It is, of course, usual that cases concerning children are conducted in private. However, there are occasions when it is considered appropriate for the veil of privacy to be lifted.
West Sussex County Council v Alma was one such case. It was a very sad little case, dealt with by Mr Justice Hayden in the High Court.
The case concerned a little girl, believed to have been born in September 2014. She came to the attention of the authorities on 14 March 2016 when West Sussex County Council received a referral from a charitable organisation concerning a woman who had contacted them via a telephone helpline. The woman reported that she was caring for a little girl and that the child’s mother had died. She said that the little girl had chicken pox but had not been seen by a GP. She also asserted that she required financial assistance.
Neither the report of Mr Justice Hayden’s judgment nor the media reports to which I will refer below give much detail of the circumstances surrounding what happened next. There are probably good reasons for this, a clue being that Mr Justice Hayden’s judgment begins by telling us that the “preponderant evidence” indicates that the girl has been the subject of child trafficking.
Whatever, the child was taken into the care of the Local Authority, in circumstances where there was very little evidence as to her origins. She did not even have a name, and was therefore given one: ‘Jade’. The identities of her parents were unknown and the only scraps of evidence were two possible surnames, and possible connections to Crawley or Tooting.
The Local Authority issued care proceedings and sought permission from the court to disclose information about the case into the public domain, in an effort find out more information about Jade and, in particular, to trace her parents. Permission was given and a national campaign was launched. The campaign was picked up by various media outlets, including the BBC, ITV, the Daily Mail and local newspapers.
Sadly, the campaign only had one response, and that was a line of enquiry that had already been investigated by the Police.
Obviously, the court was concerned that proper arrangements for Jade’s welfare should be made as quickly as possible, and therefore the efforts to trace her parents could not continue indefinitely. Accordingly, the court requested that the Local Authority make an application for a placement order, placing Jade with an adoptive family.
The matter went before Mr Justice Hayden on 28 July. The primary issue for him to determine was that of parental consent. An adoption cannot proceed unless either every parent having parental responsibility for the child consents to the adoption, or the court dispenses with that consent. The court may only dispense with consent if the parent or guardian cannot be found or is incapable of giving consent, or if the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with.
Obviously, here the court had to be satisfied that the parents could not be found. The question was: had all reasonable steps been taken to find the parents? Mr Justice Hayden found that they had:
“…this Local Authority has, to my mind, taken every conceivable measure to achieve the identification of the parents. Not only has it taken ‘reasonable steps’ it has gone well beyond that and explored creative and well considered options. Enquiries were made of Coroners, Registrars of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Civil Partnerships, the Office of the Registrar General for England and Wales has been consulted; the various social services departments where there were thought to be possible connections; hospitals and, of course, the Police.”
Accordingly, the consent of the parents could be dispensed with – Mr Justice Hayden was satisfied that there was no reasonable prospect of identifying them. He was also satisfied that it was in Jade’s best interests for her to be placed with an adoptive family.
The full report of West Sussex County Council v Alma can be read here.