A judge has lamented local authority failings in a care proceedings case that lasted 148 weeks and involved six social workers working with a mother and child.
Judge Moor said “everything that could go wrong in this case has gone wrong” and both the mother and child were let down by Redbridge council.
The young mother, who had grown up in care, attracted concern from the local authority because of issues around mental health, aggressive behaviour, drug use and a chaotic lifestyle. During proceedings, she made contact with the child’s father, who the council felt placed the child at harm due to domestic violence risks.
Care proceedings began when the child, referred to as E, was born in January 2014. A placement order was made for E in February 2015, but the judge immediately allowed an appeal, which was upheld because factual findings were made on issues in which no evidence had been given.
The case was not “reheard speedily”, Moor said, and contributed to the delays in the case. In November 2015, when the re-hearing was held, the decision was made to try a phased rehabilitation plan with the mother.
However, due to the stress of the transition, the mother began using cannabis more regularly and a social worker took the view she was “dependent on professionals”.
This, coupled with an incident involving the mother and father in February 2016 where she was arrested, made the authority reconsider its plan in favour of a care order, which was granted at the end of March 2016.
A final hearing for adoption was listed in October 2016, but had to be rescheduled due to the local authority not complying with the directions for the case.
When the final hearing was held in November, Moor said that, while the mother was able to provide good care, E would not experience long-term stability with her, and placed E for adoption.
“[E] cannot remain in the uncertainty and limbo of the care system,” said Moor. “In short, having ruled out the mother, I accept it must be adoption. Nothing else will do. I am not playing lip service to this requirement. I ruled the mother out with great reluctance but I reached a clear conclusion having heard all the evidence.”
He ordered the local authority to pay the costs of the mother and children’s guardian for the abandoned October hearing.
The guardian was also critical of the local authority, telling the judge “she had never seen poor practice such as this in over thirty years”.
“Whenever there was an opportunity to do some work, the local authority had failed to do take the opportunity,” the judge heard.
The mother also refused to engage with the sixth – and final – social worker on the case, who the judge said he was “impressed” with but questioned why a more experienced social worker was not appointed.
“It is always unfortunate when so many changes in personnel take place in a case. It is, regrettably, increasingly common,” said Moor.
The judge heard that the number of social workers allocated to the case “made it exceptionally difficult for the mother to forge trusting and useful relationships with them”.
He heard from three social workers in the proceedings who he said were “trying to do their best” for E, but added that there was “no doubt that the local authority has not complied with all its duties and obligations to her during the course of this case”.
Moor said the council’s failings were “particularly evident” when the child was being rehabilitated into the mother’s home. A professionals meeting ordered by the judge was not convened, and the authority did not file a new care plan setting out the detail of the rehabilitation plan as a result of the meeting.
The mother’s benefits had been stopped, Moor said, and Redbridge “did not assist in the way that it should”.
In March 2016, the mother was told the care plan had changed for removal in an “insensitive way” during a child protection conference and while her daughter was in the building. Moor said it was “bound to distress the mother” who suffered from anxiety.
“I accept that it was always going to be difficult to tell the mother. Is it better to do it in her home or with her solicitor or in the local authority offices? It was not, however, right to do it in the meeting,” Moor said.
He added: “The position of the local authority throughout this period left much to be desired. At one point in February/March 2016, it was inviting the court to make no order at all. At another, it sought only a supervision order. It then changed tack completely in later March 2016 to ask for a full care order.
“On 14th March 2016, it had been indicating it would be withdrawing the [supervision] workers. I accept that they could not continue to go into the home for ever, let alone daily but it is in stark contrast to a care plan only eight days later for removal.”
He accepted the council’s final care plan and made a placement order. The mother would be allowed letterbox contact with the child and life story work will be carried out.
Moor did not, however, decide to say the mother’s right to a family life had been broken, and said while the local authority let the mother and child down, it would not be right to go any further at this stage.