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Category Archives: timescales

“The peril of Auntie Beryl”

As the 26 week time limit comes upon us (being introduced by Parliament, the President’s revised PLO guidance and behind the scenes pressure on Courts and Local Authorities via the “Stick of Statistics” TM   – not necessarily in that order), I have been musing about the elephant in the room, of what happens when late in the proceedings, the Court is presented with a suitable relative, Auntie Beryl.

 For what it is worth, I think delays in court proceedings are caused by one or more of these things :-

 (a)   Parties (including the LA) being late in filing documents and this having a domino effect

(b)   The expert report being late, and the whole carefully built timetable collapses round people’s ears

(c)   There is a material change in circumstances  (an unexpected dad emerges, or a relationship ends or begins, or someone you thought was going to be fine relapses into drug misuse, or falls pregnant, or has some sort of unpredictable illness or disease)

(d)   A relative comes forward at the eleventh hour and has to be assessed

(e)   The evidence is all ready, but the combination of accommodating social worker, Guardian, expert and more importantly Court time, means that you have to wait 3 months for a hearing

 I think the intention of the revised PLO  (which you can find here http://www.adcs.org.uk/news/revisedplo.html  )   is to try, as much as one can, to eliminate (a) and (b), and the hope is clearly that if you have much crisper and tighter and fewer Court hearings, there will be less backlog and more judicial availability for (e)    – though it would have been nice to see something spelling out exactly what the Court service is going to do about (e)  – save for having Listings offices run by Capita…

 (c )  is probably the stuff that ends up coming into the bracket of exceptional cases that get an extension to the 26 week limit, or at least where this is actively considered.

 So that leaves the elephant in the room, where it looks as though a child MIGHT be able to be placed with a family member, but doing that assessment will take the proceedings outside of the 26 weeks, because the family member has been put forward late on.

 I suspect, and am already seeing this, that the Courts will try to tackle this by very robust directions at early Court hearings, along these lines :-

“The parents shall, by no later than                       , identify in writing to the Local Authority (to be copied to all parties) the names and contact details of any person that they put forward as a potential permanent carer of the child. Any person put forward after that date will ONLY be considered with the leave of the Court and the parent would need to apply to Court for leave for such assessment evidence to be filed and would need to provide VERY cogent reasons as to why they were not put forward within the deadline period set out in this paragraph”

 

 That looks pretty strong, and will no doubt be backed up by the Court leaning forward and stressing to the parents just how important it is to focus their minds right NOW on who might be able to care for the children, if the assessments of them are not positive.

 But, human nature being what it is, at some point, lawyers and parents and Judges will be faced with an Auntie Beryl coming forward at week 18 or 19, when the LA have announced that they won’t be rehabilitating to parents and will be seeking an adoptive placement. Auntie Beryl, on the face of it, seems like she might be suitable – she doesn’t have any convictions, or history of children being removed, or any major health issues, she has a house in which the child could live, and so forth. So there is a positive viability assessment, but still a lot to be done – more than could be done in the time we have left.

 The six million dollar question, which the Court of Appeal will be grappling with pretty quickly after the revised PLO comes into force I suspect, is

 When a parent puts forward a family member late, and the assessment of that family member would push the case outside 26 weeks, what does the Court do?

 

The immediate “26 weeks or bust” approach suggests that the Court will say, “too late, you had your chance, you had the stern warning on day 12 to cough up the names, you can’t leave it until the assessments are in and the LA are talking about adoption”

 So, what happens if they do that?

 For these purposes, we will assume that the assessment of the parents is negative (since if it were positive, there would be no need to delay matters to assess Auntie Beryl) and that we are dealing with a child under six.

 The alternative care plan is therefore adoption. 

Can an application for a Placement Order be made when there is a viable carer who has not been assessed?

 

The Local Authority have a duty, pursuant to section 22(6) of the Children Act 1989

 s22 (6)  Subject to any regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this subsection, any local authority looking after a child shall make arrangements to enable him to live with—

 (a)  a person falling within subsection(4); or

 (b)  a relative, friend or other person connected with him,

unless that would not be reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare.

 

The LA can’t, it seems to me, determine that placement with Auntie Beryl isn’t consistent with the child’s welfare if all they have is a positive viability assessment, they have to go on to do something more, EVEN IF the Court has made a Care Order.

 Before the adoption agency can decide that adoption is the plan for the child, and thus make the application for a Placement Order, they have this duty under the Adoption and Children Act 2002

 Section 1 Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

 (4)The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters (among others)—

 (f)the relationship which the child has with relatives, and with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including—

(i)the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so,

(ii)the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop, and otherwise to meet the child’s needs,

(iii)the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

 

And again, how can the adoption agency decide that Auntie Beryl can’t provide the child with a secure environment if all they have is a positive viability assessment? They have to have a full assessment.

 Thus, even if the Court determined that they were not going to allow time for Auntie Beryl to be assessed, because she has come late into the proceedings, that won’t allow the LA to simply discount her and issue a Placement Order application.

 Unless they have done sufficient to satisfy themselves that Auntie Beryl is NOT suitable, they can’t commit to a plan of adoption and no such plan could be put before the Court. Neither can they commit to “Placement with Auntie Beryl” until they have sufficient information to be satisfied that this has good prospects of success.

 Therefore, the Court cannot have a hearing by week 26 at which a Placement Order could be made.

 

 If the Court can’t consider a Placement Order application, what can it do?

 

The Court would be left, I think, with these three options :-

1. Taking the information that is available about Auntie Beryl and taking a punt on her, by making a Residence Order (or an SGO – but bear in mind that the Court cannot make a Special Guardianship Order without a Special Guardianship report   – and the Court won’t have one of those between week 18 and 26    RE S (A CHILD) NO.2 (2007) [2007] EWCA Civ 90 )

 

2. Adjourning the proceedings in order for a Special Guardianship report to be filed and served, which will push the proceedings outside of 26 weeks.  

 

3. Determining that the Court is in a position to make a Care Order, with the care plan being that the Local Authority will assess Auntie Beryl and the child will remain in foster care pending that assessment.

 

[And of course option 4 of placement with parents, but we are dealing here with those cases where the Court has the material to determine the issue of rehabilitation to parents, since in those cases Auntie Beryl isn’t important]

 

My concern is that option 3, in a post PLO world (and more importantly a world where the Judges know that their performance on timescales is being gathered and measured), becomes superficially attractive. The case concludes, it concludes in time, the Care Order is made, and Auntie Beryl becomes the Local Authority’s problem.

 Of course, it doesn’t actually resolve the future for the child, or end the proceedings with the parents knowing what will happen, and it almost invariably will lead to satellite litigation   (either the assessment of Auntie Beryl is positive, whereupon the LA will want to shed the Care Order and get an SGO or residence order made, OR it is negative, in which case the LA will put the case before their Agency Decision Maker and in due course make an application for a Placement Order)

 The only advantage option 3 has over option 2 is determining the proceedings within a 26 week timetable. There might have to be a judgment that works hard to say that the no delay principle is more important than the no order principle  – but that isn’t the only problem.

 

Get your inchoate, you’ve pulled

 

Is a care plan which at heart is “either this child will be placed with a family member OR adopted, and we don’t yet know which”  actually a legitimate care plan? Is it in fact, an inchoate care plan?

 Inchoate care plans are bad, m’kay? Not good for the Court to hand over the keys to that sparkling vintage E-type Jag to the Local Authority without having a clear idea of where they intend to drive it.

It seems so to me, even on the new Children and Families Bill reworking of care plans as being  “don’t sweat the small stuff”    model

 Section 15 of the draft Children and Families Bill

 

(1) For section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (no care order to be made until court has considered section 31A care plan) substitute—

“(3A) A court deciding whether to make a care order—

(a) is required to consider the permanence provisions of the section  31A plan for the child concerned, but

(b) is not required to consider the remainder of the section 31A  plan, subject to section 34(11).

(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long- term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

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

(b) adoption;

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

 

And it does not seem to me that even with that more limited scrutiny, a care plan which doesn’t identify whether the plan for the child is to live with a family member or in an adoptive parent, is sufficiently clear.

 Let’s see what the law says about inchoate care plans (underlining mine) and from Re S and others 2002:-

 99. Despite all the inevitable uncertainties, when deciding whether to make a care order the court should normally have before it a care plan which is sufficiently firm and particularised for all concerned to have a reasonably clear picture of the likely way ahead for the child for the foreseeable future. The degree of firmness to be expected, as well as the amount of detail in the plan, will vary from case to case depending on how far the local authority can foresee what will be best for the child at that time. This is necessarily so. But making a care order is always a serious interference in the lives of the child and his parents. Although article 8 contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision making process leading to a care order must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by article 8: seeTP and KM v United Kingdom [2001] 2 FLR 549, 569, paragraph 72. If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.

    100. Cases vary so widely that it is impossible to be more precise about the test to be applied by a court when deciding whether to continue interim relief rather than proceed to make a care order. It would be foolish to attempt to be more precise. One further general point may be noted. When postponing a decision on whether to make a care order a court will need to have in mind the general statutory principle that any delay in determining issues relating to a child’s upbringing is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare: section 1(2) of the Children Act.

    101. In the Court of Appeal Thorpe LJ, at paragraph 29, expressed the view that in certain circumstances the judge at the trial should have a ‘wider discretion’ to make an interim care order: ‘where the care plan seems inchoate or where the passage of a relatively brief period seems bound to see the fulfilment of some event or process vital to planning and deciding the future’. In an appropriate case, a judge must be free to defer making a care order until he is satisfied that the way ahead ‘is no longer obscured by an uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic’.

    102. As I see it, the analysis I have set out above adheres faithfully to the scheme of the Children Act and conforms to the procedural requirements of article 8 of the Convention. At the same time it affords trial judges the degree of flexibility Thorpe LJ is rightly concerned they should have. Whether this represents a small shift in emphasis from the existing case law may be a moot point. What is more important is that, in the words of Wall J in Re J, the court must always maintain a proper balance between the need to satisfy itself about the appropriateness of the care plan and the avoidance of ‘over-zealous investigation into matters which are properly within the administrative discretion of the local authority’. This balance is a matter for the good sense of the tribunal, assisted by the advocates appearing before it: see [1994] 1 FLR 253, 262.

 

 It seems very clear to me, that waiting for the assessment of Auntie Beryl removes that obscurity and uncertainty in the case, and that this uncertainty is NEITHER inevitable or chronic – it can be resolved by making a direction for the filing of the report.

So, the revised PLO doesn’t erode this, nor would the introduction of the Children and Families Bill as currently drafted – the Court still have a duty to look at the ‘placement’ aspect of care plans, and it appears very strongly that a care plan that is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is inchoate.

 Well that’s fine, we can just overturn the decision about inchoate care plans, and say that it is fine to have “either or” care plans.  Just let’s not worry about inchoate care plans anymore, we’ll just airbrush the whole concept out. The slight stumbling block there is that the passages above are from the House of Lords, and thus it isn’t open to lower Courts to overturn it.

 Oh-kay, so we are just going to interpret Re S very widely, to mean that a Court can and should think about whether it is right to make a Care Order rather than an interim care order where the care plan is inchoate, BUT it is not a prohibition on making a Care Order where the plan is inchoate, they don’t go that far.

 And, you know, before Re S, the former President (Wall LJ) had made Care Orders in a case where he declared the care plans to be inchoate but still decided that making care orders was the right course of action RE R (MINORS) (CARE PROCEEDINGS: CARE PLAN) (1993) [1994] 2 FCR 136 

 

Although that predates Re S, it was specifically referred to by the House of Lords (though they call it Re J, it is the same case) and endorsed, so it is good law for the proposition that a Court is not BARRED from making a Care Order with an inchoate care plan.   [Or is it? The House of Lords seem to draw a slight distinction between inchoate care plans, and care plans where the future is not certain because there are things which can only be resolved after the care order is made]

 

This is what the House of Lords say about Re R/Re J

 

  97. Frequently the case is on the other side of this somewhat imprecise line. Frequently the uncertainties involved in a care plan will have to be worked out after a care order has been made and while the plan is being implemented. This was so in the case which is the locus classicus on this subject: In re J (Minors)(Care: Care Plan) [1994] 1 FLR 253. There the care plan envisaged placing the children in short-term foster placements for up to a year. Then a final decision would be made on whether to place the children permanently away from the mother. Rehabilitation was not ruled out if the mother showed herself amenable to treatment. Wall J said, at page 265:

‘there are cases (of which this is one) in which the action which requires to be taken in the interests of children necessarily involves steps into the unknown … provided the court is satisfied that the local authority is alert to the difficulties which may arise in the execution of the care plan, the function of the court is not to seek to oversee the plan but to entrust its execution to the local authority.’

In that case the uncertain outcome of the treatment was a matter to be worked out after a care order was made, not before.

 I suspect there may be dancing on the head of a pin to try to make ‘auntie beryl cases’ the Re J style of uncertainty, rather than the Re W style of uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic.

It seems then, that it is POSSIBLE for a Court to make a Care Order, even where the care plan is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption”  and even though it achieves nothing of value for the child  (since the uncertainty is there, the timing of the assessment and any applications will be no longer controlled by the Court, there will be the inevitable delay of reissuing and listing for the second wave of litigation  – whether that be for SGO or Placement Order application.

 But even more importantly, and from an article 6 point of view – how certain is the Court that the parents  (who would be represented and able to challenge the making of SGO or Placement Orders if the care proceedings continued, under their existing certificates) would get public funding in “stand-alone” applications for an SGO or a Placement Order?

 My reading of the Funding Code  (and I am not a “legal aid” lawyer) suggests that it might well not be a “non-means, non-merits” certificate for a parent faced with an application for Special Guardianship or Placement Order that is a “stand alone” application, rather than one taking place within ongoing care proceedings  -where the public funding, or “legal aid”  is covered by non-means non-merits certificates  – for the uninitiated, “non-means, non-merits” means that a person gets free legal representation in care proceedings by virtue of the sort of proceedings they are NOT based on what money they have (means) or the chances of them being successful (merits) 

 Again, underlining to assist with clarity, mine

 

20.28 Other Public Law Children Cases

1. Other public law children cases are defined in s.2.2 of the Funding Code Criteria. The definition of these proceedings excludes Special Children Act Proceedings and related proceedings. The fact that proceedings involve a local authority and concern the welfare of children will not, of itself justify the grant of Legal Representation. The Standard Criteria and General Funding Code (as varied by s.11 of the Code and including criterion 5.4.5) will apply. The proceedings include:

a) appeals (whether against interim or final orders) made in Special Children Act Proceedings;

b) representation for parties or potential parties to public law Children Act proceedings who do not come within the definition of Special Children Act proceedings in section 2.2 of the Funding Code – this includes a local authority application to extend a supervision order (which is made under Sch.3 of the Children Act 1989);

c)other proceedings under Pt IV or V of the Children Act 1989 (Care and Supervision and Protection of Children);

d) adoption proceedings (including applications for placement orders, unless in the particular circumstances they are related proceedings); and

e) proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court in relation to children.

 

(d) seems to me to cover stand alone Placement Order applications, and they would be a matter for the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency  (oh, also, they wouldn’t be a devolved powers application, where the lawyer can just say “yes” and get on with it, it would need to be a full-blown application and waiting for the Legal Aid Agency to say yes or no)

 

Special Guardianship orders as stand-alone would be classed now as private law proceedings, and I think you can guess how the parents funding on that would go

 20.36 A special guardianship order is a private law order and the principles in s.1 of the Children Act 1989 will apply as will the Funding Code criteria in 11.11. This includes the no order principle which will be taken into account when considering prospects of success. Regard will also be had to the report of the local authority prepared in accordance with s.14A of the Children Act 1989 when considering an application for funding. When considering an application for funding to oppose the making of a special guardianship order, the way in which the proposed respondent currently exercises their parental responsibility and how this will be affected by the making of an order will also be considered.

 

 To quickly sum up then :-

 (a ) Declining to extend the timetable to assess Auntie Beryl won’t let the Court go on to determine a Placement Order application

(b) The Local Authority would be legally obliged to assess Auntie Beryl before they could even ask their Agency Decision Maker to make a decision about adoption

(c)  Making a care order with a care plan of “Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is almost certainly inchoate

(d) It almost certainly opens the door to parents to challenge that decision, given what the House of Lords say about inchoate care plans and  specifically “If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.”

 

(e) There seems to be a very foreseeable chance that if the Court make the Care Order, the parents may not get the public funding to be represented to subsequently challenge or test any application for SGO or Placement Order, funding that they would have had as of right if the Court had made Interim Care Orders and had the assessment of Auntie Beryl before considering those orders  

 (f) There must be scope for an article 6 claim that losing the ability to be legally represented to challenge whether your child might be adopted PURELY so that the Court could make a care order (on an inchoate care plan) just to satisfy the 26 week criteria is, you know, slightly unfair.

 (g)     Changing this so that it is workable only requires changes to  – a House of Lords decision,  two pieces of Primary legislation (maybe 3, if you just want to allow Courts to make SGOS in cases where they feel it is right without having a full blown SGO report), the private law funding code and the public law funding code. 

 So, job’s a good un.

 [If you are representing someone in a case where the Auntie Beryl issue crops up, “you’re welcome!”  I think the answer for the Court is to identify what issues it would need the LA to deal with in a report on the carer and to get this done as swiftly as is fair and reasonable]

 

“On the twelfth day of proceedings, my true love sent to me…”

 A purposeful and robust CMC

Or that is the plan in the imminent revised Public Law Outline anyway.

Let’s have a look, day by day, at what that might mean for the beleaguered parents solicitor.

On the first day of proceedings, my true love sent to me….

A notice from the Local Authority (don’t worry, they aren’t all going to rhyme)

I shall  assume that the notice is served on a Monday, marking day one of the proceedings, and the client promptly reacts to that by wanting an appointment with a solicitor, and they are able to get one that same day. Luckily, the solicitors diary has been freed up by the helpful LASPO changes, hurrah.

Day twelve is therefore a week on Friday.

That will, as we now know, be the CMC. Under the revised Family Procedure Rules 2010 and assorted Practice Directions, if a party seeks an expert assessment, they have to lodge a draft order and the raft of information with the Court not less than 2 working days prior to the CMC.

If you haven’t done that by the time of the CMC, it is very very unlikely that you’ll be getting an expert assessment.

So, by day 10 (the Wednesday of the second week), the parent’s solicitor needs to have drafted that order, got all of the information, and lodged that with the Court. Let us assume that the solicitor has no time out of the office and is able to draft all of that documentation ON THE VERY SAME DAY THEY GET THE INFO FROM THE EXPERTS

{This may not actually be realistic, I am looking at a counsel of perfection here, as if that needs saying}

Thus, the expert needs to have responded to all of the requests for information by Day 10. How long do we think we should give them to do that? Well, we’ve got a weekend at days 6 and 7, so it probably means the solicitor needs to send the expert the request by day 5. That gives the expert the grand total of three working days to complete all that information.

Our fantastically dedicated and efficient solicitor (and their fast-typing assistant)  sends the request for information out on the very same day that they draft the request, and they will do it all by email, because post would make this utterly impossible – that therefore means that the solicitor needs to have everything in place to know what expert they want, what questions are to be asked, by day 5 (which is probably the day after the first hearing).

So no prospect of getting any disclosure in, and you will know where the child is placed in the interim, and what the Guardian’s view of the case is for a whole day before making those strategic long-term decisions about expert assessments.

Day 1 Monday papers received – client comes in with all of them promptly

Day 2 Tuesday

Day 3 Wednesday Day

4 Thursday The first hearing, probably

Day 5 Friday The solicitor needs to identify what expert assessment might be required, formulate some questions, find some suitable experts and send off the request for information as required by the Practice Direction

Day 6 Saturday

Day 7 Sunday

Day 8 Monday

Day 9 Tuesday

Day 10 Wednesday Expert responds to the request for information, solicitor completes and lodges draft LOI, draft order and all the requirements under the Practice Direction

Day 11 Thursday

Day 12 Friday CMC

Oh, and you probably have to write your client’s statement too in that period. Luckily, as you can see, there are a full 5 working days where you are doing nothing whatsoever but twiddling your thumbs. [Apart from, you know, reading the papers, taking instructions, giving advice, contesting an ICO, preparing arguments as to why there should be an assessment, and looking after any other client you happen to have]

We are lucky on this plan that the care proceedings are issued on a Monday, as we only lose two days to weekends. If the proceedings are issued on a Friday, we lose four days to weekends. Heaven help any issued just before a bank holiday weekend.

I think if I were an expert, I wouldn’t be putting down any deposit on a new conservatory or a holiday cottage in the South of France, I suspect with that sort of timetable, instructions might well be drying up a bit.

“The horse DEFINITELY goes at the BACK of the cart”

Without further comment, the important part of the speech that the President gave on the process of reform  [the whole speech is good, actually, and is short]

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/pfd-update-process-of-reform.pdf

 

 

26 weeks

A comparatively small number of exceptional cases apart, we can and must meet the 26 week limit. We can, because various pilots and initiatives are not merely showing us that it can be done but, even more important, showing us how it can be done. We must, because if we do not, government and society will finally lose patience with us. I believe it can be done and I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that it is. My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks

 

[Okay, I lied about no further comment – three cheeky bits. One, this is the umpteenth hint I have seen dropped about it being likely that the Government will take the whole family justice system away from judges and lawyers if we don’t hit 26 week deadlines.  And two – the Children and Families Bill hits committee stage today, which is the first time that any of it has been looked at in any detail at all. It isn’t law yet.

 And finally of course, the President can introduce, if he wishes, a Practice Direction saying that the PLO timescale is to be slid down from 40 weeks to 26 weeks, and then it will be LAW that is to be followed, rather than nod and a wink POLICY]

“Finding” out the hard way

A discussion of the High Court decision of A London Borough v A and Others 2013, and what it tells us about coming to terms with difficult findings.

 The case does not contain much that is precedent or important for cases other than for these specific facts, but on a human level, it throws up some really interesting issues, which I felt were worthy of a closer look.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/96.html

In this case, the family had had four children and one of them died. A finding of fact hearing was conducted, and the Court concluded that the father had been responsible for the death of that child, having rejected the proposition that one of the other siblings, C, had caused the injuries and hence the death.

At the final hearing, the mother had not come to terms with this finding or accepted it, and the Court were faced with the stark choice of adoption or returning the three surviving children to her care with that risk in place.

The Judge decided, having heard the evidence, that if mother could be assisted, through provision of therapy to move to  a substantial and genuine acknowledgement that the father may be dangerous, combined with a genuine emotional distancing from him, would be sufficiently protective.”   

And made as a finding that if, at final hearing, she could be demonstrated to have reached that point, this would be sufficient for the children to be placed with her. The Judge therefore adjourned the final hearing for five months, to give mother the chance to get to that point, with help. This was a real second chance, and it was of course imperative for her to grab it with both hands.

Therapy was provided for her, and she was seen again by the psychologist following that therapy, to see if there was any movement

Sadly for her, there was not.

  1. On 19 November 2012, the mother’s therapist reported to a professionals meeting within the limits of proper confidentiality. She said that the mother had been open about her reluctance to engage in therapeutic work but had shown commitment and was open to attending more sessions. The mother “is clear about what the judgment said and understands she will have to talk to the children about this later. [She] however feels she cannot say for sure what happened as she wasn’t there and feels this is true for anything that she has not been present for in life. [She] believes that ‘seeing is believing’ and this is where she is at and cannot go beyond this perception.” The therapist said that she had been working with the mother on her beliefs but that the possibility of change would take perhaps a year or more and without any certainty of a shift in her belief system.
  1. On 21 November, the mother met Dr Asen, who discussed her understanding and acceptance of the risk posed by the father with her. In his report at paragraph 3.1, he records what she said:

“I can’t know what happens if I wasn’t physically there … but I believe that he did not do it … there is nothing else apart from the Judgment that shows me what happened … Judges have the power to make a Judgment … but the coroner found something different … I wasn’t physically there, so I don’t know what happened.” She added, “it is not fair that I have to say what one person (i.e. the judge) has said”. She repeatedly stated that, as she had “not been there”, “I do not know” what had happened. When I put to her that none of the professionals involved in the case had been ‘there’ either, but had nevertheless arrived at different conclusions from her, she replied, with a smile on her face: “but you don’t know K… – they don’t know K…” She said she knew K… very well and therefore I know he could not have done it.”

  1. The mother accepted that this note is accurate with the exception of the two passages I have underlined, which she denies saying. Dr Asen explained that he keeps a contemporaneous note during interviews such as this and he confirmed that the mother spoke in the way he records. I accept his evidence about this.
  1. In his report, Dr Asen concludes that nothing has changed with regard to the mother’s internal understanding and acceptance of the risks posed by the father to the children and herself. “Essentially her current position is no different from how she presented earlier this year when I first assessed her …”

 

This is something which professionals come across quite often with findings of fact hearing, that the findings are made, that there needs to be some movement towards accepting them, but that people remain of the position that the judgment is ‘one person’s opinion’,  ‘they weren’t there, so how can the judge know what really happened’ and ‘they don’t know him/her like I do’

 Those are all pretty natural, understandable, and human reactions; but against the background of a ticking clock (as decisions needs to be made for the children and they can’t wait for the parent who has been found to be not culpable to come to terms with the awful reality).  It is harsh, it is difficult, but from a legal perspective (if not a human one), once the Judge has given that finding of fact judgment, that is now the truth of what happened.  As hard as that must be, once the Judge has made the decision, the time for doubts or uncertainties about what has happened has gone, the truth is now what the Judge said happened.  

In this case, and adding a particular dimension, there was of course the issue that if the mother was not accepting that father caused the injuries, the only other candidate was the child, C.  And how would C growing up in her care, with that in mind, impact on C?

 

  1. He [Dr Asen] advises that the mother is able overall to provide a psychologically nurturing environment for children, but that in relation to C there is one major limitation in that, when he had the ability to understand, she would “tell him what the judge said …” When Dr A pointed out that C would in all likelihood pick up her own underlying views, namely that she does not believe that the father could have killed B, and that he will ask questions, leading to C and his siblings coming to the conclusion that his mother believes that he actually killed his brother (even though he was not legally or morally responsible), the mother replied that she would not be able to tell C that his father had caused B’s death, repeating: “I don’t know what happened — I wasn’t there.”
  1. Dr Asen concludes that this position is also unchanged and it is his opinion that the consequences for C and his welfare remain a major concern for the reasons set out in paragraph 5.5 of his first report. I will not repeat that passage, which lays out the implications for all the children of there being two conflicting stories about such an important part of the family history, and for C, who would pay a very heavy penalty for something the court had found he did not do.
  1. Dr Asen also discussed the mother’s support network with her. He gained the strong impression that she had not discussed the risks the father poses with her friends and that they could not at this stage contribute to the protective network that needs to be in place.
  1. Dr Asen’s opinion is that the changes made by the mother, if any, are not sufficient to reduce the risks posed to the children’s future welfare if returned to the mother’s full time care now or in the medium term future. Plans should be made for the children and the mother should continue to be offered therapy.

 On a human level it is deeply sad and tragic that mother wasn’t able to reach the stage that the Judge had wanted, even with the help, and although he had lowered the stage from one of total acceptance of the findings.  It is not terribly surprising with a lawyer hat on, that the case was going to conclude with decisions that were adverse to her.

 She wasn’t helped by a decision to file a letter of support from a leading light of her local community / religion, this being more of a nail in a coffin than a letter of support  

The mother was then asked about a letter circulated on 17 December 2012 by Dr O, who holds an honorary title and is the local co-ordinator of the Traditional Rulers Union of the parents’ community. This letter, entitled “Community Support” and running to three pages, was sent to the mother’s solicitor and copied to the therapist, to Ms Stephens, to the Guardian and to Dr Asen. In it, Dr O is highly critical of the judgment that the father was responsible for B’s death, and of many aspects of the proceedings. He refers to C as having been up and about “mischievously” on the night and he draws attention to the Coroner’s verdict. He states that “the couple have been made to separate” and that the process, including therapy, is “psychological warfare… professional blackmail” in that it attempts to persuade the mother that her husband killed the baby. He variously describes the process as prejudicial, racist and insulting, and says that the social workers are seeking to destroy the parents. Dr O then sets out a practical programme which he would coordinate for visits to be made by members of the community to the mother and children

The Judge’s consideration of the mother’s position was measured and careful, and was mindful of the difficult situation she found herself in

 

  1. Having listened carefully to the mother and being conscious of the intense difficulty of her position, I find that her views have not moved on in any meaningful way since she undertook therapy. I assess her as being deeply sceptical about the father’s responsibility for B’s death, and in my view it is this, and not only cultural or religious considerations, that explains her decision to remain married to him.
  1. The mother’s witnesses, most of whom do not form part of her immediate cultural and ethnic community, are clearly excellent people. They have an appreciation of the court’s findings and of the risks posed by the father, and I am sure they could be relied upon to do their best to support the mother and children. However, it is striking that even this body of opinion has not enabled the mother to move on in her own thinking. She did not involve them over the past months in planning the future with social services. I do not accept that this is because she did not want to trouble them: it is more likely that she did not involve them because their views do not coincide with her own.
  1. Instead, it is to her family and her community, including her church, and to Dr O, that the mother has turned. The view of the family and significant community members is that C was probably responsible for B’s death. The views contained in Dr O’s letter reflect this and it is to be noted that the mother has not chosen to call evidence from the people upon whom she most depends.
  1. Making all allowances, I cannot accept the mother’s evidence about her present beliefs. I do not believe that she has even reached the point where she has an open mind about what happened to B. Her nature is not militant, but I find that she has a quiet belief that the father is probably innocent. She was not frank about Dr O when first asked about him in evidence, and I was not persuaded by her attempt to dissociate herself from the views he expresses.
  1. Setting these conclusions against the many other factors in this case, and weighing up the children’s individual interests, I have concluded with real sadness that they cannot be returned to the care of their mother. The nature of the risk in this case is of the utmost gravity and there are no effective measures that could guarantee the children’s physical safety over time. Like Dr Asen, Ms Stephens and Ms Shepherd, I find that despite any current good intentions, the mother would not be reliably able to exclude the father from her life or the life of the children over the long period of years that would be necessary for their safety and wellbeing. She does not have the inner belief to enforce separation, and she would come under increasing pressure from her own thinking, from the father, from the community, and no doubt in time from the children themselves, to let him back into their lives once the intensity of the current professional interest was in the past. Moreover, even if the father was kept at a distance, I accept the evidence of Dr Asen about the likelihood of emotional harm to the children that would arise from being brought up in an environment in which the prevailing belief was that the father was innocent. The consequence is that C would learn that he was thought to have harmed B, and yet none of the children could see the father or be given a good reason why they could not.
  1. I accept the unanimous professional evidence and therefore approve the local authority’s plans for the three children’s future placements. I shall make care orders and, having considered the terms of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, make placement orders in relation to M and J. In M’s case, adoption is clearly in her interests, and in J’s case, a time-limited search for adopters is in my view right, while at the same time seeking a long term foster home. I dispense with the parents’ consent to making placement orders because the children’s welfare requires it. If an adoptive placement is not found, the placement order will have to be discharged in a timely fashion – the application can be made to me.

 

As we wind our clock ever more tightly and make the hands turn faster, how compressed will the time period for a parent to come to terms with an awful finding against their loved one be?  You can’t hurry love, as they say, but you can’t necessarily hurry dismantling that love in the light of an awful finding  either…

There’s a small boat made of china, going nowhere on my mantelpiece

 

Laplace, prediction, and why we might, everywhere we go, always take the weather with us in care proceedings

 

By the start of the nineteenth century, scientists had discovered a great many of the principles of physics and particularly how various forces acted on objects in predictable and mathematical ways.  This led some scientists to hubristically predict that there was nothing new to be found in the world of physics   (obviously not aware that radioactivity, splitting the atom and quantum physics were completely unknown to them at that point).

 

Anyway, once you discover the various mathematical principles about forces and objects and how forces act upon objects, one starts thinking about whether you could predict something with absolute certainty if you had enough information.

 

Being a previously sad geeky sciency Suesspiciousminds Junior, I had certainly wondered in my adolescence whether you could, if you had really fast computers and knew everything, no longer be guessing a toin coss, but knowing how it would end up.  

 

That’s something which has also exercised the minds of a great many gamblers, since Roulette is essentially just an exercise in predictable physics (speed of spin of the table, angle and speed at which the ball is dropped) – predictable, but extremely complex, and if you could actually predict which slot the ball would drop into, with certainty, you would be an extraordinarily rich person.

 

Well, someone else,  Pierre-Simon Laplace took that a stage further, and suggested that with a great enough intellect (computers weren’t really around at that stage, other than Babbage’s mechanical one which was more of a theoretical concept than something you could actually boot up and play Farmville on), you could calculate the entire future of the universe and the movement of every particle.

 

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

 

This is really the birth of determinism, the idea that you can, given enough information, accurately predict future outcomes, or more broadly, that given a set of conditions, the outcome which emerges from those conditions is the only one which COULD have emerged.  

 

[Sadly, I learned when doing a bit of quick research, that Laplace’s other claim, that Pope Callixtus had once excommunicated a comet, was fallacious. I have a later essay planned on how the law has treated animals and inanimate objects, and that would have fitted perfectly with the excommunication of beetles and the pig who was put on trial for murder]

 

I won’t get any further into whether Laplace’s grand conjecture is true or not (if only in a deeply theoretical sense), and it is still debated – Einstein firmly lined up with Laplace on believing that there were firm mathematical laws and principles underpinning all matter and physics and that it would therefore be possible to predict things with certainly, but that there were just things that were yet unknown to us that prevented such predictions being made. Many others think otherwise, and that there’s an element of randomness, particularly at the quantum level that makes that impossible.

 

Let’s move away from correctly predicting the motion, position and velocity of every particle in the universe and onto a smaller scale, and some predictions which are common to every one of us, and which enter our homes on a daily basis.

 

And that allows me to  yank it back to care proceedings – in one of the dominant cases of the 1990’s, Re H and R 1996, the House of Lords grappled with the issue of what ‘likely’ meant, when considering whether a child was ‘likely to suffer significant harm’  and this is one of the more memorable passages from Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead :-

 

 

In everyday usage one meaning of the word likely, perhaps its primary meaning, is probable, in the sense of more likely than not. This is not its only meaning. If I am going walking on Kinder Scout and ask whether it is likely to rain, I am using likely in a different sense. I am enquiring whether there is a real risk of rain, a risk that ought not to be ignored. In which sense is likely being used in this subsection?

 

 

And if you know the law, you will grasp that the latter is where we ended up at in terms of likelihood  – it does not mean something that is more likely than not to happen, but a risk that cannot sensibly be ignored.

 

But in a real sense now, I am going to talk about the science of predicting the weather – will it rain on Kinder Scout today or not?

 

As you will know, the field of predicting the weather has moved beyond hanging up pine-cones or (my standby) looking at whether cows are lying down in a field   (a belief I can’t shed, despite knowing how stupid it is, and one which gets me regularly mocked by Ms SuesspiciousMinds)

Meteorology instead uses a combination of :-

 

  1. Gathering lots of information about the current situation
  2. Applying mathematical principles and formula to predict how features in one part of the system will interact with another
  3. Calculating therefore what a particular part of the system is likely to do at a future point

 

 

And thus, is a system that would make Laplace very proud.

 

 

The principles that govern whether we get rain, or snow, or a nice bright sunny day, are pretty uncontroversial. There isn’t a band of quarrelling meteorologists bickering about whether isobars are of any significance at all or whether the warm fronts we see so much of on the television are merely illusory.  So, the principles are all there. The mathematical models for what these set of conditions will do over the next few hours are there (based largely on thermodynamics and fluid dynamics), and have been refined and improved, the collection of information about those conditions has vastly improved over the last thirty years, as has the quality of computers doing the calculations.

 

But what is your first answer, quickly, when I ask

 

“Do you think we can reliably forecast the weather?”

 

 

Making my own little forecast, your instant reaction was no, or that we are hopeless. You may, if you are a fair-minded person, have had a momentary recalibration and decided that we are better at it than we used to be, or even that we are not bad at it now.

 

But let’s go back to Lord Nicholls – it is March, you are about to go up Kinder Scout  and the weather forecast says that it is probably not going to rain. Do you take a coat, or not?

 

Is the risk that the weather forecast will be wrong when it says there won’t be rain, a risk that cannot be sensibly be ignored, if you find yourself up on a mountain without a coat?

 

You may have had nagging at the back of your mind, or the front of your mind if you are a science geek or liked Jeff Goldlum’s character in JurassicPark, the notion of chaos theory at this point. You may even have recalled the image of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane on the other side of the world   [incidentally, probably the most misunderstood image in the history of science  – it doesn’t CAUSE the hurricane, it is about how small factors can amplify and make things harder to predict]

 

Essentially, small factors amplify with time, and the way they amplify is hard to predict, so even the very best computer forecasts become more and more unreliable with the passage of time. Forecasts are far more reliable about the next few hours than they are about next week, and break down almost entirely after sixteen days.  In numerical models, extremely small errors in initial values double roughly every five days for variables such as temperature and wind velocity

 

[So every time the newspapers tell you that there are predictions that this is going to be a “barbecue summer”  remember that the accuracy beyond 16 days is all to cock]

 

 

Okay, so predicting the weather, which is based on inanimate objects, which act under the influence of known forces, in known ways, and which the science of meteorology has been refining and checking against known outcomes to improve the prediction models, isn’t all that accurate and is not very accurate at all after 16 days.

 

Now, I will pull us back to law.

 

At the conclusion of a criminal trial, things are simple  – did this person do what they were accused of, and has that been proven. It’s similar with any other sort of legal dispute  – did one person prove that x happened, and what punishment / compensation should the Court give.   The Court doesn’t really have to predict the future – a burglar isn’t convicted of an offence of burglary only if the Court think he will do another burglary next week.

 

 

Care proceedings aren’t like that – whilst we may well spend some time arguing about precisely what happened in the past and the Court may have to decide that if we can’t hit on a form of words which everyone can agree, mostly what we are doing is predicting the future.

 

  • Have the improvements seen in the mother’s parenting at a mother and baby placement, or in contact, mean that she can now safely care for the child, or is she going to slip back into her old ways once she stops being watched all the time?
  • Is this father, who has been using heroin for 6 years but has been clean for 4 months, going to remain clean, or will he slip back? (What if he was clean for 6 months, but had one lapse?)
  • Will the mother, now that she has seen how risky an individual her new boyfriend is, stay away from him when the proceedings are over, or will he be back in her life and have the chance to hurt the child?
  • Will the parents who broke their four year old’s leg by handling him far too roughly, ever do anything like that again?

 

 

I have probably sledge-hammered this point, rather than making it in a subtle way, but if top scientists with huge computers can’t predict whether it will rain on Kinder Scout tomorrow, how can we possibly predict with certainty whether the mother will succumb to text messages from the dodgy boyfriend and keep seeing him in secret?

 

Professor Monroe touched on this in her first report –  there was for a long time a body of thought in social work, or social work management, that we could avoid the twin pitfalls of social work    – being too soft and letting children get hurt, or being too hard and breaking up families who could have stayed together (Baby P at one end, Cleveland and Orkney at the other) by having more information, more accurate models, and getting the decisions just right.

 

1.43

Professionals can make two types of error: they can over-estimate or underestimate the dangers facing a child or young person. Error cannot be eradicated and this review is conscious of how trying to reduce one type of error increases the other.

1.44

The public tend to learn of cases of abuse after a child or young person has died or suffered serious harm and then, with the benefit of hindsight, make judgments on how it was easy to see that the child or young person was in danger and would have been safer if removed. This is of course not the way the issue looks for the professionals who only have foresight. Removing a child or young person can protect them from immediate risk of significant harm, but is understandably traumatic for them. Maltreated children or young people who come into care often benefit in the long term,  but although the outcomes achieved by looked after children have improved, in too many cases, the potential of the care system to compensate for early harm is unrealised for reasons which are well documented.

 

Our society rightly values the birth family as the primary source of care for children and young people and disrupting that bond is seen as a serious step to take, requiring close scrutiny before the courts will grant the legal authority to do so.

The birth family equally presents a mixture of benefits and dangers. A good assessment involves weighing up these relative risks and benefits and deciding which option, on balance, carries the highest probability of the best outcomes for the child. Neither option carries zero risk of harm.

1.45

In assessing the value of leaving the child in the same situation, professionals have to consider a balance of possibilities: to estimate how harmful it will be, to consider whether it might escalate and cause very serious harm or death. They also need to consider whether resources are locally available so that families can be helped to provide safer care and estimate how effective such interventions are likely to be.

1.46

All of these areas of uncertainty make decisions about children and young people’s safety and well-being very challenging. A well thought out decision may conclude that the probability of significant harm in the birth family is low. However, low probability events happen and sometimes the child left in the birth family is a victim of extreme violence and dies or is seriously injured is therefore very important. Public understanding that the death of a child may follow even when the quality of professional practice is high is therefore very important.

 

 

She says, and as you can see, I agree, that you just can’t hope to get every case right, when you predict the future, your predictions have limitations to their accuracy.  If you try to move down the safety first side of the scale, you will take children away unnecessarily. If you try to move down the keeping families together side of the scale, some children will be badly harmed at home.  The aim to just make the right decisions at the right time, in all case is simply never going to happen.

If the weather forecasters can’t get it right, neither can we.

You are dealing with people, with all their uncertainties, capriciousness and emotions, and you can’t predict exactly what they will do. The cases where you get it ‘just right’ may well end up being few and far between, and may well be more by luck than judgment.

 

A mother who is utterly resolute about remaining separate from her dangerous  ex-boyfriend, who understands what is at stake and how bad he is from her, may on any given day fluctuate about just how resolute she is. Maybe someone handsome smiled at her at a bus stop and she feels good about herself when he sends the text message and she deletes it without reading it. Maybe just before the text message came in, she caught sight of herself in a mirror and felt fat and unloveable. It is utterly impossible to predict that.  It seems easier to predict that a mother that tried to separate from ex boyfriend six times and always went back to him, and was caught out two weeks ago, probably won’t stick to her claims that it is all over and she will never see him again. But we can’t be SURE, we can only predict whether the risk is one that cannot be sensibly ignored.

 

 

None of that means that we simply give up, and either leave all children at home with their parents, or take away every child where there is a sniff of danger, but we do have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with society as a whole.

 

 

And we have to constantly test where we find ourselves on the scale of child rescue and family preservation – are we lurching too far down one end or another?  Are we risk averse, fearful of a Baby P headline and ignoring that those actions break up a family which could have stayed together, or running with a rule of optimism that small changes mean a good future prognosis and not seeing the full picture?

 

We are attempting to predict what human beings, with human emotions, will do in the future – not just in the next few days, or 16 days, but over the course of their children’s childhood.  And the very sort of parents that we attempt to do that with tend,  not always, but more often than not, to be emotionally fragile, damaged people who are chaotic and unpredictable in their actions.

 

 

 

Family preservation versus child rescue

I was kindly sent Dr Peter Dale’s response to the Government consultation on contact with children in care, and sibling placement in adoption.

 

I blogged about those consultations here :-

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/23/we-are-family-ive-got-all-my-sisters-with-me-or-beware-of-the-leopard/ 

 

 

Anyway, here is Dr Dale’s response.

 

http://www.peterdale.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ContactPaperResponseAug2012.pdf

 

 

Whilst I don’t agree with absolutely everything Dr Dale says, I like to read things that I don’t agree with, and I particularly like reading things that make me change my view about things.  This document did that, and for that reason, I commend it to you.

 

It also chimed with some things that were in my mind about where we are currently headed with family justice, and my overriding uneasy impression that there’s nothing in the Family Justice Review or the legislation and practice that’s going to flow from it which is about the fundamentals of whether Society wants what we’re currently doing, and whether we ought to step back from the 1989 Act and see how it is working. 

 

Not in terms of processes, and costs and times – it’s awful on all of those things, and that’s what the Family Justice Review has focussed on, but on the bigger issues of whether the whole interaction between State and parents is what the general public would want, or whether, as is alleged by critics of the system it has created a horrible sense of injustice and unfairness where professionals are powerful and parents are powerless.

 

Are the people working within the Family Justice System out of step with what society as a whole would think about when the State ought to intervene and care for your children, and what is child abuse, and what is what Hedley J described in Re L as Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent.

 

 

It’s always a good thing, I suspect, to question that. It’s very easy to assess any case against the backdrop of your own experience, but even when that experience seems quite large, it is really just tiny and trivial compared to the overall numbers of care proceedings.

 

And whilst I can look at the risks of harm in a case and have a good feel for whether the Courts I appear in will consider it manageable or not manageable, that gives me no proper sense of what UK society as a whole would think.

 

I think that most people in the UK would agree that children should not be sexually abused  (although even on that, one person’s view as whether a man who five years ago groped a fifteen year old daughter of a previous partner is now a risk of sexual abuse to his own baby boy is probably going to differ from anothers),  but I suspect that there’s a multitude of views on physical abuse and where the line is drawn between parental chastisement and abuse  (I think most people would say no to broken arms and legs, but there would be a difference of opinion about bruising) and neglect would be very hard to get a consensus on, and emotional harm even more so.

 

Is there a value in care proceedings calibrating themselves against what the general population or society at large would consider to meet Significant Harm?  Where do we want, as a society, to draw the line of ‘this is unusual or not very good parenting but let them get on with it’  against ‘this child can’t stay at home

 

I think it’s something that’s not really been attempted, and I’d be interested in the results. Should a parent not have a clear idea, long before they ever meet a social worker, of what sort of parenting falls so below society’s standards that the State would intervene?

 

I would like to hope that if you pulled out a random judgment from any care case decided by any  Court in the country since the Children Act came into being, and gave it to a journalist, they might think at worst  “well, that could have gone the other way, and it was finely balanced. I might disagree, but I can see why it happened” but would never think “god, that’s just outrageous, how could they have possibly not got those kids back? This is a scandal”  

 

I’d like to hope that, but I can’t say for certain. Maybe of 1000 random cases, there’d be one that produces the ‘outrageous’ reaction, maybe 60, maybe 300.  We have no way of knowing.  I suspect, hand on heart, that there are more ‘outrageous’ cases than I’d like to believe, but less than the Hemming/Brooker camp would believe.  But either of us could be wrong. We might both be (and probably are)

 

I’d like to see, for example, the collation of anonymised threshold documents from every case, so that research could be done on whether this fluctuates over time and between areas, and to have a proper sense of what it is, in  a family justice system that results in Care Orders being made.

 

Anyway, enough about me, on with Dr Dale.

 

He opens with this :-

 

“there are major philosophical, theoretical, political and cultural differences as to what constitutes a child’s “best interests”. Such differences are apparent throughout the history of childcare literature, and dominant viewpoints rise and fall. The field of child protection in general, and specifically permanent separation/adoption, is permeated by variations and polarities of apparently reasonable opinion. Over time the social policy pendulum has swung back and forth across the continuum that has “familypreservation’’ principles at one pole; and “child rescue” principles at the other. Each position is internally logically consistent and can call on research to support its belief systems (as to what is “best” for children). Notably each paradigm/mindset when implemented gives rise to unintended negative consequences (which may only become apparent over time).”

 

 

And I think he is completely right. I suspect, as he believe, that we are in a period of “child rescue” being the dominant thinking, and that this is colouring Government thinking on the Family Justice Review, on adoption scorecards and on these consultations.

 

[Cynically, if you’re in the Government, and you’re imagining the headlines for ‘another Cleveland’ or ‘another Baby P’ and had to choose one of those two to encounter, I suspect most ministers would choose another Cleveland.   I’m sure it has never been as overt as that]

 

 

Dr Dale talks at some length about the risks of ‘child rescue’ and I think it is worth setting them out in full, because they are well constructed and interesting.

 

“In essence, what the DoE/Narey report recommends is a reinforcement of “childrescue” principles and practices that in the 1940s–1960s saw thousands of children in state care being forcibly emigrated to places such as Australia, Canada and South Africa without the knowledge of their parents (and without any continuing contact). Of course, at the time, the agencies involved (including Children’s charities such as Barnardos) considered that this was “in the best interests” of these children. History informs us otherwise (Humphrey 1996).

 

It is of note that compulsory adoption, and adoption without contact, is anathema in Australia and New Zealand because of the history of mass forced adoption of Aboriginal and Maori children known as the “Stolen Generation(http://reconciliaction.org.au/nsw/education-kit/stolen-generations/). The South Australian government formally apologised on 18 July 2012 for this history of forced adoption. The following notice appeared in the South Australian press on 14/7/2012:

Government of South Australia: Forced Adoption Practices.

“On behalf of the South Australian Government the Premier, the Hon Jay Weatherill MP, will deliver a formal Apology to mothers and fathers whose children were removed because of forced adoption practices from the past, and to people who were separated from their parents as infants as a result of those practices. The Apology will be delivered at the South Australian Parliament from 11am on Wednesday 18 July 2012.”

1.4 I predict a UK government apology for recent and current practices of forced adoption in about 30 years time.

1.5 In this context, the proposals in the DoE/Narey paper are technical measures to further implement “child rescue” principles, policies and practices. In my view, a broader theoretical perspective is required to ensure that the proposed changes do not have adverse outcomes and unintended negative consequences.

 

It is always worth a reality check, and this whole section is one.  Maybe we will recoil in horror in 30 years time at the idea of forced adoptions.

 

It may well be that in years to come, the concept of the State adopting children against the will of the parent may be something that boggles the mind, just as reading that in the 1940s-1960s the State took children in care and forcibly emigrated them to the other side of the world boggles the mind now.  I’m sure that nobody involved in that practice at the time thought that they were doing anything other than something that was good for the children, even if with the passage of time it now seems unfathomable, and we can’t disregard the possibility that in time, things that seem ‘good practice’ now will become anathema.

 

For that reason, I would support a family justice review that didn’t look just at processes and system but the whole overarching philosophy of how the interaction between State and parents who are considered to be not meeting their children’s needs should take place. What does Society want from a family justice system?  How much help does Society want to give struggling parents? More than is delivered at present, I suspect.

 

 

There’s some very detailed deconstruction of the Kenrick research that colours so much of the Government consultation on contact. I’m not going to get in the ring between Dr Dale and Kenrick, but I would suggest that at the very least, and as with any research, accepting it uncritically is not wise to do. If you’re involved in any way with contact between children and parents, I think Dr Dale’s analysis of this is worth reading, even if you eventually settle more on the Kenrick side of the debate, because it is a properly constructed assessment of the other side of the coin.

 

 

Some more on compulsory adoption here :-

 

1.45 Compulsory adoption is often referred to as being the most draconian outcome in UK law since the abolition of the death penalty. In cases of murder, the death penalty was imposed following a finding of guilt by a jury at the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt). The outcome of compulsory adoption occurs on the basis of findings by a single judge at the lower civil level of proof (balance of probabilities). In both scenarios, miscarriages of justice are known to occur.

 

1.46 In the same way as a hanged man cannot be revived and reprieved, children who have been wrongly subject to compulsory adoption cannot be returned to their innocent parents. [e.g. Norfolk County Council v Webster [2007] 2 FLR 415]. In the sad case of four-month-old baby Jayden Wray in 2012, two parents were accused of his murder; and had a new baby removed from their care with a plan for adoption, until it was confirmed that Jayden had in fact died from undiagnosed rickets. (LB of Islington v Al Alas and Wray [2012] EWHC 865 (Fam).) Faster compulsory adoption raises risks of inadequate investigation in complex medical cases; proper exploration of alternative (less draconian) placements (e.g. kinship care); and scrutiny of the judicial process.

 

 

 

[As someone within the system – and I am trying here to be honest in accepting that that doesn’t necessarily put me in the best position, I think cases should be determined on the civil standard of proof and by a Judge, rather than to the criminal standard and before a jury – but I do think that a proper debate about this to reach a consensus as to what Society thinks is legitimate. And if Society had a different view to me, the law ought to be looked at.   I can see an argument that can’t be dismissed out of hand  that if a person is accused of stealing from a shop, they can insist on a trial by jury and the criminal standard of proof, but can’t get that for a determination of whether they’ve abused their child]

 

I share Dr Dale’s fears that we are rushing into a faster resolution of the most drastic step that the law can take in a persons life, without having first done the most basic exercise of  “Is the system actually getting the right answers now?”

 

 

As Billy the Kid once said  “Speed’s fine, partner, but accuracy’s final”  

 

I know the stats about the high proportion of cases where the order sought by the Local Authority is the one made by the Court, and also the NSPCC research on the children who were rehabilitated home having too high a proportion going on to suffer further significant harm, or to go on to come back into care.

 

But I am troubled by the fact that we don’t have a clear sense of whether we currently are on the ‘family preservation versus child rescue’ scale is a place where society and the general public would be content with, if they knew.

 

I would like to think that if there were some huge detailed investigation whereby proper impartial researchers with access to proper information and data would conclude that in the vast majority of cases, Courts make Care Orders for proper reasons and that whilst mistakes are made and every one is a human tragedy, they are rare and the appeal process rectifies them.

 

But I have to accept that I am within the system, and maybe I believe that because the alternative is too hard to contemplate. Those outside the system, certainly a significant body of them, believe the opposite, that a proper root and branch investigation would show that the State is letting families down, removing them for insufficient reason and not doing enough to support them, and that social workers are mistreating parents.

 

Dr Dale’s consideration of the case of Re K (A Child: Post Adoption Placement Breakdown) [Neutral Citation Number: [2012] EWHC B9 (Fam)].  Which I have blogged about here    

 

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/30/forensic-ferrets-or-standing-in-the-way-of-beyond-parental-control/

is very interesting. That’s clearly a case where judicial scrutiny of a case has led to the Judge determining that the Local Authority’s treatment of the parents was ‘not only inappropriate and wrong but cruel’    and it’s easy to see, when you read cases like this, why the people who rail against Local Authorities have a point.  Sometimes Local Authorities behave extremely badly. What we don’t know, is how often.

 

This is not the sort of thing that should happen, but it still does, and we have no way of knowing, without a proper independent look at the body of care cases as a whole whether this is an awful aberration (as I would claim) or an illustration of how social workers behave and usually get away with (as the forced adoption camp would claim).

 

3.23 If the UK practice of compulsory adoption continues with no direct contact for the child with natural family members during childhood, I predict in the not-too distant future, an increase in the phenomenon of adoptive parents being rejected and abandoned by their alienated adoptive children who ‘vote with their feet’ and return to their natural families. This is a tragic outcome for all three parties in the ‘adoption triangle’. It is one, in my experience, that adoptive parents are not warned to expect by social/adoption workers.

 

 

 

I suspect that the consultation, as I hinted darkly, is already a done deal, that the new thinking is all about ‘child rescue’   – I note that there’s nothing being launched by the Government to measure the statistics of children successfully rehabilitated to the care of parents, or of interventions with troubled families that avoid the need for care proceedings, or a league table congratulating Local Authorities for being able to keep children within the family.

 

 

It would be nice to have an emphasis on the importance of ‘family preservation’ and balancing it properly against ‘child rescue’ on the basis that it is the right and proper thing to do, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to another Cleveland, Orkney or Rochdale.

You never know when it might just… Buckaroo!

 

A discussion of whether too much weight is being put on the back of North Yorkshire County Council v B 2007, and whether there is such a thing as a ‘ruling out’ hearing at interlocutory stage

 

 

 

This is a scenario that’s not that uncommon in care proceedings – all of the evidence on the parents has been collected and the professionals have taken a view on it, that view not necessarily being shared by the parents. But the case isn’t ready for final hearing and is being adjourned for 3-4 months, usually in order to test a placement with a relative.

 

[Incidentally, could we all stop using the phrase ‘a relative has come out the woodwork’ in such situations? It’s icky, and perjorative. And is a pet hate of mine. They are grandparents, or aunts, or friends, not woodlice]

 

Can the Court in those circumstances have a hearing which disposes of the parents case at interlocutory stage?

 

There’s a school of thought that you can, arising from the High Court decision in North Yorkshire County Council v B 2007   [2008 1 FLR 1645]

That case certainly provides some authority for the suggestion that the Court can deal with the parents case before the case is ready for final hearing. And let’s be fair, the cases I do are all in Courts which are bound by High Court authorities.

 

But, to borrow medical sceptic Ben Goldacre’s phrase  “I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that”

 

What follows, like everything on my blog is my personal opinion, and not representative of anything more. But perhaps even more so than usual, because I’m never going to be in a position where my personal opinion on say Re X  (it’s a very high threshold to cross to get an EPO these days) is in conflict with the law, since that’s exactly what Re X says.

 

But my interpretation of how far you can push North Yorkshire is not decided law, and thus I might one day have to present a case where my personal views on it are set aside. Hence the lawerly caveats. Sorry.

Let’s look at the facts of North Yorkshire. 

The case was listed for an eleven day final hearing, and just before the hearing, it became apparent that the final assessment on the family carers who had slithered under the doorframe  [see how icky it is when you take the usual metaphor and slightly reword it? Stop saying ‘come out of the woodwork]  would not be ready.

 

The Judge was faced with the prospect of abandoning a hearing where eleven days had been set aside, witnesses warned etc and finding all of that time again in the future, or trying to see if something useful could be done with that hearing time. The Local Authority suggested that the Court could use the eleven days to hear mother’s case (that the children should be returned) and then have a shorter disposal hearing on appropriate order and contact at a later stage.

 

North Yorkshire sets out the Honourable Mrs Justice Black’s(as she then was) decision on the preliminary issue of whether a Court could actually conduct a hearing determining a parents case before the final hearing.

 

We do not know, as the full case was not reported, what the decision at the end of the eleven days was, but the preliminary issue was decided, and Black J concluded that it was open to the Court to conduct such a hearing.

 

 

Now, here are some important things from that judgment :-

 

  1. Mother was making a positive case (not just disputing the LA case)
  2. Mother was asserting that she was making progress and could evidence that. She was on a methadone reduction programme. She accepted she was not in an immediate position to have the child returned, but felt that was achievable in the foreseeable future
  3. The family members, who were being put forward, were not certain to have a positive full assessment – the prospects were there, but the initial viability had been negative and the placement revisited because the father received a custodial sentence removing his risk from the scene.
  4. The judgment is only permissive  – it says that the Court, could embark upon a hearing to determine the merits of mother’s case. It does not say that a Court HAS to do this in similar circumstances, nor does it set out any criteria for when it would be appropriate to do so, or when it would be wrong.

 

 

But this is the paragraph that causes me disquiet if this authority is being used as authority for a principle that parents can be ‘Ruled Out’ at interlocutory stage.

 

17. It cannot be argued, in my judgment, that decisions in care proceedings only crystallise when the Court is about to make a final order. I am not saying that decisions are not open to a later attempt to persuade the subsequent judge to change earlier conclusions and findings in the right circumstances. In the right circumstances they can be open to later challenge, and res judicata or issue estoppel, in its traditional form has a limited place in family proceedings.

 

 

It is the underlined passage that causes me to believe, on a personal level, that using North Yorkshire as authority for a principle that the Court can finally dispose of a parents case at interlocutory stage simply puts more weight on its back than the case can bear.  Buckaroo!   (also Yeeee-haaa)

 

If one thinks for a moment about what one would mean by “Ruling Out”, it must surely include this :-

 

  1. That the children, if they are old enough to understand, can be told that the Court has decided that they will not go home to mummy or daddy.

 

  1. And inevitably, if they are to be told that, that mummy and daddy can’t come back to the final hearing in 3 months time and argue for the return of the children.

 

  1. And to an extent, that they are PREVENTED from doing so, as a result of the earlier decision and judgment of the Court.

 

 

[and by extension, that if the parent issued a Residence Order application shortly before the final hearing  – for which, of course, they don’t need leave as a result of s10(4), the Court would dismiss this without hearing any submissions or evidence. And I suggest that as soon as you put it in those terms, you can see that there’s no possibility of a Court doing that, no matter what judgments have gone beforehand]

 

If you don’t have those 3 things, then you have not had a Ruling Out of the parents.  What you may have had, which is legitimate, is a judicial determination of the case against the parents and the counter case, at a particular snapshot in time and a judgment as to whether, all things being equal the parents are likely to be able to overcome any deficiencies found in that judgment within the children’s timescales. 

 

But saying that the parents can produce no evidence at the later final hearing to counter that judgment – if they make sweeping changes or accelerated progress the Court will not hear them on the issue, is not only NOT expressly sanctioned by North Yorkshire, the case says quite the reverse. [IMHO]

 

I am also troubled by the concept of Ruling Out, and how it fits with the House of Lords decision in Kent County Council v G 2006

 

Thus the court’s role is plain. It is not, as Jonathan Cohen QC put it in his eloquent submissions on behalf of Ellie and her parents, to decide whether or not a child is to live with her family. It is, as Charles Howard QC put it on behalf of the local authority, to decide whether or not to make a care order.   (paragraph 48)

 

If it is not the Court’s role to decide whether the child should return to parents, but rather, whether to grant the application made by the State  (and that must be right, because that’s where the burden of proof lies) then the Court cannot finally determine that application until final hearing/agreed final IRH.

 

 

Of course, where there is a dispute over threshold, or an interim care plan (the parent opposing the move, or level of contact) or dispute as to the expert evidence, or what the timescales for change would be, then there is some value in incorporating within that, the North Yorkshire position,  of the Court weighing up the merits of returning the child to the parent at that particular time and perhaps indicating what sort of changes would be required for the door to be opened for parents at the final hearing.   I think any and all of that is legitimate and permissable, so long as the Court is not tempted to take that additional step of ruling that the parents case is finally disposed of.

 

But a stand-alone Ruling Out hearing, is a concept that worries me. If one looks at an analogous situation of whether a separate finding of fact hearing is required,

 

RE A County Council v DP, RS, BS by the children’s guardian [2005] where MacFarlane LJ said:

“The authorities make it plain that, amongst other factors, the following are likely to be relevant and need to be borne in mind before deciding whether or not to conduct a particular fact finding exercise:

a) The interests of the child (which are relevant but not paramount)
b) The time that the investigation will take;
c) The likely cost to public funds;
d) The evidential result;
e) The necessity or otherwise of the investigation;
f) The relevance of the potential result of the investigation to the future care plans for the child;
g) The impact of any fact finding process upon the other parties;
h) The prospects of a fair trial on the issue;
i) The justice of the case.”

 

 

I am not sure that the merits of what can be achieved at what I would call a North Yorkshire hearing rather than the shorthand (which I suggest is misleading) of a Ruling Out hearing, can justify it as a stand-alone hearing where no other important issues are being resolved.

 

Rant over.

 

Now, your worships, I invite you to list this matter for a “ruling out” hearing, in line with the High Court authority of North Yorkshire…