Before you start this piece, could you briefly find some cloth? A scarf, or a clean tea-towel or anything of that ilk will do. Please tie it so that the bottom rests under your jaw and there is a knot at the top of your head – much like a cartoon character who is suffering from a toothache.
Because this case is so jaw-dropping I want to be sure that your jaw bone doesn’t actually leave your head.
Here we go.
It is the original judgment from the case that went to the Court of Appeal because the social worker and police officer involved considered that the findings made against them by the Judge were career-threatening and that the process of making those findings was unfair.
The Court of Appeal said that the social worker and police officer needed to have been placed on notice that such strong findings were going to be made and have the chance to make representations about them beforehand, so THOSE findings were overturned. The social worker later made an application to sue the Lord Chancellor for judicial failings on the basis of vicarious liability.
On that basis, and in short, the complaint relates to the judge’s finding that SW and PO, together with other professionals and the foster carer, were involved in a joint enterprise to obtain evidence to prove the sexual abuse allegations irrespective of any underlying truth and irrespective of the relevant professional guidelines. The judge found that SW was the principal instigator of this joint enterprise and that SW had drawn the other professionals in. The judge found that both SW and PO had lied to the court with respect to an important aspect of the child sexual abuse investigation. The judge found that the local authority and the police generally, but SW and PO in particular, had subjected C to a high level of emotional abuse over a sustained period as a result of their professional interaction with her
This is the judgment, with the most dreadful findings about the social worker and police officer snipped out. Do not for one second think that this makes the judgment dull or removed of any controversy. There’s so much in it, it makes the mind boggle as to what was taken out.
Re W (fact-finding)  EWHC 4347 (Fam) (17 October 2014)
(I’m not sure why it has taken 3 years to publish this – it was certainly held up until 2016 pending the appeal – I do understand that the Judge has passed away, which probably caused difficulties in editing the previous judgment, since normally the Judge who wrote it would do that)
I thus hope that no court ever again has to see and hear what this court has seen and heard during the past weeks.
This was a care case involving five children, the main subject was C, who was a teenager. C had made serious sexual abuse allegations against three of the adults in the family.
There was a finding of fact hearing, and the evidence in the finding of fact hearing lasted 19 days. There were ten parties to that hearing, nine of whom were represented by silk and junior counsel.
- From a conventional beginning in front of HHJ Davies at the Luton County Court, the case has taken unprecedented twists and turns with the intervention of the Court of Appeal, a re-hearing in front of myself, and the collapse of that re-hearing after three days in the most dramatic manner. This occurred when a key social worker in the case contacted me directly by email through the court office to allege ‘corruption and malpractice’ within the local authority in relation to this particular case as well as other cases.
Is your jaw bandage still in place? I worry about you all, you know.
- Following what was effectively a whistle-blower email sent to myself, the local authority sought to abandon the fact finding hearing and withdraw all allegations, saying that it could no longer rely on the key social worker as a witness of truth. The local authority’s counsel, Mr. Bain, withdrew from the case for professional reasons. Fresh counsel were then instructed; they withdrew the application by the local authority to abandon the proceedings, and thus these have continued ever since.
- The proceedings have been surrounded by suspicion and mistrust, for reasons which have become obvious. These emotions have been shared, it must be said, at times by the court, and have been exacerbated by serious problems about disclosure. Despite strict orders made by the court for full disclosure by the local authority, these have not been complied with in full. Indeed, more than 1,300 pages of important material were disclosed to the court during the current hearing, and 1,000 pages of these were disclosed only in the second week of this hearing, after Mr Geekie for the local authority organised a search of its premises following a social work assistant’s evidence. This failure to disclose added some three days to the case. Disclosure continued even into the fourth week of this hearing. Furthermore, many important documents have been shredded or are still missing.
- According to the lead social worker there were six, not four, ABE interviews of the child, C, as contended by the police and the local authority. Indeed, there is even the suggestion that an alleged meeting on the 30th September 2013, reported by social workers to have happened, may not have taken place at all. The court therefore has the unenviable task – unparalleled in the history of this particular tribunal – of deciding how many ABE interviews there were, and whether one meeting ever occurred.
I’ve seen many cases where Courts had to decide whether an ABE interview was conducted properly, where they had to decide whether leading questions were asked, whether it is reliable. I’ve never before heard of a Court having to decide HOW MANY ABE’s there were.
So much has gone wrong in this case. In fact, almost everything that could have gone wrong has, almost to the point of defying credulity. In consequence the court has no choice but to undertake the arduous task of scrutinising all aspects of the case very carefully. This judgment will therefore be longer than would normally be the case. This is for several reasons:
- a) Reaching the complex truth requires a detailed analysis of all that happened;
- b) In view of what they have suffered, those accused of serious abuse deserve nothing less;
- c) The consequences for individuals beyond the parties in the case, for example within the local authority and the police, may be profound;
- d) It is unlikely that any other will have the time or resources to trawl through the immense body of papers in the way the court has done, and thus what has been uncovered must be recorded fully;
- e) Lessons need to be learned so that what happened in this case never happens again.
- I am most grateful for the assistance given by all counsel in the case, both leading and junior, who have ably assisted the court in its unenviable task. I include in this commendation not only all those who appeared in front of me during the current hearing but also Mr. Giles Bain, who appeared for the local authority during the earlier part of these proceedings.
C had made allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Findings of fact were made by HH J Davies and those were overturned on appeal.
The Judge notes, dryly
- The reasons for the successful appeal are not relevant in this hearing save in one respect which I shall address shortly. Suffice it to say that the learned judge had before her four ring binders of documents when she heard the case. I have 18 ring binders. More importantly, relevant evidence was not placed before the learned judge and such evidence as was placed in front of her, as I shall determine in due course in this judgment, was highly incomplete and wholly inadequate.
So there was then a re-hearing, before His Honour Judge Arthur, sitting in the High Court. Here’s where it begins to go spectacularly wrong (as opposed to merely disastrously wrong)
33……On 31st January 2014 SW left the local authority employment. In the four months that followed I, who was now seized with the case, was asked by the local authority to give various directions, including directions for SW to provide a statement.
- By April, 2014 it became obvious to all that SW was reluctant to give a statement. On 14th May the court asked Mr. Bain, counsel for the local authority, to take instructions as to why that was, and in particular to inform the court whether there was anything in the circumstances in which she had left the local authority employment which had a bearing on the proceedings, and which might affect her credibility. Counsel faithfully relayed his instructions from the social work assistant sitting behind him, namely that SW had left in entirely amicable circumstances. ‘They were all sad to see her go, and asked her to stay working for the local authority.’
- In April 2014 the court permitted fresh matters to be included in the schedule of allegations to be proved. These related to evidence not before the court in June 2013. The first was that the mother had hit C with a rolling pin. The second listed general allegations of neglect by the parents of the younger children.
- On 27th May 2014 the final hearing began. On the third day of that hearing, on 29th May, the court suddenly received a ‘whistle-blower’ email from SW, directed to myself personally, in which she alleged corruption, malpractice and bad work practices by the local authority in respect of both C and T, and in respect of other matters too.
- On 30th May, having taken instructions, counsel for the local authority confirmed that the local authority no longer relied on SW as a witness of truth. It would robustly challenge some of her assertions in her email, and in the circumstances was no longer seeking further findings. It sought leave to withdraw their application for such findings to be determined. Unsurprisingly, the parents consented to this course of action, but the guardian for the younger children, who was absent from court, was not able to give instructions himself. In due course the guardian objected to the course proposed by the local authority.
The hearing collapsed on day 3 with LA counsel having to withdraw for professional reasons.
Something peculiar happened late (in week four) into the second attempt at it (this actually being the third attempt at the fact finding overall, as HH J Davies had already done one, overturned on appeal)
- In September 2014, in the fourth week of the hearing, to the surprise of all, counsel for the local authority suddenly put two very serious, entirely new allegations to the father in cross-examination. The first was that the father had been grooming “another child” A for sex, and secondly that C had conceived two babies while living at home. As the determination of these allegations would add little or no extra time to the proceedings, because they were so serious, and because the court believed they might assist in the assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, the court insisted the allegations should be articulated in the correct form and added formally to the schedule of allegations to be proved.
- At the conclusion of the evidence I invited all parties to set out, prior to written submissions, any concessions made by any party in relation to the evidence. In respect of the local authority, I asked them to set out any concessions about whether allegations were being pursued or not. The local authority was the only party to respond and did so with the following concessions:
- a) The local authority no longer sought to rely on any statement made by C in the three ABE interviews held in January 2014. This was subsequently clarified to include anything she said at the police station before or after the interviews, or in breaks, save, astonishingly, for comments about pregnancies and babies she may have made during a break in, or after, the interview on the 31st January, 2014.
- b) The local authority no longer pursued the allegations that the mother was aware of the abuse of T and chose to ignore it, and that the mother remonstrated with T on the 13th March, 2013. The local authority also abandoned the allegations of neglect of the three younger children.
- c) The local authority had already put in train preparations for a Serious Case Review of their conduct of the case. This would take place regardless of what findings were made.
I have not seen that Serious Case Review. I imagine that Luton are going to be receiving many many telephone calls from the Press wanting to see it.
There had been retractions from another child, T about the allegations. A LOT of retractions. Ten in all.
The Court of Appeal (in the appeal from HH J Davies) had given this advice about retractions
Re W (Fact-Finding Hearing: Hearsay Evidence) (2013) EWCA Civ 1374, (2014) 2FLR 703 at paragraph 25.
“The retraction of a complaint normally requires careful and specific consideration and this case was no exception. Obviously the fact that a complaint is subsequently retracted does not prevent a judge from accepting that it is in fact true but it gives rise to questions which must be addressed sufficiently fully and directly in the judge’s reasons so that one can be confident that the fact of the retraction has been given proper weight in the judge’s conclusions about the subject matter of the retracted allegation” [para 28].
The Judge comments on the SW evidence about the retractions (including the retractions made by another child, T)
- She was reminded that by 8th March T had retracted her supposed allegation. SW’s response was instant and dismissive, “It’s perfectly normal for victims to retract. We know it is common from victims”. Later she said, “I agree with the Court of Appeal that we should take retractions seriously”. From her demeanour, however, the court did not infer that she was in any way convinced by what she was saying. She further accepted that she had asked C whether she was worried about what had happened to T also happening to her. She saw nothing wrong with this question:
“It was in accordance with social worker practice… It is a practice all good social workers use… The fact that the court sometimes does not catch up with research is very unfortunate.”
The Court made these general comments about the SW evidence
Credibility of SW – court’s findings
- She was at times truculent and downright rude to counsel and to the court and sometimes quite threatening and menacing. She variously accused counsel for B of raising his eyebrows at her in an inappropriate manner (he was in fact doing no such thing), loudly demanded to know the names of all the counsel in court, said that she had ‘clocked what you lot are up to’, and accused the court and counsel of trying to prevent her having her say when, in fact, wholly proper efforts were being made to curtail seemingly unquenchable outpourings. She was dismissive and disdainful of correct social work practice and the way the court operated. She was liberal in blaming others for things that had gone wrong. Apart from blaming the court (by inference both HHJ Davies and the Court of Appeal), she blamed the police, other members of the local authority, teachers at C’s school, the school itself for obstructing her, (this was wholly unfounded), counsel for the parents and counsel for the guardian.
In the light of that, it is rather commendable that counsel for B was able to control his eyebrows. Mine would have been on the ceiling.
SW’s evidence – general matters
Her current memory of events
- She explained that she had been very reluctant to give evidence. In her tenth and last statement she had said that she could not trust the local authority case notes in view of the time lapse. She had resisted making that statement as she did not think she could usefully add anything, for now she could no longer recollect any details but, as the case had progressed, some matters had come back to her as she was questioned and shown documents, and so things had become more alive for her. Even so, she said that all the events with which the court was concerned took place over two years ago and she had not retained memories of the case in the same way she would have done if she was still the social worker. This is something she repeated many times during her evidence.
Disclosure of her own notes
- She was referred to the email of the local authority’s in-house counsel, Miss Manassi, on 28th February of this year which asked for her notes and said that a comprehensive statement would be needed from her. She was referred to the current President of the Family Division’s words twelve years ago, “Professionals should keep comprehensive notes. Social workers should routinely exhibit notes to statements”. SW said that, contrary to this, she had shredded all her notes. In fact, she had tried to shred all her notes on a daily basis when she worked for the local authority. She could not keep them because they might be stolen from her car or lost and she had no desk in the office where they could be kept. “I shredded notes because I did not need them”.
- Furthermore, in February 2014, Dawn Smith, her supervisor at Luton Borough Council, had told her to delete all her own records including all texts and emails from T. She deleted, she thought in all, about 500 texts to and from T. She was ordered to delete or shred all this material. She did so, she accepted, knowing that the proceedings were still underway and that a retrial of the sexual abuse allegation for C had been ordered, and that in relation to these T’s own allegations of sexual abuse against the father were relevant.
- She was reminded of one text in particular. T had alleged that SW had sent her a text telling her not to be in denial. Ms Lynne Jackson, the psychologist, had reported that this text had, in fact, been read out to her by T. SW said this:
“I knew all about this allegation of unprofessionalism and that T was saying this and other things too. I remember thinking whether I should delete this trail but I was told to”.
- In any event, she said she had never sent T this text.
- We have not heard from Dawn Smith. So whether or not SW was generally ordered to delete all her records, texts and emails still remains to be decided. Further investigation is needed. But the court notes that it seems very surprising that SW should have deleted a trail of texts which would have exculpated her from this particular accusation. (For the avoidance of doubt, I make no findings that any member of staff obstructed the Local Authority.)
[So I should make it clear that SW was alleging that she had destroyed all her emails and texts because the manager had told her to, but the Court didn’t hear evidence from the manager about this and didn’t make any findings. I have a little bit of sympathy about the handwritten notes- social workers don’t have paper files any more, and most of them don’t have their own desks any longer. Everything is on computer and workers hot-desk. Whilst the President did say 12 years ago that handwritten notes should routinely be exhibited to SW statements, there are not many Judges who would thank social workers for doing that. There’s no way that one can do that and comply with the 350 page limit. I would suggest that handwritten notes, particularly of conversations with children or adults about allegations ought to be scanned and kept, if they are not contemporaneously typed up]
Interviewing a child
- She was aware that, with a child who has learning difficulties, the interviewer has to be very careful of suggestibility. She said she herself would have been outraged if anyone had asked C leading questions, “One should be sensitive of this” she said emphatically. She was reminded that, according to Miss G, she had hundreds of conversations with C, some of which referred to sexual abuse or abuse allegations. SW assumed that Miss G would have had the appropriate training about how to talk to children who had made allegations. The school should have given her advice about this. The social workers were quite disappointed with the school about a lack of training and had to discuss giving general training to the staff at the school or arranging for that to take place.
- SW was very strident when giving evidence about how allegations of child abuse should be dealt with. She said, “Research shows that we must be more direct with children in abuse cases”. This was accepted in her social work team at the local authority. Dr. Van Rooyen, a psychiatrist in the instant case, too had said they have to be ‘more direct’ with the child. She said, “I suspected that she meant we had to talk to C and perhaps initiate conversations”. She then seemed to contradict this by saying, “We had to wait for C to speak, we know”.
- She repeatedly referred to research by Keir Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions. “His work should be accepted by the court”, she said. Her tone and demeanour made it clear that she was very critical of the courts. Later she said the social worker should keep an open mind in investigations like this. She hoped that she herself had kept an open mind. When asked whether it was her working hypothesis that C and T were sexually abused, she said that C’s behaviour especially was indicative of abuse but she repeated, she hoped she had kept an open mind. Her actual words which follow are important. Her tone was distinctly barbed as she uttered them:
“I do not know whether C was abused or not. As her voice in social care I am directed by our research at the local authority even though the court may not be… C’s behaviour led to a very strong correlation with sexual abuse. The first time she presented as a victim of sexual abuse was on 17th December.”
- When asked what was indicative of sexual abuse on that occasion she answered:
“C’s behaviour. I was hearing all sorts of things from the school and what she had done… It’s the skill of a social worker to ascertain what is the likely cause of her behaviours.’
Use of the word “disclosure”
- She said:
“I was told this judge doesn’t like the use of the word ‘disclosure’ for allegations by children. I understand that courts in general don’t like the use of the word ‘disclosure’.” She had not read the Cleveland report of 1987 and did not know if it criticised the use of the word “disclosure” by professionals.
(It does disappoint me that a social worker dealing with a sexual abuse investigation would never have read the Cleveland report, but I can’t say hand on heart that I’m astounded by it. I do think there’s a general lack of understanding that ‘allegation’ should be used instead of ‘disclosure’ and why that is – broadly that disclosure as a word is perjorative – it implies truth. I can disclose that I ate your Jaffa Cakes (because it is true), I can’t disclose that I walked on the surface of Mars. So if I say that Mr X punched me, you don’t know whether it is true until the Court have decided it – it is an allegation at that point, not a disclosure. )
There was a very peculiar exchange about SW’s first meeting with C.
17th December 2012
- I must examine the events of this day very carefully, for they set the tone for what was to follow and go to heart of the case. This was the day of SW’s first meeting with C. The case had been closed by the local authority a couple of weeks before following earlier complaints by C. On the 14th December, as we know, the school told the local authority that C was still unhappy and did not want to go home. When she was allocated the case, probably on Friday 14th, SW skimmed through the electronic file provided to her by the local authority. She would have done this as quickly as possible, she said. (The court notes that this file was in fact just seven pages – a very short file indeed, and would not have taken long to read fully.) Part of this short file comprised the handover notes of Fiona Johnson, the previous social worker. These were reported as follows:
- a) C had alleged being hit, though the school believed there were no marks ever left on her. According to her, everyone seemed to cause her upset. The family upset her and all the family hurt her, except for D. Her brothers, especially B, beat her up.
- b) Other children had all been spoken to and all had said that they had never been hit by the parents.
- c) C had reported no major health issues.
- d) There were no concerns about A.
- e) All the other children were happy at home.
- SW appears not to have accepted this. ‘I wondered if C was unhappy, did it mean that the other children were unhappy.’ On skim-reading the notes, ‘I wondered if something was going on.’ Although, she accepted that there was nothing in the notes to this effect, it was her impression on reading them that this was Mrs Johnson’s impression too. So she had gone to the meeting believing that there was more she needed to understand about C’s self-harm, and about the pictures and drawings which she had drawn and made at the school. She had no idea of what this might be. She was asked whether she had any suspicions and there was a noticeable pause before she answered, “No” but she then added, “But we can partner certain behaviours with certain types of abuse”.
- On the second page of the seven pages of files notes handed on from Mrs Johnson, there is mention that, “The child has a bit of a fixation with Miss G”. The note also referred to Facebook entries which needed to be dealt with. SW said she did not recall this entry or how she had dealt with it. At any rate she had not known whether the fixation comment was correct or not. She was quite dismissive in giving evidence about this topic, the court noted from her demeanour. It is obvious that she did not think, and has never thought, it to be of any relevance whatsoever.
- SW duly met C at school in the presence of Miss Z on the 17th December, 2012. The child was anxious and ‘difficult to engage in so many ways”, she elaborated. She found the meeting very difficult. Sometimes her head was down, she was kicking the chair, her head was behind her ‘hoodie’, she was challenging and unwilling to talk about anything. Most of the time she was ‘a shrinking violet’. She seemed frightened and anxious and unwilling to talk and engage. There were very long silences. Nonetheless SW that she wanted to engage. In spite of this, the meeting took what the court considers a quite extraordinarily long time. According to SW, it started at 12 noon and ended at 3:30 or 4 p.m. (The note she wrote in her car afterwards was timed at 3:30 p.m.) During those 3½ hours she had left the room to contact the child abuse unit at Luton Borough Council and in particular Mr Graham Cole, the head of legal services there. And of course a lot of time, she repeated, there was, silence. As her evidence progressed, the court’s impression was that she trying to row back from her original time estimate. Eventually she said that the interview was perhaps ‘1½ hours, maybe shorter, maybe longer’. C had been given the chance to leave the meeting several times. Once she did leave but returned of her own volition. In this meeting it was difficult to understand what C said. Miss Z would say what C had said and C would either nod or shake her head. She soon realised that C hated to be asked to repeat what she had said. Neither she nor Miss Z took a note during the meeting, “It would be an abnormal thing for a social worker to take notes when interviewing a child other than during an ABE interview.’
- At 3.30pm, in her car, she made notes of the meeting. It was her practice to note down as soon as possible the important points of an interview note, which appears to two pages, is one of the few handwritten notes by her before the court:
“Very difficult meeting”, “Comes in when no one is there”, “Does stuff, bad stuff”, “Really bad things”, “Secrets”, “Where’s mum? Downstairs, out”, “Have you tried to talk to her about it? No point”, “Not allowed to talk about it”, “Couldn’t expand”, “Hits me. Kicks”, “Notice leg was sore, limping a little. Said dad had kicked/hit her last Sunday”, “Wouldn’t show me”, “Appeared very frightened/frozen”, “Didn’t want anyone to know what she’d said”, “Wanted to go into foster care”, “Hate family, hate mum, hate him”, “Gets beaten up at home – brothers, dad”, “Doesn’t feel safe at home”, “Does not feel there is anyone she could turn/talk to at home”, “Said she wanted to die”, “Does stuff he shouldn’t”, “Happened more than once”.
- A crucial element in this case revolves around what SW said in her statement of 20th December, 2012 about the interview three days before. The relevant part of the statement reads as follows:
“[C] disclosed sexual abuse by her father during this meeting. She told me that her father comes up to her room and does really bad things. Through discussion it was established that she clearly understood that there were areas of her body that no one should touch and this is where her father touched her. [C] found it extremely hard to expand on this although did manage to share that her father told her that she must not tell anyone and that the bad things would happen if she did. It was also established that [C] knew about her body, her sexual organs and other people’s. After ensuring I was confident [C] knew what sexual abuse was, she confirmed that this is what had been happening to her.”
- When it was pointed out to her that the handwritten notes make no mention of sexual abuse, SW caused, it must be said, considerable consternation in court in all quarters by asserting that there was a page missing from her notes. There was definitely a third page, she remembered. She remembered the Local Authority solicitor, Ms Abana Sarma’s collecting this document. She was most concerned that this page was missing because this page dealt with the sexual abuse allegations made by C on 17th December. Furthermore, this page had been before HHJ Davies at her fact finding hearing in June, 2013.
- She was referred to a number of documents from the court bundle. First was a police note of 17th December which states, ” [C] did not disclose sexual abuse”. Then she was referred to the transcript of HHJ Davies’s judgment at the end of the 13th June, 2013 hearing, which made mention of the content of the two pages long since disclosed, but none of the contents of the apparently now missing third page. Furthermore, the transcript of that hearing shows that the father’s counsel cross-examined SW on the discrepancy between the note of 17th December interview which did not record sexual abuse being mentioned and her later assertion that C had alleged sexual abuse at the interview. Indeed, when SW was specifically questioned about the fact that her notes did not include any mention of sexual abuse, she did not refer to any missing page. She was again referred to the transcript of evidence given at the earlier hearing when she was specifically herself asked under oath whether in the discussion of 17th December C had elaborated on “bad things” and she had answered, “No, not at this point”. Nonetheless, she said, she would not agree that C only went as far as saying “bad things”, although she did not recall what other words C had used. It was two years ago.
- Mr. Geekie, for the local authority now rose and said that the local authority was totally unaware of any missing third page of notes. Indeed, he said the whole of the fact finding trial was conducted on the basis of the two pages of notes only. This accorded with the memory of all those counsel for the other parties who had been present at that earlier hearing. If that was not enough, it was pointed out by the Local Authority’s solicitor, and agreed by counsel who had been present at the earlier hearing before HHJ Davies, that the bundles that the court was using at the current hearing were those used then, merely brought up to date by the addition of further documents. The court bundles then and now, did and do not include any third page of notes.
- In spite of being faced with what might have been thought an especially daunting body of evidence, SW was not to be budged. She repeated that she had given the third page of notes to Ms Abana Sarma of the local authority, that it was definitely referred to during HHJ Davies’s hearing, and that the missing page had stated that C had alleged sexual abuse. She could see the second page in her mind’s eye. There were several entries on it. Furthermore, it was shown to the police at the strategy meeting shortly after 17th December 2012, even though the police record of what happened on that date says that no sexual abuse was alleged by the child.
- When further questioned, she accepted that pages one and two of the notes before the court were consecutive, and were a complete document, so the third page could not have been the middle page of the three. The missing page was, she said, a second note written at a different time in the interview. This was despite her earlier evidence that she had not taken notes during the interview, and that it was her practice never to do so during interviews. She said she had discussed the contents of the third page with the police and her team manager. She then said belligerently, “I want to know why the second page is missing”.
- She then added that, apart from words, she relied on the non-verbal signals from C; the self-harm, the fact that she walked out of the interview, the hiding behind the hoodie, the fact that she started and stopped saying things and the fact that she wanted to go into care. She said this:
“Because of her words, in my professional opinion I felt she was the victim or at risk of sexual abuse. It is important that a social worker should be brave enough to say this.”
- She was then rude to counsel saying, “I’ve clocked where you’re going a long time ago” and then to me, “I hope this court does this case justice”.
The Judge had to make findings about this
Findings about the 17th December interview
- As for SW’s contention that C alleged sexual abuse to a total stranger on this occasion, this is plainly mistaken. The police note of the same date specifically records that no sexual abuse was alleged. The application for an Emergency Protection Order dated the 20th December and signed by the Local Authority’s Head of Legal services does not say that sexual abuse was actually alleged, only that C’s remarks ‘were suggestive of sexual abuse’. The notes made by SW after the conversation make no mention of sexual abuse. Her contention that a page of notes is missing, and that this page was before HHJ Davies in the earlier hearing, is simply ludicrous, for this would have meant that all counsel and solicitors, not to mention HHJ Davies, must have, unless through quite startling collective amnesia, willfully colluded in ignoring vital evidence during the hearing, and that the learned judge deliberately omitted mention of it in her judgment. It is also ludicrous to suppose that, when writing her notes in her car, SW wrote down relatively trivial allegations, but omitted to record the infinitely more serious accusation of sexual abuse.
- The reality is that when one stands back and looks at what happened, one can see just how serious this situation was and is. Based in part on, the Local Authority now sought and obtained the peremptory removal of C from her family on the 20th December 2012, and the following day sought and obtained an Interim Care Order. In each case the tribunal notes show that the decision was made, in part, on the basis that C had alleged sexual abuse. The removal of children from their parents, especially without notice, is one of the most draconian actions any court can take. It strikes right at the heart of basic human rights, on family life; it is frightening and traumatic for the children involved, and profoundly distressing for parents and other family. Sadly, the courts are required from time to time to sanction such removal, but only when safety and urgency requires it. In making such urgent orders, the courts must rely on the accuracy of Local Authority evidence. Whilst they cannot know whether any allegation is true or false, the courts are entitled to be told the truth by Local Authorities as to whether such an allegation has been made at all. The Family Court and the child-care justice system cannot function if Local Authorities do not tell the truth about this, for justice will inevitably be perverted.
- Responsibility for this cannot be laid wholly at the feet of one social worker. Others in the Local Authority must share responsibility, although, as I have said, on the evidence before it, the Court cannot and will not apportion this to particular individuals. The court freely acknowledges that all Local Authorities’ resources are over-stretched, and that social-work professionals are often alarmingly over-worked and under time pressures. Nonetheless, there should have been proper, efficient supervision of SW. Furthermore, the application for an EPO did not record an actual allegation of sexual abuse, whilst an application of the same date for an ICO did. With proper supervision and scrutiny this discrepancy should surely have been picked up by senior professionals at Luton Borough Council
After the first finding of fact hearing, and knowing that there was an appeal pending, the SW went to see the child to talk about the findings that had been made. It gets worse
Telling C about HHJ Davies’s findings of the 22nd June 2013
- SW visited C immediately afterwards to tell her of the findings. This was on the advice of CAMHS. C said that ‘he did it to A too’. SW had known then that there was going to be an appeal, but C was desperate to know what had happened and she was worried that C was at risk of suicide. The note of that meeting reads as follows:
“I then began by telling her that the local authority, us, had, as she knew, concerns about a number of things but we had asked the court to make a judgment/decision on these. I asked C whether she knew what those concerns were, she nodded but I decided to go through these. I said from what you have told me so far and from what I have learned from working with you and your family, I have been concerned that you are a victim and have suffered sexual abuse. C looked at me eyes moist but intently listening, she nodded. I said the concerns were also that the person who caused this to you was your father. C starred very intently at me nodding again and I carried on. I said the judge decided that after hearing all of the information that it was mostly likely to have been him. C remained staring at me, eyes a little more moist and said, ‘It was’. I then said the judge also found/decided that this had happened to T. I clarified this and said that the judge decided it was more likely than not that your father had also sexually abused T. C remained looking intently at me. C then said, ‘He did it to A too. She told me and I promised to keep it a secret, you need to talk to A. I said that we would and could she tell me a bit more. C said, ‘I promised I would keep it a secret'”.
- She herself has always been adamant that it never happened. The court is wholly satisfied that she was never abused by her father. It follows, therefore, that either C herself was making up the allegation to please SW in the light of the learned judge’s findings, or SW was making it up. On the balance of probabilities, the court is satisfied that SW was, as usual, putting words in the child’s mouth and then pretending they had come from the child.
That’s an incredibly damning finding, and one that clearly survived the Court of Appeal decision. The SW was, as usual, putting words in the child’s mouth and then pretending they had come from the child. Incredibly damning.
On the total number of ABEs
How many ABE interviews were there in January 2014?
- SW’s initial evidence was that there were six ABE interviews of C in all. One was on 4th October when “C said nothing” and another five in January 2014. When she returned to complete her evidence a few days later, she disclosed further documentation she said she had found at home, as well as her mobile phone she brought to court her 2014 diary and some loose sheets of paper she said she had found in the 2013 diary. She had not brought her 2013 diary with her to court as she did not think it was necessary.
- It was interesting that some of the loose pages of typed notes do not appear in or are cross-referenced to the documents previously disclosed by the local authority. She was asked how she had typed these notes. She said she would ‘audibly’ type notes on the local authority’s Care First system and sometimes this would go down and so she would type the notes on a standard word document format and transfer them later onto the system. Many times she was asked by the local authority to type up her documents on her own computer. She complained about being required to do this by the local authority to their legal department. When she did type documents at home, she never saved them. She would scan them and then ask someone else to scan them into the system back in the office. She would have expected all the loose pages found by her to be on the local authority’s Care First system. She typed up the notes of every substantial meeting with C and would expect them all to be on the system. She did not know why these notes were not on the system.
- She referred to her 2014 diary and to a number of entries in it. These contain the words, “C ABE on…” and then five dates …’ 23rd 27th, 28th, 29th and 31st January’. There are question marks next to the 27th, 28th and 29th January. She explained that the question marks were because the social workers were not sure whether C wanted to go through with the interviews. She still believed that C had done five ABE interviews in January, and six in all if the October ABE interview was counted, for that was what her records showed. She said, “My memory was that it went on for several days in January… I am ‘sure’ it was six interviews in all”. For the avoidance of doubt, there were no times when they took C to a police station and an interview did not take place.
- She later was referred in due course to her a file note of 12th December, 2013 which reads as follows, “C has now completed five ABE interviews, disclosed rape by father and V. She has also said she has been pregnant twice”. The date of 12th December 2013 does not make sense in the context of the timescale, the court notes. As to the substance of the note, SW commented that the reference here to five ABE interviews, “accords with my recollection. I recall five that week”. She then changed her evidence, something she did very frequently whenever she was in the witness box, saying that there had been, in fact, one attempted ABE interview that week in January and one aborted ABE interview. Added to those ABE interviews for which we have recordings and transcripts, that made six ABE interviews in all.
- It shows the extraordinary nature of this case that the court has had to consider whether C was ABE interviewed three or five times in January 2014. The evidence of the police officers, SWA ‘Y’ and Miss G collectively suggest that were but three. SW believes there were five. I prefer their collective memory. Accordingly I find that there were four ABE interviews only
It won’t surprise any reader to know that that the ABEs were very flawed – with leading questions, pressure, questions about things that weren’t alleged, the child being praised for giving answers that the questioners wanted to hear, disappointment from professionals where the child wasn’t making allegations (those being described as ‘failed ABEs)
And on the number of times C was interviewed about her allegations
Findings about the January ABE Interviews
- Save with one exception, the local authority does not rely on anything said in these interviews.
- It is submitted by Mr. Storey that C underwent literally hundreds of interviews. This is partly based on Miss G’s agreement that she had hundreds of interviews/discussions herself with C. The court is satisfied that this is, in fact, an exaggeration. The court must be cautious not to confuse spontaneous remarks made by a child or short informal chats with formal questioning. Nonetheless, doing its best, the court is satisfied that the child has had no fewer than 33 interviews about abuse with one or other social worker between 17th December 2012 and 31st January 2014. By “interviews” I mean either formal interviews or detailed question and answer discussions which went beyond the odd throwaway mark, or the odd question and reply. In addition, there appear to have been five similar discussions of a detailed nature with school teachers, seven with a foster carer and, of course, with Dr. van Rooyen and one with PO. On top of this, there were four ABE interviews. This makes, if the court’s mathematics is correct, an alarming total of 51. 12 of them were conducted wholly by untrained interlocutors in the form of the foster carer and the school teachers, and the rest were professionals whose ability to follow guidelines seems to have been non-existent. In addition, there can be no doubt that there were many, many other informal unreported conversations at school, in the foster home and when social workers brought C to and from school, which happened ’99 per cent of the time’.
- Furthermore, the court’s criticism is directed not only to those who conducted the interviews, but to those who sat outside and saw and listened to what happened: the social workers and teachers in the room next door. As professionals working in the field of childcare, they should have intervened to stop the 28th and 31st January interviews. They did not.
- Quite apart from the content of the interviews which were recorded, it is thoroughly reprehensible what was said before, during breaks and after the recorded parts was either inadequately noted, or not noted at all. The court is wholly satisfied that relevant matters were discussed at the police station at these times. All the professionals seemed to have operated on the false premise that what was said outside the interview room did not count.
As has been mentioned earlier, at around week four of the finding of fact hearing, an allegation was made that C had been pregnant twice. By the end of the hearing, the Local Authority were not relying on anything said by C in her ABE or other interviews other than this.
Findings about the 31st January pregnancy allegations
- It is incomprehensible to the court that the local authority, having conceded that no reliance should be placed on what was said by C during the three January ABE interviews, in the talks before it, in breaks or afterwards, should seek to rely on one short interchange about pregnancies, which took place during or immediately after the 31st January interview. How can a few words only, during or at the end of one of them, be exempted? It seems to the court illogical and perverse.
- The evidence about this episode is far from complete. Nonetheless, the court is satisfied that either during a break or at the end of the 31st January ABE interview, C made drawings and said things which led the police and the social workers to believe that she was alleging that she had been pregnant twice when she was much younger, and had either born two babies or lost them for one reason or another. Their names were Jack and Rose. She had also been given the morning-after pill. We do not know precisely what C said because the note-taking was hopelessly inadequate. The allegations were and have been taken seriously, for allegations that C conceived twice were added to the schedule of findings to be sought during the currency of the present hearing. Yet these allegations seemed, as was put to IO ‘W’, to have disappeared into the ether until they were unearthed late in the day.
- These allegations were very, very serious. So why was it that the first the court and the parties knew of this issue was during the hearing? Why did no social worker or police officer ever mention it? Why does it appear in no statements? The answer, regrettably, must be, not because the allegations were made outside a formal ABE interview, but because the local authority and the police realised only too well that they were ludicrous. They simply could not be true. They did not fit in with C’s medical records or the age when she attained puberty.
One of the other children, T, gave evidence
- T in her oral evidence disputed much of SW’s evidence about this meeting. She was particularly adamant that on 1st February 2013 she had never mentioned sexual abuse by the father. They had not really talked about this at all. Furthermore, she had never told SW that she had reported the abuse to her mother. “This was wrong!” Nor had she ever said that her mother had sent her off to live with her Aunt B, because of the abuse, nor was SW’s note accurate when it recorded that T had said that Aunt B had not believed her until she caught it out actually happening. “I did not say these things”.
- T then denied that she had ever told SW that the sexual abuse was the reason why she did not get on with her parents and why she would not leave her children with them. The reason she did not get on with her parents was, “because they always have a go at me’. She clarified this by explaining that her parents had not approved of her sleeping with a boyfriend from school. When she had left home she did it not because she was forced to and because she wanted to. Furthermore, she had, indeed, left her children in the mother and father’s care on many occasions. Indeed, she had not had a conversation with SW about her own children at all.
- During this part of her evidence, the court noted that T spoke with particular conviction. The court accepts her version of what was said, not least because the pattern here is similar to what happened on the 17th December.
- T did not like this. SW was aware of that. On 5th February 2013 she rang T, “To tell her that she did not have to do anything she did not want to”. This was in response to a telephone call from the mother to the Local Authority earlier that day. The next day, 6th February, the Local Authority received a typed letter signed by T. The key passage of that letter is as follows:
“SW from the children’s social services department in Luton keeps ringing me and keeps trying to contact me regarding me to make a statement about my dad, F, saying he had molested me at a young age to which of my knowledge none of this has happened. I am not willing to make a statement as it would be a false allegation. In my eye SW is dealing with my sister’s case, C, as she has no success in that one she is trying to manipulate and intimidate me to make a statement which I will not do. I would like SW to have no contact with me.”
- For reasons I shall give later, I am satisfied that this letter did genuinely reflect T’s feelings. Furthermore, I am wholly satisfied that T did not make any allegations of sexual abuse on the 1st February 2013.
I could do an entire post about the flaws in the ABEs, to be honest, but there’s just so much in this judgment. I will end with the concluding remarks
- One can only pray that the adults, and children, may recover from their unimaginable ordeal, though I fear that they will carry the scars of their suffering for the rest of their lives. As for C, with her underlying problems, the damage may well be irreparable. So much now needs to be done to see what damage can be repaired and how family relationships can be restored.
- This court has no jurisdiction over C beyond this fact-finding. But that cannot prevent my emphasising how urgent it is that her case be re-opened. The existing care order was made on the basis of incomplete evidence. The parents’ approach in not opposing the order was adopted in ignorance of the true facts. This injustice must be rectified.
- The court cannot entrust the care of children to those who abuse or fail to protect them. That applies to local authorities as much as to family members. Parties must have faith in those who care for their children.
- The local authority have already undertaken to commence forthwith a Serious Case Review, and rightly so. But it must go further.
- This situation poses grave dangers for family justice. Valuable court time is taken up weighing such breaches against the evidence and of course, there is the risk that not only may false information be garnered in interview, but that genuine allegations may be so contaminated that they cannot be relied upon. Those who permit their employees to question children and vulnerable witness must therefore be certain that not only have they received the standard training but they understand what it means in practice.
- This case has taken up an inordinate amount of the court’s time, but rightly so in the circumstances. Yet the cost to the public purse in one form or another will be immense. There has been a significant disruption of court lists, with other cases being delayed. Family justice cannot perform the vital task it does in protecting children without honesty, objectivity, transparency and fairness. I thus hope that no court ever again has to see and hear what this court has seen and heard during the past weeks.