UK Family Law Reform

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Parents regain access to children after five year battle

A London couple have regained access to their two daughters after a five-and-a-half year saga which saw the father imprisoned with sex offenders and both children taken into care.

In the recently published case, Mrs Justice Hogg set aside findings of abuse and culpable harm against Ben Butler of Sutton in Greater London, as well as a finding against Mr Butler’s former partner Jennifer Gray that she had failed to protect their eldest daughter from harm.

The judge said: “The last five and a half years must have been an extraordinary difficult time for the parents. They lost the care of their beloved daughter and both have faced findings against them in the family proceedings, and in the father’s case a serious criminal conviction and period in prison with child abusers, about which he told me, before that conviction was quashed.”

She added: “It is seldom that I see a “happy end” in public law proceedings. It is a joy for me to oversee the return of a child to her parents.”

The story had begun in February 2007. Mr Butler found his baby daughter Ellie gasping and limp. She was rushed to hospital, where doctors diagnosed bleeding in her eye as well as bleeding and swelling of the brain: symptoms often seen as indicators of ‘shaken baby syndrome’. However, a second set of doctors at another hospital later announced that the head injuries had in fact been caused at birth. The baby suffered from complications with her larynx and this could have caused obstruction of her airways. She went on to make a full recovery.

Mr Butler vehemently denied hurting his daughter and his former partner, Ellie’s mother Jennifer Gray, supported him in his claims. However he was arrested shortly after the incident, Ellie was placed with her material grandparents. A second daughter was placed in local authority care. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Miss Gray terminated a third pregnancy, fearing that that child too would be taken into care. She suffered complications and can now no longer have children.

Mr Butler was eventually convicted of GBH in March 2009. He received 18 months and shared a prison cell with a man convicted of sexual assault.

More than a year later, his conviction was quashed at the High Court. The judge’s summing up had been ‘defective’ and the conviction was unsafe. Walking free, he said: “I can’t believe so much money has been wasted on prosecuting an innocent person when there was so much evidence that it wasn’t a shaken baby case.”

Nevertheless, Sutton Council continued to insist that the both Ellie and Isabella were at risk and allowed the parents only brief supervised visits to both children. The authority planned to put Isabella up for adoption. Mr Butler and Miss Gray therefore had to return to the courts to try and persuade judges to set aside the Family Court findings that had led the two children being placed into care.

This they finally achieved in July, more than five years after the original incident with Ellie. Amongst other rulings, Mrs Justice Hogg accepted the father’s account of the incident and ruled that a combination of Ellie’s congenital health issues and Mr Butler’s panicked reaction when he discovered her had been the cause of the injuries and he was exonerated from any blame.
The judge ordered a social work assessment with a view to permanently reuniting the parents, and the case was adjourned.

The final hearings took place in late September. A very positive social work assessment was received and Sutton Council dropped plans to place second daughter Isabella in adoption. The judge ruled that the plans should begin to return the children to their parents.

She praised the parents for their tenacity: “The parents have weathered the storm. They have each been resilient and determined, and shown tenacity and courage. I hope now that the record is put straight, that with their tenacity they will be able to put behind them those difficulties and look forward to a more positive future.”

This case is a good illustration of a sometimes forgotten legal fact: family court findings do not necessarily echo criminal court proceedings. The two can run along parallel tracks. Of course, local authorities have to protect vulnerable children from malicious or inadequate parents. Anyone who has worked within family law for any length of time will have seen their fair share of such cases. Part of that vital role is keeping an eagle eye open for signs of abuse. But there is clearly a point at which a dogged determination to protect children spills over into a different kind of tragedy, one in which children’s lives are unnecessarily disrupted and disturbed and innocent parents lose years with their children.


Assessing Ordinary Parents as Abusers

Assessing Ordinary Children as Victims

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