The High Court have just reached a determination in a case involving seven children – Re S (Children : Care proceedings) 2014
Part of the circumstances in this case were that the parents, who had seven children, had a difficult relationship with one of the children, RD. They felt that RD had not bonded with them, that he did not get on with his siblings and would take their toys and steal their food. The parents came up with an exceedingly unusual solution to this. The father and RD spent all of their time in one room, and slept there, and the mother and the other six children spent all of their time in another room. There was a barrier that stopped RD moving between the rooms.
- The following is based largely on the evidence of Mr and Mrs S themselves. Both Mr and Mrs S told me that when RD was returned to their care, as a toddler, from foster care where he had been from 3 days after he was born Mrs S found it hard to bond with him and both parents said that he seemed to reject them and his siblings. According to Mr and Mrs S RD annoyed his brothers and sisters by taking their toys and taking food from their plates. They felt that he did not fit into the family. More than that they felt he was not like their other children. As a result they decided to live as a divided family with Mrs S and the six other children occupying one room downstairs and Mr S and RD occupying the other. RD was, on their own evidence, largely confined to that room with a gate placed across the doorway. Mr S ate his meals in this front room off a plate which RD shared. Mr S and RD slept in this room while the other children and their mother all slept in one room upstairs.
- Mr and Mrs S both gave evidence that RD would scream and cry for hours at a time. Mrs S emphasised that RD was screaming not just crying and that it was not like her other children. It is their case that they were worried that he was developmentally delayed and that he had something organically wrong with him. They were so concerned that his crying would cause the neighbours or a passer-by to complain particularly at night that they took him to see their GP, in Burnley, and then to a specialist.
- There was, apparently, no diagnosis but a recommendation that they change his diet in case he was lactose-intolerant. RD continued to have periods of screaming during which he must have been very distressed. Mr S described him as disaffected, disruptive and violent to the other children; he said RD’s behaviour was classic attention seeking and that he would not bond with the other children. His speech was delayed and he was referred to a speech therapist. Both Mr and Mrs S say they do not blame RD but both saw the faults as lying with him and not with them. RD is put forward by his parents as the cause of what happened next which led to social services intervention. At the time he had been back living with his family for more than two years. He was just four years old.
- Mr and Mrs S disagreed about what should be done; Mrs S was concerned that if social services became involved the children would once more be taken into care. Mr S says he wanted to ask for help. The family had become more dysfunctional and there existed a kind of apartheid within the home
That reminded me, although it must have been utterly ghastly for everyone involved, of the classic episode of Steptoe and Son. Harold falls out with his “dirty old man” father, Albert, and decides that if they are going to carry on living together, they will have to divide the house in half – Harold builds a Berlin Wall style contraption, including a turnstile for access to the bathroom. They only have one television, so there is a hole cut in the wall between the two living rooms, with half of the screen on each side. Harold has devised a very far division of viewing hours, which Albert does not adhere to when Harold wants to watch the ballet.
Leading to this classic exchange
Harold : I have the law of contract on my side
Albert : I have the knobs on my side…
It’s a long clip, but every minute is worth it.
It appears that in this case, the father was convinced that what lay behind the proceedings was that he had (aged 48) married the mother on her sixteenth birthday, and that the Local Authority hoped to break them up so that mother would make complaints to the police about what might have happened BEFORE her 16th birthday.
The case has a lengthy history, but I am concerned principally with the period between the judgement of Mr Justice Hedley in 2011 and now April 2014. Mr S and Mrs S, who appear in person and present as a united front, believe that their family has attracted some notoriety and that what has happened in the past particularly prior to their marriage has prejudiced the authorities against them, leading to these proceedings. I make clear from the outset that the circumstances surrounding the marriage do not form part of this trial and I am not concerned with them. Mr and Mrs S have been married for 14 years and it is the circumstances leading to their seven children being taken into the care of the local authority in the autumn of 2013 and the welfare of the children at that time, and now, with which I am concerned and whether the children have suffered or are likely to suffer significant harm attributable to their parents’ care or lack of it.
Mr and Mrs S have put an extraordinary case before the court which is that there is a conspiracy to implicate Mr S in charges of child abuse and that in order to do so E will be persuaded to make such allegations about her father. It is simply not a credible case and there is no evidence to support it. Moreover such a scenario is largely centred on Mr S and his own obsessions. To suggest that his daughter would become involved in such a conspiracy begs more questions than it answers; particularly regarding his attitude towards his own child, her well-being and the difficulties that she is encountering as a result of these proceedings and her father’s allegations about her lying. When coupled with his evidence that RD’s behaviour and difficulties at home were to be laid at the child’s door and not at that of his parents, Mr S’s inability to even start to accept his own responsibilities as a parent are starkly illustrated
Ignoring the circumstances of the parents marriage there were plenty of threshold concerns in the case
- LCC seek finding that the physical well-being of the children was compromised by their living conditions both in Burnley and in Blackpool. It is the local authority’s case that the pictures taken of the two homes which both parents accepted in their oral evidence as unfit for the children to live in could not have deteriorated to that extent in the short time between the children being taken into care and when the pictures were taken. The pictures show rooms that are so covered in clutter that they are either unusable or virtually uninhabitable. I make two observations at this point that the description of rooms above mirrors that of Hedley J in 2011 where he spoke of “endless clutter making the rooms almost uninhabitable”, and secondly, that Mr and Mrs S accept that the house in Blackpool was in no better state on the 31st March 2014 despite the fact that they were shortly to come to court and ask for the children to be returned to their care in that house. It was foreshadowed in the evidence of the health visitor, to which I referred above, and upon which they relied.
- The outside of the properties were no better. In Blackpool there was a sea of bags, black bin bags, detritus and other objects which meant that the children could not go outside to play. There was glass on the ground of the side alley which allowed access and egress to the house at the time the children were removed which was still there months later. The front door in Blackpool was entirely inaccessible from inside the house. I find that the physical surrounding in which the children lived would have caused them significant harm by removing any opportunity to play outside and by limiting even further the space in which they could live, study, play and interact. As they lived their lives in these two houses and did not have the opportunity to be educated elsewhere this has caused them significant harm in terms of their education, as well as emotional harm by severely restricting their ability to become socialised and learn how to function in the wider community. The physical effects on JL are visible in his awkward gait and difficulties in running around; something any little boy, who can, should be able to do freely and with ease.
- I find there is evidence of significant physical neglect and harm to the children including of their personal hygiene; the older children do not know how to keep themselves intimately clean; the youngest ones were not toilet-trained. Both of these neglected aspects of the children’s physical health were largely accepted by Mrs S in her evidence. JL had some difficulties with his mobility. E and AS showed signs of neglect to their teeth and dental health. AS’s ophthalmic needs were ignored. None of this was caused by anything other than the parents’ care and is directly attributable to them.
- The very significant harm to RD caused by his neglect and isolation within the family is obvious from the evidence of his parents and siblings and from the descriptions of his behaviour and improvement in his behaviour and development since he was placed with foster-carers. The depth of the emotional harm he has suffered may not become apparent until he is older, but it would be facile to suggest anything other than that he must have suffered significant emotional harm based on the evidence of his parents alone. He was seen as the problem and he and the other children must have known it; indeed the older children have said so. The emotional harm that this has caused his siblings is significant. The oldest three have expressed guilt and remorse at the way he was treated; they should not have been put in that position.
- The lack of emotional engagement and the unpredictable behaviour of their father, of whom they were scared and frightened; which in turn caused them to feel insecure has caused significant emotional harm. The almost total lack of consistent boundaries added to their feelings of insecurity. The local authority does not seek findings of physical abuse as such but say they can prove that there was a harsh and frightening environment. I find that there was such an environment which caused significant emotional harm to each of the children.
- I find that it is more likely than not that the children were physically chastised but I cannot make findings as to the extent and nature of the chastisement. I find that the unpredictability of their father’s behaviour towards them which, more likely than not included some physical chastisement caused significant emotional harm.
- The emotional harm suffered by the children along with the social isolation and cramped, cluttered and restricting conditions of the homes must have combined to detrimentally affect their emotional and social development and I find it more likely than not that they have suffered significant and long lasting harm as a result of the care of their parents. It is hoped that the younger children will be able to recover and catch up more readily in education (as can be seen with JK), and in their emotional and social development but the outcome of their upbringing for them all will be evident for years to come.