A would-be adoptive mother who was tragically struck blind by a brain tumour came home from hospital to face the trauma of social workers threatening to take the baby girl she considered her daughter away from her. A London council was heavily criticised for its unfairness by a family judge who stepped in to block the girl’s removal from the only mother she has known and in whose arms she ‘finds her home’.
The woman, a senior NHS employee referred to as “RCW”, has fallen in love with the baby girl – “SB” – who was born 13 weeks premature, weighing just one kilo, and has disabilities of her own. The little girl, who suffers from a cleft palate, had ‘settled down well in RCW’s loving care and began to form a secure and loving attachment with her’ before events took an ‘unexpected and wretched turn’, said Mr Justice Cobb.
SB had been living with RCW for 10 weeks when, on the very day that she could have applied for an adoption order, she was rushed into hospital, suffering from a brain tumour. Although the, thankfully benign, growth was successfully removed, she was left totally blind and doctors remained undecided as to whether she would ever see again.
The judge said of her return from hospital after a three-week stay: ‘One can only imagine the tumult of emotions RCW must have been feeling on that day – joy and relief to be home with SB, sickening anxiety and possibly despair at the new disability.’ She was able to fall back on a cohort of ‘enthusiastic and dedicated’ friends to help her care for SB but, on coming home from hospital, a social worker was waiting for her. Less than a week later, she was told on the telephone that it had been decided that SB would be taken from her care.
Granting an injunction forbidding SB’s removal, the judge said that SB and RCW had ‘established a home together’. All the indications were that SB ‘regards RCW as her mother’ and ‘finds her home once she is in RCW’s arms’. RCW, who has experienced ‘some flashes of light’ and hopes that, in time, her sight will return, had made proper arrangements for SB’s care whilst she was in hospital and ‘believes she is closely bonded with SB, who she regards as her daughter’.
The judge said that the council had ‘made only the most perfunctory of enquiries about RCW’s medical condition’ before resolving to remove SB from her care. Describing the council’s decision to remove SB as ‘momentous’, he said that RCW had been given the bad news in a phone call whilst she was recuperating.
Observing that it was difficult to see how the council could ‘truly contend’ that its decision was properly based on SB’s welfare, he said that RCW had been given no opportunity to put her case or to persuade the council that she could cope. The council could not know whether her blindness was permanent or temporary and the judge added: “I am not satisfied, on the information before me that, simply by virtue of her visual impairment, RCW is unable to give an appropriate level of emotional care to SB. Nor am I persuaded that it is contrary to SB’s emotional well-being for RCW’s friends to assist her in caring for SB in the weeks and months ahead; the enthusiasm and dedication of these friends, quite apart from their experience in looking after children, cannot be over-stated.”
Describing the case as “troubling”, he added: “Visual impairment does not of itself disqualify an adult from being a capable loving parent. The council’s decision to remove SB was reached on an incomplete assessment of the current situation, and in a manner which was unfair to RCW. I stop short of finding that the assumptions which the authority has made about parenting by a carer who is blind are discriminatory, but in ruling RCW out as a prospective carer so summarily, the council has shown a worrying lack of enquiry into her condition or the potential for good care offered by a visually impaired parent.”
The judge said that he could find no indication that the council had given any consideration to giving RCW practical or integrated support, despite her requests for assistance. Acknowledging RCW’s current heavy dependence on her friends, the judge added: “Whether this is indeed the optimal long-term care arrangement for SB remains to be seen”. However, urging the council to provide the support that RCW so desperately needs, he said that employment of a care assistant or nanny to help her may be the best option.