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restriction order has been made, which will ensure that the surnames and any other identifying characteristics will not be published.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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

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