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Family Court judge allows autistic mother to type evidence in witness box during care proceedings

A Family Court judge has hailed the success of allowing an autistic mother’s oral evidence in care proceedings to be given by presenting her with written questions whilst in the witness box and for the answers to be typed in real time.

Those answers were then read out before moving to the next question.

The advocates were then able to amend or ask additional questions which were typed in real time by an intermediary, Ms Backen, after which the same process as above was followed.

Whilst the mother was questioned, she wore headphones that played white noise and minimised the stimuli that could have been distracting or distressing. These arrangements were, with the mother’s input, regularly reviewed to ensure their efficacy and identify the need for any changes.

The process adopted in C (Children: Welfare) (No.2) [2020] EWFC B36 had been suggested by Paula Backen, an experienced intermediary, whose services to support the mother were engaged at an early stage in these proceedings.

The proceedings concerned the local authority’s plans for two children, A who is aged 12 and has complex needs, and B who is aged 10. The mother had put forward two alternative care plans.

In a postscript to his ruling on the process adopted, His Honour Judge Moradifar said: “This was the first experience of such an approach by anyone involved in this case. At first, there was some understandable anxiety about this.

“However, this approach proved to be highly successful. The mother needed less frequent breaks and those breaks were of a shorter duration. Most importantly, it enabled the mother to fully participate and to be effectively questioned on the important issues in the case. I am most grateful to Ms Backen and the advocates whose efforts have guaranteed the success of this innovative approach.”

The judge praised the intermediary’s contributions and her imaginative approach to addressing the particular needs of the mother, saying they had been “nothing short of excellent”.

In the proceedings themselves, HHJ Moradifar said he had no doubt about the mother’s love and commitment to her children. Her excellent parenting of B had amply illustrated her capabilities as a mother.

However, the judge said there were serious deficits in the emotional component of the mother’s parenting and her ability to parent A, given his specific needs. “I find that at this time, the mother’s rigidly held views and lack of understanding of her contributions to the harm that her children have suffered, have manifestly compromised her ability to meet A’s complex needs. It would be unrealistic to expect the mother to be able to meet both children’s needs, even with a high level of support whilst the family is undertaking the demanding and challenging therapeutic work.”

The judge also said A’s return home would seriously compromise the mother’s ability to provide an acceptable level of care for B.

The parents and the children must first engage in the recommended therapeutic intervention, the success of which will dictate when and how A is to be returned to the mother’s care, he added. “I have no doubt that the local authority will continue to consider A’s return home as the priority plan and that the maternal grandmother will also be considered in the context of the local authority’s continuing implementation of its care plan.”

HHJ Moradifar said the mother’s alternative care plans had been well thought out and well presented, but at this stage he did not find that these were realistic plans for A.

“These plans or a variation thereof may well prove to be realistic in due course and must be reconsidered at the forthcoming reviews. In my judgment, the only realistic plan that meets A’s needs is the local authority’s comprehensive care plan."

He added: “Given A’s complex needs, the required level of support and intervention that is identified in his care plan, the current views of the mother, and serious concerns about her abilities to parent and emotionally support A, I am left with no doubt that there is a need for a care order and that such an intervention is proportionate and necessary. Finally, I have no hesitation in endorsing the parties’ agreement to B’s placement with his mother and the need for a twelve-month supervision order.”

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