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“You can’t handle the truth!”

(An imaginary judgment about an imaginary situation, in homage to the incomparable A P Taylor’s “Misleading cases in the common law”)

This is an application brought by X County Council under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, who seek Interim Care Orders in relation to two children, a boy who we shall call A, who is aged 7 and a girl who we shall call B who is aged 5.   The Local Authority seek orders from the Court permitting them to remove A and B from their parents and to place them in foster care. Further, as I shall consider in more detail later, the Local Authority have placed the Court and the parties on notice that should their application be granted, they would not be able to accommodate the parents wish for the children’s religion to be observed in foster care. The parents contest the application and contend that the section 31 threshold criteria are not made out, that the test established by the authorities for removal of a child is not made out, and that even if the Court were to be against them on both of those issues, that the children’s religious practices should be observed in foster care. The children’s Guardian confesses that she has found this an extremely difficult case with deeply unusual features, but on balance supports the Local Authority case.

It is common ground that these children are happy, that they are doing developmentally well, that they attend school and nursery and have positive reports from those establishments, that they are properly fed, that their home conditions are clean, tidy and with suitable toys for the children; further that they are not mistreated either physically or emotionally and that they receive good quality parenting from parents who love them very dearly. The parents shun the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs. There are many Judges who would gaze enviously at this litany of praise for parents within care proceedings before gazing sternly at the Local Authority who placed the application before the Court.

However, this particular application does have a feature which leads the Local Authority to suspect that the children are at risk of significant harm; they accepting that there is no evidence that the children HAVE suffered significant harm to date.

The parents in this case moved to the United Kingdom from the state of Arkanas in the United States. They are both committed to their faith, which they have practiced for their entire lives, including when they were children in Arkansas.  Their faith is that of snake-handling.

The Court has heard evidence from senior figures within the Snake-Handling faith, and this evidence has been sufficient to make it plain that the faith is legitimate and recognised, albeit, as the parents concede more of the margins than of the mainstream.  The faith arises from quotations from the Bible:-

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

In terms, those who practice the snake-handling faith believe, and it is a central tenet of their belief system, that they may handle snakes and drink poison and that it will not harm them as they are protected by God.

The parents in this case have made it plain, and their evidence on this aspect was, I find, credible, that they do not indulge in the consumption of poisons; as this was not the practice in the Church where they practiced their Faith.

They were, however, candid, that their religious practice is to pray and celebrate the words of the Bible whilst handling  live snakes. They gave evidence that they undertook this ceremony several nights per week, a minimum of three times and as many as five nights per week. The ceremony and handling of the snakes would be for a minimum of ninety minutes, and could on occasion last considerably longer.

Dr Parsel, the expert herpetologist who gave helpful and invigorating evidence confirmed that some of the snakes kept by the family are venomous, and that their bite would be harmful to humans, and in rare cases if medical attention were not sought, could be fatal. She indicated that she would consider the risk of a bite having serious consequences requiring for example an overnight  hospital stay to be at around 30% and the risk of a bite being fatal (if medical attention were sought) to be at around 5% – if medical treatment were not sought for a venomous bite, the consequences would be more severe.   In relation to the non-venomous snakes, her evidence was that a bite would be painful, comparable to the bite of a medium-sized dog, but more of a ‘nip’ than something that would necessarily require medical treatment.

She freely confessed to not have any particular expertise in whether snake-handlers were immune to pain or consequence from receiving bites, but did refer the Court to documented examples of some fatalities emerging from the practice. I note, in relation to this, that the snake-handling church treats such aberrations as being evidence of a lack of genuine faith in the religion, rather than a failure of the religion itself.

She was understandably cautious about estimating the possibility of a snake inflicting such a bite, but did accept in cross-examination by those representing the parents that the risk of a bite being inflicted was considerably reduced where the persons handling the snake are respectful, gentle and not apprehensive or scared.

The medical records of both parents, in this country and those obtained from America have bourne out their account that neither of them have received medical treatment for snake bites and of course, both are here to tell the tale.

They both gave evidence to the effect that being bitten by the snake is very rare in the ceremony, and that it is not the intention of the ceremony to provoke or promote a bite from the snake. I accept the parents’ evidence in this latter regard, but am more cautious about the rarity of the occurance.

Their further evidence, that if they were to be bitten, it would have no effect as they are protected by God and their faith is something that the Court have to be more cautious about. It would probably be best expressed in this way, that the Court is satisfied that the parents genuinely believe this to be the case, that they believe this as a fundamental part of their religious faith and that they are not knowingly placing themselves in what they consider to be harm or jeopardy.

The Court further accepts the following, as drawn from the parents’ evidence:-

1)    That they would intend for the children to become involved in the religious practice, and to handle the snakes, some of which are venomous.

2)    That the older child has already, under careful supervision been involved in the handling process; but not with the venomous snakes

3)    That the younger child has observed the ceremony and worship

4)    That both of the children have been shown how to handle the snakes with care and dignity

I now have to consider whether  there is, on the balance of probabilities a likelihood that significant harm may arise. For today’s purposes, the section 38 criteria apply and the test is whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the children have suffered or would be likely to suffer significant harm, such harm being attributable to the care given or likely to be given not being what it would be reasonable for a parent to provide.

The risk of harm, as outlined by the Local Authority is as follows :-

(a)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a non-venomous snake, which would be painful, on a par with a ‘nip’ from a medium sized dog, and which would be likely to hurt a child for several minutes but not require medical attention

(b)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a venomous snake. This would have the same degree of pain as above, accompanied by a feeling of nausea and light-headedness, which would probably last for an hour or two  (if the anti-venom serum were administered immediately) and might require hospital treatment.

(c)  That if the parents did not, as a result of their religious belief that the children would suffer no ill-effect, obtain medical treatment, the consequences could be much more serious and there is a risk of a fatality

(d)  The Local Authority add that although the risk of either incident occurring might be said to be low for each ceremony (though they took pains to point out that they did not necessarily accept this) the Court were entitled to take into account that exposure to a low level of risk several times per week, over the children’s minority could give rise to a cumulative risk which would perforce be higher.

The parents respond in the following way:-

(a)  the children would feel no pain from the bite of non-venomous snakes, as is clear from their faith

(b)  the children would feel no pain or ill-effects from the bite of a venomous snake, as is clear from their faith

(c)  thus, no harm would result from the children demonstrating their faith and engaging in their legitimate act of worship

They accepted wholly that a parent who were not a snake-handler and protected by their faith, who gave venomous snakes to a child, would be acting in a way that it would not be reasonable to expect from a parent; as such a child would sustain a painful injury, and I myself would not find it a stretch to make such a finding.  (They do not claim that venomous snake bites are harmless to the population at large, and if I were required to find that being bitten by a venomous snake would be generally a bad thing for the average child, I would make such a finding)

I find myself in difficult waters here. I would have no difficulty whatsoever in finding that a parent who allows a child to handle venomous snakes for long periods, on numerous occasions per week, would have a child who was at risk of significant harm.

The parents’ case is, in part, that no harm could arise, because of the protection that their faith offers them and their children.

All parties accept that there is some risk (although they differ as to the level) that the children could be bitten by a snake whilst handling it. The Local Authority say that there would be consequences if so, which would constitute significant harm, the parents say that there would be no such consequences.

To reject the parents’ conviction out of hand would draw the Court into territories of ruling that an individual’s faith is incorrect in fact.  The accepted fact that this particular religion is followed by a relatively small group, rather than having a groundswell of popular opinion does not mean that I should discount their beliefs. There might be many who would regard their beliefs as nonsense, but the same could be said of those who believe that God sent his son to earth to die for our sins.   Many generations of philosophers and theologians have grappled with these weighty issues without necessarily coming to a conclusion; and it would certainly be wrong of me to attempt to do what Aquinas, Bertrand Russell and Descartes could not and put a full stop under whether a particular religion is true or misguided.

I have had to consider whether I need, to determine, on the balance of probabilities whether the Local Authority is right (and thus that the parents faith is misplaced) or vice versa.

Looking at the law, it is clear that what I must consider, in weighing up “likelihood”  is the construction set out in Re H and R 1996  “the context shows that in section 31 (2) (a) likely is being used in the sense of a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case”

With that in mind, I am able to determine, with confidence, that there is a real possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored that these children, might over cumulative exposure to snakes (some non-venomous, some venomous) be bitten by the snakes and suffer adverse harm as a result.

I do not, when determining this, need to set out that the risk of this occurring is greater than 50%, and therefore do not need to determine that the parents belief is objectively true, or objectively false, rather that there is some margin for doubt.  I am absolutely plain that I could not rule that one could be absolutely categorically certain that the children of snake-handlers would suffer no harm if they were bitten by a snake, and thus I have to accept that there is a possibility which cannot sensibly be ignored that they might be.

I further accept that the consequences of a bite could constitute significant harm if consequences were to arise, and that therefore the threshold criteria as set out in section 38 of the Children Act 1989  are made out.  I do not believe that, having made that determination, there will be a dispute as to the section 31 criteria at final hearing, the same facts coming to bear.

Turning now to the test for removal, I shall not recount the plentiful authorities, as it is common ground between all of the parties that a satisfactory construction of the test would be “is the harm, or risk of harm that the child would suffer or be at risk of suffering proportionate to the removal of the child at interlocutory stage”

I am mindful here that having effectively established that the religious practice of snake-handling gives rise, if children are participating to a likelihood of significant harm, there is a risk of developing a position whereby the Court determines that effectively all parents who are snake-handlers and wish to bring up their children in that faith are not able to safely care for their children.

That in turn, would effectively be the Court saying to a parent that they do not have the right to practice their religion AND simultaneously parent.  Whilst snake handling is a relatively small religion, practised in some forty churches, it is nonetheless a religion. I am reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous statement “First they came for the communists….”

Considering the body of authorities where the Court have had to consider the extents to which the State can interfere with someone’s religious practices, I would distill this concept  – that any person is free to believe whatever religious principles they wish and that the State should not interfere with that belief, but that where the exercise of such beliefs has an adverse, or potentially adverse impact on the rights and freedoms of another, the State may intervene and must consider whether such intervention is necessary and proportionate.

I have attempted to apply that principle throughout this case – it is perfectly legitimate for these parents to believe that they, and their children can safely handle snakes as part of their religious practice – it is the point at which they propose that the children actually do handle snakes which leads to the Court needing to become involved. That crosses the line from belief into action.

I have obtained some useful guidance from the Court of Appeal in Re R (A minor) (Residence : Religion) 1993 2 FLR 163 where it was held that it is no part of the Court’s role to comment on the tenets, doctrines or rules or any particular section of society provided that these were legally and socially acceptable, but that the impact of tenets and rules on a child’s future welfare was one of the circumstances to be taken into account.  I have endeavoured to approach the case in that manner.

I have to consider that the parents Article 9 right to freedom of religion, would be engaged. Whilst this is a qualified right, and the Court would be entitled to prescribe those rights if it were necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, the Court should be reluctant to curtail someone’s religious expression.

Speaking for myself, I would feel an enormous sense of disquiet in being the Judge who set a pebble rolling down a slippery slope; whilst I cannot think at present of other religions who might effectively be outlawed to parents I would not wish to set that particular precedent.

In relation to this issue, I have had to consider whether it is possible for safeguards to put in place so that the risks to children I have ruled cannot sensibly be ignored in snake-handling can be managed, such that the child can remain with the parent and that the family can have the freedom to observe their religious practices.

I have a proposal in mind, which I shall outline, and I propose to adjourn the hearing briefly to allow the parents to consider that proposal.

I would not rule that the snake-handling faith in all circumstances is dangerous to children, but I am prepared to decide that  the snake-handling faith, where children are participating in it, requires robust safeguards to be in place in order to prevent the likelihood of significant harm that otherwise would justify the intervention of the State in removing the children to alternative accommodation.

On that basis, I indicate that I would be minded, if the parents accept the safety proposals, to make Interim Supervision Orders, and for there to be monitoring of the adherence to these safety proposals between now and final hearing. If the proposals are agreed but the Court is later presented with evidence that they have not been adhered to, the Local Authority are likely to find the Court much more amenable to the application they have made today. They would be, as the saying has it, pushing at an open door.

If however, the parents are not able to bring themselves to accept the safety proposals, then my ruling will be that the risk of harm that the children are exposed to in the absence of safety mechanisms, is such that the removal of the children is a proportionate response to dealing with it, and would be minded to make the Interim Care Orders.

In the event that I make Interim Care Orders (and I would hope not to need to)  I would not be minded to invite the Local Authority to make arrangements pursuant to section 22 (5)  (giving due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion) , being satisfied that they are extraordinarily unlikely to find foster carers who are snake-handlers or to find foster carers who are willing to allow the children to handle snakes (even in a carefully prescribed environment or regime)

This also requires me to consider s 33 (6) of the Children Act 1989  “while a care order is in force with respect to a child, the local authority designated by the order shall not – (a) cause the child to be brought up in any religious persuasion other than that in which he would have been brought up if the order had not been made ‘

And it could be argued that any form of placement other than with snake-handlers would be in breach of this, even if the carers had no religious beliefs  (it is hoped that at final hearing, one would not need to cross-examine Richard Dawkins as to whether atheism or agnosticism constitutes a religious persuasion in the negative)

Thankfully, Justice Baker rides to my rescue in that regard in the case of Re A and D (Local Authority : Religious Upbringing ) 2010 1 FLR 615  involving a child who had been brought up by Muslim parents but the mother reverted to Catholicism after they separated (it being largely impossible to raise a single child as both a Muslim and a Catholic)  and the Court determining that section 33(6) is subject to the overriding duties on the Local Authority under section 22 (3) to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare when they are caring for him.

I am satisfied that it would not be reasonable to expect the Local Authority to provide the children with live exposure to snake-handling in their foster placement, though the children should be educated about their religious faith without practically carrying it out. That would be sufficient to ensure that they are not in breach with either s 22 (5) or s 33(6).  As I have said, I would hope that the issue of these children being cared for by the State does not arise.

My proposals, which I invite the parents to consider very carefully are as follows :-

  1. When handling snakes as part of their faith, the children shall not handle venomous snakes until such time as the Court can review this safety package
  2. The children shall be supervised by adults at all times
  3. In any event, the parents shall obtain anti-venom serum suitable for treatment of bites from the venomous snakes that they own
  4. The herpetologist having identified the symptoms of snake bite from the venomous snakes that the parents own, the parents shall undertake to administer that anti-venom serum immediately if they observe either of the children to be bitten by a venomous snake; or if they observe these symptoms in the children, and to seek medical attention for the children in either event
  5. This is by way of a placatory mechanism, and does not reflect adversely on the parents’ deep-seated conviction and belief that the children would be unharmed by snake bites. It is simply their recognition that the State has to manage that degree of risk that cannot safely be ignored by the Court that the children would not be unharmed by snake bites, regardless of their faith.
  6. The parents accept, as a long-term proposal, that notwithstanding their faith and conviction that the children would be unharmed by handling snakes and would not require any medical intervention, they will keep this safety net in place until such time as the children are adjudged to be competent to make informed decisions about the risks themselves [by which I would contemplate their later teenage years], or the Court rule that the safety provisions may be relaxed.

I would refer the parents to the decision of the High Court in Re W (A Minor) 25th November 1991, involving parents of a child who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not consent to a blood transfusion.

In that case, the order was phrased “Being Jehovah’s Witnesses, the parents do not and cannot approve the order hereinafter stated but recognise the power of the Court to direct the same and cannot therefore maintain any objection to this order”

I would ask the parents to go further in this case, but I think a preamble to the order that  “It is accepted by all parties that the parents are snake handlers and profoundly believe that they and their children would receive no harm or damage from handling snakes as part of their religious practice, but recognise the authority of the Court to make decisions about children who are deemed to be at risk of harm, and offer the following assurances to ensure that during the children’s minority, they are protected from harm that might arise from snake-handling, even if that risk is no higher than one which the Court cannot sensibly ignore”   would be a sensible resolution to the religious quandary that the parents find themselves in.

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

One response

  1. Few important notes – firstly, no, this is not even vaguely based on a real case, though I’d love to hear from anyone who has a real snake-handler case. Secondly, yes, someone would have thought of the Judge’s helpful suggestions prior to the judgment and it is just done that way to make my Judge look like a problem-solver. Third, I wouldn’t claim that this is the right judgment – it was the fact that when I was thinking over the problem I flipped between “of course it isn’t safe for children to handle poisonous snakes” and “who are we to trample on people’s religions” that made it worth writing. And fourth, stylistically I waver far too much between “The Court” and “I” – I’d like to claim that this is as a result of an attempt to show the Judge wrestling with the case, but it’s just because I’m indecisive and not really capable of writing a judgment….

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