High Court fines council after high social worker turnover breached child’s rights

Landmark ruling thought to be the first recorded case of a child being awarded domestic damages following care proceedings

revolving doors
High social work turnover led to breach of child's rights (Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr)

A child has won £12,000 in damages after a council breached his human rights by mishandling his care proceedings.

A high turnover of social workers at Northamptonshire council was part of a catalogue of errors, omissions and mismanagement, which breached the child and mother’s right to a fair trial and private family life, the High Court ruled.

The authority was fined £17,000 damages for the breaches. It is believed to be the first recorded case of a child being awarded domestic damages following care proceedings.

“Deeply worrying”

Justice Keehan said it was “deeply worrying” that the young child, referred to as DS, had eight social workers during his care proceedings. This led to a breach of his and his mother’s human rights, the judge ruled.

High social worker turnover at the council meant there was “a lack of cohesive, comprehensive management and care for a significant period of time”, the judge noted.

It was not until nine months after DS was taken into care that proceedings were issued by the local authority – delays which the judge described as “wholly inexcusable”.

The human rights of DS and his mother were also breached when the council initially failed to take protective action to safeguard DS, when DS did not have someone exercising parental responsibility for 11 months and when the council’s final evidence was “inadequate and incomplete”.

“It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers at Northampton children’s services department had DS’ welfare best interest at the forefront of their minds,” Keehan said.

Inexperienced social worker

“Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby’s care and future life was dismal.”

Keehan also slammed the council for putting the 15-day-old baby on the caseload of a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) who had little experience with care proceedings.

“I cannot begin to understand why an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings was allocated as a social worker for a 15-day-old baby,” he said.

Accommodating DS under a section 20 agreement was “seriously abused” by the local authority, Keehan also ruled, and deprived DS of his right to an independent guardian.

The judge also questioned consent given by DS’ Latvian mother for him to be moved into foster care, as she did not have an interpreter. Despite this, the outcome of the case, which saw DS placed with his grandparents in Latvia, was deemed satisfactory.

A council spokesperson said: “There have been significant changes made to many of our systems and practices concerning looked-after children as a result of the council’s Children’s Services Improvement Programme and we continue to work hard to improve outcomes for children and families in Northamptonshire.”

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9 Responses to High Court fines council after high social worker turnover breached child’s rights

  1. Imelda Hall February 10, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    Arrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!!!! Why is it the council being sued and NOT central government??? Is it NOT central government who have created these ill equipped systems within social work?? We are currently experiencing a top heavy and hence unbalanced weight of inexperienced sw’s in social work like never before. Experienced social workers flee in droves, as they experience burnout at an unpresidented rate. This being the case, STOP blaming local authorities for the sins of the government. LA’s do not posess the magic wand to summon an experienced sw to the forefront of a case like this and furthermore, why shud an inexperienced sw not take the case. As a NQW many moons ago I was fortunate enough to have an excellent manager behind me and a LA that cared. I was given quality supervision, which meant I could handle a case such as this and was able to develop my knowledge and skills whilst on the job. STOP suing and blaming swkrs and LA’s and START taking our lovely old government to task for creating these systems.

    • Gerald February 11, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

      Local Polititions are the ones to blame as they decide LOCAL issues, this is why we get such a variety of outcomes from National Issues.
      I wonder why Local Council Workers seem reticent to explain this to the Public ?

      • G Hall February 11, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

        I have always wanted to work for a democratically accountable organisation. This is in practice going to be local authorities. It is important that local people therefore understand that local priorities might mean different local services – a “postcode lottery”.

        Unfortunately local gov’t has been put in the position of being the fall guys for central Gov’t policy. Local councillors should be standing up and shouting about this. However there does not seem to be any enthusiasm to do this at all. I am not sure why. Maybe there are no votes in talking about social services or it is such a minefield that it is seen as too complex to get to grips with and still maintain a political career. Maybe others will have some ideas.

    • Karen February 11, 2015 at 6:39 pm #

      ALL Social workers are responseable for the ill judgements and non actions, the judge was right in this case more so for putting it in the publixc eye, the government are not leading this LA mismanagement are FACT,,,,,

  2. Philip Measures February 11, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    No – it is Local Authorities and their treatment of Social Workers. As I have previously posted employers and senior Managers should exercise their duty of care towards those they are responsible for and draw the attention to those in power (through Line Management systems) pressures being faced in providing a good level of service. Elected Members should then be made aware and they, in turn, have channels to make central Government aware.

    It has been interesting seeing today’s discussions in Parliament about the NHS and ‘whistle-blowing’ and it all too evident that a serious climate of fear persists – I see little difference to working within Local Government.

    I would never compromise either as a social worker or manager – so, yes, I was not well regarded by many managers but when I had the privilege to work as a Team Manager and Service Manager I hope that the staff felt supported and valued by myself.

    It is primarily those children and families who we serve that we should owe the very highest level of care and commitment to – if we fail then we too can be complicit in doing serious harm to them and that is both personally and professionally untenable – or, at least, it should be.

    Philip J Measures
    Retires (and no longer registered) Social Worker
    Philip.measures@gmail.com

  3. Ruth Cartwright February 11, 2015 at 6:21 pm #

    I don’t agree that it is only national government to blame for these shortcomings. Of course the cuts and the unfair way they have been implemented across the country have an impact on services, but local govt is also responsible for recruiting and, crucially in this case, retaining SWs. If they offer good working conditions where staff feel valued and have access to good supervision and training, they will keep their staff and avoid situations like this. In terms of national govt’s responsibility, why are local councillors and senior social services managers and Directors not speaking out? Are SWs truly so unpopular and unvalued that to be seen as supporting us is bad for your career? Even if this is the case, as public servants, shouldn’t these people be doing it anyway? This case could give SWs and managers some power to point out to employers the consequences and potential consequences of not supporting their social workers.

  4. Hilary Searing February 12, 2015 at 7:33 am #

    Some of the responsibility for this situation must be put on the previous government – which wanted to make Children’s Services a universal service to get rid of the stigma attached to ‘social work help’. By extending the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004 it created anxieties for other services about their responsibilities. As a result the number of referrals to children’s services has increased enormously. In 1991/2 referrals were only a quarter of what they are now but there was a much clearer focus on child protection and children in care – something that seemed to be missing in the Northamptonshire case.

  5. Bernard Toland February 12, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

    The “blame game” does not detract from the serious consequences suffered by this child, this mother (and indeed many others in my experience). The routine misuse of Section 20 Accommodation, the allocation of different social workers of varying levels of experience, prior to, during the course of and beyond proceedings remains extremely worrying. Senior managers who put up inexperienced social workers to be “shot at” in Court need to take a long hard look at themselves rather than having an expectation that such social workers will have the the capacity to defend the indefensible. Yes local and central government have a lot to answer for in continuing with sound bites about delivering improving services on shoe string budgets, but we need to get real here. There are fantastic social workers, in great teams run by sound managers accross the country within the present economic and political landscape. There are however other pockets of poor practice within the same context that should and indeed must be challenged when, like in this case, things go horribly wrong.

    Bernard Toland
    Children’s Guardian

  6. Glenys Turner February 12, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    If you cut funding…you cut staff numbers…people are asked to take on too much and go off woth stress or leave…This is an issue at structural level for which the Instutution is being blamed. IT IS THE GOVERNMENTS POLICY THAT IS THE PROBLEM…ARE THEY JUST TRYING TO BANKRUPT US IN ORDER TO PRIVATISE?