Mother did not fail to protect her children

Children|February 19th 2019

I don’t normally comment here in detail on public law cases, but as the events that happened to the mother in the recent case L-W Children could happen to pretty well any parent, I thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog.

The case primarily concerned the mother, her four year old daughter (‘L’) and the mother’s new partner (‘GL’), who was not L’s father but had fathered twins with the mother. The mother, GL, and the three children appeared to be a perfectly ‘normal’ family. As Lady Justice King remarked:

“Prior to the events which took place in January 2018, there had not been, and there was no reason to believe that there should be, any involvement by social care in the domestic lives of either the mother or GL.”

It was true, she said, that GL was known to have a quick temper, but there was no suggestion that there had been violence at any time within the household. It was also true that L, as is not unusual for children of her age, was known to tell lies about various matters.

So what happened in January 2018? Well, it was the nightmare scenario for the mother.

On Friday the 12th of January and Saturday the 13th, L stayed overnight with her father, returning on Sunday the 14th. The mother went to work on the Sunday afternoon, leaving the three children in the care of GL. So far as the mother was aware, L went to bed in the usual way between 6-6.30pm, as did the twins.

The mother returned from work at 10.15pm. She went upstairs to kiss L goodnight, and noticed a lump on her forehead. L told her that this had happened when she had fallen on her doll’s house whilst visiting her father. As the only light in the bedroom was a nightlight, the mother did not notice any other bruising to L’s head or face at that time.

The following morning the mother saw that the lump on L’s head was significantly bigger, and that she had bruising to the left-side of her face and her ear. When asked how she had come by the bruises, L said that her father’s partner had caused them. The mother checked L’s whole body and discovered a number of fresh bruises.

The mother then phoned the GP in order for L to be checked out, and also called the health visitor. In addition she contacted GL, who was at work, and L’s father, asking what had happened to L whilst she was in his care. GL returned home. The mother did not ask him what had happened to L, as she was afraid that this would have “caused a big row”.

GL told the mother not to go to the GP, but the mother ignored him. A child protection referral was made and at the subsequent child protection medical, a number of very concerning bruises, particularly around L’s left ear, were seen. The bruises were highly indicative of non-accidental inflicted injuries.

Care proceedings were commenced in April, and at a hearing in September the judge found that GL had inflicted the bruising to L, and that the mother had failed to protect L from physical abuse at the hands of GL, and also her other two children from the risk of physical abuse at the hands of GL. The mother appealed against that finding, to the Court of Appeal.

Giving the leading judgment of the Court of Appeal Lady Justice King found that there was no evidence which could properly lead to a finding that the mother failed to protect her children. She knew that GL had a short temper, and had been involved in violent incidents with two adult males, but this did not mean that she should have known that he presented a risk of physical abuse to L or the twins, and that therefore she should not have left the children in his care. She had failed to ask GL what had happened whilst she was at work, but GL’s “unattractive personality traits and/or the controlling personality of GL did not prevent the mother from acting quickly and appropriately when her child was injured, and she maintained her independence sufficiently wholly to ignore GL’s suggestion that L should not be taken to see a doctor.”

The appeal was therefore allowed, and the finding against the mother deleted.

As I indicated at the beginning of this post, it is easy to imagine this kind of scenario happening in many families. After all, who really knows what their partner is capable of? This mother, however, could not have been expected to know, and when she found out what had happened to her child she did pretty well all of the right things. To say that she had failed to protect her children would be harsh in the extreme.

You can read the full judgment here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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