In Re P (A child) 2015, His Honour Judge Wood had to deal with an application for a Care Order for a girl who was sixteen years and four months old. That in itself is unusual. Even more unusual, the central allegation was that of physical abuse (which was disputed by the family). More unusual still, the allegation was that the girl had been physically assaulted by her older brother.
Now, if you have a sibling, you might be thinking along similar lines to my initial reactions. My sister and I fought, not like cat and dog, but like two fighting roosters whose feed had been laced with PCP. We fought about absolutely everything. No topic was too trivial , no imagined slight too minor. That did occasionally spill into physical conflict. I’m sure that my sister has many dreadful stories about me – many of which would be true, and I will simply indicate that there was a day at Pwllhlei Butlins putting green where she hit me with some degree of force on the nut with a golf club (from behind) and when it knocked me out, ran off and spent the rest of the afternoon in the arcades playing Burger Time. She also once hit me full in the face with a tennis racket swung with genuine purpose and intent (but as I recall, that was warranted, though painful).
This story, however, goes rather further even than those (admittedly shameful) incidents.
At 18.11 hours on Monday, 20th June 2014 P, a girl born on 28th October 1998 and now aged 16 years 4 months, was admitted by ambulance to the emergency department of Hospital A. She was found to have six distinct areas of injury: the first were three red linear marks on the right upper thigh, 1cm by 6cm long; second were two linear marks on the outer aspect of the left forearm, 4cm by 1cm wide; the third was an oblique red mark across the left upper outer thigh, 10cm by 1cm; the fourth was a bruised area, circular in shape, 3cm in diameter with a contusion over the left shoulder tip; the fifth was a linear bruise to the left upper outer arm approximately 4cm by 1cm and the final were a number of red marks across the lower thoracic area, that is to say the back, approximately 3cm by 1cm to the left and right of the midline.
The fact that the girl had been injured was not therefore in dispute, what was disputed was how these injuries had occurred.
The girl said that she had been at home, watching television and that she and her brother had had an argument (he wanting to turn the channel over to watch football and she wanting to finish watching what she had started), whereupon he started hitting her, escalating to hitting her with an iron bar.
The brother said that the girl had come home from school, complained of being hot and fainted from the heat.
It had of course been June when this happened, so perhaps it was hot. However, the girl had grown up in Nigeria and only been in England for a year. And the family were living in Sunderland. Perhaps the weather in Sunderland that particular day was so hot that a girl who had spent 13 of her 14 years in Nigeria was unaccustomed to such heat and it caused her to faint.
The weather in Sunderland on 20th June 2014 was pretty hot for Sunderland. 20 degrees Celsius. Looking at the weather in Nigeria in the year before, when the girl had been living there, 20 degrees C would represent a brisk chilly day in Nigeria, with a hot day being about 33-36 degrees.
I have to say that the ‘fainting from heat’ explanation is in need of some work. I suspect that “Girl Faints from Heat in Sunderland” would be headline news in the North East were it ever to happen.
[Actually out of curiosity, I just Googled ‘Sunderland heat wave’ ready to tell you that there were no results, but there were 168,000. Perhaps many of them were along the lines of “Ed Milliband making a comeback as Labour leader in 2020? That’s about as likely as a Sunderland Heat Wave”]
The brother’s evidence became less credible when, for example, he denied that the iron bar was something that he had ever seen before and then retracted this when it was suggested to him that his DNA would be on it.
The mother, who had been present, and her father (who had been in Nigeria) both supported the brother’s version of events.
The cultural issue of course raised its head, and the Judge dealt with that
- Before considering which evidence I prefer, I want to say a word about cultural issues. This family come from a remote part of Nigeria. English is not their first language, albeit they have a good command of it. They are, as I have said, born again Christians and they seek to live their lives by a strong religious code. Their cultural background is in many ways very different to that which exists in the north east of England. They do things in Nigeria which are acceptable there but not here.
- Specifically, physical chastisement of children is normal. The father’s evidence was very clear that for what he called an accountable child, probably from the age of 10 onwards, whipping a child on the legs with African broom or with a cane as part of a process of punishment and learning is normal. It is not so long ago, certainly within the lives of some of the lawyers here, that such was acceptable in this country and so the court has no difficulty at all in accepting that but, given the way that this case has proceeded, its relevance is limited because it is not said either by the mother or R that this is what happened to P. Rather, they say she was not struck at all but I do accept that P and R are likely to have a more benign view of physical chastisement on a child than most British people would have in 2015. All that said, I agree with Mr Donnelly that this is not a case about chastisement in a different culture but a case about significant harm in the care of a mother.
- I accept that, further, there is a strict hierarchical structure within families whereby the father of the house, whether he is there or not, has to be consulted on important decisions. That has had significant practical consequences given parental separation here and I accept that it may have played some part in the refusal to consent to P being accommodated, as well as the initial engagement with the Local Authority and possibly even going to court in the early stages which I have no doubt is both a frightening and possibly shameful thing for the mother, in particular, to have experienced. So I have all of these factors very much in mind in making the decisions that I have to and I will return to this in due course.
The Court had to consider the evidence given by all parties, and of course the legal framwork, which is all very carefully set out. It is a very well constructed judgment.
- So which evidence do I prefer? Unhesitatingly, that of P. There is no more explanation for her lying now than there was in June last year. The lengths to which she went in feigning a faint point to the seriousness of the assault that she suffered. The instincts of the ambulance man first on the scene were, in my judgment, entirely correct. The injuries are entirely consistent with her account. They are all about the same age and fresh. They have the characteristics of being hit with an object such as a table leg in their linear appearance. They affect the outer aspects of both thighs, the outer aspects of the left arm and the back. They are not consistent with a simple collapse to the floor. They are, as Dr Mellon said but the mother, father and R denied, characteristic of defensive injuries. It appeared to be beyond the father and R’s comprehension that P would not fight back. She is described elsewhere as an underweight, 15-year-old girl of slight build pitched against a 19-year-old male who appeared to be over six feet high and who was armed and one might have thought that that was a sufficient reason to adopt a defensive position rather than try and fight back.
- There is simply no other explanation for these injuries, just as there is no reason put before the court as to why, as R said, P would want to put herself in care and be separated from her family. I reject her father’s submission that because P has told him that she has been refused permission to go to church and to foster care, to the foster carer has said that she does not want to go, that she is demonstrably untruthful or unreliable. There could be many reasons for two different accounts at different times and there has been no opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which those accounts were given in any event. I also reject R’s submission that because she identified her shoulder to the ambulance man, she was thereby not complaining of being beaten by her brother. The medical evidence, in my judgment, is clear. There is no alternative, credible explanation.
- The evidence of the mother and R, far from causing me to question her veracity, confirms that they were neither credible nor reliable. I found R to be evasive, argumentative and unwilling to confront the truth staring us all in the face. I could say more about it but I am satisfied, as it happens, that in her letter P has described her brother to a tee:
“My brother is not a type of person that says sorry so easily. He is a type of person that is so proud and full of himself.”
It seemed to me that that was a very accurate description of a rather arrogant and self-centred young man. I am quite satisfied that he is an intelligent and articulate man. Having seen him give his evidence and be cross-examined, I am quite sure that he was generally intent on ensuring that he gave answers which supported and/or did not undermine his case rather than trying to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times. Accordingly, I did not find him credible and reliable.
- I am satisfied that R lost his temper with his sister over an argument about the television. He wanted to watch the five o’clock football match and would not let her finish the programme that she had been watching for some time since she came in from school and, not for the first time, he responded with violence. I am satisfied he beat her with a table leg and caused the injuries that I have noted and, furthermore, I am satisfied that P’s mother knew that this is what had happened for the very reason that she saw it. I pay due regard to what her husband has said about his belief in her veracity but I do not believe that she intervened but, in seeking to deflect attention at the outset, suggested that very thing to the police only to back away from it, as she did, when the seriousness of the incident became known.
- P’s shock and distress at her mother not intervening was marked and entirely understood. Although the mother told me that both R and P are her children and that she loves them equally, by her conduct she has demonstrated that, in fact, she has put R’s interests before her daughter. She has protected him when she knows the truth of what he has done. She has almost inexplicably abandoned – and it is not too strong a word – her daughter by denying her contact, putting up as obstacles the Local Authority’s perfectly reasonable conditions. Most parents would walk over hot coals to see their children, however objectionable the terms, because to do so would be to prioritise the child and to meet the child’s needs to see her family. Furthermore, she is not ignorant of the role of social workers. Her professional training and experience over a period of almost ten years contradicts her claim. She may very well be ashamed at the misfortune that has befallen her and her family but she simply has persistently refused to engage in this process as I will explain.
- So looking at the threshold document prepared by the Local Authority in the bundle at A16, I am satisfied it is made out as pleaded. That refers in paragraph 4(a) to the injuries themselves, in paragraph (b) to R being the cause of the injuries, being struck by an iron rod and that it was causing her pain, in subparagraph (e) that the mother has been complicit in that physical abuse perpetrated by her son in that she knew or ought to have known it was happening and had failed to tell anyone so as to protect her own interests. She misled professionals and, indeed, now the court about her son having assaulted her daughter and instead alleged that P is lying about the abuse she has suffered and following P’s admission to hospital and subsequently care has, as I have said, abandoned her daughter preferring to protect her son.
The family in this case had adopted a strategy of not engaging with the assessment or coming to contact, which is the all or nothing approach that only really ever works if the Court find that the threshold is not met. In a case like this, where the Judge found that the brother had caused very serious significant harm to the girl by hitting her with an iron bar, and that the mother had been in the home at the time, had not intervened and had lied about it, that is not really giving the mother much chance of a happy outcome. They absolutely would not countenance the brother moving out of the home so that the girl could come home.
Even then, though, the Judge was holding out a hand and inviting the parents to take it
I want to say this at this stage: it is still not too late for this family, mother and R in particular, to accept the findings of this court, to make a suitable admission and to work with the Local Authority to reduce the risk both to P and any other children with whom they may be concerned – a very particular concern of P as she said in her letter to me
The Court had to make the Care Order, there was no other option
This is a very, very sad case. It began as a one issue case, the assault. It could, as Mr Rowlands has said, have had a very different outcome. That it has not is entirely due to the family and not their daughter. It has ended up as more than that because of the astonishing and persistent denial in the face of all of the evidence and the near complete rejection of P by her family. The harm to her from the latter is likely to outweigh the harm from the former in the longer term but, I repeat, even now it is not too late to reverse that process. These parents have an attractive, appealing and loving daughter who has shown the Christian virtues of forgiveness and love that they taught her. She really deserves a very much better outcome than this but I am afraid the solution lies entirely in their hands.
One particularly worrying feature of this case was the removal of the child by Police Protection. The mother having refused section 20 and the girl at that time not being sixteen so she was not able to accommodate herself using section 20 (11). However,
I want to register my extreme concern at the level of force which was used when the police recovered P from her home when she ran away from foster care in September. She was handcuffed, under what power is not clear, and the incident is said to have been recorded because of its nature. This incident needs to be noted and taken up by the Local Authority in conjunction with the police. It is ambiguous from the statement as to whether a social worker was actually present when it happened. It has not formed part of the material evidence before me but it was an extremely unfortunate incident, it was harmful to P that her guardian was rightly horrified about. I do not know what the Local Authority response to it was at the time, what its response has been since and I do seek separately an explanation from the Local Authority and the police as to the circumstances that were pertaining and as to what measures have been devised and agreed upon to avoid a repetition of such an event in the future.