What happened to the child’s best interests?

Picture of Ellie Butler, a young white girl with brown hair and a suntan, wearing a pink T-shirt showing unidentifiable cartoon characters.Last Wednesday, Ben Butler, a convicted armed robber and serially violent offender from Sutton in south London, was convicted of murdering his six-year-old daughter Ellie in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 23 years. The murder took place less than a year after a Family Court judge sent her to live with Butler and his girlfriend, Jennie Gray, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice and received a 42 month sentence; she had been living with Gray’s parents after her father was convicted of causing her serious injuries, some of them consistent with shaken baby syndrome, of which he was later cleared on appeal. Butler and Gray launched a publicity campaign, hiring the publicist (now, of course, convicted of abusing children) Max Clifford and appearing in various tabloids and ITV’s This Morning programme. The judge, Mary Hogg, called it a rare “happy end” and said it was “a joy … to oversee the return of a child to her parents”, ignoring a welter of evidence of Butler’s violent character.

At the risk of stating the obvious, several big mistakes were made in that judgement. One is that a child was removed from a happy home and placed with parents she barely knew. It is not unknown for children not to be returned to their parents after a period of separation because they have grown attached to their new families, even when the parents are of good character and are manifestly innocent. A good example is that of Louise Mason, whose three children were removed in 2002 because of doctors’ suspicions that the illness one of her children suffered from was caused by her. In fact, as later demonstrated, it was a form of cancer that can (and in this case did) go away on its own. But in 2009 when Mason was last in the news, although two of the children taken into care were returned, that child was not, because she had grown too attached to her foster carers, calling the female foster carer “Mummy” and her own mother “Mummy Louise”. The fact that Ellie was doing well with her grandparents should have counted against the parents’ case, particularly as Ellie had said she did not want to live with them as she barely knew them and was scared of her father, for reasons we will come on to shortly.

A second serious mistake was to overlook Butler’s violent history. Neighbours knew him as a “coke head” and a “nutter” with a volatile temper who had been banned from all the pubs on Sutton High Street because of his violence. He had received a three-year jail sentence for robbery and had been convicted of intimidating witnesses and of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and two strangers; he was also convicted of carrying an offensive weapon in 2011. The judge dismissed this on the grounds that his assaults were against adults. Quite apart from the fact that one of the adults was his girlfriend, and that a man who assaults his girlfriend is liable to expose any child he cares for to similar violence, we should not assume that a man who is habitually violent ‘only’ to other men is not a danger to children; a man who hits anyone whose tone of voice he doesn’t like or who won’t do as he tells him will do the same to a woman or child eventually, especially when the child grows into a teenager and more closely resembles an adult. (I should stress that I am talking about histories of violence here, not isolated incidents.)

Then the judge pronounced him ‘exonerated’, despite the fact that his conviction was quashed because the evidence was unsound — that’s all they have to prove; there were other possible explanations for the injuries Ellie had suffered, not that those other explanations were in fact the correct ones — and people have not won their children back on more than one occasion in the past despite being acquitted of injuring them or another child, or causing the death of another child, in the criminal courts. The standard of evidence is different, and family courts sometimes decide that, on the balance of probabilities, the parent probably did cause the injuries. She had this ‘exoneration’ attached to all the documents about the Butler-Gray family, and suspended the local social services from dealing with the family, appointing a private consultancy, Services for Children (!), which employed two social workers, to oversee her ‘transition’ to living with her parents, with the result that her school could not raise issues about her poor attendance or injuries. Thus a last chance was lost to save her from her father’s explosive temper.

One of the cornerstones of British family court policy is supposed to be that the child’s interest is paramount, and that justice for parents or carers is of secondary importance. Adults are supposed to be adults and put the child’s needs before their own desires or feelings. The adults in this case had had an intermittent relationship (unlike Ellie’s grandparents) and had missed multiple contact visits, on one occasion to see the FA Cup Final and on another because of “stress” linked to a criminal case; on another occasion, Ellie had refused to get out of the car to see her father. After the judge ordered her return, appointing a tin-pot social work consultancy because Butler did not “trust” Sutton social services, her family complained that she wet the bed and insisted on climbing into bed with her grandparents and aunt, when she stayed at the house, because she was terrified of returning, the consultancy decided to expedite her return: “Effectively she does not have a choice in this, as we would expect her to say she does not want to go. The decision taken to move her sooner is due to a belief that she is unlikely to choose this”.

Ellie’s views did not count (the judge refused to hear them), and her welfare was not considered beyond the dogma that living with a child’s biological parents is always best. Nobody who put Ellie’s best interests first could have even considered moving her from a happy home with her grandparents to a ‘family’ so markedly inferior, whatever the truth of her original injuries (and in the light of his other violent behaviour, his involvement should have been considered as a possibility); an uncommitted couple dominated by a man with a marked tendency to violence, who had in the past said he hoped opportunities for violence would present themselves, who would at best have exposed his daughter to his behaviour, including to domestic violence, even if he did not harm her directly, and might well have been absent from her life on account of being in prison for other crimes. It’s not a question of being “wise after the event”; nobody with a brain who cared about a child’s interests would hand them over to such a man when plainly better, willing and able carers existed.

I’d also like to make an aside about the feminist I saw on Twitter who said that Jennie Gray’s behaviour regarding Ben Butler and her daughter was the product of Butler’s violence and “coercive control” and that we shouldn’t blame her as much as him. On the latter part I agree, as she did not kill Ellie but played along with her partner for years, including during times when he was in prison for violent offences and could have separated herself from him, and including times when social workers told her that she could keep Ellie and her other child if she separated from him. The sad fact is that some women are attracted to thugs and some don’t mind a bit of “male violence” as long as it’s directed at someone they don’t like. I know this because I had a female teacher like this at school, who knew about her husband’s (also a teacher) violence towards small boys and did not bat an eyelid when he threatened violence in front of her, in the event of boys being disrespectful to her. Whether he was violent to her as well I don’t know. The killing of Kevin Tripp in 2009 is another case in point. Women are adults, and they have to take their share of the responsibility when they support a violent man when he kills or injures someone.

We will never know what was going through the judge’s mind when she passed her ruling in 2012; whether she was really taken in by Butler’s charm, whether she was fearful of yet more bad publicity, or whether the rules really did not allow her to entertain the possibilities that a man persistently violent to adults was a threat to a young child, that a child living in a happy home should be left there, and that an acquittal based on the possibility of an innocent explanation to a child’s injuries dictates that these innocent explanations be taken as fact — especially all these considerations combined. If they don’t, they should be rewritten such that a man of such plainly ill character never be entrusted with the care of a child again.

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