A social worker has been criticised in court for relying too heavily on the report of a psychologist when seeking a care order for a nine-year-old boy, rather than making her own independent assessment.
This led her to make a flawed balance-sheet assessment, an approach that was reaffirmed in the Re B-S case.
All realistic options
The boy, AN, has been living with his father since January this year, after his mother’s mental health difficulties and substance misuse meant she was no longer able to care for him and his siblings.
The father, referred to as F, was a heroin addict for most of his adult life but had been clean for the last two years.
Since AN came into his care, the boy’s school noted improvements in his school work, appearance and behaviour.
Judge Ralton told the court the social worker had failed to robustly assess all the realistic options for the child.
He said it was clear from her oral evidence the social worker was planning for AN to remain with his father, and only changed her mind after reading the psychologist’s report.
But this report was written before all the evidence subsequently known to the council came out, including reports from the school that AN was fitting in well and receiving reward certificates.
The social worker, however, decided AN would be better off in a therapeutic foster placement, and sought a care order
On reading the psychologist’s report, the social worker closed her mind to the possibility of the boy remaining with his father, according to the judge.
He said as a result the social worker made a “serious error” in how she used the balance-sheet approach to evidencing decisions in care proceedings. This approach is used to analyse each of the realistic options for a child, and weigh up their pros and cons.
The social worker decided the child should not be rehabilitated to the care of either parent but the judge made clear: “The balance sheet exercise for rehabilitation cannot be identical to the balance sheet for removal and it is removal which the council seeks.”
Although the judge agreed it would not be appropriate for the child to live with his mother, he said it was notable the social worker had failed to consider this as an option.
Therapeutic foster placement
The judge found her assessment of F’s parenting was not balanced or reliable because it did not properly acknowledge his successes as well as his shortcomings.
Not enough credit had been given to F’s self-awareness and willingness to engage with services, according to the judge.
The social worker said there was evidence the boy was suffering significant emotional abuse in the care of his father. She added if he remained in his father’s care, any opportunity for therapeutic work would be lost.
But the judge said he did not accept this as F was “plainly open to AN receiving therapeutic work”, and had in fact arranged to receive support for parenting strategies from a pastoral lead at AN’s school.
While AN might do well in a therapeutic placement, the judge said he could not consent to it as this would be “social engineering”.
He also felt that being separated from his extended family, school friends and current child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) support would be detrimental.
The judge concluded the child should remain with his father but be made subject to a supervision order so the council could support the continued placement.
Judge Ralton also outlined a litany of other failings in Swindon Council’s decision-making in the case.
Litany of failings
Despite being involved with the family since 2000, during which time the council recorded incidences of domestic abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and neglect, the children were not placed on child protection plans until December 2014.
The judge described this as a “quite extraordinary” delay for which there was “no satisfactory explanation”.
The council was also criticised for the way it presented evidence in court. The bundle of relevant documents presented to the court was prepared with “no care or thought and no effort was made to put the papers in a sensible order,” according to the judge.
The judge said any future bundles presented in this way may be rejected and the council might be made to cover the costs of time wasted.