A family court has told Gloucestershire Council to re-examine its plan to place a child up for adoption following a “systemic failure” in its handling of the case.
In a judgement made earlier this week, family court judge Stephen Wildblood criticised Gloucestershire for taking a year to issue care proceedings following its decision to remove Child C from his mother and for failing to fully explore alternatives to adoption.
The boy, now six, was taken into foster care in May 2014 due to concerns about neglect, his mother’s mental health and a person known to pose a risk to children continuing to have contact with the child.
But it then took Gloucestershire until May 2015 to make its placement application, a delay the judge called inexplicable. “That has absolutely nothing to do with limited resources,” he said. “It is simply bad practice.”
Judge Wildblood also criticised the placement application itself, especially over its failure to consider long-term fostering as an option for the child.
The council did discuss with the boy’s foster carers the option of them becoming his special guardians or adoptive parents, but they wished to remain foster carers. As a result the council’s care plan concluded that since Child C could not return to his mother, he should be adopted.
However, when the children’s guardian talked to the foster carers after the care plan had been filed, they said they would be happy to continue caring for the boy as a long-term foster family. The boy also now regards the foster carers as his family and the children’s guardian recommended that Child C should stay with them.
The judge noted, though, that Gloucestershire Council refused to commit to keeping Child C with his foster carers even if the court ordered it.
“The local authority’s response was that it would give no commitment to C remaining with his current foster carers if a care order were to be made, even if the court made such an order having expressed the view that he should remain there,” said Wildblood in his judgement, in which he also floated the option of giving directions for a special guardianship application if the council’s stance on this did not change.
The judge also said that adoption presented potential problems, including disruption to Child C’s life and the question of whether it was likely he would be adopted given his age.
In addition, after submitting its original plan, the council amended it so that it could first assess whether Mr D, the father of Child C’s younger half-sibling, could become his carer before deciding whether to go ahead with adoption.
While Mr D initially told the council he would not be able to care for the boy before changing his mind late in the care proceedings, the judge said it was “very unfortunate indeed” that the council had not reapproached him before submitting its original care plan given that Child C and his half-sibling were close and still in contact.
The judge also said that if the council had done a psychological assessment of the mother closer to the time when Child C entered care rather than in March 2015, the earlier provision of therapy to the mother might have opened up the possibility of the boy returning to his mother.
Given this, Wildblood concluded that the council’s placement application was “inadequately considered”. “The local authority must consider the realistic options that arise and must put its case into order,” he ruled.
“The local authority must therefore look at the options that arise and file proper evidence in relation to them. The case will have to come back before me later this week when I will have to give further directions as to how that will be achieved.
“It is deeply frustrating that a case such as this has to exceed the timescales provided by section 32 of the Children Act 1989 and that should be recorded as having been caused by systemic failure by the local authority.”
Kathy O’Mahony, Gloucestershire’s operations director for children’s safeguarding and care, said: “We took robust action in this child’s case to ensure he was protected from harm and he has been doing well in foster care.
“I am saddened by the judge’s comments, but he does raise important issues about delay and we will be reviewing this case to identify exactly why aspects of this child’s case have taken the time they have. If a family member makes a commitment to being assessed to care for a child, even if this is late in the proceedings – which is what happened in this case – then it is right to pause to do this.
“The best interest of the child is always our priority and has been central to our work in this case. As we do for any child, we want this child to have long term stability and to be able to grow up in a permanent loving home. That is what we have been working towards here.
“We consider all options to enable children to grow up happily and safely in stable permanent homes. We must balance a range of complex factors to make sure the outcome is right for each individual child – in this case, adoption, potentially living with an extended family member, or remaining in care for a further 12 years.
“We have very good record of placing children of this age for adoption, with adopters who will support children to have direct contact with their birth families. It is vital at this stage that our focus remains on this child, and on ensuring a long-term, stable and loving home for him, as this is an ongoing case.”