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Child care proceedings - case study

Associate solicitor Tim Galbraith represented a mother in care proceedings concerning her son who was six months old at the point court proceedings commencing. 

The mother worked in research studying at university. Her husband, the child’s father, in full time employment. The child concerned was their first child. Prior to the proceedings there had not been any history of involvement from social services. Neither parent had had any involvement with the police. Both could be described as decent upstanding citizens. The family actively engaged in the local church.

The mother sought medical advice as the child seemed to be in pain and something didn’t quite seem right. The mother initially took the child to the GP who checked the child over and said everything seemed okay. By the next day the parents were concerned that things still did not seem quite right and the child might not be moving one of his arms normally. They took him back to the GP. They were referred onto the hospital. The hospital were initially satisfied the child was okay but the mother asked that an x-ray be done of the child’s arm.  The x-ray revealed a fracture. This came as a surprise to the parents and they couldn’t explain how this might have happened. A full skeletal survey was then undertaken at the hospital and two further fractures were found which were thought to be older and had occurred at different times. Again this came as a surprise to the parents and they could not explain how the fractures might have occurred. The parents could recall a time about a month previous when the child had seemed to have been in pain when being dressed but quite soon afterwards seemed okay again and they thought nothing of this. 

The doctors at the hospital said that because the parents couldn’t explain how the fractures had been caused they were likely to be non-accidental injuries. Social services and the police were involved and the child was taken into foster care. Court proceedings then commenced. 

The court ordered independent reports from a paediatrician and a radiologist to consider the injuries. Tim Galbraith took detailed instructions from the mother regarding her history including her medical history and family history and thus identified various unusual features and potential complexities. In light of these, we were able to convince the court to also direct a report from a professor in endocrinology. Identifying such an expert was extremely difficult and involved enquiries on a national basis over several weeks.

The independent paediatrician and independent radiologist were both of the view that the fractures were likely, on the balance of probabilities, to be non-accidental injuries. The professor in endocrinology, however, identified relevant matters in the mother’s medical history and in the progression of her pregnancy that meant that it was likely that the baby was vitamin D deficient at birth. It was also identified that although the child’s vitamin D levels were sufficient when tested on admission to hospital (when fractures were found), this could have been due to exposure to summer sunshine at that time and it was not possible to say whether the child’s vitamin D levels had been insufficient at the time the fractures had been caused as this could have been some time previously and it was not known exactly when the fractures had been caused. It was also identified that although there was no radiological evidence to support vitamin D deficiency being a factor in the fractures, it is not known what level of vitamin D deficiency is necessary to result in weakened bones and it is not known what levels would necessarily be capable of being identified by radiological evidence. 

Alongside the expert medical evidence, Tim Galbraith was also able to present to the court, again having taken a very detailed history from the client, relevant lay evidence. Witness statements were provided from family and friends who had seen the child in the weeks prior to him being taken to hospital and could attest to him presenting as well and moving his arms normally. Photographic evidence was also provided to the court in this regard. Such evidence was important to cast doubt upon the views from the medical experts that if the child has sustained fractures there would have been an obvious reaction to this and a period following the fractures whereby they were obvious to anybody caring for the child. This was important in presenting evidence to the court that the medical picture might not be straightforward. 

Following a lengthy hearing in which the court heard from relevant medical experts (treating and independent) and from the parents, Stephensons was able to convince the court that the local authority’s case based upon medical evidence was not sufficiently cogent to enable the court to make findings that the injuries had been caused non accidentally.  As such, it flowed from that immediately that threshold for intervention into the family was not crossed and the child was immediately returned home after spending several months in foster care. The family’s relief was huge. The parents had always been adamant that they had caused no harm at all to their child. After their child being away from them in foster care for several months, they were then able to begin the process of recovering and rebuilding their lives. 

Following the case, the care solicitor representing the child emailed the team at Stephensons to compliment the team for succeeding in securing the expert witness testimony of an endocrinologist who changed the course of the case and ensured the children stayed with the parents.