ECHR: courts must try and keep families together

family law, ECHR

Portuguese authorities breached the human rights of a mother when they took six of her ten children into care, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has declared.

In Soares de Melo v. Portugal, the mother and her many children lived in straitened circumstances. Portuguese social workers first intervened in 2005, concerned that the children were being neglected, thanks to the family’s poverty and the father’s absence. They tried to pressure the mother into being sterilised in order to help improve the family’s circumstances.

By 2012, concerned that little progress had been made, social services launched care proceedings for the mother’s seven younger children, planning to have them adopted. The family resisted and authorities visited their home to enforce the order, but found only six of the seven affected youngsters.

The mother took her case to the European Court, making a range of claims. She argued that social services had only targeted her family because they were poor; that there was no evidence of neglect; that social services had not offered the family any practical help; and that it had been wrong to try and force the mother to have a sterilisation, amongst other claims. She insisted the family court had relied solely on social workers’ claims about her family instead when taking the children into care instead of seeking independent evidence. She had struggled to see the children since they had been taken, she added.

In its ruling, the ECHR said states have a duty to keep families together whenever possible, saying children should only be removed if it was really necessary to do so. They accepted the woman’s claim that she had not been properly supported by the Portuguese authorities, and declared that the attempted imposition of a sterilisation procedure on her had been unacceptable. The authorities had not considered any alternative methods of contraception.

Judge Sajo declared that the rights of parents must be considered by the courts, not solely the ‘best interests’ of children caught up in each case:

“The best interests of the child comes into play when the obligations inherent in parental rights are not observed by the parent or that [the parent] uses [his or her] rights abusively. The requirements of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights] are not fulfilled if one ignores the importance of the need for parents and their children to “be together”…it is of utmost importance that the child welfare services fully respect the human rights of all, including parents, even when caring people are convinced that they only serve the best interests of children.”

The Court ordered the Portuguese government to pay the mother EUR 15,000 (£11,873) in damages. The authorities were also required to reconsider the position of the children taken into care.

The full judgement is available in French only here.

Photo of the European Court of Human Rights by LuxTonnerre via Flickr

Stowe Family Law Web Team

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