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Judge goes public on adoption case accusations that led to investigation of social workers

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An investigation into social workers on St Helena was triggered when their own lawyer found damaging emails that had not been disclosed in a court case, it has emerged.

But the background to the police inquiry has been revealed only AFTER it was announced that no criminal case would be brought against them, because of lack of evidence.

Judge Charles Ekins also revealed how the intervention of the governor’s wife, Tamara Capes, could have created an impression of an establishment conspiracy against a Saint who wanted to adopt a baby on the island.

In the fall-out from the affair, the island lost two senior social workers and its attorney general, Frank Wastell, was suspended – although he had already decided to leave his job.

The chain of events has come to light after Judge Ekins, St Helena’s Chief Justice, decided to publish an edited version of his judgement in a hearing about the care of a baby – 13 months after it ended.

In it he revealed that the lawyers in the case asked him to convene the court on a Sunday to hear about the discovery of emails that they said should have been offered as evidence.

They asked the judge to make an order prohibiting the senior social worker Claire  Gannon from communicating with anyone within St Helena Government, or with a couple who were looking after the baby in England.

He was also asked to make an order “preserving the integrity of all e-mail accounts” held by Ms Gannon and her colleagues Martin Warsama and Claire Yon.

It is understood that island police seized their computers shortly afterwards.

The reason for Mr Wastell’s suspension remains a mystery: the judge clearly said his brief involvement in the case was “unwise, but no more”.

The case involved an application by St Helena Government – “the Applicant” – for a care order on a baby known as R, whose mother could not care for her.

Normally the details of an family hearing would remain secret. No reason has been given for going public – a highly unusual step on St Helena.

But the case became controversial after the island’s new Attorney General, Nicola Moore, issued a statement about the investigation. It contained criticisms of the people investigated, without giving the evidence to justify them.

One of the social workers, Martin Warsama, then alleged that he and a colleague, Claire Gannon, were being “punished” for making complaints about police and government handling of sex abuse on St Helena, leading to a separate investigation by Sasha Wass QC.

He also told St Helena Online it was “frightening” to have his computer seized by the police after he had made allegations against them, because they would have access to his emails.

He and Ms Gannon were told by a judge that they could not bring a claim of constructive dismissal in London, but they have since been given leave to appeal.

The hearings on St Helena and Ascension involved a mother who was deemed to be unable to look after her new baby, partly because of the bullying and mistreatment she had suffered during a “miserable” childhood in England.

Three other children had been taken away from her.

She and their father, a Saint, moved to St Helena, where they married but later split up – by which time, she was pregnant with R.

Judge Ekins said Claire Gannon rightly decided the baby should be placed with foster carers. None could be found, so Frank Wastell and his wife agreed to take her in when she was ten days old. The mother was allowed to visit and care for her daughter.

Because of his personal involvement, Mr Wastell took no legal part in the case. He was the island’s Solicitor General at that point.

Another couple agreed to look after the baby, but made it clear they would want her to become part of their family when they returned to England.

Members of the child’s own wider family did not want to take her in. The father agreed he could not look after her.

Preparations to make a care order for the girl’s protection were well advanced when a relative arrived on St Helena and learned of his neice’s birth; after a few weeks, he offered to take care of her with his partner on the Falklands.

But the court heard social workers felt it was too late: an interim care order was already in place and the girl had already bonded with “Mr and Mrs Y”. In fact, the judge later ruled that “his potential suitability was dismissed in an overly peremptory fashion”.

At a hearing on St Helena in October 2013, Judge Ekins agreed to consider the uncle’s request to become R’s special guardian as part of the proceedings.

When the hearings resumed on Ascension Island in March 2014, the judge heard that the uncle and his partner were considered suitable carers for the baby, had prepared their home for her arrival, and understood her needs. A social worker had flown from the UK to the Falklands to assess them.

He ruled in their favour, despite the risk that the child would suffer as a result of being taken away from Mr and Mrs Y.

He cited strong guidance that children should be kept within their family and their culture, and adoption outside the family should be a last resort.

“There can be nothing but sympathy for Mr and Mrs Y who are the real victims of this whole proceeding,” the judge said.

They had hoped to offer the child an open adoption, meaning she would maintain contact with her family and culture.

But the judge said emails sent to Claire Gannon by the couple in England showed hostility  to members of the baby’s family – suggesting contact would be limited.

SHG’s lawyer, Ms Cheetham, had the emails in her possession but believed they could not be presented in court because they were “privileged”. When she realised she was mistaken, she shared them with other lawyers in the case and they all asked the judge to convene the Sunday hearing.

The judge said the emails should have been presented as part of the case by the government’s social care department.

He said: “Regrettably I am driven to the conclusion that the Applicant has obstructed and misled the Court in its judicial process of determining the best interests of R.

“I am not prepared to say unequivocally that the obstruction has been wilful… but it is unparalleled in my experience that all advocates in this case, including the Applicant’s own Counsel, felt it necessary to invite me to issue an injunction against the senior social worker with responsibility for this case.”

He said he suspected some case files had been withheld.

He also accused the government’s social care team of deliberate lack of objectivity. “They felt duty bound to do all they could to ensure that R remained with Mr and Mrs Y irrespective of R’s best interest.”

He concluded by recommending that an experienced, independent lawyer should review the papers in the case “to advise on whether the evidence is such as to disclose reasonable grounds for suspecting the commission by any member of the Applicant’s staff of any criminal offence pertinent to attempting to pervert the course of justice or perjury.”

Claire Gannon has chosen not to speak to island media about the affair. But Mr Warsama strongly pointed out that the subsequent investigation by Merseyside Police found there was no case for a criminal prosecution.

He would be raising the matter with Sasha Wass QC, the counsel investigating the unrelated allegations about sex abuse.

He said: “We’ve had an investigation and it proved we had done nothing wrong. What needs to be in there is our response. But I’m not responding until I have seen Sasha Wass. We will be vindicated.

“All is not what it seems.”

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