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Child found walking barefoot in the snow but parents walk free from court

By Adrian Rutherford

It started with a young child found wandering barefoot in the snow 12 months ago.

Yesterday it ended in Omagh Magistrates Court when the child’s parents were dramatically cleared of neglect.

The couple embraced as a judge ruled they could not have foreseen how their child, aged just five, would end up wandering the streets of Omagh on a freezing February morning.

Clearing the man and woman, who cannot be identified to protect the child’s identity, district judge Greg McCourt said the allegations had not amounted to wilful neglect.

The case, described in court as a “dramatic and unusual situation”, began shortly after 5.30am on a bitterly cold winter’s morning last year.

A cleaner working in a supermarket found the child, barefoot and dressed only in pyjamas. She had wandered, alone and in the darkness in the sub-zero temperatures.

Two police officers would later discover footprints in the snow leading back to the young girl’s home, around a quarter-of-a-mile away.

There they found her parents asleep in an upstairs bedroom. A second child, aged 11 months at the time, was also in the bed.

She was later removed and taken to Omagh police station.

During the trial a police officer had recalled having trouble wakening the pair, a claim disputed by the child’s mother.

The man, who is the five-year-old’s stepfather, later claimed to be a heavy sleeper. Both admitted drinking the night before but denied being intoxicated.

Officers had recalled a strong smell of alcohol in the house. They described areas which were strewn with beer bottles and cigarette butts.

In court yesterday, however, Mr McCourt said that while the defendants’ home amounted to an untidy house, he did not accept it was “particularly relevant”.

“I find as a fact that the house was unclean and untidy, but I do not accept that that condition, on its own, was likely to lead to unnecessary suffering or injury to the health of either child,” he said.

The judge also said he found it difficult to accept that the mother had been so intoxicated when the officers had called at around 6am that morning that she could not be woken. He noted that the mother had been able to telephone police 27 minutes later asking about her children being taken away.

There was no suggestion of her speech being slurred, he continued, or that she had been difficult to understand in the phone call.

“I find it as a fact that the mother was not so intoxicated that she was incapable of looking after her children,” Mr McCourt added.

While it would have been preferable for the second, younger girl to be in a cot, he added there was no evidence the child had suffered by lying beside her mother.

Mr McCourt said he was satisfied that there was no issue with the children’s welfare. “No evidence, or even a suggestion, was made that the two children were in poor health, injured or unclean,” he added.

Furthermore, there was no evidence of previous neglect, and nothing to suggest the child had wandered away before.

Therefore, the judge concluded, the events of February 5, 2009 could not have been predicted by either of the accused.

He said it was “most unlikely and unforeseeable” that a five-year-old child would walk in her nightwear in the cold and on the snow-covered street in her bare feet.

The judge conceded that the “desirable” upbringing for children — an organised and clean house — did not happen in this case.

However, Mr McCourt noted that the children appeared in good health. They were clean and showed no sign of injury, he said.

Acquitting the defendants, he was satisfied that the allegations did not amount to wilful neglect.

The parents, who were casually dressed, sat alongside each other during the 10-minute hearing.

As the verdict was announced the man partially raised a clenched fist and smiled.

He then turned to his partner, exchanging hugs and kisses, both knowing their year-long nightmare was finally at an end.

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