A case in which two premature twins were returned to their parents after one child suffered rib fractures, head injuries and subdural bleeding raises serious questions about the way in which first impressions are used in family proceedings.

The judgment, which was handed down by Judge Middleton-Roy in the family court at Watford concluded that the parents’ exemplary behaviour during medical and child protection investigations and subsequent court hearings, were proof that the parents were not capable of inflicting the injuries discovered by medical professionals.

Hertfordshire County Council had applied for care orders for both of the children but the orders were subsequently dismissed.

In his judgment, Middleton-Roy painted a picture of two loving parents who could not have inflicted the injuries sustained by their baby, and seemed to gloss over the father’s acute anxiety and nervousness during questioning, which was put down to a communication disorder by a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, though the father was not deemed to need an intermediary during court proceedings in spite of the alleged condition.

Even more troubling is that this case appears to favour the parents based not just on their eager cooperation with investigators and social workers, but their social standing. The mother is a scientist and the father works in the property sector. The parents had paid for IVF privately in order to conceive. The judgment also records that the parents’ accommodation was comfortable and that their finances had been “carefully planned”.

The health visitor noted that the parents’ home was “warm, welcoming, clean and tidy”, and that the parents showed a great deal of warmth and affection to their twin babies.

However, the medical evidence is substantial and highlights the following injuries:

  • Retinal haemorrhages in both eyes;
  • Fractures of two of the baby’s left ribs;
  • Acute subdural bleeding on both sides of the interhemispheric fissure extending onto the upper surface of the tentorium and in the posterior fossa;
  • Right-sided haemorrhagic (subdural) effusion;

Medical experts concluded that these injuries could best be explained through rigorous shaking. They were unable to offer alternative causes for some of the injuries, which remain unexplained but one medical expert said that the retinal haemorrhages could have been due to the premature birth and that this area of injury was still being explored by the medical community.

The judgment also explains that one of the factors in the judge’s decision to return the babies to their parents was a lack of evidence showing who might have caused these injuries if they were non accidental.

The evidence did not show a link between the injuries sustained by the baby and who might have caused them if they were deliberately inflicted. This is important because the judge had clearly applied the law in this area properly. If a threshold can’t be met, a finding should never be made.

That of course, does not always mean that a person is guilty or innocent, simply that the facts before the court cannot help to establish a finding.

This site cannot pass judgment on whether or not the parents were guilty of shaking their baby, but we did consider for a moment the high levels of stress on new parents having to cope with not one but two premature babies, despite a network of friends and family to help them. We certainly feel that if one or both parents had caused the injuries it would not have been out of malice, but stress and exhaustion.

The issue that concerns this post however, is the ongoing practice in courts of judging parents by their levels of cooperation and demeanour.

Human nature is such that it is very natural for parents who fear being separated from their children permanently – in any context – to feel anxious, aggressive and even wary of professionals coming into their lives. It is not always a symptom of guilt, and far too many parents are judged, wrongly, by their demeanour.

And often, a lack of cooperation stems from poor treatment by professionals inside the family courts.

By contrast, research tells us that some individuals can present as extremely polite and helpful – even charming – when faced with the possibility of being found out for committing an act of violence, even if they are being badly treated by professionals.

That too, is human nature.

In his judgment Middleton-Roy explained that “The Court is likely to place considerable weight on the evidence and the impression it forms of the parents.”

This site does not think that last part is right. We would like to see judges focusing on the facts and asking pertinent questions based on tangible information and then focusing on the answers, rather than how they are delivered. If judges would like to analyse behavioural patterns, they should ensure that they have high level psychology degrees or equivalent qualifications to do so.

You can read the judgment in full here.