A judge has criticised a local authority social worker for making “critical errors” in evidence she gave during a hearing to decide care arrangements for four children.
His Honour Judge Keith Wilding said Hertfordshire council’s case for taking the siblings into care gave him “considerable cause for concern as to the accuracy of the evidence of the local authority”.
In the hearing at Watford this month he also criticised Hertfordshire’s “tendency to only look at the negatives in respect of this family, and to wrongly infer something was a ‘concern’ when it was not”.
The judge accepted the children did not live in a perfect home, but said their parents’ behaviour, while on occasion “deplorable” did not cause the children significant harm.
“There is no foundation for making any public law orders in this case,” Judge Wilding concluded.
Emergency protection orders
The four children had been placed under emergency protection orders on 2 March 2018 after the youngest, ‘D’, was seen to have facial bruising during a home visit by social workers a couple of days earlier.
This followed an incident on 10 February 2018 during which ‘A’ had texted a friend saying that his mother had tried to stab him.
The local authority additionally referenced an earlier injury to D’s toe, as well as “many examples” that it said showed the children’s physical needs were neglected between 2016 and 2018.
It also alleged that the parents had not provided consistent boundaries for the children’s behaviour, including responding inappropriately to several incidents of sexualised behaviour.
“The mother’s reluctance to talk about sex means there [are] likely to have been limited opportunities for the children to have discussions with their parents about sexual relationships and/or sexual abuse,” Hertfordshire’s report is quoted as saying.
‘To the door of the court’
Judge Wilding’s criticisms of Hertfordshire’s evidence began with its insistence “to the door of the court” that many injuries to D had been inflicted intentionally and that the siblings had been at risk of sexual abuse. The local authority subsequently walked back its assertions during the hearing.
With reference to the wound to the child’s toe, the judge noted that a child protection medical made no mention of this being non-accidental – yet the council claimed “the medical confirmed it was a non-accidental injury”.
Judge Wilding further highlighted examples of inaccuracy by ‘Ms X’, the family’s social worker. These included describing a 2010 allegation by A as a “disclosure”, even though it had been investigated with no further action being taken.
Ms X drew more ire from the judge for her “misleading” depiction of a “pattern” of injuries to the four siblings that demonstrated a serious lack of supervision by their parents.
“The parenting assessment records very few injuries for A, some of which occurred at school, a number of accidental injuries to B, although there is clear confusion about dates… none for C and the known injuries to D,” the judge said.
“I fail to understand how Miss X has turned that into a ‘pattern of unexplained injury throughout the early childhood of all four children’,” he added, noting that the social worker had admitted being “just wrong” during her oral evidence.
Judge Wilding said he had no reason to doubt Ms X’s dedication and honesty but concluded that her “critical errors” meant her evidence should be treated with caution.
Stab threat allegations
Turning to more recent concerns with the family, the judge noted that many referrals to Hertfordshire children’s services had been made anonymously and, according to the mother, may have come from an estranged family member.
The mother – described in the judgment as “almost too honest” – accepted she had threatened to stab A, Judge Wilding said, but claimed this had not been said seriously.
“I note we are entirely reliant, it seems, on what the caller to the police said when this was reported a few hours after the incident took place,” the judge said. “I can find no direct evidence that anyone in this case who may have seen the actual text sent by A has set it down accurately.”
He added that neither the police nor children’s services – who did not respond for 10 days – appeared to have moved with much urgency in response to the allegation.
Judge Wilding also dismissed concerns around neglect and sexualised behaviour.
He said there was again no evidence of significant harm caused by a home environment that the parents had admitted could be “cluttered and unhygienic”.
The judge found that the parents had been consistent in their explanations of sexualised behaviour by A and B, while the local authority had again made errors in its records of one incident.
‘Tendency to only look at the negatives’
Overall, Judge Wilding concluded there was “throughout the local authority’s evidence a pervasive failure to accurately state the correct position by reference to the primary evidence”.
He added, “There was also, in my judgement, a tendency to only look at the negatives in respect of this family and not the positives, and to wrongly infer from the evidence that something was a ‘concern’, or to put it another way a risk, when it was not.”
Responding to the judge’s comments, a Hertfordshire council spokesperson said: “We accept the decision of the court and will carefully consider the comments in the judgment.”