A judge has harshly criticised a local authority’s children’s services after social workers “brutally separated” two close sisters in defiance of a court-approved care plan.
In a judgment made last year but published this month, Judge Gillian Matthews QC condemned the unnamed council for terminating the siblings’ relationship on the advice of an ill-qualified expert, whose views apparently went unchallenged.
The younger of the sisters, ‘R’, has now been adopted while the elder sibling, ‘S’ – who was removed from their foster home without warning, resulting in emotional damage – was placed in residential care.
“The family has been devastated by the separation of the girls,” Judge Matthews said. “The authority took no steps to notify the court or seek guidance from Cafcass at any time until after the children had been separated and their relationship brought to an end.”
The judge added that she was making the situation public to “serve as a cautionary tale” to other childcare professionals. She said she was not naming social workers or their employer both due to concerns over identification of one of the sisters and because her purpose was not to incite a “witch hunt” (see box).
“Even well-meaning workers can fall into serious error if they fail to adhere to the care plan approved by the court, fail to consult with experienced third parties and lose a sense of fairness to the family into whose lives they have intervened,” Judge Matthews said.
The judgment said both sisters’ children’s guardians planned to pursue civil suits in the form of Human Rights Act claims on behalf of the two girls, while their mother intended to raise a similar claim on her own behalf. In making orders in relation to the two girls, Judge Matthews said future contact between them must be actively promoted if possible.
‘Very close bond’
The local authority involved with the sisters applied for care orders in relation to them in March 2016 because of their mother’s drug use and related emotional harm experienced by S, who was then aged eight.
While R was only born in 2015, a sibling assessment noted a “very close reciprocal bond” between the siblings. Accordingly the local authority proposed they should not be separated, submitting that it would search for a joint adoptive placement for six months before adopting a ‘plan B’ of a joint long-term foster placement.
“Remaining together will allow continuity of their evident strong attachment to each other and outweigh the impact of separation, both emotionally and in respect of their sense of identity,” the sisters’ then social worker wrote in a report.
Records made during the proceedings, which dragged into 2017, show that S’s behaviour began to deteriorate, apparently because of anxiety around the possibility she would be separated from R.
Judge Matthews noted that the extent to which this was discussed in court was unclear. The council acknowledged that the gravity of concerns raised by the sisters’ foster carers had not been reflected in evidence submitted by the council or children’s guardian.
Nevertheless, Judge Matthews added, the judge then presiding – Recorder Simon Bickler QC – had clearly weighed the challenges of the proposed plan for a joint adoptive placement before decided to support it based on the sisters’ bond. “I have seen similar care plans achieve success against the odds,” she said.
‘All professionals forgot the court’s plan’
In the wake of the plan being approved, arrangements for a joint adoptive placement proceeded. But this broke down after the prospective adopters – whom, Judge Matthews pointed out, did not seem well-matched to the sisters – withdrew citing worries about S’s behaviours.
Despite evidence pointing to issues with the carers’ suitability, the council rapidly lost faith in its earlier course of action.
A disruption meeting in August 2017 chaired by an independent reviewing officer (IRO) concluded that the sisters’ needs could not be met by a joint adoption. While a LAC review later that month did not ratify this decision, Judge Matthews said it was concerning it had even been contemplated.
“It is clear on the evidence that after the breakdown of this plan there were different views as to how to proceed,” she said. “However, all professionals seemed to forget that the court had approved a six-month time limited search for an adoptive placement followed by a reversion as a contingency to long term foster care.”
By that point, the judge added, the local authority had “materially changed” its care plan for the girls as it was considering separating them.
“The local authority should have applied to the court for directions, as they clearly did not know what to do and were already considering a potential application to revoke S’s placement order,” she said.
Separated without warning
With staff split over the best course of action and the sisters’ foster carers no longer wishing to accommodate S, the local authority commissioned a specialist sibling assessment.
The unnamed chartered psychologist who performed it, ‘AB’ – who is neither a child psychologist nor a psychiatrist – recommended S be moved without being told in advance, on the basis that she might otherwise harm R or another child in the house.
Naming and shaming
Leading family law barrister Lucy Reed told Community Care that the case raised “significant concerns” about the practice of both the council and the advising psychologist, who Judge Matthews also declined to name.
The judge agreed with submissions by S’s guardian, that AB had exceeded his remit on multiple grounds relating to S’s separation from R and should be referred to his professional body. In contrast to social workers’ “honest and self-reflective” errors he had “gone off piste” and arrogantly driven his own agenda despite “not really knowing what he was doing”, Judge Matthews said.
“While the judge gives a clear rationale for not naming the local authority, it is unclear why the expert is not named, particularly since there is an obvious risk that others may unknowingly instruct the same expert in other cases, whereas identification would enable the parties to make informed decisions,” Reed, who is the chair of the Transparency Project, told Community Care.
“There would need to be very good reasons to withhold such important information from those who are responsible for choosing and approving the instruction of such experts – including other judges,” Reed said.
“It appears from a reading of the judgment however, that a further supplemental judgment or post-script naming the expert – or at least explaining the reason for a decision that expert is not going to be named – may follow. We hope that either way the position will be clarified.”
Despite misgivings on the part of practitioners, including managers who discussed the situation, the local authority unquestioningly followed AB’s directions, without even waiting for his written report. S was collected from school and taken, with no prior warning, to an unsuitable emergency foster placement.
There she was left for months – in part because of high caseloads and poor management oversight – before eventually moving into a residential placement in summer 2018.
For much of this time the local authority failed to inform the sisters’ birth family that its plans to pursue a settled future for them had collapsed.
In a withering assessment of this chapter of the council’s involvement in the sisters’ lives, Judge Matthews summed up AB’s influence as “very negative indeed”.
“The local authority accept they instructed an expert whose primary expertise was not in working with children,” she said. “It is incomprehensible in my judgment that, simply because AB was the only psychologist who responded to the offer of work, the local authority should choose to instruct him in such an exquisitely difficult case.
“The old adage ‘any port in a storm’ is not appropriate in child care proceedings or child care work,” she added.
In a series of admissions, the local authority admitted abrogating its parental responsibility to AB, around S’s removal from the sister’s joint foster placement. It accepted S and R’s family relationships had been “disrupted, possibly permanently” as a result of its course of action.
The council’s IRO also made “significant” admissions of failing to have regard to S’s welfare, to scrutinise her change of placement or to challenge poor practice.