An inexperienced social worker was left “hung out to dry” by her local authority in proceedings a High Court judge deemed a “lesson in how not to pursue a care case”.
Justice Newton criticised Blackpool council for “reprehensible” failings in the way it pursued its case that two boys, F and G, should be placed with an aunt and uncle in France rather than remaining with foster carers with whom they had lived under a section 20 arrangement for 17 months.
The aunt and uncle were not blood relatives, but the sister and step-brother of the father of F and G’s half-siblings.
The judge ruled against the local authority’s preferred option and said an interim care order should be made in favour of the foster carers, with whom the boys had a strong attachment.
He found the council had failed to do the “most basic social work” with the boys or foster carers and had backed the aunt and uncle as the best placement “without ever looking, let alone considering, any other options”. This may have been due to a misunderstanding by the council that the Re B and Re B-S judgments meant familial placements should be preferenced, he added.
The council had also shown such a “breath-taking” disregard for the court timetable and court orders throughout the case it was “one of the worst examples I have encountered now for some decades,” Newton said.
A series of delays meant a final hearing on the case was postponed four times, a situation the judge called “chaotic”. When the case did finally reach court the council had appointed an inexperienced social worker to handle it. She had only been appointed two weeks before the original hearing date and took a “bruising” in evidence, the judge said.
He said: “In a very real sense, she has been hung out to dry by her authority which seems to me a most unhappy start to her young professional career.
“For much of the time of her tenure of this case she has had no assistance or real oversight by her superiors, and no real help of sensible advice. She has done the best she can and has, from time to time, muddled along.”
The council has issued an apology in wake of the judge’s “devastating” comments.
Newton warned the council went to “extraordinary lengths” to pursue its own case and said: “It was apparently suggested by a local authority employee that the school the boys attend should not write a supporting letter [for the foster carers], and that in fact the school had been actively discouraged by a social worker from doing so.
‘Stuff of disciplinary hearings’
This was “the stuff of disciplinary hearings” and “completely inappropriate”, he said. The local authority should find the social worker responsible, he added.
The judge lamented children being “accommodated under section 20 effectively unmonitored while the local authority sorts itself out” and said the children had been “abandoned” to the care of the foster carers.
“In fact, neither [the foster carers] nor the boys have received any social work at all…There has been no work done with them in any sense.
“The authority, have, in effect, done their level best to marginalise and criticise two carers who actually have got the best interests of these boys at their centre.”
At the same time alleged “unfair, even disingenuous pressure” was put on the aunt and uncle, when the council suggested that the boys’ placement with foster carers was close to breakdown.
The boys’ mother had been “effectively written off” from the outset, despite the value of keeping in contact with her being “immediately obvious”.
Community Care Inform subscribers can read our Guide to the balance sheet approach and Re B-S compliant evidence for tips and case study examples of how to analyse and present the pros and cons of each realistic placement option.
The authority had approached the case from an “ideological” perspective, Newton said. It had not balanced the different pros and cons on any basis, let alone welfare, or carried out a robust analysis.
Newton said he was “deeply troubled” by the case and expected the local authority to present a care plan in the future that reflected a joint approach and a consensus with all those involved. He said future work with the boys and carers should probably be done by an independent social worker.
In response to the ruling, Graham Cain, Blackpool council’s lead member for children’s services, said the judge’s comments were “devastating”.
“Based on the points made, standards have fallen below the level that we would expect. On behalf of the Council I whole-heartedly apologise to all parties who have been affected by this.
“This case has been discussed by senior officers and an action plan created to ensure that failings like this do not occur again. A new leadership team is now in place across children’s social care and reflective supervision is embedded.
“In recent years Children’s Social Services has been completely transformed. Protecting children is our top priority and I am confident that we have a workforce that is 100 per cent committed to looking after vulnerable children and families.”