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Forensic ferrets (or “Standing in the way of (beyond parental) control”)

Standing in the way of  (beyond parental) control 

A discussion of the little-used limb of the threshold criteria, and the interesting and deeply sad case of  Re K (A Child :Post Adoption Breakdown) 2012.   Plus, a judicial determination that Judges are not ferrets.  (I see how, with the ermine, folk might get confused)

The case can be found here (how I love Baiili)  :- 

I have to say, in what’s coming up to eighteen years of care law  (my God, some of the babies I dealt with at the start of my career may now, hopefully, be going to university, and almost certainly will be legitimately buying alcohol)  I have only used the ‘beyond parental control’ limb twice; both times in relation to cases involving adoption breakdowns.

The attractiveness of it is that one does not necessarily need to apportion blame or find that it is poor or unreasonable parenting that has led to the significant harm; and it is for that reason that when it crops up, it tends to be in cases where a deeply damaged child is losing their second family. 

In this case, the Local Authority and the adoptive parents were at loggerheads about who was to blame for “Katie’s” parlous state. Without a doubt, the adoptive placement had broken down, and the relationship between “Katie” and her parents was very fraught.

This was an exchange of messages after Katie had been out of the home for a year

  1.  ‘Katie this is the first time we have heard from you in almost a year. We are glad that you liked your Christmas presents, and are enjoying your new mobile phone.

You will always hold a special place in our hearts and family. You may think that we don’t care but actually we all care more than you can ever imagine and everyone hopes that your future will be good. You will not know what we think and feel, unless you talk to us. Your medals were thrown away at Christmas when we were so upset that we were not allowed to give you anything or see you. We are sorry because it could easily have been prevented…


You are a very intelligent young girl and have always got good results, which we are certain will continue. You are also a talented dancer and a caring person.


We continue to do our best for you and are delighted to hear from you, although we know that it is difficult for you, Mum & Dad’


  1. Katie’s response was robust. She replied,

‘you are NOT my mum and dad for starters!…you have wrecked my childhood and you still are by contacting me, checking up on me on [Facebook]. I don’t want anything to do with you. Im extremely happy here at Greendale and I don’t need you interfering in my life anymore. You have caused enough damage in my life…’

[I pause here to say, that in the light of this sort of stuff, it is astonishing that the LA had such hostility towards the adoptive parents, and one wonders how much of the reasoning for that just didn’t come through in the judgment. The tone might not be perfect, but it’s far from awful or provocative]

Katie was diagnosed as having a reactive attachment disorder, and the Judge was deeply sympathetic to the suggestion that the efforts the parents made, which would have been kind parenting for another child simply did not work with Katie. At the same time, the Judge recognised that this was not in any sense Katie’s fault, but a symptom of her reactive attachment disorder.

[I know, you’re saying “get to the ferrets, I want to know about the ferrets”  – be patient. Your ferret-wishes will be granted]

  1. Dr Richer notes that the parents’ have strong moral values and focus on high achievement, ‘both usually applauded in our society’. However, this does not equip them easily to accept Katie unconditionally – ‘weaknesses, oddities, fears and all’. Dr Richer said that,

‘the parents need to examine to what extent their well intentioned efforts to help Katie, (which would have succeeded well with attached children) were actually perceived as emotionally distant, cold, critical and controlling. And which have lead others unfairly to characterise them as controlling, seeing them through Katie’s eyes. But the acid test here is not whether the parents have done the “right thing” from the standpoint of usual rules and values, they clearly have, but whether they have done the right things from the standpoint of achieving success with Katie. Here they have encountered the same difficulties which have defeated so many families of late adopted children.’

  1. Parents faced with the kind of difficulties these parents were faced with

’31. …get caught in a vicious circle where their normal behaviour, which works with most children, often only serves further to alienate a child like Katie. To call these not uncommon parental reactions emotionally abusive is not only inappropriate and wrong, but cruel. The vicious circles that the parents and Katie got into are seen in many families with insecure adopted children, where well intentioned efforts to help the children and structure their behaviour and protect them, only lead to the child becoming more resentful and alienated and angry…

48. Families who adopt children like Katie are often caught in what seems like a double bind. If they ease off close structuring of the child’s behaviour, the child may behave recklessly and/or antisocially, if they try to guide and structure they run the high risk of being seen by the child as restrictive and untrusting and be seen by others as controlling.’

And that was really the crux of the problem. Everyone was agreed that a Care Order had to be made, but in order to make a Care Order, there had to be threshold. 

One would think, as an outsider, that the ‘beyond parental control’ was made for that sort of situation, and one might think that the entireity of this ligitation could have been avoided had a really bland threshold  (channelling those really bland ‘unreasonable behaviour’ petitions that are written by those rare divorce lawyers who are kindly and get the job done without fuss) been prepared.

Perhaps  “Katie has suffered significant harm as a result of absconding from her placement and being unhappy there, this harm has arisen from her being beyond parental control, which is caused by her reactive attachment disorder and not due to any conscious desire to cause harm on the part of the carers, or to cause trouble on the part of Katie. It is just very sad and unfortunate that this placement, which was intended to make everyone happy, has instead made them miserable”

Anyway, that’s not what happened.  The LA threshold document contained 39 allegations, some of which were deeply contentious, and the Court ended up trapped in a battle that ran thus :-

 The LA say that Katie is beyond parental control and that’s the fault of the adopters.

The adopters say Katie is beyond parental control and that’s not their fault.

Katie says she has been significantly harmed, but it’s not her fault.

(I again, go back to the honourable and worthy practice of being bland and inoffensive if it gets the job done)

The Court was not terribly helped by the expert on this particular issue (not because he was being unhelpful, but because he was speaking the truth. The legal niceties here were contributing to screwing this poor child up) :-

  1. Dr Richer had some difficulties with the expression ‘beyond parental control’. As he put it, it is not a ‘blanket’ term; ‘it is a matter of how much and when’. There were times when Katie conformed to the family’s routine and other times when she became distressed. That distress manifested itself in behaviour such as destruction of property, running away and taking things that weren’t hers.
  1. Dr Richer acknowledged that some people will perceive a finding that a child is beyond parental control to amount to labelling and therefore likely to have a negative impact on the child. As for Katie, Dr Richer’s opinion is that if the court makes a finding that Katie is beyond parental control then, in the short term, it is likely that she will brush it aside as being ‘all their fault’. However, in his answers to written questions he makes the point that,

’34. The trouble with the legal process surrounding Orders etc. is that they are predicated on events being someone’s fault: either the parents’ failed or Katie was too bad. This is unhelpful to the therapeutic process. Since the legal process exists, the challenge would be to explain it to Katie in a way which is helpful to her. I have tried to do that in my report, emphasising, in paragraph 50, the absence of blame. So the impact on Katie is determined by how well the decisions, whatever they are, are explained to her. It would be an uphill task since it risks leaving her with a sense that it was her fault that she left her home, and so by implication she is no good, or that it is all her parents’ fault, a conclusion which will be equally damaging in the longer term.

  1. In Dr Richer’s opinion, Katie does not behave the way she does because she is beyond parental control. From his perspective as a clinical psychologist, if Katie is likely to suffer significant harm (and he did not disagree with the proposition that she is) then that is because she is suffering from a Reactive Attachment Disorder and not because she is beyond parental control.

So, broadly, the Court had to grapple with, and find a resolution to, the question “Can a child suffer significant harm as a result of being beyond parental control without it being anyone’s fault?”

The answer, is “Yes”   and the Court sets out some excellent reasoning as to how it reached that answer.

  1. ‘the child’s being beyond parental control’
  1. That leads on to consideration of the expression ‘the child’s being beyond parental control’. There is little authority on the meaning of this expression. It is an expression that appeared in earlier child protection legislation. Section 1(2)(d) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 provided that proof that a child ‘is beyond the control of his parent or guardian’ was sufficient of itself to empower the court to make a care order. The Children Act 1989 makes two important changes to that wording. First, the expression ‘he is beyond parental control’ is replaced by ‘the child’s being beyond parental control’. Second, proof of ‘the child’s being beyond parental control’ is not of itself sufficient to empower the court to make a care order. The court must be satisfied that the child ‘is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm…attributable…to the child’s being beyond parental control’.
  1. The first reported authority is M v Birmingham City Council [1994] 2 FLR 141. Stuart-White J there said.

‘…Subsection (2)(a) contains a verb, in what is unquestionably the present tense…whereas subs (2)(b)(ii) contains no verb in the present or any other tense. It must be read together with the opening words of subs (2)(b) as follows: “…that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to – (ii) the child’s being beyond parental control.” The expression contained in subs (2)(b)(ii) is, it seems to me, plainly a substantival expression capable of describing a state of affairs in the past, in the present or in the future according to the context in which it falls to be applied. No doubt this is why the concept of likelihood finds no place at this point in the subsection.

Two other matters in relation to subs (2)(b)(ii) have been canvassed in argument. In relation to those I am prepared to assume for the purpose of this appeal, without deciding the point. That ‘parental control’ refers to the parent of the child in question and not to parents, or reasonable parents, in general…’

  1. The only Court of Appeal authority addressing the concept of ‘being beyond parental control’ is L (A Minor) 18 March 1997 (unreported). Butler-Sloss LJ says,

‘It is suggested most attractively by Mr Jubb in a long, careful, comprehensive skeleton argument and short, succinct oral argument to us that in order to show that a child is beyond parental control you must show some misfeasance by the parents. There is almost no authority on the phrase “beyond parental control” and certainly no authority to support the proposition, bold proposition as Mr Jubb is prepared to accept it as, that he makes to us today. We are asked to look at the useful guidance to the Children Act, Volume 1, under Court Orders, which says at paragraph 3.25:

“…the second limb is that the child is beyond parental control…It provides for cases where, whatever the standard of care available to the child, he is not benefiting from it because of lack of parental control. It is immaterial whether this is the fault of the parents or the child. Such behaviour frequently stems from distorted or stressed relationships between parent and child.”

That seems to me to be a useful summary of how those who put the Act together saw the use of what is a long-standing part of the previous child legislation of “beyond parental control”. I consider that we should be very careful not to look at the words of the Children Act other than broadly, sensibly and realistically…Quite simply this child is beyond the control of his parents. It is extremely sad. It is not a case of apportioning blame. It is a case of recognising a very worrying situation and one would have hoped, trying to work together, to make something of this child.’

  1. The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations, to which Butler-Sloss LJ referred, was updated in 2008. The text and tone of the latest guidance is noticeably different from the earlier version. The guidance now states:

‘3.41 If the child is determined by the court as being beyond parental control, this means that, whatever the standard of care provided by the parents, the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm because of lack of parental control. This requires the court to determine whether as a matter of fact, the child is beyond control: it is immaterial who, if anyone, is to blame. In such cases, the local authority will need to demonstrate how the child’s situation will improve if the court makes an order – how his behaviour can be brought under control, and why an order is necessary to achieve this.’

And this was how the judge dealt with threshold  (note the coruscation of the way the LA had chosen to put the case. I can actually feel in my shoulder blades how counsel for the LA must have felt whilst the Judge read all this out)

  1. These proceedings began just over a year ago. During that time the parents have attended every hearing. It has at all times been plain that they resist the making of a care order. It was with some surprise, therefore, that on the first day of this final hearing, after allowing time for discussions, I was informed that they were willing to concede both threshold and the making of a final care order. In light of my knowledge of this case I was concerned about the appropriateness of making an agreed order without hearing some evidence. I heard Dr Richer. That reinforced my view that it was not appropriate simply to nod through a final care order. I continued with the hearing as a contested hearing.
  1. I am in no doubt that that was the right decision. Hearing the evidence in this case has been highly informative. It has illuminated issues that raise significant concerns about the local authority’s future management of this case.
  1. The parents concede that at the relevant date Katie was likely to suffer significant harm. On the evidence, they were right to make that concession. It is equally plain from the evidence that Katie is beyond parental control. The question of substance has been whether the likelihood of harm is attributable to Katie being beyond parental control or to the reactive attachment disorder from which she suffers.
  1. It is plain from the guidance given by Lord Nicholls in Lancashire County Council v B that the likelihood of harm may be attributable to more than one cause. A contributory causal connection suffices. In this case it could, of course, be said that the fact that Katie is beyond parental control is itself attributable to the fact that she is suffering from reactive attachment disorder. That may be so. However, that argument cannot be allowed to subvert the primary purpose of s.31(2) which is one of child protection.
  1. This final hearing has been dominated by the issue of culpability. Notwithstanding its belated decision to seek to satisfy the court that threshold is proved on the basis of s.31(2)(b)(ii) rather than s.31(2)(b)(i) the local authority has continued to put before the court a case which, at its heart, is one based upon culpability.
  1. I noted earlier Dr Richer’s criticisms of the local authority for the tone and content of the written questions put to him in response to his report. On behalf of the local authority Miss McGrath sought to reassure me that the local authority’s questions to Dr Richer do not reflect the attitude of Children’s Social Care towards these parents. In light of my review of the history of this case since Katie’s arrival at Greendale, I am not reassured.
  1. If there was any remaining doubt about the local authority’s attitude towards these parents that doubt was removed by Miss McGrath in her closing submissions. Referring to the events that have taken placed in the period since Katie has been at Greendale, Miss McGrath submitted that the parents had utterly failed to understand the impact of their behaviour on Katie. She said ‘I don’t know how any local authority could be expected to work with parents who show those attitudes’. She described the mother’s evidence as ‘chilling for its lack of sensitivity and understanding’. She urged me not to reinforce the parents’ views that the problems are all other people’s fault and not theirs. She submitted that the parents are concerned about their reputation in the community and the impact that a care order may have upon the way they earn their living. Having urged me to avoid rhetoric and proceed only on fact, she asked me, rhetorically, why it is that stones have been thrown at a local authority that has put Katie’s interests at the forefront of its mind. Why is it, she asked, again rhetorically, that the parents are not able to agree that Katie is beyond parental control? The answer, she submits, is that these parents are entirely adult focussed. How any reasonable person could fail to accept that Katie is beyond parental control is, she said, ‘something the local authority struggles to grasp’. Where, she asked, again rhetorically, is the love that goes with the understanding of attachment disorder?
  1. The parents have had to contend with some profoundly difficult problems which they had not anticipated when they agreed to Katie being placed with them. Coping with those problems has at times (and particularly over the last two years) been rendered more challenging as a result of their difficult relationship with the local authority. I have had the opportunity to observe the parents in court several times over the last twelve months. They have attended every court hearing. During the course of this final hearing they gave evidence over the course of more than three hours. I have formed a favourable impression of them. In their evidence I found them to be open and straight-forward.
  1. Sympathy for the parents’ predicament must not blind the court to the undoubted fact that they have not always responded as appropriately as they might have done to the problems that have arisen in parenting Katie. They accept that. Having successfully parented Chloe and Rachel they have struggled to adapt their parenting style to address the challenges that Katie has presented. They have struggled to accept and follow advice. They have behaved inappropriately in some of the things they have said, done and written. Some of the things they have said, done and written have undoubtedly caused Katie distress. Miss McGrath challenged the mother that some of her responses to Katie had been motivated by spite. Looked at in isolation, I accept that that is how it may appear. But the parents’ responses to Katie should not be looked at in isolation. They have to be looked at in the context of the fact that Katie suffers from reactive attachment disorder of childhood.
  1. Although these parents are not above criticism, their parenting, insensitive and inappropriate as it has sometimes been, has not been the cause of Katie’s reactive attachment disorder. The cause of her attachment disorder was the appalling parenting she received in her first four years of life. The fact that Katie is beyond parental control is a manifestation of the attachment disorder. I am not persuaded that the shortcomings in the parenting provided by Katie’s adoptive parents has either caused or exacerbated the problem. Dr Richer was clear that in his professional opinion these parents are not responsible for Katie’s difficulties. As I noted earlier, he said that parents faced with the kind of difficulties these parents were faced with

’31. …get caught in a vicious circle where their normal behaviour, which works with most children, often only serves further to alienate a child like Katie. To call these not uncommon parental reactions emotionally abusive is not only inappropriate and wrong, but cruel…’

I accept Dr Richer’s evidence.

  1. Though I do not accept the local authority’s position on parental culpability, I am satisfied that the facts set out in the threshold document justify a finding that Katie is beyond parental control. They also justify a finding that Katie was likely to suffer significant harm and that that likelihood was attributable to her being beyond parental control. I am satisfied that the threshold is met.

Forensic ferrets

I adore how the polite exasperation pours through these sentences. One can almost feel the Judge reaching for a bottle of Milk of Magnesia and being able to attribute this particular ulcer to this particular issue…

  1. Before I consider the history of the placement it is necessary to say something about the presentation of the local authority’s records. In charting the history of a local authority’s engagement in the life of any family, its records are a key source of information. When a family becomes involved in court proceedings, those records are likely to be an important part of the forensic enquiry. In this case, the standard of the local authority’s presentation of that material to the court has fallen far below that which the court is entitled to expect.
  1. The required content and format of court bundles is set out in simple, clear, easy-to-follow terms in Practice Direction 27A to the Family Procedure Rules 2010. The Practice Direction’s repeated use of the word ‘shall’ makes it clear that compliance with the Practice Direction is mandatory. The Practice Direction requires that bundles ‘shall contain copies of all documents relevant to the hearing, in chronological order…paginated and indexed’. It goes on to provide that the bundle ‘shall be contained in one or more A4 size ringbinders or lever arch files (each lever arch file being limited to 350 pages)’.
  1. In the index to the hearing bundle in this case, section K is described as ‘Social Care documents’. This section runs to 1,350 pages. It is contained within three lever arch files. The documents in this section are not in chronological or, indeed, in any other discernable order. There is no indexing of these documents. Several documents appear more than once at different points throughout this section. Even accepting that some degree of redacting may have been necessary, it is difficult to understand the purpose of including more than 150 pages in which the entirety of the text has been completely blacked out.
  1. This key section of the hearing bundle is disorganised and chaotic. In the words of Bracewell J, it is ‘a jumbled mass of documentation’ (Re E (Care Proceedings: Social Work Practice) [2000] 2 FLR 254 at p. 257). It has hindered rather than assisted the forensic process. Twenty years ago Ward J (as he then was) memorably made the point that ‘judges are not forensic ferrets’ (B-T v B-T [1990] 2 FLR 1 at p.17). The pressure under which modern family judges are required to work is such that they simply do not have the time to be ‘forensic ferrets’ searching through inadequately prepared and disorganised hearing bundles in order to identify key information.