New guidelines for social workers applying for emergency child protection orders have been laid down after a High Court judge highlighted “multiple failings” in a case where a nine-year-old girl was taken into care on the basis of flawed and incomplete evidence.
Mr Justice McFarlane was critical of the conduct of a council’s social services department and the court that approved its application for an emergency order. The girl then spent 14 months in foster care. None of the parties can be identified.
He ordered the council to pay £200,000 towards the family’s legal aid bill. Social workers thought the case involved Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, now known as fabricated or induced illness, but did not have any medical evidence.
The judge ruled that, in future, such an assertion must be backed up by medical opinion to warrant a child’s removal.
He also criticised magistrates for granting the emergency order solely on the basis of a social services team manager’s “broad knowledge of the case”, and rebuked the council for feeling this level of evidence was adequate.
In future, he said, courts dealing with such applications should have copies of the minutes of the most recent child protection case conference and evidence should come from the best available source, usually the social worker with direct knowledge of the case.
He also stated that a child must be in imminent danger to justify an emergency protection order.
Before the “draconian” court order, the girl had been subject to “low level intervention by way of assessment and counselling”, the judge said.
Her mother initially sought professional help after becoming concerned about her daughter’s behaviour. The girl was referred to social services by a psychologist and was placed on the child protection register.
A social services planning meeting found there were no neglect issues but social workers thought the mother had Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.
At the end of a subsequent case conference, a social worker received a phone call from a nurse at a local hospital saying the mother was there asking for the girl to be treated for stomach pain. Social workers decided the girl needed to be removed from her parents immediately.