Court papers show how killer parents won back their baby

Posted: 24th May 2023

Source: BBC News

Key documents which led to a court agreeing to return a 10-month-old boy to his parents, who then murdered him, have been obtained by the BBC.

Finley Boden was killed on Christmas Day 2020, 39 days after he was returned to their care. He had 130 injuries.

The papers from the family court hearing, conducted by phone during the Covid pandemic, were released after a media application to the High Court.

Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden are due to be sentenced on Friday.

The documents are significant as they informed the crucial hearing about Finley’s future – led by two family magistrates.

The papers were released to the BBC, the PA Media news agency and the Daily Telegraph after a request following the couple’s conviction.

The submissions help establish what happened between Finley being removed from his parents a few days after his birth on 15 February, to the decision to return him to their full-time care by 23 November.

After the boy was born, social workers from Derbyshire County Council had decided to remove him from his parents who were living in Chesterfield. The authority believed he was likely to suffer “significant harm” at home – the legal threshold in care cases.

They said Shannon Marsden and Stephen Boden were living in squalor – their home was filthy and smelled of cannabis. They described the terraced house as “very unclean” and “at times hazardous, with faeces on the floor”.

The social workers also said there was a risk of domestic violence, because in the past police had been called during an argument and Stephen Boden had a previous conviction for domestic violence against an ex-partner. Both parents smoked “between medium and high” levels of cannabis.

But over the next six months, the couple persuaded social workers they had made positive changes – aided by Covid restrictions, which limited physical interactions with others.

During the 2020 spring lockdown, social workers were not routinely going into homes. In Finley’s case, photos were instead sent by his mother which showed her terraced home looking clean and tidy.

By the summer, some Covid restrictions had eased and the parents could meet Finley in person again. Some sessions were overseen by social worker Lynn Williams, who assessed them as she tried to help them become better parents.

The report she submitted to the court for the 1 October hearing is among the documents disclosed to us.

In it, she noted that on one occasion, when the weather was warm, “Shannon Marsden ensured Finley was in the shade”. The social worker also noted the mother had held his hand when he was in the pushchair – which she described as “a natural response from a caring parent”.

She said Stephen Boden had interacted with his son “by talking to him and making him smile”.

In August, Ms Williams said she had visited the couple at home, noting that the fridge was well-stocked and the bathroom clean. On a follow-up visit that same month, she observed the house was still relatively tidy and the parents seemed keen to keep it so.

But Ms Williams’ generally positive report was undermined by drug tests taken by both parents as directed by children’s services. Marsden told social workers she had given up cannabis in October 2019, but tests of her hair indicated that was not the case between February and August 2020. Tests found Boden had used cannabis too.

n the papers presented to the court for the 1 October hearing, the local authority said Finley should return gradually to his parents’ care through a “transition plan” over about four months. It proposed that at first, Finley would stay with his carers and only see his parents during the day – initially for an hour and a half, building up to five hours. Then he would be able to stay on a Saturday night.

The amount of time he could spend with his parents would then increase further – so that by mid-January 2021 he would be in their full-time care. This gradual process was to ensure his time with his parents could be monitored – to make sure he was safe.

But Marsden and Boden wanted Finley back more quickly. In his statement submitted to the October hearing, Boden said: “Shannon and I have worked really hard to make changes.” Marsden admitted she had been using cannabis but said she had been “given the incentive to quit completely”.

In care cases like Finley’s, the child’s guardian can be one of the most influential voices. They are employed by Cafcass, the independent Children and Families Court Advisory Service, and their role is to represent the child’s best interests.

Finley’s guardian, Amanda O’Rourke, had only been able to see him once, via a WhatsApp video call, while he was with his carers. He was a “smiler”, she wrote in her report for the court, who liked to “blow raspberry’s” (sic).

She acknowledged the squalor, drug use and domestic violence in the parents’ past. Her report said she agreed in principle with a transition plan, but said it should take place much faster, given the parents had “clearly made and sustained positive changes”.

Ms O’Rourke’s report to the magistrates said he should go back to their full-time care “within a six to eight week period,” half the time requested by the local authority.

A statement from Cafcass said: “It is not possible to say whether a longer transition plan would have prevented Finley’s death. What led to his death was the ability of his parents to deceive everyone involved about their love for him and their desire to care for him.”

The 1 October hearing took place in the period between Covid lockdowns – in England at the time, gatherings were restricted to six people and many courts were working remotely.

In cases like Finley’s, parents would normally be in court but, because of the pandemic, everyone was on the phone. Marsden and Boden did not speak at all.

The final decision was made by two magistrates, Kathy Gallimore and Susan Burns, assisted by a legal adviser. That is because magistrates are not legal experts.

The barrister for the local authority argued the Cafcass guardian’s plan would send Finley back home “too soon”. He said Covid had disrupted the baby’s regular contact with his parents and this needed to be rebuilt. He also said the parents should be tested for drugs as they had been “dishonest” about their cannabis use.

But the barrister for Finley’s Cafcass guardian said it was not in the boy’s interests for the “rehabilitation plan” to be drawn out for such a long period. She said she was “neutral” on the question of drug testing.

The court’s legal adviser said drug testing could be ordered if it was “necessary, imperative and vital to the running of the case”.

In their judgement that afternoon, Mrs Burns and Mrs Gallimore supported the Cafcass guardian’s view – that an eight-week transition was “a reasonable and proportionate” length of time which would protect Finley’s welfare. They did not order further drug tests of his parents.

There is no suggestion that the magistrates made a mistake in law.

And later – when the High Court agreed to release these documents – Justice Nathalie Lieven described the family court as having made a “reasonable decision”.

“Having read the papers here, I have every sympathy with the decision the magistrates made,” she said.

Chesterfield MP, Labour’s Toby Perkins, is now calling for a further inquiry into Derbyshire’s children’s services. He also says it is “deeply significant” that this case was heard by magistrates.

“It is legitimate to question that entire process, whether the care required for Finley Boden’s safety was preserved by that process,” he told the BBC.

Since these documents were given to the BBC, Derbyshire County Council has said the author of the independent safeguarding review commissioned by the Derby and Derbyshire Safeguarding Children Partnership into Finley’s death would consider the information in the paperwork “to help form the partnership’s learning findings and recommendations”.

It added in a statement: “We remain fully engaged with the statutory legal review process which looks in depth at the role of all agencies following the death of a child.”

Short presentational grey line

The new timetable for Finley’s return – decided on 1 October 2020 – meant he would stay overnight with his parents during the first week of transition. But by 23 November, he was living with them full-time.

Four days later, social worker Emiley Hollindale was the last professional to see Finley alive. But, when she visited Boden and Marsden’s home, no-one responded to her knocks. Peering through the window she could see Finley alone, asleep on the sofa.

Just over a month later, the little boy was dead, in a once-more squalid house, reeking of cannabis.

Categories: News