A judge has criticised a local authority that “wrongly and abusively” kept children in section 20 care for a long period of time.
One child in the two cases commented on by Justice Keehan had been in a section 20 arrangement his entire life.
Keehan said in a judgment published last week that 14 children in Herefordshire had “wrongly and abusively been the subject of section 20 accommodation for a wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time and should have been the subject of legal planning meetings or care proceedings at a much earlier time”.
Section 20 is a voluntary care arrangement that does not require care proceedings but does require the consent of parents or people with parental responsibility for the child. It has come under increasing criticism over the past few years over fears of widespread misuse and abuse.
Keehan described the failings in this case as “egregious”, but recognised the council was under new senior leadership, and that the new director of children’s wellbeing had taken responsibility for the historic failings of the service and outlined how practice had changed.
The director, Chris Baird, had said in the proceedings that in the period when the section 20 arrangements were made it was “the usual practice of this council not to initiate care proceedings where it was the social worker’s perception that the parents consent to their child being looked after”.
“This followed a widespread misunderstanding of the ‘no order principle’,” the judgment said.
Keehan said, despite the council analysing the case when the failings were made clear, it was not possible to explain why children’s services failed to act on numerous decisions during the children’s lives to seek legal permanence.
“It is extremely concerning that when this local authority recognised, as it did on repeated occasions, that it was not acting in the welfare best interests of either of these children, it did nothing. The complete inertia is inexplicable. Such gross failings by a local authority are intolerable,” Keehan said.
In 2013, a mother wrote a letter withdrawing consent for the accommodation of her child, however the local authority did not return the child to her care, and “effectively did nothing in terms of care planning for the child”.
“Thus, for four years the local authority unlawfully had care of this child,” he said.
A mother for one of the children was 14-years old when he was born, and the local authority “did not even consider whether she was capable of consenting to [his] accommodation. Thereafter she was frankly side-lined”.
As a result of the local authority’s practice, the children in the case “were both denied the opportunity for clear and focussed planning about their respective futures to be undertaken and for the same to be endorsed by a court. The early issue of care proceedings would have enabled a decision to be made about their legal status and their future in a structured and time-limited manner”.
“I have never before encountered two cases where a local authority has so seriously and serially failed to address the needs of the children in its care and so seriously misused, indeed abused, the provisions of section 20 of the Children Act 1989. By happenchance alone, as it appears to me, both children have remained in the care of quite extraordinary and superlative carers who have met their respective needs extremely well,” Keehan said.
He concluded that while he did not understand how the local authority failed the children “so very badly”, he was satisfied that the appointment of a new director and management team would lead to an improved service for children and young people.
Baird explained in the case that the council had changed its procedures on section 20 to include legal advice for parents at the start and ensuring children under section 20 do not remain so for extended periods.
“The independent reviewing officer service has also developed more robust mechanisms for the escalation and monitoring of cases. The local authority has on occasions failed to make adequate progress through the independent officer dispute resolution processes. An escalation and tracking process is now in place to ensure disputes are brought to the attention of heads of service promptly and tracked until effective resolution is achieved,” Baird explained.
The council had requested the judgment be published anonymously due to concerns over how it would impact its recruitment of social workers, but the judge said it was necessary for transparency for the case to be public. He added that these were past failings, and the judgment outlined his faith in new leadership to improve practice in Herefordshire.
“I am satisfied that the appointment of a new director and a new management team, who are alive to the past failings in these and in other cases, will lead to an improved service for the children and young people who are now or hence forward will be placed in the care of this local authority,” Keehan concluded.