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Discharge of care order (IRO takes a kicking)

 

One of my commentators asked me this week whether there were many authorities on discharge of Care Orders. I can’t claim any credit for the fact that a case has now turned up.

This is a case decided by a Circuit Judge, so it is not binding authority, but it throws up some interesting issues.  Particularly for, and about, Independent Reviewing Officers.  The judgment is critical of the Local Authority (but more about the systems than the individual worker concerned, though she is named)

 

Re X (Discharge of Care Order) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B217.html

 

This was the mother’s application to discharge the care order on her son X, who is now 14. That order was made in 2001. Very peculiarly, X was at home with his mother under a Care Order until 2010 (and the removal appeared to have happened following mother’s application to discharge the Care Order then).  X then came into foster care and has been there since then.

 

The mother had care proceedings on two younger siblings of X, concluding with no order in 2012. So those children live with her, there are no statutory orders and they are not open cases to social workers.

In the period since the court made its orders of June and December 2012, D’s two youngest daughters have remained in her care. There has been no statutory involvement from Social Services; it is therefore reasonable for the court to assume that the Local Authority has no concerns about the care provided to them. D, very sadly, has been involved on the periphery of proceedings relating to a number of her grandchildren, at least two of whom have been permanently removed. Her losses have continued, therefore, to be many and great.

 

X has autism, so has significant needs of his own.

 

I’ll do the law Geek bit first.

 

Geek point 1 – scrutiny of care plan

When the Children and Families Act 2014 was a twinkle in the drafter’s eye, there was much talk about changing the Court’s relationship with care plans, reducing the scrutiny of them down to the essential matters – no doubt with the hope that the time spent in Court proceedings micro-managing every aspect of the care plan and litigating about every tiny aspect could be cut out and that would speed things up. The Act duly did include a clause to the effect that the Court was only REQUIRED to look at

section 31 (3B) Children Act 1989

…such of the plans provisions setting out the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following

(a)the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b)adoption;

(c)long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

i.e just a flat-out ‘where is the child going to live under this plan’.

 

I haven’t seen that really happen, and also I haven’t seen it appear in any law reports. Until this one

 

Section 31(3)(A) further makes clear that the court must limit its consideration of the prescribed elements of the care plan as to placement, and as the commentary in the Red Book suggests that must necessarily be limited to the form of placement, not the detail of it. I am, however, nonetheless satisfied that, in this case, the court can and must look at the implementation of the plan and its effect on the child in order to complete the welfare evaluation.

 

Which is a really elegant way of saying “The Act says that I’m not REQUIRED to look at the detail of the plan, but to decide the case fairly, I still need to”

 

Geek point 2 – Court keeping hold of the case to hold the LA to account

 

The Guardian in this case told the Court that she did not support the mother’s application to discharge the Care Order, but wanted the Court to adjourn the application, because the LA had made such a mess of things there was little confidence that if left to their own devices without Court scrutiny they would fix things.

It is submitted on the guardian’s behalf that the Local Authority has so failed in its duty as corporate parent to implement the final care plan approved by the court that it should be held to account and its future planning overseen by the court. The guardian urges the court to require the Local Authority to produce an updated plan that is coherent, choate and capable of implementation. The guardian supports the discharge of the Section 34(4) contact order. She does not support the making of a defined contact order in substitution, but invites the court to direct the Local Authority to confirm its commitment to contact at the level of six times a year in its revised plan

 

The Local Authority argued that the Court had no jurisdiction to do that. And if they didn’t use the words ‘smacks of starred care plan’ in their argument, I’d be highly surprised.

The Court accepted that there was no jurisdiction to adjourn the proceedings just to monitor the LA. But did decide that there were some material bits of evidence that were needed before mother’s application could be properly determined.  (so a half-way house). The Judge also ordered, that that evidence should be obtained through an independent social work assessment.

 

Geek point 3 – the legal approach to a discharge of care order

 

The Judge points out that the burden is on the applicant (i.e mother) to show that the order should be discharged

It is for Mother to satisfy the court that there has been a material change of circumstances and X’s welfare requires discharge of the care order.

But then goes on to say that in considering article 8, the Court would have to consider whether it was necessary for the Care Order to remain and to only continue the order if it was proportionate.

 

The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate

 

Those two things involve some degree of conflict – it seems that the burden is on mother to show that the Care Order should be discharged and simultaneously on the LA to show that it is proportionate for it to continue.

I’ve never seen that argument advanced. It seems in keeping with the spirit of Re B-S (where even if the Court has approved the plan of adoption by making a Placement Order, when the Court is considering making an adoption order, it still has consider whether the plan already approved is necessary and proportionate). But it jibes with a fundamental principle of English law that the burden falls upon the applicant.

I don’t want to say that the Judge is wrong here, and I’m not even sure that she is. I think it is a natural consequence of the need to apply article 8 to any decision made by the Court in family proceedings that the Court need to be satisfied that the interference (even continued interference) by the State in private and family life is proportionate.  I think that she has spotted something clever that I had overlooked.  It made my temples throb a bit to think about it.  I wonder if we will see this revisited.

 

Judicial criticism – LAC reviews

There were major issues in this case. One was that despite the child having been in care since 2010/2011 with a plan of long-term fostering, he was still waiting for a placement. Another was that the therapy and work that he obviously needed still hadn’t materialised.  (And if you are thinking “I bet they made a referral to CAMHS and that was the end of it”, then you are both a hard-bitten cynic and right. )

There was also the issue of contact, particularly contact with his siblings.  And the issue that the LA had basically stopped working with the mother altogether.

She is described as being ‘challenging and forthright’  (which is a bit like those obituaries you see of famous people that say ‘fun loving and gregarious’ when they mean ‘an alcoholic who was exhausting to be around’ or ‘was not one to suffer fools gladly’ to mean ‘was obnoxious and vile to everyone who worked with him’. )

 

 

But let’s quickly look at how little involvement the LA were having with this mother (who lets not forget was SHARING PR for this 14 year old)

It is unusual to come across a case where a mother who continues to share parental responsibility is excluded from the LAC reviews, is not provided with the name of the social worker working directly with the child, is not provided with information about the child’s school, receives no updates of his medical condition and no updates of his work with the therapeutic services. As far as I understand it, she was not even provided with redacted copies of the school reports.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. The LA weren’t even telling the mother the name of the social worker.

The bigger issue, however, with all of these things was, where was the Independent Reviewing Officer in all of this?

I mentioned ‘starred care plans’ earlier – if you are not one of my more breathtakingly beautiful and vivacious readers [translation :- older]  you may not know about starred care plans.  They were a short-lived invention of the Court of Appeal, to deal with the concern that where the Court approves a care plan and makes a Care Order, the LA then go off and run their Care Order and there’s no mechanism to get the case back before the Court to say “hey, they aren’t doing what they promised”.  The House of Lords squashed that mechanism but did say that there ought to be some form of mechanism created by Parliament to address the issue. As a result, Independent Reviewing Officers were created by Parliament – to scrutinise performance of a care plan and also giving them the ability to refer any breach to CAFCASS who could in turn apply to Court.   (Last time I checked, nationally there had been 8 referrrals and 0 court applications, so that’s working well)

 

29. The LAC reviews, whilst being required to consider the plan for permanence, appear to play lip service to the need to achieve this. There is no record of reasoned debate and discussion about the child’s need for permanence or how the plan for permanence might be reviewed and achieved. It is fortuitous that X has been able to remain where he is to date. It may be that he will remain there until he achieves independence. Nonetheless it is regrettable that the Local Authority failed to rigorously pursue suitable alternative long term placements for X or demonstrate a determination and clarity of thought in the allocation of their resources. The LAC review minutes do not demonstrate clear and strategic planning in the search for a family even during the period when the Local Authority knew of the equivocation of the current carers.

  1. It is generally acknowledged that the earlier a child achieves permanence the better. It is all the more important for a child like X, whose needs are necessarily heightened by his family history and his autism. I am advised by the IRO that there are significant resource issues for family finding, and finding long-term foster homes for boys is more difficult than for girls. I note the evidence of the independent reviewing officer, Mr Moore, who indicated that 75% of the children he was responsible for with a plan for long-term fostering were still waiting for a permanent placement more than two years after final order.

 

 

 

and later

  1. At this point, it seems to me appropriate to consider the role of the independent reviewing officer in X’s case. Mr Moore has been the independent reviewing officer for X since July 2012. Graham Moore provided a statement and gave evidence to this court. He is an experienced IRO, having been engaged in that role for the last five years. Before that worked as a Cafcass guardian. The IRO accepted that his role meant that he had responsibility for

    i) providing independent oversight of the Local Authority’s care planii) ensuring that the child’s interests were protected through the care planning process;

    iii) establishing the child’s wishes and feelings.

    The IRO accepted the statutory requirements of the LAC review process and that as IRO he was responsible for setting a remedial timescales where necessary.

  2. Whilst parents do not always attend LAC reviews, a system is generally devised to enable meaningful sharing of information following LAC reviews. Mr Moore told me that he had endeavoured to meet D in order to achieve this, but they had not been able to meet. Regrettably, no other practical system was implemented to enable the sharing of the outcome of the LAC reviews.
  3. The IRO accepted that the statutory guidance is clear; that where a matter is outside the control of a Local Authority, but is impacting on the ability of that Authority to meet the child’s needs the IRO should escalate the issue to ensure the child’s welfare needs are met. In this case the Access to Resources Team (family finding) failed to find a permanent placement for X in circumstances where his carers were clearly equivocal about whether they could offer him permanence. Yet the IRO did not escalate the issue. The IRO’s monitoring of the Local Authority search for a permanent placement principally rested on information provided by the social worker. The Access to resources team did not provide regular updates on the outcome of its searches.
  4. The IRO confirmed in evidence that he could not recall another case where a parent had been totally excluded from the LAC process for two and a half years. He accepted that Mother should have been receiving information from the school and had not received it.
  5. Criticism is made of the IRO for failing to robustly manage the Local Authority’s implementation of the care plan or pursue the requirement for permanence. I have no doubt that Mr Moore is an extremely hardworking and dedicated member of the Independent Review Team and I am saddened to reach the conclusion that, in this case, he failed to bring independent, robust and effective overview of the Local Authority management of the X’s plan.
  6. The independent reviewing officer is intended to be a robust mechanism designed to hold a Local Authority to account in the management of a child’s plan. In this case, the opportunities to impose remedial timescales and to escalate inaction and delay were not taken.

 

 

The ISW

As the LA had not been engaging with mother since X came into care, the Judge had no real evidence about a key facet of the case.  The Judge could see that mother was managing her two children at home with no concerns, she could see that X was still a challenging child with many difficulties, but there was nothing to show whether mother would be able to work with professionals in such a way that X could be cared for at home.

 

Most unusually in this case, however, I have no information at all as to Mother’s engagement with the Authority in consequence of the way in which the Local Authority have managed the plan, and no means of determining Mother’s insight and understanding of X’s changing needs.

 

  1. The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate. I am concerned that in the context of this application there is a lack of relevant information as to the nature, significance and degree of change made by Mother, and that it will be difficult to conduct the courts assessment fairly and appropriately unless that gap is filled.
  2. In my view, it will be necessary for the court, therefore, to receive some further evidence as to Mother’s ability to engage and work constructively with and to understand and demonstrate insight of the needs of X. Furthermore, the court requires an update from the Local Authority as to:

    i) the implementation of their care plan as to placement, therapy and contact and

    ii) the detail of the services the Local Authority would provide or could provide to support X if he were to return to the mother’s care.

    It is noteworthy that the court directed the Local Authority to provide details of the support services it would put in place if X were to return home by its directions of 4 November 2014. To date the Local Authority has failed to provide the details of those services.

    It seems to me that, absent this evidence, the court will be unable to complete the welfare evaluation. Counsel will need to address me as to the form of the additional evidence. I would be minded to direct the instruction of an independent social worker to complete a piece of work with D within four to six weeks. I am conscious that delay is inimical to X’s welfare and that this court needs to make a determination of the application for discharge as soon as is practicable.

  3. I consider that such an assessment will be necessary to enable the court to complete the welfare evaluation. I am conscious that no Part 25 application was issued, but it is clear to me, having heard the evidence of the mother, of the Local Authority, of the IRO, and of the guardian, that a gap remains.

 

Last minute evidence

 

Just as the parties were about to go into Court on this one, bearing in mind that a major issue was whether X could be found a permanent foster home (and his current carers having been saying that they wanted to foster three children, but if they offered a permanent home for X they could only look after him alone, because of his needs), news came that X’s current carers were willing to offer him a permanent home.

  1. In evidence on Monday, Ms Allen said she had just received confirmation from the team charged with family finding for X, that the carers had now made a firm decision to offer a permanent home to X. I was further told that the Local Authority have made a firm commitment to put resources in place to enable X to remain with his carers permanently as the sole child in their care.
  2. This change in the Local Authority’s case caused some consternation in the mother’s legal team. There had been insufficient time to share this change with the mother or with the children’s guardian before coming into court. I quite appreciate how difficult it is to share updating information in the scramble to get it into court, particularly where you have a judge who requires everyone to be in promptly, but it is most unfortunate that the team charged with family finding left matters so late as to create this difficulty. The mother and the children’s guardian are now perhaps understandably cynical about this new information. For the mother, it appears too little too late, and for the children’s guardian it raises questions about the carer’s motivation.
  3. Ms Little for the Local Authority reassures the court and the parties that the issue is not one of finance for the carers but rather their genuine desire to offer a home for three children rather than limiting themselves to one. The question of their motivation and the basis on which they are now able to offer themselves as permanent carer will no doubt be under review in the days following this hearing.
  4. It is nonetheless clear that, since at least December 2012, the Local Authority have been aware that the current carers were at best equivocal about X remaining with them on a long-term basis. What is not clear is what efforts the Local Authority’s Access to Resources Team made to find a permanent placement for X I am told that two referrals were made to the team, the first being the principal referral and the second an updating referral. Moreover I am told that Ms Allen spoke to the team from time to time and was satisfied that they were alive to his need for placement and knew of X’s placement needs. The searches appear to have been limited to two geographical areas in line with the wishes of X and the location of his current placement and school
  5. I am advised that no financial restraints were imposed on family finding. I am further told that it is, and was, reasonable for the Social Work Team to rely on the Access to Resources Team to progress the search for a long term placement on the basis of the two referrals and that no further prompting or enquiry from the Social Work Team was required.

 

 

There are two other Circuit Judge judmgnets published today in which the LA sought Care Orders with a plan of adoption and the Court instead made orders that the children were returned to the birth families. Not of any great legal significance because they turn on their facts, but I know that many of my readers may be interested in such cases and they may also be a useful mental exercise of whether these cases would have had these outcomes in 2011.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B218.html

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B78.html

 

Financial abuse, Court of Protection

I have talked before about how I think Senior Judge Lush has probably the best case load in English justice, and this is another one that doesn’t disappoint.

 

It is probably the most blatant bit of financial abuse I’ve come across, and I hope that those involved will get what is coming to them.

 

Re OL 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2015/41.html

 

OL is 77 and has clearly worked hard all of her life and built up savings. She had a stroke and signed a Lasting Power of Attorney to allow her son YS and her daughter DA to manage her financial affairs on her behalf. There was a third son, who as far as I can see is blameless.  Neither DA nor YS were young people, and they had proper jobs – they were not young and impulsive, nor should they have been in financial dire straits.

 

Despite this, they took the money that they were managing on their mother’s behalf and spent it on themselves.

Let’s put it really starkly

In the six months that DA and YS were ‘looking after’ their mother’s finances, she went from having £730,000 to £7,000.

DA and YS on the other hand, had paid off their mortgage, had a loft conversion, bought a new house (entirely with their mother’s money) in which their mother (who paid all of the money) had a 20% stake and DA (who paid not a penny) had a 40% stake and YS (who also paid not a penny) had a 40% stake.

£730,000 to £7,000 in six months, equates to OL’s financial resources dwindling at a rate of £2,800 per day. OR that at the rate of spending, she had about another three days money left.

Or to put it yet another way (going back to Mostyn J * and the Pizza Express case http://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/06/18/taking-forty-thousand-pounds-in-cash-to-pizza-express/)  if OL had instead of appointing deputies, had gone into Pizza Express and bought meals for fifty people a day, for every day over the last six months, she’d probably be slightly better off now.  Or she could have met with the wife in that case and handed over that forty grand in cash EIGHTEEN TIMES and still been better off)

*second best case-load. And to misquote Bill Hicks “you know, after those first two best caseloads, there’s a real big f***ing drop-off”

 

Senior Judge Lush spells out all of the guidance and law on being a person’s deputy under the Lasting Power of Attorney. If you want to see it, you can find it all in the judgment. A key bit is here

 

Paragraph 7.60 of the Code says:

Fiduciary duty

“A fiduciary duty means attorneys must not take advantage of their position. Nor should they put themselves in a position where their personal interests conflict with their duties. They must also not allow any other influences to affect the way in which they act as an attorney. Decisions should always benefit the donor, and not the attorney. Attorneys must not profit or get any personal benefit from their position, apart from receiving gifts where the Act allows it, whether or not it is at the donor’s expense.”

I think I can condense all of the guidance and law into this simple sentence of my own, however   (apologies for Anglo-Saxon language)

 

“If you are appointed as a deputy to manage someone’s financial affairs, it is NOT YOUR FUCKING MONEY”

 

Opposed adoption – outcome is child being placed with grandparents

 

Having gone 13 years without a successful opposition to an adoption order under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (until Holman J’s case in December last year) and now we’ve had two in two days.   (Re S and T 2015 and this one)

 

Re LG (a child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/52.html

In this case, the Court was being asked to consider an application by a parent for leave to oppose an adoption application. The Court granted that application, and as a result the prospective adopters withdrew their application, and hence the child has gone to live with grandparents. So the judgment didn’t actually finalise what the Court would have done if it had gone on to a fully contested adoption (but I’m sure that the prospective adopters saw that the writing was on the wall and didn’t want to subject themselves to further pain and subject the child to delay)

 

It was common ground that the grandparents were able to offer good care for the child and that had they been considered during the care proceedings, the child would almost certainly have been placed with them.

So why was it that they WEREN’T considered during care proceedings? That would have avoided the child being placed for adoption and been with prospective adopters for nine months?

It is the father’s case before this court that he declined to tell his family about L’s existence because he felt “scared” to tell them as “he had embarrassed and shamed [his] family and let them down again”. As a result, the extended paternal family had no knowledge of L’s existence during the currency of the care proceedings. The father was pressed by professionals, including the allocated social worker and his own solicitor, to explain why he did not want his family to be involved. During the course of these discussions, he alleged that he had suffered physical abuse at the hands of his own father, L’s paternal grandfather. His case before this court is that this allegation was completely untrue and was said with a view to “getting people off his back”.

 

A word immediately springs to mind about this father, and that word rhymes with ‘glass’  (if you are from the South of England).  He really was an absolute glass in this case.

 

it is obvious to everyone in these proceedings, and it will be obvious to everyone reading this judgment, that these events have been brought about by the father’s conduct. He is a young man, and he has not had the opportunity to explain his conduct in oral evidence before me. On any view, however, it must be acknowledged that as a result of his actions, a number of people have suffered very greatly. Mr and Mrs A, and their older child, have had to endure the terrible ordeal of losing the little girl to whom they had made the extraordinary commitment that all prospective adopters make. Furthermore, his daughter, L, has to cope with the distress and upheaval of moving from the home where she is settled and thriving to live with people she does not know. All this has come about because of the father’s misleading and deceptive behaviour. I hope he will now do whatever he can to ensure that L’s life with his family is as secure as possible.

 

It is quite hard for me, as someone who does Local Authority work all the time, to see how the LA could have gone ahead with their own assessment of the grandparents given that the father didn’t want them to be approached and made a child protection allegation against them.

The system that we have in place involves the parents putting forward family members – these days the issue is raised at every single hearing and included in the order and parents are warned that if they delay in putting forward a family member it may be difficult to get them assessed later on. Or sometimes, the family member comes forward themselves.

It is effectively an “Opt-in” situation – a family member is approached about being a possible carer for the child if and only if their hat is thrown into the ring.

But in a situation as here, where the family member doesn’t know about the proceedings and the parent doesn’t want them to be told, what can you do?  Remember that the reasons for care proceedings can be very sensitive and parents in care proceedings don’t always have a close relationship with their family. As this father said, there can be a sense of shame in your wider family finding out that you have been accused of something or that you are said to be a bad parent.

From a legal perspective, the fact that a parent is in care proceedings is Sensitive Personal Data for the Data Protection Act, and without parental consent, the circumstances in which you could share that information with a family member is really limited.

 

And then, looking at the Family Procedure Rules about the sharing of information about proceedings  (which, in the absence of a parents consent would also include that such proceedings even exist) seem to me to be a bar to telling a grandparent that there are care proceedings in order to explore whether they would put themselves forward  – unless there is leave of the Court.

Finally, there are the article 8 considerations.  The father here (even if we think he has some glass-like qualities) has a right to private and family life, and that can only be interfered with if it is proportionate and necessary.

So, all in all, I think that if there’s a scenario in which family members are known about but the parent objects to them being involved, that’s an issue that has to come before the Court and a decision made.  (I can think of a LOT of situations where a father or mother would be perfectly legitimate in not wanting members of their family to be involved)

I’m not sure that even that is a total solution.

 

Suppose a Court (or a Practice Direction) says that in any case where adoption might be the alterantive that rather than an “opt in” (throw your hat in the ring) system that instead the LA will get out there and chase down and assess any family member who might be suitable.

Okay, you might catch grandmother and grandfather in your net that way, but only if the parent is willing to give you their details so that you can find them.  How big is the net? Do you stop at Uncles? Great-Uncles? Cousins? Don’t forget friends – the Act is all about connected persons -or families and friends. You might be able to get a family tree out of a parent  (though good luck in doing it with parents who are in the grip of heroin use and who don’t engage with the process at all), but are you going to get a full and exhaustive list of all of their friends too? What if they make new friends between the care proceedings and the adoption application?

If you cast the net wide enough to catch everyone, then you are going to have an unholy amount of investigation and checking to do to give the Court information about everyone in the net to be sure that there’s not someone there who could be a carer for this child. You aren’t going to do that within 26 weeks. Hell, even finding some of these people can take longer than that.

And is a Local Authority (or a Court) really going to push for an assessment of a grandfather in a case where his own son (as here) says “When I was a child, this awful thing happened to me”?   On a twenty-six week timetable? I think not.

So I see what Baker J is getting at when he says this :-

 

although I have no specific criticism of this local authority’s work, (which I have not had an opportunity to examine in detail), this case illustrates the crucial importance of identifying at an early stage in public law proceedings any potential family members with whom a child can be placed. Local authorities must strive to identify the best possible methods of identifying such placements, and must not easily be distracted by comments made by natural parents which may conceal the truth.

 

I am not at all sure that this sentiment survives any contact with the real world, when you think what is involved.

The Judge is as nice as he can be to the prospective adopters, but I’m sure these words are as small a consolation as the consoling words given to parents after  care proceedings are

    1. My final observations are addressed to Mr and Mrs A. I can hardly begin to appreciate the anguish that you, and your older child, must now be feeling at losing the little girl whom you accepted into your care and looked after in an exemplary fashion. Although the birth family undoubtedly had a strong argument for opposing adoption, I do not know for certain what order I would have made at the conclusion of a contested hearing. You have made the courageous decision not to proceed with your application and to allow L to return to her birth family as soon as possible. I had not been told in detail the reasons for your decision but, from what I have read, I am confident that you would not have taken this step unless you believed it to be in L’s best interests. In those circumstances, I have nothing but admiration for your actions. I know that there will be some contact between L and you and your other child, although the details are yet to be agreed. I am sure that, as she grows older, L will come to understand and appreciate the wonderful things that you have done for her, both in looking after her for the past eight months, and in making this great sacrifice that has enabled her to be returned to her birth family.

 

 

There is a legal argument about the fact that father’s case at this hearing was really both an application for leave to oppose an adoption order AND a simultaneous application by the grandparents for a Special Guardianship Order, and thus whether the grandparents application (which required leave) should be heard under that test. The Court weren’t persuaded by that.

Counsel for the prospective adopters made what I think are some telling and important points about public policy – they didn’t succeed, but as more cases about adoption involve long-drawn out contested court hearings and a degree of unpredictability about the outcome, that is going to inexorably lead to less and less people being willing to put themselves through that.  I’ve represented adopters in the past and they all utterly dreaded the Court hearings and didn’t sleep and worried about the outcome – and that was in the days when I’d be able to advise them that the prospects of the adoption order not being made were vanishingly tiny.

As Ms Hyde of counsel says – the only real way for adopters to protect themselves and the child that they are considering as a family member in Court proceedings, is to delay the application so that it has been two or three years since the child came to live with them, so that no Court would contemplate moving the child.  That’s the exact opposite of what the Government are trying to achieve with adoption, and I’m sure that also there are many good reasons why that lack of finality and the order itself is not good for the family dynamics  (otherwise why ever have the adoption order? Just stay on a Placement Order forever)

 

Miss Hyde submits that the court should give particular weight to policy considerations. She contends that, if the court now allows an application which may thwart a successful adoption application, there will be grave and wide-ranging policy consequences. First, Miss Hyde submits that it will lead to a reduction in the pool of prospective adopters who will be discouraged from coming forward if there is perceived to be an increased risk of a late challenge to the adoption after the child has been placed. Secondly, she submits that the advice to future prospective adopters would inevitably be to refrain from making the adoption application until the child has been placed with them for a number of years so as to reduce the risk that the application will be opposed. This would be contrary to public policy because it would extend the period of uncertainty for the child. Thirdly, she contends that it will be extremely difficult for any court to control the timetable for assessment of family members in care proceedings, and thus the policy of identifying such placements as quickly as possible, which is an important feature of the Public Law Outline, (now in Practice Direction 12A of the Family Procedure Rules), will be undermined.

 

I think Miss Hyde is right on every single aspect. Does it mean that the Court were wrong in this particular case? No, I don’t think so. But these legal decisions can’t be looked at in isolation.  They are an interesting discussion point for us lawyers, but if you are a prospective adopter who has taken a child into their home and into their heart, a case like this is a shockwave.

The Judge said this

  1. The crucial point, however, is that the purpose of all these policies is to serve the overall welfare of children. Where the law requires the court to give paramount consideration to the welfare of the individual child, and her welfare clearly points to one particular outcome, it would be manifestly wrong to allow her welfare to be overridden by any policy considerations.
  2. Furthermore, anyone reading this judgment will realise that the circumstances of this case (the father’s deceptive and misleading conduct, and the subsequent discovery that the birth family is, on the written evidence, manifestly able to care for the child) are very unusual. I hope, therefore, that prospective adopters will not be discouraged from coming forward as a result of this case. Adoption has a crucial role to play in our society and it is very important that people should not be discouraged from putting themselves forward as adopters. Those who do must, however, be advised that, where placement orders have been made, the law allows parents to be granted leave to oppose an adoption application where there has been a change of circumstances and the court concludes that the child’s welfare, which is the paramount consideration, requires that leave be granted. Applications for leave will only be made in a minority of cases and in most cases are unlikely to succeed, but Parliament has allowed the right to apply for leave to oppose adoption applications in such circumstances and all prospective adopters should be advised that this is the law.

When I wrote about Holman J’s case, I wrote that an easy inference about the case was that it was an extraordinary set of circumstances that would never arise again and it could be discounted,  it was a stable door that could be shut although one horse had got through and bolted

 

but that a closer inspection of the case showed that at heart, it was about a family member who wasn’t assessed within care proceedings and could demonstrate that this wasn’t their fault.  That is a set of circumstances that could potentially apply to any case.  This case proves the point.

How can I know, how can adopters know in any case, that every family member who might concievably come forward in a years time, two years time, was considered and dealt with in the care proceedings?  Maybe they weren’t in a position to care THEN, but they are now…

Is there such a thing any longer as an adoption application that is water-tight and can be considered as a sure thing?

 

This isn’t the last of these. Not by a long shot.

 

I look forward to seeing the Myth-busting document on these developments.

 

 

A happy(ish) ending to a sad story

On 1st January 2014, a little boy was rushed to hospital. He was seven months old at the time and had stopped breathing. The hospital examined him and found that he had bleeding inside his brain (what is called a subdural haematoma) and bleeding in his eyes (what are called retinal haemorrhages).  Those things are commonly associated with a child having been shaken.  Older readers may recall the trial of Louise Woodward, an English girl acting as a nanny in America, who was on trial for murder as a result of a baby who died with those presentations.

The hospital at the time made a diagnosis that the boy had suffered injuries to the brain as a result of having been shaken. The Local Authority issued care proceedings (very quickly) and the Court went on to hear the evidence and make the decision.

 

Re N (a minor) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/54.html

The issue in the case was quite simple  (although the evidence involved in proving it is very complex)

1. Did this child stop breathing and mother then shook him (too hard) in an understandable attempt to revive him?

or

2. Did one of his parents pick him up and shake him, causing the injuries?

 

What happened in this case, when the finding of fact hearing took place, is that the lead medical expert wanted to know more detail about the parents evidence about the night in question, and having done so, gave his opinion that what they described was wholly consistent with explanation 1, which is what they said had happened.

At the end of the evidence, when the Local Authority were making their submissions, they indicated that they were in agreement that what had happened was version 1 – what the parents had said. The Judge told them that he agreed and that they were right to have accepted that.

 

At the outset of this fact-finding hearing the local authority invited the court to find that N had been the subject of an abusive non-accidental injury at the hands of one or other of his parents. Having listened to all of the evidence, in particular that of the Consultant Paediatrician Dr Cartlidge, I was told at the beginning of submissions this afternoon that the local authority had modified its position and now accepted that this was an ill-advised resuscitative shake by the mother of N in circumstances which I shall describe in a moment. I indicated that I wholly agreed with the assessment and conclusions of the local authority, and I applaud the local authority for taking the very realistic and sensible course that it has taken in this case

 

 

The Judge set out that the hospital were right to have acted as they did, and so were the Local Authority

Accordingly, whilst I in no way criticise the hospital for the approach that they took suspecting non-accidental injury, and in no way criticise the local authority for initiating the child protection procedures that it did making N the subject of a care application and placing him in foster care, I am entirely satisfied, particularly on the basis of the evidence of Dr Cartlidge but also on the basis of the evidence of the parents, that this was an accidental injury. The mother may have been ill-advised to shake, but she did it with no malicious intent, quite the reverse, she did it because she thought she was helping her son. Both the mother, with the benefit of hindsight, and the father in the course of their evidence said words to the effect that the mother may have over reacted in terms of the vigour with which she shook N. Given that I accept that this was a resuscitative shake, it is being too critical in my view to criticise the mother for failing to judge to a nicety that which she did in the extreme panic which I accept she was in at that time. So accordingly I find that N’s injuries resulted from an innocent but ill-advised resuscitative shake by his mother in the early hours of 1 January 2014

 

That innocent action, though it had terrible consequences for N, was not something that amounted to threshold, and so N would return home to his parents.

The reason why it is only happy(ish) rather than happy, is that the judgment on this case did not get delivered until the end of November 2014 (published today), and so N was living apart from his family for around eleven months whilst this all got sorted out.  That seems a dreadfully long time.  This is the other side of the coin in the 26 week debate – I grouse all the time about how 26 weeks can be unfair to parents, but if you were these parents, you would really want the case to be finished as soon as possible, because they did nothing wrong but had to live apart from their sick child until the Court could hear the evidence and the truth emerge.

 

It isn’t really clear from the judgment why it all took so long, but these cases are not easy to deal with. Experts have to be identified and to report, all the records have to be tracked down, where the case is in the High Court it can be difficult to find the time for long hearings. It all adds up.

I don’t know whether anyone has ever done follow-up studies on the impact of children on being apart from their family for this sort of length of time and then successfully rehabilitated.  We tend to just walk away thinking of the happy outcome, but it must be really hard for everyone involved to adjust. This young boy of course now has life-altering consequences from his tragic injury, and that’s hard in itself; but you also have two parents who love him who missed out on 11 months of his 17 month life.  Will that just repair itself, or will there be knock-on effects on the family for years to come?

 

I hope not, and I wish them all well.

 

Shepherd’s pie

Long long time ago, when I was young and full of vinegar, and the other thing, I had a case. Private law proceedings. About twenty minutes into the mother’s evidence, the Judge carefully and deliberately closed his bundle, screwed back the cap on his fountain pen, looked at us and said “We are going to be in Court for five days on this. Is the whole case really going to be about shepherd’s pie?”

 

So I will reassure the reader now that this whole post is not going to be about shepherd’s pie. But I quite often use shepherd’s pie as an illustrative point when I talk to social workers about ‘good enough’ parenting.

mmmmm. (sorry to any vegetarian reader, but it really is delicious)

mmmmm. (sorry to any vegetarian reader, but it really is delicious)

We all have a pretty reasonable sense of what threshold criteria is – as a lawyer I have to look at a long chronology, or a semi-rambling email and find the bits that might actually amount to threshold.  Social workers understand threshold criteria and what it looks like. That’s what you need to get the child into care. That’s what decides whether the Court has the legal ability to make an order.

 

But what do you need to get the child back?  Well, firstly, there’s a misapprehension that once the child is in care, the onus is on the parent to show they’ve changed, to show that they don’t do heroin any more, to show that the ex-boyfriend really is an ex, to show that they can keep on top of the housework.  Remember that the burden is on the Local Authority, not the parent.  That’s not to say that if the concerns in the case are about heroin, that you are going to be fine if you keep taking heroin (because you’re not).

And then, the second misapprehension is about what is being looked for. Everyone hears and knows the expression – good enough.  We’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking for ‘good enough’.

 

My question, is where are we putting that bar of ‘good enough’ to see if the parent is above it, or below it?  I’ve done this exercise before when training, and we can do it now.

Imagine that you’ve got 1000 children, selected at complete random. How many of them do you think will be receiving care that’s not ‘good enough’ or better ?  Do your answer firstly just on gut. Just what genuinely comes into your head.

If you are honest, it is probably somewhere between 100 and 500.  Because the expression “good enough” immediately makes you think about average, or below average.  The anchor is immediately making you think about ‘good’ parenting.

But ‘good enough’ care isn’t about the care being comparable to an average child’s experience, or even a below average.  It is about the level of care that would mean that the child was suffering significant harm that wasn’t harm that could be realistically managed.

Looking at the care demand by population statistics, the very highest area in the country, currently Torbay, would be in care proceedings for 2 of those 1000 children. There are a handful that would be nearly 2, but most of them would be 1 or less than 1.  Of a million random children, somewhere between 100 and 230 children would be receiving care that was below good enough.

If you said 1 or 2 out of 1000 as your gut answer, either congratulations, or you are a liar, or you have heard me do this routine before.

 

So, if you are looking at the care that a child would be likely to receive and thinking about whether it is ‘good enough’,  it doesn’t help to be anchoring your mental picture as being average, or even in the bottom 10%. You are really talking about lining all of the children up in terms of the quality of care that they get, and only the bottom 0.1% would be getting care that wasn’t “good enough”

 

I’ve worked in many authorities (my current one is not that fixated about it) where the parenting assessments used to feature prominently an attempt to teach the mother how to cook shepherd’s pie from scratch (see, we did get back to it). Go to the shops, buy the ingredients, cook a shepherd’s pie.  It can be quite a nice exercise – it gets the children a nice meal, home cooked and full of good stuff, teaches a parent about planning, budgeting, organising, making time to do something. I can see why people do it.

But line up those 1000 children again – how many of them didn’t get a homemade meal yesterday? Or over the last week?  It can’t be a barometer of ‘good enough’ care, whether someone can cook a shepherd’s pie from scratch.  It is nice, it probably improves the child’s life, but that’s not a test of ‘good enough’ – a parent’s case doesn’t become not ‘good enough’ because they give their kid oven chips and Crispy Pancakes rather than homemade shepherd’s pie.  And if you are wincing at the idea of a child eating that sort of food, ask yourself how you would feel about a child (or an adult) eating Marks and Spencer’s  Chicken Alfredo ready meal, or Tesco’s Finest Boeuf Bourguignon?  It isn’t better, just because it is middle-class. Neither of them are home cooked, both of them are made in ways that you wouldn’t really want to think about.

Of course we want children to eat well. Of course we want a balanced diet with all the food groups, and five a day, and lots of fibre. And of course children who eat crap aren’t going to have such a good quality of life as the ones that do eat well, with parents who make them food from scratch. It just isn’t that relevant in assessing good enough parenting, that’s all.

The other classic meal that we try to teach parents to make from scratch is spaghetti bolognaise.  We’re really into mince in a big way.

It’s quite reminiscent of a 70s childhood, or as Sean Locke puts it in this clip  (terrible quality on the clip, sorry)  – the Seventies were pretty much just a sea of plates of mince in various forms being put in front of him – and he didn’t drink water till he was 15, subsisting on squash  (usually squash that was full of Tartrazine)

 

The thing about ‘good enough’ care being the test is that it is massively subjective.  Someone – a lawyer, a social worker, a Guardian, a Judge, is thinking about ‘good enough’ care and what they are doing it is comparing the parents care, or how they think the parents care would be, against their own notional idea of what ‘good enough’ care would be like.  If those people don’t even agree on how many of those random 1000 children would be receiving care that wasn’t ‘good enough’ or better, then how do they do the next bit which is imagining what care that is not ‘good enough’ would be like?   And your anchoring of what ‘good enough’ care is like is probably comparing what this child’s home might be like with ones that you know – your home, your home as a child, the home of the friend that you had where you never wanted to stay for dinner…   If you are thinking that this child’s home won’t be as nice as those, even the bad ones, then you have a bar that is too high.

I prefer, to be honest, to use the term ‘barely adequate’ rather than ‘good enough’.  Of course, nobody wants to talk about the outcome for a child of care proceedings being that they go back home for a life that is’barely adequate’ – it feels like we’re letting the child down, like we should have fixed more of the problems, that things ought to be radically improved by the end of care proceedings, not just a smidge better than when we started.  I completely get that. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to do those things – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ending the case with a mum who DOES know how to cook Shepherd’s Pie from scratch. It is just that she doesn’t fail to be ‘good enough’ if she can’t do it.

If we put the bar of ‘good enough’ at home cooked meals from scratch, we’re asking parents to pole vault over that bar, when the reality is that the bar is a really low limbo bar that they just need to step over.  And if you want to know whether the parent is above or below the bar, it really does help to know where that bar is.

 

The President even distilled it in Re S and T today,

 

But it is fundamentally important that children are not to be adopted merely because their parenting is less than perfect, indeed, perhaps, only barely adequate. To repeat what was said in Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33, [2012] 2 FLR 332, para 134, “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

 

not really, it is mince again! you know you want it

This is a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, to make it up to those poor veg loving readers

Adoption and American immigration

I have been waiting since Re B-S for one of these cases to come up, and it finally has.

Where a family member is put forward to care for a child, and that family member lives in America, the net effect of American immigration law is that in order to be able to get the child into the country to live with that family member, you’d need an adoption order. Nothing less than that would do for American immigration authorities. BUT, does that amount to ‘nothing else will do’ for the English family Court?

 

Re S and T (children) 2015  looks at that issue.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/1753.html

 

Much of the case also involves the horrid rigmarole because in order to apply for an adoption order in England, the prospective adopters need to be habitually resident in England or Wales AND to have had a home in England for 10 weeks before the application.  (In practice, this is an utter nightmare in any case where the relatives are American, as it just causes logistical problems that don’t arise in any other country).  So if you are interested in those matters  those are in the early parts of the judgment, and it shows you the tangle that the process can become.

But my real interest is in the analysis of whether the US immigration requirements of ‘adoption or you’re not coming in’ amount to ‘nothing else will do’

This case is made more complex because they were initially private law proceedings brought about because the father removed the children to Pakistan, their mother later died of cancer, and it seems that the children have been actually living in America since July 2014  (as a result of a ‘holiday’ order made by Singer J, permitting the children, who were wards of Court, to go and stay with their maternal great aunt and great uncle for a defined period of time.  It is the great aunt and great uncle who applied for an adoption order under s84 Adoption and Children Act 2002, with the intention of later applying for an adoption order under US law.

 

[There are complicated technical reasons why they had to do it that way round, but basically if the English Court didn’t make an Adoption Order, they wouldn’t be able to get one in America, and the children wouldn’t be able to live with them]

 

The father was not consenting to the plan of adoption, and was actively opposing it, and there was no Placement Order (or application for a Placement Order)

  1. The issues: can the father’s consent be dispensed with?
  2. The father opposes the making of any adoption order and any order under section 84 of the 2002 Act. The applicants submit that his consent can be dispensed with. He disputes this.
  3. In my judgment, it is clear that there is nothing in section 84 itself to preclude the court dispensing with the father’s consent. Regulation 11(1)(p) is clear recognition that section 52(1) applies to an order under section 84. Moreover, Form A61, the application form to be used in applications under section 84, contains, in Part 3, para (j), provision for an application to dispense with parental consent. The father’s argument, however, is based on the wording of Articles 4 and 16 of the Convention which, he submits, plainly contemplates that a Convention adoption such as is proposed in this case cannot proceed in the absence of parental consent.
  4. I have set out the relevant passages already, but for convenience I will repeat the critical wording. Article 4(c)(2) provides that an adoption can take place “only” if:

    “the persons … whose consent is necessary for adoption … have given their consent freely.”

    Article 16(1)(c) provides that the Central Authority of the State of origin “shall”:

    “ensure that consents have been obtained in accordance with Article 4.”

    Article 16(2) provides that the Central Authority of the State of origin “shall”:

    “transmit to the Central Authority of the receiving State … proof that the necessary consents have been obtained.”

  5. The Convention does not contain any provisions identifying what consents are necessary. On a plain reading of the Convention, it leaves it to the domestic law of the State of origin to determine what, if any consents, are “necessary”. This is borne out by paragraph 129 of the Explanatory Report on the Convention drawn up by G Parra-Aranguren:

    “The persons whose consent is necessary on behalf of the child are determined by the applicable law: it will usually include … the child’s biological parents.”

  6. English domestic law enables the court to “dispense with” a parent’s consent in accordance with section 47(2)(c) of the 2002 Act if the requirements of section 52(1)(b) are satisfied. Those provisions apply both where the application is for an adoption order and where the application is for an order under section 84: see regulation 11(1)(l). They likewise apply in a Convention case: see regulation 55.
  7. The point is, ultimately, a very short one, incapable of much elaboration, but, in my judgment, where the court has “dispensed” with a parent’s consent in accordance with sections 47(2)(c) and 52(1)(b), that parent’s consent is no longer “necessary” within the meaning of Article 4(c)(2). It is not “necessary” because it has been “dispensed with”. It follows, in my judgment, that the court can in principle, as the applicants contend, dispense with the father’s consent in the present case.

 

The President having decided that the Court COULD dispense with father’s consent, then had to decide whether it SHOULD.

  1. The issues: should the father’s consent be dispensed with?
  2. The father submits that, even taking all the available material at its highest, there is no basis upon which the court could properly dispense with his consent and that on this ground alone I should dismiss the applicants’ claim here and now.
  3. In short, the father’s case is that, although he has been the subject of many serious findings – a proposition not challenged before me – they cannot be determinative. Indeed, it is said, they are not sufficient, on a proper welfare analysis, to justify the severing of the children’s relationship with him through adoption.
  4. It is properly common ground before me that, if the father’s consent is to be dispensed with, the applicants have to demonstrate that “nothing else will do”: see In re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria) [2013] UKSC 33, [2013] 1 WLR 1911, [2013] 2 FLR 1075, In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, [2014] 1 FLR 1035, and Re R (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 1625. As the Strasbourg court said in Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33, [2012] 2 FLR 332, para 134, “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.” The local authority makes the same point when it observes, and I agree, that what might ‘tip the balance’ in a private law case does not necessarily suffice to justify adoption in the face of parental opposition.
  5. Putting the issue into context, there are two striking features of this case. The first is that the local authority, having considered the matter very carefully, has doubts (a) whether the ‘threshold’ in section 31 of the 1989 Act is met and (b) whether, even if threshold is met, it would apply for a care order, let alone a placement order. The second is that, in truth, adoption is being considered here only because of the seeming imperatives of United States of America immigration law. As the local authority puts it, the issue of adoption would certainly not have arisen but for the stance of the United States of America’s authorities. Counsel for the guardian was equally explicit: “It is purely the immigration requirements of the USA which dictate that although the dispute is between family members, a placement with the applicants will require an adoption process.”
  6. I make clear that neither of these factors can alone, or in combination, be determinative. One can, for example, conceive of a case in which “nothing else will do” precisely because of a requirement of foreign immigration law. But they are, nonetheless, very striking features of this case which must, at the very least, give one pause for thought.

 

 

The President is saying there that the US immigration requirement for adoption as a pre-requisite for the child living in the country MIGHT amount to “nothing else will do” or it MIGHT not. It isn’t determinative either way, and will depend on the merits and background features of the case.  [It appears that with strong reasons why the child can’t live with birth parents and has to live elsewhere, the immigration component might tip the balance, but where the ‘threshold’ component is weak, that it might not]

 

In looking at what might amount to ‘threshold’ against father, the President identified these matters

 

  1. What are the matters alleged against the father? They include, but are not limited, to the specific matters found by Sir Peter Singer as set out in his judgment given on 1 October 2014:

    i) Domestic violence of the father inflicted on the mother in August 2012 (judgment, paras 28-29): details can be found in the maternal uncle’s statement dated 11 April 2014.ii) The fact that the father removed the children to Pakistan in December 2012 without the mother’s consent (judgment, para 80(i)) – something emotionally abusive of both the mother and the children.

    iii) The fact that the father in effect abandoned the children between March 2013 and April 2014 (see paragraph 2 above), though he claims this was on the basis of legal advice he received in Pakistan.

    iv) The unlikelihood of the father fostering any kind of relationship between the children and the maternal family (judgment, para 79) – though this is something he now says he will do: see his statement dated 31 October 2014.

    v) The fact that the father put forward two bogus documents: a purported will of the mother dated 29 August 2013 and a purported “confession” of the mother (judgment, paras 80(ii) and 80(iii)).

    vi) The fact that the father “laid the ground for attempting” to obtain the insurance monies arising out of the mother’s death (judgment, para 80(v)).

    I am of course concerned with those matters which are relevant to the children’s welfare. It is hard to see that (v) and (vi), however deplorable, go to that issue.

  2. As against this, the following matters have to be borne in mind:

    i) Sir Peter Singer’s finding that the applicants and the children’s maternal uncle “deliberately” did not inform the father of the death of the mother “in order, as they sought, better to advance their own case for the children to remain with the mother’s family and in order to distance themselves from him for reasons which, because of his behaviour, are apparent” (judgment, para 80(vi)).ii) The quality of the contact between the father and the children as demonstrated, for example, by the records of contact sessions on 15, 17, 21 and 23 October 2014

     

 

I think that the Guardian’s conclusions are interesting and telling  (it is not really a right way to approach the law)

 

“I do not believe the father can meet the children’s global needs to the extent that [the applicants] can. I have sought in this report to delineate the differences between the father as a potential long term carer for the children in Pakistan and their great aunt and uncle in the USA.

The father’s position is not without merit and this is a finely balanced decision. If there was no one but the children’s father to care for them it is likely that despite his deficits he might be considered good enough. However if there is an alternative, and I accept that the mechanism for achieving an adoption placement for the children in the USA is inchoate, I take the view for the reasons adumbrated within this report, that this is preferable and in the children’s best lifelong interests than living with their father in Pakistan.

I fall back on the aspiration that this Court can do better for these children than place them with their father in Pakistan; it can honour and make possible their mother’s legacy because she knew what was best for her daughters.

 

That comes very close to (if not actually arriving at) a conclusion that if there were no  relatives in America, the children should be with their father, but because the children would have a better life with the relatives in America, adoption is the right plan.  That’s precisely the opposite conclusion of Y v United Kingdom 2012  (the case that launched Re B and all that followed it)  http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2012/433.html “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

If the Court were approaching this as a pure ‘beauty contest’  – who comes across better, who might be able to meet the child’s needs better, with whom might the child have a better life, the maternal great aunt and great uncle would have won hands-down.  It is decidedly possible that if the great aunt lived in Ilford, not Illinois, and the order was a private law order rather than adoption, that the Court would have gone with that option.  There’s no presumption in private family law that a father would beat a grandparent or aunt. Re E-R 2015 for example http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed144557

 

But that’s not the approach with adoption.

 

It clearly isn’t the strongest set of ‘threshold’ or risks that father might pose the children, and the Guardian’s analysis whilst intending to be a reason why the Court should make the adoption order and allow the children to live /stay with their maternal family in America actually makes the legal argument as to why the Court shouldn’t.

 

 

  1. In these circumstances, the first question I have to consider is whether, on the evidence currently before me, I could be satisfied that the father’s consent “requires” to be dispensed with (the language of section 52(1)(b) of the 2002 Act) within the principles set out in Re P (Placement Orders: Parental Consent) [2008] EWCA Civ 535, [2008] 2 FLR 625, and In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, [2014] 1 FLR 1035; whether I could be satisfied that “nothing else will do.” The short answer is that I could not be so satisfied. I agree with the father that the material at present before the court falls far short of meeting the required standard. Taking the matters I have summarised in paragraph 68 above at their highest, the case for adoption is simply not made out. One really only has to consider what is said in the reports of LB and JP and, equally significant, what those reports do not say.
  2. This being so, the second question is whether the proceedings should nonetheless continue. This comes down to two questions: (1) Is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that with further forensic activity – the testing of the existing evidence by cross-examination or giving the parties an opportunity to adduce further evidence – the conclusion might be different? This requires a robust and realistic appraisal of what is possible, an appraisal which is evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’. (2) Is there some solid advantage to the children in continuing the proceeding?
  3. In my judgment, there is no basis in the materials currently before the court for any belief that prolongation of the process carries with it any realistic prospect of the court ever being satisfied that the father’s consent requires to be dispensed with, that nothing else will do. The deficit in the existing evidence is simply too great to imagine that there is any realistic prospect of the gap being bridged. And in the circumstances, not least bearing in mind the length of time these proceedings have been going on, far from there being any solid advantage to the children in continuing the proceedings, their welfare requires finality now.
  4. The proceedings should now be brought to an end.
  5. I am very conscious that the consequence of this, in a sense, is that the father wins by default. The children go to him because the only alternative is ruled out because adoption is ruled out. But it is fundamentally important that children are not to be adopted merely because their parenting is less than perfect, indeed, perhaps, only barely adequate. To repeat what was said in Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33, [2012] 2 FLR 332, para 134, “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

 

So the children were to be brought back to England by August, and to go back to the care of their father.

This, I think, is only the second reported case where a child was taken from prospective adopters who had been caring for the child for a significant period of time, and placed with either a parent or family member. The first of course was Holman J’s http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/05/i-would-put-this-as-a-must-read-adoption-case-dynamite/

 

In that case, the interest of the child being placed with an aunt outweighed that of remaining with prospective adopters, in this one, the interest of the children being placed with dad outweighed that of remaining with prospective adopters who were family members.  (Blood is thicker than water, but parental blood is thicker than blood, perhaps)

Of course this one is rather different, since there hadn’t been any Court determination that adoption was the right plan for the child, and the plan of adoption arose solely as a result of US immigration law, but it does show that the Court is willing to implement the philosphy of Y v UK in real life cases and to reach decisions that it feels to me would not have been made in 2011.

Good luck anybody running a case with an American relative in getting the case done within 26 weeks.

 

composite threshold – a living example

 

I wrote about the difficulties of composite thresholds here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/28/composite-threshold-documents-in-which-a-tightrope-is-walked/  particularly where a document is produced that sets out what everyone says but doesn’t end up with clarity as the precise way that threshold is said to be met.

 

This judgment by Her Honour Judge Owens  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B73.html  OCC v B and T 2015 is a really good example of that.

Particularly since the Judge includes a suitably anonymised version of the threshold at the end of the judgment. I commend that, I think it makes far more sense when considering what decisions was made by a Court to see the factual background set out.  I really like it.

The version provided is a composite document, set out in tablular form (and again, I like the way that this is produced, it is really helpful in terms of seeing what the allegation is, where the evidence is for it and what the parents say).

 

But it is a composite document. It doesn’t end up by setting out the findings that the Court was either making by agreement or was asked to adjudicate upon. So it isn’t a final threshold.

And then, there’s this bit in the judgment itself

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule. A copy of that schedule, suitably redacted in relation to the identities of the parties, is appended to this Judgement

 

All very sensible and practical – the LA deciding not to push for additional findings where there is agreement and the concessions are sufficient.

However, when I look at the composite document, I see that whilst mother accepts all of the matters that remain (3 a) and (3b) were the only bits that she disputed, father was disputing just about EVERYTHING.  And the LA were accepting that they did not seek any findings in relation to matters that were disputed, so effectively all of those matters are just crossed out of the threshold.

Here is what father actually concedes, in totality

 

1(b) I accept arguing which can be seen as verbally abusive but not aggressive.  [Really hard to see in the light of Re A and Re J – and even before then, that this amounts to threshold]

1(c) The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against father but then withdrew them.   [Well, that’s not threshold unless the assertion is that the allegations were true OR that the making of false allegations caused emotional harm to the child, neither of which are asserted]

1(d) Both parents sent abusive text messages and Facebook messages to each other

2 The father had an argument with the Health Visitor because she came to the home for an important meeting without a sign language intepreter  (again, that’s not threshold)

4. The father accepts that he had some convictions, the most recent of which was ten years ago.

 

5. The father accepts that his other children were placed on the Child Protection Register but disputes that this was the right decision.

 

As we’ve previously discussed, it is possible that on a line by line basis, each individual allegation in and of itself would not amount to threshold, but that taken as a totality, it would. But that’s also not the case here. [Given that para 5 as drafted by the LA contains reference to his two older children being adopted, the Court could have been asked to find that the threshold relied upon and found in those proceedings was sufficient to establish a risk of harm from father, depending upon what was in it and how historical it was, but that didn’t happen]

 

Given what the Judge says about threshold  – LA don’t invite Court to make findings on any matters in dispute and that those matters which are accepted are how threshold is established, then those are the only concessions that are agreed by both parents.  The Local Authority could have invited the Court to find that the threshold was met on the basis of the mother’s concessions, and the Judge would then have had to rule on the matters that father disputed, but that’s not what happened. The LA invited the Court to make a finding that threshold was met on the basis of father’s concessions.

Now, just imagine for a moment, drafting a threshold that contains only those matters set out above. As a stand alone document, saying that this is why the children are at risk of significant harm.  It appears to me that this would be very short of threshold.

 

[There are 3 matters that relate chiefly to mother that father does not dispute, so we could add those in. She wasn’t always honest with professionals, she went to a refuge and then went back to father, and refused to go into a refuge just before the Court proceedings were issued.  IF the Court established that father was domestically violent, then those are matters which could add to the threshold, but there isn’t such a finding.  On the threshold that the case has ended up with, the very high point of the findings made is that harsh words were exchanged between mother and father (both verbally and via text messages/facebook) ]

 

I’ll be clear,

(a) The allegations set out by the Local Authority in their original document (the first two columns of the composite document) were more than capable of meeting threshold

(b) From reading the judgment, I would be confident that most, and perhaps all of them, would have been found had the LA pushed for this – the evidence was there to do so

(c) I’m fairly sure that all involved were approaching the case on the basis that it was not in dispute that there had been DV between father and mother and that he posed a risk to the children

(d) But actually there was. Father’s response to threshold disputed this. And that became a live issue as to whether his admissions were sufficient or whether the Court needed to deal with the disputed issues on threshold

(e) In my opinion, the actual concessions made and accepted, are way short of threshold  (particularly threshold for deciding that the children should be permanently separated from their mother – whilst there is only one section 31 threshold criteria it is plain from the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court’s final orders have to be proportionate to the harm suffered or a risk of being suffered.  )

 

I think there was ample evidence for the Court to find that father was a risk to the children and that mother had been subjected to domestic violence and had not been able to protect. And reading the totality of the judgment, I think that’s the basis on which the Court approached the case. Additionally, there were three significant  findings made which could properly go into a finalised threshold, and given that the Judge set these out in passages of her judgment that were explictly considering ‘risk of harm’ I would legitimately be putting them into a final threshold document.  BUT that would have been dependent on the Judge’s paragraph about threshold adding ‘and the specific matters that I found in my judgment in relation to risks of harm to the children’ or something similar.

 

  If they return to the care of their mother, however, I find that the likelihood is that this placement would breakdown due to her inability to apply the required parenting skills to a good enough standard

I find and the only conclusion I can draw is that she is simply not capable of working openly and honestly with the local authority in the best interests of her children.

The stakes are therefore very high indeed for them and the risk of them suffering further disruption and emotional harm is, as I have found, high

 

The Judge also makes comment that mother failed to understand the risk that father poses (and that’s very important, but it is equally important to remember that the Court hasn’t actually made findings about the level of risk father poses, and the adverse findings against him relate to mutual exchanges of harsh words between him and mother. )

 

There is also reference to what was probably the most important incident

On the 9th December 2014 RB moved to a place of safety following an alleged assault on her by ST on 8th December 2014. This assault was witnessed by a member of the public and ST was arrested. The Police records of this assault are at F110-112 and F129 – 144 and I have also seen the DVD recordings of ST’s Police interview and RB’s statement to the Police about this incident.

 

Although that is in the LA threshold document, at 1(d),  it is disputed by the father, and because of the formulation of words in the judgment about threshold (which I’ll repeat here) it is NOT a finding made. The Judge had done sufficient to make a decision about that allegation, and would probably have made the finding if asked, but was not in fact asked to do so.

 

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule.

 

It is really obvious that the Court is proceeding throughout on the basis that it is established that father is a risk to the children and indeed to the mother.

BUT the threshold findings that were actually made by the Court were astonishingly low – far lower than I suspect anyone involved really grasped. And if there had been a second threshold document, one that went beyond just setting out a Scott Schedule  (we say,she says, he says) and into just setting out the precise allegations that were actually agreed i.e a final threshold, looking at that on a piece of paper would have made it clear that the concessions given were not sufficient to cross threshold and that the Judge would have to be invited to make findings.

IF this father were to be involved in future Court proceedings, someone picking up this judgment might consider that the Court had made findings that he posed a risk to his children and that he had been domestically violent to the mother   (and I’m sure that’s what those involved thought had happened) BUT as a matter of law, the findings against dad that were made were only those things that he admitted to – which amount to an exchange of harsh words with mother and an argument with a Health Visitor.  Would the actual findings that were made by this Court be sufficient to establish a likelihood of harm with future children?

 

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved – this is just an illustration of how a composite style threshold can pose a problem. Had a second document that sets out, taking into account just those matters that were accepted, it would have been really plain that the LA needed to go above and beyond just the accepted matters and into asking the Court to make findings on the central issue (was father domestically violent towards the mother and was he a risk to the children?).   I am sure that all involved took those matters as a given – I’m sure that if father had been fighting the allegations he would not have succeeded, but the approach that the concessions themselves were sufficient to meet the threshold doesn’t seem to stack up when you look at it with fresh eyes.

 

There’s a lot of other stuff to praise in this judgment, it is just a shame about that one element.

 

 

 

 

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