Newborn baby taken into care from parents with learning disabilities after father speaks about bottle-feeding

Mr Justice Cobb says there was 'no doubt in my mind' that social workers had violated the couple’s human rights

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The Independent Online

Social workers wrongly took a newborn baby into care when the father was overheard discussing the benefits of bottle feeding, a judge has ruled.

The parents, who both have mild learning disabilities, were awarded damages after Mr Justice Cobb found there was no justification for Kirklees Council in South Yorkshire to remove the one-week-old baby boy from their care.

He said there was “no doubt in my mind” that social workers had violated the couple’s human rights after they persuaded another judge to take the baby into emergency care in November 2015.

Staff at the special care unit where the infant spent the days following his “traumatic” delivery expressed no concerns about the parents’ fitness to care for their child, he said. 

But he said that maternity ward doctors told the council they had concerns about the couple’s long-term ability to care for the baby.

His judgement, handed down after a private hearing at the family court in Sheffield, said the baby was taken into care after social workers said the mother had no family support and “the father was expressing unorthodox views about the need for sterilisation of bottles, and the benefits of formula milk”.

“The father struggles to manage his frustrations at times, and has displayed controlling and aggressive behaviour to others," Judge Cobb said.  The mother suffers with “minor mental health difficulties”, in addition to a mild learning disability.

The parents, both in their mid 20s, have received support from adult social care over the last decade, and health services were involved in planning for the baby's arrival, he said. 

He found that the council rushed to court to obtain an emergency care order just before the baby was due to be discharged from hospital.

At that hearing, the judge was incorrectly told the parents were aware of the hearing and had “agreed” to their child being placed in care, he said. 

The council claimed they “forgot” to notify Cafcass, the authority which represents children in family courts, about the case, so there was no lawyer to argue on behalf of the child’s interests.

The judge said the couple were “understandably very upset” when told about the hearing.

The baby was placed in the care of his paternal grandmother for three months until he was eventually reunited with his parents following a series of further hearings.

Mr Cobb said the baby had continued to thrive since being returned to his parents.

He said: “There is no doubt in my mind, indeed it is admitted, that Kirklees Council breached the human rights of a baby boy and his parents.

“I am satisfied that the breaches were serious", he said, adding that "the separation of a baby from his parents represents a very serious interference with family life.”

The judge awarded the mother, the father and the little boy £3,759 each in damages, which he said was “just and fair satisfaction” for the disruption caused to family life and the trauma of separation - although the money will be eaten up in court costs.

He said failure to notify the parents of the care hearing was “particularly egregious” and had involved “misleading the judge no fewer than three times.”

The judge said both parents had “responded positively to advice from professionals and consistently displayed warm and affectionate interaction with (the baby) during a difficult time when on the special baby care unit.”

The judge found that although the mother signed a section 20 order, handing over care of her baby, there was an issue over her capacity to give consent, and that social workers had failed to involve the father in this accommodation order.

Kirklees Council was ordered to pay a total of £120,000 in costs, with the judge criticising “unwarranted expenditure” of the law firms involved after hearing the family had received leag aid to the tune of £80,000.

A statement from the council, said: “Mistakes were made which resulted in the court awarding the family compensation. The local authority has been ordered to pay a contribution of the publicly funded costs of the claimants, which cover specific periods of the case.

“This is due to the way the claimants litigation was conducted.”

Claire Lucas of the mental health charity, Mencap, said an estimated seven per cent of the 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK are parents, but only half actually live with or care for their children.

"Local accessible family and parenting services aren’t always available to adults with a learning disability, and it’s this lack of understanding and support that can play a key part in decisions about removing a child from a family.

"Parents with a learning disability can be good parents with the right support. If the right support is in place from family members and local authorities, we can ensure that families are able to stay together and flourish, rather than being torn apart.”

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