A review of recent decisions by the appeal court in child protection cases where parenting skills and co-operation with authorities were in doubt
Typically, care proceedings are brought to protect children because of concerns about their parents. At the same time, the law requires that, if at all possible, children should be brought up by their parents.
The inherent tension between these two principles means difficult choices have to be made by the courts, as illustrated by a number of recent decisions from the Court of Appeal.
In CR v a local authority (Oct 2009) a court decided that the significant harm threshold for making a care order, under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, was met due to a baby’s severe non-accidental head injuries.
It could not, however, decide which of the parents was responsible. The court went on to refuse to order a parenting assessment of the mother.
The Court of Appeal said this decision was “plainly wrong”. The mother should have been given an opportunity to show that she could be a suitable parent before the court made its final decision on whether to make a care order.
Marriage sacrifice offer
When the care proceedings in K (Children) (July 2009) began, the mother and father argued that, as a couple, they were suitable carers.
Part-way through the proceedings, however, the father decided to put himself forward as sole carer; he had decided to “sacrifice his marriage for the good of his children”.
The court that heard the case refused to order a sole parenting assessment of the father despite social workers’ belief that his proposal had some merit. The Court of Appeal, having said that “children are wronged if they are separated from a natural family without full professional investigation”, held that a parenting assessment was required.
A (a Child) (July 2009) involved a mother, a number of whose previous children were in care. The mother argued that she could provide suitable care for her most recent child with support from the child’s grandmother.
This proposal was rejected by the court which heard the care order application. The Court of Appeal upheld that decision. The proposal was unrealistic because the grandmother was unwell and had a tempestuous relationship with the mother.
C (Children) (July 2009) was the first of two recent cases where parental separation from children might have been avoided if only there had been reasonable co-operation with a local authority. Care proceedings were brought in response to the mother’s partner beating her children.
At an interim hearing, a judge told the mother that if she had a psychiatric assessment and left her partner the children could probably be returned in three months.
The mother did not do either of those things and also disrupted the children’s interim foster placement. Ultimately, a care order was made. The Court of Appeal rejected the mother’s appeal against the order.
In S (a Child) care proceedings were brought because a child was living in a filthy home environment. A succession of interim care orders followed, during which the parents refused, despite strong encouragement, to take the opportunity to show that they were suitable carers.
The father, in particular, was opposed to any form of psychological assessment. The court made a care order and the Court of Appeal refused to allow the parents to appeal against it.
Ed Mitchell is a solicitor and editor of Social Care Today
This article is published in the 26 November 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Difficult child protection cases for the Court of Appeal