Last week we reported on a couple who tried and failed to win back care of their two year old.
In Re AB, the boy had been taken into foster care immediately after his birth because the parents had failed to properly look any of their previous three children, thanks to a toxic combination of neglect and domestic violence.
Despite these concerns, the new baby, referred to in the judgement as ‘AB’, was placed back with the parents under local authority supervision for a period last year. But this arrangement didn’t last long. Within months the toddler was removed again amidst concerns about the couple’s poor behaviour and the unsafe and unhygienic conditions in their home.
During visits social workers found “potential drug paraphernalia”, dangling electrical wires, and conditions described as at times “extremely dirty”, placing the baby “at risk of exposure to germs and contracting illness”.
Unsurprisingly, the authority concluded that the situation was unsalvageable and applied to have AB placed for adoption. The parents objected but at the subsequent hearing Her Honour Judge Pemberton came to the unsurprising conclusion that adoption was the only viable option for AB.
So far so straightforward. A sad story and a sensible decision by the judge.
A little unexpectedly, the story suddenly the caught the attention of the national media yesterday– the Mail, the Guardian, ITV News, the Telegraph, the Express, and the Independent all ran with the story one after the other, and pretty much every one of took the same angle: the child had been removed because the parents smoked, more or less.
It is quite true that the judgment contains a vivid and rather appalling description of smoky conditions in the parents’ home which had been provided the family’s health visitor, Julie Allen. Arriving on one occasion, she was taken aback, she reported, by the amount of cigarette smoke she encountered.
“On entering the living room Ms Allen described being able to see a visible cloud of smoke surrounding the father and AB. AB 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 AB who had already been prescribed an inhaler within the previous month to help his breathing.”
Despite this, “the parents seemed unable both at that stage and when the issue of smoking around AB was raised by any other professional, to acknowledge or appreciate the concern and adapt their behaviour.”
Not a happy picture. Passive smoking is known to damage the health of those who come into regular contact with smokers and clearly a sickly baby will be even more vulnerable to such dangers.
Smoking heavily in the vicinity of your child shows a remarkable lack of awareness and one that is seems entirely in keeping with the parents’ history of neglect. But education and supervision might – just – have addressed this issue and allowed AB to remain part of his birth family as he grows up. Adoption, which severs this most fundamental of links, is a grave matter, and one that family court judges may only order as a matter of last resort.
But the father’s cigarette habit was only piece of the jigsaw in this particular case, and that is very clear from the judgement as a whole. The evidence that the parents could not be trusted to be responsible and protect their son’s welfare was simply overwhelming The journalists who wrote up yesterday’s stories decided that ‘baby to be adopted due to cigarette smoke’ made a great headline – but it was a misleading and simplistic one.