A judge has criticised a council and a social worker for making “egregious” errors when investigating concerns a boy was being abused by his father.
Recorder Baker said he was bemused by a series of poor decisions that meant the boy, referred to as V, did not see his father for 10 months under a written agreement the council made with his mother.
The boy’s parents were separated and involved in an “acrimonious” private law dispute. An assessment carried out during the private proceedings, seven months after the child protection investigation, found the abuse claims could not be substantiated.
In the end all parties agreed that the boy, now seven, had not been abused by the man. The judge said it was “lamentable” that it had taken so long and criticised flaws in the initial child protection investigation.
The council launched its section 47 investigation after concerns were raised by a friend of the boy’s mother who claimed to have experience in child protection. She said she had overheard the boy talk about having massages with his father.
Recorder Baker said the local authority, who are not named in the judgment to preserve the boy’s anonymity, had failed to take a balanced view when working on the case. The council was too quick to conclude the concerns were true and wrongly abandoned a child protection conference that would have probed the claims further, he found.
The social worker failed to speak to the father when conducting the initial section 47 assessment, a decision the judge said was hard to understand. The social worker’s report was also confusing and inaccurate in parts and failed to record inconsistencies in interviews with the boy, he added.
Difficult to understand
In the report the social worker said an Initial Child Protection Case Conference should be held as there was a “likelihood” disclosures he made had been influenced by his mother. However, it also recorded on the same page that a case conference should not be convened “as there is currently no evidence that [V’s] mother has incited the allegations”.
Baker said: “How the above two statements can be reconciled is difficult to understand and nothing within the document explains the sudden volte face.”
He also questioned how the case failed to meet the threshold for a case conference, given sexual abuse claims were still being investigated.
The child protection investigation was completed within two and a half weeks. Before it was finished, the local authority offered the mother a written agreement to sign. The agreement was to say that the boy should have no contact with his father until the investigation was over.
However, it failed to specify whether this meant a police or local authority investigation and once it was signed, the authority did not inform the mother the investigation was complete.
“In other words, the mother had signed an agreement without limit of time that asked her to prevent V and his father having a relationship on pain of the local authority taking “further action” and “legal advice” should the agreement not be adhered to,” Baker said.
The mother would later go on in private law proceedings, after both police and local authority investigations had ended, to use the agreement to argue the child shouldn’t see his father.
When social workers closed the case, the judge said it was with the conclusion that the boy had been sexually abused, and he would be at risk from his father if he was to have contact.
“Simply to say ‘the child will not see the alleged perpetrating parent and is therefore safe’ and thereafter close the case, is an abrogation of the responsibility placed on local authorities,” he said.
“The conclusions of the section 47 and Child and Family Assessments investigations appear to be that there is a real possibility the child has been sexually abused by his father. Even if that was the only possible conclusion open to the assessor at the time (and it very clearly was not) I fail to see how the criteria for an Initial Child Protection Conference was not met.”
Baker added that if a conference had taken place, “it would have inevitably led to a more balanced understanding of the available evidence”.
Seven months passed in the case until the issue was resolved by a section 37 investigation the local authority was asked to complete in private proceedings between the mother and father. The report concluded that there was little or no evidence to substantiate any allegations of sexual abuse.
“The writer concludes that V has suffered significant harm but that harm emanates from the acrimonious dispute between the parents rather than any form of direct sexual or physical abuse,” the judgment said.
The allegations against the father were found to be false, yet there was no suggestion the allegation was initiated by the mother and that she knew it to be false. Contact has since resumed between the boy and father.
Baker noted that some local authorities were reluctant to become involved in private law disputes and may have an “instinctive wish” to pull out from them as soon as possible.
“The idea that it is sufficient simply to formulate an agreement with one parent that they will prevent a relationship with the alleged perpetrating parent on threat of care proceedings, and then withdraw at the earliest possible stage, without considering that there are ongoing section 17 duties, is difficult to justify,” he said.
The judge published the criticism of the local authority as there were “general matters of public interest”, which he felt could promote better practice.