The family had been through a truly horrendous situation. To explain briefly, their baby son Reilly had woken up in his cot with a nasty bruise on his face. The parents immediately took him to the GP and then to the hospital. A consultant at the hospital was concerned by the bruise, fearing Shaken Baby Syndrome, and so admitted Reilly and also alerted social services. The nightmare had begun and an Emergency Protection Order was obtained by the Local Authority. Reilly was then made the subject of an Interim Care Order and only at the fourth and final hearing did the judge decide that the necessary threshold to make a final care order had not been crossed, and Reilly was returned to his parents. In the meantime he had been living with his grandparents and visited daily by his parents.
Seeing and playing with little Reilly before the show took me back to when my own son was that age. What on earth would I have done had the nightmare happened to me? I hope I would have done what Reilly’s parents did (more on this later) – but who knows?
The numbers of care cases are rising. Last year there were 30,000 cases
before the courts, involving 156,000 children. There were far more cases in deprived inner city areas than wealthier rural areas. The Nevins live in Swansea. All accusations have to be fully investigated and the procedures take their course and, of course, the time of the court. There are significant pressures on everyone connected with a care application and the courts too.
The complex procedure designed to sift through and elicit the facts worked correctly for this case, as I will explain, but it clearly took far too long to be resolved. This cannot be good for the child or the parents. Mr Justice Ryder’s modernisation programme for the courts aims for care cases to be resolved within 26 weeks instead of the current average of 51 weeks.
The local authority has a duty to investigate a child’s circumstances and if it decides to apply for an interim care order, it must demonstrate that it reasonably believes that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm if the child remains with its parents. It does not at that stage have to prove the case. That is for the final hearing.
Once the process gets underway, however, it tends to feel like a runaway train that is very difficult to stop. That is how Mr Nevin told me he felt. A case will go through at least four court hearings: a first appointment, a case management conference, an issues resolution hearing and the final hearing.
This is all designed to ensure that the court keeps tight control and regularly reviews the process, which will involve the parents and their solicitors, the child and his/her Guardian (who will be a member of Cafcass) and the solicitor representing the child, along with the local authority and their solicitors.
The interim care order must be kept under constant review, and the child’s welfare must be paramount at all times. That is why the local authority must place a child in interim care, if at all possible, with a family member or close friend. Only if there is no one suitable will a child be placed elsewhere. Similarly arrangements must be made for contact between the parents and child, if this is considered to be in the best interests of the child. Sometimes it isn’t. At least the Nevins saw Reilly every day, even if they missed being there for his first steps.
The judge in their case saw that the threshold had not been crossed. A medical expert may not always be correct, or may simply act on an abundance of caution. Understandably no one wants a Baby P scenario on their watch.
The Nevins acted impeccably, fully cooperating with the process despite their ordeal. They instructed good solicitors (who are free of charge) from the Law Society children panel and did what they were asked to do, and showed not a trace of bitterness. They understood the need to investigate the doctor’s concerns, even if they were wholly unfounded.
However, not every parent understands that they need to cooperate, act calmly, sensibly and consider what is truly in the best interest of the child. The Nevin case is unusual. Most care cases involve long periods of alcohol or drug-fuelled abuse, neglect, emotional inability to care for a child and/or violence in the home. Sometimes the parents will be in an unhealthy relationship with each other that is profoundly affecting a child. They will be deaf to suggestions that the relationship should end for the good of the child and will cling to an abusive partner then complain when the child is removed (See for example Re C2011 EWCA civ 918).
The court must balance the right to a family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights with the welfare of the child. The fact that a mother refuses to do anything at all about an abusive relationship which impacts on the child is not a breach of her human rights (See YC v UK 2012 2 FLR 332).
So what should you do if it happens to you?
Arrange for a safe place for the child to live in the meantime. Don’t panic, shout, swear or abuse social services. Read as much as you can. Visit, for example, the Cafcass website, Direct Gov, the Public Law Outline. Get a good solicitor and take the advice you are given. Keep on top of your case. Ask to see a barrister. Satisfy yourself that everything that can be done is being done, as quickly as possible. Arrange for suitable contact between yourself and your child in conjunction with your solicitor and barrister. Try and be patient. Expect the case to last up to 12-months. It may be dealt with faster.
Ask yourself above all, what you need to put right to help your child. Cooperate – there is no time for emotional outbursts or anger at what you see as high handed attitudes by social workers, even if you are absolutely right and they are making mistakes.
Above all, don’t ever lose control in court and yell at the judge. It will very much go against you. Always bite your lip. Do exactly what you are asked to do. Make hard choices. Get out of a bad relationship. You can do it.
You don’t need me to remind you that care is not a good place for a child to be. But sadly, there are many desperately unhappy children in care because their parents put themselves before their children. Sometimes children are even adopted away, but even then the adoption may still fail (as the recent case of Re K (A Child: Post Adoption Placement Breakdown) illustrates). The damage has been done long before a care order has been made.
Please, don’t be one of those parents.