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Learning disabilities – an interesting and sad judgment

This judgment is not binding upon anyone not directly involved in the case, being a decision of a Circuit Judge, His Honour Judge Dancey.

But I think that it provides a very accessible summary of the guidance on working with parents with learning disabilities and also it contains within in a judgment that is written directly for the parents, which I’ll set out below.

The central issues in the case were – were the assessments fair and did they properly take account of the guidance AND if the parents needed X hours of services a day (in this case said to be 12-16 hours per day) ought they be given that to keep the family together or is that an unrealistic expectation?
A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) (Rev 1) [2017] EWFC B94
http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2017/B94.html

Speaking as a Local Authority lawyer, cases involving learning disabilities are the very hardest cases to deal with – you are dealing with parents who have absolutely no intention to harm or mistreat a child and are doing their absolute best – usually by the end of the case the parent could have done nothing more to show the Court their love and desire to parent. Yet so often they have unhappy endings, often this being more common than cases where parents have behaved selfishly, foolishly or abusively but have the ability and wherewithal to stop doing that. It feels like there should be something for these parents, who have done nothing wrong other than to demonstrate that they have limitations outside of their control. I don’t know what that something should be, and I have no idea what that something would cost, (as my friend Becca Carr-Hopkins is fond of saying to me “and what would that LOOK like?”) but they are the very worst hearings to do.

I would rather have four awful paedophile cases than a case where the parents have tried their best but their best is not enough because of the disability they were born with. People who have already had a difficult hand dealt to them in life, who have to be told that although they are not bad people and have all the love in the world the State is about to make their painful and difficult life still more painful and difficult. I wish central Government would make funding available so that there could be something to properly support parents of this kind.

Anyway, I’ll start with the portion of the judgment written directly for the parents – I have praised Jackson LJ in the past for doing this and it is nice to see his lead being followed

ANNEX A

1.C and D have two children, K aged just 3 years and T aged nearly 20 months. C also has an older child A whose father died when she was 3.

2.The local authority say that C and D cannot look after the children well enough.

3.Sadly C has a learning disability and is partly deaf. This means that she struggles to look after the children. D doesn’t have a disability. He is C’s carer. He has not really supported C to look after the children as he should have done.

4.A has already gone to live with Mr and Mrs N. They are now her special guardians. A is happy there and wants to stay. C and D accept that. They are not asking for A to come home.

5.The local authority ask me to make orders putting K and T in their care. They also ask to be allowed to place K and T for adoption. That would mean ending K and T’s ties and contact with C and D completely. They would become members of a new family.

6.C and D don’t agree. They say they could look after K and T if they were supported properly.

7.I accept that C and D couldn’t look after the children as well as they should. I am not going to write down here everything I have heard about. But K and T have not been looked after properly. C and D did not watch out for K and T well enough. Also they did not have good routines. Sometimes they were dirty and missed out on meals. But also C and D found it difficult to get in tune with K and T’s emotional needs. Sometimes they didn’t pay them much attention. K got frustrated. She banged her head and bit people. T didn’t cry much or demand much attention. This was because he wasn’t getting much attention.

8.A had to look after K and T more than she should have. It was like she became a parent to them. She also worried about C. These were things a child shouldn’t have to worry about. A thinks she has lost out on some of her childhood.

9.I know that C and D looked after A well enough. But I think she had to start looking after herself when K and T came along. C and D cannot look after two very young children. They have different needs which C and D struggle with.

10.The local authority tried to help C and D with support. C and D didn’t think all the support was of the right kind. I agree the local authority could have done this better. The people who worked with C and D needed more training about learning disability. D could have done with more help as C’s carer. He could have helped himself more too.

11.C and D both had depression. I think that was a lot to do with the stress of trying to look after three children. Their depression has got better since they have not had the children. They have made some improvements too. The flat looks very nice now. It used to be cluttered and wasn’t very clean.

12.The problem is that C can’t meet the needs of the children on her own. D doesn’t give her the support she needs. I don’t think C or D really understand how worried the local authority are. I know they want to work with people to make things better. But I don’t think C or D can really change things in a lasting way even with support. I think if the children come home things will get worse again. C and D will probably get too stressed. And that might mean they get depressed again.

13.I have decided that the children need care that C and D cannot give them. They would need so much support that other people would end up parenting K and T instead of C and D. K and T would not know who is their main carer. That would probably cause them problems in how they make relationships.

14.So I have decided I cannot let the children come home. It means that I must make an order putting K and T in the care of the local authority. I must also let them place K and T for adoption.

15.It is very sad to have to make this decision. I know how much C and D love their children. They have come to court every day. They have listened carefully and patiently. They have tried their very best to help me. I thank them very much indeed. The children will know that C and D did their very best to keep them.

16.But I have to decide what is best for the children. And I have decided that nothing else will do.

The judgment also provides a very clear and helpful summary of both the law and the practical guidance, and I think it is a really good source for this

Parents with learning disability/Parenting with support
35.Where a parent has a learning disability the court must make sure that parent is not being disadvantaged simply because of their disability. The essential question is whether the parenting that can be offered is good enough if support is provided. In Re D (A Child) (No 3) [2016] EWFC 1 Munby P endorsed and recommended what was said by Gillen J in Re Guardian and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability) [2016] NIFam 8. Those cases establish a number of important points relevant in this case:

i) Parents with learning difficulties can often be ‘good enough’ parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need.

ii) The concept of ‘parenting with support’ must underpin the way in which courts and professionals approach parents with learning difficulties.

iii) Courts must make sure that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against parents without such difficulties. To that end parents with learning disability should not be measured against parents without disability and the court should be alive to the risk of direct and indirect discrimination.

iv) Multi-agency working is critical if parents are to be supported effectively and the court has a duty to make sure that has been done effectively.

v) The court should not focus so narrowly on the child’s welfare that the needs of the parent arising from their disability, and impacting on their parenting capacity, are ignored.

vi) Courts should be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of the parents to change is not itself an artefact of professionals’ ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in an appropriate way.
36.Ms Harman says there are some features of this case that distinguish it favourably from Re D – (a) these parents cared for A for some years without concerns about her care (so there is a history of childcare that did not exist in Re D) (b) there have been no concerns about the children’s development and they have met milestones and (c) these parents are keen to accept advice and support.

37.Ms Harman also refers me to Kent County Council v A Mother [2011] EWHC 402 recognising (a) that parents with learning disability need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice, (b) a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully, (c) the need for professionals working with families and children to be trained to recognise and deal with parents with learning disabilities and (d) the need for Government Guidance to be followed.

Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (updated September 2016) DoH/DfES
38.The Good Practice Guidance was issued to address a lack of evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services. I gratefully adopt and adapt the summary of the Guidance set out by Ms Harman in her written submissions:

i) Services need to help enable children live with their parents (as long as this is consistent with their welfare) by providing the support they and their families require. This accords with the general duty of local authorities under section 17(1) of the 1989 Act to provide a range and level of services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need and their upbringing by their families (insofar as it is consistent with their welfare).

ii) Good practice is also underpinned by an approach to parenting and learning disability which addresses needs relating to both impairment and the disabling barriers of unequal access and negative attitudes. Such an approach recognises that:

… If the problem is seen as entirely related to impairment and personal limitations, it is difficult to understand how to bring about positive changes for parents and their children.

… If the focus is, instead, on things that can be changed (such as inadequate housing) and support needs that can be met (such as equipment to help a parent measure baby feeds), there are many more possibilities for bringing about positive improvements. [p4]

iii) There are five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities: [pii]


• accessible information and communication

• clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures and processes, eligibility criteria and care pathways

• support designed to meet the needs of parents and children based on assessments of their needs and strengths

• long-term support where necessary

• access to independent advocacy

iv) Adult and children’s services, and health and social care, should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children. [1.2.1, p8].

v) It is important that services understand who is to take the lead on assessments:

• where there are no welfare concerns but adults need assistance with routine tasks of looking after children, adult learning disability services should take the lead on assessment and care planning

• where parents need support in the medium to long term adult learning disability and children’s services jointly co-ordinate assessment and care planning

• where intervention is required to prevent children suffering impairment to their health or development or significant harm, children’s services lead assessment and planning with specialised input from adult learning disability services (1.2.5 p12).

vi) Services in contact with parents with learning disabilities should use appropriate assessment materials and resources and/or access specialist expertise. Failing to do so will result in the parent receiving an unfair and therefore invalid assessment, in breach of their legal rights. [1.2.6, p13].

vii) Where a parent has a learning disability it will be important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning disability does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills. [p13].

viii) In the case of parent support services, an assessment of a parent’s learning needs and circumstances should inform the support provided to develop parenting skills. Research indicates that – for parents with learning disabilities – the key elements of successful parenting skills support are:

… clear communication, and ensuring parents have understood what they are told

… use of role-play, modelling, and videoing parent and professional undertaking a task together, for discussion, comparison and reflection

… step by step pictures showing how to undertake a task

… repeating topics regularly and offering opportunities for frequent practice

… providing/developing personalised “props”: for example, finding a container which will hold the right amount of milk for the child so that the parent does not have to measure out the milk. [p16]

ix) A range of services is required. All families are different and at different stages of their life cycle families require different types of support. [1.3.3, p16]

x) A need for long-term support does not mean that parents cannot look after their children. [1.4.1, p20]

xi) Although a parent with learning disabilities can learn how to do things, their cognitive impairment will not go away. Just as someone with a physical impairment may need personal assistance for the rest of their life so a person with learning disabilities may need assistance with daily living, particularly as new situations arise. Secondly, children and their needs change. A parent may have learned to look after a baby and young child and be coping well. However, as the child enters adolescence other support needs may arise. [p21]

xii) Where a need for long-term support with parenting tasks is identified, it should form part of the community care and/or child in need plan. [1.4.2, p21]

xiii) Advocacy and self-advocacy should be made available to help parents access and engage with services. The Care Act 2014 imposes a duty on local authorities to provide an independent advocate where an individual would otherwise have substantial difficulties in being involved in processes such as their own assessment and care planning. [p22]

xiv) The Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on local authorities to make reasonable adjustments so as to eliminate discrimination and to advadvance equality of opportunity; the provision of an independent advocate may assist with this. The Human Rights Act 1998 entitles a parent to participate fully in the process; this includes stages prior to any formal legal proceedings being initiated. [p22]

xv) It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care, which do not, however, meet the threshold of being of significant harm to a child, subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent. A failure to provide support in this type of situation can undermine a parent’s rights to a private and family life, and may also contravene an authority’s disability equality duty. [p25]

xvi) Families affected by parental learning disability are likely to have an on-going need for support. [p27]

xvii) When children are placed in foster care, parents should receive practical support to maximise their chances of improving their parenting capacity. Without this, parents will have little chance of reunification with children who have been removed from their care. [2.2.12, p29]

xviii) Both children’s and adult workers will need specific training in order to respond appropriately to the needs of families affected by parental learning disability. Child protection training strategies should include adult learning disability services. [p38]

xix) It is essential that assessments, training and support are both timely and appropriately tailored to the parent with a learning disability. Failure to build in, from the outset, the extra time that a parent with a learning disability needs in order to learn and understand, puts that parent at a significant disadvantage in child protection proceedings, compared to parents without a learning disability. [piii]

xx) There must also be joint working across all the agencies (in particular adult and children’s services) and appropriate and effective communication permitting parents to participate fully in the process. [piii]

Turning now to the case in question, the Judge did uphold several of the criticisms made by the parents of the assessments and support

Discussion and conclusion
215.There is in my judgement considerable force in the criticisms made by Ms Harman of the assessments of the parents and the support given to them. In particular:

◦the local authority does not have, as it should, a protocol for dealing with parents with learning disability (or not one that the professionals were able to tell me about, which amounts to the same thing) and that reflects in the approach in this case;

◦a protocol would focus on the Guidance which has not always been followed in this case – and to describe the Guidance as a ‘counsel of perfection’ is to give a charter to ignore it which should be robustly challenged;

◦those working with the mother should have been trained in dealing with parents with learning disability which would have given them better direct understanding during assessment and teaching how best to work with her and how to deliver the right support;

◦I do not consider it necessary to have had somebody from the ALDT present at every session; what was required was sufficient training of those that were there (and not just reliance on their experience of dealing with people with learning disability);

◦there has not been enough focus in this case on planned support and a positive strategy to try and keep this family together:

◦rather LW’s focus (see paragraph 193(h)(v) above) was on a solution for the children within their timescales rather than supporting the parents – the two are not necessarily inconsistent if support is provided in a timely and efficient manner;

◦in fact there were unacceptable delays in carrying out assessments and establishing what support was needed, creating a conflict with the children’s timescales;

◦JT said that the parents had not put forward proposals as to the actual support the various agencies could offer – this ignores that it is the local authority which should be making an assessment of the support that can be offered and that should include what is available from outside agencies as well as inhouse support;

◦there could and should have been more focus on repetitive teaching using role-modelling and example as recommended by Dr K (I accept the health visitor used these techniques but there was little hard evidence of it in the FAST work);

◦a more co-ordinated response to the father’s evident need as a carer of the mother should have been put into effect earlier with a support package rather than leaving him to his own devices;

◦work with the parents should have continued after the children were removed not least to assess whether they were making necessary changes;

◦it was unfortunate that, as in many cases, these parents have had to deal with a number of different social workers, five in this case – that has an impact both on the need for vulnerable parents to re-build new relationships with professionals before and during stressful proceedings and professionals’ continuity of knowledge and experience of the family.

216.Having accepted those criticisms I also accept the following points:

◦all the professionals did their best;

◦the Guidance was followed to the extent that Children’s Services took the lead and consulted with the ALDT as the specialist service;

◦the FAST workers and social workers sought to follow the advice given by the ALDT about how best to work with the mother;

◦the materials they used – picture books and charts – were not in themselves inappropriate, particularly given the presence in the home of the father and his supposed ability to support the mother – it is just that more was needed by way of direct example and repetition;

◦lots of support has in fact been given to the family as set out by Mr Howard, I just question whether it might have been more structured and planned had the Guidance been followed and a protocol been in place;

217.I do not see that the criticisms are met simply by saying that one of the parents did not have disability. The fact is, as this case shows, that whenever working with a parent with a learning disability, the Guidance should be followed.

There’s only one part of the judgment that I don’t quite agree with, and that’s here

248.I do not read Re D or the Guidance as requiring local authorities to provide support to the extent that it amounts to substitute parenting. If a parent had such a physical disability as to require substitute parenting then I would expect the result to be the same, so I would not accept that this conclusion is discriminatory of parents with learning disability.

The first bit, I think is absolutely right – I don’t think Re D or the Guidance says that a Local Authority has to provide the sort of support that means that really a parent is not providing any real parenting but the parenting is being done by professionals and support agencies with the parents just being present. It is the comparator with physical disabilities I am not sure about.

If a parent had such a physical disability as to require substitute parenting then I would expect the result to be the same, so I would not accept that this conclusion is discriminatory of parents with learning disability

I don’t know. If a parent was blind, and needed another adult in the home to ensure that the child wasn’t putting themselves in harms way, would a Local Authority be issuing care proceedings because the blind parent doesn’t have another adult in the home? Would threshold even be met on that basis? I think it is wrong, repugnant even that there is a two-tier approach between physical disability and learning disability, but I do think that there is one.

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Medway case part 2 – a lot of practice issues

Following on from the last blog – I don’t often split case discussions, but in this one I felt that the issues over the foster carer and recording was worth a piece on its own.

 

This piece now tackles some of the many practice issues raised by Medway Council v A  2015 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B66.html

 

Let us start with our old friend section 20

 

 

  • 6 On 6.8.14 the SW claims she contacted the Maternal Grandmother and Mr S to see if alternative arrangements could be made within the family to support them. Issues have been raised about her manner of doing so, and whether appropriate support was offered. I make no finding as it has not been possible to explore this fully, but I note that there were several meetings that took place on this date and the SW will have wanted that information beforehand and so may have sounded abrupt and left little time for matters to be considered.
  • 7 By the end of that day the parents had signed a section 20 agreement which they and Mr S thought simply covered a two week period in a mother and baby foster placement. It is clear from the notes in the medical records, and the SW accepts, that the issue of Mother’s vulnerability was raised by Mrs Rose before Mother signed the section 20 agreement. The SW also accepted that in addition to the hospital’s concerns, Mr S and the Maternal Grandmother had confirmed that Mother had a learning difficulty. The SW accepted that it was not appropriate to have obtained Mother’s signature to an agreement under s20 in such circumstances where her cognitive abilities had been questioned by other professionals and no assessment had taken place. I also note that it was obtained prior to the strategy meeting taking place on 7.8.14.

We now know that the mother’s IQ was 54, making it extremely questionable that she had capacity to sign a section 20 agreement – certainly without it being really carefully explained to her. In any event, the parents understanding was that they were agreeing to a two week placement and the placement was actually intended to be for twelve weeks, breaking down after 40 days. This, once again is not a fair and proper use of section 20.

 

  • The guidance of Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] COPLR 658 is as follows, at paragraph 46: “i) every social worker obtaining consent to accommodation of a child from a parent (with parental responsibility) is under a personal duty to be satisfied that the person giving consent does not lack the required capacity; ii) the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity, take into account all the prevailing circumstances and must consider the questions raised by Mental Capacity Act 2005, section 3 and in particular the mother’s capacity to use and weigh all the relevant information; iii) if the social worker has doubts about capacity, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion. Advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.”
  • I acknowledge that the Father signed the section 20 agreement, but this is not good enough (cf s.20(7) Children Act). I have been appalled at the reliance placed by Medway on a section 20 agreement signed by the Mother. She was encouraged to sign it on 6.8.14 without any assessment of her learning difficulty or her capacity. This is wholly unacceptable when the SW knew from the hospital staff and family members that Mother had a learning difficulty and appeared to have problems with her understanding.
  • Medway should not have waited to rely on assessments prompted and undertaken by another agency. Given the anxieties expressed by Mrs Rose at the meetings on 6.8.14, I consider that a section 20 agreement should never have been pursued that day.
  • While I accept that subsequent assessments, by the Learning Disability nurse and by Dr Conning, have suggested that she has capacity, these should not vindicate this practice of relying on a section 20 agreement that was obtained beforehand. In any event I do not consider that an Learning Disability nurse’s assessment on the ward should have been relied upon in relation to the import of a section 20 agreement by which a parent agrees to major interferences with the family’s life. And I further note that Dr Conning’s assessment of the Mother’s capacity in October 2014 was couched in terms of having capacity in the context of her being supported by her legal team and her husband (also legally advised by then).
  • It is likely that the cognitive assessment appointment two weeks after the section 20 agreement was signed, on 21.8.14, followed from the Resource Panel’s concerns expressed at the meeting on 19.8.14, and there appears to have been no attempt by the SW or her team manager to arrange one before then. Although I acknowledge that efforts were then made to obtain a cognitive assessment of Mother on 21.8.14 and 2.9.14 that were not successful due to the Mother’s non-attendance, nonetheless it meant that the section 20 agreement that was extended on 3.9.14 was equally flawed.
  • Mr Crimes’ assessment was sent on 8.9.14. He assessed Mother as having a full IQ score of 54, and as he noted in the accompanying email to the SW this was about the lowest level of functioning he had ever assessed. This was not an assessment of her capacity but set out a grave picture of impairment of her ability to comprehend and make decisions about complex information. Mother was not then assessed as to her capacity until 10.10.14 which was within the care proceedings and with the benefit of legal advice and representation – an important difference. Given the information from Mr Crimes on 5.9.14, Medway should immediately have taken steps in early September and not continued to rely on a section 20 agreement obtained from a vulnerable new mother with this degree of learning disability.
  • Several difficulties arise for vulnerable adults in these circumstances. They are unlikely to want to appear to be difficult or obstructive and so they may well agree to section 20 arrangements that are not necessarily appropriate. Once they have agreed to such arrangements, and are in a mother and baby foster placement as in this case for example, there is a natural impetus to remain with the child and so be locked into a continued agreement to the arrangement. Most significantly, the use of section 20 agreements results in vulnerable adults coping with such circumstances without legal advice or representation.
  • This was compounded here by there being no referral to adult services and no input from social workers experienced in working with vulnerable adults and who are not focussing simply on child protection issues, but are able to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on the case.
  • Just over 40 days passed between the section 20 agreement and the issue of proceedings. It was in this period that the Mother was placed in an inappropriate placement, isolated from her family and increasingly deprived of the support of her husband, and moving towards the breakdown of the placement. I acknowledge that this is not the length of time experienced by the families in the recently reported cases of Re P (A child: Use of section 20) [2014] EWFC 775 and Northamptonshire and DS [2014] EWHC 199 (Fam), but the real significance is this: if it had been properly recognised that section 20 should not be used in these circumstances and proceedings had been issued at an earlier stage, it is likely that arguments about appropriate placements and assessments would have been raised by the parents’ legal representatives, and an inappropriate placement and lack of assessment and ultimately early separation of baby A from his parents may well have all been avoided.

 

 

Learning difficulties

 

We touched in the last piece on the failure to find a specialist placement for the mother, and as you can see from the passage above, no referral was made to Adult Services to get help for mother in her own right, though it must have been apparent that she needed it. There simply wasn’t proper thought given to what the mother’s difficulties meant in terms of how she should be supported, helped or treated

 

 

  • I have set out in Appendix A and B to this judgment respective links to the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with disabilities which is cited as a relevant resource in the 2015 Working Together Guidance, together with limited extracts from those documents (while of course recommending that these documents should be properly considered by those involved in this case in their entirety).
  • I also quote here from Mr Justice Baker’s analysis in Re X Y X (Minors) [2011] EWHC 402 (Fam):

 

“132. The last thirty years have seen a radical reappraisal of the way in which people with a learning disability are treated in society. It is now recognised that they need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice. This policy is right, not only for the individual, since it gives due respect to his or her personal autonomy and human rights, but also for society at large, since it is to the benefit of the whole community that all people are included and respected as equal members of society. One consequence of this change in attitudes has been a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may, in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully. Another consequence has been the realisation that learning disability often goes undetected, with the result that persons with such disabilities are not afforded the help that they need to meet the challenges that modern life poses, particularly in certain areas of life, notably education, the workplace and the family. 133. To meet the particular difficulties encountered in identifying and helping those with a learning disability in the family, the government published in 2007 “Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability”. In their closing submissions, Miss Ball and Miss Boye contended that such good practice guidance is required because there is little evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services and practitioners in each area rarely have a good working knowledge of the policy and legislative framework within which the other is working. They submitted that local authorities frequently do not take account of the fact that, if children are to be enabled to remain in their own families, a specialist approach to a parent with a learning disability is absolutely central to any work that is done, any protection which is offered and any hope of keeping the family together. The 2007 guidance points out, inter alia, that a specialised response is often required when working with families where the parent has a learning disability; that key features of good practice in working with parents with a learning disability include (a) accessible and clear information, (b) clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures, (c) support designed to meet the parent’s needs and strengths, (d) long-term support where necessary, and (e) access to independent advocacy; that people may misunderstand or misinterpret what a professional is telling them so that it is important to check what someone understands, and to avoid blaming them for getting the wrong message; that adult and children’s services and health and social care should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children; and that, if a referral is made to children’s services and then it becomes apparent that a parent has a learning disability, a referral should also be made to adult learning disability services. The guidance also stresses that close attention should be paid to the parent’s access needs, which may include putting written material into an accessible format, avoiding the use of jargon, taking more time to explain things, and being prepared to tell parents things more than once.”

 

  • And Wall LJ makes a relevant comments in P v. Nottingham City Council and the Official Solicitor [2008] EWCA Civ 462:

 

“175. It is, I think, inevitable that in its pre-proceedings work with a child’s family, the local authority will gain information about the capacity of the child’s parents. The critical question is what it does with that information, particularly in a case where the social workers form the view that the parent in question may have learning difficulties.’ 176. At this point, in many cases, the local authority will be working with the child’s parents in an attempt to keep the family together. In my judgment, the practical answer in these circumstances is likely to be that the parent in question should be referred to the local authority’s adult learning disability team (or its equivalent) for help and advice. If that team thinks that further investigations are required, it can undertake them: it should, moreover, have the necessary contacts and resources to commission a report so that as soon as the pre-proceedings letter is written, and proceedings are issued, the legal advisers for the parent can be in a position, with public funding, to address the question of a litigation friend. It is, I think, important that judgments on capacity are not made by the social workers from the child protection team.’

181. In the pre-proceedings phase local authorities should feel free to do whatever is necessary in social work terms to assist parents who may become protected parties. My view, however, is that this is best achieved by members of the adult learning disabilities team who do not have responsibility for the children concerned.”

 

  • It is clear that the purpose of the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance, namely to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure services and training are in place to meet the needs of parents with disabilities, has yet to be met in Medway; and there appears to have been little if any awareness of the DoH Good Practice Guidance’s recommendations shown by Medway’s practice in this case.
  • In order to comply with their duties under s17 Children Act 1989 and in accordance with the good practice set out in the Guidance, this SW, her managers and this local authority should have:

 

  • Immediately made a referral to the adult services Learning Disability team and worked together with them to benefit from their advice, training, experience and resources;
  • Triggered an assessment of Mother’s abilities via the Learning Disability team;
  • Ensured the appointment of an adult care SW for Mother:
  • Identified and provided a specialist resource within a short period of time, in order to assess the Mother, and her and the family’s needs for support;
  • As soon as the parents expressed complaints about the placement, if not before, provided her with details of how to complain;
  • Investigated more fully the support options available from Father, friends and family.

 

Bundle-culling

 

The stipulations of Practice Direction 27A were followed in this case – care was taken to produce a bundle that did not exceed 350 pages in length. The problem is that despite that intention to comply with those stipulations, the culling exercise itself was problematic.

 

  • Thus at the outset of this hearing there were significant contested findings and the most serious of final orders sought against the parents. However, it became apparent that the preparation for such a hearing had been a mess, and there were a number of evidential and procedural issues that almost forced the adjournment of an entire final hearing that would have caused significant delay and extended further the separation of parents and child. I will discuss aspects of this case management as a separate final section of this judgment.
  • In short, it quickly emerged that the documents included in the 350 page PD27A compliant bundle prepared by Medway had been ‘culled’ (to use the term coined by counsel for Medway) from all the documents relating to the case. That cull had been undertaken unilaterally by Medway at the last minute and without agreement of the other parties, and they unsurprisingly considered it to be partial and incomplete. Last minute attempts were made by A’s advocate to prepare a more comprehensive bundle. Given the wide-ranging and serious counter-factual issues it was necessary to further expand the bundle during this hearing to include key missing documents. These have included the medical notes and social work case recordings for the key period of August to September 2014, but the bundle was also even missing the Mother’s statement and the Father’s first statement.
  • Additionally, the evidence has now included the statements and notes of the Safeguarding Midwife Mrs Rose and the Health Visitor Ms Gibson. These were directed by DJ Gill at the IRH held on 5.2.15 to be filed by Medway by 12.2.15 and they were named in the IRH order as witnesses to be heard at the final hearing, but their evidence and notes were still outstanding at the outset of this hearing (mid-April). I made peremptory directions to ensure, in A’s interests, that this evidence was available by day 3 of this hearing. Such directions were among those that should and could have been sought and made since the IRH but long prior to the final hearing. I was also obliged to direct that missing foster carer’s notes and social work recordings from the crucial period in August and September 2014 should be provided. I did not permit Medway to file a further statement by Ms Down, supervising SW from ISP (the agency providing the foster placement), as to what she had seen, heard or done regarding the foster placement. This application was made over a week after the final hearing had begun and on the morning that the foster carer was due to give evidence. Ms Down had not been one of the named witnesses in the IRH order, and I considered it was unfair for the local authority to be attempting to add further evidence and witnesses at this very late stage in the proceedings, and would risk an unnecessary and disproportionate adjournment.
  • I have read all the documents and evidence filed in this case and all the documents additionally prepared by the advocates (whom, I must add, have been of great assistance to the court in the challenging circumstances in which this final hearing came to court). I have heard evidence from Mrs Rose, Ms Gibson, Ms Anyimiah, Ms Barton, the foster carer Ms McG, Ms Stewart, the parents and the Children’s Guardian; and I have heard and read the parties’ submissions.

 

 

 

a) PD27A COMPLIANT BUNDLE – There is little point in Medway having created a bundle a few days before a final hearing by unilaterally selecting documents to fit the 350 page limit. Needless to say it was not considered fit for purpose by the other parties and I have already identified that it lacked crucial documents. This, and the various acts of non-compliance discussed elsewhere, betray an unacceptable failure by Medway to adequately prepare the case, to consider properly which documents would be required, to focus on the issues and the evidence, and to apply itself with care and a sense of the necessarily heavy responsibilities borne by applicant local authorities when applying for care and placement orders which have life-changing consequences for families.

b) In order to achieve a meaningful compliance with PD27A, the local authority should liaise with the other parties at an advocates’ meeting prior to the IRH to agree a provisional core bundle index. This will not only assist with the proper analysis of the issues and evidence in readiness for an IRH, and permit a proper resolution of issues at that hearing, but will also identify any further documents that may need to be the subject of an application to depart from PD27A and form a supplemental bundle, and which can be addressed and resolved at that IRH. I will be implementing directions to facilitate this approach at CMHs, but even absent such directions it is evident that a local authority applicant should be taking on this responsibility in any event.

 

That is the only way that the 350 page stipulation can actually work. However, that hinges on getting actual responses from the other advocates. If they have not yet read all of the source material and records, or are not going to be trial counsel, then there’s resistance to culling any document. I can see why – who wants to agree that “we don’t need the Health Visitor records” only to find later during exhaustive preparation that there’s something vital within them.  And rather than argue that those particular records must go in, it is simpler just to not agree to any culling at all.  Of course, if everyone came to an IRH having prepared their cross-examination and knowing all of the issues they would want to take up with witnesses at final hearing and what documents would assist, that would solve everything. But that’s not likely to happen. Preparation for an IRH IS different to preparation for a final hearing. For one thing, you’ve got all of the evidence, whereas all too often at IRH final statements from this or that party are still outstanding.  For another, counsel preparing for a final hearing knows that they are actually going to be the ones asking the question, whereas at IRH the final hearing will be listed at the Court’s convenience and it will be pot-luck whether counsel at the IRH will be free to do the final hearing.  [That’s a solveable problem by going back to the old system of listing a final hearing at the early stage of the case that everyone can work towards. That’s even more important given that we have to conclude cases by week 26, so only deciding to list a final hearing at week 20 is a recipe for disaster. Everyone bar HMCS thinks that is a good idea, but as HMCS don’t like it, it won’t happen]