The Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of a mother who claimed the decision to adopt her eighth child had been wrong.
In Re NL, the mother had endured a “sad, unhappy childhood” and spent some of her teenage years in care. At the age of 15 she began a relationship with an older man who became the father of her four oldest children. The relationship was marred by domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Eventually residence of the four children was given to the father.
Later the woman began a relationship with another man and had three further children. She continued to use heroin and crack cocaine and drink to excess. The new father also used drugs. When the third child with the second man was born showing drug withdrawal symptoms, the local authority intervened and was issued an emergency protection order. The child was placed with foster parents who were later approved as adopters. The child’s two older siblings meanwhile, again lived with the father.
The mother is in regular contact with the father, and with the children by telephone and letter.
She then had a brief relationship with a third man and became pregnant for the eighth time. She admitted to again using drugs and completed a detoxification programme. When the new child, ‘NL’, was born, he showed no signs of drug withdrawal and the mother’s care while they were in hospital caused no concerns.
Nevertheless, the local authority launched proceedings, seeking to have NL taken into care on the basis of the mother’s history. They were concerned that she would not be able to provide “emotional safety” for the baby or stay off drugs. A clinical psychologist suggested that she would need to demonstrate significant change before being ready for parenthood.
NL was placed with foster carers under an interim (temporary) care order and the mother appealed.
At the Family Division Mrs Justice Pauffley declared that:
“…there were process failures in this case which significantly interfered with the most basic requirements for openness and transparency. There was, apparently, an established but largely clandestine arrangement between the local authority and the court which, to my mind, has considerable repercussions for justice and, equally importantly, the perception that justice will be done.”
The judge also criticised the role of the psychologist.
“I am gravely troubled by the speed, the manner and the ambit of [the psychologist’s] involvement. It simply cannot be right, fair or reasonable to commission an expert to provide what may turn out to be the pivotal evidence justifying separation of a neonate from his mother in the way that happened here.”
“It surprises and alarms me that [the psychologist] was asked, and was prepared, to provide a report during the course of a single working day, a terrifyingly tight timeframe, and on the basis of papers supplemented by a telephone conversation with a local authority professional who had never met the mother. I struggle to understand how [the psychologist’s] apparently firm opinions, adverse to the mother, could have been formed given the complete absence of any kind of discussion with her…”
The mother had been unfairly treated and the evidence used to take NL into care had been flawed.
“I am in no doubt, having conducted my own welfare analysis, that NL should be reunited with his mother forthwith….He is an infant, still only 3 months old. There is no way of knowing how these proceedings will play out or whether, ultimately, the mother will succeed in sustaining progress in remaining abstinent from drugs and alcohol….The early signs are that the mother has every ability to respond to NL’s cues; there was good emotional interaction. The quality of contact has been either good or excellent.”