Inexperienced and pressured young parents injured their newborn baby, a Family Court Judge has concluded.
In Lancashire County Council v AB, the parents of the baby took him to hospital in November last year, saying they were worried about his arm. At the time he was just a few months old. X-rays revealed two bone fractures – one relatively recent, one older.
Social workers suspected the parents of causing the injuries and took their son straight into foster care. Not long afterwards he was sent to live with members of his mother’s family. This new placement went well and so the local authority applied to the family courts for it be made long term under a special guardianship order. This is a form of foster care in which a vulnerable child lives with family members but maintains legal links to their parents.
Meanwhile, the parents continued to insist on their innocence and applied for the return of their baby.
In the Family Court at Leyland in Lancashire, His Honour Judge Duggan noted:
“The burden of proof rests with the Local Authority. There is no obligation on the carers to prove anything. The Local Authority must prove the allegations [against the parents] on the balance of probabilities.”
“In that the court will not proceed on the basis of suspicion or speculation, the findings of the court must be based on evidence.”
In a concise ruling, Judge Duggan went on to explain that the evidence presented by the parents was “of the utmost importance” and that he had carefully considered their credibility and reliability during the trial.
They were assessed and found to have good parenting abilities.
“If there had been no injuries, the social worker expresses the view that the parents could meet the needs of the child without great difficulty.”
Their behaviour during visits also attracted praise.
The father had a serious back injury and was unable to work. The resulting pain affected his ability to look after the baby and meant the mother had greater responsibilities.
He also smoked cannabis, explaining that this was partly social and partly for pain relief. This habit was the source of some tension in the relationship as the mother did not approve.
Judge Duggan said both parents had a temper, explaining that the father’s own mother had borne the brunt of occasional outbursts. The man also had a criminal record.
Meanwhile, the mother struggled with mental health problems, including depression, having suffered a sexual assault and domestic violence in a past relationship. The father did not recognise that his partner had drifted into depression after their son’s birth but social workers did and she was prescribed antidepressants.
The Judge declared:
“These were young, inexperienced parents with a large number of problems of their own. Childcare was very tiring for these parents until they arranged a split duty rota in September in order to divide their duties.”
The day before the fractures were discovered, neither had had much sleep as the mother was ill, making childcare even more difficult.
Both said they had been completely unaware of the fractures before taking their son to hospital.
Judge Duggan recalled the questioning of the parents in court.
“Their cross-examination was not oppressive but they both took objection to answering questions about what had happened. At times the father just flatly declined to answer questions. The mother, on a number of occasions, produced an angry outburst of temper and bad language in the witness box. At times she seemed to believe that she was the victim in this case not the defenceless baby with fractured bones.”
Of the two, the mother cut a less impressive figure, he explained, saying she had been both evasive and defensive during the questioning.
The Judge concluded that the fractured rib had been caused by a “frustrated carer” pressing down on the baby’s chest a little too hard.
“[The parents] were both under pressure. The father had his bad back which was, no doubt, stressful for him in relation to childcare. This undoubtedly increased the burden on the mother. The mother had depression and other illnesses which, undoubtedly, increased the stress of childcare for her but, equally, this must have increased the burden and strain which fell on the father’s shoulders.”
Neither parent had tried to blame the other. Despite this, it was likely that both knew who had inflicted the injury, declared Judge Duggan, but it was not possible to conclude with any degree of certainty which parent was responsible This likely collusion meant they were willing to place “their own relationship as a couple ahead of the importance of protecting their child from the risk of repetition.”
The second injury – the baby’s clavicle – was most likely caused by the father accidentally dropping the baby or allowing him to fall, at a time when the mother was asleep. When she later awoke, however, she delayed seeking medical treatment.
The overall conclusion to be drawn, Judge Duggan continued, is that one of the parents had reacted to the pressures of parenthood by inflicting a “very serious injury”, although it was not possible to say which. This meant the baby would be at risk if returned to their care.
“In these circumstances it is clear that there are overriding interests of welfare which make it impossible for this child to live in the care of these parents. It is both necessary and proportionate for the child to live elsewhere.”
Fortunately, an already successful placement with another family member was available. The Judge therefore granted the special guardianship order.
Read the judgement here.