Press one of the expand buttons to see the full text of an article. Later press collapse to revert to the original form. The buttons below expand or collapse all articles.
Please Don't Take Our Child
August 25, 2010 permalink
British parents Victoria and Jake Ward had a baby diagnosed with a spiral fracture. Child protectors seized the baby, but he was eventually returned when accusations of abuse could not be substantiated. The parents had to fight for years in the courts for the right to publicly name the doctor falsely accusing them. This story is the subject of a BBC documentary Please Don't Take Our Child. Let us know if you find a copy that can be seen outside the UK.
Parents win legal battle to name doctor who accused them of child abuse
A couple cleared of injuring their baby son have won a legal battle to identify the doctor who gave evidence against them.
When Victoria and Jake Ward saw their baby son crying and refusing to feed, they took him to their doctor. When the cause of his pain could not be found, they took him back twice more.
The professional couple were shocked to be told eventually that William had a broken leg. But the drama turned into a nightmare when they were accused of having deliberately harmed their little boy.
Arrested, charged by police and threatened with having their child taken away by Cambridgeshire county council's social workers, it took two years for the Wards to clear their name.
Yet even after the criminal case collapsed for lack of evidence and a family court finally decided that the parents posed no threat to their son, the couple were astonished to find that the names of the doctors who had given evidence against them were kept secret.
Only now, three years later, have the Wards managed to draw a line under the affair by forcing the name of the key expert witness to be made public.
He was Karl Johnson, an eminent radiologist who specialises in non-accidental injuries and has acted a police witness in several cases of child abuse.
Mr Johnson, who is chairman of the British Society of Paediatric Radiology and works as a consultant at Birmingham Children's Hospital, told police that in his view William had suffered repeated fractures and had a history of being abused.
The case against the Wards also relied on the view of Dr David Vickers, a community paediatrician, that if no obvious explanation could be found for an injury then child abuse was likely.
The outcome of the case, in a landmark High Court judgement, has helped to lift the secrecy surrounding England's family courts, where campaigners claim that a lack of openness creates an environment in which miscarriages of justice can go unnoticed.
The family's nightmare began one night in July 2005 when, at three months old, William woke up in pain. He refused to feed and the next day Mrs Ward took him to see her GP.
The GP was unable to identify the cause of William's pain, but on returning home the Wards noticed his leg was swollen.
Determined to establish what was wrong they returned twice to the GP, but he was still unable to offer any diagnosis.
The Wards took their son to Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge, where an x-ray revealed he was suffering from a spiral fracture of the lower right leg, an extremely rare condition in children who have not yet begun to walk.
Because William's parents were unable to explain the fracture the hospital deemed the case suspicious and called in social services.
Further X-rays revealed what appeared to be three more fractures and an injury to his arm. This appeared to be strong evidence that William had been abused several times in his short life.
Mrs Ward, who at the time worked as a manager for child care strategy for Cambridgeshire, told BBC One's Panorama, in a documentary to be broadcast tomorrow night: "We were absolutely shocked.
"It was a nightmare which seemed to be spiralling out of control."
The Wards were only allowed to take William home with them when they agreed to be supervised 24 hours a day by Mr Ward's parents, who had to relocate from Devon to move into the couple's home.
The deal meant they could never be alone with their own son out of concern that they would cause him further harm.
The Wards were arrested and questioned by police on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and child cruelty towards William. On being released on bail they were immediately suspended from their jobs.
A week later William was placed on the council's child protection register.
With no help from outside agencies their couple mounted their own investigation into the cause of their son's injuries. Filming William asleep at night they discovered he moved vigorously during his sleep, repeatedly kicking his legs.
This led them to suspect that he may have caught his right leg between the bars of his cot and the mattress of their own bed, causing him to fracture it as he struggled to pull it clear.
Detectives removed the cot for examination. In the meantime Cambridgeshire applied to the family court for a care order, allowing them to remove William from his parents.
It soon became clear that both the police and social services were relying heavily on the evidence of Dr Johnson, who said that William had suffered four fractures which had taken place on at least two or more separate occasions.
However, in September 2006 the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with the case after detectives said they were unable to prove who had harmed the baby.
Naturally the Wards hoped social services would follow suit, but they were in for a shock.
Over the next 10 months the Wards were visited by at least three expert witnesses who had been asked by the judge to give their opinions.
By the time the two-week family court hearing began, Mrs Ward was pregnant with her second child and feared that if William was taken, her new baby would be too.
But during the family court proceedings serious doubts were cast on Dr Johnson's evidence by other medical experts.
His claim that William had suffered four fractures on at least two occasions was contradicted by their assertion that he had only two fractures, both of which had probably been caused at the same time.
Furthermore, Professor Tim David, an expert paediatrician, told the court that in this and many other cases, police and social workers were wrong to assume that an unexplained injury could normally be attributed to child abuse.
Judge Isobel Plumstead finally concluded that Mr and Mrs Ward presented no threat to William, declaring in her judgement: "There is no cogent evidence that these parents injured their son."
The Wards subsequently won a legal fight in the High Court for the judgement to be made public. However, the identities of the expert witnesses in the case remained shrouded in secrecy.
Angry that parents like themselves could be put through such an ordeal without being able to challenge the credibility of experts called to give evidence against them, the Wards returned to the High Court.
Lord Justice Munby agreed with their request and in a landmark judgement in January this year ruled that expert witnesses in family courts could now be named.
In the last week of the last Parliamentary session the judgement was rubber stamped into law.
Mrs Ward, 36, who now has three children and runs yoga and massage classes for babies, said they were not content with simply winning their own case.
She said: "How could we celebrate that someone has decided you didn't hurt your child when you know all along you didn't?
"There seems to be a small group of expert witnesses who often condemn parents. We wanted to be able to name expert witnesses in order to help all those other families who are going through what we went through."
Gordon Jeyes, director of children's services at Cambridgeshire county council until this year, defended his department's decision to press ahead with its application to remove William from his parents' care.
He 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 his injuries.
"Unfortunately the job of social workers is to think the unthinkable because sometimes terrible things happen.
"It was felt that it was a matter of such complexity and range of opinion that it was a matter for court determination."
Mr Johnson and Dr Vickers declined to comment.
* Panorama's Please Don't Take Our Child is broadcast on BBC One tomorrow at 8.30pm.
Source: Daily Telegraph