6 Jul 2017

Family separated for 22 months reunites at last

12:00 pm on 6 July 2017

A Wairarapa couple who won a two-year fight to get their children back after one was injured in a fall were not told for five weeks because the court lost the judge's ruling.

Signage outside the Auckland District Court

The Ministry of Justice apologised for the error which saw the judge's ruling, and their children, withheld from a Wairarapa couple for weeks after it was filed. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The Ministry of Justice is apologising to the family for the mistake.

Judge Pat Grace had worked through the weekend to file his ruling over the last weekend of May, finishing the hearing on Friday the 26th and issued his decision on the Monday.

But the parents only learned of the ruling this week.

For the first time in 22 months, they have been allowed to be with their two pre-school children unsupervised.

"It's been life-changing for us, it really has," said the children's father, who legally cannot be identified.

"I couldn't think of anything better. It's been amazing to have the kids back in our care."

The children had been living with their maternal grandparents, 2km away, since August 2015.

The baby boy's sister had fallen on him and he was taken to hospital, however no X-rays were taken until he returned to hospital five days later.

A second set of X-rays were taken another five days after that, and it was revealed the boy, who had been born prematurely and possibly had brittle bones, had a skull fracture and a broken leg.

While it was generally accepted the fall had caused the fracture, the parents were told the break was suspected to be non-accidental and they would be unable to see their children without supervision.

Timeline:

  • 6 August, 2015: Baby boy's sister trips and falls on him at home
  • 8 August: Boy taken to Masterton Hospital where lump on his head is examined. No X-rays and he's discharged
  • 13 August: He's taken back to hospital with a swollen leg - an X-ray shows a broken femur
  • 18 August: A CT head scan shows his skull is fractured. The parents are told the leg is a suspected non-accidental injury so they won't be able to look after either child unsupervised again
  • January 2016: Ministry obtains a custody order, saying the parents are not complying with the safety plan
  • July 2016: Parents' medical expert opinion from a top Australian paediatrician largely backs what they say
  • October 2016: Ministry's medical expert opinion largely backs the ministry or is equivocal
  • 29 May, 2017: Family Court issues its ruling, backing the parents. Ruling is mislaid by the court
  • 3 July: The ruling is actioned, and the parents get their children back

However, the judge's ruling showed medical evidence and opinions used against the parents were questionable, and possibly flawed.

"I have come to the view that the Ministry [for Vulnerable Children, formerly Child, Youth and Family] is unable to establish its case that the injury was non-accidental," Judge Grace wrote.

He gave weight to a forensic paediatrician backing the parents, and to the father as a credible witness.

He also questioned whether the doctors at the hospital properly examined the baby in the first place, as they missed diagnosing the skull fracture until 10 days after the parents first took the boy to hospital.

The children's father said social workers were inflexible from the start, did not help the grandparents with care, and disregarded new evidence.

"We were guilty until proven innocent. We weren't going to be given a second chance by anybody to prove that we are good parents," he said.

"CYFS made up their mind on day one that we had definitely hurt our kids and they were gonna stick to that no matter what was put in front of them."

The parents' lawyer, Gareth Bodle, said the case could and should have been resolved in early 2016, but the CYF office was under severe staffing pressure and the Family Court was clogged.

The final irony, the lawyer said, was the ruling itself going missing for five weeks.

"To deliver that judgment on Monday morning, Judge Grace must have worked the best part of all weekend to see that those kids got back with their parents.

"The effort we all put in to the Family Court was betrayed by that error."

The Justice Ministry said the delay, due to an administrative error when the file was transported from Wellington, was unacceptable.

"We will be looking at our processes to ensure this doesn't happen again," group manager at the ministry Jacquelyn Shannon said.

The children's father said he was not sure court officials and social workers grasped the kind of power they had.

"Does it happen to anybody else, having such enormous strains [put] on them as families?"

He said a week before the court hearing in May, the ministry told them that if they would agree not to challenge the care and protection order, the ministry would work to see their children gradually came back into their care.

He said they rejected that outright, as the order would forever have been hanging over the family.

Ministry for Vulnerable Children defends decision to intervene

Ministry for Vulnerable Children regional manager Grant Bennett said in a statement that the final ruling in no way detracted from their original decision to intervene.

Mr Bennett did not address RNZ's question of why cases such as this, with highly contestable evidence and very young children, were not fast-tracked.

But he said there was a large amount of evidence that could take some time to be presented and considered by the court.

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