At first I didn’t have words for the story about the Italian woman whose baby was taken by UK social services. Yesterday I was planning things out but back pain took priority. As it turns out I’m glad I waited because there are more pieces out now that fill in some information, including a transcript of the placement hearing. This isn’t because the new information changes my initial reaction, but it does add to it, as do some of the opinions other people have expressed.
The basic facts of the case are: an Italian woman, whose name has been given in Italian media but not English, has a history of bipolar disorder. She has two previous children who are in the custody of her parents due to her illness. She has had medication but taken it sporadically, as people with mental illness often do – once the medication begins to work, you feel better, so you think you don’t need it anymore and stop taking it. Rinse and repeat. This is incidentally another symptom of stigma, as people don’t want to accept that they have to rely on medication long term. Accepting that you’ll be taking mood stabilising drugs for possibly the rest of your life is utterly terrifying. Everywhere you hear people talking about “Oh, I don’t want to take drugs for it” and opinion pieces about over-medicalisation and Big Pharma. It’s a point of shame. At any rate, this woman came to the UK in the first part of 2012, while pregnant to a Senegalese national, and while there suffered a bad episode; part of the new information that’s come out indicates that it was much worse than initially reported, though I’d already gotten the impression that it was fairly bad due to familiarity with mental illness. I’m not someone who hears “panic attack” in correlation with “five weeks in hospital” and imagines she just had a couple of hours of being upset. So, on June 13 of 2012 she was committed to care. On August 23, the Court of Protection issued an order giving permission for a caesarian section to be performed. Later that same day, the Local Authority took the baby daughter into care. This is another of the important points of clarification – it was not social workers who ordered the C-section. It was doctors. However, this may actually be worse, because there is also a long history in the medical profession of racism and sexism and often I think people are willing to criticise social workers when they won’t criticise doctors, because doctors can talk about medical necessity that’s beyond what laymen understand. Doctors are also much more able to act on their patriarchal notions. In the first half of the twentieth century, it wasn’t social workers sterilising the mentally ill who were deemed unsuitable to breed, it was doctors. So far I have not seen any discussion for the reasons given for the C-section, and I hope someone finds the transcript of the session in the Court of Protection, because I’d be interested to know. Quite possibly it was for strictly medical reasons, but right now we have nothing that says one way or the other.
So, at some point after the birth the mother returned to Italy. She was still very unwell at that point but kept telling staff at the hospital she wanted to go home. (She also said she wanted her baby, but apparently she was ok to make one decision and not the other.) The judge in the placement transcript is pretty critical of the doctors letting this happen and also because it seems the doctors’ reports indicated at that point that she was in better health than she was, whereas her doctors in Italy gave a quite different picture. During this period of treatment she realised the seriousness of her condition, that she needed to stay on her medication, and that she could not take care of any of her children if she didn’t. By the time of the placement hearing, which was on February 1 in 2013, she was still on her medication and apparently very stable. The transcript repeatedly emphasises how coherent and clear and even forceful she is at conveying her wishes. At this point the daughter in question was nearly six months old, which is apparently the critical consideration for the judge in the placement hearing.
You see, the expert advice is that a child should be in a stable situation by the time they are nine months old. The mother’s suggestion was that if the courts did not agree that she could take her baby home straight away, which she seemed to accept was likely, she could be placed essentially in the foster system for up to perhaps a year so that the mother could prove she was able to stay on her medication. At this point she was also securely employed and housed, had a medical support system, and was on much better terms with her family. Other possibilities were that the baby’s father could take her (this was deemed a “non-starter” as he was an overstayer in Italy) or in one piece it mentions that a family friend in the USA, who elsewhere is named as a relative, was willing to take her. On the other hand, if she was placed into the UK adoption system, finding a suitable family would be complicated by her unusual racial mix, her parents’ different religious backgrounds, and the fact that there may be a genetic tendency towards mental instability. (Possible, future disability.)
So at this point we’re in a court where a child’s birth mother is in complete control of her faculties, she has a stable situation, a secure income, family support, medical support, oh and also she’s not a citizen of this country and doesn’t plan to live there, and the only connection the child has with this country is that she was born there while her mother was visiting. But because it’s ideal that a baby should have a stable situation by nine months of age, and the mother might, sometime in the future, have a relapse, the judge decides the best course of action is to waive the requirement for parental consent to adoption and place the child, permanently, with a British family who do not share her racial or national background. So this woman, despite being basically in the best place she’s been in quite a number of years, has now had to go through a surgery that she did not consent to (which may have been necessary but was apparently not properly explained to her first by her account, as she says she did not know it was going to happen), and had her child placed for an adoption that she did not consent to (because it wasn’t ideal for the child to be placed in temporary foster care while her mother proved she wasn’t at risk of relapsing again).
Apparently some people, including identified feminists, think this is A-OK now. It wasn’t social workers who ordered the C-section, so everything’s dandy. The bipolar was worse than they assumed from the original phrasing, so the mother shouldn’t get a say in her child’s future. The father’s an undocumented immigrant of colour into Italy, so he’s not capable of taking custody. These things apparently make it all good for British doctors and British courts to perform non-consensual surgery on a foreign woman and place her brown child into permanent care in a country she has no connection with, with a family who don’t share her background. Oh, her mother can visit her, but even in Europe where travel is cheaper that’s still a huge cost, and still crosses national borders, meaning any number of things could prevent free movement. And if this decision caused or causes her mother to relapse I’m sure that will be held up as proof that it was the right decision, not an unfair decision that had a hugely negative impact on someone who was turning her life around.
I have read a lot of the new information on this case today. I’ve read pieces opposed to what happened, I’ve read pieces in favour, I’ve read the original transcripts. Nothing I’ve read has changed my mind. The fact that mentally ill women can have a foreign country perform surgery on them, take their children into custody and place them into adoption without consent is terrifying and shameful, even if there’s a medical rationalisation, even if she had a breakdown, even if the father is a West African overstayer. No where in the transcript does the possibility of the child being placed into care in Italy come up, either. Why is it better for her to be legally adopted by a British family in the UK than by Italians in Italy? Granted, I don’t know what the foster and adoptive system in Italy is like, but this wasn’t even discussed as a possibility. Why did she need a C-section? Did she have complications, was the best medication too risky to take during pregnancy, did the doctors just think a mentally ill foreign woman shouldn’t have control over a baby? No idea. Even if these questions are answered, they don’t materially change how fucked up this case is from the perspective of people who actually know what it’s like to live with a severe mental illness. I imagine it’s worse for POC, because the racial element shouldn’t be overlooked.