Contact arrangements between children in care and their parents often raise vexed issues, but all the more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Michelle Whitaker recently reviewed a case concerning a mother who was denied skin-to-skin contact with her newborn baby, in which the High Court bent every sinew to achieve a just and practical resolution.
The mother suffered from an emotionally unstable personality disorder and accepted that she was not currently able to care for her daughter, who was born at the height of the pandemic. The child was made the subject of an emergency protection order when she was two days old and an interim care order was made soon afterwards. The mother launched proceedings against a health and social services trust after she was denied skin-to-skin contact with her baby.
At the Court’s prompting, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer made a rare but decisive intervention in the case. He advised that, in his professional view, a denial of skin-to-skin contact between mother and daughter was unnecessary and disproportionate.
Emphasising the importance of maternal bonding, he said that an absence of such contact could have long-term adverse consequences for both mother and child. With the benefit of that advice, a resolution was arrived at whereby the trust agreed to permit skin-to-skin contact with appropriate safety precautions in place to guard against transmission of COVID-19.
The mother pursued her claim for a declaration that the denial of skin-to-skin contact between her and her baby amounted to a breach of her human right to respect for her family life. In ruling that such a declaration would serve no useful purpose, however, the Court noted that the pandemic had caused unavoidable disruption to many families and found that the trust had acted proportionately when faced with a very difficult situation. The Court thanked the Chief Medical Officer for his constructive advice, which had led to a mutually beneficial resolution of the matter.
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