This is a High Court case in which the Judge (Keehan J) was very (and rightly) critical of the Local Authority, including criticism that when they were asked for explanations of their conduct prior to and during the proceedings those explanations were not satisfactory and amounted to not much more than attempts to defend the indefensible.
Northamptonshire and DS 2014
The case ended with a child, DS, being placed with his maternal grandparents in Latvia.
It began, as cock-ups so often do, with a section 20 agreement. There were some legitimate concerns that DS would be at risk in the care of his mother and his mother was asked to agree to place him in ‘voluntary’ foster care. This happened when he was 15 days old.
The Local Authority did not properly think about care proceedings until five months later, and even worse than that, having decided that care proceedings were the right thing to do, did not then issue them until five months after that.
The care proceedings were plagued by delay, most if not all being ascribed to the Local Authority, ending up with a child spending nearly two years in foster care when there were grandparents who were eventually able to care for him.
The Guardian and mother issued claims for Human Rights damages on behalf of the child, and the LA by the time of the final hearing were accepting that they had violated the child’s human rights in all of these human rights claims:-
(a) The local authority failed to take any protective action to safeguard the child despite having concerns that he was at risk of suffering significant harm between 15 and 30 January 2013, in breach of his article 6 and 8 rights.
(b) Whilst the child was accommodated pursuant to section 20 CA on 30 January 2013, a decision to initiate proceedings was not made until 23 May 2013 and an application for a care order was not made until 5 November 2013. Over this period of 11 months the child was without access to any independent representation of his welfare interests and had no access to any remedy or recourse and no person was exercising parental responsibility for him, in breach of the child’s article 6, 8 and 13 rights. *
(c) The local authority, by its acts or omissions, caused or contributed to a series of delays in the filing of necessary evidence during the course of the care proceedings and the final evidence filed for hearing in October 2014 was inadequate and incomplete, in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights.
(d) The delays and general mismanagement of the case by the local authority has been seriously prejudicial to the child’s welfare and the child’s and mother’s ability to enjoy a family life with a member of his extended family prior to November 2014, which may have irredeemable consequences for the child’s future welfare and development. Such failures were in breach of the child’s article 8 rights.
(e) The child and mother were subject to a high turnover of social workers and locum social workers with conduct of his case file leading to a lack of cohesive, comprehensive management and care for a significant period of time and in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights and prejudicial to their article 8 rights.
(f) The local authority failed to organise contact between the child and his mother in accordance with an explicit order of the court and the advice of the Children’s Guardian for a significant period of time and poor organisation and communication by the local authority led to various sessions of contact being cancelled. Such failures were in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 8 rights.
*you don’t often hear of article 13 rights, but it was a good call in this case:-
Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Convention are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.
There wasn’t an effective remedy until the LA issued the care proceedings that should have begun in February at worst, but instead started in November.
A package amounting to £17,000 was agreed by the Local Authority and approved by the Court.
Looking at some of the particular criticisms made by the Court:-
Inexperience of the worker and delay in issuing
I cannot begin to understand why an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings was allocated as a social worker for a 15 day old baby. I do not understand why it took until August to provide her with support or why senior managers did not intervene in this case. It is wholly inexcusable for a local authority to take three months to decide to issue care proceedings in respect of a very young baby and then a further five months to issue care proceedings. The fact that the parents are Latvian and that close family members lived abroad, provides no explanation less still an excuse for the extraordinary delay in this case.
The changes in social worker
I appreciate that social services’ departments have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers but it is deeply worrying that over the course of these proceedings DS has been allocated no less than eight different social workers. It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers at Northampton Children’s Services Department had DS’s welfare best interests at the forefront of their minds. Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby’s care and future life was dismal.
The section 20 agreement
The use of the provisions of s.20 Children Act 1989 to accommodate was, in my judgment, seriously abused by the local authority in this case. I cannot conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional of circumstances and where the removal is intended to be for a matter of days at most.
The accommodation of DS under a s.20 agreement deprived him of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests. Further, it deprived the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and to prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay in securing a permanent placement for the child at the earliest possible time.
Whether the s20 ‘consent’ was really meaningful consent
On 30 January the local authority concluded that DS was at risk of harm in the care of his mother and secured her agreement to him being placed with foster carers. I question how effective that consent was when it was sought without the mother having the benefit of an interpreter.
The catalogue of errors, omissions, delays and serial breaches of court orders in this matter is truly lamentable. They would be serious enough in respect of an older child but they are appalling in respect of a 15 day old baby. Each day, each week and each month in his young life is exceedingly precious. Where so young a child is removed from the care of his mother or father his case must be afforded the highest priority by the local authority.
None of this is good. It is, in fact, deeply bad.
Critics of the family justice system, and there are many, are entitled to point to a case like this and say that this is what goes on. The parents in this case, and the child in this case, were badly let down by professionals and there were systemic failures to put things right.
It is only a small crumb of comfort that this was a case in which the Judge dealing with it was prepared to be tenacious and forensic about those failures, with a view to preventing them happening to other unfortunate families.
As the Judge says at the end
I trust that the events of the first 23 months of DS’s life will not have a detrimental impact on his future development and his emotional and psychological well being. There is a real risk they will do so.
I have mentioned in other places that in order to prevent such instances from occurring judgments like this should be placed upon the desks of every DCS, they in turn should then ensure the front line staff are aware, then potential problems like those above can be swiftly averted, same goes with the serious problem with Sec 20 drift
If in a month or so’s time and we read another case like this then obviously judgments like these are not taken serious by the industry tasked to protect, I know if I was a DCS I would be having middle management in my office asap ensuring my dept was not and did not have cases where there is any potential to become the next reported case strewn with failings!, it is that simple.
Re the case I have spoken to you about, you WILL be hearing this again, very soon
Local Authorities know they can get away with using s.20 accommodation unlawfully because this breach of statutory duty never leads to any sanctions. Under the Children Act 1989 they are required to ensure that the welfare of the child is paramount. So what can be done to ensure they follow this duty correctly?
Well, government does have powers to intervene when local authorities repeatedly fail to carry out their statutory duties in a lawful manner. If this kind of disregard of the law continues government would be justified in removing the legal powers from the LA and giving them to another body. This might seem far-fetched but I can see there might be a case here for giving responsibility for s.47s to an independent agency – which would, after investigation, determine what action was required from the local authority and, if necessary, direct it to commence legal proceedings.
I suggest the investigative agency would have statutory powers and would act as the lead agency in decision-making with regard to s.47s, conferences and legal proceedings. This would ensure clarity of responsibilities and consistency in approach – in particular, in setting thresholds where legal proceedings are deemed necessary. It is not unknown for a local authority to be stripped of its powers if it fails to carry out its legal duties.
The most effective system is the one up in Scotland. The use of Children’s Panels provides a far more advanced and holistic approach. Having a truly independent and legally trained chair who coordinates the Local Authority’s approach to working with each child is far more effective.
In terms of giving section 47’s to other agencies, I really do not see what that could offer or how that would work. It is one thing stripping a Local Authority of its powers but what would you replace it with? SERCO?
My suggestion of a separate team for s.47’s was based on my experience in Wales where this existed. It was aimed at developing social work skills, strengthening management oversight and providing a proportionate and lawful response to referrals. We found that the competence with which a s.47 was handled crucially influenced the effectiveness of subsequent work.
The specialist team could be set up by central government and staffed by social workers from the independent sector – possibly with an organisation concerned with preventing cruelty to children (!) I offered this suggestion as something that may be necessary when everything else has failed – and to shift a culture that is very dysfunctional and resistant to change.
I’m struggling to find the names of any social workers in the Judge’s report. Aren’t they meant to be named now when they act in this manner?
The Transparency guidance is that the starting point is that they should be named in all cases (not just the ones where they are being criticised), but about two thirds of judgments don’t choose to do that.
So it would appear. If it were me I’d make sure their names were known. We’ve seen names even being removed from documents where the Judge has named them.
If you are meaning the big story that the Telegraph trumpeted about, “even the Judge’s name is secret” it is established now that this was a clerical error. Though you don’t tend to get corrections to newspaper stories. I have mixed views about the Transparency Guidance, but I would probably agree that if the guidance says publish the names it ought to be followed.
Northamptonshire have had a weird structure for Children’s Services for years. I can’t remember what they call each section but for any child involved in Care proceedings there will always – at a minimum – be 3 different Social Workers over the life of the case. That is the Initial worker, the short- term worker and the long-term worker.
Dreadful system as the first 2 workers just make recommendations for assessments that they never have to carry out and which the final worker is then stuck with.
Whilst commenting for first time for a while I would like to ask people’s experiences of the social work template drawn up by the Assistant Directors of Children’s Services (and endorsed by El Presidente). Now been locum at 2 authorities using it and find it an unmitigated disaster. Social Workers hate it, lawyers hate it and judges don’t seem to like it either. Cannot find anything in it and confuses the social workers. Anyone got anything positive to say about it?
I’ve had that system just about every place I’ve ever worked and never understood it. I’d much prefer one social worker to see the case from start to finish (obviously you can’t legislate for illness or people moving jobs, but a system that anticipates a minimum of three social workers if all goes well seems nuts)
As to the statement template, from what I hear it was drawn up for the lowest common denominator (meaning that the least able can fill it in) rather than taking the better quality statements and trying to raise everyone to that standard. I cannot tell you how much I hate them.
Good grief. I always thought Northamptonshire was an outlier on this (not even Birmingham had an automatic 3 social workers on a case). Horrified to hear that it is so widespread.
Interesting explanation for the statement template. Sounds like a justification concocted afterwards by the bunch of senior managers that drafted it and whose heads have been so pickled by management speak that they cannot even write basic English anymore. No-one of any level of ability can fill it in. And how are the least able to justify the claim that the welfare checklist has been considered in every section? I hate it so much.
To not put a stand-alone welfare checklist in it, when it is the tool devised by Parliament to analyse and underpin decisions just seems utterly ludicrous to me. I struggle to really express my contempt for this template document, it is beneath us.
The structure of Children’s Social Care team in Northamptonshire is fairly typical and actually makes perfect sense. Remember that legal proceedings are only a very small aspect of what constitutes the bread and butter of what Children’s Social Care does.
Breaking teams into specialist segments ensures a more effective response to children’s needs. Historically there used to be generic teams. So one social worker would do initial assessments, crisis work, longer term work and have children in care on their case loads. What happened was the crisis work took precedence and the children whose needs were not so acute drifted and were marginalised.
Also, each team holds specialist knowledge (resources, methods of practice etc, work patterns, relationships with other services). It would now be impossible for one social worker to be competent in duty work, long term work, looked after children work and leaving care work.
Of course, cases such as these are thankfully very rare but when it does go wrong, the impact is huge. The mistakes, in my view, are less to do with the structures and more to do with the very basic drives and motivators of the relationships within the service. You can change the structures all you wish, but unless you address cultures and work practices, you will fall onto the same problems (no matter how many system shifts there are)
A decent point – it is easy to get fixed on care proceedings as a lawyer and forget all of the other stuff that goes on.
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It may be unfair to name individual social workers when responsibility for these failures must be given to staff at all levels. In Northamptonshire the problems seem to be more about an organisational culture of incompetence, low morale and high staff turnover.
I get the feeling that people are waking up to the fact that some local authority children’s services are not ‘fit for purpose’. In Rotherham the problems have been put down to the bullying, macho culture and political correctness – but we know that some of these are also caused by managerialism and over-bureaucratic procedures.
We have to look at the bigger picture and my article from 2004 What Future for Local Authority Social Work? still seems relevant to this discussion.