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Category Archives: adoption

ADMs apple

 

What happens when a Judge disagrees with an ADM?

 

Well, if the ADM decides the plan is adoption, the Judge just refuses the placement order, very simple.

 

What happens when the ADM decides the plan is NOT adoption and so there’s no placement order application, but the Judge thinks adoption is the right outcome? What then?

[There will be no apples in this post, I just needed a title.   I don’t believe anyone pronounces ADM as a word rather than three letters. Would love to hear from anyone who has been pronouncing it like “Adam” in Fonejacker style… But imagine the case really being about choice and temptation and consequences, if it makes you feel less tenuous]

The Court of Appeal in Re TS (Children)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2019/742.html

 

decided an appeal in which (bear with me)

 

The Judge wanted adoption

The Local Authority didn’t

By the time of the appeal hearing, the mother also preferred adoption to long-term fostering

The appeal was granted even though the Court of Appeal dismissed all five of the LA’s grounds

 

 

So, that’s something.

 

On 21st November 2018 at the ‘final’ hearing

 

 

 

 

4.In relation to the middle child, J, there was substantial dispute on the expert and professional evidence concerning his care plan. As is well known, the statutory scheme, to which I will turn shortly, requires a local authority to apply for a Placement for Adoption order if it is satisfied that the child ‘ought to be placed for adoption’ [ACA 2002, s 22(1)(d)]. The local authority cannot be so “satisfied” unless an agency decision-maker [“ADM”] has so determined.

 

 

5.During the course of the hearing the judge heard oral evidence from the ADM who had concluded that J’s welfare would best be served by a long-term fostering placement and had therefore not declared herself satisfied that J ought to be adopted. In reaching her decision the ADM had placed substantial weight upon the evidence of the local authority social worker which evaluated the attachment between J and his older brother B as being of importance.

 

 

6.The local authority, who sought to prioritise his relationship with the elder boy, B, who was his full sibling (in contrast to the younger child, K, who has a different father), favoured long-term fostering for J. In contrast, the evidence of an independent social worker who had been instructed to assess the children’s attachments to their parents and siblings, together with the children’s guardian, advised that J’s welfare required adoption, if possible with his younger half-sibling, K.

 

 

7.The judge, in a lengthy judgment, having reviewed all of the relevant evidence, moved on to conduct his welfare evaluation with respect to J. In doing so the judge applied the welfare checklist in CA 1989, s 1(3) together with the adoption welfare check-list in ACA 2002, s 1(4).

 

 

8.The judge concluded that the assessment of attachment conducted by the social worker was both superficial and “fatally flawed”. The judge stated that he “much preferred” the evidence of the independent social worker and the children’s guardian.

 

 

9.As the focus of this appeal is upon the consequences of the judge’s welfare determination, rather than its internal merits, and as the conclusion of this court is that the issues concerning J’s welfare now need to be re-determined by a different judge, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to descend to any greater detail.

 

 

10.Insofar as the ADM had based her assessment on the local authority social worker’s own assessment, which the judge had found to be flawed, for that reason, and for others identified by the judge, he concluded that the local authority should be invited to reconsider the care plan for J.

 

 

11.At the conclusion of his judgment, and following a full evaluation within the structure of the adoption welfare checklist in ACA 2002, s 1(4), the judge expressed his conclusion with respect to J (at paragraph 146) as follows:

 

 

 

“This has been the most difficult and most contentious part of this hearing. I am satisfied that J cannot be cared for within his birth family. The decision is then whether he should be placed in long-term foster care or given the opportunity of being placed for adoption. The local authority has not satisfied me that the current amended care plan for long-term fostering best meets his welfare needs throughout his life. Standing back, looking at the whole of the evidence and considering the arguments that have been advanced on each side, I reach the conclusion, that his lifelong welfare interest is best met by his being placed for adoption if possible and if that is managed with K, then that is the best outcome of all. It should be noted, that this was mother’s secondary position. I therefore invite the local authority, to reconsider their position in respect of J and to make a placement application. In the meantime, I will continue an interim care order with his remaining in the current foster placement until the case can be returned to me. I will indicate that if such a placement application is made then I will make the same and dispense with the parents’ consent. If, the local authority do not take up that invitation, then the Guardian has already stated that she will consider the question of judicial review. That process is likely to cause further unwelcome delay for J’s plan for permanency. Therefore, care will need to be taken.”

12.The judge therefore extended the interim care order with respect to J for a short time to enable the local authority to reconsider its care plan for J

 

 

The ADM had been present for the judgment and was also provided with a note of it (the transcript hadn’t been obtained in time). The ADM still considered that adoption was not the right plan for the child and thus did not authorise a placement order application.  (There’s considerable complaint in the judgment that the revised ADM statement did not really grapple with the judicial criticism of the social work assessment and his conclusions about the sibling relationship, so hadn’t been a live reconsideration of the judgment, but just a  ‘we’ve thought about it, no’ response)

 

At the next hearing on 14th December 2018, which ought to have been a dialogue between Judge and parties as to “well, what next?” (i.e making the Care Order with plan of long-term fostering, or making further ICO to allow judicial review challenge, or asking ADM to think further about x y and z) instead the LA sought to appeal that judicial decision, and the Court granted permission, so nothing else really happened.

 

 

The LA submitted five grounds of appeal (which, spoiler, I already told you they lost on all of them but won the appeal)

23.In prosecuting the local authority’s appeal Miss Henke and Mr Rees rely upon five grounds:

 

 

 

i) That the judge erred in concluding that he was in a far better position than the ADM to determine the best outcome for J, rather than considering whether the ADM’s decision could be successfully challenged on public law grounds.

 

ii) That the judge erred in failing to reconsider his decision in the light of the ADM’s December witness statement which took account of the judge’s determination and which cannot be properly challenged on public law grounds.

 

iii) Parliament has given the decision to determine whether a child “ought to be placed for adoption” to the local authority rather than the Court.

 

iv) As the decision to apply for a Placement for Adoption order is one solely within the determination of the local authority, and as the ADM had reconsidered her decision in a manner that is not open to challenge on public law grounds, the judge was in error in continuing to refuse to endorse the care plan and make a final care order.

 

v) Given that the s 31 statutory threshold criteria were satisfied and the court determined that J could not return to the care of his family, the court should have made a final care order on 20 November 2018.

 

 

 

Broadly, the Court of Appeal say that the judicial decision that he wanted the LA to consider changing their care plan to adoption falls into line with the authorities on change of care plan generally or change of order to say, Care Order at home.

 

 

They cited the recent case of Re T 2018

 

46.More recently, in Re T (A Child) (Placement Order) [2018] EWCA Civ 650; [2018] 2 FLR 926, this court (McFarlane, Peter Jackson and Newey LJJ) considered a stand-off between a judge, who favoured placement of an 18 month old child with his grandmother, and a local authority which favoured placement for adoption. At the conclusion of the process in the Family Court, the judge had reluctantly concluded that a placement order should be made in the light of the local authority’s refusal to change its care plan. The grandmother appealed. The appeal was allowed and the case was remitted for re-hearing. After reviewing the authorities, and having noted that the judgment of Ryder LJ in Re W appears in ‘markedly more imperative’ terms than that of Thorpe LJ in Re CH 20 years earlier, Peter Jackson LJ, giving the leading judgment, continued:

 

 

 

“[42]     Although they touch upon the same subject, the decision of the Court of Appeal in Re CH (Care or Interim Care Order) [1998] 1 FLR 402 does not appear to have been cited in Re W. For my part, I would view the two decisions as seeking to make essentially the same point, though the tone in Re W is markedly more imperative. I particularly refer to the observations that it is not open to a local authority within proceedings to decline to accept the court’s evaluation of risk (para [81]) and that a local authority cannot refuse to provide lawful and reasonable services that would be necessary to support the court’s decision (para [83]). I would agree with these propositions to the extent that the court’s assessment of risk is sovereign within proceedings and that a local authority cannot refuse to provide a service if by doing so it would unlawfully breach the rights of the family concerned or if its decision-making process is unlawful on public law grounds. However, the family court cannot dictate to the local authority what its care plan is to be, any more than it can dictate to any other party what their case should be. What the court can, however, expect from a local authority is a high level of respect for its assessments of risk and welfare, leading in almost every case to those assessments being put into effect. For, as has been said before, any local authority that refused to act upon the court’s assessments would face an obvious risk of its underlying decisions being declared to be unlawful through judicial review. That must particularly be so where decisions fail to take account of the court’s assessments. Or where, as in this case, there is an impasse, there may have to be an appeal. But in the end, experience shows that the process of mutual respect spoken of by Thorpe LJ will almost inevitably lead to an acceptable outcome.

 

[43]     It is clear from these decisions that the court has both a power and a duty to assert its view of risk and welfare by whatever is the most effective means. I cannot agree with the submission made on the behalf of the guardian – ‘some judges might have pursued the matter further with the agency decision maker, but this judge cannot be said to have been wrong not to do so’. As McFarlane LJ remarked during argument, that amounts to a lottery, depending upon the inclinations of one judge as against another. The obligation upon the court is not merely to make its assessment, but to see it through. That is a matter of principle, and not one of individual judicial inclination.

 

[44]     The present case is somewhat more complicated than Re CH or Re W. Here, as Ms Fottrell notes, the judge’s preferred plan was dependent upon a separate step being taken by the local authority within a different statutory framework. Without the grandmother being approved as a foster carer, it would not be lawful to place Alan with her under a care order. I therefore examine the law as it applies to the approval of connected persons as foster carers.”

 

And decided

 

 

 

 

48.Firstly, the approach of a court to a potential impasse with a local authority on an important element in the care plan for a child has been well established for over 20 years. Insofar as there has been movement, it has been in the direction of emphasising the role of the court during proceedings (see Ryder LJ in Re W), but, in like manner to the approach taken by Peter Jackson LJ in Re T (with whom I agreed in that case), I consider that when, as here, the focus is upon the care plan after the proceedings are concluded, there is a need for mutual respect and engagement between the court and a local authority.

 

 

49.The key authority in the canon of cases on this point is, in my view, Re S and W; subsequent authorities have confirmed the clear statement of the law given in the judgment of the court given by Wall LJ. Of particular relevance to the present appeal is the passage at paragraph 34:

 

 

 

“Had the local authority (as it should have done) accepted his invitation to reconsider after reading his judgment and then restored the case to the judge’s list, it might well then have been the case that the judge was faced with either making the care order sought by the local authority with its unacceptable care plan or making no order. But the judge had not reached that point, and was – in our view wholly properly – striving to avoid it.”

 

And at paragraph 35:

 

“There needs to be mutual respect and understanding for the different role and perspective which each has in the process. We repeat: the shared objective should be to achieve a result which is in the best interests of the child.”

 

 

I have a difficulty with this. On the one hand, yes, a Judge deciding the case must be able to say “I don’t like any of the options that are before me and I want further discussions about whether there may be another way forward”.   On the other, what then is the point of the Agency Decision Maker?

 

We all know in cases that the involvement of an Agency Decision Maker in deciding whether or not a Local Authority can apply for a Placement Order and have adoption as the plan for the child adds 2-3 weeks to the timetable and requires production of a lengthy document in the form of a Child Permanence Report. That’s because the statute and regulations set up a system whereby social workers could not themselves decide that adoption was the plan, it needed to be a plan which was supported by the Agency Decision Maker (earlier after the Adoption Panel heard the case but that requirement was removed around the time 26 weeks came into our thinking).

 

Well once the Agency Decision Maker is not a gate-keeper who decides whether an application is put before a Judge or not, why not just have a social worker make an application for Placement Order, and the Judge decide it?  You either have separation of powers or you don’t.

But the Court of Appeal here basically say that the Judge can properly and legally invite the LA and ADM to reconsider and ask them to put in a Placement Order application.  What happens when and if the ADM says no still (currently) remains unknowable.  Judicial review isn’t an easy solution here. Particularly if the ADM is making a decision with which others might not agree, but is not for judicial review purposes a decision that no reasonable ADM could ever take.

I think in part, that’s why the LA were arguing that unless the ADM decision of long-term fostering was ‘wednesbury unreasonable’ (a decision that no reasonable ADM could come to), then the Court should move on and consider Care Order against Supervision Order and no order, and put adoption out of its minds. The Court of Appeal reject that, and say the Judge was entitled to ask the ADM to think again.

 

 

The Court of Appeal, as I said at the outset, granted the appeal, despite rejecting all five of the LA’s grounds of appeal. And it was, in part, because the Court on 18th December granted permission to appeal rather than continuing the process (which seems (a) harsh on the Judge and (b) a bit have your cake and eat it on the part of the LA, who win the appeal because they wrongly persuaded a Judge to give them permission)

 

 

 

 

56.Although this is not strictly how the Local Authority formulated its grounds of appeal, I am driven to the conclusion that the judge was in error in conducting the December hearing as he did. No objection was taken to the point being put in this way, and I am satisfied that it was fully ventilated at the appeal hearing. In stating that conclusion I do not intend to be critical of the judge, who plainly found himself in an unwelcome situation and who may have been bounced into a speedy decision when the oral application for permission to appeal was made at the beginning of the hearing. There was, however, as I have stated, no basis upon which permission to appeal the November determination could have been granted. Further, it was, in my view, premature for the judge to hold that there was an impasse between the court and the local authority before he had undertaken a further evaluation process in the light of the ADM’s statement. If, as may have been the case, following such an evaluation the court were to conclude that the ADM had failed to engage with the judge’s reasoning, a further adjournment for reconsideration by the local authority may have been justified. In short, difficult though the situation undoubtedly was, the December hearing should have run its course rather than being terminated before it had really commenced by the grant of permission to appeal the November order. In coming to this conclusion I have the words of Wall LJ in Re S and W very much in mind:

 

 

 

“[43]     As will be plainly apparent from what we have already said, the judge in the instant case had not reached the point identified by Balcombe LJ in Re S and D. The local authority’s reliance on this decision is accordingly, in our judgment, misplaced.”

 

But the other basis for granting the appeal was this

 

 

57.Fifthly, and separately from any of the grounds of appeal raised by the local authority, I am concerned by the clear statement that appears in the judge’s November judgment concerning his approach were a placement for adoption application to be made:

 

 

 

“I will indicate that if such a placement application is made then I will make the same and dispense with the parents’ consent.”

58.I consider that the father has made good his appeal on the basis that the judge was in error in stating a clear predetermined conclusion on the question of whether the parents’ consent should be dispensed with under ACA 2002, s 52 in the event that, in future, the local authority applied for an order authorising placement for adoption. Although it is plain that the option of adoption was very much on the agenda for the November hearing, given the opinions of the independent social worker and the guardian, no formal application had been made and the father had not expressed a view with respect to consent or been called to give evidence on the issue. Further, it is apparent that no submissions were made to the judge that went beyond the concept of adoption and expressly addressed issues of consent or the formal making of a placement order.

 

 

And so the case has gone back for re-hearing, and all of us have now learned that even where the LA don’t make an application for a Placement Order the Court can still ask them to reconsider after giving judgment at final hearing but before making final orders. That may be music to the ears of some Guardians.

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Assessing family members where parent doesn’t put them forward or objects

 

In this case, Cobb J was asked to determine an interesting question. In a set of care proceedings, if the Local Authority were aware of extended family members but the parents didn’t put them forward as carers  did the LA have a duty to assess them?  And, given father objected to it, did the LA have the power to talk to the family without his consent?

 

RE H (Care and Adoption : Assessment of wider family) 2019

 

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2019/10.html

 

Set-up

 

In public law proceedings under Part IV of the Children Act 1989 (‘ CA 1989 ’), social work assessments are commonly undertaken of members of the subject child’s wider family or friends who are proposed as potential carers in the event that the child cannot be safely placed with parents.  The issue which arises in this case is whether a local authority is required, by statute or otherwise, to notify wider family members of the existence of the subject child, and/or assess them, when they are not proposed by parents as potential alternative carers, and where the parents (or either of them) specifically do not wish the wider family to be involved.

 

In the particular case, the child was 5 months old, there had been two previous children removed. The parents were fighting the case and striving to care for the child. There was a long history of parental substance abuse and alcohol abuse and some allegations of domestic violence.

Some of the extended family knew of the child’s existence, some didn’t. None were put forward by the parents as potential carers if the parents were ruled out by the Court.

The LA  Agency Decision Maker (who decides whether the LA can put forward a plan of adoption ) wanted to know whether any of the extended family were an option to care for this child.

The father said that none of his family would be in a position to care for the child, and he did not want them burdened with knowing that there was a child when they could do nothing about it.

 

So the LA wanted to talk to his family to see if any of them could care for the child, father objected to them doing so.

 

There were a few relevant authorities, but most of them dealt with there not being a duty on the LA in a case where the child is relinquished (given up for adoption) to approach family members or rule them out (although if there’s a genuinely realistic option it ought to be explored).  The Court here was being asked to decide whether to extend that principle from agreed adoption to non-consensual adoption cases, or whether different principles applied.

It being a Cobb J judgment, it contains a beautiful and clear analysis of all of the pertinent law and guidance.  It is a short judgment, so I recommend reading it.

 

I’m going to race ahead to the conclusion though.

 

Firstly, and importantly, Cobb J considered the  submissions of all parties that there was an assumption of a duty on a LA to explore family members who were not actively being put forward  (where they did not know about the child) and had some doubts that the case law established such a duty.

 

The submissions of all the parties proceeded upon an assumption that the local authority has a general duty to assess the wider family in these circumstances.  In this regard, I was referred to the decision of Theis J in Royal Borough of Greenwich v Adopters [2018] EWFC 87, in which she said this at [11]:

What this case has highlighted is the critical importance of a local authority having effective systems in place from an early stage in care proceedings to ensure that the wider maternal/paternal families are considered as possible placement options for the children . Whilst it is recognised that the parents should put forward any names they want to be considered, that does not absolve the local authority of the enquiries they should independently be making . The continued retort by the local authority that the parents had failed to put anyone forward failed to recognise these are parents who failed to provide the basic care for their children or provide basic co-operation within the care proceedings, this local authority should have undertaken their own enquiries . ” (emphasis by underlining added).

16.               I do not read Theis J’s comments as establishing, or specifically referring to, any free-standing duty to assess wider family who are unaware of the existence of the child.  Indeed, the specific issue arising for determination here caused me to question from where counsel’s assumption about the obligation derives, how far it extends, and what policy or other guidance informs how far it should be applied. 

 

Cobb J looked at a piece of guidance on Initial Viability Assessments, published by the Family Rights Group.  (I’ll declare an interest here, as I had a teeny-weeny part in the drafting of this. Honestly, teeny-weeny)

 

Important guidance published in February 2017 by the Family Rights Group (FRG) (‘ Initial Family & Friends Care Assessment: A Good Practice Guide ’), with endorsement from, among others, the Family Justice Council, Cafcass, Association of Directors of Social services, and the Association of Lawyers for Children, makes this point somewhat more strongly (para.1.1, page 5):

“Where a child cannot remain in the care of their parents, research has consistently found that children placed in kinship care generally do as well, if not better, than children in unrelated foster care, particularly with regard to the stability of the placement. So it is essential that if a child may not be able to live safely with their parents, practitioners identify potential carers from within the child’s network of family and friends and determine whether they will be able to provide safe care to meet the child’s needs until they reach adulthood. ” (emphasis added).

27.               The FRG authors speak further of the importance of enabling wider family members to contribute to decision-making, including deciding when the child cannot remain safely with their parents (para.2.2, page 12):

“Where a child cannot live with their parents, it is the duty of local authorities to work in partnership with parents and relatives to identify whether there is anyone within the child’s network of family and friends who can provide the child with safe and appropriate care . Parents may suggest potential alternative carers and some family members may come forward themselves once they become aware there is a possibility that the child may not be able to remain in the parents’ care. In some cases local authorities may be faced with a large number of potential carers. In these situations, it is helpful to ask the parents and family and kinship network to identify a smaller number of carers who they feel would be most appropriate to be assessed to care for the child.  Family group conferences are not a legal requirement; however, they are recognised as a valuable process for involving the family early so that the family can provide support to enable the child to remain at home or begin the process of identifying alternative permanence options.” (emphasis by underlining added).

 

The conclusion

 

[I am such a sad geek that I was actually on tenterhooks here!]

 

Conclusion

44.               The simple but not unimportant issue raised in this case has given me cause to conduct a reasonably widely-drawn review of statute, guidance and case-law. Drawing the strands of this review together, I have reached the conclusion that I should accede to the application of the local authority.  I propose to give the father an opportunity to inform his parents himself of the existence of H.  He should be supported in this exercise by a social worker or by the Children’s Guardian, should he ask for it.  If he chooses not to notify his family himself, I shall authorise the local authority to do so.

 

First, repeating a point made earlier (see [22]), none of the provisions of statute, regulations or rules to which I have referred, impose any absolute duty on either the local authority or the Children’s Guardian, or indeed the court, to inform or consult members of the extended family about the existence of a child or the plans for the child’s adoption in circumstances such as arise here.  However, the ethos of the CA 1989 is plainly supportive of wider family involvement in the child’s life, save where that outcome is not consistent with their welfare .

 

Consequently, the court, and/or the local authority or adoption agency, is enabled to exercise its broad judgment on the facts of each individual case, taking into account all of the family circumstances, but attaching primacy to the welfare of the subject child. 

49.               In exercising that broad discretion, I would suggest that the following be borne in mind.  There will be cases (if, for instance, there is a history of domestic or family abuse) where it would be unsafe to the child or the parent for the wider family to be involved in the life of the child, or even made aware of the existence of the child.  There will be cases where cultural or religious considerations may materially impact on the issue of disclosure.  There will be further cases where the mental health or well-being of the parent or parents may be imperilled if disclosure were to be ordered, and this may weigh heavy in the evaluation.  But in exercising judgment – whether that be by the local authority, adoption agency or court – I am clear that the wider family should not simply be ignored on the say-so of a parent.  Generally, the ability and/or willingness of the wider family to provide the child with a secure environment in which to grow ( section 1(4)(f)(ii) ACA 2002 ) should be carefully scrutinised, and the option itself should be “fully explored” (see [28]).  The approach taken by Sumner J in the Birmingham case more than a decade ago, to the effect that “cogent and compelling” grounds should exist before the court could endorse an arrangement for the despatch of public law proceedings while the wider family remained ignorant of the existence of the child (see [29] above), remains, in my judgment, sound.  This approach is in keeping with the key principles of the CA 1989 and the ACA 2002 that children are generally best looked after within their own family, save where that outcome is not consistent with their welfare, and that a care order on a plan for adoption is appropriate only where no other course is possible in the child’s interests (see Re B (A child) and Re B-S ).

50.               As the DfE and FRG and associated guidance makes clear (see [25]-[27] above), good social work practice requires the early identification of family members who may be able to provide safe care to meet the child’s needs, and/or contribute to the decision making in respect of the child where there are child protection or welfare concerns; the FRG rightly refers to a “duty” on local authorities to work in partnership with parents and relatives.  It was this exercise which Holman J in Z County Council v R [2001] described when, at p.375 ibid., he referred to the fact that “there should normally be wide consultation with, and consideration of, the extended family; and that should only be dispensed with after due and careful consideration ” (my emphasis by underlining).

 

 

The line of ‘relinquished’ baby cases discussed above ([33] et seq .), where the court is prepared to offer discreet and confidential arrangements for the adoption of a child, all emphasise the exceptionality of such arrangements; in those cases, the court is only ever likely to authorise the withholding of information in order to give effect to a clear and reasoned request by a parent to have nothing to do with the child, usually from the moment of birth.  In those cases, the local authority, adoption agency and the court seek to maintain the co-operation of the parent in making consensual arrangements for the child (a key feature of the decision in Z County Council v R (Holman J)) which is greatly to the child’s advantage. 

 

 

 

So not a duty in the ‘statutory’ sense, but unless there are cogent and compelling reasons to not explore the extended family  /  due and careful consideration of the reasons not to explore them, the Court should be very careful about proceeding with a plan of adoption.  That does seem that it is not as simple as the Local Authority saying “well, the parents didn’t put anyone forward”

 

The judgment doesn’t really deal with the power the LA has to share information with the wider family (after all, approaching Auntie Beryl to see if she can care for Little Timmy is inherently telling her that there are reasons why mum and dad aren’t able to) and the GDPR aspects.  In this case, that’s solved by the Court authorising it, and it may be that this is the best solution – to float that there IS an Auntie Beryl who the LA would want to explore and either seek parental consent to do so or have a direction from the Court.

 

 

Separating twins

 

 

There’s a notorious study from the 1960s, in which an American organisation, the Louise Wise Adoption Agency under the request of a child psychologist, Peter Neubauer, placed twins in separate adoption placements, with a number of different twin pairs, so they could be followed up by psychologists in later life to see whether they, as adults, had similarities (which would give credence to nature / genetic factors being the most dominant) or differences (which would give credence to nurture/environmental factors being the bigger influence on children). It’s the sort of thing that makes us shudder now.  And rightly makes us think that separation of twins is a huge, huge life-changing decision, never to be made lightly.

 

This case isn’t as bad as that, because the separation came about more by a combination of incompetence, lack of thought and dogma that adoption is the best thing always even if it means splitting twins, rather than just carelessly using children as unwitting experiments, but it is still bad.

 

Readers may remember Keehan J opening a can of judicial whup-ass on Herefordshire just before Christmas. After I finished writing THAT post, I found this judgment, which….well. You’ll see.

BT & GT (Children : twins – adoption) [2018] EWFC 76 (29 November 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/76.html

 

1.I am concerned with two children, BT and GT who are twins who were born in 2010. It is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances in which it would be considered appropriate to separate twins and place them for adoption by different prospective adopters. This is, however, what occurred in this case and I have before me an application by a couple, whom I shall refer to as A and B, to adopt BT and an application by a single carer whom I shall refer to as C, to adopt GT.

 

 

2.As I shall set out in some detail, I am satisfied and find that the court is in the position of considering applications to adopt the twins in two separate homes because of the incompetence and serial failings of the local authority, Herefordshire Council, and the egregious behaviour of some of its former staff.

 

  1. The failings of this local authority have been utterly appalling. Whilst I accept the assurances of the director of children’s services and of the assistant director that significant and substantial reforms will be made and effected, no child should ever again be cared for in the manner BT and GT have had to endure at the hands of this local authority nor suffer the woeful lack of rational care planning. Further no prospective adopter should ever again have to endure the treatment meted out to A, B and C in this case.

 

This was a case in which twins born in 2010, were made the subject of Care Orders and Placement Orders (authorising them to be placed for adoption) in 2015 – the plan approved by the Court at that stage being that the Local Authority would search for an adoptive placement for the twins together for nine months, and if one was not found to search for a long term foster placement for them together.

 

 

 

 

22.On 19th March 2015 HHJ Hooper QC made all five children the subject of care orders and made placement orders in respect of BT and GT. Their court approved care plans provided for them to be placed together with a search being made for nine months for an adoptive placement and if the search was unsuccessful the following three months would be devoted to seeking a long-term foster placement for them together. There was no question of the local authority proposing, still less the court approving, a plan for the twins to be separated and placed separately whether in adoptive placements or long-term foster care.

 

 

23.On 10th April 2016, however, a team manager made the decision to place the twins separately for adoption. This plan was endorsed by a LAC Review held the following day. I shall return to consider these decisions in greater detail later in this judgment.

 

We aren’t given a huge amount of background as to the decision to make Care Orders in 2015. We know that the twins father was convicted of multiple sexual offences against children and that he is also serving a 21 year prison sentence. (para 5) and we know that 5 children were removed from the mother and made the subjects of Care Orders and that there were issues of neglect, domestic abuse and alcohol abuse.(paras 17-22)

 

The Judge, Keehan J, was faced at this hearing, with applications by two different adopters to adopt one of the twins each. By the time of the hearing, the children had been in those placements for over a year. The Judge had to decide whether to grant the adoption orders, meaning that the two children would permanently live apart, or to refuse them and move the children from those separate placements into presumably a foster placement together. Understandably the Court was more than vexed at being placed in this position after the event, when it would have been very unlikely to have sanctioned separation of the twins in the first place.

 

Let’s look at why that happened.

 

As we know, the social work team manager took the decision on 10th April 2016 that the children should be placed separately for adoption. Their foster placement, a joint one, broke down on 28th April 2016.

 

 

 

26.The allocated social worker undertook a sibling attachment assessment. The report, approved by the then team manager, is dated 7th July 2016: some three months after the decision had been made to place the twins separately for adoption. It is asserted by the local authority that the social worker, whom I shall refer to as D, gave an oral report on this issue but I do not know when nor to whom this oral report was given. Quite astonishingly and wholly contrary to good social work practice, there is no note or minute of the manager’s decision made on 10th April. Therefore, I do not know what material he considered when making his decision and I do not know the reasons or basis for the same. Thus, I do not know whether he considered the oral report of D. Moreover, I have had no explanation as to why it took D three months to write up her assessment.

 

 

27.I will return to this so-called assessment later in this judgment, but I note in the summary of her report D asserted:

 

 

 

“Having considered the legal, policy, moral and best practice guidance, it is essential that GT and BT have the opportunity of an adoptive family.

 

GT and BT’s care plans have remained to be one of adoption (jointly placed) for a considerable period of time. Over the period of 12 months, family finding attempts have not been successful.”

 

This does not reflect the court’s approved care plan which was for a 9-month search for an adoptive placement together to be followed, if unsuccessful, a by three-month search for a long-term foster placement together. I have been given no explanation as to why or how D in her assessment completely misrepresented the care plan: whether it was deliberate or just an error I do not know.

28.I am satisfied that the prospective adopters were unaware of the flawed decision making process relating to the separation of the twins until these proceedings seeking adoption orders in respect of BT and GT had been commenced.

 

GT was placed with prospective adopters in March 2017, BT in May 2017. The Local Authority ended contact between them, there being just two sessions of contact for twins (aged at that time seven) in a YEAR.

 

 

 

35.They did not then see each other again for seven and a half months until there was a contact visit on 27th October 2017 and then no contact for over four months until a visit took place on 4th March 2018. I do not understand how, why or when the hugely important decision was taken to so severely curtail, indeed deny, the children an ongoing relationship once they had been placed for adoption. For the avoidance of any doubt, it was the local authority which determined this level of contact. I make and intend no criticism of the prospective adopters.

 

 

The Local Authority accepted a large catalogue of failings at the Court hearing

The Local Authority: Actions and Failings

44.The admitted failings of the local authority which led to breaches of BT and GT’s human rights and those of the prospective adopters are set out in Annexe 1 to this judgment. These admitted failings are supplemented by further admissions of failings by the local authority, together with notes of the actions taken by or to be taken by the local authority to prevent, or at least, ameliorate the future risk of such failures of the system and of social work practice occurring. This schedule was prepared by Liz Elgar, the assistant director of children’s services and is set out in Annexe 2 to this judgment.

 

 

45.The admitted breaches of human rights and the schedule of failings of the local authority are extensive and grave. They relate to the whole operation of children’s services in Herefordshire. They are both systematic and the fault of individual social workers, team managers and line managers.

 

 

46.This said I commend the approach taken in this case by the new management team of children’s services, including in particular the Director, Chris Baird, and the Assistant Director, Liz Elgar, for the open and forthright manner in which they have responded to the divers criticisms made. I am reassured by their expressed commitment to a root and branch reform of children’s services in Herefordshire and a commitment to ensure that far more robust systems are in place to ensure compliance with good social work practice.

 

 

 

  1. The breaches of human rights may be summarised:

 

  1. i) a failure to undertake a thorough analysis of the need to change the care plans for the children and a failure to consider appropriately the consequences of separating the twins;

 

  1. ii) a failure to disclose in full detail the needs of, the challenging behaviours of and the past life experiences of BT or GT to their prospective adopters;

 

iii) a member of the social work team deleting references to the children’s challenging violent behaviours from the Child Permanence Reports (‘CPR’) and the Adoption Support Plans;

 

  1. iv) the wholly unmeritorious decision and issuing of a s.35(2) notice to remove BT from his placement with A and B;

 

  1. v) the undue stresses and strains caused to the prospective adopters by:

 

  1. a) the local authority’s flawed decisions; and

 

  1. b) as a result, these prolonged court proceedings which have had an adverse impact on BT and GT’s experience of family life;

 

  1. vi) the failure to consider properly the alternative plan for placing BT or GT in long term foster placements and to adhere to the court approved care plans;

 

vii) the failure to hold adoption reviews rather than LAC reviews (adoption reviews have an entirely different mandatory criteria to consider than LAC reviews: see Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005, regulation 36); and

 

viii) the failure of the Independent Reviewing Officer system to take any steps to secure any cogent care planning for the children and/or to protect them from the consequences of flawed and/or ill-considered decisions.

48.The schedule of supplemental failings set out in Annexe 2 may be summarised as follows:

 

 

 

  1. i) a failure in the original care plans to set out what the local authority would do if a placement together could not be found after 12 months;

 

  1. ii) a lack of management oversight;

 

iii) a failure to follow the court approved care plan to a correct conclusion;

 

  1. iv) a failure in the decision-making process to place the twins separately for adoption;

 

  1. v) the failure to acknowledge the significance of maintaining the legal sibling relationship of the twins;

 

  1. vi) the failure to acknowledge the legal relationship between BT and GT and their older siblings;

 

vii) the failure to record the reasons why a manager made the decision to place the twins separately for adoption on 10th April 2016;

 

viii) the failure of the LAC review on 11th April 2016 to consider pursuing a plan of long term foster care or commissioning further expert report(s) on the issue of placing the twins separately;

 

  1. ix) the failure to promote contact between the twins once they had been placed for adoption;

 

  1. x) the failure in applying full and accurate information in the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans including the adoption team manager wrongly and inappropriately deleting information about the twins challenging behaviours;

 

  1. xi) the failures of the IROs to take any steps to oversee and/or challenge the local authority’s decisions;

 

xii) the failure of the ADM decision making process, namely to fail to consider the impact on the children throughout the whole of their lives of separating them; and

 

xiii) the failure of the local authority, as a result of poor record keeping, to provide accurate evidence to the court.

49.Most regrettably all these admitted failures were not the end of this long litany of errors and misrepresentations. On the second day of the final hearing the local authority discovered there were documents and records, which contrary to previous orders and/or the local authority’s general duty of disclosure, had not been disclosed to the court or to the parties. When the disclosure was made it amounted to some 200 pages. I gave the parties the whole of the following day to read and digest the documents disclosed and to take instructions.

 

 

50.It caused the prospective adopters considerable distress to discover that within this disclosed material were matters relating to the children which had not previously been communicated to them by the local authority nor had it been communicated to the adoption agencies supporting the two sets of prospective adopters. [REDACTED TO PRESERVE CONFIDENTIALITY].

 

 

51.The emotional pressure on the prospective adopters was great enough without the added burden of having to receive and cope with the new information revealed. I do not understand the explanation offered as to why this material had not been disclosed earlier, other than it resulted from yet another error by an employee of the local authority. I received no explanation as to why the information revealed had not been previously communicated to the prospective adopters or their supporting adoption agencies.

 

 

However, over and above that, emerged the actions of the social worker who had written the sibling assessment (after the conclusion of proceedings) that formed the basis of the decision to separate these twins

 

 

 

52.It then emerged that the then social worker, D, the author of the sibling assessment had misquoted the opinions of Dr Mair Edwards, a consultant psychologist, who had prepared a report on the children for the purposes of the original care proceedings. The extract contained in the sibling assessment of July 2016 reads as follows:

 

 

 

Dr Edwards concluded, “If GT and BT were not twins, I would be recommending separate placements for them as GT’s challenging and bossy behaviours do impact on BT’s abilities to express himself and he therefore tends to focus in on his love of mechanical objects and machinery, and withdraws from social interactions…Both GT and BT have significant learning difficulties and developmental delay and will have significant needs throughout their childhoods. Their long-term placement would therefore need to be fully aware of the high level of commitment that will be required, and the ongoing support that the children are likely to require from agencies and services throughout their lives””

 

It will be noted three dots appear about halfway down the extract indicating some material had been omitted

 

One hopes, of course, that the three dots are just indicating that there was extraneous and irrelevant information contained which has been snipped out to provide an accurate and thorough summary of what Dr Edwards had said.

 

Oh, dear.

 

Counsel for the children’s guardian, Mr Kingerley referred me to Dr Mair Edwards 2014 report. The passage omitted from the above extract reads as follows:

 

“When observing them together there was very limited interaction (other than GT telling BT to “no talk”), and no real sense of a sibling relationship. However, they are twins, and the sense of loss in later years at being separated would almost certainly be more detrimental to their welfare than placing them together.”

53.The words omitted completely change the import and meaning of the quoted section of Dr Mair Edwards’ report. The social worker was not called to give evidence before me nor has she been given the opportunity to give an explanation. Therefore, I will not name her in this judgment. The prospects of this being an innocent omission are unlikely in the extreme. It is not an opening or concluding sentence that has been missed. It is a passage in the middle of the quoted passage from the report and the deliberate omission of some words was marked by three dots. Given also that the omitted section of Dr Mair Edwards’ report sets out an opinion wholly contrary to the ultimate recommendation of the sibling assessment, the only credible explanation for this omission is a deliberate act to mislead a reader of the assessment to conclude that the recommendation of separate placements for adoption was consistent with the opinion of Dr Mair Edwards. It manifestly was not.

 

 

54.I was informed by counsel for the children’s guardian that in another case, some years ago, the self-same social worker was alleged to have tampered with a document. I asked for the issue of the social worker’s role in drafting the sibling assessment to be referred to the Director of Children’s Services and to the Chief Executive of Herefordshire Council. The social worker had left the local authority in March 2018 but had later been re-engaged in some role on a zero hours contract. It was proposed, in the Adoption Support Plans, that this social worker would be carrying out life story work for the twins. The following day I was told by counsel for the local authority that her contract had been terminated with immediate effect.

 

 

The Judge went on to explore the other expert advice that the Local Authority had (quite properly) obtained when deciding whether to separate twins and if so, how to best manage this so that the damage could at least be reduced (but sadly had largely ignored)

55.The issue of separating the twins was considered by a child and adolescent therapist with the adoption team, in her report of 12th April 2016. On the issues of separation and future contact between the twins if the decision was made to place them separately she said:

 

 

 

“Making the decision that twins should be separated is problematic. Although each child’s needs may be better met in separate families, they have been constant companions to date, and will find separation confusing and stressful. In addition they share a common heritage and history. The complexities of these children’s circumstances and individual needs should be considered at length and in detail, so that a decision can be made which will be of most benefit to both the children.

 

If they are to be separated, it would seem vital that there is ongoing contact between them. Both children would find the separation difficult in the short term especially, and would need the reassurance of frequent contact.

 

Ongoing contact would rely on two adoptive families both being willing to commit to this. If one child is adopted and one remains in foster care, then contact with the adopted sibling needs to be carefully considered, due to the link to the birth family.

 

Separation would obviously need to be done with a carefully constructed programme that takes both children’s needs into account.”

56.In light of this clear recommendation I am at a loss to understand why the local authority did the exact opposite. Prior to placement with the prospective adopters the twins had a ‘see you later’ contact session and that over the succeeding eleven months they had contact on just two occasions. The local authority was unable to explain who had made this decision for there to be very limited contact between the twins post placement or why this decision had been made.

 

If, like me, you are waiting to see what the reasons given by the Local Authority for the need to separate the twins in the first place was then you, I and the Judge were all equally frustrated that the reasoning just never materialised

 

 

 

 

57.The catalogue of the local authority’s errors and failings in this case is troubling and hugely lamentable. I do not minimise any of the admitted breaches of human rights and/or the other admitted failures by highlighting what I consider to be the most egregious failures, namely:

 

 

 

  1. i) the deletion of important and highly relevant information from the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans by the adoption team manager. This could only have been done to mislead the prospective adopters about BT and GT’s respective behaviours and needs with a view to increasing the prospects of them agreeing to a placement of BT or GT with them;

 

  1. ii) the deliberate and misleading selective quote from the report of Dr Mair Edwards in the so-called ‘sibling assessment’. I am satisfied that the social worker began this apparent assessment with the end result, that of separating the twins, already decided and wrote an assessment to support that conclusion. I do not understand why this assessment was written up three months after the decision had been taken on 10th April 2016 to place the twins separately for adoption or why this decision was not stayed pending the completion of a sibling assessment;

 

iii) the failure to give full and frank information about the twins to their prospective adopters and their respective supporting adoption agencies;

 

  1. iv) the complete and utter failure of the IRO service to satisfy any of its statutory duties in respect of BT and GT. The IROs and the IRO service did absolutely nothing to protect and promote the welfare best interests of the children and did nothing to challenge the local authority’s dreadful and, at times, irrational decision making and care planning; and

 

  1. v) the failure for there to be any note or record of the matters considered, the documents read or the reasons for taking the life changing decision to place the twins separately for adoption taken on 10th April 2016. It is astonishing given the highly unusual and momentous nature of the decision.

 

70.Ms Elgar, the assistant director of children’s services, and Ms Leader, the team manager, gave relatively brief evidence. Ms Elgar had been in post from June 2018 and Ms Leader became the team manager in July 2017. They both offered profuse apologies to the prospective adopters for the actions and failings of the local authority.

 

 

71.Ms Elgar could not explain how or why the material which had been disclosed at this hearing had not been disclosed at an earlier time or had been ‘lost’ by the local authority. She recognised the local authority’s serious shortcomings and sought to assure the court that action had been, and would continue to be, taken to resolve the identified and admitted failings of the local authority. She accepted the deletions from the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans resulted from a deliberate and wrongful act by an employee of the local authority.

 

 

72.It was Ms Leader who, having heard certain observations by me, checked the electronic records and discovered a considerable amount of material had not been disclosed. She readily accepted the decision to terminate BT’s adoptive placement in late 2017 had been wrong and the whole episode had been badly dealt with by the local authority. Mr Noble had noted that some of the documents disclosed in the hearing related to events some months or even up to two years before but had only appeared on the local authority’s computer system within days of each other in February or March 2018. When asked why this was, Ms Leader said that the previous social worker, D, had got seriously behind with her administration and had thus spent the last few days of her employment uploading two years worth of notes, records and other documents onto the system. When asked how this could have been allowed to happen, she could give no answer other than to say it was not good practice. This ranks as a masterful understatement and was a completely inadequate response. For the last seven or eight months of the social worker’s employment in children’s services, Ms Leader had been her line manager and had taken no effective steps to remedy this extraordinary state of affairs.

 

 

73.Finally, Ms Leader confirmed that no note, record or document had been found relating to the decision made on 10th April 2016 that BT and GT should be placed separately for adoption

 

The Court then was faced with what to do for these twins in the future, it having become abundantly clear that they ought not to have been separated, but that the independent expert analysis was now that they had settled with their prospective adopters and moving them would be profoundly damaging to them.

 

88.I have struggled with the concept that a court could find that it was in the welfare best interests of twins to place them separately for adoption. From the time the case first came before me up to and during the course of this final hearing I was keen to find a route by which BT and GT could be reunited in a single placement. If this proved impossible to achieve, I was keen to find a legal framework, short of adoption, which could afford them the degree of permanence, stability and security which I entirely accept they both so desperately require.

 

 

89.For the avoidance of any doubt, as I observed in the course of the hearing, in expressing these views I did not for one moment doubt the love, commitment and care which A, B and C have afford to BT and GT: quite the reverse. I wholeheartedly commend both sets of prospective adopters for the enormous great love and devotion they have shown to BT and GT, for their unswerving commitment to them and for the superlative care they have given BT and GT. It is plain that, notwithstanding the grave harm and damage they suffered in their past lives, they are thriving beyond expectations in the care of A and B and C. The stoicism each of these adults have displayed in the course of these lengthy proceedings has been admirable.

 

 

90.Nevertheless, BT and GT are not just simply siblings they are twins. In making adoption orders in favour of two separate sets of prospective adopters, I would sever the legal relationship of BT and GT as brother and sister. Further I would sever their legal relationship with their elder siblings. Whilst the latter is very important, it is the former consequence of adoption that principally troubles me.

 

 

91.There is no question of it being a realistic option in the welfare best interests of the children for either of them to return to the care of either parent. The mother manifestly is not capable of caring for them and neither is the father. In any event, he is serving a very substantial custodial sentence and is convicted of offences of child abuse.

 

 

92.Is there any other realistic placement together or apart? On the basis of the powerful and compelling evidence presented by the Anna Freud Centre and the most impressive and persuasive oral evidence of Dr Morris and Ms Mautner, supported by the children’s guardian and the local authority’s assistant director, and the compelling evidence of the prospective adopters, the answer is a resounding no.

 

93.I am of the view that if this local authority had exercised good social work practice and exercised a modicum of child focused judgment in its decision-making processes, there was, in my judgment, a real possibility that the children could have been placed and lived together for a substantial period of their childhoods. They had, I note, lived together in their foster placement for nearly three years albeit not without presenting their foster carers with immense challenges from time to time. Whatever the possibilities of being placed together, I am completely satisfied that the actions of this local authority denied them the opportunity of this option being properly explored which is, to put it mildly, deeply regrettable and will have an impact, great or slight, for the whole of BT and GT’s lives.

 

 

94.I am satisfied on the totality of the evidence before me that I cannot now contemplate moving either BT or GT, or both of them, from their placements without causing them serious harm and, potentially, lifelong grave harm. They are well settled with their prospective adopters and are plainly well integrated into what they consider to be their respective families. They are, for the first time in their lives, allowing themselves to believe they have their forever family. If one or other of them or both of them were to be moved, I accept the evidence of the Anna Freud Centre, that one or both of them would be devastated. They would suffer a sense of considerable loss, their behaviour would undoubtedly regress and they are likely never to allow themselves to trust a future carer or others involved in their lives: even if not likely, there is a substantial risk this would be the consequence of a removal.

 

 

95.To embark on the removal of the children with all the attendant serious adverse consequences cannot, in my judgment, be in the welfare best interests of either BT or GT. Accordingly, I am now persuaded and satisfied that both BT and GT must remain in the care of their respective prospective adopters.

 

The Court was driven to make the adoption orders, though not without a great deal of anguish.

 

Damages claims were agreed and settled.  (I think they seem very low for the twins, but that’s a personal view and opinion rather than a legal one, as damages is not my field)

 

  1. The damages agreed in satisfaction of A and B’s HRA claim were £5,000.00. The same sum was accepted by C in respect of her HRA claim.
  2. When considering the infant settlement approval of BT and GT’s respective claims for breaches of their human rights I had the benefit of advice on quantum by Mr Kingerley dated 16th November 2018. The local authority offered in settlement of the children’s claims the sum advised by counsel, namely £20,000.00 each. I was satisfied in all the circumstances of this case and having regard to recent authorities on the issue of HRA damages, that these were entirely reasonable damages to offer just satisfaction to both children. Accordingly, I approved the settlement achieved for BT and for GT. Further I made the declarations of the breaches of human rights of BT, GT, A & B and C in the terms agreed and set out in Annexes 1, 3 and 4 to this judgment.

 

 

 

Multiple failings, IRO and whistleblowing

 

It is part of the Christmas tradition of Suesspicious Minds that some Local Authority takes an almighty judicial kicking in a published judgment,  and this year I’m afraid it is Herefordshire behind the door on the advent calendar.  This is a damning judgment by Keehan J

 

 

 

2.The care of and care planning for both these young people by Herefordshire Council has, over the last ten years or so, been woeful.

A & B (care orders and placement orders – failures) [2018] EWFC 72 (30 November 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/72.html

 

Herefordshire County Council obtained Care and Placement Orders on two children, A and B in May 2008. At that time, A was 11 and B was 10 (that sounds immediately to me like a highly optimistic order…)

 

Neither were placed for adoption, and the plan of adoption was abandoned by the Local Authority in September 2009. No applications were made to revoke the placement orders for A, and it discharged on her 18th birthday. An application was finally made to revoke the placement order for B, when she was 17 ½, it being revoked the day before her 18th birthday.

The girls were separated in 2013, and nobody was really able to explain to the Judge why that was

 

This was followed by a LAC Review held on 13th December 2013 at which it was decided to place A and B in separate foster placements. I do not know the reasons why this important decision was made nor the evidence on which it was made. A and B were never again placed together. I have no explanation as to why not.

 

 

 

 

22.On 19th November 2016 A and B had their first face to face contact since 2014. This has been requested by A who was pregnant.

 

 

23.On 12th March 2017 A gave birth to her first child, F. She had no secure or stable accommodation. A whilst pregnant and after F was born had been living in an annexe at her former foster carer’s home. In May 2018 A reported to the local authority that she and F had been evicted by her former foster carer and that she had nowhere to go. The local authority’s response to the plight of this young mother and care leaver was wholly inadequate. The response was so poor that, the Head of Service, Gillian Cox, accepted that the local authority had failed A and her daughter.

 

 

 

 

26.Between December 2013 and 1st September 2017, when she had attained her majority, A had had at least 5 changes of placement in various different areas of the country. There is no doubt that the instability in A’s life during these formative years, including the numerous changes of placement, have caused her significant emotional and psychological harm.

 

 

27.Between February 2016 and 6th March 2018 B endured 7 changes of placement in various different areas of the country. The harm suffered by B as a result of these changes in placement in terms of her emotional and psychological wellbeing are incalculable.

 

 

28.Between November 2008 and May 2018 A has had 6 different social workers allocated to her case. Between June 2014 and August 2018 B has had 8 different social workers allocated to her case. I accept the reallocation of case in October 2016 to a social worker in the 16+ Team was inevitable. There is, however, no good or cogent explanation for the high turnover of the other social workers which, to put it mildly, must have been unsettling and unhelpful.

 

 

29.From the time the children were made the subject of care orders and placement orders in February 2008 until October 2018 this local authority has had eight different independent reviewing officers (IRO) responsible for the oversight of their care plans.

 

 

(In 25 years of practicing family law, in various different local authorities, I don’t think I’ve MET 8 different IROs, but these girls had 8 different ones allocated to them at various points…)

The Head of Service filed a statement setting out the admissions that the LA made as to their failings in this case

 

 

30.I was so concerned at the failures of the local authority in respect of A and B that I ordered Ms Cox, the Head of Service, to file a statement setting out an explanation for the same. Her statement is dated 1st November 2018.

 

 

31.In respect of A, Ms Cox said as follows:

 

 

 

“In my view our service has failed to support [A] as I would expect since she first became homeless and in particular I would identify the following:

 

 

  1. In May when [A] first contacted our team to say that she was homeless we should have offered her supported lodgings accommodation in Herefordshire with [F] on a temporary basis whilst a longer term solution was identified. We should also have pro-actively supported [A] to search for private rented options in Birmingham and made it clear to her that we would financially support her with a bond and act as a guarantor if required.

 

 

  1. As time progressed and [A] continued to ask us for help and was not able to obtain suitable accommodation for herself in Birmingham we should have revisited these options and again offered her short-term solutions in Herefordshire and proactively supported her to find private rented accommodation. On the 15th June [A] specifically requested to return to Herefordshire but I can find no evidence of this being responded to which is unacceptable.

 

 

  1. The situation should have been escalated through Heads of Service to our Assistant Director and Director who have all asked to be kept informed of any young person who is placed in Bed and Breakfast accommodation. In the turnover of team managers and Heads of Service this expectation was not understood.

 

 

  1. On the 18th June [A] was informed that the local authority decision was that we would not pay a bond for her to secure private rented accommodation for her. This was not the case as this was agreed by the Head of Service when she was made aware of the situation. It is concerning that the team lack clarity about the support they are able to offer and did not escalate the situation earlier.

 

 

  1. There was a delay of almost a month in authorising a placement request made in July and this is unacceptable. The delay was due to further information not being provided to the Head of Service but in the circumstances the Head of Service should have been more pro-active in gaining the information she required.

 

 

  1. On the 11th October the personal advisor supported [A] and [F] to move from the Travel lodge to Northbrook hostel but did not look around the shared facilities. She described the accommodation as “basic” but did not raise concerns about the suitability of it for [A] and [F]. Having seen the photographs that [A] sent via her legal representative I was appalled by the state of the accommodation she was living in and was very clear that this was unsuitable and she should not have been left there.

 

  1. [A] is currently living in a supported lodging placement in Herefordshire with her daughter, [F]. She moved there on Tuesday 23rd October as an interim arrangement whilst suitable private rented accommodation for [A] and [F] is sourced in Birmingham. I received photographs and an email that [A] had sent her legal representative on the 23rd October and I was appalled at the state of the accommodation that she was living in. I telephoned [A] directly myself and asked if she would be willing to move to a supported lodging placement in Herefordshire if I could arrange that whilst we sorted out a suitable place for her to live in Birmingham. [A] was concerned about moving away from Birmingham but I was able to reassure her that this would be for just a short time. [A] agreed and so I made arrangements for our fostering team to find a placement for her and [F] and for her personal advisor to go to Birmingham to collect her that day.

 

  1. [A] was supported by her personal advisor to view flats in Birmingham on Thursday, 25th October and found a flat that she liked in an area that she is happy to live in. Herefordshire Council has paid 6 months’ rent up front and all relevant administrative fees to enable [A] to move into the accommodation. [A] will pay the housing benefit that she receives to the local authority as she receives it. At the time of writing this statement the plan is that [A] and [F] will move into their new home on Friday, 2nd November.

 

  1. [A] will continue to receive the support of her personal advisor. She is being referred for “floating support” and the most suitable provider for this is being investigated. The local authority will fund this support if [A] is not entitled to receive the support at no cost.”

32.In respect of B, Ms Cox observed in respect of the current placement that:

 

 

 

“[B] continues to live in a supported lodging placement with her boyfriend and his mother. She has lived there since March 2018. She is reported as happy living there although understands it is unusual to be living in the same home as her boyfriend at such a young age and is keen to move to live independently soon after she turns 18. She has been supported to register for housing and in the meantime can remain where she is. [B] will continue to receive the support of her personal advisor.”

33.I was told by Ms Cox that substantial steps have now been taken by the local authority to ensure:

 

 

 

  1. i) the mistakes and serious errors made in respect of A and B are not suffered nor endured by any other child or young person in the care of Herefordshire; and

 

  1. ii) far more robust procedures are now in place to ensure issues are escalated to more senior managers and, where appropriate, to the assistant director and/or the director of children’s services.

 

 

The Judge was concerned that the IRO system, which should have tackled these failings and drift, and got the LA to apply to revoke the placement orders and tighten up their planning for these girls (including ensuring that they had contact with one another) had not done so. He ordered a report from the Head of the IRO team

 

 

35.Accordingly I ordered the Head of Service, Safeguarding and Review (i.e. the head of the IRO service for this local authority), Cath Thomas, to file a statement. I am grateful to Ms Thomas, as I am to Ms Cox, for providing the court with a statement dated 1st November 2018. I regret to note that the statement contained a number of matters which caused me very profound and grave concern.

 

 

36.The statement of Ms Thomas concluded with the final paragraph:

 

 

 

“It is very clear that the issue of revoking [B]’s placement order continued without resolution for a significantly long period of time, both prior to and since the data error was realised in early 2016. This length of delay is absolutely unacceptable and I apologise unreservedly to [B] and her sister. The IRO service failed to fulfil its statutory responsibilities to [B]. I failed to robustly challenge the views of my assistant director at the time, which I recognise I should have done and as head of service I take full responsibility for these failings and apologise unreservedly to the court.”

 

This is a frank acceptance of a proper degree of responsibility by Ms Thomas. I accept her apology without reservation. Some of her actions or more properly her lack of action may be explained or, at least, put into context by a number of events set out in her statement which I shall now turn to consider.

37.In the autumn of 2008 Children’s services in Herefordshire moved from paper files to electronic records. It was not discovered until January 2016 that the placement orders made in respect of both children had not been recorded on their electronic records. This may explain why subsequent IROs did not raise the issue of revocation of these orders, but it does not explain why the IRO at the time the care plan was changed in early 2009 from one of adoption to long term fostering did not do so.

 

 

38.Ms Thomas asserted that in an unrelated case an IRO had concerns about a child’s case and wished to obtain independent legal advice and/or refer the matter to Cafcass. She said she raised this issue with the then senior lawyer and the then assistant director in January 2017. The response from the assistant director to Ms Thomas was that she was not to seek independent legal advice nor to refer the matter to Cafcass. She was further told that if she did not comply with this ‘advice’, disciplinary procedures would be invoked. Ms Thomas asserted that this assistant director did not recognise the independent nature of the IRO service.

 

 

39.It is not for me to determine the truth of these assertions, not least because I have not heard from the former assistant director. The council’s legal department did, however, immediately upon receipt of Ms Thomas’ statement invoke a whistleblowing investigation which has been reported to the Chief Executive of the local authority and members of the council. I note that the then deputy county solicitor agreed with Ms Thomas’ recollection of events.

 

 

40.Ms Thomas asserted that it was because of the ‘advice’ given by the former assistant director that she did not escalate the case of A and B beyond the Head of Service level, did not seek to obtain independent legal advice and/or refer the matter to Cafcass. As Ms Thomas readily acknowledged this was, to say the least, deeply regrettable.

 

 

41.The former assistant director left this local authority in March 2018.

 

 

Obviously the Judge did not hear from the former assistant director who allegedly told an IRO that escalating a complaint about a child’s case would be treated as a disciplinary matter, so there is not a finding as to whether or not that happened. (He notes, however, that the Deputy County Solicitor agreed with what Ms Thomas was alleging)

 

So we can’t say that this actually definitively happened, but if it DID, then there’s a complete failure to understand the role of the IRO and how vital their independence is. The Judge set out the framework and the importance of independence and the ability for IROs to obtain independent legal advice in detail, concluding this

 

 

 

 

50.I am appalled at the manner in which and the serial occasions on which the social workers and their managers have failed these two young people. The fact that I have chosen in this judgment to focus on the role and actions of the various IRO’s should not be taken in any way to diminish the failures of the social workers and/or their mangers in this case. Rather the failings of the IROs has been so stark and grave that, in my judgment, it was appropriate to focus on the failings of the IROs and the IRO service in this case.

 

 

51.Once a court makes a care order it entrusts, as by statute it must, the future care of the child to the local authority. The essential safeguard the court and the public at large have that a local authority will be a good corporate parent is the function and role of the IRO. Any obstruction of an IRO performing their statutory role or any diminution in an IRO, or their manager, feeling empowered to do so, is a matter of the utmost consequence. For otherwise a looked after child is subject to the vagaries of social work practice and the local authority’s different pressures and priorities. The IRO is, or should be, the child’s protector or advocate. If the IRO is silenced or pressured not to act as the child’s interests demand and require, it is the child who will suffer – just as these children, A and B have suffered.

 

 

 

Conclusions

52.This local authority, as it has accepted, failed both young people in the errors made by its social workers and their managers over a very prolonged period of time.

 

 

53.The IROs failed them on a serious and serial basis.

 

 

54.I entirely accept and acknowledge that in these straitened financial times all local authorities are stretched. Furthermore I recognise that this local authority, like very many around the country, have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers. As a consequence many social workers have to carry very heavy case loads, may not have sufficient experience to deal with the more complex cases and/or have limited time to work on a particular case.

 

 

55.These difficulties, however, do not begin to explain the wholesale failure of this local authority, in its role as a corporate parent to plan adequately or appropriately for the care of these children. I simply do not know or do not understand why the care plan was changed from adoption to long term fostering in 2009. The explanation given in B’s 2018 Care Plan is plainly false or, at best, inaccurate.

 

 

56.This means that neither A nor B can now be given a clear and cogent explanation of why they suffered such instability when in the care of this local authority. I find this to be profoundly regrettable.

 

 

57.The fact that the local authorities are under financial pressures, and there too few social workers who carry too many cases, increases the importance of the role performed by the IROs. When it is known deadlines may be missed, visits not undertaken, assessments not completed or other actions in furtherance of a child’s care plan not addressed, the IROs must take active steps to ensure a child’s welfare and future care is not disadvantaged by these omissions.

 

 

58.Whatever opposition or obstruction the IRO or Head of Service faced from a local authority, the IROs and their managers must remember that their first and foremost duty is to the children and young people that they serve. If this is ignored or obstructed, it is only the children or young people, who are our future, who will be harmed.

 

 

59.The clear message must go out that IROs serve a vital and essential function to ensure that a child’s or a young person’s interests are met post the making of a care order or other orders. If those functions and roles are not exercised in a clear, robust and untrammelled fashion, the children or young people will suffer.

 

 

Car crash, Hot Tub, (wish they had a) Time Machine

 

 

I’m sure there are boring cases that come into the list of Her Honour Judge Lazarus, but I’m yet to read one.

 

She opens this cracker with the line

 

 

 

  • “ I likened it to arriving at the scene of a car crash, and wondered what one could do about it. This situation should never have arisen. It’s caused huge tension, including within any recommendation, and I’ve tried to keep X at the centre of it. ” This evidence from the independent social worker effectively summarises the key issues in this case.

 

 

Which, you’ll agree, is a belter.

 

Perhaps this opener is better

“Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land. On a fateful day, some 66 million years ago, two such creatures, a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat.”

http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2018/11/06/16-35506.pdf

 

 

 And this might be my favourite line in any judgment

Dr Muir Wood asked her in cross-examination why she did not simply Google the word “prick” and she answered with admirable succinctness: “Because it would have shown me porn and penises

Martinez (t/a Prick) & Anor v Prick Me Baby One More Time Ltd (t/a Prick) & Anor [2018] EWHC 776 (IPEC) (11 April 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/IPEC/2018/776.html

 

But the opener here is indupitably a cracker.

 

 

Z v Kent County Council (Revocation of placement order – Failure to assess Mother’s capacity and Grandparents) [2018] EWFC B65 (18 October 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2018/B65.html

 

I’ll try to capture the background quickly and simply.

 

In December 2017, a different Judge made a Care Order and Placement Order in relation to a child, Z.

 

Z’s mother had some significant mental health problems and had spent time (including during the proceedings) in a psychiatric unit.

 

Early on in the 2017 case, people became concerned that mother might not have capacity to instruct a solicitor (i.e didn’t understand enough about what was going on in the case or what Courts were etc to be able to tell their solicitor what to do. If you have capacity, you can instruct your solicitor to ask for what you want – even if it doesn’t have much chance of success, that’s your right. If you don’t have capacity, someone else – often the Official Solicitor, will decide what the solicitor should ask for on your behalf)

 

The Court gave directions for mother to be assessed to see if she had that capacity. The mother was also insistent that her parents (Z’s maternal grandparents) should not be assessed as carers. She did not attend that assessment. The Court (not HHJ Lazarus, the initial Judge) made a series of orders basically saying that UNLESS mum attended a cognitive assessment she would be deemed to have capacity by the Court. She did not.

Mum told her solicitors, just before the final hearing, that she agreed to Z being adopted, and a Care Order and Placement Order were made.

 

(That’s important, because the Court didn’t ever actually resolve whether mum had capacity to instruct her solicitor to agree to adoption. Agreeing to adoption is very rare in care proceedings – sometimes parents decide not to oppose the plan, but in 25 years, I’ve only seen one parent actually consent to adoption in care proceedings. It ought to have rung some alarm bells about whether mum really understood what she was doing)

 

To make matters worse, as Z’s maternal grandparents had been shut out of the case in accordance with their daughter’s wishes, they did not find out that Z existed until FOUR DAYS AFTER the Placement Order was made. Z had been placed, 3 weeks before that, with foster to adopt carers who wished later to adopt Z.

 

When the maternal grandparents put themselves forward as carers for Z, everyone accepted that they were capable of caring for Z, AND IF they had been considered within the care proceedings, the Court would almost certainly have placed Z with them under a Special Guardianship Order and not gone the adoption route.

 

The grandparents applied to revoke the Placement Order and for the Court to make a Special Guardianship Order for Z, placing her with the grandparents.

What HHJ Lazarus was faced with was then a competing argument between the maternal grandparents, and the prospective adopters (who had been caring for Z for 11 months, with the intention always of adopting her)

 

The prospective adopters, Q and R, gave evidence together in the witness box :-

 

 

 

  1. Q and R were sworn and gave evidence together, in a process known colloquially as ‘hot-tubbing’. This was proposed by me and agreed to by all parties as a sensible and effective time-saving device, and I consider that in the process I gained a good impression of each of them and of them together as a couple.

 

[See, although my titles are madness, yet there is method in’t. I know a hawk from a hand-saw.]

 

Oh, by the way, R was the step-aunt of the child’s older siblings, so it was a quasi family placement, so not just a straight fight between family v adopters.

 

The case, as well as the nightmarishly difficult task of deciding what was best for Z, raised two important issues of law

 

  1. What happens when a parent is thought to lack capacity, but they don’t cooperate with the assessment that would answer that question?
  2. If a parent refuses to allow relatives to be considered as potential carers, is that the end of it, or is there a responsibility on the Local Authority to consider them anyway if the only other plan is adoption?

 

 

  • What happens when a parent is thought to lack capacity, but they don’t cooperate with the assessment that would answer that question?

 

 

There’s some lovely analysis here, set out carefully and precisely.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. c)       Under section 1(2) of the Mental Capacity Act “ A person must be assumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks capacity ”. This is more generally known as the ‘Presumption of Capacity’. My underlining points out a critical, and often misunderstood, element of this provision

 

(WordPress has lost its underlining function, so I’ve put the judicial underlining in red)

 

 

 

  1. d)       Sections 2 and 3 set out the factors to be considered in determining whether or not someone lacks capacity, and are not directly in issue here. However, section 2(4) provides: “ In proceedings under this Act or any other enactment , any question whether a person lacks capacity within the meaning of this Act must be decided on the balance of probabilities .”

 

  1. e)       It is well established and follows from the wording of those provisions:

–         the Presumption is an important starting point;

 

–         however information may raise a question whether a person lacks capacity and so lead that Presumption to be questioned;

 

–         such a question is to be decided on the balance of probabilities by reference to the relevant factors in sections 2 and 3;

–         it is therefore a matter of fact to be determined on evidence by the court;

 

–         the Presumption is thus rebuttable, and may be rebutted if lack of capacity is established by that determination.

 

 

 

  1. f)       The philosophy and purpose behind this Presumption is not a matter for detailed explanation in this judgment, but one significant intention is to prevent inaccurately assuming lack of capacity in apparently vulnerable individuals without it being properly established on evidence. It is emphatically not there to obviate an examination of such an issue.   Nor can it have been Parliament’s intention to place a vulnerable person in danger of their lack of capacity being overlooked at the expense of their rights by a slack reliance on this Presumption, and as is made clear in the law I refer to below.

 

In short, whilst deciding that a person lacks capacity requires a judicial decision and evidence, that doesn’t mean that where you have doubts about a person’s capacity you just go with the presumption unless there’s a cognitive assessment to say otherwise.

 

 

 

 

  1. k)       Medical evidence is “ almost certainly ” required for the purposes of establishing lack of capacity.   In Masterman-Lister v Brutton and Co (Nos 1 and 2) [2003] 1 WLR 1511 at paragraph 17H Kennedy LJ said: “ even where the issue does not seem to be contentious, a district judge who is responsible for case management will almost certainly require the assistance of a medical report before being able to be satisfied that incapacity exists ”.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. l)           But what should be done if there is no expert evidence available?    

 

In Carmarthenshire County Council v Peter Lewis     [2010] EWCA Civ 1567 Rimer LJ was considering an application for permission to appeal against a decision in which the first instance judge had made an order that “ unless the applicant allowed an examination of himself by a particular specialist by a specified date, he was to be debarred from defending the claim ”. The purpose of the proposed examination was to assess capacity. In that case, the applicant did not allow the examination, and at the final hearing, the first instance judge determined the claim against him without further consideration of the issue of capacity. On appeal, Rimer LJ said this:

 

“ In my view the problem raised by this case is as to how, once the court is possessed of information raising a question as to the capacity of the litigant to conduct the litigation, it should satisfy itself as to whether the litigant does in fact have sufficient capacity. I cannot think that the court can ordinarily, by its own impression of the litigant, safely form its own view on that. Nor am I impressed that the solution is the making of an “unless” order of the type that Judge Thomas made. The concern that I have about this case is that an order may have been made against a party who was in fact a “protected party” without a litigation friend having been appointed for him ”.

 

 

  1. m)       In Baker Tilly (A Firm) v Mira Makar [2013] EWHC 759 (QB) the Respondent refused to co-operate in an assessment of her capacity. The Master hearing the case at first instance made his own assessment, based on the information available to him, that the Respondent lacked capacity. On appeal to the High Court, Sir Raymond Jack noted the dictum of Rimer J (above) that the court cannot ordinarily , by its own impression of the litigant, safely form its own view of capacity. But he also noted that “ In most cases where a question of capacity has arisen the person whose capacity is in question has co-operated with the court and the court has been provided with the assistance of appropriate medical experts ” and that “ counsel has not found any case where the court has had to resolve a situation as has arisen here where the litigant has refused to co-operate in an assessment of their capacity ” (paragraph 8). In the case then before him, having taken into account further information not available to the Master, he came to the opposite conclusion as to capacity. But it is noteworthy that there is no suggestion that the Master should not have attempted the exercise, or could have properly left the issue of capacity unresolved.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. n)         In Re D (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 745 the issue before the appeal court was whether the court at first instance had failed properly to determine whether or not the mother had litigation capacity at the time proceedings were heard.

 

 

King LJ said this at paragraph 30: “ Evidence from a suitably qualified person will be necessary as to the diagnosis [cf. section 2(1) Mental Capacity Act]. This will usually be someone with medical qualifications. … ”.

 

 

And at paragraph 56:

 

“ This case does however perhaps provide a cautionary tale and a reminder that issues of capacity are of fundamental importance . The rules providing for the identification of a person who lacks capacity, reflect society’s proper understanding of the impact on both parent and child of the making of an order which will separate them permanently. It is therefore essential that the evidence which informs the issue of capacity complies with the test found in the MCA 2005 and that any conflict of evidence is brought to the attention of the court and resolved prior to the case progressing further . It is in order to avoid this course causing delay that the Public Law Outline anticipates issues of capacity being raised and dealt with in the early stages of the proceedings .”

 

In that case the Court of Appeal described the steps that had been taken at first instance to establish capacity as a “ serious procedural irregularity ” but declined to order a fresh capacity assessment and a retrial on the basis that the mother was not adversely affected and no practical difference was made to the hearing or outcome as a consequence. The court validated the proceedings retrospectively.

 

 

  1. o)       There therefore remain, to some extent, tensions between the dicta in the Court of Appeal cases referred to above, and arising between:

 

 

–           on the one hand the absolute necessity to determine an issue of capacity, as a matter of fact, with the assistance of expert or other medical opinion, and as a matter of urgency;

 

 

–           and on the other hand, the possible absence of an expert or other medical opinion through the parent’s non-engagement, refusal to attend assessments, or due to a failure to provide information by the relevant medical sources.

 

 

  1. p)       There does not appear to be a clear and authoritative decision that provides guidance with direct reference to this problem. It cannot have been intended that proceedings should be hamstrung and in stasis by an inability to determine this issue in the absence of co-operation with medical assessment or availability of medical evidence.

 

 

  1. q)       However, the key may be in the words ‘ ordinarily ’ and ‘ almost ’ in the Carmarthenshire and Masterman cases, and the word ‘ likely ’ in PD15B paragraph 1.2 which appear to give some leeway.

 

 

  1. r)         Paragraph 44 of the updated 2018 Family Justice Council guidance states: “ A parent may decline professional assessment. In those circumstances, it will be for the court to determine the issue on the best evidence it has available. ”

 

 

  1. s)         This may enable courts faced with this challenge where there is no expert or medical assessment evidence to meet the absolute requirement that capacity issues must be fully addressed and determined, and to do so by reaching appropriate pragmatic evidence-based decisions, while ensuring that both the overriding objective and the protected party’s rights are fully in mind.

 

 

  1. t)         Such a determination could be based on a careful review of the other relevant material that may be available, such as a report from a clinician who knows the party’s condition well enough to report without interviewing the party (if available and appropriate), other medical records, accounts of family members, accounts of the social worker or other agency workers who may be supporting the parent, and occasionally direct evidence from a parent. [2]    

 

 

  1. u)       Any such finding made without expert assessment evidence that leads to a declaration of protected party status due to lack of litigation capacity could always be reviewed upon expert evidence being obtained to suggest that the finding was incorrect, and by ensuring that the question of assessment is regularly revisited with the protected party by their litigation friend, their solicitor and the court. Such a review and correction is anyway the case where a party has regained capacity and the issue is addressed with the benefit of an updating expert opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. v)       What can be derived as following from the above statutory provisions, guidance and case law as clearly impermissible or inappropriate, and would likely lead to a failure to apply the required procedural approach and lead to breaches of that party’s Article 6 and 8 ECHR rights? :

 

 

–             failure to grasp the nettle fully and early,

 

 

–             ignoring information or evidence that a party may lack capacity,

 

 

–             purporting to ‘adopt’ the Presumption of Capacity in circumstances where capacity has been questioned,

 

 

–             making directions addressing the capacity issue, but discharging them or failing to comply with them and thereby leaving the issue inadequately addressed,

 

 

–             failing to obtain evidence (expert or otherwise) relevant to capacity,

 

 

–             use of ‘unless’ orders,

 

 

–             similarly, using personal service or ‘warning notices’ on that party,

 

 

–             relying on non-engagement by that party either with assessments or the proceedings,

 

 

–             proceeding with any substantive directions, let alone making final orders, in the absence of adequate enquiry and proper determination of the capacity issue,

 

 

–             treating a party as having provided consent to any step, let alone a grave and possibly irrevocable final step, where capacity has been questioned but the issue not determined.

 

 

 

INVESTIGATION OF FAMILY MEMBERS

 

 

There’s a long and careful analysis of the principles with sources (which I’d recommend as vital reading for any lawyer or professional grappling with the issue of whether to consult with family members where the parent is dead-set against it but where adoption appears a realistic outcome if suitable family members are not found.) But here are the conclusions.

 

 

  1. s)         The legal and best practice framework and local policies set out above are a small summary of a much wider range of authorities, statutory provisions and guidance. In combination, the following principles can be derived:

 

 

–             Unless a child’s welfare requires it a child’s interests are best promoted by living with their family.

 

 

–             Interference with the living arrangements for children by a Local Authority must pass a threshold. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm the court, at a Local Authority’s invitation, cannot interfere with a child’s living arrangements.

 

 

–             Where it becomes clear to a Local Authority that a child is at risk of suffering significant harm there is a duty under section 17 Children Act 1989 to provide services to a child to try to allow them to live within their family.

 

 

–             When public law proceedings are contemplated and removal of the child from their primary carer is a realistic possibility the Local Authority should identify at the earliest opportunity if there are wider family and friends who may be able to care for the child, for example from their own records.

 

 

–             A referral to a Family Group Conference should if possible be made when proceedings are contemplated. One of the purposes of the Family Group Conference is to identify if there are wider family members who can offer support or care for the child.

 

 

–             Where capacity is an issue the Local Authority should consider if an advocate is necessary to assist a parent.

 

 

–             If a Family Group Conference referral is refused legal advice should be sought. Any parental objection to wider family members being assessed or involved in proceedings requires scrutiny.

 

 

–             Identifying alternative carers for a child should if possible take place during the pre-proceedings process under the Public Law Outline, failing which it should be raised with the court once proceedings are issued.

 

 

–             Once in proceedings the Local Authority still has a duty to continue identifying wider family members who may be assessed to care for the child. This is part of the duties required of Local Authorities to promote the child’s welfare.

 

 

–             A child’s right to respect for private and family life may include the right to know wider family members who have not been part of the proceedings and may not have met the child.

 

 

–             When adoption is being considered the Local Authority has a duty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of relatives regarding the child and the plan for adoption.

 

 

In this case

 

 

 

  1. o)         I acknowledge that there may be good reasons on occasions for other family members not being approached, but these need to be understood rather than glossed over. And, while there is case law relating to certain extreme examples where the question of who should be contacted about or made parties to family proceedings has been considered, there does not appear to be authoritative guidance on the type of circumstances as arose here in relation to Family Group Conferences.

 

 

  1. p)         Here, given the concerns over Y’s capacity the Local Authority should at least have been alert to consider very carefully her failure to put forward any relative. Reliance on her exercise of parental responsibility cannot sit together with the Local Authority’s own concerns about her capacity, without further careful enquiry.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Errors, traps and temptations that should have been avoided :

 

(Can I please say how much I like these helpful subheadings in the judgment – albeit that I can only imagine how cringe-making it must be for those involved in the proceedings to listen when a Judge announces that as a chapter title…)

 

 

  1. I)                     Relying on Y’s purported exercise of parental responsibility in saying that she did not propose the maternal grandmother as a potential carer. In particular where she was thought to lack capacity, this is not a step that somehow relieves or prevents the Local Authority from considering what steps needed to be taken to meet its duties to consider other family members.

 

 

  1. II)                   Believing the Presumption of Capacity replaces or obviates the need for the court to determine the issue of litigation capacity on evidence as a matter of fact, or entitles the parties or the court to ignore a capacity problem, particularly where there were worrying recent accounts of Y being significantly unwell. It is simply a rebuttable assumption and a starting point. Any suggestion that capacity is in issue should lead to the opposite approach, namely to take steps that would enable the court to determine whether the assumption remains in place or lack of capacity is established.

 

 

III)                 Ignoring glaring evidence or information suggestive of lack of capacity. This is an abrogation of responsibility to acknowledge the implications of such information, albeit it is easier to shut an eye to it in order to avoid its inconvenient effects on the case, particularly where a case outcome appears obvious or a solution is readily to hand.

 

 

  1. IV)               Relying on Y’s non-engagement or non-attendance at hearings, or employing ‘unless’ orders as a basis for progressing the case and discharging directions critical to the question of her capacity. A vulnerable person who may be a protected party due to lack of capacity may well find it difficult or impossible to engage or attend without the appropriate support or identification of her status and appointment of a litigation friend. This compounds a breach of her Article 6 rights.

 

 

  1. V)                 Personal service and warning ‘Notice’ – these steps make no sense in law or natural justice if Y lacked capacity, and simply seem to lack common sense. What might such steps or notices actually mean to a vulnerable person who lacks litigation capacity?

 

 

  1. VI)               Discharging directions critical to the determination of the capacity issue, and not complying or following up on non-compliance with those directions. This is case management failure with direct consequences for the procedural propriety of the case.

 

 

VII)             Making permissive directions to obtain the treating clinician’s certificate of capacity, rather than mandatory and time-limited directions.

 

 

VIII)           Treating Y’s wishes and feelings obtained by the Social Worker and over the telephone with her solicitor as a capacitous decision consenting to very grave and complex and potentially irrevocable orders, compliant with section 52(5). Her diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder and alcohol dependence were well known. Directions had been made that she should be subject to capacity, cognitive and psychiatric assessment, but had not resulted in any assessments nor other medical information being provided. There was no adequate information before the court to assist with any question of her abilities or suggestibility or understanding.

 

 

  1. IX)                 Her position was erroneously described as ‘consent’ and named as such in the order, when it was not put forward as formal consent in the Position Statement prepared on her behalf, and the exercise of considering whether her consent should be dispensed with by undertaking a welfare-based consideration of the checklist factors was not done, despite her solicitor flagging it up.

 

 

  1. X)                   As the Social Worker and Children’s Guardian acknowledged, the parties became caught up in the ‘excitement’ of having found a solution for X’s placement that avoided stranger adoption, and so lost sight of wider issues that had been overlooked.

 

 

  1. XI)                 The temptations of a precipitate approach, naturally abetted by the lure of completing a case within the required 26 weeks time-limit, and by the existence of ‘a solution’ for X which tempts professionals and the court not to address the harder, wider or longer questions which might cause any delay, leading everyone to push ahead to final orders despite serious procedural irregularities.

 

 

XII)               No party, representative nor the court spotted or voiced or prevented or corrected the series of avoidable errors around failing to address a key issue which had riddled the case from the outset, and the case was allowed to progress and ultimately extremely serious final orders were made on the back of those serious procedural irregularities. This collective shared failure seems something akin to group-thinking or peer pressure or a gross shared example of confirmation bias.

 

 

 

 

This is already a piece which is far too long, but in terms of the final decision, HHJ Lazarus decided that Z should stay with Q and R (the step-aunt) who had originally intended to adopt her, but under a Special Guardianship Order, and that there should be a Child Arrangements Order giving contact between Z and the grandparents.   The reasoning is too long to set out here, and it must have been a very difficult task – readers who are interested are referred to the judgment paragraphs 51 onwards. There was the involvement of an independent social worker whose evidence was very helpful to the Court in reaching the decision.

 

Judge versus Fostering Panel

 

Actually, this was more of a Triple Threat match, with Judge versus Fostering Panel versus Agency Decision Maker, but you get the general idea.

 

Re T (A child) 2018  EWCA Civ 650

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/650.html

 

This is a Court of Appeal decision with Jackson LJ giving the lead judgment.

 

At final hearing, the LA sought Care Orders and Placement Orders with a plan of adoption. After hearing seven days of evidence, the Judge decided that on balance, the right legal framework for the child was to live with paternal grandmother under a Care Order.  Before the orders could be made, however, the Judge needed to establish whether that was legally possible.

That’s because as a result of the way the Children Act 1989 is constructed, a Local Authority can only place a child who is the subject of a Care Order with  (a) his or her parents OR (b) with a foster carer approved by the Fostering Panel.   Everyone who isn’t a parent has to fit into the second category, which means that the grandmother would need to be approved as a foster carer.

(There is one super obscure third way, which didn’t come up in this case… it takes about two pages of very very very detailed explanation, but the gist of it is that you use section 22C(6) (d), to sanction the placement, which needs approval of the IRO rather than Fostering Panel. Let’s ignore it for now. It’s uber-geeky. )

 

The Local Authority took their case to Fostering Panel,   who unanimously said no

 

  • The panel unanimously resolved not to recommend the grandmother as a connected foster carer. They gave these reasons, which I again quote verbatim:

“(1) The risks and vulnerabilities outweigh strengths to the application.

(2) It is likely that Alan’s needs for emotional stability, sense of positive role modelling of internal family dynamics, safeguarding of contact and sense of identity will be compromised.

(3) Panel members felt the likely risk to Alan’s safety around contact with birth parents and the grandmother’s ability to manage this over the long term.

(4) The grandmother’s lack of insight into the impact of her relationships and family dynamics and discord has on children in her care and her ability to manage this.

(5) The grandmother’s inability to grasp the emotional needs of Alan given his traumatic start to life and future uncertainties.

(6) Concern that the grandmother may not work in partnership with professionals in an open and honest way.

(7) That the following National Minimum Standards for fostering are not met:”

It can be seen that the social workers did not advance the court’s assessment at the panel but instead contested it and gave the panel to understand that they “could not or would not commit to” a care order, which they described as an intrusion.

 

Then, because this case isn’t already bogged down with ponderous technicalities about how a Local Authority works, the recommendation of the Fostering Panel had to go to the Agency Decision Maker to make the decision.  The Agency Decision Maker is a statutory office, a senior member of the Local Authority.  That’s because by law, Fostering Panel has to have people who AREN’T in the LA  as part of the make-up of the Panel, but also by law, people who AREN’T part of the LA CAN’T make DECISIONS on behalf of the LA.  So they make a recommendation and then the Agency Decision Maker decides it.

 

I didn’t make these rules, I’m just trying to explain them.

Also, the Agency Decision Maker said no. 

  1. On 9 November, the Agency Decision Maker made a decision accepting the panel’s recommendation. She did so by signing the minutes against the pre-entered word ‘Agreed’. Her signature appears at the foot of a box entitled ‘Decision’, which was left empty. The parties received the decision on 10 November, which was a Friday.

 

On the Monday, still staggering with the effects of shell-shock from that decision, the parties attended Court. None of them had really sketched out their Plan B, understandably. I don’t know whether there was an application to adjourn to take stock or not, but what ultimately happened was that the Judge decided in essence :- I’ve already decided that narrowly, a placement with grandmother under a Care Order is the only alternative to adoption, so if I can’t legally place with grandmother under a Care Order, there is no alternative to adoption, so Care Order and Placement Order.

 

The Court of Appeal note that they (the Court of Appeal) had more assistance from the advocates as to the legal options than had been given to the Judge at the time.

 

The first option, obviously, was for the Judge to explore further the Fostering Panel’s recommendation (given that it does not seem obvious that they were properly informed of the Judge’s decision following seven days of evidence and the reasoning), and the Agency Decision Maker’s decision, which did not follow any of the Hofstetter principles

  1. In Hofstetter v LB Barnet and IRM [2009] EWHC 328 (Admin), Charles J gave guidance on the Agency Decision Maker’s approach in relation to adoption approval. This has been endorsed for use in fostering cases by statutory guidance (The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 4: Fostering Services at 5.40). It is good discipline and appropriate for decision-makers to:
  2. list the material taken into account in reaching the decision;
  • identify key arguments;
  • consider whether they agree with the process and approach of the relevant panel and are satisfied as to its fairness and that the panel has properly addressed the arguments;
  • consider whether any additional information now available to them that was not before the panel has an impact on its reasons or recommendation;
  • identify the reasons given for the relevant recommendation that they do or do not wish to adopt; and
  • state (a) the adopted reasons by cross reference or otherwise and (b) any further reasons for their decision.
  1. Of course none of that was done in the present case.

 

It was literally a box-ticking exercise rather than that detailed analysis.

So the Court could have explored that further and invited the ADM to attend and to give evidence, with a view to seeing whether the decision could be reconsidered.

 

The Court could also have explored a range of other legal framework options – although a Care Order might have been viewed as the best option, if it were not available, it wasn’t simply that no option existed and hence adoption had to be the plan. A lesser order, whilst less desireable, had to be properly weighed against adoption. A Special Guardianship Order, Child Arrangements Order, Supervision Order or Interim Care Order (with presumably the Court sanctioning the placement using the Cardiff City Council v A decision of the President that this could be done as an assessment under s38(6) were all possibilities that could be considered.

 

And of course, the Court of Appeal note, that the Judge could have wheeled out the Enola Gay option of wardship

 

  1. Another potentially relevant decision that was not brought to the judge’s attention was Re W and X (Wardship: Relatives Rejected as Foster Carers) [2004] 1 FLR 415. In that case, three children were living with their grandparents. The local authority wanted to continue the placement under a care order, but the statutory and regulatory provisions that were then in force meant that if a care order was made, the children would have had to be removed. Hedley J responded by making private law orders, supervision orders and orders in wardship, all with the agreement of the local authority. The case is different on its facts, as the legislation has since been amended to make particular provision for the approval of family foster carers, but it shows that wardship can exceptionally be available to achieve a good outcome where other avenues are blocked.

 

 

So the decision to make a Placement Order was overturned and sent back for re-hearing.

 

Conclusion

  1. Drawing these matters together, as regards the parents the threshold for intervention was not in doubt, and the conclusion that they could not care for Alan was clear and, in the end, undisputed. The welfare decision as to whether there could be a family placement with the grandmother was in contrast finely balanced. The judge carried out a thorough fact-finding process and a careful welfare evaluation, leading her to the conclusion that this placement was in Alan’s interests, provided that the necessary local authority services were made available. That was her first preference as a way of promoting Alan’s welfare and respecting the Article 8 rights that were engaged. Her preference was not supported by the decision of the local authority’s fostering panel which, on a much more limited set of data, evaluated the grandmother’s ability to care for Alan differently. For her part, the Agency Decision Maker gave no indication of exercising an independent judgement beyond a simple endorsement of the panel’s recommendation.
  2. Faced with this unfortunate situation, the judge did not press the local authority further. She treated its stance as being beyond the power of the family court to amend and she removed placement with the grandmother from the list of realistic options. She then went on to balance adoption against the (unrealistic) option of long-term fostering before reaching her conclusion.
  3. It is entirely understandable that the judge wanted to reach a final decision. Alan was by then a child aged 15 months who had been in foster care all his life. The statutory obligation under CA 1989 s.32, requiring the court to timetable the proceedings to conclude within 26 weeks had been repeatedly exceeded and extended. The proceedings had been on foot for 14 months. The judge was demonstrably aware that such extensive delay was seriously disadvantageous for a child of this sensitive age, and of the psychological advantages to him of being able to forge bonds with adopters. However, the extensions of time to conclude the proceedings could only have been granted because the court considered them “necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly”: s.32(5). To state the obvious, the proceedings could only be concluded if they could be justly concluded.
  4. In the end, I am in no doubt that, despite the difficulties of the situation, the judge was wrong to make a placement order at the point that she did, for these essential reasons:
  5. (1) The judge underestimated her powers. She should not have accepted the local authority’s unchanged position without calling it to account for what was on the face of it an unconvincing response to her careful assessment of risk and welfare. This could have been done in a number of ways, as suggested by Ms Seddon, Mrs Hendry and Mr Messling.

(2) It is true that the judge stayed her order to allow for judicial review proceedings, but that amounted to an acknowledgement that the resources of the family court were exhausted, when they were not. In effect, she accepted the submission of the local authority, recorded at paragraph 34 above, that the decision in relation to whether the child should be placed in the care of the grandmother was not a question for the court. It was.

(3) Even if the point arrived where a decision had to be taken in circumstances where the local authority maintained a refusal to approve the grandmother as a foster carer, it was necessary for the judge to re-evaluate the remaining options for Alan’s future. By not doing this, she effectively boxed herself in. Had she looked at matters afresh, she would inevitably have confronted the fact that this was a child who was being sent for adoption as a direct result of a decision of a non-court body, an outcome unprecedented in modern times so far as I am aware. She would then have been able to weigh that prospect against a range of lesser legal orders (interim care order, private law order, supervision order, injunctions, special guardianship, wardship) in order to arrive at a valid welfare outcome.

(4) The fact that the local authority’s decision arose as a result of a second process (fostering approval) does not alter the general principles that apply. The Agency Decision Maker was not obliged to follow the recommendation of the panel. Nor was the Agency Decision Maker in relation to fostering approval responsible for the case put by the local authority to the court. The judge’s further investigations would have led her to better understand who was ultimately directing the local authority’s thinking and to achieve an effective engagement with them until the issue had been satisfactorily resolved.

  1. For these reasons, I agreed that the appeal should be allowed and that the matter should be reheard by a different judge. The rehearing will be limited to a consideration of the grandmother’s position and not involve any reconsideration of the parents as carers.

Runaway train, never going back

The British Association of Social Workers, BASW, commissioned an independent report to look at adoption. The report has just been published.

There’s a summary piece at the Guardian about it

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/18/adoption-has-become-runaway-train-social-workers-cannot-stop

In summary of the summary, concerns about a lack of ethics and human rights approach, concerns that adoption has been politically pushed and dominates thinking, concerns about lack of support for families and adopters, concerns that there’s rigidity in thinking about contact (and the report compares the English approach of an assumption of no direct contact with Northern Ireland where the assumption is that there should be direct contact four to six times per year) and critically that there’s not enough attention being paid to poverty (and austerity) being the driving force behind children being removed from families.

The impact of austerity was raised by all respondents to different extents but was a particular
concern for social workers. Cuts to family support and social work services were a recurring
theme, with the decreasing availability of early help highlighted. Very costly resources are being
used in care proceedings. As a result, less is available for earlier interventions that could support
children to stay at home safely.
Most respondents wanted a better balance between support and assessment, with families
currently too often subject to repeated assessments rather than actually helped. A number felt
social work had become increasingly risk averse and fearful of blame, with the high rates of care
applications one key example given of the impact this has on practice.
A lack of resources once children had come into care or been adopted was similarly seen as
impacting on the effectiveness of services. There were many observations about decision-making
being impacted by the lack of resources and examples given of the results, such as siblings not
being placed together.

Having read the report, I think the summary is a fair one – the report does raise all of those issues. The report is careful to say that just as treating adoption as a perfect solution for all families is not realistic or helpful, demonising all social workers is not realistic or helpful either. Adoption is the right outcome for some children, and some adoptive families thrive and prosper. But there needs to be a genuine debate about whether it is being sought too frequently.

The report is here
http://cdn.basw.co.uk/upload/basw_55841-1.pdf

I’m not going to attempt to critique it or deconstruct it – it’s a long and thoughtful piece, taking on board views of a wide variety of people involved in the process, notably hearing from both birth parents and adoptive parents who had very similar viewpoints on some issues. I have had the opportunity to read it twice, but I honestly feel I want more time with it and to reflect on it. So I don’t know whether I agree with it all, but it says things that I genuinely think needed to be said and need to be discussed and thought about. And I wanted to alert people to its existence and hopefully get people to read it and have those conversations.

Nothing in family justice ever exists in a vacuum though – for every person who reads the report and agrees with it, there will be ten who think it doesn’t go far enough and that adoption should be burned to the ground, and ten who think it is ridiculously anti-adoption and goes far too far. That polarisation about adoption is, itself, part of the problem. The stakes are so high, the emotional devastation caused to those on the wrong side of adoption so great, the political capital invested in it, that it is hard to have the conversations that need to be had.

A particular issue that comes up within the report is the self-labelling by the social work system of social workers being ‘the social worker for the child’ rather than a social worker for the family.

The definition of the social worker role as being ‘the social worker for the child’ was a source of
concern, as it often led to a lack of support for birth parents:
‘Children are part of families – a social worker cannot only be the child’s social worker.’ (birth mother)

A lot of the respondents talked about the importance of the relationship that existed between the social worker and the family – and how the quality of that relationship can transform cases (for good or ill)

Repeatedly, across the range of family members, the importance of the relationship that was
developed with a social worker was stressed.
Birth family members gave accounts of both poor and good relationships. They related experiences of feeling deceived by social workers who they considered had not been honest with them. They described not understanding or being helped to understand why their child(ren) were
permanently removed; being unfairly judged/ labelled (‘the report said I was ‘hostile’ so he could not stay, but I was not hostile – I am ‘loud’’ – birth grandmother from a traveller background); and
generally being treated in what they perceived were inhumane ways.
Birth family members emphasised the importance of social workers listening to their views, being
respectful and honest, recognising strengths and displaying acts of kindness. It was considered
that the nature of the relationship could influence what happened with the child. Examples were
given of differing outcomes for children in the same family (i.e. adoption or remaining with the
parents) and these were, at least in part, attributed to the quality of the relationship with the
individual social worker. It was considered vital that social workers have the time to get to know
and work with the family in non-judgmental ways.

Many of the responses from adoptive parents repeated the themes found in the birth parents’
accounts. The relationship between the social worker and adoptive parents was considered to be
key, with the importance of professional but caring social workers highlighted. Adoptive parents
and adopted people also spoke about the importance of good communication, honesty, being
listened to and treated as an individual human being.

The use and misuse of power was a key issue

Families stressed that social workers have a great deal of power in relation to assessment, the
provision of help and decision-making. There were many examples given by birth families,
adoptive parents and adopted people of how they had experienced the exercise of social workers’
power, both positive and negative.
Birth family members repeatedly mentioned the lack of attention by social workers to the social
contexts in which they lived. A number of respondents reported that housing, or the lack of it,
was used as evidence against them in assessments.
The importance of practical support was stressed; ‘a washing machine for example would have made a big difference’ (birth parent). One birth mother spoke of the lack of adequate interpreting facilities in her contact with social workers and legal professionals. Other birth family members also felt discriminated against because of their cultural practices (e.g. a traveller background) or for being working class or having a lack of secure immigration status.
There were many examples provided by birth parents of feeling powerless in a climate that was
seen as very risk averse. Risk of future emotional harm was described as being frequently used,
and was seen as a particularly unjust basis for permanent separation. Birth mothers reported high
levels of domestic abuse and suggested they were being punished for having a violent partner
and/or having experienced domestic abuse in childhood.
Fear of an unsympathetic and punitive response was seen as inhibiting families from asking for
help when it was needed. Parents with mental and physical health problems and learning
difficulties all reported concerns about asking for help because of the emphasis on risk. They
reported receiving an assessment rather than support and feeling they were being scrutinised
rather than helped.
Being judged and stigmatised simply for having a history of care and/or abuse was an issue. Care
proceedings, involving newborn babies, were identified as being particularly traumatic, with a
lack of attention, in particular, to the impact of having just given birth on the mother. Residential
settings were described as being too often focused on monitoring risk rather than providing help
or therapeutic support. Women with disabilities highlighted the disabling environments in which
assessments were carried out.


The report concludes with recommendations (I suggest reading them in detail, but I’ll just put the bullet points here, for reasons of space)

Recommendation 1: The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context
of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
Recommendation 2: UK governments should collect and publish data on the economic
and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
Recommendation 3: The current model of adoption should be reviewed, and the
potential for a more open approach considered
Recommendation 4: There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and
its relationship to other permanence options.
Recommendation 5: BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker
in adoption and the human rights and ethics involved