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Re A, B and C [2014] EWFC 28

Date:12 AUG 2014
Law Reporter
Neutral Citation Number: [2014] EWFC 28
Case Nos. LS14C00256

Coverdale House
13-15 East Parade

Date: Tuesday 29th July 2014



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B E T W E E N :

A Local Authority

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1st Respondent
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2nd Respondent
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A, B, and C
3rd, 4th & 5th Respondents (By their Children's Guardian)

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The Local Authority was represented by Mrs Lessing
The 1st Respondent was represented by Miss Law
The 2nd Respondent was represented by Mr Worrell
The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Respondents were represented by Mr Edwards

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Mr Justice Bodey

[1] This is an application by a Local Authority for urgent Interim Care orders regarding three children whom I shall call A, B and C. They are aged 3, 2 and 9 months respectively. Their mother whom I shall call “the mother” is in her mid 20’s and their father (whom I shall call “the father”) is in his mid 40’s. They are both Polish, but came to this country about four years ago and have lived here ever since. Thus, all three children were born here. On the present evidence, it would appear that the parents, and therefore in this case the children, have habitual residence here, applying the test now required by decisions of the Supreme Court. There is no dispute that the threshold for interim care orders is met. The issue is therefore that of the welfare of the children, which is the court’s paramount consideration. I must have regard to the S1(3) Welfare Checklist, which I have well in mind. Since this is an urgent interim hearing, nothing I shall say is to be taken as a definitive finding of fact.

[2] The Local Authority became involved with the family in 2011 after the birth of A. There were poor home conditions and two reported incidents of domestic violence. For a short period of time A was accommodated, but subsequently returned to his parents’ care. At that time the Local Authority was not aware of the circumstances of the father’s alleged alcohol abuse. Recently in February 2014, he admitted to social worker Nicole Bell that, during a period in 2011 when the mother and A were living apart from him, he had drunk excessively and not looked after himself appropriately.

[3] Following the problems in 2011, things seemed to be going well until April 2012, at which time the mother was 6 months pregnant with B. She contacted the then social worker in a highly distressed state to report that the father had been drinking alcohol. She asked the social worker to visit immediately. On doing so, the social worker found the father heavily intoxicated and incontinent of faeces. His face was bruised and bloodied and his jacket covered in blood. The mother wanted to end her relationship with the him. She asked to be taken with A to a friend’s house, which was arranged.

[4] Later the same month, the father was arrested, having been found sitting inside a car which he had broken into with a brick. He was heavily intoxicated and looking at a religious picture. In Police interview, he became aggressive and assaulted or made to assault the interpreter. The Doctor who saw him found him to be uncooperative and aggressive and considered that he (the father) seemed to be acting under auditory hallucinations. On that occasion, the father described himself as a ‘binge drinker’ and stated that he had been drinking heavily for the previous three days.

[5] In May 2012, the mother (now seven months pregnant with B) moved to her own accommodation with A. She was advised by the Local Authority to remain separated from the father. However, following the birth of B in July 2012, she moved back into the father’s home and resumed her relationship with him, in spite of the Local Authority advising her not to do so.

[6] In June 2014, there being no further evidence of alcohol misuse by the father and there being minimal engagement by the parents with the Local Authority, the children were removed from the Child Protection Plan upon which they had been placed.

[7] On 3rd July 2014, however, the father was arrested by the Police and admitted to hospital. He was ‘sectioned’ under S2 Mental Health Act 1983. He was found to be suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations, stating that he believed the devil was in his children and also in his penis, making him perform sexual acts. A family member or friend who had brought him to the attention of the Police reported that he (the father) had been drinking for ten days. The father has denied this, saying that he had only had a few shots of alcohol. On examination, the father was found to be acutely unwell. He was regarded as a risk to himself and to others. He has in the past consistently denied to the Local Authority drinking alcohol and has consistently refused their requests to undergo hair-strand testing.

[8] On 9th July 2014, the Approved Mental Health Professional signed off a report into the father’s admission to the local psychiatric unit. That report records:

“…[the mother] reports that [the father] had been drinking heavily for a number of days – ‘several beers’. He stopped about 5 days ago. She reports that whilst drinking he was getting delusions. She also states he becomes aggressive. She states that he has not slept for a few days and reports that he sees demons. She believes he has some sort of illness. Since stopping drinking five days ago, these symptoms seem to have carried on. He has gone into town and been seen talking to himself. [The mother] reports that this has happened about two or three times before …”.

The report goes on to quote from the records of a mental health worker as follows:

“The family member [who brought the father to A & E] told me that [the father] had been drinking vodka for ten days and that four days ago he stopped drinking. Since then he has been experiencing visual and auditory hallucination. He can see the devil and it is telling him that he has to keep walking and that he’s going to die. He has been incontinent of faeces whilst in bed, but told his partner [the mother] that it was his neck and that he was dead. Yesterday, his partner [the mother] and children had to leave their home and went to stay with relatives, due to [the father] pushing them around. He [the father] also believes the devil is in his children”.

[9] The summary recorded by the Approved Mental Health Professional in his assessment on 9th July 2014 reads:

“[The father] is presenting as acutely unwell and seems to be in some distress. He seems unable to hold a meaningful conversation and seems rather guarded and suspicious of professionals. His family are very concerned about him, having supported him earlier at A & E. His wife [the mother] is supportive of his hospital admission. There are a number of concerns regarding the potential risks which [the father] may pose to others and himself. These include risks to children, which are currently being investigated by the Child Care Management Team.”

[10] The Consultant Psychiatrist responsible for the father’s treatment at the psychiatric unit, a Doctor Z, has made a report dated 25th July 2014. He summarises the father’s state on admission much as set out by the Approved Mental Health Professional (above). He adds that the father stated on the day of his admission that he had not drunk for two years. He [the father] denied any auditory or visual hallucinations. Doctor Z describes him as “not orientated. Insight poor. He lacked insight into his current presentation and the reasons for admission”.

[11] However, the father quickly became better on the ward, within some 48 hours, and did not need a regular dose of psychotropic medication. There were no incidents of aggression on the ward and his interaction during family visits was positive and satisfactory. Doctor Z took the ‘triggers’ for the deterioration in the father’s mental health on and before the 3rd July 2014 as having been “alcohol misuse and probable social stressors”. As to his view of the risk which the father may present to the mother and the children, Doctor Z says:

“…[the father] denies all incidents which have been documented on admission regarding his behaviour towards the children and his beliefs regarding the devil. As you are aware, he has previous history of alcohol abuse. At present, he is planning to stay abstinent, but it is difficult to predict his commitment and engagement in the future. If he starts to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, then this can increase deterioration of his mental health and the risk of aggression. There is a risk of development of mental disorder in the future, if he continues to consume alcohol. This can increase the risk to others, as according to notes there is a history that, prior to admission when he was unwell, he was pushing his wife and the children and he also believed that there was a devil in his children. The positive factor in his history is that when he became unwell on this occasion, his wife was able to take steps to maintain safety. She left the family home with the children a day before his admission. His family was able to approach services to get help and they brought him to A & E for assessment and treatment. His wife [the mother] stayed involved during his admission on the ward.”

[12] Last Thursday, the 24th July 2014, (the day before Doctor Z’s report) social worker Marie O’Callaghan tried, with another social work colleague, to visit the father at the psychiatric unit. However, they were unsuccessful, as (having been informed by staff that they were coming) he went off into town saying that he had ‘nothing to say to social services’. Subsequently, the two social workers went to visit the mother at home. They explained that, given the seriousness of the Local Authority’s concerns, it was important that she should prevent the father returning to the family home. They told her that that the Local Authority’s plan was for assessment to be made of the family, which they wanted to do whilst the children remained at home in her care. At this, the mother denied that there were any concerns ‘because the hospital said [the father] was well and could leave’. When the social workers again impressed the concerns upon the mother, she replied that the father would come home and ‘why shouldn’t he; this is home and his children are here, where would he go?’. She repeated this several times, including an expression of her belief that he would not hurt her or the children. In response, the social workers said several times that, if the father did return home, then they would need to remove the children to a place of safety.

[13] In the afternoon of the same day (24th July 2014) the two social workers returned to the family home, as they suspected that the father might have gone there prior to returning to the psychiatric unit. The found him there preparing food for the children. They explained that they wanted to do assessments of the family and that it would be safer for him to move out whilst this was done, so that the children could remain at home with the mother. In response, the father stated that he would not leave his home, or wife, or children. He said that, if the hospital said ‘…he is OK, why do you not accept that?’. He claimed to have been abstinent from alcohol for the last two years and that he does not have a problem with it. When the social workers put it to him that he had been drinking excessively prior to his admission to hospital on 3rd July 2014, he said that this was because he had not seen his brother for a long time and because he had been ‘taking some tablets’. He would not say what these were, nor where he got them from. He said that the only problem which the family has is social workers not letting them get on with their life. It was clear to the two social workers by the time they decided to leave, that the mother and the father were not accepting of the Local Authority’s concerns and were not willing to work with the Local Authority. They (the social workers) said they would be putting the matter before the Court to ask for the children to be removed into foster care, pending assessments.

[14] On 25th July 2014, the ‘Gate-keeping’ Judges met and (amongst other things) directed that an urgent hearing was to take place before me on 28th July 2014, yesterday. The parties were required to attend at 10 am. There is evidence that this Order was served on the mother both by telephone and by delivery to the matrimonial home. She did not however attend yesterday morning pursuant to that order. Neither was there any attendance by the father, although he was represented by Counsel Mr Worrell, demonstrating that he was aware of the hearing. I was told, when the case was called on during the late morning, that the mother was currently at the psychiatric unit with the children and that the father was thought to be likely to be discharged at or after midday. I was therefore asked by the Local Authority, supported by the Children's Guardian, for an immediate order placing the children in interim care on the basis that they would be removed from the parents. This was against the background of a lack of cooperation by the parties and what was seen by the professionals as a real flight risk. I was reluctant to make such an order given (a) the tender age of the children (b) that they have never before been effectively parted from the mother and (c) that I had not heard the parents’ case (even though they had been served). However I came to the conclusion that there was no real alternative, when placing the safety of the children first. I brought the case back in before me yesterday afternoon, but lack of time and more particularly a lack of adequate interpretation did not enable the interim care order to be revisited. Hence the case has been relisted before me today (29th July 2014) to consider whether the interim care order of yesterday should be discharged or extended. Meanwhile, the children are now with Local Authority foster carers. A and B are together but C is fostered separately, it having been impossible yet to find a placement able to take all three children together.

[15] The law on interim care orders (particularly on a Care Plan of separation, as here) is set out at paragraphs 3 to 6 of the Skeleton Argument of Mrs Lessing for the Local Authority dated 26th July 2014. There is no dispute in this respect. What is required for separation is, in essence that the children’s safety must demand immediate separation. The relevant authorities are cited in Mrs Lessing’s document, and I need not repeat them here. With the benefit of legal advice and individual interpretation this morning, the parents now propose that the father will vacate the home for the time being, leaving the mother to care for the children alone. Orders and/or undertakings, could be made to secure this. Both parents say that under the auspices of an Interim Supervision order they will now co-operate with the Local Authority in every way possible, including in the preparation of assessments. They wish to be assessed as a couple. This would have the huge advantage that these little children would not need to be separated from their primary carer and (it is said) their safety would be assured.

[16] The Local Authority submits on the other hand, supported by the Children's Guardian, that the father clearly has a mental health disorder exacerbated by alcohol abuse and that, when affected, he is a risk to his children, just as he was for several days prior to 3rd July 2014. He has not undergone a full mental health assessment, because he has refused to do so, and his behaviour is unpredictable. It is not fully understood what the trigger is. The Local Authority pray in aid that, whatever the parents may be saying today, the mother is fundamentally unable to accept or admit the risk which the father poses and that neither parent is truly willing to cooperate with his exclusion from the family home, even though that is what they now jointly propose. It is emphasised that in 2012 the mother separated from the father, but reconciled with him shortly thereafter against advice (as above). The Local Authority believes that the risk cannot safely be managed by cooperation, as there is no confidence that either parent can or will work openly or honestly in the interests of the children’s safety. It is submitted that the risks of significant harm are sufficient to warrant removal, notwithstanding the children’s tender ages, and that this would be a proportionate interference with all parties’ right to family life. It would be the least interventionist approach, it is said, and the only one consistent with the welfare and safety of the children, which is the court’s paramount consideration.

[17] The difficult question for the court is the extent to which the events of the past 24 hours really have affected the parents’ approach, insight and understanding. I can well understand that removal of one’s children may well act as a wake-up call, and I would imagine that the mother and the father really mean what they say today about the father’s keeping away and the mother’s ensuring that this would happen. But the difficulty is that the father is presently sober, as it appears, and in a stable state of mental health, as it appears. He probably would have been so before the events of April 2012, and before the events of July 2014; yet those episodes of binge drinking occurred nevertheless, when there is no doubt (certainly regarding the July 2014 episode) that he put the physical and emotional safety of the children at real risk. Because of the chronic nature of the parents non-cooperation with the Local Authority and the father’s refusal to undergo a full mental health assessment, there is no assessment of the likelihood of the father undergoing a further relapse now; nor if it occurred, of the likelihood of some distortion of his thinking compelling or influencing him to be close to his children. The relative submissiveness of the mother compared to the father’s more dominant role in the relationship (as noted by Miss Bell in February 2014 at E44) could well lead to his achieving that closeness to his children. The mother was noted by Miss Bell in February 2014 to be isolated and withdrawn. So she might well find it difficult to resist the father’s wish to be closer to the children.

[18] If the father did seek to see or be close to the children, the consequences could (and I emphasis could, not would) be very serious indeed. If he again ‘saw the devil in them’, as a product of mental ill health, there is really no knowing what he might subject the children to, when so deluded. It seems to me that no ‘policing’ of the family home through unannounced visits by social workers could realistically prevent this happening, since it could occur at any time of the night or day.

[19] I have not overlooked the positives referred to in Miss Bell’s report of February 2014, for example the very strong reciprocated attachment between the father and the children. Nor have I overlooked the favourable comments of Doctor Z referred to above. Nor am I in any way happy about removing such very young children from their primary carer, the mother. But the children’s safety must be the priority and, in weighing everything up, I have concluded that the Local Authority’s submissions supported by the Children's Guardian are logical and right. They do represent the least interventionist approach which professionals and the court can and should responsibly adopt to ensure the children’s safety. I agree in particular with the points made on the behalf of the Children's Guardian (a) that the continuing emotional investment of the mother in the relationship between the parents could well serve to compromise her ability to act to protect the children, should the need arise; and (b) that, if social stresses do trigger the father’s mental health problems (as suggested by Doctor Z as being one such trigger) then a considerable stress would be created by the fact of his having to live apart from his children and their mother, when he does not really wish to do so.

[20] I consider that the Local Authority should continue to endeavour to find a foster placement for all three children together, if at all possible. I consider too that contact should be more than that proposed by the Local Authority. It should be a least four or preferably five times a week for 1½ hours. I stress to the parents that courts lean over backwards to keep children in their natural families, so long as it is safe and in the interests of the welfare of those children. The parents need to cooperate with the Local Authority and other professionals, just as they have said they will do. The hearing on the 12th August 2014 should be extended to a one half day hearing, so that case management can be properly dealt with and indeed so that the court can review the continuing nature of these interim arrangements, which I will set to pertain for 28 days (just in case the hearing on 12th August 2014 for any reason cannot take place).