The question of how the family court deals with domestic abuse has had a huge amount of public and media attention recently. Concerns have been raised that the system is placing children and victims at unacceptable risk and that there is a ‘culture of contact at all costs’. The concerns have been raised by campaigners including survivors and MPs who have described a disconnect between the Practice Directions and best practice guidelines and what actually happens in practice at courts around the country. A government led review and ‘call for evidence‘ (limited to ‘private’ law cases) is currently underway.
A ‘snapshot’ look at recent published judgments featuring domestic abuse seemed timely, looking at the decisions made and how they were reached. (Since we are looking at published judgments, the majority of the cases are care proceedings rather than ‘private law’ disputes between parents, which are less often published). Earlier blogs in this ‘snapshot’ series can be read here, here and here.
When the local authority brought care proceedings, in December 2018, one of the children, A, was critically ill in hospital and without treatment would have died. It was discovered he had healing fractures to his ribs and scapula (shoulder blade) and a laceration to his liver. The presence of these injuries and numerous bruises, without explanation, caused the treating doctors to suspect inflicted non-accidental injuries. His step-father and mother were arrested. The local authority was granted an interim care order.
15 days later, the mother gave birth to another child, B. She agreed to the local authority taking her into care on a voluntary basis (S.20), and later, an interim care order was made.
The judgment explains the decision from a hearing to determine who caused A’s injuries and also whether his mother failed to protect him (a ‘fact finding’ hearing). The findings would then form the factual basis from which decisions about the children’s future care needs would be made. A’s mother was not asking to resume care for A, whatever findings the judge might make. She accepted she had failed to protect him from emotional harm from exposure to his step-father’s physical assaults on her and that she had failed to protect him by delaying seeking medical treatment for him. She didn’t accept failing to protect A from the physical assaults by the step-father saying she only suspected these might be happening and had never seen A assaulted. She also denied causing any of A’s bone fractures or abdominal injuries herself and explained some of his injuries as accidents (on a trampoline, and after a fall).
The step-father broadly denied responsibility for A’s injuries and denied any abuse of the mother. He offered some alternative explanations for A’s injuries.
The judge found that the mother had not inflicted the injuries but that it would have been obvious to her at least that A had sustained a serious injury as the bruising and swelling to his face was obvious. The judge found that it was likely that A was only taken to hospital around 10 days after the injuries had been inflicted. Specifically he said:
“The combination of the evidence that A had sustained very serious fracture injuries together with obvious facial bruising and the first respondent’s evidence that she was sufficiently concerned to fabricate a tale of social services involvement point to the likelihood not just that she was suspicious but that she believed that the third respondent had seriously assaulted A. She describes how on occasions A would return from another part of the house sporting an injury which the third respondent attributed to an accident. I conclude on the balance of probabilities that on an occasion in late October she observed A with the serious facial bruising that is seen from the 27 to 29 October and that she was given an explanation that this was the result of an accident, but that she by that stage at the latest had come to believe that the third respondent was the cause of the injuries rather than an accident. Only that level of belief is consistent with her fabricating the social services story. I do not conclude that the first respondent had directly witnessed an assault of the nature which caused the fractures and facial bruising because I do not believe that even she would have tolerated that and nor do I believe that the third respondent would have committed such an act in her presence. Perhaps the explanation of the fabricated social services story is that the first respondent and the third respondent did indeed delay taking A for medical attention because they were aware of and discussed the possibility of social services involvement given the severity of the facial injuries. Whether the delay was the result of a joint decision, or the third respondent placing the first respondent under pressure not to seek medical attention I am unable to discern. However I am satisfied that there was a delay in seeking medical attention that was linked to a fear of social services intervention and that the first respondent then played that card after she had taken A to the hospital in, as Ms Kaur described it, a feeble attempt to provide some protection to A.”
In respect of domestic abuse against the mother the judge found that the step-father subjected the mother to a vicious beating using implements such as a table and a rolling pin and that there had been other assaults too. The judge concluded that the step-father inflicted serious violence upon both the mother and A.
In respect of the mother’s failure to protect A, the judge found that the failures went beyond her limited concessions (above). The judge was satisfied that she believed that the step-father was inflicting injuries upon A in addition to knowing she he was violent to her and that whilst she could not have known about the severity of the injuries to A, for example the fractures, the seriousness of those injuries she was aware of should have led to her taking immediate steps to protect A and to get him medical attention. Objectively she did not do what a reasonable parent would have.
Williams J specifically considered her particular vulnerability as a victim of domestic abuse, as well as more generally, and said this:
“Subjectively she may be able to rely on her own fear of the third respondent and his likely reaction to her seeking to remove herself and A. Subjectively her lack of action may be explicable by her own vulnerability in terms of housing, finance and the imminent arrival of her second child. Even up until the morning of 29 November she continued to expose her son to the risk that the third respondent posed. Thereafter she did not disclose to police and social services the truth of his violence to her and her suspicions until early January. She failed to give a full account to the treating team at the hospital or the QMC; this could have had consequences. When interviewed by police she shielded the third respondent by failing to disclose his domestic violence to her and her concerns about his being violent to A. Whilst I accept that she may have been fearful that upon her release from the police station she may have been returning to a home she shared with the third respondent and that he may have discovered what she had told the police it was still an example of her putting her own interests before those of her critically ill son. She continued to conduct a liaison of sorts with the third respondent up until March. I understand to some extent the predicament she by then was in, being homeless and with limited resources she could call upon to sustain her. However as a consequence of her failure to protect A from the third respondent he suffered injuries which could have killed him.”
Even allowing for the mother’s fear as a victim of domestic abuse, and the vulnerability of her situation (heavily pregnant, with complications; living in her abusers home; and without her own economic resources) the judge found that she had failed to protect her son. From exposure to her own abuse, by delaying medical attention for serious injuries, and from the assaults on him that she not merely suspected, but believed were taking place.
All parties agreed that the only realistic option for A was to move to live with his father so that order was made. What’s not yet clear is what impact the findings made will have on the final welfare decisions for baby sister B or the mother’s future contact with A. It may be that a judgment will be published from that future hearing. It would be interesting to understand what social work took place in the lead up to A being repeatedly injured, and the outcome of the welfare hearing. At this point the judge has simply said:
The position in relation to B requires further assessment of family members and perhaps of the first respondent [ie. the mother]. That will be the subject of further consideration following the delivery of this judgment.
What’s also clear from this hearing is that there were no concerns at all about this mother’s care for her child for around the first 22 months of his life before she moved in with the step father. And that as late as March 2019, some three months after A had been seriously injured and care proceedings issued, she was still meeting up with him and had been assaulted again by him.
It’s perhaps useful to re-state Practice Direction 12J on the impact of domestic abuse on children: “Domestic abuse is harmful to children, and/or puts children at risk of harm, whether they are subjected to domestic abuse, or witness one of their parents being violent or abusive to the other parent, or live in a home in which domestic abuse is perpetrated (even if the child is too young to be conscious of the behaviour). Children may suffer direct physical, psychological and/or emotional harm from living with domestic abuse, and may also suffer harm indirectly where the domestic abuse impairs the parenting capacity of either or both of their parents.”
The judgment illustrates some very real tensions for the family justice and child protection systems between the need to provide realistic and meaningful support to (mostly) mothers such as this one experiencing serious domestic abuse, and the imperative to protect children, in time, from risk of grave harm.
Image with thanks to StephanieLePointon at Flickr Creative Commons