A local authority has been criticised after an “unbalanced” social work assessment led to the illegal removal of a child from their mother’s care.
Gloucestershire council apologised “unreservedly” for the failings identified by Circuit Judge Wildblood in a court judgment published this week, and said it would carry out an independent review into the case.
The child lived with their mother in the community under a care order made in November 2016, which the local authority had applied for and supported. However, in the months following the care order, the new social work team that took over the case paid “insufficient regard” to the care plan and later decided it had been incorrect.
This led to a negative assessment of the mother by a social worker on 30 May 2017, and the team decided to remove her child from her care two days later without the 14 days’ notice agreed in the child’s care plan, and without consulting any legal advice.
The child was removed by the authority shortly after the mother dropped them off with the father for contact. After placing them in foster care, the mother was told to go to the social services offices where she was told, in the presence of a police officer, that her child would not be returned to her. This was done despite the care plan stating the child should go to their father if removed from the mother.
Judge Wildblood said it was “plainly wrong” for the local authority to have acted “with that degree of subterfuge and immediacy”.
Following the removal, the mother applied to court to discharge the care order. Before proceedings formally began the local authority accepted its actions had been wrong and agreed the child should be returned to her care.
The decision on whether the care order should be discharged will be made at a future hearing, with Judge Wildblood deciding to publish the record of the local authority’s failings to help share learning from the case.
He criticised the authority’s “serious errors” in how it handled the case, which he said was “unnecessary and highly distressing” for the mother.
He said when the social work team took over the case, and decided the care plan had been incorrect, it failed to recognise the significant court process that had already happened.
“The suggestion that the care order should not have been made on the basis of the care plan was at best superficial and misguided,” Judge Wildblood said.
He also criticised the social worker assessment in May, saying it “lacked balance” and was at times “strongly negative”.
He added: “Perhaps the most rock solid basis for concluding that the May assessment was unbalanced is demonstrated by the fact that, as soon as this case came before me in July, it was recognised that the child should go straight back home that day and that the removal had been wrongful.”
He said that, rather than remove the child without notice and against the local authority’s own care plan, the social work team should have returned to court if it was so sceptical of the arrangement.
Failure to do so was “essentially wrong” and left a “traumatised and vulnerable young mother” to challenge the decision.
“The very basis of the original care proceedings was that the mother is an emotionally fragile and socially vulnerable woman who struggles with the care of her child; therefore, for her to have faced the issues that arose on her own is manifestly unsatisfactory.”
The council told the court that the team where this occurred was experiencing “constant changes of personnel”, recruitment difficulties and a reliance on agency workers.
In a written apology submitted to the court during proceedings, the interim director of Gloucestershire children’s services, Alison Williams, said the practice and decision-making in this case had fallen short of expected standards.
“I have written to the child and the parents acknowledging and apologising for the mistakes we have made. I recognise that we have not acted in the best interests of the child in removing the child from the care of the parents and for this we are truly sorry. I have asked the interim improvement and operations director to continue to have oversight and involvement in the future planning for the child so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.
Judge Wildblood said the events happened before an Ofsted inspection earlier this year, which branded the council ‘inadequate’. He argued the case showed how much progress the council needed to make.
Following the practice identified by the court, the council’s interim improvement and operations director, Neelam Bhardwaja, told Judge Wildblood the council would use the case’s findings to develop an education programme for social workers in the council, and she would retain personal oversight of all cases where removing children placed under care orders is being considered for the next three months.