[Update 6 April 2017: The BBC report that Samantha Baldwin and the children have been found safely. There is no further information available at present and we now expect things to go quiet in terms of information coming from the police / Family Court, at least for a short while – although Nottingham Police website says “an update will follow later today”. We will report further as and when we are able to do so.]
We’ve had a couple of suggestions that we write about the case of Samantha Baldwin and her two sons, because this hit the headlines in the last couple of days, following their disappearance shortly after a Family Court hearing. It has been suggested to us that there is misinformation circulating, and of course that is the sort of thing that we like to try and clarify – where we can.
There are various reports regarding the case, most containing broadly similar information :
Daily Mail (Weds 29)
The Sun (Thurs 30)
Daily Mail (Fri 31)
Nottingham Post (Sat 1 Apr)
The Telegraph (Sat 1 Apr)
[Update 4 Apr : Police have issued renewed appeal to Samantha to contact them urgently and see here]
In this case we are hampered by two things : a lack of information and a reporting restrictions order, which prevents us from reporting some (unverified) material we have read online. But this is what we can say.
Last Monday (27 Mar) the Family Court held a hearing about these two boys. It decided to declare the boys wards of court. Shortly after the hearing Ms Baldwin and the boys disappeared, port alerts were issued, and the following day the court lifted a pre-existing reporting restrictions order to the extent that the police were authorised to make a public statement for the purposes of seeking the help of the public to find them (We’ve not seen the reporting restrictions order but we have had confirmation one exists and that it predated 28 March and the issue of the police statement, although the message doesn’t seem to have reached all journalists until somewhat later as at least one was subsequently served and had to delete tweets.)
We don’t know why the children were declared wards of court, or why Samantha ran. It seems likely that from her perspective she is acting in order to protect them from something. But it is also clear that the Family Court must have taken a very different view. [Update 1.40pm 3/4/17 : A statement issued by the Family Court, which appears as far as we can tell only on the Police website, says :
At a hearing on Monday, 27 March 2017 the Family Court indicated that the children, Louis David Madge (AKA Taylor) (b.05.08.2017) and Dylan Joe Madge (AKA Taylor) (b. 12.02.2011) should be removed from the care of their mother, Samantha Lianne Baldwin (AKA Taylor).
“Miss Baldwin is now missing. It is assumed that she has abducted Louis and Dylan. The children have now been made wards of Court. Miss Baldwin is considered to pose a risk of harm to the children.]
Wardship? Very Charles Dickens…
What can we infer from the warding of the children? Well, wardship is a rarely used power and it crops up usually in the context of actual or threatened abduction from the UK, occasionally in cases where it is necessary to “hold the line” between two parents where for some reason a care order is not appropriate, and more generally in any case where there is a gap in the statutory powers of the court, when wardship is a judge’s flexible friend. What we don’t know is whether the wardship was made as a result of an existing fear of abduction (for example we don’t know if the children were already missing at the time of the hearing when they were warded), or whether it was made for some other reason. [Update 1.40pm 3/4/17 : The wording of the Family Court statement suggests the wardship was a response to the disappearance after the hearing but other reports, relying on the police statement issued on 1 April, suggest it was made at the hearing before she disappeared. It’s unclear at present which is correct.]
Wardship would certainly fit with the assumption that seems to be widely made online that this is a mother who has made some sort of allegation against the children’s father that has not been accepted and that there is a gap between the court’s view of what is beneficial / harmful to them and the mother’s view.
But it is very dangerous to speculate. Firstly, it is unfair on all those concerned – the children, their mother and their father, as such speculation may be wrong and something else altogether may be going on. Secondly, even if the scenario is correct, we have no way of knowing where the truth lies. We don’t know if any allegations have been properly tested yet, or whether they have been found proved or not proved; genuine but deluded or malicious; whether the court has upheld allegations but concluded the risk is low. The permutations are endless.
Most of these reports say that the mother “does not have legal custody of the children”. The term “custody” has not been the correct legal term for where a child lives for approaching 30 years now, but its use in the context of a public appeal is perhaps understandable, as the public generally know what is meant by it in layman’s terms. And in fact it is still the technically correct term in cases of child abduction because the statute that relates to that does still use the old fashioned term “custody”. At first blush the use of this phrase could be taken to mean that the children have been ordered to live elsewhere, possibly with their father – but in fact it doesn’t mean that at all. This phrase in fact doesn’t tell us much because whenever a child is made a ward of court the person exercising “parental control” is the court and the court alone. So neither parent has “custody” of these children, and nor does any local authority (although it might have been the court’s intention to delegate its parental powers by placing them either with a parent or family member or a local authority in foster care – and that may still happen when they are found).
Some people have asked whether or not it is correct for the police / press to describe this as a case of child abduction, because the child is with his parent. In fact The Child Abduction Act 1984 has a whole section devoted to circumstances in which a parent can abduct their own child. If Ms Baldwin manages to take the children out of the UK she could be committing the offence of abduction, because it would be in breach of the wardship order. Even if she doesn’t make it out of the UK (and the focus of the police calls suggest they think they were quick enough to prevent that) she is still most likely in breach of an order of the family court, and probably in contempt of it – but this may depend on what the precise terms of the order were. So, it’s a case of possible attempted or actual abduction and the police operation is clearly aimed at preventing such abduction.
Release of information into the public domain
The Family Court judge has taken a deliberate decision not to permit publication of the background details. This is unsurprising, since the names and photos of the children and their mother are plastered all over the internet and there is obvious potential for them to be harmed if their names are publicly and permanently linked with all the gory details of whatever this dispute is about. That detail may yet come out, but the court’s priority at the moment is finding the children and safely recovering them.
Much of the speculation out there appears to be based upon a widespread belief that Family Courts are routinely and institutionally failing to protect women and children from abusive fathers, and much of the comment we have seen online is encouraging the mother to continue running to protect her children. For these commentators, it is obvious that a grave injustice has been done to the mother and children and that she is acting righteously in the face of “evil family court” intervention, and misleading police officers all waiting to return children to the clutches of an abusive dangerous father. In due course it may be that further information will come to light about the facts, and it may be that those facts will at some stage need to be tried. But at the moment there is no verifiable information to support any claim that the childrens father is dangerous or abusive, although as we’ve indicated above, the wardship might have been used as a tool to assist in a case of intractable mutual parental conflict.
The case of Rebecca Minnock may hold some parallels – another mother who ran away with her son Ethan. We wrote about that case in a number of posts (see here). In that case the judge, HHJ Wildblood QC elected to publish his judgments as he went, and invited the press to attend hearings. In that case the judge had deliberately put information in the public domain making clear that the allegations made by the mother against the father had been fully heard but rejected by the court as fabricated, leading to orders for increasing overnight contact. This was not a case of a court not listening to the mother, but of a judge listening and concluding she could not be believed. Rebecca Minnock did not appeal, instead she obstructed contact – and then she ran. We don’t know how close a parallel the facts of the Minnock case bear to this, but it serves as a reminder that things may not be as they at first seem – in spite of the Judge placing the facts about Rebecca Minnock’s fabrication of allegations in the public domain, some members of the press chose not to report the matter in a balanced way, leading to similar narratives about a misunderstood mother fleeing to protect her children from the dangerous father, who was implicitly monstered.
The difference in this case is that the judge has not (yet) issued any background information to enable the public or press to understand what is going on and what the risks actually are, with the result at present being (from our unscientific searches on social media) that most of those who are motivated to comment are unwaveringly supportive of the mother and doubt that she poses any risk at all. From a safeguarding point of view, the court is not getting its message across very effectively, although as the Minnock case illustrates, harnessing the assistance of the media in a way that actually drives public understanding and encourages the public to assist is a complicated business. Whether the publication of further information would turn the tide of public opinion is unclear, but at the moment this case seems to be a magnet for the expression of public disquiet at the practices of the family court, and those who would say that mothers are not listened to and that risks are not properly understood by judges. One question the public are asking is : what risk does this mother pose? Perhaps the answer is that she poses a risk of emotional harm, perhaps she has made threats or is unwell – we simply don’t know. But at present, with the information blackout many are answering the question themselves with “none”. So why would they report a sighting of her?
For many of those following and commenting on the case on social media the “gagging” of the press through the reporting restrictions order is confirmation that something is amiss. Whilst it is not uncommon for there to be restrictions on the reporting of the details of cases concerning children, particularly where their names and photos are in the public domain, the publication of some sort of [fuller]* summary or an appropriately edited version of any previous judgment which might illuminate things would be distinctly useful to those trying to understand that case, and to those trying to explain it to the public (that’s us). Of course, without knowing the details of the case it is difficult to know whether that is practical and in the best interests of the children, but we think it likely that some sort of summary information might form a better platform for a) engaging the public in the search and b) encouraging confidence in the Family Court more generally. *[Updated 1.40 3/4/17]
In the meantime, regardless of the reporting restrictions order, there is a swirl of online activity around this case and speculation and unverified accounts from those who appear to be somehow connected to the mother are fast becoming “fact”. We are not linking to that information here, not only because it would potentially breach any reporting restrictions order to do so, but because that information may well be inaccurate and unfairly critical of those who have done no wrong.
The judge in the Minnock case issued this judgment, directed at the mother and intended to encourage her to hand herself in (as she subsequently did). It is probably applicable in this case too :
Family law proceedings are exceptionally stressful for all concerned. Under the stress that arises people may, wrongly, behave in ways that are impulsive and damaging to the welfare of children. Where a parent does behave in way that is wrong it is very important that matters are put right by that parent as soon as possible. The more time that goes by the more emotionally harmful it is for a child to be in the circumstances in which Ethan now finds himself. This mother must not see herself as being backed into a corner because there is a very simple solution for her – come forward with Ethan. […]
No one can simply ignore that orders have been made which the mother has disobeyed; if I said otherwise it would send out a signal that the court will ignore breaches of its own orders, a signal that would be absurd and utterly wrong. Rather than act through the legal system the mother has chosen to take matters into her own hands. No parent, be it a mother or a father, should ever behave in that way. […]
The remedy for dissatisfaction with a court order relating to a child does not lie in making off with the child into hiding. […]
I think that it is important for the public and the mother to understand that, in relation to the functioning of the family court when making orders concerning Ethan, there are clear legal provisions. Everything possible will be done to ensure that Ethan has an effective relationship with both of his parents.
We will try and update this case as further information becomes available.
[Updates 1.40 3/4/17 Thanks to Mark Hanna for pointing out the statements on the police website which we’ve incorporated into the post]
NOTE : We are getting a lot of comments on this post which we cannot publish for legal reasons. We cannot publish comments that make assertions about the factual background to this case because there is a reporting restriction order in place. Please do not post them, they will be edited or simply not published.
Feature pic : courtesy of Jeremy Segrott on Flickr (Creative commons licence) – thanks!
[NB This post originally showed a picture of one of the children involved provided by the police in order to support their search for them whilst still missing. Whilst we recognise that there is a huge amount of photographic and private information out there about these children, and this cannot be eradicated, we thought that the justification for us publishing a photograph of the children was gone now that they have been found. So we’ve switched it for something else.