A judge has demanded a council explain why assessments by its social workers were “wholly inadequate” after he abandoned a care hearing due to the reports being unusable.
In a judgment published last week, Judge MacDonald ordered fresh reports by independent social workers due to “patent defects” in Cheshire East council’s assessments of two sets of potential carers for an 11-month-old girl. He demanded the council explain how the mistakes were made, and what was being done to stop them being repeated.
The council took the girl, referred to as PN, into care after she twice suffered head injuries caused by her mother, who had alcohol and mental health problems. The council recommended the girl move in with a paternal great aunt and her husband under a special guardianship order, but the girl’s maternal aunt and partner opposed this and said they wanted to care for her.
The judge found the poor quality of social work assessments of both couples left him unable to reach an informed decision on the best placement for the girl. He also criticised a third social worker, who was assigned to the girl, for being unable to recall “basic elements” of the council’s assessments of the options when giving evidence.
The judge found a social worker’s assessment of the paternal aunt was “wholly inadequate and fundamentally flawed”. Sections of the report were “cut and pasted” and the social worker focused on wider risks to PN but failed to consider the risk of her being exposed to her birth parents if the placement went ahead.
“Whilst [the social worker] deals with road safety, stairgates and a loud Jack Russell, there is no assessment or evaluation whatsoever of the central question of the ability of the paternal great aunt and her husband to protect PN against the clearly identified risk of harm presented by the mother and the father, nor does any attempt at all appear to have been made to undertake such an assessment,” MacDonald said.
“The inevitable result is that there is no assessment of this cardinal issue before the court in relation to those proposed carers.”
‘Plainly incomplete’ assessment
The judge found the assessment of the maternal aunt and her partner, carried out by a second social worker, was “plainly incomplete”. The social worker terminated the assessment after the judge made negative comments during the fact-finding hearing about an incident where the mother had harmed the girl when the aunt left the pair unsupervised.
The social worker felt the judge’s comments were “fatal” to any proposed placement with the couple. However, MacDonald said he had also made positive findings about the aunt’s ability to care for the girl. The agreement she’d signed around supervised contact between the mother and PN at the time of the incident was also unclear, he added.
The judge said the social worker made “no professional effort whatsoever” to assess the position of the potential carers before reaching her conclusion.
MacDonald also criticised PN’s allocated social worker for an inability to “recall even basic elements” of the assessments carried out by his colleagues in cross-examination. The evidence reached a “nadir” when the social worker told the court he did not need to know how many times the paternal great aunt had contact with the child, the judge added.
MacDonald said the council had “comprehensively failed to discharge its duties” and caused unnecessary upset, stress and delay to the family.
“I hope that those responsible at the local authority for the unfortunate omissions I have had to deal with in this judgment will reflect on the consequences for PN and her family of their failure to comply with their professional obligations and their obligations to this court, and on the need for them to do better in the future for a child whose welfare they are charged with safeguarding and promoting,” he said.
Kath O’Dwyer, executive director of children’s services at Cheshire East Council, said the council “apologises unreservedly” for the failings highlighted by the court.
“It is clear that, on this occasion, the assessments carried out did not meet the high professional standards that we expect and demand of those working in children’s social care services,” O’Dwyer said.
She added: “Lessons will be learned and staff training and procedures will be reviewed and reinforced to ensure such failings are not repeated.
“Cheshire East places paramount importance on the wellbeing and protection of its vulnerable residents, both young and old, and we will take appropriate action to ensure we deliver good quality practice that places children’s welfare as the key priority.”