Following on from the last blog – I don’t often split case discussions, but in this one I felt that the issues over the foster carer and recording was worth a piece on its own.
This piece now tackles some of the many practice issues raised by Medway Council v A 2015 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B66.html
Let us start with our old friend section 20
- 6 On 6.8.14 the SW claims she contacted the Maternal Grandmother and Mr S to see if alternative arrangements could be made within the family to support them. Issues have been raised about her manner of doing so, and whether appropriate support was offered. I make no finding as it has not been possible to explore this fully, but I note that there were several meetings that took place on this date and the SW will have wanted that information beforehand and so may have sounded abrupt and left little time for matters to be considered.
- 7 By the end of that day the parents had signed a section 20 agreement which they and Mr S thought simply covered a two week period in a mother and baby foster placement. It is clear from the notes in the medical records, and the SW accepts, that the issue of Mother’s vulnerability was raised by Mrs Rose before Mother signed the section 20 agreement. The SW also accepted that in addition to the hospital’s concerns, Mr S and the Maternal Grandmother had confirmed that Mother had a learning difficulty. The SW accepted that it was not appropriate to have obtained Mother’s signature to an agreement under s20 in such circumstances where her cognitive abilities had been questioned by other professionals and no assessment had taken place. I also note that it was obtained prior to the strategy meeting taking place on 7.8.14.
We now know that the mother’s IQ was 54, making it extremely questionable that she had capacity to sign a section 20 agreement – certainly without it being really carefully explained to her. In any event, the parents understanding was that they were agreeing to a two week placement and the placement was actually intended to be for twelve weeks, breaking down after 40 days. This, once again is not a fair and proper use of section 20.
- The guidance of Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH  COPLR 658 is as follows, at paragraph 46: “i) every social worker obtaining consent to accommodation of a child from a parent (with parental responsibility) is under a personal duty to be satisfied that the person giving consent does not lack the required capacity; ii) the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity, take into account all the prevailing circumstances and must consider the questions raised by Mental Capacity Act 2005, section 3 and in particular the mother’s capacity to use and weigh all the relevant information; iii) if the social worker has doubts about capacity, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion. Advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.”
- I acknowledge that the Father signed the section 20 agreement, but this is not good enough (cf s.20(7) Children Act). I have been appalled at the reliance placed by Medway on a section 20 agreement signed by the Mother. She was encouraged to sign it on 6.8.14 without any assessment of her learning difficulty or her capacity. This is wholly unacceptable when the SW knew from the hospital staff and family members that Mother had a learning difficulty and appeared to have problems with her understanding.
- Medway should not have waited to rely on assessments prompted and undertaken by another agency. Given the anxieties expressed by Mrs Rose at the meetings on 6.8.14, I consider that a section 20 agreement should never have been pursued that day.
- While I accept that subsequent assessments, by the Learning Disability nurse and by Dr Conning, have suggested that she has capacity, these should not vindicate this practice of relying on a section 20 agreement that was obtained beforehand. In any event I do not consider that an Learning Disability nurse’s assessment on the ward should have been relied upon in relation to the import of a section 20 agreement by which a parent agrees to major interferences with the family’s life. And I further note that Dr Conning’s assessment of the Mother’s capacity in October 2014 was couched in terms of having capacity in the context of her being supported by her legal team and her husband (also legally advised by then).
- It is likely that the cognitive assessment appointment two weeks after the section 20 agreement was signed, on 21.8.14, followed from the Resource Panel’s concerns expressed at the meeting on 19.8.14, and there appears to have been no attempt by the SW or her team manager to arrange one before then. Although I acknowledge that efforts were then made to obtain a cognitive assessment of Mother on 21.8.14 and 2.9.14 that were not successful due to the Mother’s non-attendance, nonetheless it meant that the section 20 agreement that was extended on 3.9.14 was equally flawed.
- Mr Crimes’ assessment was sent on 8.9.14. He assessed Mother as having a full IQ score of 54, and as he noted in the accompanying email to the SW this was about the lowest level of functioning he had ever assessed. This was not an assessment of her capacity but set out a grave picture of impairment of her ability to comprehend and make decisions about complex information. Mother was not then assessed as to her capacity until 10.10.14 which was within the care proceedings and with the benefit of legal advice and representation – an important difference. Given the information from Mr Crimes on 5.9.14, Medway should immediately have taken steps in early September and not continued to rely on a section 20 agreement obtained from a vulnerable new mother with this degree of learning disability.
- Several difficulties arise for vulnerable adults in these circumstances. They are unlikely to want to appear to be difficult or obstructive and so they may well agree to section 20 arrangements that are not necessarily appropriate. Once they have agreed to such arrangements, and are in a mother and baby foster placement as in this case for example, there is a natural impetus to remain with the child and so be locked into a continued agreement to the arrangement. Most significantly, the use of section 20 agreements results in vulnerable adults coping with such circumstances without legal advice or representation.
- This was compounded here by there being no referral to adult services and no input from social workers experienced in working with vulnerable adults and who are not focussing simply on child protection issues, but are able to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on the case.
- Just over 40 days passed between the section 20 agreement and the issue of proceedings. It was in this period that the Mother was placed in an inappropriate placement, isolated from her family and increasingly deprived of the support of her husband, and moving towards the breakdown of the placement. I acknowledge that this is not the length of time experienced by the families in the recently reported cases of Re P (A child: Use of section 20)  EWFC 775 and Northamptonshire and DS  EWHC 199 (Fam), but the real significance is this: if it had been properly recognised that section 20 should not be used in these circumstances and proceedings had been issued at an earlier stage, it is likely that arguments about appropriate placements and assessments would have been raised by the parents’ legal representatives, and an inappropriate placement and lack of assessment and ultimately early separation of baby A from his parents may well have all been avoided.
We touched in the last piece on the failure to find a specialist placement for the mother, and as you can see from the passage above, no referral was made to Adult Services to get help for mother in her own right, though it must have been apparent that she needed it. There simply wasn’t proper thought given to what the mother’s difficulties meant in terms of how she should be supported, helped or treated
- I have set out in Appendix A and B to this judgment respective links to the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with disabilities which is cited as a relevant resource in the 2015 Working Together Guidance, together with limited extracts from those documents (while of course recommending that these documents should be properly considered by those involved in this case in their entirety).
- I also quote here from Mr Justice Baker’s analysis in Re X Y X (Minors)  EWHC 402 (Fam):
“132. The last thirty years have seen a radical reappraisal of the way in which people with a learning disability are treated in society. It is now recognised that they need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice. This policy is right, not only for the individual, since it gives due respect to his or her personal autonomy and human rights, but also for society at large, since it is to the benefit of the whole community that all people are included and respected as equal members of society. One consequence of this change in attitudes has been a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may, in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully. Another consequence has been the realisation that learning disability often goes undetected, with the result that persons with such disabilities are not afforded the help that they need to meet the challenges that modern life poses, particularly in certain areas of life, notably education, the workplace and the family. 133. To meet the particular difficulties encountered in identifying and helping those with a learning disability in the family, the government published in 2007 “Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability”. In their closing submissions, Miss Ball and Miss Boye contended that such good practice guidance is required because there is little evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services and practitioners in each area rarely have a good working knowledge of the policy and legislative framework within which the other is working. They submitted that local authorities frequently do not take account of the fact that, if children are to be enabled to remain in their own families, a specialist approach to a parent with a learning disability is absolutely central to any work that is done, any protection which is offered and any hope of keeping the family together. The 2007 guidance points out, inter alia, that a specialised response is often required when working with families where the parent has a learning disability; that key features of good practice in working with parents with a learning disability include (a) accessible and clear information, (b) clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures, (c) support designed to meet the parent’s needs and strengths, (d) long-term support where necessary, and (e) access to independent advocacy; that people may misunderstand or misinterpret what a professional is telling them so that it is important to check what someone understands, and to avoid blaming them for getting the wrong message; that adult and children’s services and health and social care should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children; and that, if a referral is made to children’s services and then it becomes apparent that a parent has a learning disability, a referral should also be made to adult learning disability services. The guidance also stresses that close attention should be paid to the parent’s access needs, which may include putting written material into an accessible format, avoiding the use of jargon, taking more time to explain things, and being prepared to tell parents things more than once.”
- And Wall LJ makes a relevant comments in P v. Nottingham City Council and the Official Solicitor  EWCA Civ 462:
“175. It is, I think, inevitable that in its pre-proceedings work with a child’s family, the local authority will gain information about the capacity of the child’s parents. The critical question is what it does with that information, particularly in a case where the social workers form the view that the parent in question may have learning difficulties.’ 176. At this point, in many cases, the local authority will be working with the child’s parents in an attempt to keep the family together. In my judgment, the practical answer in these circumstances is likely to be that the parent in question should be referred to the local authority’s adult learning disability team (or its equivalent) for help and advice. If that team thinks that further investigations are required, it can undertake them: it should, moreover, have the necessary contacts and resources to commission a report so that as soon as the pre-proceedings letter is written, and proceedings are issued, the legal advisers for the parent can be in a position, with public funding, to address the question of a litigation friend. It is, I think, important that judgments on capacity are not made by the social workers from the child protection team.’
181. In the pre-proceedings phase local authorities should feel free to do whatever is necessary in social work terms to assist parents who may become protected parties. My view, however, is that this is best achieved by members of the adult learning disabilities team who do not have responsibility for the children concerned.”
- It is clear that the purpose of the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance, namely to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure services and training are in place to meet the needs of parents with disabilities, has yet to be met in Medway; and there appears to have been little if any awareness of the DoH Good Practice Guidance’s recommendations shown by Medway’s practice in this case.
- In order to comply with their duties under s17 Children Act 1989 and in accordance with the good practice set out in the Guidance, this SW, her managers and this local authority should have:
- Immediately made a referral to the adult services Learning Disability team and worked together with them to benefit from their advice, training, experience and resources;
- Triggered an assessment of Mother’s abilities via the Learning Disability team;
- Ensured the appointment of an adult care SW for Mother:
- Identified and provided a specialist resource within a short period of time, in order to assess the Mother, and her and the family’s needs for support;
- As soon as the parents expressed complaints about the placement, if not before, provided her with details of how to complain;
- Investigated more fully the support options available from Father, friends and family.
The stipulations of Practice Direction 27A were followed in this case – care was taken to produce a bundle that did not exceed 350 pages in length. The problem is that despite that intention to comply with those stipulations, the culling exercise itself was problematic.
- Thus at the outset of this hearing there were significant contested findings and the most serious of final orders sought against the parents. However, it became apparent that the preparation for such a hearing had been a mess, and there were a number of evidential and procedural issues that almost forced the adjournment of an entire final hearing that would have caused significant delay and extended further the separation of parents and child. I will discuss aspects of this case management as a separate final section of this judgment.
- In short, it quickly emerged that the documents included in the 350 page PD27A compliant bundle prepared by Medway had been ‘culled’ (to use the term coined by counsel for Medway) from all the documents relating to the case. That cull had been undertaken unilaterally by Medway at the last minute and without agreement of the other parties, and they unsurprisingly considered it to be partial and incomplete. Last minute attempts were made by A’s advocate to prepare a more comprehensive bundle. Given the wide-ranging and serious counter-factual issues it was necessary to further expand the bundle during this hearing to include key missing documents. These have included the medical notes and social work case recordings for the key period of August to September 2014, but the bundle was also even missing the Mother’s statement and the Father’s first statement.
- Additionally, the evidence has now included the statements and notes of the Safeguarding Midwife Mrs Rose and the Health Visitor Ms Gibson. These were directed by DJ Gill at the IRH held on 5.2.15 to be filed by Medway by 12.2.15 and they were named in the IRH order as witnesses to be heard at the final hearing, but their evidence and notes were still outstanding at the outset of this hearing (mid-April). I made peremptory directions to ensure, in A’s interests, that this evidence was available by day 3 of this hearing. Such directions were among those that should and could have been sought and made since the IRH but long prior to the final hearing. I was also obliged to direct that missing foster carer’s notes and social work recordings from the crucial period in August and September 2014 should be provided. I did not permit Medway to file a further statement by Ms Down, supervising SW from ISP (the agency providing the foster placement), as to what she had seen, heard or done regarding the foster placement. This application was made over a week after the final hearing had begun and on the morning that the foster carer was due to give evidence. Ms Down had not been one of the named witnesses in the IRH order, and I considered it was unfair for the local authority to be attempting to add further evidence and witnesses at this very late stage in the proceedings, and would risk an unnecessary and disproportionate adjournment.
- I have read all the documents and evidence filed in this case and all the documents additionally prepared by the advocates (whom, I must add, have been of great assistance to the court in the challenging circumstances in which this final hearing came to court). I have heard evidence from Mrs Rose, Ms Gibson, Ms Anyimiah, Ms Barton, the foster carer Ms McG, Ms Stewart, the parents and the Children’s Guardian; and I have heard and read the parties’ submissions.
a) PD27A COMPLIANT BUNDLE – There is little point in Medway having created a bundle a few days before a final hearing by unilaterally selecting documents to fit the 350 page limit. Needless to say it was not considered fit for purpose by the other parties and I have already identified that it lacked crucial documents. This, and the various acts of non-compliance discussed elsewhere, betray an unacceptable failure by Medway to adequately prepare the case, to consider properly which documents would be required, to focus on the issues and the evidence, and to apply itself with care and a sense of the necessarily heavy responsibilities borne by applicant local authorities when applying for care and placement orders which have life-changing consequences for families.
b) In order to achieve a meaningful compliance with PD27A, the local authority should liaise with the other parties at an advocates’ meeting prior to the IRH to agree a provisional core bundle index. This will not only assist with the proper analysis of the issues and evidence in readiness for an IRH, and permit a proper resolution of issues at that hearing, but will also identify any further documents that may need to be the subject of an application to depart from PD27A and form a supplemental bundle, and which can be addressed and resolved at that IRH. I will be implementing directions to facilitate this approach at CMHs, but even absent such directions it is evident that a local authority applicant should be taking on this responsibility in any event.
That is the only way that the 350 page stipulation can actually work. However, that hinges on getting actual responses from the other advocates. If they have not yet read all of the source material and records, or are not going to be trial counsel, then there’s resistance to culling any document. I can see why – who wants to agree that “we don’t need the Health Visitor records” only to find later during exhaustive preparation that there’s something vital within them. And rather than argue that those particular records must go in, it is simpler just to not agree to any culling at all. Of course, if everyone came to an IRH having prepared their cross-examination and knowing all of the issues they would want to take up with witnesses at final hearing and what documents would assist, that would solve everything. But that’s not likely to happen. Preparation for an IRH IS different to preparation for a final hearing. For one thing, you’ve got all of the evidence, whereas all too often at IRH final statements from this or that party are still outstanding. For another, counsel preparing for a final hearing knows that they are actually going to be the ones asking the question, whereas at IRH the final hearing will be listed at the Court’s convenience and it will be pot-luck whether counsel at the IRH will be free to do the final hearing. [That’s a solveable problem by going back to the old system of listing a final hearing at the early stage of the case that everyone can work towards. That’s even more important given that we have to conclude cases by week 26, so only deciding to list a final hearing at week 20 is a recipe for disaster. Everyone bar HMCS thinks that is a good idea, but as HMCS don’t like it, it won’t happen]