The president of the family courts division has praised and criticised social work contribution to an adoption case, saying it “exemplified everything that is best in the profession” but also showed “lamentable failings”.
The contrast was highlighted in a judgment on a case which involved a four-year-old child, referred to as D, and parents with learning disabilities. Sir James Munby ruled that, despite the parents being devoted to the child, he should be placed for adoption as they weren’t meeting his welfare needs.
Munby praised the child’s social workers who provided “compelling” work, and Swindon council for committing to a “courageous” plan to support the family to stay together for several years previously.
However, he identified “serious failings” in adults’ services, which did not provide the boy’s father with the level of support he needed, and said the father only had “inadequately fitful engagement” from his social worker. Counsel for the parents argued that this affected the father’s ability to care for his child.
Munby did not agree with that point, but said: “The very striking contrast between the level and quality of the services provided by the local authority’s children and adult services redounds as much to the credit of the one as to the discredit of the other.”
On the child’s social worker, Munby said: “She was a most impressive witness who had plainly gone out of her way to do everything possible to maintain D’s placement with his parents. D and his parents were lucky to have the assistance for so long of so dedicated a social worker who, if she will allow me to say so, exemplified everything that is best in the profession.”
Munby described the case as “wrenchingly” sad.
“D’s parents are devoted to him and have always wanted to do, and have done, their very best for him. They would never harm him, and have never done so. They are not in any way to blame. They are not to be criticised. It is not in any sense their fault. They have struggled against great odds to be, as they would want to be, the best possible parents for D. But ultimately it has proved too much for them. Their own difficulties are simply too great. My heart goes out to them,” Munby said.
A potential special guardianship placement for D, who had been in foster care since 2014, had fallen through in 2015.
Support for parents
Munby used the case to repeat the conclusions of a judgment issued in Northern Ireland in 2006, which made a case for new guidelines to help adults’ and children’s services work together.
This earlier judgment said parents must be “advised by social workers about their legal rights, where to obtain advice, how to find a solicitor and what help might be available to them once a decision has been taken to pursue a care application”.
It added: “Too narrow a focus must not be placed exclusively on the child’s welfare with an accompanying failure to address parents’ needs arising from their disability which might impact adversely on their parenting capacity. Parents with learning disabilities should be advised of the possibility of using an advocate during their case… and clear explanations and easy to understand information about the process and the roles of the different professionals involved must be disclosed to them periodically. Written information should be provided to such parents to enable them to consider these matters at leisure and with their advocate or advisers.”
It also said that careful consideration should be given to “providing child protection training to staff working in services for adults with learning disabilities. Similarly those in children’s services need training about adults with learning disabilities.”
A spokesperson for Swindon council said it is reviewing the way it works to ensure lessons are learned.
“However, the Judge said that he did not consider that the delays he identified made a difference to the final outcome of this complex and difficult case,” the spokesperson added.