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Family Togetherness – A Cautionary Tale

Date posted: 15 October 2020

Re ABC (Children: Overlaying Child) [2020] EWFC 57

 

This case is a cautionary tale regarding the process of co-sleeping with an infant.

 

The case concerned three children, A (10), B (8) and C (2). Their brother, D, tragically died on 13th March 2019 at the age of two months. A fact-finding hearing was held to establish the cause of D’s death and the circumstances of rib fractures found post mortem.

 

D was born prematurely at 31 weeks. Shortly after his discharge home a health visitor advised the parents against the practice of co-sleeping, even using a `sleepy head’ cushion.

 

That same day the family had visitors to watch the Cheltenham Festival. Alcohol was consumed by both parents, and cocaine by the father. That night the parents, and the 3 youngest children, all slept in the same bed. The father woke in the night and found D was not breathing. Sadly the paramedics were unable to resuscitate D.

 

During these proceedings the father continually thwarted drug testing attempts by cutting his hair short and removing body hair. Keehan J concluded this was deliberate, and that he was `a most unsatisfactory and unreliable witness’.

 

The parents’ relationship was complex. There was physical and verbal domestic violence, the father used Cocaine, and had a significant gambling addiction which had led to him borrowing large sums of money. The father was self-admittedly dishonest and the mother feared he was unfaithful.

 

The court was assisted by expert evidence from four consultants from different disciplines. The Judge also had reports from the consultant perinatal pathologist who performed the post-mortem and an expert in the interpretation of micro CT scans.

 

The parents accepted the unanimous expert evidence that D had sustained 23 rib fractures, during at least two events. They also accepted that there was no medical or organic cause for these, and had no explanation for the cause of the fractures.

 

The Judge was satisfied that D died from asphyxia caused either by (i) one of his parents over laying him so as to block his airway; or (ii) D being in a micro climate in his parents’ bed which was low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide. In relation to the rib fractures, they were either caused by two or more episodes of overlaying by one of his parents; or they were inflicted by one of his parents. He concluded that the parents were untruthful not for any sinister reason but due to the `guilt, shame and remorse they both now feel as a result of their roles in the death of D.’ The Judge found it was far more likely that the fractures were caused by overlaying when co-sleeping with his parents.

 

The parents accepted the findings in full and apologised for not being frank or following medical advice. A rehabilitation plan was proposed by the local authority and supported by all parties.

 

Keehan J concluded by saying that the death of D was entirely preventable and resulted from the ill-advised practice of co-sleeping.  He said ‘I hope the publication of these judgments will highlight and underscore the dangers inherent in co-sleeping with babies and young children.’

 

It is of note that the parents’ change of attitude following fact finding, and their acceptance of fault, led to a plan for their other children to be rehabilitated home. The media often focuses on social services removing children permanently from families, but it is not uncommon for children to be returned to their families when risks have been fully addressed and acceptance of mistakes have been made.

 

We are able to provide advice and representation in care proceedings, and we specialise in cases where non-accidental injuries are suspected. Please contact our Patricia Beckett at p.beckett@wilsonllp.co.uk for more details, or to arrange for an appointment, please call Mavis on 020 8885 7986