Court transfers care of nine year-old to father

By 4 December 2020Children, Law news
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A nine year-old girl has been sent to live with her father by the High Court thanks to her mother’s continuing involvement with a New Age organisation.

In Re S the parents had separated when the girl was just a year old. The mother then became involved with Universal Medicine, an Australian group which promotes New Age spiritual beliefs and healing practices, which it calls the “Way of the Livingness”. The daughter was closely involved with the mother’s lifestyle, eating the same restricted diet and attending healing sessions and group events.

The father came to believe the doctrines of Universal Medicine were having a detrimental effect on his relationship with his daughter. By 2015 the parents were at loggerheads: while he complained to the local authority she claimed he was coercive and controlling and insinuated that the might be abusing his daughter No evidence was found to support these claims.

Eventually a shared care arrangement was reached, in which the mother was forbidden, via a ‘prohibited steps order’, from involving the girl in Universal Medicine activities or teaching her the doctrines. However, within months, the mother had taken the daughter back to the UK headquarters of the group and the father noticed the daughter’s increasing anxieties about food.

The man applied for a ‘change of residence’ order, in which the girl would be sent to live with him rather than her mother. A social worker interviewed  her and the mother, telling the court that they remained deeply involved with Universal Medicine and the mother had not understood concerns expressed about the organisation.

In court, a Judge accepted much of the father’s case, including the claim that ongoing involvement with Universal Medicine was likely to cause his daughter harm. He explained:

“The increased anxiety shown by [her], about which both parents gave evidence, is not just the result of her awareness of these proceedings and of the continuing disputes, but it is the result of Lara coming to feel that her father is different to her mother and herself, of her worry that the father will have a heart attack or die as a result of his not being “love” and of eating things that she does not eat, and also of her feeling that deviation from the beliefs and practices of Universal Medicine would be disloyal to her mother [and] also would make her ill or lost.”

Nevertheless, he believed that the daughter would be upset by being moved to her father’s home and believed the mother was sincere when she claimed she would do whatever she could to resolve the situation. He therefore dismissed the father’s application for a transfer of residence and ordered that shared care continue on condition that the mother ceased her involvement with the group.

The father took his case to the Court of Appeal which ruled in his favour. The Court concluded that the first judge had been overly optimistic about the mother’s willingness to change, saying it seemed clear that she had little sympathy for the father’s concerns and had made no real effort to disengage from Universal Medicine. The first Judge had identified increasing alienation between father and daughter but taken no real action to remedy this.

The case was sent back to the High Court, for reconsideration specifically by the most senior family law judge in England and Wales. But then Family Division President Sir Andrew McFarlane went on medical leave, so the case was eventually allocated to Mr Justice Williams.

The mother insisted that she was no longer involved with Universal Medicine but failed to persuade Mr Justice Williams this was a permanent change. He declared:

“I do not need to understand the reasons why the mother adhered to the teachings and practices of Universal Medicine in order to determine that she has not left them behind. Whilst I’m prepared to accept that she is at the moment dissociated from Universal Medicine and that she would maintain that physical dissociation whilst the threat of separation from her daughter hangs over her that is a far remove from the full-hearted and definitive break which entirely distances the child from Universal Medicine and which reverses the process of alienation.”

He continued:

“Whilst the mother has undergone some therapy its utility is limited when it has not expressly addressed the harm that has been caused to this child…All that said the mother clearly loves the child and is devoted to her. [The first Judge] found that she has many qualities as a mother and I accept that. However, those qualities exist in the shadow of the significant limitation on her capability as a parent arising from her adherence to [Universal Medicine].”

The Judge concluded:

“I am therefore satisfied that the distress that the child will feel as a result of the separation from her mother and from a period of no contact [with her] will be short-term and will not have medium to long-term consequences of a magnitude which in any way approaches the magnitude of the consequences of leaving her in the current position.”

He announced that he would write a short letter to the child, for the father to read to her if she struggled to accept her new living arrangements.

The judgement contains a postscript noting that the Police had to intervene before the father was able to take the girl back to his home.

Read the full ruling here.

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