Gloucester House, 4 Dukes Green Avenue
Feltham, TW14 0LR
B e f o r e :
| THE LONDON BOROUGH OF BRENT
|- and –
ZH (a child through her Children's Guardian, Azucena Martinez)
John Buck (instructed by Chesham and Co Solicitors) for the First Respondent
Teresa Pritchard (instructed by Fort Solicitors) for the Second Respondent
Jean-Paul Sinclair (instructed by FMW Law) for the Third Respondent
Hearing dates: 13-15 January; 14 February and 12 March 2020
Crown Copyright ©
His Honour Judge Willans:
Background to proceedings
i) The history until the previous social work involvement is essentially self-reporting. RA's history is international in character (having been born in the middle eastern country Y) and there are no relevant historic records to set against the history given. I bear in mind this raises questions as to the accuracy of the account particularly as there appears a real issue as to whether RA's report of her brother's homelife is correct given contrary reports that he abducted his children to a foreign jurisdiction [Ms Mackenzie E71 §5.21]
ii) The history given by RA of her early years appears positive albeit disrupted by international travel. There are no relevant issues of concerns raised on her part [Dr Ratnam E46].
iii) Her relationship history comprises three relationships all of which are said to have involved domestic abuse:a) Her first relationship was a marriage to X [2008-9] but this broke down after only a matter of months due to reported domestic violence on his part.b) Next, she married AA in 2009. They have two children, M and H aged 8/9 respectively. This marriage lasted through until 2016 when RA divorced AA. She raised a series of allegations against AA, including that AA had sexually abused the children. As a result there were both private and then public law proceedings culminating in the making of an ICO on 2 November 2017 [transcript at H79] and a full care order on 16 April 2018 [transcript at H124]. It is noteworthy RA responded to the making of the ICO by taking flight with the children. They were not recovered until shortly after the making of the final order. They are now residing with AA (against who no findings were made) and it would appear do not have contact with RA.c) The circumstances of the relationship with HH will be more fully discussed within this judgment. However in summary it would appear RA met HH at some point prior to the making of the ICO and they then spent time together in north-west England prior to the recovery of the children. During this period they married and ZH was conceived. The quality and detail of this relationship is very much in dispute and is a matter on which I am bound to make determinations. RA is clear she has now separated from HH and from a relationship which she would describe as abusive. I understand her to suggest they are formally divorced.d) RA next 'reappeared' in January 2019 when she was found to be pregnant with ZH.
iv) RA denied any issues with alcohol or drugs.
v) RA has maintained a relationship with her own mother although this is significantly strained from time to time.
i) HH is a national of the middle-eastern country Z. His account is of an upbringing in modest conditions and leaving education at age 6. In the course of the hearing I was told he was illiterate. He has a poor grasp of English and required the assistance of an interpreter.
ii) His status in this country is precarious. His reported history includes involvement in political protest during a period of civil unrest in his native country. He has told me and provided documentation which suggests he is subject to a lengthy prison sentence imposed upon him in absentia. His status in this country was clarified to an extent on the final day of the hearing when he produced a document which suggested he liable for removal but is subject to bail conditions to live within the community. His parenting assessment suggests he is isolated within the community.
iii) I have a PNC (Police national computer) record of previous convictions in respect of HH. The history of this case includes police call-outs relating to the relationship between HH and RA.
iv) As with RA, HH denied any misuse of alcohol or drugs.
v) As to relationship history the account given was of RA being his first serious relationship. He had not been married previously and he has no other children.
vi) HH provided his account of the history of the party's relationship. As with RA he describes a relationship which appears to have arisen in somewhat unusual circumstances. However, there are material differences between RA and HH as to the quality and circumstances of the relationship. What is quite clear is that HH was present during the period that the older half-siblings were removed by RA.
i) The local authority sought and obtained an EPO and then ICO in respect of ZH shortly after her birth. ZH has remained in foster care since.
ii) On 10 April 2019 the Court ordered the parents to file statements covering important topics such as the party's relationship status; the circumstances pertaining to the older children going missing, and; HH's immigration status. HH sought to comply with this direction in filing a statement on 30 July 2019 [C36]. Unfortunately, RA failed to comply with the direction and her only evidence in the case was filed on the morning of the first day of the final hearing.
iii) The CMH took place on 9 May 2019. Drug testing was ordered in respect of each parent and further directions were held over for a follow-up hearing given disagreement as to whether the parenting assessment would be community or residential in nature.
iv) This resolved on 16 May 2019. The court approved a community-based assessment by the ISW. The father was promoting his brother (who lives in Z) as an alternative carer. The Court considered it was necessary for Dr Parsons to meet with HH and provide a psychological assessment in his respect [by 21 June 2019] and confirmed the instruction of Dr Ratnam to provide a psychiatric assessment of the mother [by 4 July 2019]. An IRH was fixed for 27 August 2019.
v) The Court held a directions appointment on 10 July 2019. At this time the parents had failed to engage/properly engage with the psychologist / psychiatrist and ISW. Allegations had been made between the parents of physical assault and the local authority were raising the question of contact being suspended due to the perceived difficulties with managing contact. The Court extended the time for both the psychiatric report and ISW but discharged the psychological report. At this time kinship assessments were limited to family in country Z. The IRH date was modestly varied and a directions appointment fixed to permit review of the case.
vi) On 23 July 2019 the Court reviewed the case. RA was said to have attended her appointment with Dr Ratnam, but contact had been reduced due to non-attendance. Dr Ratman was now to report on 16 August 2019 and the time for the ISW and for the consequential evidence was put back with the IRH being redated. Legal advice was directed as to any issues surrounding placement with family in Z.
vii) There then followed a series of consent orders [21 August; 23 August and 30 September 2019] which (a) dealt with difficulties being faced in assessing the family in country Z and which (b) permitted Dr Parsons to assess HH on the basis he made clear he would co-operate with such assessment. The ultimate consequence was that the IRH was further put back to 5 November 2019.
viii) However the matter returned to Court on 8 October 2019. The Court was informed it was not possible to enter country Z to carry out any assessment of family. The direction for such an assessment was discharged. Quite separately the legal advice raised issues as to the legal stability of any placement. The direction for a psychological assessment was discharged for the second time. Warnings were given to RA as to the likely implications were she to fail to comply with existing Court directions. Given the delay the Court fixed dates for the final hearing.
ix) On 5 November 2019 the Court held an IRH. Threshold was deemed to be met given the failure of RA to provide any response despite repeated directions. At this point RA was refusing to provide her residential address to the local authority. At the hearing on 8 October 2019 HH did not attend having stated he was frightened RA would kill him. At the hearing on 5 November 2019 he stated the parties had been in recent contact with each other. At this hearing RA put forward a kinship alternative for the first time. The Court refused such an assessment due to the timing of the request and due to the limited connection between RA and the proposed carers.
x) I would add that a discrete police disclosure order was made on 5 November 2019 and repeated on 19 November 2019.
xi) Ultimately Dr Ratnam reported on 18 August 2019 and Ms Mackenzie on 23 August 2019. I have hair strand tests for RA dated 19 June and 29 October 2019. I have a hair strand test for HH dated 29 August 2019. Paternity was confirmed on 25 April 2019. The legal advice with respect to country Z is dated 23 August 2019 and following questions being put 25 September 2019.
Analysis of Evidence
Assessment of witnesses
The removal of the children within the previous proceedings
The removal to Liverpool
The nature of the parent's relationship when in Liverpool
i) The relationship was not particularly happy but it was not a forced marriage. It is quite clear from the evidence that RA wanted to marry HH to resolve her situation. Furthermore the basis for the claim of a 'forced' or 'coercive relationship' does not stand up to real scrutiny. RA at one point raises complaints as to her cooking as a basis for her allegation of being a 'modern day slave'.
ii) I accept the parents may not have lived together at all points. I am though confident they spent considerable time in each other's company and had a sufficient relationship to fully understand what was happening to the children in their care.
iii) I do not accept RA's account of being restricted in her movements. At one point she refers to being kept in a form of slavery. However, elsewhere to defend her actions in relation to the children she refers to many days trips to benefit the children.
iv) In any event RA fell pregnant during this period with ZH.
v) I accept there were calls placed to family members and I accept the evidence of a call being made to the children's father. However this in my judgment does not absolve the parents of their foolish part in the removal of the children. I suspect it is an aspect of the growing realisation that the plan could not be maintained and that a way out was required.
vi) Ultimately in circumstances which will remain unclear the children were found alone in a park in Manchester on 4 May 2018. I am willing to accept they were not simply 'dumped' there but had been left to be found so that they would be recovered. This does not however lessen the seriousness of the whole incident or the undoubted impact upon the children of what was about 6 months of wholly chaotic removal.
Events after relocating to London / Police involvement
This is a victim who has been allegedly held against her will, after being bailed for being involved in a kidnap matter. She has failed to sign on according to her bail conditions. Now, she attends a police station claiming that she has been held against her will but has suffered no violence, no sexual assaults but told to cook three times a day in order to remain housed. The victim does not want to provide evidence, does not want to provide details of the offence including suspects details or the venue. There are no lines of enquiry at this stage and it leaves me to think that perhaps this information is not entirely genuine.
The details in such regard are found at CRIS G244. I share the scepticism of the police.
i) The sensitive way the local authority managed the evidence
ii) The fact that the same photographs had been seen by RA many months before the hearing
iii) The fact that the same photographs had been exhibited to the social work statement and included within the bundle without any objection.
RA simply refused to engage with photographs during the hearing. In the case of the photographs showing the parties together, RA disputed these were taken as late as November 2019 but, despite agreeing she had only been in a rickshaw style conveyance once (as seen in the photograph) she could not provide a contrary date for the events.
i) It is quite clear the parents have shared a significantly enmeshed and toxic relationship. My ability to fully understand their relationship is limited by my reservations as to the party's openness as to the real circumstances in which it commenced. However, there is clear evidence of breakdown, with police involvement, followed by forms of reconciliation. At times RA has obtained replacement accommodation only for HH then to resurface at the property. The significant concern is the reconciliations have followed serious allegations not trifling disputes. I bear in mind RA made reports akin to modern day slavery in January 2019 only to then be living with HH again in March 2019 (see the account of the Hostel Manager which I accept).
ii) I accept the evidence of the hostel workers as to HH being present throughout RA's residence at the property. I do not accept RA's account of his presence being explicable by other residents known to HH in the hostel. The evidence of the hostel workers is clear and compelling. I note the evidence of HH leaving with a suitcase and the audio recording of the incident supports the notion of him having chattels at the property.
iii) Whilst I cannot be certain as to the exact dating of the 'November pictures' I am satisfied these pictures show a relationship enduring for a longer period than accepted by RA. I find it noteworthy she failed to put any alternative date on the photographs despite it being likely the events were memorable. They plainly took place in London and this must have been in 2019. However, on her own case there was no identifiable period in 2019 when they shared a loving relationship.
iv) I am deeply troubled by the failure of RA to support police action. Each of the reports shows her being more focused on extraneous matters than the question of personal safeguarding. Too often RA is seen to refuse the support and guidance given in favour of the plan of action favoured by herself. Of course I remind myself as to the dependencies that can develop out of a coercive relationship, but I simply cannot reconcile such an understanding with the facts as disclosed in this case.
v) I bear in mind the allegations of violence and accept there is a prima facia case made out in such regard. I note the evidence of the bloody nose witnessed by the police in February 2019 and of the reported injuries apparently witnessed by the refuge in September 2019. These give me real cause for concern as to the level of violence in the relationship. But my task is not made easier by the absence of clear contemporaneous evidence from RA and from her failure to support police action. Furthermore, in respect of the September incident I simply do not accept the refuge left RA (as she claims) in an injured state for many days without supporting her complaint to the police. This inaction on her part is a general theme of her history. Even during the hearing and despite being given the opportunity RA failed to evidence the pictures she said were available to prove her injuries; additionally she failed to adequately particularise her allegations even in her very late statement. In general terms I am cautious as to third party reporting as to her presentation when this falls short of actual injuries. I say this as I have witnessed her somewhat over dramatic responses during the hearing and I have been left with a real sense of caution that others may have been misled as to the actual events which have occurred.
vi) Yet there is supporting evidence which cannot be ignored. My assessment is that the relationship has at times involved physical altercations between the parties and RA has suffered physical harm. However, I also find that she has failed to take adequate steps to safeguard herself and has reconciled with HH after the event.
vii) I find this enmeshed relationship is likely a function of the inward focusing quality of the relationship in which neither has alternative support networks and are each isolated wholly dependent on the other (at times both financially and emotionally). This leads to RA/HH seeking the other out after periods of dispute and neither having the force of personality to reject the others approach.
viii) On the evidence I accept the parties are currently not involved in a relationship with the other. However I question how relevant this is having regard to:a) The previous history of subsequent reconciliation after breakdownb) The fact that this is not RA's only relationship involving difficulty. In her case all her relationships have been surrounded by problematic featuresc) The speed at which the relationship appears to have developed and the lack of mature reflection shown by either party prior to deepening their relationship. This leaves me questioning the potential for an equally troubling relationship to replace this one.
Court assessments and residual evidence
Both parents present with a lack of emotional or financial stability and a lack of a strong family support network in the UK, as well as a lack of stable family home to be able to bring up ZH as a secure and happy child. The ongoing conflict between them and the fact that they are still married…links them together and escalates the risk of harm to ZH if placed in the care of either parent
The level of parental antagonism is demonstrated by the view of each parent that ZH would be better placed for adoption than placed with the other parent. The guardian took the view that current separation would not change her analysis given they have each put their own interests above the child's interests and any change at this stage is only the commencement of understanding. The fact that the mother has recently called the police should be assessed in the light of historic reports followed by reconciliation. She did not agree factual separation would mean 'the evidence was out of date'. Problematically RA's relationship issues are not solely associated with her relationship with HH and so there can be no confidence that problems would not continue to arise whether with HH or not. She told me ZH cannot wait for her mother to engage in a further assessment including further drug testing. She has already waited 10 months for her parents to make a change. She could not sensibly speculate as to when the parents would be ready to care for ZH. The child cannot wait and given neither have accepted any responsibility for the situation they face there are limited prospects for future change.
The party's proposals and a holistic assessment of the realistic options
His Honour Judge Willans