A High Court judge has severely criticised a London borough’s care planning after it failed to appropriately consider placing two children with their maternal aunt in a case that ultimately saw them adopted.
In a judgment made last August but published this month, Mrs Justice Theis said a Greenwich council social worker had “failed to make basic enquiries” about placing the children within their wider family.
The error appeared to have been allowed to run on because of poor supervision and lack of challenge by independent reviewing officers (IROs), echoing a recent pair of judgments that have seen Herefordshire council’s IRO service being externally reviewed.
Greenwich social workers later took an “obstructive and negative” approach after the aunt’s name was put forward for special guardianship, she added.
Compounding its failures, the council was subsequently responsible for a serious data breach, circulating an electronic court bundle that identified the prospective adopters of the children.
“The background to this case provides a unique and troubling set of circumstances where in my judgment the local authority has let down these two children in three fundamental ways,” said Justice Theis.
Despite the council’s poor practice and an independent social worker’s glowing assessment of the maternal aunt, the judge made adoption orders on the basis that to do otherwise at this stage would cause them further unjustified disruption.
“One of the tragedies in this case is that had [the aunt] been assessed prior to the children being placed with prospective adopters, there is every likelihood the children would have been with her,” the judge said.
Greenwich council accepted Justice Theis’ criticism and apologised for its failures in the case.
‘No recognition of Children Act responsibilities’
The two children were made subject to care and placement orders in November 2016 after being removed from their parents, who both had chronic substance abuse problems and other children who no longer live with them.
Five months earlier, a legal planning meeting recorded that the children’s allocated social worker was to “explore extended family members on both sides”.
Despite the maternal aunt having special guardianship of another of the mother’s children, her name was not initially included in a list of potential carers.
At a looked-after children (LAC) review in June 2016, an independent reviewing officer (IRO) also recommended the social worker “explore extended family members for contact and whether or not there is anyone suitable to care for the children”.
But no scrutiny or challenge by the IRO as to whether enquiries had in fact been made was evident in the notes from a subsequent LAC review in September 2016.
Instead, minutes from that meeting and other case notes put repeated blame on the children’s parents for not putting forward names of prospective alternative carers.
Justice Theis said records at Greenwich, which had recently been rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, showed “no recognition” by staff of the council’s responsibilities under the Children Act to assess possibilities of placement within the wider family.
“This is even more surprising as two of the mother’s older children are placed with the wider family, and at this time the parents were barely functioning in relation to these children due to their own difficulties with drug abuse,” the judge said.
Social workers’ wrong advice
Soon afterwards, the children’s father approached Greenwich council and suggested his partner’s sister be assessed – though he did not provide the aunt’s name or contact details.
A social worker was recorded as informing the father – incorrectly – that as orders had been made there were no continuing obligations to assess family members, the judgment said.
“Very belatedly, the local authority now accept this advice was wrong, and there should have been consideration given to the assessment request,” Justice Theis noted.
Records made of further contact with family members, and letters sent to them, around the time the children were being placed with prospective adopters, did not give a consistent account of how requests the aunt be assessed were followed up, the judge said.
“It is of note and concern that it appears some of the local authority recordings were put on the system months later and do not reflect contemporary records, such as letters,” Justice Theis said. “And the later recordings appear to lack detail about assessment of the wider family.”
From late summer 2017, when the prospects of the children being placed with their aunt improved, Greenwich council failed to keep an open mind about the benefits of altering course, the judge added.
“This is perhaps best illustrated by two social workers spending over seven hours with [the aunt], with no proper planning or record being kept and then writing to [her] stating they were not changing their plan,” Justice Theis said.
In the event, the aunt – who was praised in the judgment for her “child-focused” approach – withdrew her special guardianship application in early 2018 for fear of disrupting her young relatives’ lives.
She only reinstated it in the wake of the data breach, which caused further chaos by making it necessary for the prospective adopters, with whom the children were happy, to move house at short notice.
‘We recognise our failures’
Justice Theis said the case highlighted the “critical importance” of local authorities having effective systems in place to ensure, from early in care proceedings, that wider families were assessed properly for possible placement options.
Responding to the judgement, David Gardner, Greenwich’s deputy leader and cabinet member for children’s services, said the Council was “deeply sorry for the circumstances in this case, but pleased the adoption of the children with a settled family has been granted”.
“We recognise our failure in our systems and the impact the data breach may have had on those involved,” Gardner said, adding that the council had implemented measures to ensure the same mistakes would not happen again.
Community Care has asked the council for further detail as to what changes it has made.