Shortly before Christmas reports began to emerge of a young mother who had disappeared with her little boy, and of the High Court Judge who gave permission for the family to be publicly named and photos shown in order to help locate them. At the time we weren’t sure quite what to make of it, but there is now a little more information publicly available. What follows is far from the complete picture.

However, here’s what we know.

Olly Sheridan is 3. His father is Patrick Sheridan. His mother is Ellie Yarrow-Sanders. Olly’s parents have been involved in a dispute about where Olly should live, and in the summer of 2018 Ellie took Olly and ran away with him. She has not been seen since. In December, a high court Judge made Olly a ward of court and lifted the usual prohibition on publishing the name or photo of a child who is the subject of a court case, in order to try and locate him. Reports say that Olly’s mum has not used her bank cards since she fled.

There is no published judgment, either of the hearing on 19 December 2018 when the judge gave permission for the press to report, or of any prior hearing (or at any rate there is no published judgment that we can identify as being connected).

Information from the mother (in the form of a letter written to her family and the police explaining why she has abducted Olly) suggests that Mr Sheridan was abusive during the course of their relationship (on her account she seems to describe controlling behaviour, psychologically and sexually demanding behaviour but not physical violence), and that he was manipulating the court process in order to take Olly away from her. She also reports that Olly had been reluctant to go to contact and said his dad hit him. What we don’t know is whether any or all of those allegations are true – or whether the Family Court has yet heard any evidence and decided if it accepts those allegations. In fact, we don’t actually know whether or not Mr Sheridan would accept any of those allegations or if they have been the subject of any formal complaint either to the police or the Family Court. We do know from press reports that when she ran away the mother was about to give evidence at a ‘critical’ Family Court hearing. It is possible that this hearing was to be a ‘fact finding hearing’ where the Family Court was going to listen to what each parent had to say about the abuse allegations. That would be a very important hearing, which would set the trajectory for subsequent decisions about Olly – it is possible that Ellie was advised or worried that the Family Court wouldn’t believe her so decided to take matters into her own hands. Alternatively, it is possible the court had already decided the allegations (perhaps not accepting all of them), and was about to hold a further hearing to decide what to do next in light of those findings. If Olly’s mum’s allegations had been found to have been fabricated (rather than just not proved), that might indeed have been a ‘critical’ hearing, because the court would probably having been beginning to consider how to protect Olly from false allegations and emotional abuse.

We know from the mother’s letter that she was worried about accusations of emotional abuse and in particular about a (Cafcass) guardian being appointed for Olly, which she seemed to connect with Olly being removed into foster care – but it is not at all clear from the letter whether this was really on the horizon or if Olly’s mum was jumping the gun. A guardian often is appointed where a dispute is intractable, where there is high conflict or where there is a worry that allegations of domestic abuse may have been fabricated or exaggerated and that the parental hostility driving such allegations may be emotionally abusive. They are also automatically appointed where social services start care proceedings (A precursor to removing a child). But appointment of a guardian is not necessarily an indicator a child will be removed into foster care. What we don’t know is whether in this case a removal of Olly into foster care was really on the horizon, whether Olly’s mum has misunderstood advice received or panicked unduly.

We also know that Mr Sheridan’s position is that Olly’s mum suffers from some mental health issues. Whilst Olly’s mum refers in her own letter to being prescribed anti-depressants as a result of abuse and the consequent anxiety it is not clear what the nature and extent of any mental health difficulties are, whether they are current or even relevant.

It is absolutely clear that Olly’s parents have radically different perspectives on their relationship and what is in Olly’s best interests (a further marker of this is in the fact that Olly is given the surname Sheridan in the press release published by his father’s solicitors, most likely his registered name, whilst the maternal family Facebook pages refer to him as Yarrow). We don’t know how far into unpicking the conflict and dispute the Family Court had got before Olly disappeared. We don’t know whether Olly’s mum had been disbelieved by the court, had felt unable to go through with a fact finding hearing or whether she had for some reason not raised her allegations in the Family Court context. Due to the limited information available it is really impossible to form any view as to the rights and wrongs of this case, but it will certainly be more difficult for Olly’s mum to prove any allegations and persuade a court that Olly needs protecting from his dad whilst she is away with him.

The information above is taken from publicly available information. At this time this is mostly press reports, the letter from Olly’s mother on Facebook and the press release from Mr Sheridan’s solicitors.

On 3 January The Daily Mail ran a piece : ‘My boy needs his parents not a life on the run’: Father makes emotional plea to ex-partner who’s been missing with their son, three, for SIX MONTHS.

On 4 January The Sun ran : ‘WHY I VANISHED’ Missing mum who disappeared with son, 3, before family court hearing ‘says she “had no choice” in emotional letter to family’, and incorporate a photo of the handwritten letter from Ellie Yarrow-Sanders.

On the same day The Mirror ran : Mum missing with son, 3, has ‘gone to ground’ and not used bank cards or mobile in 6 months.

There are lots of other items in similar terms, some dating from around 19 December, some from January. All the news reports we’ve seen contain very similar information. The press release from which much information is taken can be read in full here.

We think it’s also important to note some other information :

Firstly, Ellie’s sister’s boyfriend has been running a crowdfunding page for ‘justice for Ellie and Olly’. The crowdfunding page says it is for legal fees for maternal family members who are ‘on trial at the hands of the High Court’ because ‘the High Court believes they are involved and are hiding information’. If there are committal proceedings underway for failing to comply with an order of the High Court we anticipate that there will be published judgments in due course – any such hearings should be held in public. An update suggests that there were five lawyers in court at one of these hearings (not including the maternal family members under suspicion) – it is difficult to work out who the five might have been representing – probably the parents, child, social services and police.

Secondly, a petition on now calls for Ellie’s story to be made public so that it can be explained why she has run. The petition appears to be connected to the Women’s Coalition who were involved in the Rebecca Minnock case. They describe this case with the headline : ‘Judge launches manhunt for protective mother’, saying that the judge is using mainstream media to ‘spread lies about [the mother’ and that the media are ‘covering only [the judge’s] lies and distortions, while completely omitting Ellie’s side of the story’. The Women’s Coalition, drawing explicit parallels with the Minnock and Samantha Baldwin cases, say they are ‘launching a counterattack to this public lynching of a wonderful mother’. It’s unclear what judicial ‘lies’ they are railing against, since the information that has been published is very basic and does not really tell us anything about what has been going on above and beyond the actual circumstances of their disappearance.

Whilst this may yet be shown to be an example of the Family Court failing to protect a vulnerable mother and child from an abusive father, it would be wholly wrong to jump to any conclusions without knowing what has gone on behind closed doors. It would indeed be helpful for Mr Justice David Williams to publish his judgment or some information about the proceedings, in order to quell the mistrust that grows out of the absence of factual information from the court every time one of these missing mums cases hits the headlines.

However, the reality on the ground may be far more complex. The High Court’s first priority will be to do whatever is necessary to locate and get Olly back home safely. It may be that publishing details of what has happened to date in the Family Court case would make that most important task more risky. We hope that in due course, when it can be safely and appropriately done without compromising Olly’s welfare, some better information is provided for those worried at how the Family Courts treat mothers, fathers and those who complain or or are accused of domestic abuse.

We hope to update this post when further information becomes available. We’ve been cautious about what we have linked to in this post because we are unsure whether any reporting restrictions apply and if so what their terms are. Some news items refer to the lifting of a ‘gagging order’ or ‘anonymity ruling’. This might just be an order under s97(4) Children Act 1989 permitting naming and sharing of photos, or it might be that there was a specific order restricting publication of information – which might have been only partially lifted.

If we are able to attend and report from future hearings we will.

UPDATE : It’s been pointed out we had misspelt Olly as Ollie throughout this post, which we’ve now corrected (the writer has an Ollie in her family).

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