A High Court judge has severely criticised a Cafcass children’s guardian after she submitted an inadequate report and gave “woeful” evidence to a hearing in late August, and questioned managers’ decision to appoint her to the case.
Mr Justice Keehan also found fault with assessments by a Leicestershire council social worker who was handling the case, which concerned two half-siblings and where they should live after suffering abuse at their mother’s home.
Contrary to both the guardian’s and local authority’s recommendations, the judge ordered the half-brother and sister, named as ‘EF’ and ‘GH’ respectively, be placed with GH’s biological father, ‘CD’, and his partner, rather than separated.
Justice Keehan said the social worker and guardian, as well as a parenting assessor, had “fallen into error” in their evaluations, and had mistakenly been guided by a nonexistent ‘right’ of children to live with biological parents.
Too little thought had been given to the likely emotional and psychological harm the children, aged four and three, would experience if separated, the judge concluded.
‘Constellation’ of injuries
The half-siblings’ mother, who had suffered a severe head injury in 2011 that had caused ongoing cognitive problems, was estranged from the children’s fathers. She had only been involved with EF’s father, ‘IJ’, for a few weeks, and had subsequently told IJ that both children were CD’s, meaning IJ did not initially play a role in his son’s life.
During 2016, the children were placed on a child protection plan by Northamptonshire council relating to neglect, in the wake of domestic abuse between CD and the mother. The couple separated in 2017 before the mother started a relationship with a new partner, ‘KL’, who moved in soon afterwards, at the start of 2018.
Within a few weeks, EF began suffering injuries, which were noticed at nursery, with his mother claiming he had been hit by his grandmother while in CD’s care. A consultant paediatrician deemed most of the marks “to be obvious non-accidental injuries, probably [to] the ears by pinching, and bruises to neck and forehead by blows”.
There was at first considered to be no evidence against KL or the mother, meaning the child was discharged into their care. An initial child protection conference was convened for the end of the month, but the day before it was due to take place, EF’s mother took him to hospital with severe bruises to his genitals and other injuries to his face.
Two consultant paediatricians concluded the genital bruising may well have involved a ligature, and both EF and GH were placed under police protection and subsequently into foster care. Neither the mother nor KL admitted to causing the “constellation” of injuries suffered by EF. But with neither seeking to care for the children in future, Justice Keehan ruled it would be “fruitless” trying to identify which of them was the perpetrator.
In the wake of EF and GH being removed from their mother, positive parenting assessments were carried out on both half-siblings’ fathers and their partners. The assessor, however, raised concern over their being placed together with CD and his partner, who already had two small girls, as creating a risk that needs could go unmet.
But, Justice Keehan found, the assessor did not take sufficient account of the potential short- or long-term harm EF and GH might suffer if placed separately. “She took the view that the consequences of separation could be ameliorated by regular contact,” the judge said. “This is a serious omission.”
The social worker, meanwhile, in a sibling assessment, “referred to and relied on IJ’s right to care for his biological son and EF’s right to be cared for by his natural father”, Justice Keehan noted. “She was wrong to do so.”
The judge praised IJ, who had only been in contact with his son since May 2018, for the “qualities as a man” that had enabled him to quickly form a deep bond with the child.
But he said he found it “almost inconceivable” that CD, who had initially cared for both half-siblings as his own, would overlook their needs. He added that CD’s partner, QR, was a “most impressive witness” who was “obviously keen” to develop a better understanding of what she and CD could do to meet EF’s needs.
Turning to the Cafcass guardian’s report, which backed the local authority’s position, Justice Keehan found that while acknowledging possible harm if the children were separated, its analysis of potential consequences was much too shallow.
When it came to the guardian’s turn to give evidence, she claimed that having listened to other witnesses there was a “gap in the evidence” around this issue. The guardian called for the case to be adjourned so an independent expert could be consulted.
“I do not begin to understand the reason or reasons why the guardian identified gaps in evidence which she heard less than a week after preparing her final report,” Justice Keehan said.
“The oral evidence neither added to nor detracted from the written evidence from the local authority and yet in her report the guardian had raised no issue or concern; still less did she identify ‘a gap in the evidence’,” he added. “Worse, the inadequacy of the guardian’s consideration of this issue merely compounded the failure by all professionals to engage with and consider sufficiently the adverse impact and harm of separating EF and GH.”
The judge went on to rule out the guardian’s own evidence when it came to making a decision on the children’s arrangements, on the basis that it was “contradictory” and lacking in logic. He dismissed her call for an expert report as “unfathomable” and likely to cause “unconscionable delay”.
The judge also criticised Cafcass for appointing the guardian to the case.
“This guardian has 25 years’ experience as a social worker but just 14 months’ as a guardian,” he said. “She had never previously seen a case through to final hearing – why local Cafcass managers thought it appropriate to appoint so inexperienced a guardian to such a complex case, I do not know.”
‘Stronger management oversight needed’
Responding to the judgment, Cafcass’ chief executive, Anthony Douglas, said: “We thought the appointment of the guardian was sound having considered the issues in the case and her experience.
“The complexity of the case did increase throughout the proceedings,” Douglas added. “With hindsight, stronger management oversight was needed. We acknowledge the judge’s comments and will continue to develop our model of case oversight.”
A Leicestershire council spokesperson said the authority was “carefully considering” the judgment.
“We will ensure that any learning from the case is taken forward in our future practice,” the spokesperson said.