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Physical chastisement – Court of Appeal

 

A Local Authority appealed the decision of a Recorder at a finding of fact hearing, that having made some serious findings about physical injuries sustained by a child and caused by a parent, he went on to find that the threshold was not made out in terms of risk to that child’s sibling.   This case also deals with some important principles as to what extent making SOME findings has on the other allegations to be dealt with.

 

Re L-K 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/830.html

 

The Recorder had made these findings about the injuries

  1. The Recorder found that two sets of bruising had been inflicted by the parents, although he was unable to say which of them was responsible. They were as follows:

    i) There were parallel lines of bruising on R’s buttocks which the Recorder found were caused by someone striking him across the buttocks with a linear object (§20 of the Recorder’s first judgment). The Recorder thought it likely that the object used was a ruler or a belt, in which case there were at least two blows, but it may have been a stick or flexible cable, in which case there were at least four blows.

    ii) There were three bruises on the inner part of R’s right thigh, immediately below his buttocks, which were described as “loop pattern or crescent shaped injuries” and a further “sigma shaped pattern bruise” to the right of the lower buttock crease (§21). The Recorder found that these marks were caused by at least two deliberate slaps (§24).

  2. The Recorder found that both the instances of inflicted injury had the character of corporal punishment (§29). The parents had denied that they were responsible for the injuries but the Recorder found that they both knew who did it and had agreed to stick together and protect each other (§33), trying to mislead the social workers and lying in court. He said that it was “difficult to blame them in the circumstances” (§35) (referring, I think, to their lies and collusion, although he may have been referring to their treatment of R) as they were in a foreign country and had a difficult child to look after.
  3. It is not entirely clear how the Recorder viewed the corporal punishment inflicted on R. At §36, he said it “may well be regarded as going well beyond reasonable chastisement”. At §37, he said that he could envisage that if the parents had admitted it, they would have argued that it was no more than reasonable chastisement and said, “I cannot judge that question”. Later in the same paragraph, however, he went on to say that it certainly seemed excessive to him to hit a five year old at all, especially with an implement. What is clear is that he was unwilling to find it established that what happened to R was “abuse”. He seems to have taken into account in reaching this conclusion the possibility that it was “an over exercise of parental authority in a disciplinary capacity”, the evidence that the parents are loving parents and that R loves them and is not afraid of them, and the fact that he could not know how much R had suffered in the process (§37 of the main judgment and §5 of the Recorder’s supplemental judgment).
  4. The parents did admit one of the local authority’s allegations, that is that they had, each independently of the other, made R stand in a corner for more than two hours when he was naughty. The Recorder described the father’s conduct in so doing as “treating R cruelly” (§31). However, he accepted the parents’ evidence that this was something that happened when the family was under great stress and was not a regular occurrence (§34).

 

 

He then went on, however, to conclude that whilst the threshold was met for R, it was not met for R’s brother even in terms of risk of harm:-

 

 

14. He was accordingly asked to deal with the threshold thereafter, and did so, after further argument and consideration, in a short ex tempore judgment. In it, he found the threshold crossed in relation to R on the basis that R would have suffered significant harm because a) hitting a child of five who suffers from psychological problems with an implement will cause significant harm b) standing such a child in a corner for two to three hours must also cause significant harm and c) there must be a significant risk of repetition as the parents had closed ranks and said nothing about it to social services and the courts (supplementary judgment §5). As to M, in that judgment the Recorder stated baldly that he did not think the threshold was crossed.

  1. He returned to the threshold in relation to M in his judgment refusing permission to appeal and in his final short judgment. He determined that M was not at risk in his parents’ care, essentially on the basis that he was a very different child and had not suffered any harm so far. In the permission judgment, he referred to the findings he had made about R, and the evidence as to how very difficult R was to look after, contrasting that with M, in relation to whom there was neither evidence of psychological difficulty nor evidence of any problem with him in foster care. He said:

    “6. The difference between these two children is such that I cannot conceive that anybody could imagine that the findings I have made in respect of the older brother should lead to a finding that the younger brother is at risk.”

 

 

Well, the Recorder couldn’t concieve that anyone could imagine this, but the Court of Appeal not only imagined it, but did it.

 

36. The local authority argued that, in the light of the findings that R had been beaten with an implement and slapped sufficiently hard to leave bruising and had been excessively punished by being made to stand in a corner for a prolonged period, it was wrong to conclude that there was no risk of significant harm to M. What those facts indicated, in their submission, was that at times of stress or challenging behaviour from one of the children, the parents may harm their child whether by way of discipline or simple loss of control. They argued that the Recorder placed too great a weight on the difference between the two boys as a protective factor for M and failed also to take account of the fact that M is more vulnerable because of his young age and may also become more challenging as he grows older.

  1. I would accept this submission. Rightly or wrongly, the Recorder did not make any findings on the issue of whether M was present during the punishments of R and whether he was emotionally harmed by what he saw and there was no evidence that M himself suffered any physical harm. The threshold in relation to M therefore depended on whether he was “likely to suffer significant harm”. “Likely to suffer” in this context means that there is “a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the gravity of the feared harm in the particular case”, see Re H and R (Minors)(Child Sexual Abuse: Standard of Proof) [1996] 1 FLR 80. The threshold is therefore “comparatively low”. It was, in my view, plainly satisfied on the facts that the Recorder had found. Every case depends upon its own facts, but in this particular case it was not at the threshold stage but at the welfare stage that matters such as the parents’ circumstances at the time R was injured and the differing personalities of the children were relevant. Given the nature of the Recorder’s findings in respect of R, and the parents’ failure to acknowledge or explain what had happened and why, I do not think that the factors that the Recorder relied upon in differentiating between the two boys in fact provided any reassurance in relation to the risk to M for threshold purposes. I would therefore substitute for the Recorder’s dismissal of the proceedings in relation to M, a finding that the threshold criteria were satisfied in his case on the basis of likely harm.

 

 

The next limb of the appeal was that, having made those findings, was the Judge wrong in discounting the other injuries to R that he made no findings on?  I.e in relation to say ten physical injuries should the Judge approach each and every one in isolation, OR if the Judge had made findings in relation to four or five or them, does the fact of those findings become a relevant consideration when approaching the remainder?

 

  1. The local authority argued that the Recorder was wrong to decline to make findings in relation to the injuries to R’s face, neck/chest, and thigh, and a finding that he was “abused”. They submitted that he had gone wrong because he failed to look at the totality of the picture, instead considering the injuries only individually. It was argued that the findings that he did make, whilst not probative of the other injuries, were capable of being corroborative and supportive evidence in respect of them. Also relevant to the overall evaluation, it was submitted, was the parents’ dishonesty.
  2. I agree with these submissions. It is always necessary for a judge who is considering possible non-accidental injuries to look at the whole picture before determining causation. So, for example, what might be accepted as an accidental injury if it stood alone, might take on a wholly different aspect if it is only one of a number of injuries. Similarly, the fact that it is firmly established that one of a number of injuries has been inflicted by a parent must be taken into account when evaluating the cause of other injuries.
  3. In this case, I have no doubt that when it came to considering the possible causes of the other marks found on R, attention had to be paid to the fact that the parents had a) beaten R with an implement causing bruising, b) smacked him to the extent that bruising was caused, and c) lied in an attempt to conceal what they had done. Regard should also have been had to the excessive punishment which the parents conceded had been imposed on R in the form of having to stand in a corner for a prolonged period. As the local authority acknowledged, the fact that one injury is inflicted does not prove that others are non-accidental, but it changes the context in which the child came by the other injuries from a home which may be beyond reproach to one in which it is known that there has been, at the least, excessive physical punishment. As Mr Roche for the father observed during submissions, it was also the case that R had injuries which were accepted to be accidental. That fact was relevant too, but it did not remove the potential significance of the findings of non-accidental injury. The fact that the parents had lied about what they had done was also relevant to their credibility in relation to other matters. The Recorder’s approach did not pay proper regard to these factors as part of the overall picture he was surveying.

 

Whilst the Judge did not have to slavishly follow the medical opinions  (see dozens of Court of Appeal decisions that confirm that), the Judge does have to pay proper attention to them, and where a theory for the explanation of the injury emerges from the Judge himself, it is necessary for the Judge to explore that theory with the expert.

 

  1. In my view, the Recorder also failed to pay proper attention to the evidence of Dr Fonfé in determining what had happened. It was, of course, for him to decide, on the basis of all of the evidence, whether it was established that particular injuries were non-accidental, and not for Dr Fonfé. However, he needed to take her expert views into account in his determination. In referring to what she said about each of the injuries as her “suspicion”, he seems to me to have understated the force of her opinion. He also failed to take account of her more general advice as to causation, perhaps because he concentrated on the injuries individually. As can be seen from the passages from her reports which I have quoted above, Dr Fonfé’s approach was entirely conventional in that she looked at R’s situation overall as well as considering the various injuries individually. The Recorder was not bound to accept her general observations but he did, at least, need to show that he had considered them. Had he done so, he may have structured his judgment differently and avoided falling into error. As it was, he appears to have made his determination about each of the individual injuries before, at §26 (see above), turning to look at the picture collectively, and when he did look at the whole canvas at this point, it was not with a view to considering what the overall picture might tell him about the individual injuries, but in order to address the local authority’s allegation that R had been subjected to a prolonged single attack or a series of individual episodes of attack.
  2. In short, the Recorder was wrong to conclude that there was nothing but Dr Fonfe’s suspicions in relation to the other injuries. His own positive findings and Dr Fonfé’s expert evidence about what, in her view, the overall picture revealed were important too. It is not a foregone conclusion that they would have led to a different conclusion as to the other injuries but they needed to be put into the equation and considered with the rest of the evidence.
  3. In my judgment, this deficiency in the Recorder’s approach is sufficient to render his decision in relation to the balance of the local authority’s allegations unsafe. It would follow that, in so far as it is necessary in order to make decisions about the children’s futures for there to be findings in relation to those allegations, there would have to be a further hearing for that purpose. I need not therefore say much more about the other flaws that there may have been in the Recorder’s approach. I would, however, mention a number of matters.
  4. The first is the Recorder’s crayon explanation (see §16 of the judgment). It seems that this came entirely from him. Dr Fonfé’s view as to the feasibility of the hypothesis was not sought. If a particular explanation such as this is to carry weight in the court’s decision, it is important, in my view, for it to be offered for comment by the relevant expert and in submissions. Had that been done, the response may well have been that the crayon explanation ignored the existence of what Dr Fonfé saw as a pair of marks which looked like grip marks.
  5. I wonder also whether this passage in the Recorder’s judgment indicates that he was veering towards requiring that all other possible causes must be excluded before a finding of non-accidental injury could be made (see also §14, for example) and/or proceeding on the basis that no finding could be made without corroboration. Depending on the particular facts of the case, it may not be necessary for the evidence to go that far. What is required is simply that it should be established on the balance of probability that the injury was non-accidental.
  6. As to the Recorder’s conclusion that the findings he had made were not established to be abuse, I am not inclined to spend time on that issue for two reasons. First, there is little point in debating whether what the Recorder found to have been established should or should not be classed as “abuse” when his findings may not be the last word on what happened to R. Secondly, what actually happened is much more important than how it is classified and it may well be that evidence which is relevant to this may continue to emerge, for example from Poland, from the parents themselves in response to the findings made so far, and in the course of any further fact finding hearing in relation to the balance of the allegations.

 

 

The appeal was therefore successful

 

 

For the reasons I have already given, I would allow this appeal. In relation to the threshold in respect of to M, I would substitute a finding that it is satisfied on the basis of likelihood of harm. As far as the Recorder’s findings of fact are concerned, I would not interfere with the facts which he found proved but I would set aside his determination in relation to the balance of the local authority’s allegations and remit the case to the Family Court for an urgent directions hearing at which the future conduct of it will be decided.

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composite threshold – a living example

 

I wrote about the difficulties of composite thresholds here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/28/composite-threshold-documents-in-which-a-tightrope-is-walked/  particularly where a document is produced that sets out what everyone says but doesn’t end up with clarity as the precise way that threshold is said to be met.

 

This judgment by Her Honour Judge Owens  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B73.html  OCC v B and T 2015 is a really good example of that.

Particularly since the Judge includes a suitably anonymised version of the threshold at the end of the judgment. I commend that, I think it makes far more sense when considering what decisions was made by a Court to see the factual background set out.  I really like it.

The version provided is a composite document, set out in tablular form (and again, I like the way that this is produced, it is really helpful in terms of seeing what the allegation is, where the evidence is for it and what the parents say).

 

But it is a composite document. It doesn’t end up by setting out the findings that the Court was either making by agreement or was asked to adjudicate upon. So it isn’t a final threshold.

And then, there’s this bit in the judgment itself

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule. A copy of that schedule, suitably redacted in relation to the identities of the parties, is appended to this Judgement

 

All very sensible and practical – the LA deciding not to push for additional findings where there is agreement and the concessions are sufficient.

However, when I look at the composite document, I see that whilst mother accepts all of the matters that remain (3 a) and (3b) were the only bits that she disputed, father was disputing just about EVERYTHING.  And the LA were accepting that they did not seek any findings in relation to matters that were disputed, so effectively all of those matters are just crossed out of the threshold.

Here is what father actually concedes, in totality

 

1(b) I accept arguing which can be seen as verbally abusive but not aggressive.  [Really hard to see in the light of Re A and Re J – and even before then, that this amounts to threshold]

1(c) The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against father but then withdrew them.   [Well, that’s not threshold unless the assertion is that the allegations were true OR that the making of false allegations caused emotional harm to the child, neither of which are asserted]

1(d) Both parents sent abusive text messages and Facebook messages to each other

2 The father had an argument with the Health Visitor because she came to the home for an important meeting without a sign language intepreter  (again, that’s not threshold)

4. The father accepts that he had some convictions, the most recent of which was ten years ago.

 

5. The father accepts that his other children were placed on the Child Protection Register but disputes that this was the right decision.

 

As we’ve previously discussed, it is possible that on a line by line basis, each individual allegation in and of itself would not amount to threshold, but that taken as a totality, it would. But that’s also not the case here. [Given that para 5 as drafted by the LA contains reference to his two older children being adopted, the Court could have been asked to find that the threshold relied upon and found in those proceedings was sufficient to establish a risk of harm from father, depending upon what was in it and how historical it was, but that didn’t happen]

 

Given what the Judge says about threshold  – LA don’t invite Court to make findings on any matters in dispute and that those matters which are accepted are how threshold is established, then those are the only concessions that are agreed by both parents.  The Local Authority could have invited the Court to find that the threshold was met on the basis of the mother’s concessions, and the Judge would then have had to rule on the matters that father disputed, but that’s not what happened. The LA invited the Court to make a finding that threshold was met on the basis of father’s concessions.

Now, just imagine for a moment, drafting a threshold that contains only those matters set out above. As a stand alone document, saying that this is why the children are at risk of significant harm.  It appears to me that this would be very short of threshold.

 

[There are 3 matters that relate chiefly to mother that father does not dispute, so we could add those in. She wasn’t always honest with professionals, she went to a refuge and then went back to father, and refused to go into a refuge just before the Court proceedings were issued.  IF the Court established that father was domestically violent, then those are matters which could add to the threshold, but there isn’t such a finding.  On the threshold that the case has ended up with, the very high point of the findings made is that harsh words were exchanged between mother and father (both verbally and via text messages/facebook) ]

 

I’ll be clear,

(a) The allegations set out by the Local Authority in their original document (the first two columns of the composite document) were more than capable of meeting threshold

(b) From reading the judgment, I would be confident that most, and perhaps all of them, would have been found had the LA pushed for this – the evidence was there to do so

(c) I’m fairly sure that all involved were approaching the case on the basis that it was not in dispute that there had been DV between father and mother and that he posed a risk to the children

(d) But actually there was. Father’s response to threshold disputed this. And that became a live issue as to whether his admissions were sufficient or whether the Court needed to deal with the disputed issues on threshold

(e) In my opinion, the actual concessions made and accepted, are way short of threshold  (particularly threshold for deciding that the children should be permanently separated from their mother – whilst there is only one section 31 threshold criteria it is plain from the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court’s final orders have to be proportionate to the harm suffered or a risk of being suffered.  )

 

I think there was ample evidence for the Court to find that father was a risk to the children and that mother had been subjected to domestic violence and had not been able to protect. And reading the totality of the judgment, I think that’s the basis on which the Court approached the case. Additionally, there were three significant  findings made which could properly go into a finalised threshold, and given that the Judge set these out in passages of her judgment that were explictly considering ‘risk of harm’ I would legitimately be putting them into a final threshold document.  BUT that would have been dependent on the Judge’s paragraph about threshold adding ‘and the specific matters that I found in my judgment in relation to risks of harm to the children’ or something similar.

 

  If they return to the care of their mother, however, I find that the likelihood is that this placement would breakdown due to her inability to apply the required parenting skills to a good enough standard

I find and the only conclusion I can draw is that she is simply not capable of working openly and honestly with the local authority in the best interests of her children.

The stakes are therefore very high indeed for them and the risk of them suffering further disruption and emotional harm is, as I have found, high

 

The Judge also makes comment that mother failed to understand the risk that father poses (and that’s very important, but it is equally important to remember that the Court hasn’t actually made findings about the level of risk father poses, and the adverse findings against him relate to mutual exchanges of harsh words between him and mother. )

 

There is also reference to what was probably the most important incident

On the 9th December 2014 RB moved to a place of safety following an alleged assault on her by ST on 8th December 2014. This assault was witnessed by a member of the public and ST was arrested. The Police records of this assault are at F110-112 and F129 – 144 and I have also seen the DVD recordings of ST’s Police interview and RB’s statement to the Police about this incident.

 

Although that is in the LA threshold document, at 1(d),  it is disputed by the father, and because of the formulation of words in the judgment about threshold (which I’ll repeat here) it is NOT a finding made. The Judge had done sufficient to make a decision about that allegation, and would probably have made the finding if asked, but was not in fact asked to do so.

 

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule.

 

It is really obvious that the Court is proceeding throughout on the basis that it is established that father is a risk to the children and indeed to the mother.

BUT the threshold findings that were actually made by the Court were astonishingly low – far lower than I suspect anyone involved really grasped. And if there had been a second threshold document, one that went beyond just setting out a Scott Schedule  (we say,she says, he says) and into just setting out the precise allegations that were actually agreed i.e a final threshold, looking at that on a piece of paper would have made it clear that the concessions given were not sufficient to cross threshold and that the Judge would have to be invited to make findings.

IF this father were to be involved in future Court proceedings, someone picking up this judgment might consider that the Court had made findings that he posed a risk to his children and that he had been domestically violent to the mother   (and I’m sure that’s what those involved thought had happened) BUT as a matter of law, the findings against dad that were made were only those things that he admitted to – which amount to an exchange of harsh words with mother and an argument with a Health Visitor.  Would the actual findings that were made by this Court be sufficient to establish a likelihood of harm with future children?

 

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved – this is just an illustration of how a composite style threshold can pose a problem. Had a second document that sets out, taking into account just those matters that were accepted, it would have been really plain that the LA needed to go above and beyond just the accepted matters and into asking the Court to make findings on the central issue (was father domestically violent towards the mother and was he a risk to the children?).   I am sure that all involved took those matters as a given – I’m sure that if father had been fighting the allegations he would not have succeeded, but the approach that the concessions themselves were sufficient to meet the threshold doesn’t seem to stack up when you look at it with fresh eyes.

 

There’s a lot of other stuff to praise in this judgment, it is just a shame about that one element.

 

 

 

 

Smokey and the Bandit – “boy adopted due to smoky house”

 

This story appeared in the Guardian yesterday.  Two year old boy from smoky house to be placed for adoption.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/01/two-year-old-boy-adoption-cigarette-smoke

 

It relates to a case decided by a Circuit Judge (in Hull)- so the case is not binding authority for later cases*, but it is still of public interest.  (* the reason it is not binding is because it was decided by a Circuit Judge, not because it was decided in Hull)

Re AB 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B58.html

 

The author of the Guardian story had clearly read the judgment, and read it carefully, because it draws out all of the many, many references to the smoky atmostphere in the house being a concern. This is a continuing theme throughout the judgment.

  the most graphic testimony came from health visitor Julie Allen, who told the judge that the family’s living room was “so smoke entrenched that I had difficulty breathing”.

“On entering the living room Allen described being able to see a visible cloud of smoke surrounding the father and [the boy],” said the judge. “[The boy] was asleep on the sofa and had been unwell for some time by this point.

“Ms Allen described the room as ‘so smoke-entrenched that I had difficulty breathing’. She immediately expressed concern to the parents as to the impact of such smoke on [the boy], who had already been prescribed an inhaler within the previous month to help his breathing.

 

That’s obviously the public interest debate, because it raises a spectre that a parent doing something lawful (smoking) can find themselves in care proceedings, and could ultimately find the child being adopted. If that was right, it would obviously worry people, and be thin end of the wedge material.

Remember that in establishing threshold, one has to not only show that X event happened and that the child suffered significant harm as a result (or is likely to) but that X is a type of behaviour that one wouldn’t expect from a reasonable parent or care that it would not be reasonable to expect a parent to provide for him.

 

Of course, reasonable is always a difficult concept. It ties into the Illusory Superiority concept – just as everyone considers that they are above average (in terms of intelligence, sense of humour, looks, driving ability), everyone considers that THEY are reasonable, and they assess other people’s behaviour as reasonable or unreasonable based on their own standards.

A non-smoker, or anti-smoker might hold that no reasonable parent would smoke within the same building as their child. Someone who smokes twenty a day might hold that a reasonable parent would smoke, but try not to blow smoke into the child’s face.  Someone else might think that a reasonable parent would try to smoke in a different room to the child, and so on.  What consitutes reasonable parenting is a really subjective issue.  (And it may well be part of the problem of care proceedings, since a social worker assessing reasonable parenting does so from the mindset of  (a) someone who was concerned enough about children to go into a profession aimed at safeguarding their welfare (b) has a degree and (c) is working in a culture where protection of children is the paramount concern)

I personally would prefer that a parent smoked outside, but I wouldn’t consider it unreasonable if they decided to smoke in their own home, or to give up entirely and insist that no visitors to their home smoked whilst there. I have a pretty broad spectrum of what is reasonable in terms of smoking near children. I know others who would have a much narrower band of what’s okay and what is unreasonable.

 

{My experience may be coloured by the fact that (a) I was able as a child to go to my ice cream van and buy cigarettes for my grandmother, something you can’t imagine today and that (b) when I was about twelve, our sweet shop sold a product called Skoal Bandits – sachets of tobacco that you would put in your mouth and suck, till they were banned  – I see that you can still buy them in America and other places and I suppose (c) that I began my childhood smoking on cigars, so I never ended up becoming a regular smoker}

 

"Smokey and the Bandit Two - Smokey IS the Bandit!"

“Smokey and the Bandit Two – Smokey IS the Bandit!”

When looking at smoking, and a smoky atmosphere, I would argue that it would need to be a very very high level of smoking to amount to threshold – since smoking, even heavy smoking in your own home is a type of behaviour that some parents would think was abhorrent and some would think was normal. It would be hard, I think,  to categorise even a sixty-a-day habit as behaviour that would amount to threshold.   (There might be exceptions – for example, if your child has a lung disease and has to breathe with the assistance of an oxygen tank, or suffers with life-threatening asthma attacks then a reasonable parent would take steps to prevent him being exposed to smoke)

 

So if the smoky house was the sole, or main reason for the decision, the decision would be very questionable and probably wrong.  We need to see if that WAS the sole, or main reason.

 

The Guardian piece does say several times that smoking was one of a number of concerns, and touches on some of the others during the article.

To provide some of that context, the Judge sets them all out as bullet points

  • potential drug paraphernalia observed at the parents property on 2 occasions
  • Mother failing to engage with DVAP and the freedom programme
  • the lack of involvement of the father in AB’s care
  • outstanding therapy for the father
  • concerns re the father’s mental health
  • parents responding aggressively/defensively to challenge
  • a decline in the parents engagement with agencies whose role was to support them in their care of AB
  • the amount of smoke in the home of the parents and AB
  • risks within the household including objects left in AB’s reach and electric wires being within his reach
  • dirty, smelly and unhygienic home conditions
  • the parents and AB presenting as dirty and with an unpleasant odour
  • father testing positive for cocaine in October 2014 and subsequently failing to fully engage with hair strand testing

 

So it is certainly true that the smoky atmosphere was part of the Local Authority case, but there were other matters – probably the most serious one being the use of drugs.

 

The Guardian piece doesn’t cover this much, but actually the electrical wires were put as a high concern by the Health Visitor

A further risk that Ms Allen documents is the issue of trailing wires which she described as being a strangulations risk, running across the room directly over AB’s toybox. It was put to her in cross-examination that she was perhaps exaggerating in describing this as a strangulation risk but she was very clear on this point. She showed clear frustration and exasperation as to why the parents did not address and rectify this issue, describing that it took them some 8 weeks to remove this risk. She described how they were clearly capable of addressing risks when they were identified as they had dealt with a similar concern in their previous home. She described that all it would have taken to make the wires safe was to buy some inexpensive tacks to secure the wires to the wall.

 

That’s one of those common bugbears. Yes, wires running over  over a child’s toybox have a strangulation risk, but what effort is made to quantify that risk?  Risk isn’t binary – something is either completely safe, or there’s a risk that X could happen which is not worth taking.  Human beings take risks every day. Every time they cross a road, or put food in their mouths, there’s a risk that this activity could lead to serious injury or death. But we weigh up that the risks are very very small, and the consequences of trying to lead a risk free life (by avoiding say, the risk of choking on some food, by not eating, or liquidising all your meals in a blender) are more problematic than taking a slight risk.

I’ve no doubt that seeing electrical wires dangling over a toybox doesn’t feel nice, that you’d feel much more comfortable if it was fixed and it seems a small thing to ask, but when you describe it as a strangulation risk without quantifying that the risk there is very very small, for me, it is over-stated.  For example, if I let a pet python sleep in a baby’s cot, that is a strangulation risk, and one that most people would think was more risky than overhead wires.  You lose sense of risk and risk management if you describe both the wires and the python scenarios as ‘risk of strangulation’

[It is a not unreasonable point to respond by saying ‘it would be very easy and relatively painless to remove that small risk entirely, so why not do it in this case?’ ]

 

A lot of the evidence about home conditions was contested and challenged, so the Judge had to reach conclusions.

 

  1. I find that I prefer the evidence of the health visitor, Julie Allen and the support workers, Emma green and Janine Potts in terms of their observations of the home conditions and I find that the recordings of Laura Gill provide further corroboration of these matters. I find that the home conditions were sometimes extremely dirty, unhygienic, and placed AB at risk of exposure to germs and contracting illness. I further find that he was at risk of sustaining serious injury or possible strangulation through clutter in the home and the failure to deal with unsecured wires. AB himself was exposed to these conditions and his personal care was sometimes inadequate with him being dirty and on occasions smelling of smoke. I find that there were numerous occasion when AB was exposed to excessive levels of smoke in the home that will have had an impact on his health and wellbeing.
  2. I find that his weight plateaued when he returned to the care of his parents and that he dropped by one centile on the growth charts. I find that his diarrhoea and general unwellness is likely to have been impacted on by the lack of cleanliness and unhygienic home conditions. When a child is suffering as AB was and there are simultaneous concerns about his lack of weight gain, the advice of the health visitor to maintain hygienic and clean home conditions should have been prioritised.
  3. As a general observation, I find that the parents do not accept or follow advice if they do not agree with the advice (both parents disputing the strangulation risk identified by Julie Allen and the risk from cigarette smoke identified by several professionals).
  4. I also find that the parents failed to engage fully with the support services that were available and provided for them, in particular the family links programme, the safety workshops, the children’s play sessions and freedom programme for the mother. I am afraid that whilst I accept that these parents had a lot going on, these courses and programmes were important and needed to be prioritised, if the mother was to attend, the father had a responsibility to ensure that she was supported and encouraged by him in attending. Even if he was working long hours, he needed to be staying on top of the housework when he returned if the mother had been unable to attend to it during the day. This plan for AB to be cared for by his parents needed these parents to work together and support each other to ensure that AB’s needs were fully met.
  5. I find that the father struggles in managing his levels of anxiety and that sometimes this can manifest itself in him presenting as aggressive or confrontational, as recorded by the health visitor and the social worker. Whilst I am pleased that the father is now receiving some appropriative assistance with this, it is clear that this is at an early stage of what will be a long therapeutic process. I also find that as a way of managing stress the father has reverted to illicit drug use on at least one occasion and I find that this is an ongoing risk for the future. I find that the communication between the parents was extremely poor with the mother not knowing about the father’s heightened stress levels and the fact that he reports he was reducing his anti anxiety medication (I cannot understand why he would be doing that just after AB had been removed from his care) and the father not knowing that the mother was failing to attend the courses and groups that were expected of her.
  6. When considering the evidence in relation to the care that AB has received and is likely to receive, I have found it helpful to consider in some detail the documents from the care proceedings and in particular the assessments. I also find that is of real significance that the parents, having achieved their aim of a plan for AB to be placed in their care, were then unable to motivate themselves sufficiently to ensure that the home conditions were suitable for him to be placed. The standard that was needed was simply good enough, I would have thought it would not have been too much of a sacrifice for the parents to stop smoking (or at least to stop smoking in the home) and to ensure that the home was clean and tidy. In addition, I accept that the parents delay in seeking the courses that had been recommended and were to some extent part of the plan for AB to be placed in their care, demonstrates a lack of organisational skills and lack of commitment. Following the court approving a plan for AB to be cared for by his parents, I would have expected the parents’ commitment and motivation to be at its very highest.

 

The Judge had to analyse both harm, and whether the parents were able to meet the child’s needs to a ‘good enough’ standard, and if not whether they could be supported to do so.

  1. Has he suffered harm? I am afraid that I find that he has. Those changes in placement will themselves have been harmful and I think it will have been harmful to him that his return to his parents care was delayed by 4 months, a significant contributory factor to that delay was the parents’ lack of action and motivation. In addition he has been placed at real risk of injury to his health and wellbeing by his exposure to hazards in the home, lack of appropriate supervision and unsuitable and dirty living conditions. The impact on a child’s self esteem as they get older of being dirty and smelly should not be underestimated. They can be isolated from their peers and struggle to form friendships.
  2. The father still has some issues with managing his moods and with a risk of reverting to illicit drug use when he is under stress. The mother on her own, without significant support from the father cannot consistently meet AB’s needs. Dr Parsons found that and there is no evidence that this has changed since his assessment. Therefore the father’s difficulties are all the more significant. He has not been able to compensate for the mother’s own limitations and indeed some of the recent issues in relation to his mental health and anger issues and drug use actually heighten the risks. I do not accept that the issue is as simple as him now being available as he in no longer working.
  3. Are the parents capable of meeting his needs? Yes they are. At times it is clear that they are able to recognise and prioritise his needs. They have shown that they can maintain a clean and suitable home; they can show commitment to AB by attendance at contact and consistent care within contact. However, I must consider the evidence in relation to their actual care of AB when he was living with them and was due to be living with them. Sadly, I find that this fell well below the level that I would say is good enough. I really don’t know why this was.
  4. The parents are entitled to support in their parenting. Having considered the evidence of all parties I consider that the level of support offered to the parents was extremely high (indeed the mother reported the support worker visiting “every day”). Not all of the support that was available was taken up. Given the significant concerns that then arose, it is apparent that support from the LA or other services unable to redress the parents’ difficulties in meeting AB’s needs. It is hard to see what other or further services could have been offered. The level of support offered through Janine Potts visiting all day and every day is simply unsustainable in the longer term and ceases to be “support” and instead becomes substituted parenting.
  5. I think that the mother is right when she recognises that some of the problems that the couple experienced were due to immaturity. This couple needs to be able to care for themselves and maintain an appropriate home, manage their finances and address the issues in their relationship in respect of communication and The father needs to be much further on with this therapeutic work before they would be in a position to take on the care of a dependant child. In my view they still have some way to go with this.
  6. I am afraid that all of these matters lead me to an unavoidable and difficult conclusion that the risks to AB in being placed once again with his parents are far too high. The parents have given me no confidence in their written or oral evidence that they have sufficient understanding and awareness in relation to the processionals concerns to ensure that such concerns would not arise again in the future. Adoption really is the only option now available to AB, in my view, nothing else will do. I therefore refuse the parents application for discharge of the care order and make a placement order authorities n the LA to place AB for adoption.
  7. I want AB to know that in my judgement his parents loved him very much and tried very hard but due to their own difficulties and difficult backgrounds, they were simply not able to meet his needs.

 

 

This is a difficult one – it isn’t the most overwhelming case for adoption that I’ve seen, but the Judge does do what the Court of Appeal have commanded – to grapple with the issues and weigh up both sides of the argument, and the Judge makes conclusions. I don’t think that it is a judgment that is vulnerable to appeal (which is not to say that the Court of Appeal might view that differently if asked) but there are no obvious flaws in the decision making.

If the case had been solely on the basis of the smoking and smokey atmosphere, then I don’t think it would have had this result, and if it had, it would have been successfully appealed.  As part of the large number of issues, its evidential importance becomes less significant.

 

I think that there’s an argument or debate about whether too much emphasis appears in the judgment on the smoking, but looking at the analytical portion of the judgment (as opposed to the passages where the Judge is quoting what the witnesses said), I don’t think that the Judge puts particular emphasis on the smoking – it is mentioned, but not disproportionately so.

Does this bit of the findings go too far?

I find that there were numerous occasion when AB was exposed to excessive levels of smoke in the home that will have had an impact on his health and wellbeing.

 

He probably was exposed to excessive levels of smoke on the evidence. It is whether there was evidence that this exposure caused him harm, that might be more problematic. There is the evidence that the child had been prescribed an inhaler to help with his breathing a month earlier, so if the evidence before the Court was that the child had breathing difficulties, which would be causing him harm or discomfort, there could be a caustive link that the cigarette smoke, if excessive, was impacting adversely on his well being.  (In light of the President’s comments on Re A, I think that if there is to be a finding that the parents smoking caused him significant harm, the link needs to be very explicit)

Nor do I think that the report in the Guardian was misleading or distorted – its a very good summary of the case and certainly when you read the judgment, it is possible to see it being largely about smoking, too much so on first reading.  It was only when I read the analytical sections with close inspection that the case became more balanced than first appeared.

 

It is also worth noting that the Judge was critical of the Local Authority – when this case was first listed for final hearing,  it was only really in the mother’s evidence, that it became apparent that there were pfoessionals who had been frequently visiting the home for whom the Court had no records and no statements.The records were produced the next day. .  The parents wanted time to prepare their case and also wanted these witnesses to be called. In the event, those witnesses turned out to be key witnesses. The adjournment had to be granted. The Judge criticised the Local Authority for not having addressed their mind to the case that they were trying to prove and that these witnesses should have had statements prepared and served much earlier.

It was a shame that the Guardian (and the other advocates) had not grasped the significance that there was valuable evidence in the knowledge of potential witnesses who had not been called.  This case highlights that Guardians now very rarely read the primary evidence – the social work files and records, and are urged by CAFCASS not to do so – on the basis of ‘proportionate working’   (I’d sarcastically comment that where the order sought or contemplated is one that leads to adoption, that it would be proportionate for the independent representative of the child to look at the files, but that would be beneath me)

 

25. I queried whether the Guardian had considered the LA records and seen the significant involvement of these other workers. I was told that the guidance from Cafcass, in line with proportionate working, is that LA files will only be inspected if it is necessary. Sadly, in this case I think it was. I also made it clear to the LA that in my view the Presidents guidance, whilst helpfully sending out a clear message, is not new law. It is always for the LA to prove its case and it must do so on the best evidence available. It is unfortunate that no-one within the LA took a step back to assess what case it was trying to prove and what evidence there was to support such a case and then what witnesses could give that evidence. For example, a large plank of the LA case is that the home conditions were frequently dirty and cluttered and that the home was very smoky and smelly. Ms Tomblin had only visited on one occasion prior to AB’s removal and what she observed on that date whilst raising some issues, was not the picture that had been recorded by others of a home situation that was unsafe and unsuitable. Thought should have been given to what evidence she would actually be able to assist the court with and whether there were others who were able to give more direct evidence of the matters that the LA was seeking to prove.

  1. This became even more stark when I was told at the resumed hearing of this matter that the LA had actually obtained a statement from Emma Green who was heavily involved with the family at the relevant time and who’s evidence was highly relevant, but for some inexplicable reason this had not formed part of the bundle, nor had it been served on the other parties.
  2. I reminded all of the representatives, that I saw a collective responsibility between them to consider the evidence that it was proposed the court would be asked to consider and whether further evidence was needed, whether to support a party’s case or to enable an effective challenge and to alert the Judge to the fact that there may be evidential difficulties. Applications can be made on short notice and consideration could have been given to whether further witness evidence was necessary. It is disappointing that the parties have held a number of advocates meeting and as I have already said, the case has been listed for final hearing previously, yet these matters have never been raised. Nevertheless, the parents’ right to a fair trial undoubtedly required them to have the opportunity to see direct evidence and to have the ability to challenge such evidence. Inevitably therefore a further adjournment was necessary. I was also concerned that there should be no abuse of process and that the matter needed to be heard as soon as possible and therefore directed that the final hearing would be adjourned to commence afresh. I directed that the LA file evidence from those professionals who had been involved with the family during the rehabilitation period, specifically the Family Support workers and the Health Visitor. These documents have now been filed and all parties have had the chance to consider and respond to them. The parents have filed a further statement in which they perhaps go a little further in acknowledging some of the concerns.