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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.

 

 

Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings (£45K damages)

 

This is a Circuit Judge decision made in my local Court (it is not a case that I or any of my colleagues are involved in, so I can write about it) so I will try to avoid much comment and stick to the reported facts.

 

Re X, Y and Z  (Damages: Inordinate Delay in issuing proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B44.html

Three children had been s20 accommodated from January 2013 until July 2015 when an Interim Care Order was made. The Court determined that the s20 had been lawfully entered into and was valid, but of course on the authorities, a valid s20 does not prevent a human rights breach based on delay.  Whilst the mother in this case had never formally withdrawn her consent or lodged an objection, she had been asking for more contact with the children and saying from time to time that she would like them to come home.

 

  1. The mother clearly frequently stated that she would wish to care for the children and certainly to see them :
  2. i) 8.2.13 Letter from Z seeking to see the children.

ii) 1.3.13 Z asks for contact and to have the children back in her first meeting with a social worker

iii) 3.4.13 Z seeks fortnightly contact in a telephone call.

iv) 5.9.13 LAC review – stated that Z would like to be able to care for the children.

v) 14.1.14 Report for LAC review notes that Z would like to see the children and that she sometimes states she wants to care for the children and sometimes that she just wants to have contact with them.

vi) 8.4.14 Legal Planning Meeting Solicitor for Z stated that she had requested both children be returned to her care as soon as possible…if not returned to her care, would like increased contact.

vii) 26.11.14 LAC Review Z would like to be able to care for the children.

 

 

The Judge ruled that the children’s article 6 and  8 rights were breached in the following ways

 

  1. It follows from all that is set out above that I make the following declarations:
  2. i) West Sussex County Council acted unlawfully and in violation of the Convention Rights of X, Y and Z as follows:

a) Purported to exercise parental responsibility for X and Y for a period of almost two and a half years when they did not hold parental responsibility for the children.

b) Failed to promote contact between the children ,X and Y and their mother Z.

c) Failed to issue care proceedings for almost two and a half years causing the children to be without access to independent representation, failing to carry out adequate assessments and allowing the children’s permanence plan to drift.

d) The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of the Local Authority sufficiently robustly.

The judgment contains analysis of the relevant authorities on s20 breaches, s20 drift, human rights claims and calculating quantum.

The Judge concluded that each of the  children should receive the sum of £20,000 in damages  (*initially, with the case being called X, Y and Z, I’d assumed three children and hence £60k, but I am told two children. Still £45k is a lot of money)

 

  1. The factors to be considered for the children are substantially different to those for the mother and consequently must be assessed separately. The main factors in relation to quantum are :
  2. i) A failure to assess their needs for an inordinate period of time – over two years before any report was obtained;

ii) The fact that they were denied access to any independent legal representation for two and a half years – of particular importance when they had no relatives in the country who would be able to care for them and when they had been the subject of apparent abuse during their time in Jamaica;

iii) Little promotion of contact with their mother even though X indicated in February 2013 that he would like to go back to her – there was no contact for the next twelve months;

iv) No comprehensive assessment of their needs although it was indicated as early as March 2013 that such an assessment was required;

v) Frequent changes in placements without any input from anyone with parental responsibility

vi) Placement with W, the previous foster carer, without any such assessment or understanding of any abuse they had suffered in Jamaica;

vii) The fact that the children are now in separate long term foster placements with no contact with each other or any other relative and X is not in a culturally appropriate placement;

  1. It is apparent that the end result for these children is not a good one. It is not possible now to say that the outcome would have been any different if proceedings had been issued in early to mid-2013 which should have occurred. However, it is difficult to see how the outcome would have been much worse and the loss of a chance of a better conclusion must be reflected in any award that is made.
  2. This case appears to be at the upper end of the bracket that has been awarded in similar cases. The only aggravating feature which is not present in this case, which is present in the majority of other such cases, is the fact that I have found that the s.20 agreement is a valid one. I am not going to set out all of the possible comparators as they appear in the table in the Medway case but I would simply state that this case involves the longest period as well as a poor outcome which may not have been the case without the breaches. As a result due to all of the issues which have been highlighted I am satisfied that the children should be awarded the sum of £20,000 each for all of the breaches of their Article 6 and 8 rights.

 

 

In relation to the mother

 

The Mother’s Award

  1. The mother is in a different position as she did have the benefit of legal advice from June 2013 onwards and as a result would have been able to withdraw her consent at any time thereafter. This must be of significance in considering damages as the inordinate delay in this case is the most troubling aspect and that delay could have been stopped at any time by the simple act of instructing her solicitor to withdraw her consent.
  2. It is argued on behalf of the Local Authority that this feature is of such significance that it should mean that the mother would receive ‘just satisfaction’ by way of a declaration alone. However that ignores the other crucial factors in her case which include :
  3. i) The frequent requests for contact to her children which were simply ignored by West Sussex although there was no legal basis to do so;

ii) If proceedings had been issued the Local Authority would have been obliged pursuant to s.34 Children Act 1989 to promote such contact;

iii) The failure to properly assess the mother due to the fact that she had been fully assessed in the previous proceedings some five years earlier.

  1. It seems unlikely that the children would have been placed with their mother if the proceedings would have been commenced in a timeous fashion and as such there does not need to be any award for the loss of that chance. However, the same cannot be said in relation to contact as that may have been very different if addressed much earlier. The children are now stating that they will not see their mother but that was not the position when they first arrived at Gatwick in January 2013. This loss is even more significant now that each child has no contact whatsoever with any member of their family.
  2. In these circumstance the appropriate level of damages for the mother must be far lower than for the children and I assess the figure of £5,000 as the correct amount to compensate her for her Article 6 and (more significantly) Article 8 rights.

 

 

Looking at the chronology given in the judgment,  there was involvement with lawyers as early as 24th June 2013, which was still 2 years before proceedings were issued.

 

The Judge was very critical of the  Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), who would have been holding Looked After Child Reviews at regular intervals during the 2 1/2 years of s20. He found that they, too, had been responsible for breaches of both the mother and the children’s human rights.

 

  1. The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of West Sussex and did not promote care proceedings. The functions of the IRO are set out within s.25 Children Act 1989 and they include monitoring the performance of the Local Authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case. In the case of A and S v Lancashire CC [2012] EWHC 1689 at para 168 it was submitted (and Jackson J did not demur) that the task of the IRO was to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child”. Their roles are more fully set out within the “IRO Handbook” which provides the relevant statutory guidance. In the Lancashire Case it was found that the failures of the IRO amounted to a breach of the children’s rights.
  2. The actions of the IRO in this case are fully set out within the statement of Children’s Safeguarding Manager and which is referred to above, which concludes with a list of ‘Strengths’ and ‘Areas for Development’ and the latter included :
  3. i) “the Review minutes do not consistently contain sufficient specific evidence of IRO challenge, especially on issues in relation to progress towards permanence”

ii) “the decision specific to the permanence plan was not specific enough and did not contain any target dates”

iii) “would have expected more explicit detail in relation to the permanence plan of long term fostering and the need to seek legal advice”

  1. It does not seem to me that this adequately highlights the deficiencies of the IROs (there were two) in this case. There does not appear to be any note whatsoever of the IRO cajoling the Local Authority on timescales and this can be highlighted by two simple issues :
  2. i) There is a bald statement in the second review held in May 2013 that an SGO assessment is about to commence in relation to the paternal aunt. This is repeated in the fourth review in January 2014 which records that “an SGO assessment will be undertaken at the appropriate time”. It is noted at the fifth review in July 2014 that the paternal aunt still wished to have the children living with her under SGOs but the assessment is still not there some fourteen months after it was first raised. This is a simply appalling delay and does not seem to be criticised by the IRO – if there is not going to be criticism in such cases then one has to ask when would it ever occur?

ii) The IRO was aware in May 2013 that the mother wanted contact to the children but no decisions were made on this crucial point at the time. In September 2013 it was noted that indirect contact had happened and the next stage would be to consider re-introducing direct contact yet by the fourth review it is simply noted that they were “working towards direct contact”! The first face to face contact did not take place until February 2014, a full 13 months after the children had arrived in the UK with the mother saying that she wanted to see the children throughout and the eldest child, X, having said he would like to see his mother in February 2013. It is entirely possible that the contact would not have been successful (as has in fact occurred) but it must be the duty of the IRO to challenge this astonishing delay in attempting such contact in circumstances when the children had no involvement with any member of their birth family.

  1. The lack of urgency in the case is breath-taking and it is simply wrong to point out the failures of the IROs to force the issues as an “Area for Development”. It was a total failure to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child” as they should have been doing. This was clearly a case that should have come before the courts years before it actually did yet the IRO did not appear to put any pressure upon the Local Authority to ensure that this occurred. There is power within s.25B(3) Children Act 1989 for an IRO to refer the case to CAFCASS if it is considered it was appropriate to do so. It is difficult to understand why such action should not have been carried out in this case in order to ensure that the welfare needs of these children were fully protected.
  2. It follows that the failures of the IRO were sufficient in this case to amount to a breach of the children’s and the mother’s rights to family life and a fair trial.

 

 

If I were a betting man, and I am, I would expect an increase in care proceedings issued when the September set of CAFCASS stats come out.  And the volume of care proceedings issued is already at an all-time high.

Fast and the Furious – Tunbridge Wells Drift

 

 

Okay, this piece isn’t really about Vin Diesel and The Rock racing cars around the backstreets of Kent. But it is about a case about  Medway (which is sort of near Kent) weren’t fast, and as a result the Judge got furious. And where the central issue was drift.  Section 20 drift, y’all.

(*Tunbridge Wells have done nothing wrong in this story – I just needed a “T” town for the Tokyo Drift reference. )

 

I’ve been writing about section 20 drift for a while, but perhaps given that this is a really strong judgment, it is worth a quick recap.  The Human Rights Act compensation to be paid to the mother by Medway was £20,000 and to the child also £20,000.   (And possibly costs to follow – see bottom of this post for an explanation of that)

 

 

  • Without a court forum it was solely the local authority that empowered itself to make decisions about a child unlawfully held by them, with simply a check in the form of the IRO system on the progress and welfare of a child in local authority care (and which system I consider further below).
  • T drifted in foster care without any clear focus on her contact, her need for therapy or her and her Mother’s rights to family life. I find shocking the inattention to contact, such that Medway Council is not even able to specify clearly what has and has not taken place, but is obliged to admit to serious gaps in contact and flaws in its support for this essential aspect of their family life. There would not only have arisen a duty under s34 Children Act 1989 to promote contact if an ICO were in place, but both T and Mother would have had a voice, legal advice and representation within proceedings to pursue their concerns about her accommodation, care plan, therapeutic needs and contact and Medway Council ‘s care of T would have been subject to the necessary judicial scrutiny applying the relevant careful tests relating to the threshold and welfare criteria set out in the Children Act to ensure interference with their family life was in T’s best interests, necessary and proportionate.

 

 

Section 20 is the power under the Children Act 1989 for children to be in foster care without a Court order – it is categorised as a voluntary foster placement. Typically, the parents are asked to consent, or even they come forward and say that they can’t manage, aren’t coping or the child needs a break.  Section 20 can be a really useful tool – if there’s genuine cooperation between the parents and the social worker, nobody wants to force the case into Court and up the stakes.

Where it starts to get problematic, as we’ve seen from a number of cases over the last three years, is where the consent and cooperation isn’t that genuine but that parents either don’t understand or have explained to them what section 20 really is and that they can say no, or are pressured/cajoled/threatened into agreeing, or in the latest spate of cases where a Local Authority is relying on a parent simply not objecting to the foster placement.  There are reasons why a parent might not come forward and object – most obviously that without access to a lawyer or it being explained they don’t even know that they can, or they are afraid of rocking the boat, or they are having faith that the system will work and do the right thing, or that they are intimidated that if they object then the case will be rushed off to Court and that this will be bad for them.

So ultimately, section 20 drift cases are about an imbalance of power – the State is taking advantage of the fact that parents without access to a lawyer won’t object or will agree to section 20.  And so it becomes an alternative to going into Court proceedings. Court proceedings are expensive, and involve a lot of work (going to Court, writing statements and chronologies etc) and of course in Court social workers don’t necessarily get things their own way and the Court can disagree with them.  So there can be a temptation, if the parents aren’t demanding the child back, to just keep going with the section 20 foster placement. And this of course is the drift element – these children can wait months or even longer, sat in limbo – nobody has decided whether the child can ever go home or whether the child’s future lays elsewhere, the case just drifts.  By the time the case finally gets to Court, that relationship between child and parent can be hard to put back together, and the problems the parent has may take time to address and it can be harder for them to get the child back.

Section 20 drift, in short, is bad.

It may be happening more as a result of a series of pressures – firstly a general demand within Local Authorities to save money and cut costs (due to significant cuts to their budgets) and secondly the reforms to Care proceedings that mean that more and more is expected to be done before going to Court – there can be a temptation to keep the case out of Court until all of the assessments are done and everything is just perfect. It is a bit of an unintended consequence – which we’re seeing a lot of since the PLO (Public Law Outline) reforms came into being.  This isn’t a problem limited to Medway here, or Brent as in the last reported case, or Gloucester/Bristol where their Judge has really seized the issue.  I’ve worked in a lot of Local Authorities, I’ve worked against a lot of Local Authorities and I’ve seen it all around the country.

 

That’s the background.

On with this case

Medway Council v M &T 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B164.html

 

This case was decided by Her Honour Judge Lazarus  (readers may recall her from the case where a mother tape recorded a foster carer being dreadfully abusive to her https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/06/03/tape-recording-paying-off/   )

 

When the child T, was five, she came to the attention of Medway Council, and her mother M, was having mental health problems and was detained under the Mental Health Act. Medway placed the child in foster care, but didn’t actually have mum’s consent (she probably would not have had capacity to give it in any event)

 

 

 

  • T was born on 9.1.08, making her 7 years 9 months old now, and just 5 when she first came to the notice of Medway Council. This was due to a referral made on 8.2.13 by T’s school that T was being collected by a number of adults and concerns that Mother may be a victim of trafficking. Coincidentally, within a few days T was placed in emergency foster care, as her Mother was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act on 11.2.13.
  • It is clear that Mother was too unwell to discuss T’s accommodation and there are no records whatsoever of any discussion with Mother of T’s whereabouts and care until her discharge in August 2013. It is likely, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that there was no proper explanation to her within this six month period, and Medway Council do not suggest there was, albeit I accept that for some of this time she would have been suffering from severe and disabling mental ill-health. There is certainly no document suggesting that there was any agreement by Mother to this accommodation. What Medway Council claims is that this was a different kind of lawful accommodation under s20, until she was well enough to consider T’s accommodation by Medway Council. It was not, and I shall deal with this further below.

 

 

That argument you may recall from the case I wrote about last week, decided by Her Honour Judge Rowe QC  – in which she decided that the power under section 20 needed to be exercised with capacitious consent, and not merely relying on the absence of objection.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/12/unlawful-removal-of-a-child-compensation-paid/

 

[That’s the one where I used the comparison of a 10 year old assuming that it was okay to eat all of the Penguin biscuits whilst his mum is upstairs because “mum didn’t tell me that I COULDN’T]

 

In this case, T remained in foster care ostensibly under section 20 until care proceedings were issued – the period involved was 2 years and 3 months. She was in ‘voluntary’ foster care rom February 2013 until proceedings were finally issued in May 2015.  The mother had not even known that this had happened until August 2013, some SIX MONTHS after the child was taken into foster care.  Mother and baby are currently together in a specialist foster placement, and I wish them both well.  As the Judge points out, this is the longest reported case of section 20 drift.

 

The Judge went through everything very carefully (it is an extremely well-drawn judgment and would be recommended reading for anyone dealing with such a case – particularly the analysis of damages)

 

The conclusions were :-

CONCLUSION

 

  • For all of the above reasons I find that Medway Council ‘s accommodation of T and her removal from her Mother was unlawful, and as a result I have no need to go on to consider whether it was ‘necessary’ within the meaning of Article 8(2) ECHR.
  • I also find that Medway Council failed to issue proceedings in a proper and timely manner. This was despite warnings from June 2013 onwards. I have not found it possible to understand why there arose the original misunderstanding of the correct legal approach, why the advice given was not followed, why further legal planning meetings were not held until 2015, nor even why proceedings were not issued immediately in 2015 once the matter was looked at again by Ms Cross in January. The period involved is 2 years and 3 months, the longest currently reported in any case reported on this issue to date.

 

REMEDIES – JUST SATISFACTION

A. DECLARATIONS

 

  • T and Mother are entitled to the following declarations:

 

a. The local authority breached their rights under Article 8 ECHR in that they

i. Unlawfully removed T from Mother’s care on 11.2.13;

ii. Failed to obtain properly informed capacitous consent for T to be accommodated, or to consider/assess adequately the question of the Mother’s capacity to consent, at that date or subsequently;

iii. Accommodated T without Mother’s consent between 11.2.13 and 7.5.15;

iv. Failed to inform Mother adequately or involve her sufficiently in the decision-making process in relation to T;

v. Failed to address the issues relating to their relationship and contact between them adequately;

vi. Permitted unacceptable delay in addressing all of the above.

b. The local authority breached the rights of T and Mother under Article 6 ECHR in that they failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner.

 

What were Medway going to do to avoid this in the future?

 

 

  • Ms Cross has set out in her statement a number of vitally necessary improvements to Medway Council’s procedures and performance which I heartily welcome, particularly as this is not the only case where the use of s20 by Medway Council has been of concern (I am aware of at least three such others, including a reported judgment of mine earlier this year). The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding and depends on consistent and rigorous application of these reforms. They are as follows:

 

a. “During the period of January to July 2015 we have reviewed a number of cases where the child/ren are accommodated under S20 and where the child/ren are aged 12 and under. Where required we have issued or are issuing proceedings;. We have begun this process for children aged 12 and over and this will complete by 1st October 2015.

b. These reviews will continue and with immediate effect we have agreed that our Legal Gateway Panel, chaired by the Head of Service for Advice and Duty, Child Protection and Children in Need, will continue to monitor and track children already accommodated under S20 and will in future review all new cases involving s20;

c. The reduction in the use of S20 accommodation is built into all our service and improvement plans

d. We have reviewed how court work is undertaken within the LAC & Proceedings service and going forward will be targeting this work at the social workers who have the most suitable skills for court work;

e. Training has been provided in recent weeks for social workers on legal processes and proceedings, including the issue of s20, and this will continue on a rolling basis throughout the year.

f. We will be holding workshops on the use of S20 in September and October to provide clear guidance and support for Social Workers to ensure they are equipped to deal with any s20 issues arising and that they fully understand how S20 should be utilised and monitored. We will be providing new policies and procedures for staff across CSC in the use of s20. We plan to have these finalised by September 18th and we would be happy to share these with the Court and partner agencies including Cafcass at our quarterly meetings with the Judiciary and other agencies.

g. At monthly meetings between the 2 Heads of service from CSC and the Head of Legal S20 will be a standing agenda item and we will discuss each child who has been accommodated under s20 in the intervening month to satisfy ourselves that the appropriate management oversight and case related activity is in place.

h. I am in discussion with the Head of Adult Mental Health services to organise workshops for staff on capacity issues and deprivation of liberty (DOL’s) awareness. I hope that these workshops can be completed by 01.11.2015.

i. We have an adult mental health duty social worker located within our advice and duty services to advise and assist on those cases referred to us where the parent/s have a mental health or learning disability.

j. We are organising PAMs training for a number of staff so that we have more staff located within CSC who are able to assess parents with a learning disability in order that we can improve the service provided to them. We hope that this will have taken place by 01.12.2015.

k. We have increased management capacity and have formalised an Operational Manager post in each of the service areas. They will have direct responsibility for ensuring that court work proceeds in a timely manner and that work is of a high standard

l. S20 cases will also be reviewed at a monthly Permanence Panel wherein the permanence planning for LAC children is reviewed. This panel, chaired by my HoS colleague has attendees from Legal services, the Principle IRO and the adoption service.

m. As a result of this review I am also working with my colleagues to review the S20 form that parents sign and we are introducing a checklist for staff when seeking S20 accommodation to ensure that they address all the salient issues with parents. These issues will include considering the parent/s needs arising from a mental health/learning disability. These reviews will have completed by 31.08.2015 and the updated forms will be in use thereafter.

n. Finally the reviewing service have implemented a new review whereby the allocated IRO will review all cases between the LAC review (ie every 6 weeks) to ensure that all planning is on track. Where required concerns will be escalated to the appropriate Operational Manager and if there is still no resolution to the relevant Head of Service.”

 

 

Now, an important check and balance on social worker’s actions or inactions is supposed to be the Independent Reviewing Officer system. The IROs are supposed to hold social workers to account and make sure that things like this don’t happen.  There are regular reviews of children’s cases when they are in foster care. What ought to have happened at those reviews was that the IRO should have got the social workers to commit to either a plan of short assessment and then review the outcome, or make a decision to return the child to mother’s care, or make a decision that the child couldn’t go home and make the Court application to have the child’s long term future resolved. That didn’t happen.

 

LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN REVIEWS & INDEPENDENT REVIEWING OFFICERS

 

  • Ms Dunkin’s statement is helpful in its analysis of the history and the role of the Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs). They are supposed to perform a crucial role monitoring the care of Looked After children by reviewing and improving care planning and challenging drift and delay.
  • It is highly concerning that there have been five IROs in the last two years before proceedings were issued.
  • There was no IRO allocated until 18.3.13, five weeks after T was accommodated, so she was therefore not afforded a review of her care within 20 days of her accommodation as is required under the IRO Handbook and Placement Regulations. By the end of May that IRO is recorded as being on long term sick leave, and this is considered to be the reason why there is no minute of the first LAC review available.
  • Every LAC review minute inaccurately records/repeats the date of T’s accommodation as having taken place a month later than it occurred.
  • I commend the second IRO LC for correctly requiring a legal review of Medway Council’s position not to take proceedings (11.6.13), however despite it not having taken place by the next LAC review that LC conducted there then began the series of failures by LC and each subsequent IRO to challenge the Social Worker and team manager and director of services about failing to follow the clear recommendation initially made in June 2013.
  • No subsequent LAC reviews (18.9.13, 17.4.14, 8.7.14, 25.11.14) made any further clear recommendations as to parental responsibility, legal status or the use of s20 although the issues are mentioned, save to repeat (presumably by cut and paste as opposed to direct engagement with the issue) the same paragraph that set out the original recommendation of 11.6.13. By 8.7.14 what is added is a recommendation to seek legal advice with a view to securing T’s permanency. I am concerned that this betrays that the review process and LC failed to recognise both the full range of T’s needs and her and her Mother’s rights to family life, and had moved on simply to consider how to regularise what had by then become the status quo, T having been in foster care for almost 18 months at that date. This is particularly worrying as that LAC review meeting also demonstrated Mother’s vulnerability: she was accompanied by an extremely domineering ‘friend’ who described herself as an ‘auntie’ (and whom the Poppy Project is concerned may have had some involvement in Mother’s exploitation), and which led to a decision that all future meetings must be conducted with Mother alone.
  • Contact is touched on in the LAC reviews, but no clear picture or recommendation emerges. For example, the review of 17.4.14 mentions the reintroduction of contact I have already referred to, but little further is pursued. At the same meeting the problem with T’s passport and therefore the implementation of respite care during her foster carer’s holiday was raised and not addressed adequately, let alone robustly.
  • Overall, it is clear that although the fundamental fault lay with Medway Council by its social work and legal teams, the IRO process failed T, and by extension her M, by frequent changes of IRO and each one failing to rigorously apply themselves to the outstanding issues with attention or subsequently following up Medway Council’s failings, and if necessary escalating the issue. Ms Dunkin rightly concedes that previous IROs were not robust enough in this respect.
  • The statutory provisions, regulations and the guidance in the IRO Handbook covering the function and performance of IROs has been carefully reviewed elsewhere (see for example A & S (Children) v Lancashire County Council [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam) at paragraphs 168-217 in particular). I do not propose to make specific declarations in relation to this aspect of the case. No such declarations are sought, and the appointment and management of IROs falls to the relevant local authority in any event. Additionally, I take into account that the correct recommendation was made in June 2013 and subsequently repeated, albeit it was not followed up adequately or at all, and was ignored by the local authority from the outset.
  • Ms Dunkin confirms that since October 2014 there has been a ‘root and branch review’ of the IRO service: immediate allocation of an IRO, with 90% of reviews now on time; improved IRO requirements and monitoring; performance and training audits with areas of improvement requiring action within a set timescale; direct input by IROs onto the electronic system at Medway Council so alerting team managers to implement their own quality and performance processes; shortened timescales for escalating challenges with a 20 day period before it is referred to the Director of Children’s Services; and mid-way reviews between LAC reviews enabling the IRO to check on progression of care plans and recommendations. Ms Dunkin as Principal Reviewing Officer now sits on the Legal Gateway Panel, resource panel and permanency panel.
  • Again these are welcome and necessary improvements, but their effectiveness will depend upon rigorous application of those improved practices.

 

 

 

On the issue of costs, we have a peculiar situation at present, where if a parent follows the law which is to make the Human Rights Act compensation claim within care proceedings, the Legal Aid Agency (the Government department who pay for the ‘free’ legal representation of a parent within care proceedings) will take all of the compensation to cover the legal costs, and the parent or child would only get anything left over.  That pretty much sucks.  Is there anyone who thinks that it is the Legal Aid Agency who should be compensated for what was done to mother and this child? Of course not.

 

So, apparently there are moves afoot to reverse this fairly recent and frankly moronic policy, and the Judge reserved the issues of costs until then.  If the policy doesn’t change, I’d expect an order that Medway also pay mother and T’s court costs, so that the compensation award goes to the mother and T rather than to a Government agency.

 

While I have assessed this award, I am asked for the time being not to order its payment nor to consider costs. This is at the request of the Official Solicitor who is currently investigating the most appropriate way to manage such an award for a protected party within care proceedings given that this is an award properly made within care proceedings (cf. Re L (Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] EWHC 665 (Fam)) and Mother is rightly in receipt of non-means and non-merits tested Legal Aid, but where concerns exist that the Legal Aid Agency may intend to take steps purporting to claim the whole costs of Mother’s representation in these care proceedings from that award. I shall therefore deal with the issue of ordering payment and costs at a later date.

 

 

The Judge here also considered the issue that I raised in the Her Honour Judge Rowe case, as to whether a very short piece of section 20 accommodation if the parent is unable to care for the child and one is establishing whether that’s a really short period  (i.e mum goes into hospital overnight, but the next day is released with medication and is fine) might be warranted – because the alternative is for the mother to be sectioned and on the same day social workers go to Court to get an Emergency Protection Order which would be awful if she happened to be released the next day.

 

It could be argued that where there is such an emergency as this, and indeed as in the Brent case, that it may be reasonable to wait for a short period without taking proceedings in order to review the parent’s progress in hospital in the event that their ability to care for their child might return. This would then avoid the stress and expense of time and resources in bringing unnecessary proceedings that would then have to be withdrawn. I concur with HHJ Rowe’s analysis that a month in the Brent case was too long. It may be reasonable, in rare and very clear cases where such enquiries could be reasonably considered as likely to bear fruit, to wait for at most a day or two while the local authority explored the possibility of an imminent return to a parent’s care. I bear in mind here that both in logic and principle such a period should be less than the time limit of 72 hours which is stipulated in the Children Act as applicable to PPOs. However, otherwise, save perhaps for the first few hours while the child’s status is considered, and advice sought and steps taken to issue proceedings, it must be right that proceedings are brought as immediately as possible for all the reasons discussed above.

 

I think that’s really sensible and pragmatic.  Like the Brent case, this is not legally binding precedent on anyone other than the parties who were in the case, but it would certainly be persuasive in such cases and equally a Local Authority who go beyond that 72 hour period are badly exposed to a Human Rights claim of this type.