Why parents flee with their children
Many of you may have read the distressing story of Ellie Yarrow-Sanders, a young mother from Essex who has run away with her three year old son, Olly. According to various news reports, Olly is the subject of Family Court proceedings regarding his care, with both Ms Yarrow-Sanders and Olly’s father fighting about who Olly should live with.
A few weeks prior to a court hearing, Ms Yarrow-Sanders went missing with Olly. A letter from Ms Yarrow-Sanders was found after she fled which apparently explains why she left. In response, the Court has released some details from the case in order to appeal to the public to find Ms Yarrow-Sanders and Olly.
One of the key things that stands out to us as Family Law Solicitors is that Ms Yarrow-Sanders states that she ran away with Olly to protect him from his father and also from the potential threat of him being put in foster care.
She appears to believe that the appointment of a Guardian means Olly could be placed into foster care and has also expressed concerns that, now that Olly has been made a ward of the court, he could be removed from her care. We are very aware that legal terms are not always easy to understand; and it is our role as Family Lawyers to explain what words mean in each of our clients’ individual circumstances. There are, however, some general observations we can make.
Private law v public law proceedings
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between the two legal areas in relation to children: private law and public law. Private children law disputes are directly between parents about their children. Public children law matters involve the local authority, where they have concerns regarding the safety and welfare of a child and they take steps through the court to protect the child.
From the limited information provided, it appears that Ms Yarrow-Sanders’ case started as a private law dispute between the parents. Although, there also appears to be references to referrals to social services, alleged emotional abuse and concerns regarding Olly’s welfare, it is not clear whether the local authority had made their own application to court or not.
The appointment of a Guardian
By their very nature, children will often be dependent on their parents or family members for their welfare and development. Although their wishes and feelings can play a part in legal proceedings, they are unable to make their own legal decisions which potentially makes them vulnerable. Olly’s parents are able to give instructions to their individual solicitors, but Olly cannot do this. This is where a guardian’s role becomes vital. A guardian is appointed in court cases to represent a child’s best interests and be their independent voice. They are often appointed where the court is concerned that (for whatever reason) one or both parents are not putting their children’s best interests before their own wishes and feelings.
Therefore, the guardian represents Olly’s interests and voices these to their own solicitor on Olly’s behalf. The mere appointment of a guardian does not necessarily mean that the child is destined for foster care or adoption.
In addition, the fact that Olly has been made a Ward of Court does not automatically result in him being placed for foster care. Wardship simply gives the court parental responsibility for Olly, which means that they can make decisions regarding his welfare. It means that the judge, in effect, becomes as third parent to a child. Wardship can last just while the proceedings are ongoing or can continue until the child is 18, depending on what is best for the child.
“Why is my son’s voice not being heard by the court?”
In her letter, Ms Yarrow-Sanders explains that Olly does not wish to see his father and questions why, despite this, the court have ordered for Olly to spend time with his father.
As we have mentioned, the wishes and feelings of a child are important. However, they are not decisive. The child’s age, maturity and pragmatic understanding of the case are also taken into account. A three year old will not have the same level of understanding as, say, a fourteen year old.
For more information, please see our blog – Can a child decide not to see a parent?
Domestic abuse element
Ms Yarrow-Sanders covers a variety of sensitive topics in her letter, including allegations of domestic abuse and how this affected her mental health. Domestic abuse comes in many forms and does not necessarily mean ‘violence’. It encompasses emotional, verbal and financial abuse, together with controlling or manipulative behaviour.
It is important for anyone reading her story who is experiencing abuse such as this to get help. There are a number of independent organisations offering support to those who experience domestic abuse:
For information about support services and family law remedies, please read our blog “Tackling Domestic Abuse”
What happens now?
The outcome of this case will depend on the type of proceedings currently before the court. If public children proceedings are in progress, the Local Authority will make recommendations for Olly’s care and Olly’s parents and the Guardian will respond. If the proceedings are private, Olly’s parents and the Guardian would each put forward their ideal outcome. The decision then rests with the Court. It is possible that Ms Yarrow-Sanders’ decision to run away with Olly might impact the outcome of the case, but the nature of any impact remains unknown.
Whether they are private law or public law proceedings, they will be confidential in order to protect Olly. It was an exceptional step for the judge to agree to him being named: and it was for the sole purpose of finding him. Any other hearings / decisions are likely to only involve the parties, with limited information being shared with the press.
Ultimately, the Court will need to make a plan for Olly’s future which focusses on protecting his welfare.