This is a troubling story about three children subject to care applications by the Vale of Glamorgan Council; the final hearing took place last month and I attended Cardiff Family Court under the Reporting Pilot as a legal blogger.  There are far too many (more than 30) tragic and headline-grabbing child protection cases currently subject to review in Wales but fortunately this one is not in that category. After a rocky start in life, three young children are now being supported in secure placements. There are some positive aspects in the way in which professionals seem to have worked constructively together, with the local authority putting in considerable support to enable the children to live within their extended family, with regular parental and sibling contact. From my perspective of observing only the final week of proceedings that have lasted eight months, things went quite smoothly, but no doubt there had been a great deal of hard work in reaching that stage.

At the heart of this case was whether a nine year old child’s statements about her mother and step-father’s behaviour toward her and her younger siblings were to be believed, in the face of denial by the adults who should have been looking after them.

In this post, I’ll mention a few points about my blogging experience and then summarise the case and add some comments.

Practical legal blogging points

I hadn’t previously found a free day that coincided with a Reporting Pilot case, but when I spotted on Courtserve a 6.5 hour final hearing in a care case before HHJ Mererid Edwards the following day, I emailed the court to notify them I planned to attend under the Pilot. It was only when I got to court, I discovered the hearing was listed for three days.

Since this hearing took place, there’s been a proposal to add a code to the Courtserve list to identify the issues in the case. I would guess this case would have had codes 1, 2 and 4 – alleged neglect and physical and emotional harm. While it might have been useful to know that, it would have been far more useful to know the hearing was listed for longer than 6.5 hours.

Suggestion:  can cases be listed on Courtserve as e.g Day 1 of 3? It was only though luck and rearranging other commitments I observed the entire hearing.

The judge and her clerk had the Transparency Order organised and my attendance was efficiently dealt with as soon as proceedings began at 10 a.m. The judge added two minor restrictions to the standard template. However, it wasn’t clear how I was to get a copy, as the Guidance just says the reporter will be served with the order but all paperwork in the case was in digital form on “the Portal”. I did receive a copy promptly on behalf of the court but there is some confusion with paperless hearings – all being dealt with by a team in Stoke – and how the TO is generated and served.  Also, I’d taken in a printed blank FP 301 form to complete at the court, but no one really wanted it, as there is no physical file. The court holds my details as a legal blogger, but I still need to sign a form for each case.

Suggestion: legal bloggers are better emailing the FP 301 ahead if they can, rather than taking in a printed copy, and will need to check how they are going to see the TO.

I was given printed copies of the local authority case summary, a detailed chronology, and the witness template (that sets out the timetable for the hearing). These were all I needed to follow the case because matters were relatively straightforward. There were no expert reports and the  paediatricians who had undertaken the medical examinations didn’t need to be called. Informally, the judge raised a question with me about security of documents handed or emailed to reporters.  Although she was happy that I would be confidentiality and GDPR aware, she had a concern that there was nothing in the Guidance on how long reporters would keep documents etc.  My view was that all reporters would have ethical codes and data protection procedures, but I could see her point.

Suggestion: when the Guidance is reviewed it would be reassuring to add a paragraph about security of documents.

Not so much an issue for the reporter, but the paperless revolution in Cardiff is not entirely successful because a paper bundle has to be printed for the witnesses to consult.  The judge then also needs a paper bundle so she can see exactly what the witness is reading. The advocates, who all have electronic versions on their laptops, tended to scoot around them at a speed that sometimes a witness had trouble keeping up with.  On three occasions, a lawyer asked a witness about a document that in fact wasn’t present in the paper bundle so the judge had to ask the lawyer to take his laptop over to show them.

Suggestion: access by witnesses to a PC terminal in the court would be a good investment.         

Everyone was relaxed about my being present at court and there were no questions or issues about the Transparency Order. I had a good view of everyone in the room, and joined the hybrid hearings without difficulty.

Summary of the case

Care proceedings had been issued in September 2022, following social services and police investigations when C, aged nine, told her paternal grandmother (PGM) that her mother (M) and her step-father (SF) ‘keep hurting’ her two younger half-siblings. I’ll call the youngest child A and the middle child B.

C had a good relationship with PGM who she visited often and with whom she has remained living ever since this investigation began. All parties were, by the stage of this final hearing, agreed that C would remain permanently with PGM, and C had been told that this was the plan. C will be living with PGM with the support of a care order initially. A and B had been placed temporarily with cousins but the plan was (if the findings of abuse were made) they would be placed with a maternal aunt, also under care orders.  M and SF denied the allegations and argued that A and B should return home to them. If the findings of physical and emotional abuse and neglect set out in the local authority’s threshold statement were not made by the judge, A and B would go back to their parents, under either a Child Protection Plan or a Care and Support Plan.

There had been frequent supervised contact between C, M and SF, and A and B, while the case was going through, and also contact between C and her birth father, F. Complicating factors were that the relationship between F and PGM had been poor since his teens, and the relationship between PGM and the maternal side of the family was difficult because PGM had made a number of child protection referrals about M and SF since C was two years old. M and F had also accused each other of neglecting C over the years.

M had been convicted of assault of C when she was three (although this appears to have followed a report by F, not by PGM).  The Probation Service at that time assessed M as posing a medium risk to her children, C and B, who were both placed on the Child Protection Register in 2016 for about a year. C was living primarily with F for a period. During the Covid lockdown in 2020, M and PGM had both raised serious concerns about breaches of restrictions by F that placed C at risk of infection.

By the time B was of school age, concerns were being raised by the school about his behaviour and lack of attendance. More recently, he had become very disruptive, attacking other children and teachers and had been diagnosed with ADHD. His mother described him in her evidence as ‘wild’.  During the investigation that led to the local authority application for care orders, B disclosed information about physical abuse that supported A’s information. The medical examination showed a number of bruises on all the children that were not definitely ruled in or out as accidental but C and B described to the doctors  the way A and B were hit and thrown around and the lack of food in the house. The local authority listed concerns about poor diet, hygiene and sleeping conditions as part of their threshold document.

The parties’ positions

Briefly, I would summarise these as:

  1. The local authority argued that care orders were required for all three children, based on their threshold statement itemising physical and emotional abuse and neglect. If these findings were made by the judge, A and B would be placed with a maternal aunt. Contact arrangements would be reduced from weekly to fortnightly.
  2. PGM gave evidence first. She was clearly committed to caring for C until adulthood but she recognised the need for C to retain and develop positive relationships with other family members. C’s wellbeing had improved since she had moved away from M and SF and she was settling better at school.
  3. M expressed shame with regard to the circumstances of her criminal conviction and denied all allegations of subsequent physical or verbal abuse and neglect on the part of herself or SF.  
  4. F wanted to maintain his current level of contact with C.
  5. SF also denied all allegations of violence and neglect in the family home. He said that B enjoyed ‘rough play’ but SF had never injured him.
  6. The children’s wishes and feelings were presumably set out in the Cafcass report. The oral evidence given by the guardian was primarily responding to questions about C’s motivation in making the statements about abuse, and recommendations about contact arrangements.

M and SF’s barristers were therefore focused on discrediting C’s statements and the circumstances in which these were made, while F’s barrister was focused on the benefits of C and F having contact with each other.

The hearing was listed for three days, in view of the need for full evidence on the dispute between the local authority and the parents of A and B. Three of the professional witnesses were however not needed and the evidence and submissions closed at the end of Day 2. The judge asked about the logistics of coming back at 4 pm on Day 3 for her decision and it was agreed this would be a hybrid hearing, as all the parents preferred a CVP online hearing.  I was also given the link to hear the judge’s conclusions. The case was then adjourned for a week when the judgment was delivered in a hybrid hearing. Copies of the judgment are to be given to PGM and to the aunt with whom A and B are going to live. The judgment is unlikely to be published on TNA or BAILII.

The judge’s decision

HHJ Edwards concluded that C had told the truth to her grandmother, social workers, police and doctors about the physical abuse, shouting, and neglectful living conditions that the children were living in.  C had no reason to keep lying over a period of months and her only motivation had been to protect the younger children. Her story had been consistent but not coached or rehearsed. There was supporting evidence with B disclosing information to social workers and doctors about SF hitting and punching him. Although the barristers for M and SF argued that B had overheard the investigating social worker relating C’s claims to his parents and was just repeating that, the judge agreed with the local authority barrister that B wasn‘t capable of processing that sequence of events. She concluded that the reason B gave information about his father hitting him was because it was the truth.

The judge found M and SF to be unreliable witnesses. Both had claimed to have forgotten or not known of incidents and concerns that they were questioned about, for example SF shouting at M and the children to leave the house and them having to stand in the street without their coats. SF was described as defensive, deflective and evasive. Although M had expressed shame about the assault when C was just three, she had not demonstrated any awareness of the impact on C of that incident and investigation. She had also not shown any awareness of the lifelong consequences for B if he continued on the trajectory he had been at school and SF pretended he didn’t know about calls from the school when B had been violent.

Everything the court had heard about M and SF’s home had been consistent with C’s descriptions, and the judge concluded that C’s evidence was consistent, cogent and compelling. Her motive, to protect her siblings, was commendable. The care plans and contact arrangements were approved.

Some points of public interest

For any commentators who believe that social workers are too quick to remove children from their families, this case is a demonstration of good practice in the dedication of all involved to keep the children safely within their family circle, while maintaining regular contact between the children and their parents and between the siblings.  The local authority undertook several assessments of family members as potential carers for B and C: two maternal aunts; a maternal cousin and partner; maternal grandparents; and paternal grandparents. Eventually one of the aunts was confirmed in a positive Connected Person’s Assessment. There were also parenting assessments of M, SF and F and a sibling relationship assessment. All this being completed within eight months was impressive, I thought, and would surely not have been possible within the mandatory 26 weeks.

The chronology revealed that there had been a possibility that the youngest child, A, might be adopted.  From what I heard in court, that outcome would have been heartbreaking for C. Once the aunt had been identified as the best option to care for B and C together, she was assisted by the  local authority to find suitable accommodation, that is currently being furnished. I would have been interested to hear whether B’s behaviour had changed since he’d moved away from the ‘chaotic and dysfunctional’ parenting environment (in the judge’s words) but this wasn’t mentioned. The Cafcass evidence I heard was very much about C, and the allocated social worker wasn’t asked about how the children were getting on generally, but mainly about contact.

Some examples of good and not-so-good practice emerged in the hearing.

Apparently there had been a number of breaches at the ABE (Achieving Best Evidence) interview with C, including closed questions.  However, as C had been consistent (but not suspiciously repetitive) to whoever she spoke to about the abuse, these irregularities weren’t made much of.  The parents’ barristers had drawn attention to some instances of C being uncertain of timelines. However the judge concluded that C was describing a course of conduct by M and SF, that included  a pattern of physical mistreatment of the younger children. C had told professionals that she herself was not hit because M and SF knew she would tell PGM if they did. The judge recommended the police officers involved have some more training.

The barrister for SF subjected PGM to a lengthy grilling about her ‘agenda’ against M and SF and repeatedly asked her exactly where she was at certain times during the day the investigating social worker and the police visited. Although PGM appeared quite calm to me, I was surprised that SF’s advocate had to be so aggressive. She repeated the same questions so often  that twice the judge intervened. The judge asked the barrister ‘can we the bring this down a little please?’ and at a later point had to remind the barrister that she was not interviewing a professional witness.  I noticed that SF’s barrister prefaced almost every question to PGM with the phrase ‘Will you help us please’.  She didn’t ask any other witnesses this question at all, so I wondered what it signified.  This witness was the most forthcoming and informative in the trial, so to constantly ask her to ‘help’ the court may have been a device (that didn’t succeed) to suggest she was evading questions.  On Day 2, when cross examining F, SF’s barrister allowed or even encouraged him to blame his mother for past events, until the judge asked her to stop – if she was going to make new allegations about PGM these needed to be put to PGM herself, and they hadn’t been.

M’s barrister also, understandably, tried to cast doubt on C’s veracity, but his approach was more to challenge the way in which the investigating social worker had obtained confirmation from B about the cause of his bruises. In her judgment, HHJ Edwards rejected this line of argument. However she observed that she did not know why the investigating social worker had spoken about C’s  statements in front of the whole family, and that his notes were not as full a record as they should have been. The judge spoke about the need for a ‘reliable unbroken chain of evidence’ in an investigation. The gaps had been filled by other evidence but the judge added that she expected the social worker to be subject to criticism within the local authority.

During M and SF’s evidence, I thought they expressed some insight into their own problems (although, as noted above, that was not the judge’s view at all). However, they certainly seemed completely unaware of the inappropriateness of the wrestling and ‘rough play’ they claimed B enjoyed. When SF was asked about his convictions for violence (before his relationship began with M) he sought to minimise these as some sort of two-way problem, although he had at least two assault convictions and had served a few weeks in prison.  F was startlingly rude to the judge when he gave his evidence and tended to object to questions rather than answer them. At the adjourned hearing which F joined online, questions were raised about where he was actually located and he was unco-operative about answering.  I had to admire his barrister’s stoicism in court and wondered whether any warnings she’d given him about treating the proceedings with respect had been taken on board at all.

Now all three children are in permanent placements under care orders, the contact arrangements will be adjusted. C was having to attend four supervised contacts sessions a week. While the evidence was that she enjoyed these, such a routine must have been very demanding. The local authority proposed to change the contact arrangements for C and F from one hour a week to two hours a fortnight, a proposal he disagreed with. Interestingly, when his barrister asked the allocated social worker what evidence this reduction in frequency of contact was based on, the social worker couldn’t come up with any ideas. When the barrister rephrased this as: what is the rationale for the decision? the social worker could only say: It’s best for the child.  I was amazed that a social worker had nothing to say about the impact all this family time would be having on C missing clubs, friends’ birthday parties etc. but fortunately the Cafcass guardian later gave clear evidence on this point.         

Listening to children

The Cafcass guardian reported that C wanted to meet the judge, who readily agreed and was planning to do shortly after the judgment. Although there had been some observations in the evidence and submissions that C had felt blamed and guilty about the consequences of her speaking out, it also seemed that she was relieved her siblings had moved to a safer place. In her grandmother’s words, ‘it was as though a weight had been lifted’. I hope C will grow up confident that she did the right thing and that adults in authority listened to her and responded by giving all the children an opportunity to recover from the insecurity and fear of their early lives.

In the light of recently published research on discharge of care orders, I thought about A, B and C’s longer term prospects. A and B’s new carer may need local authority support under a care order for a considerable time, although M and SF seem likely to apply for a discharge as soon as they can. I don’t know if that will be possible if they continue to allege their children were making things up.  The judge concluded that all the evidence pointed to an environment where the three children experienced continual verbal and physical violence, incidents that were unpredictable and unexplained to them. However, the local authority recognise that M and SF  love A and B and want them back. There are going to be family group conferences and parenting education programmes. C has the security of knowing the plan is for her to live with PGM and her husband for the rest of her childhood; a special guardianship order would seem likely in the future.

We have a small favour to ask! 

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