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Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Monday, 23 August 2010 01:01 UK
Parents' child abuse 'nightmare'

'Someone just tell us it's over'

By Darragh MacIntyre
BBC Panorama

A couple suspected of hurting their three-month-old son and who spent nearly two years fighting to clear their names, have won the right to tell the full story of what happened to them after a landmark legal ruling.

It is every parent's nightmare. Your child is badly hurt and you are accused of doing it. But that nightmare became a reality for first-time parents Jake and Victoria Ward, from Cambridgeshire.

Victoria Ward said she would never forget hearing that tests had showed that their son William's lower right leg was broken - an extremely rare injury in a child not yet walking.

"This nightmare seemed like it was completely spiralling out of control. I think having a child with a fracture is bad enough, being accused of something is bad enough and then I think your next worst nightmare is that the accusations are going to grow and grow and grow."

The local authority Cambridgeshire County Council put William on the Child Protection Register when neither parent could explain how the injury occurred.

William Ward

How can you celebrate knowing that someone has decided you didn't hurt your child when all along you've known that you didn't hurt your child?
Victoria Ward, William's mother

In fact, initial tests suggested the infant's arms had been injured too.

The Wards were suspected of abusing their son and when Cambridgeshire County Council applied for a care order, this signalled that their case would be heard in the closed world of the family courts.

Thousands of children have their futures decided in the family courts every year and because of strict rules on what can be reported, often little is revealed about what happens once the court doors are closed.

The Wards were also investigated by the police and were arrested on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm and child cruelty. Jake and Victoria, who both worked for Cambridgeshire County Council, the same local authority that was also investigating them, were suspended from their jobs.

Because neither Jake or Victoria appeared to fit the profile of child abusers, William was allowed to stay with his parents, but on one condition - he must never be left alone with them. His grandparents moved into the family home and supervised the Wards 24 hours a day.

They were also visited regularly by social workers.

'Clear-cut case'

As far as officials were concerned it was a straightforward case that required intervention.

Gordon Jeyes, the director of children's services in Cambridgeshire at the time, said: "It was a clear-cut case in that there was no immediate explanation and the parents were not clear how the baby had come by the injury.

"Unfortunately it's a social worker's job to think the unthinkable because sometimes terrible things happen."

FIND OUT MORE
Panorama: Please Don't Take Our Child, BBC One
Monday 23 August at 2030 BST

That was July 2005. More than a year later, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute. Detectives still believed someone harmed William but they could not prove who.

William was nearly two by the time the case was heard by the family courts. The judge found that there was "no cogent evidence" that Jake and Victoria had injured their son.

Medical experts are often asked to give evidence in family court cases, but they are rarely identified, whether they get it right or wrong.

The Wards' solicitor Nick Barnes pointed out that expert opinion was sometimes complementary but was also often conflicting.

Jake and William Ward
Jake Ward passed out from an anxiety attack as the case dragged on

He said: "This case exposes the frailties of expert evidence, despite the many eminent specialists instructed."

Ultimately the Wards' future hinged on the evidence of one medical expert, who said it was wrong to assume child abuse just because there was no other explanation for the injury.

It was a crucial point for their case and for the cases of other families. But while their names had been cleared, they wanted the expert witnesses in their case to be identified.

They began a High Court battle to get all the reporting restrictions lifted, which they won earlier this year.

Victoria said: "Secrecy means that families can't find out about experts.

"They can't find out exactly what to expect, about what will go on in court.

"They can't share experiences. They can't adequately prepare themselves for what's going to happen either emotionally or practically in terms of making sure that they have the necessary experts and evidence that they need to be making their case."

But while they took comfort from their various court victories they have not been celebrating.

"Something as massive as this in your life, I don't think you can ever forget it," Jake said.


This case, in my view, shows the need to remain objective and forensically minded, despite the horrendous pressures on professionals and parents, and the potentially devastating human cost to families if we get it wrong

Nick Barnes, the Ward's solicitor


"How can you celebrate knowing that someone has decided you didn't hurt your child when all along you've known that you didn't hurt your child?" Victoria added.

It is still not known how William was injured.

Jake and Victoria believe he may have broken his leg by trapping it in his cot. They filmed him sleeping to show his movements. Experts in the case said it was possible, but unlikely.

They investigated whether hypermobility or double jointedness could have contributed, but that was ruled out.

However research is now under way into unexplained injuries in small children.

Solicitor Nick Barnes said the Wards' experience highlighted the difficulties families faced if there was not an obvious explanation for their child's injury.

He said without one it led to "a presumption of guilt and responsibility".

He said: "This case, in my view, shows the need to remain objective and forensically minded, despite the horrendous pressures on professionals and parents, and the potentially devastating human cost to families if we get it wrong."

Three years after the Ward case, reporters are now allowed into family courts.

And in the final week of the last Parliament, a bill was passed which rubber stamps the Ward ruling that paid expert witnesses can be identified.

Panorama: Please Don't Take Our Child, BBC One, Monday 23 August at 2030 BST and then available in the UK on BBC iPlayer.



SEE ALSO
Court delays 'damaging' children
Monday, 9 August 2010, 07:47 GMT |  Wales
Family court service criticised
Wednesday, 28 July 2010, 08:45 GMT |  Education & Family
Media granted family court access
Monday, 27 April 2009, 03:28 GMT |  Politics
Alarm over 'child court crisis'
Tuesday, 23 February 2010, 05:06 GMT |  Education
Children's social care 'a tough ask'
Wednesday, 28 July 2010, 08:49 GMT |  Today
Court delays 'damage children'
Monday, 9 August 2010, 12:27 GMT |  UK

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