A family court judge has slammed social workers at a North East local authority for losing sight of a six-year-old child’s best interests during care proceedings that went on for more than 18 months.
At a hearing in Newcastle at the end of August, Recorder Carly Henley severely criticised a social worker, ‘SD’, and her team manager for their decision-making and evidence in court, describing the case as “exceptionally poorly managed”. The judgment did not name the local authority but Northumberland council confirmed it had handled the case, which originated in the town of Hexham.
The child, ‘I’, was placed with her paternal grandfather under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 in late 2016 after repeated concerns relating to neglect at the home she shared with her mother.
But after members of her family, including her mother, failed to cooperate with the local authority, the case was repeatedly adjourned, leaving the child in limbo as her care was passed around a number of relatives.
“The inordinate delays in this case are borne out of poor case management and a failure by the local authority to get a grip of what was happening on the ground [and] to undertake timely assessments,” the judge said.
A care plan eventually put before Recorder Henley in August 2018, involving rehabilitating I to her mother’s care, was dismissed by the judge as “entirely speculative”.
The council subsequently backed an alternative plan – ultimately granted by the judge – which saw I placed with her paternal great aunt under a special guardianship order (SGO), alongside a 12-month supervision order. Even then, progress was almost held up after the council submitted a DBS check request late.
‘Hungry, dirty and unkempt’
I’s mother, who was 22 at the time of the hearing, had endured a traumatic upbringing, being exposed to parental domestic and alcohol abuse, before losing her own mother to cancer when she was 16 and pregnant.
The judge, while expressing sympathy, described I’s mother as “an immature, fragile and damaged young woman who seeks to do things on her own terms”. She has anorexia and has repeatedly been hospitalised after drinking.
I’s mother was placed in mother-and-baby foster care after her child’s birth, before moving on to supported accommodation in the Newcastle area, where her family live, and then, in 2015, to a house in a town 20 miles away.
While there, the local authority received repeated referrals around I’s “hungry, dirty and unkempt” appearance at nursery. A home visit carried out by SD in August 2016 found dog faeces and mouldy food littering the home – which the mother rapidly cleaned up – prompting a section 47 inquiry to be commenced.
This was stepped down to child in need level, but then stepped back up after dirty and unsafe home conditions were again discovered. I’s mother eventually signed the section 20 agreement in November 2016.
‘Lack of control’
Care proceedings commenced in January 2017, with the council seeking an interim care order, but non-engagement by I’s mother led to written agreements not being signed and parenting assessments going uncompleted.
As early as April 2017 the children’s guardian involved in the case raised concerns both at the lack of cooperation by the family and the local authority’s “lack of control”.
By July the guardian was advocating that I be removed to foster care – something that was not pursued, with the council instead agreeing to a further parenting assessment of the mother, along with another evaluation by a psychologist.
But the mother continued to fail to engage – having no contact with I between September 2017 and spring 2018 – and a further series of delays and adjournments took place.
In the meantime I’s paternal grandfather had flip-flopped on whether he was willing to care for her in the long term. The child was placed first with her maternal, and later with her with her paternal great-aunt and at one point her school was changed without consulting the court.
Her paternal grandfather and maternal great aunt, it later emerged, allowed her to have unauthorised contact with her mother, and father – who had never been risk-assessed by the local authority – during this period.
‘Care plan not thought through’
By the time the case came before Recorder Henley in August 2018, the children’s guardian was recommending a special guardianship order be made in favour of the parental great aunt. The local authority, meanwhile, advocated a programme of therapy for the mother, alongside a 12-week period of rehabilitation between I and her.
SD acknowledged that this represented a “change of position” on her part and that the mother had not previously completed any course of therapy. Her opinion was based, she told the court, on a combination of the mother’s presentation since April 2018, the quality of her contact with I and an assessment by the psychologist – which it transpired had been produced without consulting the mother’s medical records.
“Her evidence did not inspire me with any confidence that the care plan being proposed had been properly thought through,” said Recorder Henley. “I formed the clear impression that much of her changed position was as a consequence of the written evidence of [the psychologist], which she had interpreted very positively.”
The judge went on to note that no without-notice visits had been carried out to the mother – who had previously managed to quickly improve “deplorable” home conditions. “I agree with the [children’s] guardian that [SD’s] updated assessment of the mother and her partner is neither robust nor searching,” Recorder Henley said.
The judge added that the assessment failed to take into account a range of factors, including the impact on I should it prove unsuccessful, and the mother’s history of neglect and non-engagement.
‘Even less impressive’
Recorder Henley was also highly critical of SD’s manager, who she described as providing “even less impressive” evidence to the court.
“She was unable to assist me any better than the social worker could in so far as the therapeutic input that would be sourced for the mother, which was a central and crucial aspect of the local authority’s plan,” the judge said. “I was so troubled by her evidence that I indicated to her my view that the care plan that I was being asked to approve was entirely speculative.”
The team manager seemed unable to grasp the impact of further potential delays and uncertainty on I, should the plan prove unsuccessful, Recorder Henley said.
“I was deeply troubled that the best interests of the child appeared to have been lost in the local authority’s decision-making,” the judge said, “and that the need for I to have stable and settled care arrangements after she has experienced so much disruption in her care and welfare arrangements had not been prioritised within care planning for her.”
In assessing the effect of the drawn-out proceedings, repeated changes of carer and confusing contact with her parents on I’s wellbeing, Recorder Henley cited documents produced by the girl’s schools.
After becoming “settled and well-presented” during her initial placement with her parental grandfather, one school recorded a “rapid deterioration” in her emotional state as things became more chaotic, leading to disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour.
Recorder Henley criticised the local authority – which had not kept in regular contact with I’s schools – for “grossly overestimating” the child’s resilience, quoting from a report by an independent reviewing officer that describer her as a “very happy child”. She noted SD still believed that I’s unplanned moves had not harmed her – a perception also backed up in a statement from a service director at the council.
“The best evidence is available from the schools that I attended and they have highlighted significant concerns about her welfare,” the judge said. “The local authority’s failure to include I’s current school in her care team or seek information from it is unacceptable and must be corrected immediately.”
‘Disastrous and emotionally harmful’
In summing up the case, Recorder Henley concluded the local authority had failed to protect I from harm because of its poor oversight. As soon as I’s mother had failed to sign a written agreement for an interim care order in early 2017, I should have been placed in foster care pending further assessments, the judge said.
In granting the SGO and supervision order, she added: “The local authority will not hold parental responsibility for I and so will not be able to take decisions in respect of [future] contact arrangements, which I am satisfied [would be] unlikely to be child-focused or safe.”
The judge ordered that a copy of the judgment be sent to the local authority’s director of children’s services, IRO and each member of I’s care team “so that, I hope, lessons can be learned”.
A spokesperson for Northumberland council said: “The local authority in this case have worked hard to support and maintain the child within her family throughout the course of these proceedings, and do feel that in considering actions and decisions at key points, the best interests of the child were at the heart of this.
“The judgment raised points for consideration for a number of agencies and professionals, and the local authority will thoroughly reflect on and learn from all issues relevant for our practice.”