A High Court judge has awarded £20,000 damages to a mother and two children whose human rights were breached after “largely inexcusable” failings during a joint police and council investigation into abuse allegations.
Judge Cobb found the children, a boy and a girl, were wrongly kept in care and separated from their mother for months. This was despite West Yorkshire Police holding evidence that cleared the mother from offences related to sexual images of children found on the father’s computer.
The judge found the police took an “overly defensive” stance to sharing information. He also criticised Wakefield council’s “rudderless” case management and poor supervision of an inexperienced social worker who carried out a fundamentally flawed interview as part of the investigation.
Arrest and care proceedings
Police arrested both parents in February 2015 after discovering nearly 5,000 indecent images and videos on the father’s computer. The father alone was later charged with downloading indecent images of children and sent to prison.
The images discovered by police included a short video of a woman abusing a child. The lead detective sergeant (DS) on the case was initially “90% certain” the video showed the mother. There was also an indecent photo that the DS was “99% certain” showed the daughter.
As a result, the children were taken into care the day after their parents’ arrests and spent 10 months in a fostering placement while the council brought care proceedings.
Emergence of evidence
However, by the end of March – two months after the arrest – forensic experts told police the woman in the video was not the mother and the girl in the photo was not the daughter. The police failed to share this information with the local authority for almost three months.
On 10 June, the police, through a separate investigation, also discovered a longer version of the abuse video. This showed it originated from the USA and proved “indisputably” that the mother was not involved. The police failed to tell the council or mother about this evidence until a care proceedings hearing in November.
‘Low points’ of investigation
In the meantime, two interviews formed what the judge called the “low points” of the investigation.
The police interviewed the parents under caution and showed them the still image of the girl to see if they would erroneously identify her as their daughter. This was despite police knowing at the time the photo was not of her.
Separately, an inexperienced local authority social worker carried out an Achieving Best Evidence interview with the daughter. The social worker, who had never handled a sexual abuse case before, showed the girl a pixelated version of the image and asked if it was her, despite knowing at the time it wasn’t. She also told the girl the photo was from a family album.
The judge said this was a “fundamentally wrong way” to interview the daughter, adding: “Showing the pixelated photograph to [the child], and misleading her as to its provenance, were blatant breaches of [the child’s] right to be treated fairly by the local authority.
“There is no doubt that the interview itself would have been distressing to [the child]; the manner in which it was conducted was designed or intended, it seems to me, to produce evidence which falsely implicated the mother.”
Giving evidence during the care proceedings, the social worker said her manager and council legal department told her the “local authority was going to take a particular line in the case” that “did not accord with her view”.
Judge Cobb heard how the manager and the local authority’s lawyer had edited the social worker’s final parenting assessment of the mother. New sentences were included which the judge said were targeted at “implicating the mother”. The social worker said she’d only spotted the changes after the report was filed, and they had contained views that she did not hold.
The judge said the “minor amendments were nonetheless significant” and should have been discussed with the social worker.
He said it was “regrettable” that the social worker was “so inexperienced” and said she gave the appearance of someone struggling who could be pressurised by seniors.
Cobb concluded the failings from both agencies occurred “within a context of individual and departmental professional pressure”.
He found no evidence of professional misconduct or negligence on the part of the social worker or local authority lawyer, nor a loss of objectivity. However, he warned the council’s case management was “rudderless, lacking in supervision, hampered by a lack of clear information” and incoherent.
The council was also “overly influenced” by the lead detective sergeant’s “misguided perception of the case”, the judge said. Cobb severely criticised the DS, who had found it difficult to change belief that the images featured the mother and her daughter, and encouraged the council to pursue a case on that basis, “even though he knew that this was, on the evidence of the expert not so”.
The judge found both the police and local authority had acted unlawfully and breached the mother and children’s rights to a fair hearing and rights to a private and family life. The damage caused by the handling of the case was “significant”, he added.
“For a period of many months, two children were separated from their mother against whom allegations of the most serious form of abuse were levelled, while all the while, evidence was available which served to exonerate her.”
Both Wakefield council and West Yorkshire Police apologised and agreed to split the £20,000 total damages cost, with £10,000 awarded to the mother and £5,000 to each of the children.