This is the hottest of hot potatoes that can be thrown at a Judge at the moment. (And for me, in writing about it, because it involves Brussels II and Slovakia, which always irks my commentator Andrew when I say “Slovakian” at any point rather than Slovak or the Slovak Republic. For this particular occasion, any use of Slovakian is taken entirely from the judgment itself, and is not my own creation)
Re N and P Children 2016
The children concerned had been born in England. At the time of the decision, one was just over two and the other just over one.
It is alleged that the parents were the victims of people trafficking. The mother’s account is that on arrival at Dover they escaped from the traffickers and travelled across England, staying at various locations, but ending up in Bournemouth.
Care proceedings were taken as a result of domestic violence / disturbance incidents. in early 2015, the parents were evicted from their accommodation and subsequently returned to Slovakia and have had no further contact since that date. Their present whereabouts are unknown although it is understood that the mother has given birth to another child.
The parents did not play any further part in the proceedings, and their whereabouts is unknown.
- On 19th January 2015, HH Judge Bond made a further case management order directing the local authority to write to the Slovakian Embassy to inform them of the proceedings and invite a representative to the following hearing and further directed the local authority to liaise with the Embassy to ensure that any independent social worker instructed to undertake an assessment of the grandmother in Slovakia received appropriate clearance. In a series of emails, the local authority was informed that the Slovakian authorities would not support an English independent social worker undertaking the assessment and instead offered the services of the relevant local authority in Slovakia to prepare a report. At the next hearing on 11th February, which so far as I am aware was not attended by a representative of the Slovakian Embassy, the court gave directions facilitating the assessment of the grandmother by the Slovakian authorities. The assessment was duly arranged by the Central Office of Labour Social Affairs and Family and carried by social workers in the branch of that office local to the area where the grandmother lives.
- In March 2015, the Central Office indicated that the paternal grandmother was willing to care for the children, but the final assessment by those authorities revealed that there had been serious concerns about the grandmother’s care of her own children, including allegations of neglect, and the unexplained death of a baby some years earlier. The condition of the grandmother’s home was also described as unsuitable. The assessment concluded that the grandmother was an irresponsible person who had neglected her obligations to care for her own children and recommended that neither N nor P should be placed in her care.
That was then leaving the Court with two options – to make Care Orders and Placement Orders, with a plan of adoption – or to transfer the case to “the Slovakian authorities ” as per their request.
Those authorities had set out what they would do with the children if they were returned.
- The recent letter from Ms Marcinova has clarified the plans of the Slovakian Authorities for the care of the children, if they are sent to that country. Ms Marcinova stated that “the facility for enforcement of court decisions is a children’s home” which “temporarily replaces a child’s natural family environment or a substitute family environment.” She explained that children’s homes provided care by means of two types of organisational arrangements, namely autonomous groups or professional families. An autonomous group, in which care is provided to a pre-determined number of children, is set up in a separate family house or in a separate section of the children’s home. Professional families are also organisational units of children’s homes. A professional parent is an employee of a children’s home; he or she takes care of 1 to 3 children in a family house or flat provided by the children’s home, or in a property owned by the professional parent. The professional parent has all the powers and responsibilities normally vested in birth parent, although no legal relationship is created between the professional parent and the child. Ms Marcinova stressed that the care provided by a professional family is not the same as substitute family care, but it did provide an opportunity for the provision of individual care to a child placed in institutional care by decision of a court.
- Ms Marcinova confirmed that the placement of a child institutional care, whether it be in an autonomous group or in a professional family, was regarded as a temporary solution, the aim being to return the child to its original family as soon as possible provided the family was able to resume care. In the alternative, if this was not possible, the child would be placed in a substitute family – foster care or adoption.
- Upon arriving at the children’s home, a child may first be placed in an autonomous group where they can meet and interact with the professional parent identified as a potential carer. An assessment process is carried out, which may include psychological assessment and counselling. Once the child has been placed with the professional family, there are regular checks and assessments, and the children’s home and other agencies co-operate with the biological family in drawing up a joint plan of social work with the aim of facilitating the child’s return to the natural family
- Ms Marcinova stated that a secure placement at the children’s home at Renetske Hamre is available for N and P. They could be placed together with a professional parent, in a flat with above-average modern furnishings and equipment, situated in the centre of the town with good access to all relevant facilities. The professional parent identified is Slovak. Ms Marcinova advised that she does not speak English but would be able to communicate with the aid of a dictionary. If necessary, the children could be helped by an interpreter during the adjustment phase. After placement, the authorities would cooperate in providing support to and mobilising the biological family with the aim of securing substitute care for the children within the family. A decision to place the children within the family would be a matter for a court.
The Court therefore had to decide whether the proceedings should be transferred under Brussels II, where that would be the plan, or kept in England, where the only concievable plan was adoption.
- In analysing the options, the welfare of the children is my paramount consideration and I must assess the relative merits of the options by reference to the statutory welfare checklist.
- The advantage of moving the children to Slovakia would be that it would provide an opportunity of either being placed with members of their birth family or having greater contact with the family. It would also provide them with the best opportunity of growing up with an understanding and experience of their culture of origin. Cultural needs are important, but in my judgment in this case they are manifestly outweighed by the children’s emotional needs for stability and security. At present, their needs – physical and emotional – are being met very successfully by their current carers with whom they have formed a close attachment. Given the disruption they endured in the first months of their lives, when they were neglected and ill-treated by their parents, their future security and stability are vital. A move to Slovakia would cause a sudden interruption to their lives, however sensitive and skilful the professional parent to whose care they were entrusted. Such a move would inevitably cause great distress and, I am satisfied, a high degree of emotional harm to two children who have already suffered significantly in this regard.
- In short, in terms of the statutory welfare checklist, I conclude that in this case the physical and emotional needs of the children, the capacity of their current carers to meet those needs, the adverse consequences of a change in their circumstances, and the very strong probability of harm they would suffer if moved to Slovakia, all outweigh their needs for maintaining a relationship with their birth family and the opportunity to grow up within their culture of origin. In any event, I am satisfied that their need to acquire and maintain an understanding of their culture will to a very substantial extent be met by their current carers, who have been selected carefully for this very purpose.
- The disadvantages of a placement in Slovakia in this case are in fact so great that I do not regard it as a realistic option. To my mind, the only realistic option is that they remain in their current placement. The realistic options are therefore long-term foster care or adoption. Having regard to the factors already identified and all relevant matters in the statutory welfare checklists, in particular their need for stability and security, the balance plainly comes down in favour of adoption. I take account of the likely effect on the children (throughout their lives) of ceasing to be members of their birth family. In my judgment, any disadvantages are outweighed by the emotional security they will acquire as adopted persons.
- I therefore accept the clear recommendation of the local authority and guardian. I repeat my expression of gratitude to the Slovakian authorities, and in particular Ms Marcinova, for their careful and thorough response. Given the particular needs and circumstances of these children, and the length of time since they were removed from their family, I do not consider that placing them in temporary care of a professional parent in Slovakia, with the prospect of a further move in due course, to be a realistic option. Although long-term foster care in this country would in theory enable the children to maintain relations with their birth family, the reality is that these children have been abandoned by their parents and such links as exist with the birth family are extremely tenuous. The children are currently in an excellent placement where they have thrived and are being well cared for. Their carers have links with eastern Europe, in particular Slovakia and Hungary and are well qualified to maintain and nurture the children’s sense of identity.
- It is manifestly clear that this is a case where only an adoption order will fully meet the needs of these children. I therefore approve the local authority care plan and make a care order in respect of both children. I conclude that the children’s welfare requires them to be placed for adoption, and for that reason dispense with the parents consent to such a placement and make a placement order in respect of both children.
[What doesn’t occur in this case, which could have occurred, is the Hungarian authorities putting in their own claim for the children. The children were born in England and have lived here for their entire yet short lives. The mother was born in Hungary. The father was born in the Slovak Republic. The English Courts have had a hell of a job trying to decide between two competing jurisdictions. We are surely going to get a case soon which involves three competing jurisdictions. Or four. What are we going to do with the first children who live in England, but were born in Ghana, and have a Lithuanian mother and a Peruvian father?]
Cases like this tend to be fact specific – the balance might well have tipped if the parents whereabouts were known, and they or the extended family might have continued to have contact. As it stood, the Judge was balancing cultural issues against the benefits of permanence, and decided that in this case, permanance prevailed (though in this specific case the children were fortunate enough to have carers who could meet the cultural needs). Different facts could result in a very different outcome.