social services obtain a court order which sets aside the father's wishes and will exclude him from the child's life for at least the next 14 years, in the hopes that he will drop dead and stop being a bloody nuisance in the interim. Dear Dad, I never knew you.  However, it is still objectively true that he cannot provide for the needs of the child without a full-time nanny - just like the Queen couldn't.

Regardless of his personal qualities and innocence, the child is removed from his life.  He is then blamed for reacting violently to this and it is concluded that because of his violent reaction to a double injustice, it was right to remove the child.

Should the penalty for losing a fight you never started, be the removal of a child?

Story (iii)  Mr Soldier

A young man of 20 is sent to Helmand. He is a professional fighter and accepts that this involves killing people, and it may also mean he is killed.  Blown up by an IED he keeps all his limbs but in falling takes a blow which causes a stroke.  Naturally, he is discharged.

Following the stroke his girlfriend, whom he had intended to marry, cannot cope with his changed prospects and inability to communicate as she would like, and, having her own problems, puts the child up for adoption.

He is refused permission to be allowed to keep his own child on the grounds that he cannot meet the needs of the child without a full-time nanny, and this is neither affordable nor acceptable, even though the Sovereign whom he served did exactly that.  Indeed, Cherie Booth QC employed a nanny to enable her to keep up her legal career when she was married to the PM.  Miriam Clegg and Samantha Cameron have both relied on nannies, accepting they could not give full-time care to their own children. Nobody suggests that either David Cameron or Nick Clegg should give up public office or have their children taken away.

The young man reacts violently, as it is sometimes known for soldiers to do, when it strikes him there is one law for the rich and another for the Poor Bloody Infantry. Is it fair that rich people are able to nominate proxy childcare, but poor people get social workers, solicitors and judges who re-allocate their child? You can buy a lot of nanny-time for the cost of that professional crew. Both the judge and the solicitor will probably have nannies of their own.

Had he not been blown up, he would have continued to tour and be away from the child for considerable periods of time, but he would have been allowed to keep in contact with the child despite the needs of his job (this has been verified only last week in a dispute between a serving officer and his ex-wife).   In general, we do not accept that merely having a job which involves the parent being absent and therefore unable to meet the day to day needs of the child, is automatically grounds for adopting a child away. But he knew the risks and voluntarily went in to this business, as Mr Thug in story (i) did.

Should the penalty for being unlucky in a lawful fight be the removal of a child?

It is sometimes argued that The Best Interests of the Child (BIC) must prevail.  Yet analytically it does not, since that would mean systematically reviewing the circumstances of each child in Britain and re-allocating them to richer, better educated carers until the point is reached where no child could get a better deal by moving households.   That is, optimising welfare.

There are calls to do that, but that is precisely why the European Convention on Human Rights defines the family as sacred.  A particular family may be sub-optimal, but that alone is not enough reason to dissolve it.  Besides, it is very difficult to define sub-optimal. I know what I think it is, but so does everyone else, and I bet we don't agree. It is impossible to avoid Godwin's law;  the stricture was set up because the Nazi Family Policy thought it could stipulate the standards of family care.

If Mr Thug is a thug, that may be a reason he should be dispossessed of his children, but Wayne Bishop wasn't. The prisons are full of thugs being visited by their families. The  ECHR upholds the general right to respect for family life.

What has happened in the case of Mr Bould is that the welfare of the child has been optimised allegedly because he got his head kicked in. The plea in mitigation by defender Mr Holt is reported as:
"Any issue of neglect was not intentional. It was the by-product of their disabilities". 
Then again, Bould set fire to his ex-girlfriend's car, which doesn't sound like a by-product of disability but viciousness, nor does pouring boiling water over a social worker.  As the baby appears to have been present, that also introduces a possible risk of scalding the child. He sounds less and less like a person capable of behaving like a responsible adult.

Against that, we are told that he social worker decided to talk to the sister, not Bould, about the last contact meeting. Given that we are told Bould finds it difficult to talk, and the social worker was already late and thereby deprived Bould of precious minutes of contact, was starting to gossip about him the moment he left the room to go to the loo respectful towards a disabled client, or was it designed to humiliate and antagonise him? 

From the test cases we can see that how you call it depends not only on the interests of the child but also the circumstances in which the disability of the parent occurred. In two of these three cases it doesn't seem  fair to punish a victim by having their children alienated from them.  In the third case, it does seem fair, but not because of the father having been injured. Yet in practical terms, the question is always the same: can they look after a child?

Practicallity matters, but it cannot be the sum total of what matters or else the concept of respect for family life is a meaningless mantra.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Raft Pie

Where the salt water meets the fresh water there is a line in the river. Just above that line is The Republic of Raft, not so much anchored as lazing alongside a ramshackle landing stage, dreaming of gamblers on paddle steamers and fine ladies languidly dipping white hands and long plaits in the water. 

It was the thin days of January but this year the snow had only glanced the surrounding countryside. The Raft itself rarely froze in; its proximity to the salt water kept its path clear for a quick getaway. Dadder Raft insisted that if needs be, the Old Girl - by which he might have meant the either the Raft or Mammer - could sail coastal waters but her days hauling to Holland were probably over.

Mammer assured us little Rafts that she and Dadder had sailed the seven seas, but we rather doubted this as Dadder had none of the compulsory elements of a sea captain. No wooden leg, no parrot, not even a spy-glass or a turtle-neck jersey. Besides, Dadder could swim and everyone knows sailors are allergic to water, which is why they never drink it. Did you ever see a sailor drink anything but rum? Of course not.

School had begun again and we trudged down to the Board School which had its compensations at this time of year. In the corner the Board had provided a hearth big enough for a dragon to live in, surrounded by great iron railings.  Our teacher, Miss Mavis, did not care for being cold so her high-seat desk had shuffled closer to the fire and she chose to conduct as many lessons as possible  with us sitting in a circle on the floor next to it.  The wooden floor was hard on the bum but then again, it was warm to the touch and far, far away from the incomprehensible maths cupboard which shivered far away at the back of the classroom where a disgruntled stuffed badger lived on the top shelf because nobody could think of what else to do with it.  A stuffed adder, quipped Miss Mavis, might have made more sense.

The school caretaker, lumbering along in his regulation blue dungarees and carrying the symbols of his office, a broom and a bucket, came in to the classroom at break time to top up the grate.  Sometimes there would be faint footprints of coal dust as if a Santa had got lost and fallen down a chimney out of time.  Burton Coggles, whose dad had been down a coal mine, said that the caretaker was really Santa and this was his cover job, you could tell because if you looked in the coal dust there were tiny sparkles.

Back at the Raft, Mammer and Baba cuddled up to conserve a little warmth. We did not appreciate it, but food grew scarce in January and Mammer began to choose us over herself.  Her paying work of sewing tended to drop off just after Christmas, so she caught up with repairs, but always there was the difficulty of where dinner was coming from. Or at least, coming from legally.  Dadder was a marsh man, a wet bob, so in absolute terms he could never starve, not even if he ended up eating the roots of reeds - you can, they are edible - but that diet grinds the teeth to nothing. Protein is what you need, and that means a certain flexibility of attitude.

Up river was an Old Empty Water Mill which stood adjacent to Squire Bragg's farm.  The mill housing, the habitable shack at the bottom and the mill pond had been in the care of the Last Daughter of the Last Miller  but she had died and the Remaining Relatives had set to squabbling about the sale of it. For the moment, reasoned Dadder, it was the property of the Estate of the Last Daughter,  not yet passed legally in to anyone else's hands.

He slipped down to the mill pond because it was here that a colony of carp with mouths the size of half-crowns grazed the still surface of the pond. Where there was weak sunlight slanting through the bare branches the carp would sunbathe.  Here, he had laid out a net in the shallows, pegging it down but leaving the mouth slack so that it could be lifted, just a few inches, and instantly create a prison which only the most determined jumper would get over.   Dadder didn't like nets, them being too much in the nature of  'evidence' if the water bailiffs called, but this wasn't the river so they didn't have any authority, not even allowing for the fact that the pond was fed by, and flowed into, the river.

While the Last Daughter had been alive there was no trouble.  She agreed that so long as they shared the catch, and it was purely for personal use, they would harvest what they needed and no more than that.  There didn't seem to be any shortage of fish the size of cats, they took a pair, another grew in its place. That, after all, is the point of a carp pond.  But she was gone and there are flocks of black-coated solicitors who might want to argue the finer points of testamentary law.

Besides, personal use wasn't directly what Dadder had planned. This was a variation to the bargain. His idea was to take a catch to the fishmonger who was would pay cash as the sea boats were not going out so often this month, leaving his slabs looking bare. Carp is all very well but cash is king.

The sun was well up when he slid two of the fish out of the net and into a canvas bag slung under his arm, offering a prayer for the soul of the Last Daughter, and slipped away brushing his footsteps out behind him so that you would never know that so much as a cat had been down to the water.  Reluctantly he left the net laid out so as not to disturb the bed of the pond anymore than it had been, but if someone cared to look they would find it.

The reeds on the lonely riverbank whispered "fisssshhhess" as Dadder slipped by,  lamenting two brothers who would now sleep with the humans. 

Dadder marched past the Harbour Lights, in to the open shop with its marble slab and winked at Mr Baker the fishmonger.  It was a trick of fate that the baker was called Mr Butcher, while the butcher was called Mr Grocer, but then fate has a whimsical sense of humour.  Mr Baker took a peek in to the bag and held up two fingers.  Dadder responded with four, and they closed at three.   The bag was emptied under the counter.  Due to the sensitive nature of the fish they would not appear whole for fear of provoking queries, questions, unwelcome comments, but they would be displayed in neat fillets under no name. If asked, Mr Baker would say "wytch bream".  "Wytch" being another word for "best not ask".

Stopping for a swift ale at the Harbour Lights, Dadder enquired if anyone had seen Squire Bragg and was reassuringly told that he had last been seen taking a train to the Spa, where he intended to sweat out the port and Stilton which had given him gout over Christmas.  While the Squire was away his man was taking it very easy so he shouldn't be about much but was probably going to be on the dominoes team that evening. Dadder nodded his thanks, which might duly show up in the form of a few coneys liberated from under the Squire's hedges, a form of pest control for which he didn't charge the Squire and didn't trouble him with the knowledge of it, neither.

The bar shut shortly, the landlord being a great believer in late lunches for landlords, and Dadder took himself over to see Mr Grocer -who had now opened after his own lunch - where he handed over a note written in Mammer's italic script: "1lb of minced beef, please".

That was nearly all the business of the day so Dadder hurried back upriver while there was still light and pulled out the last of the potatoes from the sack in his shed and two onions.  Not much to work with but in the sea-locker Mammer had a tin of tomatoes and there was a dab of butter and a drop of millk in the cool tin which nestled beside the boat.

Ahead of the return of the little Rafts, ravenous from school, Mammer fried the beef in its own fat, then the onions and tomatoes, laying them down in a pie dish. On top of that she put the mashed potatoes.  The great metal pie dish was left on the top of the pot-bellied stove, keeping hot and cooking very gently. 

Back in town Miss Mavis had finished reading the class an episode of "Moonfleet" had looked out of the school room window and come to the conclusion that she didn't trust the sky.  It looked grey and sulky, as if ready to pick a fight with the ground.  Swiftly she divided the children in to the believers and heathens, put Leonard the class Jew in to the Wendy House, and whisked the believers through The Lord's Prayer, shooing them out of the door and telling them not to dawdle but to get home before the weather closed in.

Burton Coggles remembered to knock on the Wendy House door to tell Leonard to come out, who answered as if he had been asleep and not listening at all. The Wendy House was made of hardboard with a cloth roof, and not much bigger than a kennel.  Leonard increasingly looked like Alice, growing until she filled up the White Rabbit's house. This impression was inadvertently fostered by Leonard's father who believed in buying shoes with room to grow, so that Leonard trip-slapped about in footwear suitable for an apprentice clown.  

Most of the children lived in the town so Miss Mavis had no concerns for them, but the Rafts had to go along the river bank and she considered them a feather-headed brood, harmless but with less wit than the ducklings on the pond.

She sighed and, regardless of the cold, she gathered her coat, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes and umbrella - still rolled at this stage - and pointed it to emphasise the way. "Come along children, time to go home" and she marched us smartly down to the path which would become the river bank.  We had to huff to keep up; she was small but she travelled like a determined little tug bringing a liner in to dock.

At the bend of the river, where the water is still salt but you can see the Raft, she stopped and pointed towards our craft with her umbrella. " Run along now, I can see smoke from the chimney and I can smell something delicious."
"Come with us, Miss"
"No dears, I need to get home before the sky makes up its mind."
We ran towards the wisp of hope.
"And anyway" she muttered to herself "there are enough mouths there to feed already".

When we got to the Raft, we turned to wave to say we were alright.  Standing on the raised bank she was outlined against the sky, the wind tugging at the hem of her coat. The pink grey dusk had changed her clothes to the dark bronze of a statue and she rested on her furled umbrella like the knight guarding a tomb in the church. Her hat stood like a heavy circlet on her head.  The line of angry cloud in the heavens held back - or seemed to - while she stood between us and the fated rain.

Miss Mavis looked back towards the Raft, hearing with relief  the distant clink of spoons on enamel plates. On the air was a faint aroma of cocoa telling a story of a voyage from the far Americkees to Holland, but where it came from she could not fathom. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year 2012

Mr Raft is the most long-suffering of men and since I wanted a fire to celebrate the New Year, he went out in the middle of the night to built me one.   I enjoyed it with a shot of the sloe gin I bottled last year.

Happy New Year