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Diverse standards of parenting

The Court of Appeal recently rejected an appeal by a 'breatharian' mother against a special guardianship order. Georgina Dalton explains why.

In C (A Child) (Special Guardianship Order) [2019] EWCA Civ 2281 the mother appealed the making of a Special Guardianship Order in respect of her five-year-old child, made at the end of care proceedings. The mother appealed on a number grounds; including that the order offends against the principle established in Re L (Care: Threshold Criteria) [2007] 1 FLR 2050, that the courts ‘must be willing to tolerate diverse standards of parenting’ and that the Judge was wrong to make an SGO if this was not a permanent arrangement.

Both parents had mental health difficulties. The child was living with them until March 2019 when an emergency protection order was obtained and the child was placed with her paternal grandparents. At the final hearing it was agreed that the threshold criteria was established. The final threshold document relied upon both parents mental health disorders and the consequent risk of harm to the child, the parents substance misuse and neglect of the child due to what the Judge described as ‘their rejection of modern medical care’.

The local authority, supported by the Children’s Guardian sought a Special Guardianship Order in favour of the paternal grandparents. The mother sought the return of the child to her care subject to a supervision order. The court made an SGO following a contested hearing. In evidence the Children’s Guardian position was that she saw an SGO not as a permanent solution but as a stepping stone towards the very likely return of the child to the mother.

The Judge found that the mother had adopted a lifestyle which went beyond the merely ‘alternative’ and held deep rooted beliefs which at their most extreme considered that she and the child could be ‘breatharians’ meaning they could survive without food and possibly water. There was a factual dispute in which the mother disputed the social worker's evidence that she had told him that she would cease to take her medication when proceedings had ended. The Judge preferred the evidence of the social worker.

The mother relied upon the comments of Ryder LJ in Re P-S re P-S (Children) (Care Proceedings: Special Guardianship Orders) (Association of Lawyers for Children intervening) [2018] 4 WLR 99 that special guardianship was introduced to provide permanence in the care of children who cannot return to their birth families but where adoption is not appropriate.

In considering the first ground of appeal, the court held that the quote from Re L was concerned with threshold, which was not a consideration in this case and although the President had considered that that the Re L perspective is ‘out of place’ in a welfare evaluation, it was clear that the ‘character of the parents’ was relevant only to the extent that it affects the quality of their parenting. The court at first instance had properly focussed on the likely welfare consequences for the child rather than a perceived disapproval of the mother’s beliefs.

In considering whether an SGO was an appropriate order for a temporary arrangement the Judge at first instance had considered this and did not consider an SGO an appropriate order for a temporary arrangement, but considered that the alternatives would not ‘ring fence’ the position of the special guardians as permanently as an SGO. And that such an order that there were so many potential points of friction in the future parenting of the child that it was in the best interests of the child that the special guardians were able to exercise parental responsibility exclusively.

The appeal was dismissed.

Georgina Dalton will be starting as a pupil barrister at Spire Barristers in September 2020.

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