Judge slams council over poor quality social work assessments

Justice MacDonald found Cheshire East council’s risk assessments of potential carers for an 11-month-old girl were unusable

Photo: WavebreakMediaMicro/Fotolia

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.

‘Fundamentally flawed’

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.

Court evidence

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.”

More from Community Care

15 Responses to Judge slams council over poor quality social work assessments

  1. muser March 14, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    Assessments should be checked by management. This includes the objective eye of head of service. These people all sign off the piece of work and if there are fundamental gaps, then this should have been rectified. However, the time issue is what is placing a great deal of pressure on completing assessments. Full connected persons assessments have to go to fostering panel before they go to court, lessening the assessment time. 16 weeks from child placed is restrictive and impacts on the quality of the assessments. References, ex partners, other local authorities, historical searches, and travelling great distances are all time consuming, along with carrying case loads, require longer assessment times, which is bot afforded. Whilst I’m glad that a judge has spoke up, it continues to show the PLO process is limiting.

    • Jw52 March 15, 2017 at 8:33 am #

      Why do you assume they weren’t?

      • muser March 15, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

        It was rhetorical. My point was regarding the assessment and that checks should have highlighted the discrepancies.

  2. Borstal Boy March 14, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    How about our Chief Social Worker gets a grip and initiates a whole country Assessment/Court Skills course for all childrens Social Workers?

    No more “innovation” or pet projects, no more pathetic role plays or online tests, a proper research based training programme that has to be done before you get the bloody role to fulfill.

    Build in good practice and share it with everyone I mean Jesus it’s not splitting the atom is it?

  3. Spidernose March 14, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    These flaws in the assessments should have been picked up by the manager who signed it off and head of service who ultimately agrees the plan. Where is the accountability or does the buck stop with the social worker as usual

  4. anonymous March 14, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

    Muser should stop making excuses; this is a case where the social workers are completely incompetent and do not have the verbal or writtten skills that a social worker should be capable of. Shame on you

    • Nell March 15, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

      In which case, why on earth do we have Heads of Service, if not to identify gaps in skills and competence? It was my job to sign off on these for Court and as an accountable person I would expect to be criticised if standards were falling short. Hopefully an internal review will be able to establish who did what and the social workers may not be the scapegoats in the end.

    • Anita Singh March 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm #

      Dear Anonymous, in your zeal to point the finger of blame at the SW, please explore how these assessments were filed without the Service Manager’s signature, as most documents have two signatures, one by the author of the report and then a second by the Service Manager signing off the report. In addition, the LA has solicitors who represent and are well versed in the standard and quality of assessments expected by the Courts. Where are the draft reports with amendments, feedback, questions posed by those reading the documents prior to filing? Where was the Service Manager’s signature? This is not about making excuses. The assessment is filed by the Local Authority. The SW does not make unilateral decisions or unilateral assessments, but based upon a clear process of gathering information, DBS checks, exploration of key factors such as the potential for the carer to manage issues such as contact, safeguarding etc. etc. There is a clear line of accountability within the LA and the judge should be clearly aware. Why did the Judge not summon the Team Manager, Service Manager and if need be the Director to the Court? The buck stops with whoever is at the top and not the bottom of the chain. If the assessment is poor, that reflects the standards of management of the case.

    • Longtime SW March 15, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

      Whilst I partly agree with you where WAS the management input at senior level? All support funding for support plans whatever the outcome has to be signed off and agreed, supposedly with supporting eveidence including assessments as part of the information

    • muser March 15, 2017 at 6:29 pm #

      No response needed…

  5. Bonnie March 15, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    I’m glad the judge came down heavy – I’m sure the report was ‘read’ it’s indicative of many problems within SW at present including poor management oversight. I hope the SW receives the support and guidance they need and is not referred to HCPC ! That’s a whole topic within it’s self.

  6. Sociofriend March 15, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

    Councils are not prioritizing we taking of care or service. There is a huge emphasis on cost cutting. The victims of such an ethos will always be in the front line, be it the service user or the front line professionals.
    The families and friends of service users, will always be affected by the shoestring service on offer. The accountability of anyone in the Local Authority with lines of responsibility for front line professionals, is of course way beneath the headline.

  7. Billy Todd March 15, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

    I’m guessing that the court process has been somewhat tetchy neither judge nor social workers appear to be able to work with the child and her family to find the best way to address the identified dangers..guess that doesn’t fit with the current adversarial approach that everyone thinks is ‘safe’.In my view.all the adults ( there’s at least 10 mentioned just in the above description) should be round the table trying to figure out how to give this child the best possible arrangement..come on guys,get your wigs off and stop pretending that this process makes a significant positive difference.

  8. Anon March 16, 2017 at 8:43 pm #

    No new surprises, Cheshire east are well below the service levels expected, clueless and inadequate, and do not act in the best interests of children. An immediate review is necessary of all cases.

    • Anon March 20, 2017 at 10:10 pm #

      If the courts didn’t direct that these assessments were completed in a matter of weeks instead of the government guidelines (12 weeks) then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I’m afraid this could be any social worker and I feel sorry for those that have been named. Cheshire East are no better or worse than other authorities in reference to the above comment