On Thursday, someone from the property agency came to the house while Rita was getting her son, then aged three, ready to go to nursery. The agency worker told her to hand over her keys and when Rita refused, he called the police. The police arrived and told her the council wouldn’t help pay her rent and that the agency had the right to evict her.
Rita handed over the keys, with all her belongings still in the property. For weeks, she and her children moved from one sofa to another. Feeling desperate, Rita went to a police station in neighbouring Hackney, but was told that she still had to deal with Haringey. She spent the whole day at the police station with her children. She was told her family would be broken apart.
That night, Rita’s children were taken from her and put into the care of her mother, who, she says, had been threatened with the prospect of having her grandchildren put into care. The council didn’t have a court order and Rita had signed no documents giving them permission to take her children away.
For the next eleven months, Rita continued to stay on the sofas of friends while her children were kept at her mother’s house. “I was feeling suicidal at times”, she says, adding that, like a lot of people in her type of situation, she was treated differently because she’s not British, white or middle class.
“Most people that work for the government look at some people’s situation like it’s not real, because they aren’t going through it. They do it in the job centre as well. For one minute put yourself in someone else’s shoes before judging them. They’re hurting people and making people more vulnerable to all sorts of stuff.”
It was Project 17 that saved Rita. She found them online, called their hotline and the group became her advocate, finding her a solicitor paid for by legal aid, which itself has seen devastating cuts over the last few years. Abi Brunswick and her colleagues gave Rita a clear idea of her legal rights, of where and how she had been treated unlawfully, and took over contact with Haringey.
Rather than keeping the family together and providing Rita and her two British children with the basic support they needed in order to stay in their accommodation, the local authority had decided to cut costs by illegally taking the children away. Threatening to take the children away is another tactic that local authorities use to deter families, Project 17 told us. Rita says that this prospect hung over her for a while, with social services repeatedly referring to it.
With the law firm Matthew Gold representing her, Rita won an apology and a settlement of £12,500 from the council. The verdict came as a result of the duties required of the local authority under section 17 of the Children Act and also under article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which protects the right to private and family life.
Now reunited with her children, Rita tells us that if she hadn’t have found Project 17, she would be in the same predicament now.
Sitting in the living room of her new accommodation, things have certainly improved for her. She works as a cleaner at a hospital now, hoping to be able to go back to college to complete her studies in health and social care. She hopes to become a midwife. She would consider returning to Jamaica but the flights are too expensive and her children are settled here. It’s a cold night when we meet and it’s easy to see why you might want to be free of Britain.
Rita lights up when talking about Project 17. After dealing with so many people who saw her as a second or third class citizen, here was a group of people ready to stand up for her. To be treated as someone real, it’s all she was asking for.Print