This is a post by Priyanka Patel. Priyanka is a commercial lawyer with an interest in family law, particularly child law.
In the recent case of Re A, B & C (Children: Adoption)  EWHC 2335 (Fam), the court made placement orders for the adoption of all three children A, B and C (who, at the time of the final hearing were 3 years old, 2 years old and 10 months old respectively).
The judgment places considerable emphasis on trust as the foundation for partnership working between parents and the court (and other professionals such as health and social services). Keehan J commented as follows on what went on over the course of these care and placement order proceedings:
The mother is the most egregious liar I have ever encountered. The father has also serially lied to the court, to the social workers and to the children’s guardian. Worst of all he lied to me about i) his separation from the mother; ii) his commitment to maintain that separation and not to have any contact with the mother; and iii) his commitment to put caring for A and B to the fore, which led me to require the local authority to pursue a rehabilitation plan for the boys to live with the father, which was contrary to the local authority’s care plan and contrary to the recommendation of the children’s guardian. They were right and I was wrong to have placed trust in the father.
I repeat my deep regret that the actions of the parents have forced the court to reach this conclusion. I had real hopes last year that there was some prospect, albeit slim and against the weight of the evidence, and contrary to the considered professional opinions of the social worker and the children’s guardian, that the father could care for A and B and, as later became apparent, C. I am very sorry it was not achievable.
Before the case came to court there had been an incident when A was a few months old where he’d been taken to hospital with a bruise over his eye. The parents disagreed about how it had happened and both made allegations of violent behaviour about each other but said they were separating and signed up to an agreement that the father wouldn’t return to the home. They didn’t keep to it and when the local authority issued care proceedings the mother fled with A to the USA where she delivered a second baby before both children were returned and placed in foster care.
The Fact-finding hearing
A fact-finding hearing was listed in March 2019 to decide how the injury was caused. A & B (Children: Fact Find), Re  EWHC 3918 (Fam) (29 March 2019) is the published judgment from that decision.
By the time of the fact finding hearing the mother denied all the allegations against the father and accused the police, paediatrician, social worker and her first solicitors of lying while the father was minimizing what he’d said to the Police about the mother.
The main findings at that hearing were that:
- Baby A had suffered an inflicted bruise above his right eyebrow in the care of his mother and father. Neither offered any sort of explanation for it’s cause;
- Both parents lied;
- Neither parent had cooperated or been open and honest with the social workers or the local authority (or any other professionals);
- The mother had abducted A and taken him to the USA in breach of court orders, both parents had failed to disclose A’s whereabouts and the father had colluded with the retention if not the abduction;
- The court had no confidence that the mother and father would work honestly and co-operatively with the local authority or social workers in the future; and
- Both parents remained a flight risk.
Orders had been made barring the parents from applying for a passport or travel documents. However, during the proceedings the mother applied for return of her passport (which was refused) and then made an application for a replacement passport. She also failed to attend a subsequent hearing in breach of an order, with a warrant issued for her arrest.
The father subsequently told the court he’d separated from the mother and sought to care for A and B alone.
It later came to light that the following evening police officers in Scotland stopped a car registered in the father’s name. The driver said he was travelling to the ferry port at Stranraer with his wife. Both parents later denied this was them. C (it turned out) was born in the Republic of Ireland soon afterwards to the mother using a false name.
There were police reports of a further domestic abuse incident between the mother and father on 26 November 2019 when the mother visited the family home.
The local authority issued applications for Placement Orders for A and B but at a hearing (which the mother did not attend), the court directed the local authority to prepare a rehabilitation plan for A and B to live with the father (notwithstanding concerns of the local authority and children’s guardian about the parents’ unwillingness to work openly and honestly). The father was asked to confirm a number of matters under oath, including that he would not have any form of contact with the mother; that he understood that this was a final opportunity to prove that he could separate from the mother and work openly and honestly with the local authority; and that he understood that the court had found him to have lied in the past.
Phone records later showed that he was on the phone to her straight away after leaving that hearing. Then just weeks later the parents were stopped by the police whilst travelling in a car together to Gatwick Airport with a new baby, ‘C’.
The rehabilitation plan for A and B was suspended and an interim care order for C was put in place. At the next hearing the father said that he had resumed his relationship with the mother. The mother said that they had never ended their relationship in the first instance. The parents’ application to have the interim care orders discharged was refused.
The final hearing
The final hearing took place on 5th August 2020. By this time the local authority had been involved for three years.
Keehan J accepted social work evidence that despite three years of opportunity to work openly and honestly with the local authority the parents had made no changes, and that cultural reasons did not account for the failure of these parents to engage with, or work co-operatively with the local authority.
The parents denied concealing C’s pregnancy and said the midwife had misunderstood. They denied that it was them in the car police stopped in Scotland heading to the ferry before the mother headed to Ireland. The mother denied missing many contact visits or that this would have harmed the older children. The father denied breaching undertakings given to the court about separating from the mother etc. Both denied the further incidence of domestic abuse and the trip to Gatwick.
These feature among a further 22 factual findings about the parents behaviour and likely risk to the children recorded at paras 106 and 107 of the judgment.
The facts and circumstances that led to the court’s decision highlight a number of important issues. In particular:
The judgment frequently refers to the parents’ lack of co-operation and openness with the court and with the professionals who were working with the parents over the three year period. Significantly, the father was given a chance by Keehan J to prove to the court that he was capable of turning matters around and caring for the children at the time of the rehabilitation hearing. The court went against the advice of both the social workers and children’s guardian, giving the father a chance to prove himself. That the father then breached the promises he made to the court under oath not to have any form of contact with the mother, immediately after the hearing by having a telephone conversation with her, was clearly a significant turning point in the court’s loss of confidence in the father’s ability to safely care for the children as an alternative to adoption.
The mother also showed on many occasions that she was not willing to co-operate with the local authority, other professionals or with the court. Indications of this had already begun to show at the outset when in breach of her agreement with the local authority, the father was found hiding inside the house during a check in 2017. A pattern developed throughout the life of the case when the mother breached several court orders including orders not to leave the UK, orders to return A to the UK, and orders not to apply for travel documentation. Crucially, the mother also missed several contact appointments with A and B in order to conceal the existence of C with the court finding that her overriding concern was not their well being and that her actions resulted in emotional harm to them. .
The court found that the parents’ overall failure to engage with the local authority despite numerous opportunities to do so was “irrational” and that they were not likely to co-operate and engage with professionals going forwards. Their unwillingness to co-operate with social workers and obey court orders coupled with examples of being a flight risk led the court to conclude that “the children would be at real risk of suffering significant emotional and psychological harm from the stability of their lives being disrupted and abruptly changed over the years.
The judgment focuses heavily on several lies told by the father and the mother. In fact the court found that the “mother and the father have serially lied to the court, to the social workers, to the children’s guardian and to every other professional with whom they have had contact, including the police and health professionals”.
Whilst dishonesty itself does not inspire confidence in the court or other professionals, the judgment in Re A, B & C reminds us that it is important to also look beyond the lies themselves to the consequences of those lies. For example, the court found that in the her efforts to conceal her pregnancy with C, the mother failed to provide C with appropriate antenatal care and appropriate post-natal care, “putting C at risk of suffering physical harm”. In addition, it is clear that it was not the mere fact that there had been an incident leading to the original bruise, nor the more recent abusive incident that led the court to its decision. The judge was unable to extract any proper explanation for those incidences, but did conclude that the parents had clearly trivialised them and ultimately deduced that the children would be “at a real risk of suffering significant physical, emotional and psychological harm if they were to be returned to the care of the parents”.
An order for an adoptive placement is an option of last resort. In this case, the court was driven to the conclusion that such orders were justified, having found that “the stumbling block is the parents’ irrational and extreme over-reaction to the involvement of professionals in their lives and those of their children, most especially social workers”.
The decision in favour of an adoptive placement for A, B and C was clearly reluctantly made, but the conduct of the parents throughout the proceedings could not be ignored or got around. The case perhaps serves as a useful reminder that the court attributes considerable importance to honesty and co-operation with, not just the court but other professionals, when considering the welfare and long term best interests of their children. The same principles will apply to parents in other proceedings, though in most cases parental inability, reluctance or refusal to co-operate is less extreme. Even with the possibility that these children might ultimately be placed separately for adoption (against their welfare best interests), the court was clear that adoption was required where the alternative was risk of significant harm in the future by return to the care of their parents.
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