A judge has praised a local authority who went ‘far beyond what would normally be expected’ to work with parents who campaigned on social media against the ‘kidnapping’ of their baby.
Southampton council made ‘tremendous efforts’ to engage the boy’s parents and grandparents who refused to work with child protection and legal processes and set up Facebook and YouTube pages about the proceedings and demanding his return, Her Honour Judge Black said.
The YouTube videos include a recording of a phone call by a social worker to the couple – currently living in Portugal, the mother’s home country – unsuccessfully attempting to persuade them to return to England to attend the care order hearing, see their son and be assessed.
Sitting in the Family Court in Portsmouth last week, Judge Black said she was unable to find the parents had capacity to care for the child now or in the future:
“The[ir] behaviour and the misguided campaign they have pursued is evidence of them having no understanding of their child’s needs. Even meeting the most basic need of forming an attachment with their child has been failed by their parents as they have not seen him since the 4th March, and instead they left the country.”
She was satisfied by the evidence that they had abandoned their child and there were no other options apart from adoption. The child had been under an interim care order since he was a week old.
Judge Black noted the steps the local authority had taken to promote contact between the couple and the child, and explore options for him to live with them or his extended family. These included:
- In the initial stages, seeking an urgent hearing to address the parents’ lack of engagement in proceedings and offering a parallel planning approach to allow them more time to consider participating in the process.
- Following the parents’ failure to comply with the original ‘contract of expectations’ for contact, by not accepting advice and displaying threatening and disruptive behaviour, the council requested the court’s permission to refuse contact. However it agreed to a new twice weekly arrangement if the parents attended a meeting to discuss how they would manage contact.
- Extending the window of time initially agreed in a court order for the couple to take up the offer of a parenting assessment
- A number of attempts to assess the mother’s parents in Portugal, both involving the Portuguese consulate and local children’s services, and by independent social workers commissioned by Southampton.
- Delaying filing the final care plan to take further steps to try and assess the grandparents. The grandfather was described as ‘aggressive and obstructive’ and echoed the parents’ views that child trafficking and kidnap were taking place and that ‘the nurse receives money to kidnap babies’.
Concerns about the risk of harm were first raised when the parents asked to be discharged from hospital as quickly as possible after the baby was born and did not register his birth. They refused to allow midwives and GPs into the home in the subsequent days to check on him.
However they took the baby to hospital when he was six days old where he was found to be jaundiced and dehydrated. The consultant was concerned that the parents had not recognised that he needed immediate treatment. There were inconsistencies in how they reported on the child’s health; the father had made an initial phone call to the GP, worried that the child was unwell but then denied making it.
Staff were concerned that the father, who was English, may have administered a solution equivalent to industrial strength bleach to the baby indirectly through the mother’s breast milk. He sold this alternative medication as a treatment for cancer and autism online, including paraphernalia for giving it to babies.
Because of concerns that the parents may abscond or block enquiries about the baby’s health, he was removed under police powers of protection and then looked after under an interim care order until the case management hearing.
Judge Black said that the concerns around the father’s medical beliefs could have been allayed at that stage if he had been able to reassure the court that he would not administer the solution to the baby, or if it was satisfied that the mother would be a protective factor in preventing this. Alternatively there was an option to make orders for the mother to care for the baby on her own if the court was not satisfied in relation to the father.
However initial optimism that the parents were drawing a line under what they called misunderstandings and confusion around their communication with social workers, health and legal professionals “was short-lived”.
The parents sacked their lawyers for the remainder of the proceedings. At one hearing, the mother read a prepared script questioning the authority of the court and the parents were removed twice for not respecting the court.
Contempt of court
The local authority applied for injunctions to stop the parents posting about the proceedings on social media. Orders were granted but they continued to add to the Facebook and YouTube pages. The High Court judge who made the injunctions adjourned the council’s subsequent application for the parents to be committed for contempt of court but gave a judgment which he asked to be transcribed in English and Portuguese for the parents and grandparents.
In it he said their apparent belief that the baby had been stolen for a ‘forced adoption’ by the council in collusion with medical staff and the courts was ‘completely untrue’.
“If the parents believe it, they are deluded. If anyone is encouraging them in that belief, they are acting in a way that is wholly contrary to the interest of this child and his parents… There is a very real danger that, by continuing with their current internet campaign, they will only achieve the very thing they profess to be trying to avoid – permanent separation from their son.”
The case came back before Judge Black following the unsuccessful attempts to assess the grandparents. She found she could only conclude that they did not wish to be assessed as carers and they, like the parents, had been given a clear final chance to engage in the process.
Making care orders without the parents’ consent was therefore a necessary and proportionate interference in their article 8 rights to private and family life, she said. “Simply demanding through the media for their baby to be returned to them is not something that the Court could start to take into account as a plan or an option without there being first a full assessment to understand whether that would be not only a realistic option, but a safe option for the child.”