A newly qualified social worker assigned a complex fostering case has been criticised by a family judge for causing “unacceptable delays”.
Mrs Justice Theis published her judgement in the care proceedings case brought by Surrey County Council to highlight the local authority’s inadequacies.
She found that there was “a chronic lack of effective supervision of the allocated social worker, who was inexperienced and dealing with a complex case” and that this caused delays in the assessment that resulted in the parents being placed at a “significant disadvantage” in putting themselves forward to care for their child.
The child concerned, known as child X, has “complex health needs” including visual impairment and significant motor delay. His mother has cerebral palsy and a mild learning difficulty whilst his father has ADHD and displays Asperger-like symptoms, which led to an assessment of the parents’ capacity to care for the child.
But the core assessment did not record the child or parents’ disabilities.
The judge found that the assessment of the parents’ ability to care for the two-year-old was beset with delays and missed opportunities.
Whilst the couple were against their son being placed on a child protection plan, they were “keen to work with all agencies so that they will be able to care for their son”.
Despite this, no further action was taken to enable this in what was deemed by Mrs Justice Theis as “one of the first lost opportunities to support the parents in their wish to care for X”.
When the parents agreed to be assessed in February last year, the referral to the adult services team was not actioned for seven months due to repeated confusion over forms.
In line with these delays, the NQSW placed the child in foster care ten months before formal care proceedings were issued. The court felt the social worker failed to explore any options that might have allowed him to stay in the care of his wider birth family.
The judgement said that these many and extreme delays led to “an unfair process resulting in a catalogue of missed opportunities and inadequate assessments”, which the parents of child X felt put them at a disadvantage in their efforts to care for their child.
However, the judge said: “The mother recognised that X’s 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week care was better carried out by the foster carers. She acknowledged she found it hard to say that and ideally she would like to care for X for shorter periods.
“Whilst it will never be known if the correct assessments of the parents had been undertaken earlier whether the parents would have been in a position to care for X, the comprehensive assessments undertaken since are united in their conclusions that the parents would not be able to care full time for X.”
In an oral statement the social worker acknowledged that the case had been a steep learning curve for her and agreed it was “not fair the parents were at the bottom of this learning curve”.
Responding to the judgement, Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said: “The local authority’s own checks and balances should have addressed those issues and then things would never have got this far. This raises questions about the appropriateness of the case being allocated to such an inexperienced social worker without proper supervision.”
Mansuri added that the Department for Education, which last week published a blueprint for what newly qualified social workers should know, should think about the other side of the coin: “What should they be protected from?”
Chief executive of The College of Social Work, Annie Hudson said: “Employers have an unequivocal responsibility to ensure that social workers have regular and high quality supervision, that is supportive and encourages critical reflection and analysis. This is vital to the work that social workers do when responding to the very complex needs of children, adults and families.”
A Surrey County Council spokesman said: “Our main concern, as always, was for the welfare of this very vulnerable little boy, but we accept we should have done more in this case to work in the best interests of the family.”