There are few more momentous steps a judge can take than ordering a mother’s separation from her baby. Michelle Whitaker looks at a recent case in which the Court of Appeal powerfully made that point in ruling that a mother with learning difficulties was not given a fair hearing before a judge sanctioned her newborn son’s removal from her care.
Social workers became involved during the woman’s pregnancy but no good plans were made as to what would happen after her baby was born. The local authority obtained an interim care order soon after she gave birth and accommodation was found where she and her baby were closely supervised at all times by two or three adults.
Even with such intensive support, the boy’s guardian expressed concern that the mother could not cope. She said that the mother might inadvertently harm her son through clumsy handling and that the boy was not receiving the close care and emotional warmth he needed. She recommended that he be separated from his mother immediately and placed in foster care.
Following a hearing, a family judge accepted that recommendation. He found that the stressed mother gave no indication of being able to absorb parenting advice and that her son would be exposed to a risk of physical, emotional and developmental harm unless separated from her. The boy’s removal from his mother was, however, stopped when an out-of-hours application was made to a judge on the mother’s behalf – the boy was still only 12 days old when the case came before the Court.
In upholding the mother’s appeal, the Court noted that the judge was placed in a very difficult position because the planning for the baby’s arrival had not been as good as it should have been. The council had shifted its position during the hearing and any parent, let alone a mother with learning difficulties, would have found the proceedings hard to face.
The risks to the baby were not so severe that he had to be removed from his mother on the spot and she had been given no fair opportunity to put her side of the story. The Court directed that the case should be sent back to the same judge for fresh consideration and that the mother and baby should in the interim remain together with a high level of support.