A council’s children’s services are to be monitored by a government-appointed adviser, following a High Court judgment in a care case that questioned their “fitness for purpose”.
Herefordshire council will hold an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday for councillors to approve an “assurance and improvement strategy” across children’s social care to address the practice and leadership concerns raised by the case, in which social work teams pursued a plan for special guardianship orders (SGOs) for children who had made false allegations of sexual abuse against their parents. The children did not see their parents for eight years; during this period, one child died of a serious illness.
Leader of the council David Hitchener said the ruling, which highlighted managers ignoring the concerns of a senior judge and the advice of a respected psychiatrist “shows the previous steps taken to make improvements in children’s services have fallen short of what is required to protect and safeguard the children of Herefordshire”.
‘Deeply unsettling case’
The local authority was previously criticised in three court judgments in 2018 and received a ‘requires improvement’ rating from Ofsted that same year, when inspectors found ‘inadequate’ leadership at the authority. The council’s report for the new improvement strategy says this approach will be “different to previous promises” and will involve external review and the oversight of the authority’s incoming chief executive when he starts in May, rather than that of service directors. The improvement board, led by a Department for Education-appointed chair, will include external partners.
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson confirmed that Herefordshire had accepted an improvement intervention and said: “This is a deeply upsetting case. No parent or carer should ever have to experience this kind of tragedy, and we welcome the assurances from [the council] that immediate action is being taken in response to this important judgement.”
The council has also appointed a new interim director of children’s services and assistant director and proposes spending an additional £5.2m on children’s services over the next two years to deliver “the required reforms”. A third of this will go on interim staffing.
The case involved four children who became known to Herefordshire in 2010 because of their mother’s concerns about their sexualised behaviour. During work with the family, the local authority became worried about the mother’s mental health and periods of heavy drinking, and the father’s behaviour. In late 2012, after staying for a few months in a section 20 (voluntary) arrangement with the foster carers who went on to seek SGOs, the children made allegations that they had been sexually and physically abused by their birth family.
The local authority sought care orders for the children to be placed long term with the foster carers (referred to in the judgment as the XXs), alleging sexual and physical abuse by their parents, among others. Although the allegations of sexual abuse were found to be false, the children were still considered to be at risk of significant harm from their parents, and the care orders were made in 2014.
In the latest judgment, High Court judge Mr Justice Keehan set out “egregious and long-standing failures” over the past eight years, which meant the damaging impact of the children’s narrative about their past ‘abuse’ was not addressed and they had minimal indirect contact with their birth parents, and no face-to-face meetings.
The criticisms of the local authority included:
- Ignoring and ‘impugning’ the advice of a respected psychiatrist
During the first set of care proceedings, in 2013, Dr Asen was instructed to assess the children and advise how they could be informed of the court’s finding that their allegations were false. He recommended long-term therapeutic help, for each child, and as a sibling group. Three years later, after the maternal grandmother had applied to court for contact with the children, he found that their experiences and false narratives had not been explored therapeutically or during life story work. It also emerged that the XXs had not been provided with his initial report and only had the children’s “ongoing, negative narrative about their past”. In its position statement for the contact order hearing, the local authority questioned Dr Asen’s “emotive language” and, therefore, his “impartiality”. It stated its disagreement with Dr Asen’s recommendation that face-to-face contact be promoted at that stage and said the recommended life story work was “a part of the social worker’s role, and not [that] of a child psychiatrist”. Mr Justice Keehan said it was “disgraceful” that the local authority should “impugn the professional integrity” of Dr Asen “on the flimsiest of evidence”, and noted that, while it may be a social work task, the council did not carry out life story work with the children, apart from a few months in 2017. Life story work that did take place was described as “superficial” – it did not challenge the children’s understanding of their life pre-care or equip them to view their birth family positively.
- Disregarding the concerns and recommendations of a judge
Concluding the contact order proceedings in 2016, the judge, HHJ Plunkett, said the court was concerned about the XXs’ “surprising degree of resistance” to accept that the abuse allegations were false, which “raises the option to move the children to foster carers who understand and support the reality as letting the children grow up not knowing the truth is likely to cause them emotional harm”.“Very shockingly,” Mr Justice Keehan said, the local authority did nothing about this expression of concern, from a “senior and hugely experienced family judge”. He found the record of a response by one of Herefordshire’s assistant directors to be “utterly contemptuous” of the judge.
- Pursuing a plan for special guardianship orders as part of a ‘LAC reduction policy’ that was not in the children’s best interests
Tragically, one of the children became critically ill and died in early summer 2019. Shortly before this, a special guardianship assessment was completed recommending that the XXs be made special guardians for all the children. This was updated in the autumn after Child C’s death and filed with the court. The social worker responsible for the updated report gave an unsolicited statement to the High Court detailing that she was instructed by her manager to undertake the updating assessment as a ‘paper-based exercise’, not visiting the children and carers. Mr Justice Keehan said he believed the social worker’s statement over the manager’s evidence that she could not recall requesting this and had simply not recorded conversations where she would have asked about visits. Examining a chain of emails and the evidence of the social worker’s manager and head of service, he also accepted the social worker’s statement that she was pressurised to alter her assessment and recommend an SGO. Her first draft had recommended that the care orders be continued, due to negative observations about the XXs’ ability to “promote the children’s sense of identity and contact with the family”. Mr Justice Keehan said he “struggled to understand” why the manager had signed off the assessment recommending SGOs when it still contained these criticisms and questioned how the case had “fallen off the radar” of the head of service and the fact that she had not read either version of the updating assessment, only the recommendations.He noted the social worker’s evidence that there was a ‘LAC reduction policy’ in operation in Herefordshire at the time due to the high numbers of looked-after children than in comparable authorities, which meant special guardianship orders were favoured over foster care. He accepted the finding sought by the children’s guardian that social workers and managers were required to identify which children could cease to be looked after and “senior management failed to put in place the necessary checks and balances that would ensure team managers and social workers would not feel under pressure to produce ‘results’ based on numbers rather than proper welfare evaluations”.
- ‘Sidelining’ the children’s mother
Herefordshire accepted it should have used the initial fact-finding judgment and life story work to challenge the children’s “distorted perceptions” of their birth family and that it failed to proactively promote contact with their mother or explore how the children’s views might be helped to change. From July 2018 to May 2019, the council failed to send the mother minutes from review meetings, and stopped inviting her to meetings with the independent reviewing officer, while later in 2019 it authorised a change to one of the children’s schools despite her objections. Mr Justice Keehan said this “sidelining” of the mother was most tragically illustrated when Child C died while the mother was on her way to the hospital to see her; a decision to turn off life support was made before the mother arrived.
Mr Justice Keehan found that children’s services had received incorrect legal advice that it could consent to life support treatment being ceased based on the medical advice, and the matter should have been brought to the High Court. The parents saying over the phone that they agreed with the doctors’ decision was found not to be informed consent. Following this case, Herefordshire now has a consent policy for looked-after children requiring serious medical treatment or the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.
Council’s fitness for purpose questioned
Justice Keehan directed that the children remain subject to care orders. He specified that therapeutic work be carried out with the children and a productive relationship developed between the XXs and the mother with the aim of restoring contact. Herefordshire asked for proceedings to be concluded so that the work could took place outside of court.
However, Justice Keehan stated: “Sadly, but understandably, [the children and the XXs] have lost all confidence in the local authority. Accordingly, along with the mother, they wish the court to retain oversight of the work of [the therapist] until he has filed his reports and commenced therapeutic work with the children.”
The judge continued: “I cannot after the closest possible enquiry, understand why or what motivated the local authority to fail these children, this mother and [the XXs] as appallingly and for as extended a period of time… The only matter which is clear to me is that it did not have the welfare best interests of the children at the heart of its decision-making, such as it was. This must call into question whether this local authority’s children’s services department is fit for purpose.”
In a letter to Mr Justice Keehan, following the private handing down of the judgement in March, Herefordshire leaders said as an immediate move they had established a new assurance framework so that all SGO decisions would be signed off by its assistant director of quality assurance and created a new independent assurance team. It said its review strategy would incorporate findings from the previous court judgements and a “fundamental appraisal of our social work practice from leadership through to practitioner level”.
Multiple reviews into council practice
Claire Ward, acting deputy chief executive and head of paid service, said that a ‘helicopter review’ by Essex council in early April of a sample of children in care cases had not found immediate causes for concern but that further external reviews were necessary and more cases that do not meet the required standards may be found.
The council has commissioned a review of the leadership and management of its children’s social care services by two former Ofsted inspectors, which will report next month. It has also agreed that the DfE will appoint an adviser, who will chair a new improvement board for Herefordshire.
However, in a report to next Tuesday’s meeting, the council recognised government intervention was likely: “The DfE are currently considering what action they are required to take to ensure children receive the services they deserve. The type of intervention is dependent on the severity of the situation, how long the authority has been underperforming, and the perceived capacity for improvement. We recognise that the DfE have a difficult decision to make.”
DfE warns of ‘stronger intervention’
The DfE spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure children in Herefordshire are safe, protected from harm and that the services designed to care for them are fit for purpose. We are working closely with the council and with Ofsted to ensure that they bring in strong and effective leadership in Herefordshire’s children’s services team, and we have put support in place to raise standards through our Partners in Practice programme. We will not hesitate to take stronger intervention action if rapid improvements are not made.”
Ward added: “The attitudes, culture and professional practice demonstrated in this judgment is shocking and well below the standards we expect. Appropriate action will be taken on the conclusion of our investigations, in accordance with the council’s HR procedures, any relevant professional body requirements, and the law.
“Our social workers continue to do their best, often in very difficult circumstances, to support families and protect vulnerable children in our community. We will ensure our staff have the support they need and the confidence and commitment to report any concerns.”