Child Abuse and the Pool of Possible Perpetrators – Court of Appeal Guidance

In cases of suspected child abuse, a judicial finding that a parent is within the pool of possible perpetrators is obviously devastating for family life. As a guideline Court of Appeal decision made clear, such findings should only be made on clear evidence following a careful investigation.

The case concerned three young girls who were found to have been infected with gonorrhoea. The police used emergency powers to remove them from their parents’ home and they were placed in foster care. The local authority obtained interim care orders and, following a hearing, a family judge found that he could not exclude the possibility that the girls’ father had in some way caused their infection.

In challenging that ruling, the father’s lawyers pointed out that he had twice been tested for gonorrhoea with negative results. Due to the family’s unsettled lifestyle, the girls had come into contact with a number of other adults. Their mother had said that their father was never left alone with them and that their infection was a complete mystery to her. The girls had made no complaints of abuse by the father, or anyone else, and there was a real possibility that they had been infected as a result of nothing more sinister than a dirty towel or lavatory seat.

In upholding the father’s appeal, the Court noted that, in order to place the father in the pool of possible perpetrators, a likelihood or real possibility that he had infected the girls had to be established by the local authority. The judge had, however, reversed the burden of proof in considering not whether the father belonged within the pool of suspects, but whether he should be excluded from it.

There were no other signs that the girls had been abused and the judge had not required the council to make a positive case that the father had done so. The judge did not make any adverse findings about the father’s credibility, but nevertheless disbelieved his account that he had neither had gonorrhoea nor abused his children.

The judge had proceeded on the mistaken assumption that only men can transmit gonorrhoea and the lack of a thorough investigation had resulted in none of the other adults with whom the girls came into contact being interviewed. That had led to the father inadvertently being placed in a pool of one. The judge’s finding against the father would in any event be of very low forensic value in future care proceedings. The Court directed that the fact-finding exercise be performed afresh.

B (Children: Uncertain Perpetrator). Case Number: B4/2019/0311