The Court of Appeal has upheld a ruling that a mother deliberately tried to drown her baby in mysterious circumstances.
In the Matter of A-S (Children) concerned a boy referred to as ‘L’ in the judgement, who was just seven months old at the time of the disputed events. In August 2013, the mother made a 999 call. She appeared to be in distress and claimed that her baby had “fallen in the water”. She then put down the phone but left the line open for approximately 15 minutes until a paramedic arrived, during which time various noises and sounds were heard. The call was recorded.
When the paramedic arrived at the woman’s home, the mother was waiting in her garden, holding L over her shoulder. She was unexpectedly calm but when the paramedic examined the baby, it was immediately clear that he was “clinically very unwell”. His eyes were rolled back, he was wet, unresponsive and not breathing, but the paramedic did detect a faint pulse. Following ventilation and first aid, the baby began to breathe again wheezily.
The mother said she had left the boy in the bath for a few minutes and he had slipped under the water. She asked whether her son would be okay but when told that he was still “very poorly”, became “instantly hysterical”, attempting to grab L off the sofa where the medic was treating him. She then began to pace around the room.
L, now “struggling to breathe on his own”, was taken to hospital.
At a subsequent Family Court hearing, held in the midst of care proceedings relating to L and his siblings, His Honour Judge Marston concluded that the mother had been responsible for the near drowning.
This conclusion was based on a careful analysis of the recording made of the mother’s 999 call. It was examined by two paediatric doctors and a representative of the Wales Institute of Forensic Medicine at Cardiff University.
The recording, described by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, as “extraordinarily compelling”, presented a collage of different sounds. In addition to the mother talking, screaming and even “roaring”, L clearly be heard. However, for most of the recording he makes normal baby vocalisations and sounds not at all consistent with a child who had nearly drowned just moments before.
It was only after more than eight minutes had elapsed that sounds suggestive of respiratory distress can be heard. The doctors identified a period of 47 seconds around this point in the recording when it was likely that the mother had attempted to drown L.
Judge Marston accepted this evidence, noting inconsistencies and contradictions in the mother’s evidence.
“In cross-examination the details of the events in the house after the drowning were continually made vague by [the mother]. Her account in the interview was continually contradicted by her account in the witness box. Did she turn off the stove or did she just take the pan off? What happened to the burned food? Where did she administer CPR?”
“The Mother’s evidence is shot through with so many lies and so much vagueness that I am forced to conclude she is trying to hide something. The only thing that she can possibly be attempting to hide is that there was no incident of drowning in the bath and that she is responsible for attempting to drown the child after 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the phone call for about 47 seconds. Most likely this was under the tap in the conservatory. I cannot speculate on why she made the call in the first place or why she did what she did.”
The mother launched an appeal. Her counsel argued that the Judge had not properly considered why “a mother who had no psychiatric history and no psychological problems should have made such a call if no accident had taken place before the call was made, and failing to consider what he says was the evident urgency and distress and palpable sense of panic and confusion in the mother’s voice.”
But Sir James was unconvinced, saying that Judge Marston had been entitled to reach the conclusions he had done. Listening to the recording led “inexorably” to the “unassailable” conclusion that the Judge had reached, the President declared.
The ruling is available here.