I got up very very early this morning to travel down to the ITV studios on London’s South Bank for an appearance on the Good Morning Britain sofa, with presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway.
The topic under discussion was the shocking case of Karrissa Cox and her boyfriend Richard Carter. In an understandably controversial case, this couple’s baby had been taken into care and adopted against their wishes because they were suspected of cruelty towards the infant. Doctors found bruising and bone fractures, only for it to later emerge that the baby in fact had the bone disorder rickets, and bruised more easily than other babies due to a blood condition.
But tragically for this young couple, by the time they were acquitted of cruelty in a criminal trial, their baby had already been adopted. This may seem extraordinary – incomprehensible even, and of course I do not know the full facts of the case. But I would imagine that the family courts and judges who oversaw the adoption genuinely believed there was no reason to doubt the medical evidence then available.
The family courts must be satisfied that ‘nothing else will do’ when they order something as drastic as adoption and presumably they were in this case.
Great emphasis is placed these days on speedy resolution of care, adoption and fostering cases in the family courts. Delay is not seen as in the best interests of the child. Good intentions lie behind this pressure to move quickly.
Social workers and medical staff are also under enormous pressure to pick up on and respond to any indications of abuse. No one wants another Baby P.
Equally, I imagine, situations like the one facing this young couple were not foreseen. It’s an awful set of circumstances and it is hard to see a way forward for them. By its very nature adoption is intended to be final, a mark of permanence and stability in a needy child’s life. It is rare indeed for adoptions to be overturned.
As I told the viewers this morning, there is no question that this was a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. What lay behind it? There was the initial misdiagnosis of course, and as we see in the interesting examination of the medical evidence provided by Garden Court Chambers here, one contributory factor to that may have been a failure to consider the possibility of vitamin D deficiency. It’s clear also that there was too much reliance on one medical expert from the outset and an equally obvious reluctance on the part of the prosecution to consider the possibility that their expert might be wrong until no less than three and a half years had passed.
The spectre of legal aid rears its ugly head here too: these unfortunate parents were unable to fight the adoption or consult other medical experts because they were refused funding.
Should the adoption order be set aside? Public policy suggests not. The child’s welfare is paramount. If the baby has been settled with the adoptive parents for several years, the emotional harm inflicted by removing him or her now could be considerable. (We are not allowed to know the child’s gender by court order).
I am reminded of the 2009 case involving a Mr and Mrs Webster. The couple in question lost three children to adoption after they were suspected of deliberately injuring one. When medical exonerated them, the parents applied to have the adoption orders set aside and their children returned to them. They were unsuccessful. In a Court of Appeal ruling, former President of the Family Division Lord Justice Wall declared:
“…however heartbreaking it may be for Mr and Mrs Webster, those orders must stand.”
An unhappy precedent. Lord Justice Wilson – now Lord Wilson of the Supreme Court – added this telling observation to the judgement:
“I have spent a professional life-time working in our family justice system. With reservations, I remain reasonably content with the way in which it usually operates and I am proud to have a role in it. This application, however, makes me profoundly uncomfortable.”