Re Z (A Child : Independent Social Work Assessment) 2014
My compliments to the Judge for giving this a meaningful case name that allows people to find it in the future.
This one was a judgment given in March 2014, for care proceedings arising out of injuries to a child that occurred in September and October 2012. The proceedings were into week 72. The father applied for a fresh independent social work assessment, and also sought a fresh assessment of the paternal grandmother, challenging the negative viability.
If you are at the moment, thinking, meh, I know how this one ends up – I’ll give you a spoiler. He gets the assessments.
Ah, now you want to know more…
- In any case in which a local authority applies to the court for a care order, the assessment of a parent is of critical importance. That assessment will be a key piece of the evidential jigsaw which informs the local authority’s decision-making, in particular with respect to the formulation of its final care plan. If the assessment is deficient then that is likely to undermine the reliability of the decision-making process. It follows, therefore, that any assessment of a parent must be, and must be seen to be, fair, robust and thorough.
(1) The assessment undertaken by RD was a social work assessment and not a parenting assessment. No parenting assessment of the father has been undertaken. His ability to acquire the skills needed to enable him to care for Z have not been assessed.
(2) To the extent that RD’s observation of contact and reading the contact supervisor’s notes have informed her assessment, the clear evidence is that that contact was positive and that the father was able to learn and apply new skills. He was cooperative and teachable. Despite this the local authority declined either to increase the level of contact or provide him with any form of training to enable him to meet Z’s care needs (unlike the foster carer for whom training has been provided).
(3) Not only has the local authority failed to undertake a parenting assessment it has also failed to give any consideration to the support the father would need in order to care for Z or what support and assistance the local authority is able to offer.
(4) The father is criticised for lack of understanding and insight yet his knowledge of Z’s injuries and prognosis comes not from copies of the relevant reports translated into Punjabi but from having some of those reports – or more likely some parts of those reports – read to him in Punjabi. To this must be added the local authority’s failure to give the father opportunity to meet with any of the health care professionals responsible for Z’s care.
(5) The local authority’s social work assessment proceeded on the assumption that the father wished to return to India and care for Z there. Whilst I acknowledge that some of the things the father said may reasonably have led the local authority to that belief, I am equally satisfied that that is not his position. This is not the only issue in this case in which something has been lost in translation.
(6) The local authority appears to have assumed that a care plan for adoption automatically means that post-adoption contact should be limited to letter-box contact only. It has not given any consideration either to the benefits for Z of contact continuing or, as part of its assessment of the father, what the father has to offer to Z through ongoing direct contact. Whereas the guardian has begun to reconsider her position on contact there is no evidence that the local authority has begun to do so.
- I am satisfied that the local authority’s assessment of this father falls short of the standard required.
Fair, robust and thorough seems like a good test in appraising the evidence – I expect to see others make use of this test (whether this authority is binding or not is tricky – but it is a High Court case, so it is at least persuasive)
One major part of father’s case was this :-
108. As a result of the negative outcome of the social work assessment, on 31st January 2014 the father issued an application for permission to instruct an independent social worker to undertake a parenting assessment. The father complains that the social worker ‘failed to approach the assessment with an open mind’ for which submission he relies on the fact that the social worker informed the LAC review on 12th December 2013 that the outcome of her assessment was negative even though the assessment was still ongoing.
If father was able to establish that, which one would hope would be confirmed or refuted by the LAC review minutes, that is fatal to the LA’s opposition to an independent assessment. This is not announcing the outcome when all that is left is to finish dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the written report , this was a final view of the outcome of the assessment given whilst it still had six weeks to run.
‘Social Worker RD is carrying out 6 assessment sessions with [the father] 5 have been completed. The assessment is negative. He denies any knowledge of the injuries or reasons she was harmed, he has very limited understanding of her health and overall prognosis. He does not understand the impact of the brain damage. He has no clear plan – originally he said his mother would help out in India, then his sister. It is assessed he is not considering Z’s best interests. All professionals shared these concerns. Becky will inform [the father] of the outcome of the assessment and will file the statement by 8.1.14.’
- Although the father attended the LAC review he was not permitted to be present throughout the whole of the discussions. He was not present when RD told the meeting that her assessment of him was negative. He was not present when the decision was taken that the local authority’s plan for Z should be one of adoption.
- The minutes of the LAC review have little to say about contact: ‘Supervised contact takes place twice a week during the assessment period. Z has been fine before and after contact’. If that is an accurate reflection of the information given to the members of the LAC review then it is woefully lacking. The social worker said that she ‘was not asked’ to provide the Review with evidence relating to contact. Given that contact was extremely positive for Z one would have expected the LAC review to have been informed of this and that it would have considered how contact might develop. This is a requirement of the Care Planning Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 ['the Regulations']. Schedule 7 sets out the considerations to which the responsible authority must have regard when reviewing a child’s case. Schedule 7 paragraph 4 requires the LAC review to consider
‘The arrangements for contact and whether there is any need for changes to the arrangements in order to promote contact between [the child and her parents].’
- The social worker was asked whether the minutes of the LAC review provided an accurate summary of what was discussed. She confirmed that they do, though she went on to describe them as ‘brief’. The minutes have been signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer. There is space for them to be counter-signed by the social worker. In this case the social worker confirmed that the minutes had been sent to her for approval and signing. She had not responded. She has not signed them. She said that she does not routinely sign minutes of LAC meetings.
The Judge’s comments on LAC reviews, that arise from those failings, are also ones that I expect to see crop up in other cases
“The responsible authority must ensure that a written record of the review is prepared, and that the information obtained in the course of the review, details of proceedings at the review meeting, and any decision made in the course of, or as a result, of the review are included in C’s case records.”
- It should be apparent from the minutes of a LAC meeting that the meeting has considered each of the matters which the Regulations require the meeting to consider. The minutes should be balanced. So far as the parents’ relationship with the child is concerned, they should identify any positive points as well as any negative points. Although there is no requirement in the regulations for minutes to be signed, as a matter of good practice it is clearly appropriate that they should be signed. They should be signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer and by the allocated social worker, if present at the meeting, and if not present then by the most senior social worker present at the meeting. Their signatures provide the assurance that the minutes give an accurate and balanced account of the matters discussed at the meeting.
Assessment of paternal grandmother next
- That leads me back, finally, to what the local authority describes as a viability assessment of PGM. For the reasons set out earlier in this judgment I regard that assessment as inadequate. The notion that a Punjabi speaking grandmother living in India, expressing a clear interest in being assessed as a long-term carer for her granddaughter, not having been provided with any of the background papers translated into Punjabi, can be ruled out on the basis of two telephone conversations one of which was conducted by a Hindi speaking English social worker, is in my judgment wholly unsupportable.
- Re M-H (Assessment: Father of Half-Brother)  2 FLR 1715 concerned an application for a viability assessment. The judge at first instance had described the local authority’s viability assessment of the father of the subject child’s half-brother as “wholly inadequate” and “flawed”. The judge nonetheless declined to order a full independent assessment. In the Court of Appeal, giving the leading judgment, Wall LJ (as he then was) said that,
‘the exercise of a judicial discretion in a care case is an amalgam of expertise from a number of disciplines, an essential part of which is or should be competent social work assessments which the judge can then appraise and accept or reject….Accordingly, in my judgment, to do proper justice to [the child's] interests in the instant case, the judge required the thorough independent social work input by means of a viability assessment which [the appellant] had sought. The judge denied himself that input whilst at the same time recognising that the local authority had failed to provide it.’
- Z’s care needs require support from a multi-disciplinary team of health care professionals. Is there any possibility that a similar package of support could be available in India? If the answer to that question is ‘no’ then it seems to me that notwithstanding PGM’s offer to care for Z and the duty on the local authority pursuant to s.17 Children Act 1989 to promote the upbringing of Z by her family, it would be difficult to argue that a move to India would be in Z’s best welfare interests. However, making that point simply serves to highlight the fact that the court does not, at present, have sufficient evidence to enable it to make that judgment. There needs to be a proper assessment of PGM. Any such assessment also needs to identify and consider the services that would be available to meet Z’s care needs in India. These are now issues for further case management.
And the Judge wasn’t finished – given that the Local Authority care plan was for the current foster carers to adopt, he felt that their Re B-S analysis was badly flawed – it had not properly taken into account that such a placement could be under a Care Order (fostering) or a Special Guardianship Order and why those options should be discounted in favour of adoption. He made it plain that even if the independent assessments of father and grandmother weren’t positive, this case was a considerable distance from being “then adoption is the right plan”
136 My decision to allow the father’s application for leave to instruct an Independent Social Worker means that it is unnecessary and inappropriate, at this stage, to go on to consider the local authority’s final care plan. However, it is appropriate that I should make the point that it should not be assumed that if the assessment of the father is negative then that, without more, will lead to endorsement of the present final care plan. Even leaving to one side the local authority’s flawed assessment of the father, it is plain that the current final care plan is deficient. For example, it does not consider and analyse realistic alternatives to adoption (long term foster care, special guardianship); it does not consider whether it is appropriate for Z to remain in a placement in which there is a changing population of children in short term foster care; it assumes that post-adoption letter-box contact is appropriate without making any attempt to consider whether ongoing direct contact would better meet Z’s needs; it proposes by way of contingency plan that if the placement with FC breaks down it will search for an alternative adoptive placement even though it acknowledges that it is highly unlikely that an alternative adoptive placement could be found. These are all issues which must be addressed. The local authority has more work to do before this case can fairly be concluded.
I can’t quite find from the judgment what the timescales for the further assessment are, and obviously those assessments will need to be considered, final evidence filed from all parties and a final hearing take place. It probably amounts to a final hearing taking place at around week 90, or week 100.
But that is palpably and manifestly the right thing to do, to get the RIGHT answer.
I do worry that now that the Children and Families Act 2014 will lock Judges into 26 weeks, or an extension of 8 weeks, whether cases like this will get their proper determination.