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The Boy under the stairs – an imaginary judgment

 

(Another one of my imaginary judgments – the facts may be familiar to some readers)

 

I am dealing with an application by X Local Authority for a Care Order in relation to a child who I shall name Harry, for the very good reason that this is not only his name, but that his first name is already well known to the public at large through the media interest in his case, he being “The Boy under the Stairs” of public notoriety.

 

His surname, and that of his carers, his aunt and uncle, are not known. I shall refer in this judgment to the aunt as P, the uncle as V, and their son, coincidentally the same age as Harry as D.

 

A reporting restriction order has been made, which will ensure that the surnames and any other identifying characteristics will not be published.

 

 

Harry is now fourteen years old. He had the most difficult start in life, his birth parents being murdered when he was literally a babe in arms. P, who is his maternal aunt, took him in and have cared for him since then.  I have heard and read evidence that this arrangement was certainly not entered into in good heart, nor even the sense of making the best of a fraught situation, but with a deal of truculence;  I heard V describe it as a “grudging arrangement” and that is sadly an accurate version of events.

 

Up until Harry was eleven years old, he had a relatively unremarkable life. His teachers noted that his clothes were not particularly kempt, that he was somewhat shy and quiet; it was noted that his cousin D (who attended the same school and lived in the same house as Harry) displayed a conspicuously higher standard of living and of money clearly being spent on D when it was not on Harry.  One school teacher produced a essay written by Harry entitled “What I did in the summer holidays” which described Harry living in a cupboard under the stairs and eating his meals in that cupboard whilst his aunt, uncle and D enjoyed a fine time in the family home without him. This was put down to a vivid imagination, and dismissed as fiction. We now of course, know this not to be the case. No blame can be attributed to his school teacher – I had the clear sense in hearing her evidence that this teacher who was a good, caring, kind and professional person has reproached herself more or less constantly since “The Boy under the Stairs” case broke, and whilst this may be of scant consolation to her my own conclusion is that she has no need to do so, and that any objective person in the same situation would have reached the same conclusion as she did.

 

 

I turn now to the findings of harm that I am invited to make. This has been a rather unorthodox hearing, since P and V were not seeking to care for Harry or seeking his return to their care, in fact they were adamant that he should remain in care and have no contact with them, but instead devoted all of their efforts into ensuring that the criticisms made of their care of Harry did not result in any consequences for their care of D.

 

I was invited at the outset of this case by those representing P and V to find that the threshold criteria was made out on the basis that Harry was beyond parental control, and not to make any of the other findings sought by the Local Authority.

 

I manifestly reject that invitation, which was certainly a bold submission.  The matters contained within the threshold are significant allegations and it would be of considerable assistance in the long-term care of Harry to establish which allegations are proven and which are not; they are of such consequence to Harry that it is appropriate in my view, for the Court to go beyond the concessions given by P and V (which effectively seek to place the blame for all matters upon the child himself).

 

In broad terms, the findings sought by the Local Authority were :-

 

  1. That from the age of 11, Harry has not attended school at all. He is now 14.
  2. That this lack of education has resulted in a boy who was bright and capable (even though he was never a high-flyer, he was certainly not dull) now having no grasp of basic matters that would be known to any child of his age.
  3. That he was made to live and  sleep in a cupboard under the stairs for his entire life with P and V until his removal. That the conditions of this accommodation were manifestly unsuitable, compounded by the fact that he shared this cramped, dark accommodation with an owl.
  4. That the scar on his head was the result of a non-accidental injury, perpetrated by either P or V.

 

I add, though this is not threshold per se, but an aggravating factor, that V had an extremely well-paid job and was perfectly in position to care for Harry and meet his needs, as can be seen by the high ‘standard of living’ enjoyed by D. It is an astonishing detail of the case, and one understandably embraced by the tabloid press, that whilst living in this cupboard under the stairs, Harry’s pockets were full of gold coins which could have afforded him a life of luxury if surrendered.

 

That gaping chasm in the quality of life enjoyed by D and the abject misery endured by Harry is said by the Local Authority to be an additional element of emotional harm. I shall turn to that aspect at a later stage.

 

The position of P and V  (though as indicated, they were clear from the outset that they had no desire to resume the care of Harry and described themselves as being “well shot of him”) in relation to these allegations was : -

 

 

  1. That Harry had been attending a private boarding school from the age of 11.
  2. That having arranged the private boarding school, they are not responsible for any gaps in Harry’s education as a result of paucity in the quality of the schooling he received.
  3. That Harry did live and sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, but only in the school holidays. The presence of the owl in said cupboard was Harry’s own choice.   [Parenthetically, I will add that in twenty years of sitting in the family courts, one gains a high threshold for what is surprising, but these two arguments in tandem were amongst the most surprising I have ever seen deployed, and one has to congratulate begrudgingly counsel for P and V for the chutzpah with which they made the most unpromising of arguments]
  4. The allegation that P and V caused the scar was strenuously denied, they stating that the scar had taken place on the same night that Harry’s parents were murdered and by the same assailant.

 

 

The private school


P and V were unable to provide the address of the alleged private school that Harry was attending, nor any school report, nor any correspondence, or any evidence from any teacher at this school. Their bank statements did not show any payment of private school fees. The private school they named is not known to the Department of Education, nor Ofsted, nor has frankly anyone ever heard of it. The fact that P and V could not even hazard a guess as to which county this school is in raises further doubt.

 

It would be fair for me to say that this was not the most difficult factual issue I have ever had to wrestle with. It is established beyond doubt that Harry did not attend any local school from the age of eleven, and the account of P and V that he attended a private school whose details they cannot provide, and who apparently provided this private education, including boarding , entirely free of charge, is utterly without merit.

 

I find that P and V did not send Harry to school for three years when he was in their care. Those three years are some of the most critical in his education, and emotional development and any proper parent (or relative acting in a parenting role) would have known that Harry should have been at school. Their lack of this most basic of parenting functions caused him significant harm.

 

The lack of education


Harry was assessed by a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Miss Gale Terns, and the findings were astonishing.  His grasp of chemistry bore no relation to the science as practised since the Middle Ages and was closer to alchemy than genuine chemistry, biology restricted to non-existent plants, his understanding of the basic laws of physics was diametrically opposed to how they in fact operate,  he had no idea of history or geography other than that of fanciful creations of his own. Even on a less academic level, he had no idea of football, which is astonishing in a boy of his age, even a bookish one.  I have studied carefully Harry’s account of the sport he does claim to follow, and I am afraid that even making allowances for a young boy’s imagination and the psychological damage he has clearly sustained, this sport makes absolutely no sense.

 

He had devised his own intricate fantasy world, with its own rich internal rules and customs. Miss Terns concludes that this is by way of being a fugue state, the boy being so unhappy and living such a dreadful life that he had to fashion an escape from reality by creating something more appealing and satisfying. It is for that reason, that although he is fourteen, he is adjudged by the Court to not have capacity to instruct solicitors on his own behalf, and has been represented through his helpful Children’s Guardian.

His imagination is without doubt vivid, and the consistency of his own account (while utterly amazing) makes it easy to recognise that there is a keen if misdirected intelligence at work here. Had he been given mainstream education, there is much he could have achieved.

I agree with Miss Terns, the failure of P and V to provide Harry with mainstream education has been immensely damaging to him. The internal fantasies he created about having attended a school where wondrous things were taught as a substitute for having a genuine education means that there is much work ahead for those who are going to have to teach this young man genuine skills to be able to cope in the real world in which he will sadly have to live.  I am sure I speak for all of us that in glimpsing into the world Harry imagined himself living in, it sounds markedly more pleasant and entertaining than our own, and it is a harsh but necessary task to unpeel him from that one and bring him into ours.

The psychological damage that has been done to Harry through the poor quality care he has received at the hands of P and V is considerable, and the Court is grateful that Miss Terns has agreed to take on the long-standing reparative work that is required, and indeed for the Local Authority for funding such work.

 

The cupboard under the stairs


 

This was barely disputed. Given that the Court has already found that the account of P and V that Harry attended a private boarding school is a wild fantasy, their account that he only lived and slept in the cupboard under the stairs during the school holiday is rejected. The fact that they admitted that much is considerably damning.

 

The Court has seen the photographs of this small, dingy and cramped space in which a growing adolescent spent his days and nights. I  have heard from the neighbours that for months on end they never saw Harry, and that he was not even having the benefit of attending school or even seeing the light of day for long periods – weeks and months, rather than  minutes or hours.

 

I am satisfied that P and V provided Harry with accommodation and a standard of basic care which would have been woefully inadequate had they been living in an Elizabethan slum, let alone in a suburban home that many middle-class parents might aspire to live in. He was made by them to live and sleep in a cupboard under the stairs for his entire life. This is utterly unacceptable, and caused him significant harm. These were not parents of meagre means, doing the best that they could but that best not being enough. It is woefully apparent, from the lavish care and attention and material provision for D, that P  and V were more than capable of providing a child with much better than good enough care, and they deliberately chose to treat their own biological child far, far better than they did Harry, who was their kin and deserved so much better. The other harm I have identified in this judgment is compounded by the fact that Harry was faced on a daily basis with D who was being loved, and indulged and even spoiled. That in itself must have been hurtful and harmful to him.

 

 

The miserable day to day existence for Harry in such an unsuitable physical accommodation  was compounded by an owl being kept in this wretched accommodation with him. The smell was reported by those who removed Harry to be unspeakable. It is hard to fathom, even for this jaded Court who are faced on a day to day basis of new, creative and barbaric ways to mistreat children and let them down, to imagine what was going through the mind of P and V when they brought this situation about.

 

I completely reject their attempt to mitigate this situation by claiming that the owl was a pet and that it was Harry’s own desire to share his accommodation with the owl.

 

The scar


The Court has had the benefit of paediatric evidence from Dr Malcolm Foy, who was clear that there was no likely accidental explanation for the lightening shaped scar on Harry’s head. He gave clear evidence that the injury had been caused non-accidentally – the mechanism was unclear, but the only conceivable one was that a hot object, in the shape of a lightening bolt had been pressed against Harry’s head. No parent or carer could do this by accident.

 

P and V had provided no explanation for an accident that had caused it.  They had been the carers for Harry for every day since the death of his parents. There had been no hospital admission or medical attention for any accidental injury to Harry.

Counsel for P and V have urged me to take into account the strenuous and vehement manner in which P and V denied this allegation, and compare this to the very serious allegation that they kept Harry under the stairs which they instantly admitted at least in part.  This is probably the best of a bad bunch of arguments that P and V have deployed during this hearing.

 

But it does not hold water, when one considers the alternative. Either this scar was caused by P and V, who have behaved disgracefully towards Harry for 14 years, or it was inflicted on him by his birth parents when he was a mere infant.

 

The Court must find, therefore either that Harry’s birth parents deliberately inflicted this injury on Harry BEFORE P and V began caring for him.  [I should add, for the benefit of the transcribers and those taking a careful note, that when I use the term “caring” in relation to what P and V provided for Harry, I am using inverted commas] ,  OR that P and/or V inflicted this injury on Harry after they began caring for him.

 

Given the findings that have already been made, I must consider that whether it is substantially more likely that P and V (who I have found to have systematically abused this young boy for 14 years in appalling ways) injured him or that his birth parents, about whom no criticisms or allegations have been made, caused the injury and scarring. This young man had the worst start in life imaginable, and has grown up with no memories of his parents. This Court is not going to leave him with any residual doubt that his parents might have deliberately harmed him. It is inconcievable to this Court that the injury was caused by anyone other than P or V, and the Court makes that finding, that the injury was caused deliberately by either P or V and neither can be excluded.

 

The threshold is crossed, overwhelmingly so.

The Court is grateful for the active role that Harry’s Guardian played within that enquiry,  Mr Thomas Riddle has been a stalwart Guardian throughout, ensuring that matters were properly ventilated. The Court entirely agree with his conclusions, and adopt his formuation that it is impossible that anyone other than P or V caused the scar to Harry’s forehead.

 

I have considered, following those findings, the Welfare Checklist. I have no doubt whatsoever that the appropriate order to be made in relation to Harry is a Care Order.  The Guardian’s suggestion, in combination with the expert, Miss Gale Terns, that Harry be cared for by the Imperius academy for damaged children, is an excellent one and I am pleased that the Local Authority saw fit to put that forward as the care plan. The Court endorse that care plan as being the best thing for Harry. He will attend a mainstream school, and there will be no more of his life wasted thinking about “Hogwarts”

 

The Local Authority will need to consider, in the light of this judgment, whether to seek an order in respect of D.  He has, as I have acknowledged, had a markedly different life to Harry, but I suspect that witnessing all of this mistreatment must have had some detrimental impact on him.  It is hoped that he and Harry will preserve some ongoing contact.

 

The Court once again thanks Mr Riddle, for his efforts in representing Harry, which have gone above and beyond. I am even told today that Mr Riddle has kindly arranged to take the owl with whom Harry shared so much of his life, and to provide the owl with a home. This shows how much Mr Riddle thinks about Harry and wants to take care of him.  Harry is very lucky to have had Mr Riddle take an interest in him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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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