By Emily Boardman

Children panel solicitor at Boardman, Hawkins & Osborne LLP

PEOPLE take their children to hospital for any number of reasons. It is always scary and, unless you are a medical professional yourself, much of what happens will pass in a blur.

You may be entirely unaware that the staff are wondering whether your child’s injuries were caused by you, or a member of your household. You may only know that they are doing a lot of tests, taking photos, doing more tests, asking you to stay in for longer.

If the hospital believe the injuries are non-accidental they will eventually say to you that they have to call social services because they have concerns, and they will mention ‘non-accidental injury’ (or NAI).

When the hospital thinks an injury may have been caused non-accidentally, or on purpose, they speak to a hospital social worker. They prepare a report in contemplation of court proceedings. That social worker speaks to their legal team and decisions are made, often very quickly, about whether they will seek a court order in relation to your child. Sometimes it is only then that you are told of their plans.

A local authority does not decide to bring an injury case without evidence from medical professionals and they always seek evidence from the most senior of the treating doctors (usually a paediatric consultant). They write a report stating that they believe the injuries to be non-accidental and it is this that the social worker relies upon.

The local authority then issues an application for an Emergency Protection Order (EPO) and the case comes to court very quickly (the same day or the next).

If the local authority applies for an EPO they are seeking to separate the child from her parents to safeguard her. They will argue that her safety depends upon being separated, or sometimes, supervised. A Judge is asked to make a decision based on the evidence before her and usually that is simply the medical evidence. At that stage it would be a rare judge who would risk further injuries by leaving a child wholly unsupervised in her family.

Remember that the local authority already has evidence and the parents do not.

Sometimes we can negotiate a compromise, such as the placement of the child and a parent in a supervised setting (foster care usually) while further investigations are undertaken. However, this involves an acceptance by the parent that the local authority have legitimate worries on some level, and not all parents can do that.

An EPO only lasts a short period so parents find themselves in court again within the week. Their situation has not really improved because it is usually impossible to gather evidence from medical professionals in a week, so they have to make the same decisions again when the local authority requests an Interim Care Order (ICO).

In most cases that involve injuries to small children the parents’ lawyers advise caution. Challenging the local authority when we have no supportive evidence is risky. Gathering evidence takes time. We need to know what evidence might exist before we can even request it. We might suggest an expert looks at the child’s injuries and forms an independent view of causation, but that takes months.