A judge has slammed poor practice during interviews of two sisters by a solicitor and a Cafcass children’s guardian, and their failure to pass on disclosures of sexual abuse.
In a family court fact-finding hearing, Mr Justice Keehan said the solicitor’s actions in one interview “ran a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse”.
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He found that the girls, now 12 and 13, had been abused over a number of years by their father and two other men, named as ZK and YQ, with whom their mother had been in relationships. He also found that their mother and maternal grandmother had been aware of the abuse but had sought to cover it up.
The guardian and solicitor became involved with the girls after they were taken into care in summer 2016. But their appointments were terminated soon afterwards, when it emerged they had failed to pass on disclosures of abuse made by the older child, identified as X, during an interview on 30 August 2016.
In his ruling, published earlier this month, the judge described numerous other “breaches of good practice” during the interview, which led him to disregard it as evidence in the case. He observed similar failings in relation to a second interview carried out by the two professionals with the younger sibling, Y, on 6 September 2016.
The two girls first came to Wolverhampton Council social workers’ attention in 2007, the year their parents separated, when Childline received an anonymous call alleging they had been subject to sexual and physical abuse, and neglect.
The following year, X became “panicky” in school at the prospect of going to her father’s house and began to show sexually inappropriate behaviour, while Y complained of pain when her nappy was changed at nursery.
A medical examination arranged by the local authority suggested the children had been abused. At this stage, though, they made no allegations against their father.
The sisters were placed on child protection plans but these ended in June 2009 because of a lack of conclusive evidence, and there being no further concerning behaviour.
In February 2014, the siblings were taken into emergency foster care after their father and YQ, whom their mother denied being in a relationship with, were arrested for raping another girl. Because of the lack of charges against the mother, the girls were returned to her care, with the support of their maternal grandmother.
X and Y were subsequently taken back into foster care in June 2016 after a series of allegations, made mostly by Y, relating to inappropriate touching and other abuse by their father, ZK and YQ. X had previously accused Y of telling lies about her father but on 26 August 2016 disclosed to a social worker that he had inappropriately touched her.
Four days later, the children’s guardian and solicitor visited X at her foster placement to gauge her feelings about giving evidence in court. “During the course of this interview X is recorded as having made a number of disclosures relating to her having been sexually abused,” Justice Keehan noted.
Yet the disclosures were not revealed until an advocates’ meeting on 12 September. An urgent directions hearing was subsequently sought, with the two professionals – whose appointments were ended on 30 September – ordered to hand over the notes of their interviews with X and Y and file witness statements.
“The guardian and solicitor’s interview of Y on 6 September 2016 could be the subject of considerable criticism,” Justice Keehan said. “However, for the purposes of this judgment I focus on the interview with X on 30 August where the most egregious errors occurred.”
The judge described the interview as a “two-hour cross-examination” that was led, contrary to usual practice, by the solicitor rather than the guardian.
“X was asked leading questions on innumerable occasions, she was contradicted repeatedly by [the solicitor] and when X denied a particular treatment or abuse by her father the question was put again and again, effectively denying the child the opportunity of being heard,” Justice Keehan said.
In a long list of further criticisms relating to the interview, the judge concluded that:
- it lasted for an excessive length of time
- no account was taken of X’s learning disabilities
- it was “wholly detrimental to X’s welfare and seriously imperilled a police investigation”, with a real possibility that X would be led into making false allegations
- the conduct of the interview was “wholly contrary” to the ostensible purpose of the visit
- record-keeping by both professionals was poor, with no reference being made to X’s demeanour during the questioning
“The breaches of good practice were so legion in the interview conducted with X that I have concluded that it would be unwise and unsafe for me to rely on any comments made [at that time] by X,” Justice Keehan said.
He also struck out of consideration a comment – the first mention by Y relating to her grandmother’s knowledge of the sexual abuse – in the 6 September interview, again because it had been “poorly conducted”.
The judge noted that the Cafcass children’s guardian – who was disciplined following the episode then reinstated – was an experienced practitioner who was “racked by guilt and remorse” that she had allowed the interviews to proceed. “She readily acknowledged the serious professional errors she had committed,” he said.
But Justice Keehan said that the solicitor appeared to have little appreciation of the gravity of her behaviour. He also raised concerns regarding the process via which she had been appointed to the case, despite having no previous experience of acting for children alleged to have suffered sexual abuse. Cafcass guidance from 2013, which was still in force last year, makes clear that the children’s guardian has ultimate discretion for appointing a suitable solicitor.
A Cafcass spokeswoman described the case as an “extremely rare” example in which practice from both the guardian and the child’s solicitor had fallen significantly beneath the standards expected.
“The judgment notes that the guardian readily acknowledged her professional errors in this case,” she said.
“In the vast majority of cases the working relationship between the child’s solicitor and guardian is strong, with each practitioner playing their part in representing the child’s views and rights,” the spokeswoman added.
The spokeswoman said that Cafcass was producing further guidance for staff on “Re W” assessments (around children giving evidence in the family courts) and on the professional behaviour and accountability issues arising out of the two sisters’ case.
The siblings’ long-term future care arrangements will be determined “in due course”.