Northern Ireland mother wins battle for return of children after injury suspicions
A Northern Ireland mother has won a High Court battle for the return of two children taken from her over suspicions one suffered a non-accidental injury.
Her son and daughter, now aged four and two, were removed last September amid concerns over a skull fracture sustained by the little girl.
But a judge granted the woman's appeal against the move after ruling that the Trust had failed to prove its case for taking the action.
Mr Justice O'Hara also questioned whether the decision to remove and separate the brother and sister was a proportionate response to concerns at the time.
He said the term 'non-accidental injury' is perhaps used too loosely in such cases.
"In practice it can cover everything from a violent and sustained attack on a child to tired or frustrated handling of a child by a parent who is isolated and stressed - and often poor," the judge added.
"The label of non-accidental injury should not by itself be considered to constitute a basis for the removal of children without significantly more thought and consideration than is sometimes given."
Based on his verdict the boy and girl, referred to as B and A, have now been returned to the care of their mother and grandmother.
They had been removed last year due to a suspicion that A, then aged one, had suffered non-accidental injuries (NAIs) at the hands of either of the two adults.
At the time the family were not known to social services.
But in September 2014 A's mother and grandmother took her to hospital after noticing a swelling to her head and bruising to her ear.
Although x-rays revealed the skull fracture she was noted to be an otherwise healthy and clean child.
B was also checked and showed no sign of any injury.
When questioned about what had happened to the little girl, the mother and grandmother could give no definite explanation.
However, they said A was just starting to walk and had inevitably fallen a few times because of being unsteady on her feet.
She had also fallen down two steps on the stairs a few days previously while being looked after by her grandmother, the court heard.
Other possible explanations included her brother having a toy sword he waved around and her presence at a birthday party involving nine other children and a bouncy castle.
A hospital meeting between paediatricians, nurses and social workers reached a conclusion that the skull fracture was "non-specific for NAI".
They decided that although difficult to be definitive about the ear bruising, it was suspicious of NAI.
Both children were removed from the care of their mother and grandmother with immediate effect.
For the following 11 months they were with members of the extended family but separated from each other and their mother.
In May this year a Family Care Centre hearing determined the injuries to A were non-accidental, and that both the girl and her brother should remain removed from their mother.
Ruling on her appeal against that verdict, Mr Justice O'Hara said no reference was made to any of the positive facts pointing away from A having been injured non-accidentally.
He questioned how the fracture to the skull became a probable NAI rather than an indeterminate injury.
"There is no compelling reason for reaching such a conclusion," the judge said.
Setting out reasons for a decision reached earlier this month, he confirmed: "Since the Trust case for taking the children into care depended entirely on it being established that the injuries were non-accidental and since I have decided that this was not proved the children have already been returned to the care of their mother and grandmother. "
The judge added that in future cases involving injuries to children medical witnesses should not be asked to express an opinion on whether they were accidental or otherwise.
"The burden of proof always lies with the Trust which alleges that injuries are non-accidental," he emphasised.
Mr Justice O'Hara referred to a doctor's "speculation" that the bruising to A's ear might have been caused by it being held between a finger and thumb and pulled.
"Even if that is what happened I question how that could possibly have justified the removal of the children, even on a temporary basis, pending a court hearing to determine the issues."