England’s top family judge criticises social workers for acting as ‘guardians of morality’

Sir James Munby found social workers at Darlington council to be "hapless", but decided to protect their identity in judgment

Social workers have been criticised for acting as “guardians of morality” in a ruling by England’s top family court judge.

Sir James Munby said Darlington council presented an almost “textbook example of how not to embark upon and pursue a care case”.

Social workers seeking a care order for a child, referred to as ‘A’, were found to be overly concerned about a father’s past caution for having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 17, and prior involvement with far-right group the English Defence League (EDL).

Practitioners felt he did not understand the “immoral nature” of his past caution, and involvement with the EDL, which they believed placed child A at risk. But this demonstrated “significant failings in social work practice, in case analysis and in case management,” Munby said.

He argued: “The city fathers of Darlington and Darlington’s director of social services are not guardians of morality. Nor is this court. The justification for state intervention is harm to children, not parental immorality.”

Factual failings

The local authority had failed to prove the factual underpinning of its case in a significant number of respects, Munby added.

Child A was due to be born in prison, where his mother had recently been sentenced. Social workers undertook a pre-birth assessment with A’s father and judged he would not be a suitable carer. As a result, care proceedings were issued when A was one-month-old. However, a care application was not made for another eight months.

While the authority’s initial reaction before, and immediately after, A’s birth was found to be justified, social workers failed to take into account the changed landscape once the father’s relationships with the mother and his more recent partner had ended, Munby said.

The social worker’s analysis was “incoherent”, according to Munby, while the council was “proceeding on an assumption that is not supported by evidence” by claiming the father’s history placed A at risk.

He called one social worker, referred to as SW1, “hapless” and said they were plainly too inexperienced for a case of this complexity.

Munby said he would be guilty of social engineering if he permitted the authority to remove the child permanently from the father.

Risk of scapegoating

“I can accept that the father may not be the best of parents, he may be a less than suitable role model, but that is not enough to justify a care order let alone adoption,” Munby said.

However, Munby decided not to name the social workers involved. “Should the hapless SW1 be exposed to public criticism and run the risk of being scapegoated when, as it might be thought, anonymous and unidentified senior management should never have put someone so inexperienced in charge of such a demanding case,” he said.

He reasoned it would be unjust to name the social workers and team managers involved in the case, when he believed the whole council and its senior management team to be at fault.

Ada Burns, chief executive of Darlington council, said they should have given greater consideration to placing the child with the father.

“We have taken the issues raised by Sir James Munby on board and used them to review our practice and support to families. The responsibility for this has been fully accepted by the senior management and leadership of the council,” she said.

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