It is a Presidential pronouncement, and a long one. So expect it to be cascaded to all Judges and Courts in the next few days.
To be honest, a case that makes the President say this:-
- This is by some margin the most difficult and unusual care case I have ever had to try.
is going to be worth a read. It is really difficult. Just as when many of us read Re B, we felt that the circumstances described by the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court didn’t seem to justify a finding that threshold was met and that adoption was the correct outcome, this one made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I don’t think that I agree with the eventual conclusion, though to have decided the case otherwise would have caused a huge shift in the legal approach to such cases.
I’m afraid that it is long. And I am also afraid that in my attempts to condense what is a very long judgment into manageable size, some of the nuance and detail will be lost. There is no real substitute for reading the whole thing.
Re D (A child) (No 3) 2016
This case has appeared in the blog many times. It is the one where a child was placed at home with parents, who had some learning difficulties, under a Care Order in 2012. The Local Authority then removed that child and placed the child in foster care. So initially it was key case law about the principles in law that apply to a removal of a child under a full Care Order. The LA then decided that their plan was adoption and made an application for a Placement Order. It then took many months of arguing about the lack of availability of legal aid for the parents (and lawyers not only working for free but signing indemnities that if cost orders were made against the Official Solicitor that they would guarantee to pay them out of their own pocket. Doesn’t quite fit with the conspiracy narrative that parents lawyers don’t try…)
It is the plaintive case where the mother cried out during one hearing that nobody seemed to be talking about her child at all, that all of the attention was on regulations and LASPO and fripperies, when what was surely important was the child. Quite so.
Anyway, this is the decision about whether the child should live with the parents, or be made subject to a Placement Order and hence go on to be adopted.
It raises some really challenging philosophical questions – and not ones of idle curiousity but ones that go to the heart of how such cases should be run.
- Were the things that happened to this child a result of parental deficiency, or were they frankly things that could happen to any child and any parent, but they were pathologised because of the parents known issues?
- Were the failings here attributable to the parents, or the support provided?
- Is there such a thing in law as reparative care, or is insisting that a child needs higher than good enough care simply a social engineering argument in disguise (topical, given the proposed reforms to adoption)
- Is a parent with learning difficulties treated differently (or discriminated against) than a parent with physical disabilities?
- Is a plan that involves extensive professional support and carers really harmful to a child, or is it the sort of thing that happens all the time with children whose parents are very rich?
I’m going to steal the arguments in relation to each of these from the submissions of Deidre Fottrell QC and Sarah Morgan QC contained in the judgment, because the day that I can write something that is better than the way Deidre or Sarah puts it is the day that I’ll be closing up the blog to spend quality time with my Pulitzer Prize.
- Ms Fottrell, who it must be remembered acts on behalf of the father but also takes instructions from the Official Solicitor, expresses their deep concerns about what, with every justification, she calls the “notable deficit” in the support being given to the family by the local authority in relation to its failure to provide the father with the adult support services to which, as it eventually conceded, the father was entitled. As she submits, this impacted on the family in two ways: first, the father has not had the support he required, and thus continued to struggle with day to day tasks for himself; and, secondly, this meant that the mother was overburdened by being required to support him – which must have impacted on her ability to look after D. This is not, Ms Fottrell says, a small point, for it undermines the local authority’s case that the parents were fully supported when D was living at home. It is not enough for the local authority to assert that it was committed to D remaining at home and that it provided support. The key issues, she says, are (i) whether the local authority offered the right support and (ii) whether it was entitled to expect, as it did, that the support could be reduced and eventually withdrawn. Her answer to each is clear: No.
- Ms Fottrell identifies what she suggests are two fundamental flaws at the heart of the local authority’s case. First, she says, there is an inherent contradiction given that the nature of the parents’ learning disabilities is, as she puts it, inherent and unchanging, a fact known to everyone when the original order was made: so the need for ongoing support on an indefinite basis underpinned the care plan approved the court in November 2012. It is therefore, she submits, unfortunate and somewhat harsh for the local authority and the guardian now to be saying that the parents have failed to ‘improve’ their parenting. She suggests that this goes to demonstrate either that the support envisaged was not provided to the extent required or that the local authority’s expectations of the parents were either unclear or unrealistic.
- Secondly, she challenges the assertion that D needs better than good enough parenting: it is, she says, circular and dangerous and runs the risk of a parent with learning difficulties being held to a different and more onerous standard. It would, she suggests, exclude a parent with learning difficulties who requires support from being able to parent their child if the child also has learning difficulties. She points to what Gillen J said in Re G and A and observes, correctly, that the court has to comply with both Article 8 and Article 14 of the Convention. It cannot be right, she says, for the court to sanction a local authority’s intervention in the family life of a parent with disability in a way which would be discriminatory under Article 14. Moreover, as she points out, there is a positive obligation on the State under Article 8 and that, she submits, in a case such as this, imposes a broad obligation to provide such support as will enable the child to remain with his parents.
- More generally, Ms Fottrell aligns herself with the submissions put forward on behalf of the mother, to which I now turn. Before doing so, I should mention two other important points made by Ms Fottrell. She challenges the assertion that the parents need support round the clock – a proposition, she submits, not made out on the evidence. And she points out that D has never suffered any physical injuries. Insofar as there are said to have been what can be characterised as ‘near misses’, she poses the question: Are these the kind of incidents, familiar to every parent, where the reaction is ‘there but by the grace of God …? Or were they, in truth, disasters waiting to happen where by some miracle nothing did happen?
- In conclusion, Ms Fottrell submits that, with the right package of extensive support provided by a combination of Mrs P and the professionals, the parents will be able to care for D safely and appropriately, as the court had intended in November 2012
- Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz acknowledge that the mother has had her difficulties with MB and the foster carers and they do not shy away from some of the things the mother has said about professionals. But they urge me to remember the context. What after all is a parent likely to think about the social worker who has advocated the removal of her child or about the foster carer who is doing what the parent herself wants to do? And they urge me to accept TG’s appraisal of the mother as someone who can – and, they say, will – work with professionals if they are there to assist, support and advise, rather than to assess and monitor, and who treat her as an adult and a mother rather than, as she perceived it, as if she is “stupid.”
- Moving to the heart of the case, Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz challenge the assertion that the level of support the parents need carries with it the danger that people other than the parents will in truth be bringing D up and acting as his parents. There are, they suggest, two aspects to this: Is this really the case? And, even if it is, to what extent does it matter? In relation to the second point they caution against the risk of making a value judgment (as opposed to coming to a judgment) if it is, in truth, based upon no more than the circumstances in which the particular parent – these parents – come to need help. They submit that what matters is that the child has a clear and secure knowledge of who his or her parents are. The fact that some parents either need or choose to have assistance with the way in which their children are brought up does not, they say, alter that.
- Here, as they rightly say, the parents need help. But how, they ask, do these parents, with their particular difficulties, differ from the parent physically disabled by Thalidomide, or the parent who is blind, or a parent with a brain injury as distinct from a learning disability, who may not be able to see or to react quickly to some risk to which their child is exposed. What such parents need, they submit, is that a reasonable adjustment is made for the deficits in their parenting which arise from their own inherent difficulties rather than from neglect or failure or indifference. The fact that such adjustments are made, and that such parents may be receiving a high level of help and support, does not, they say, mean that they are not bringing up their children. Why, they ask rhetorically, should it be any different for these parents with their difficulties?
- They suggest that the true approach is best illustrated by those parents who choose to have assistance, for example, parents working long hours who employ a live-in nanny not merely to look after the children while their parents are at work but also to help with the daily beginning and end-of-day routines, or parents who send their children away to boarding school (and will therefore not see their children for days or possibly weeks on end), or the parents moving in circles where, even today, there is a domestic staff cooking the meals and where the children may eat separately from their parents. No doubt, they say, in all these cases the parents hope for continuity throughout the child’s childhood, but, as they point out, that is not the real world. Nannies move on, staff change, teachers leave, so the children are exposed to differing professionals providing care for them at differing stages during their childhood.
- The point, they say, is that if one steps back and considers not the circumstances which bring about this help with or delegation of parental care but the experience of the child in these various examples it does not differ markedly, if at all, from what D’s experience would be under his parents’ proposals – except that he would probably have rather more parental care. They stress that these are not flippant points. They are made to underline the submission that it is easy to criticise, easy to buy into the notion that there is a way in which parents in care proceedings are expected to take sole unassisted responsibility for parenting and that if they do not or cannot then it is not good enough.
- Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz conclude with two further submissions. They reject the guardian’s approach that the parents will need 24 hour wrap-around support. That is not what the mother is seeking, nor is it what she, or the father or D need. Finally, they suggest that there has been an undue emphasis on risk, particularly in relation to D’s safety. Quite apart from the fact that all the incidents relied upon predated the local authority’s volte face, they point out that risk cannot be eradicated from children’s lives, although of course it can and should be reduced. They urge a sense of proportion: of course, a child can fall and poke himself in the eye with a dinner knife, but so too with a pencil, a crayon or a toy. The parents can learn to manage by modelling, which the mother, they say, will accept and learn from. Moreover, as they point out, risks change through time: road safety with a small child becomes internet safety with an older child; bath-time is hazardous for a very small baby but the risk diminishes over time to nothing for the older child. The parents, they urge, with proper training and support will be able to manage the changing risks. The mother, as they point out, has changed in her view of D’s needs and limitations. Earlier on, she was unwilling to accept that there was anything wrong or that he had any difficulties; in her evidence, she was able to acknowledge that that this was not so, saying that “it’s on both sides of his family, so it’s not that surprising.”
- With proper support, they submit, D’s parents will be able to care for and look after him adequately. They point out that whoever looks after D will need help and support. They urge me to be rigorous in my Re B-S analysis, carefully evaluating and balancing the benefits to D of returning to his home to be looked after by devoted parents who love him very much and who have done and always will do their very best to care for him, accepting him and loving him as he is, against what they suggest are the unknowns and perils of adoption, particularly for a child with D’s characteristics. My assessment of what the parents propose for D must, they submit, be based upon the full support package proposed, that is, with input from A+bility, the local authority, other professionals and Mr and Mrs P. Adoption, they say, is not a panacea. I should be cautious about accepting the local authority’s rather sanguine view as to the ease with which suitable adoptive parents will be found – a view based, they suggest, on a limited understanding by that part of the local authority of D’s particular needs and complexities. They urge me to feed into my evaluation the risk that D may not be adopted and thus end up remaining in foster care.
- At the end of the day, as they rightly observe, it is not my task to find a ‘better’ family for D if, in truth, his parents, with proper support and assistance, can provide him with good enough parenting. I must be vigilant not to countenance social engineering.
Okay, to be fair, I have not also quoted from the counter submissions from the Local Authority and the Guardian, who make a series of very good points also. But the argument is challenging nonetheless.
I felt when I was reading the judgment that the President was very drawn to the spirit of these arguments, and there’s a passage where he makes it explicit that he was striving to reach a conclusion that would have returned D to his parents care.
- Ms Fottrell, Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz join in submitting that, with the benefit of the right package of extensive – what they accept will need to be very extensive and intensive – support, with all the right input from A+bility, from the local authority and other professionals and from Mr and Mrs P, the parents will be able to provide D with adequate care, today, tomorrow and well into the future, indeed throughout the remainder of his childhood.
- In response, the local authority and the guardian make three essential points, with each of which I am, sadly, at the end of the day, driven to agree:
i) The first is that the proposed package will simply not work, is simply not sustainable for as long as it would have to be maintained in place to meet D’s needs. Despite the best intentions of the parents, they have, the mother in particular, great difficulty in accepting guidance, advice or support when it does not fit in with their own views. The experience of what happened between November 2013 and March 2014 is, unhappily, an all too likely predictor of what will happen again. I am driven to conclude that the parents – through absolutely no fault of their own – will simply not be able to maintain over the ‘long haul’ the effective working partnership with the support team which is essential if the package is not to collapse.
ii) The second is that, even if the package can somehow be maintained, the gap between what the parents can offer D and what he needs is very large indeed and, sadly, in my judgment, simply too large to be capable of being bridged by even the most extensive support package. I refer, without further citation, to what I have already set out (paragraphs 145-149). I am driven to this conclusion after the most careful consideration of all the evidence, including, of course, the important evidence of Mrs P, which points in the other direction.
iii) The third is that even if a sustainable package could be devised which was in one sense capable of bridging the gap, it would not in fact be promoting D’s best interests. His parenting would, in reality, become parenting by his professional and other carers, rather than by his parents, with all the adverse consequences for his emotional development and future welfare identified by MB, by Ms Randall and by the guardian.
- In relation to this last point I must, of course, address the powerful and perceptive submissions of Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz (paragraphs 116-119). There is much in what they say with which I agree. And in many cases their analysis would indeed point in the direction to which they would have me go. But at the end of the day the outcome will always be case specific, dependent upon the particular, and often, as here, unusual, facts of the particular case. In the present case there are, in essence, two reasons why on this point I am unable to follow Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz. The first is that this is only one of three quite separate reasons why, as I have said, no sustainable and effective package can be devised – so this particular point is not, in fact, decisive. The second reason flows from their submission (paragraph 116) that what matters is that the child has a clear and secure knowledge of who his parents are. But that, in the light of what MB, Ms Randall and the guardian have all told me, would at best be very questionable here.
- I confess that I have struggled hard to try and find some proper basis upon which I could conscientiously have come to a different conclusion. But at the end of the day, and for all the reasons I have given, I am driven, however reluctantly and sadly, to the conclusion that D must be adopted. I am satisfied that ‘nothing else will do’; that D’s welfare throughout his life requires that he be adopted; and that his parents’ very understandable refusal to consent to his adoption must be dispensed with.
In effect, the President’s decision was that adoption was the right outcome for the child because it was not possible to devise any plan that would work to keep the child at home with the parents and have his needs met, partially because of the scale or what was needed and partly because the parents understandable issues with professionals would cause any such plan to break down.
On the reparative care point (for a particular child can the LA say that the parenting required is higher than ‘good enough’ because of the child’s needs) the President says this:-
- Finally, the question of whether D needs ‘good enough’ parenting or ‘better than good enough’ parenting. There is, I think, a risk of this becoming mired in semantics. The reality is clear and simple. As Ms Randall put it, D has complex special needs (paragraph 76). The guardian expressed the same view when she said that D’s care needs are over and above those of other children of his age (paragraph 95) and said that, because of his own difficulties, D will need additional support both through childhood and as a young adult (paragraph 100). I agree with those assessments.
- Ms Randall went on to express the view that in these circumstances D will require ‘better than good enough’ parenting in order to achieve his potential (paragraphs 76, 82). Although this is a conventional way of expressing it, the real point surely is this. What is required is parenting which is ‘good enough’, not for some hypothetical average, typical or ‘normal’ child, whatever that means, but for the particular child and having regard to that child’s needs and requirements. Where, as with D, the child has needs over and above those of other children of his age, then what is ‘good enough’ for him may well require a greater level of input. D, in my judgment, plainly will. That is the point, and that is what is relevant, and in this case highly relevant. The descriptive label is merely that, a convenient form of professional shorthand. I make clear that in coming to this conclusion and in expressing myself in this way I have very much had in mind and taken into account Ms Fottrell’s submissions.
Somewhat side-stepped so as to preserve the principles of “good enough” parenting, but stressing that it must be “good enough” for this particular child with these particular needs.
- Standing back, I return to the questions I posed at the outset: Given that these are parents who the local authority, the guardian and the court agreed in November 2012 were able to provide their son D with good enough parenting, given that that conclusion was endorsed by the local authority on 3 February 2014 after careful evaluation and in the light of a very careful core assessment completed as recently as 29 January 2014, What has happened? What has changed? Why is the local authority now proposing, and why am I agreeing to, something so radically different?
- The answer, in my judgment, is to be found in a telling phrase used by the guardian and a question posed by Ms Fottrell. As long ago as November 2012 the guardian had described the local authority’s plan as “courageous”. The sad reality is that it turned out to be too courageous. Ms Fottrell, as we have seen, posed the question of whether the reason D was removed in March 2014 was because the necessary support had not been provided by the local authority or because the local authority’s expectations of the parents had turned out to be unrealistic. In my judgment it was the latter. Despite the very intensive support provided by the local authority, it gradually became apparent, contrary to everyone’s hopes and expectations, that the parents were not able to manage. Matters came to a head in March 2014 when, in effect, if one wants to put it this way, MB admitted defeat and realised that her, and her colleagues’, hopes and expectations were not going to be, in reality could not be, achieved.
- This, as I said at the outset, is a desperately, indeed, a wrenchingly, sad case. D’s parents are devoted to him and have always wanted to do, and have done, their very best for him. They would never harm him, and have never done so. They are not in any way to blame. They are not to be criticised. It is not in any sense their fault. They have struggled against great odds to be, as they would want to be, the best possible parents for D. But ultimately it has proved too much for them. Their own difficulties are simply too great. My heart goes out to them.
The President also imports some new principles / approaches into English law, by borrowing from a decision in an Irish Court.
- This leads on to the profoundly important of observations of Gillen J, as he then was, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, in Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability)  NIFam 8, para 5. So far as I am aware, his decision has never been reported, but the transcript is freely available on the BAILII website.
- Gillen J referred to a number of papers and reports, including “Finding the Right Support”, a research paper from Bristol University’s Norah Fry Research Centre funded and published by the Baring Foundation in 2006. He continued:
“A reading of these documents leads me to set out a number of matters which I feel must be taken into account by courts when determining cases such as this involving parents with a learning disability particularly where they parent children who also have a learning disability.”
He then set those matters out in eight numbered paragraphs. Although lengthy, they are so important that they require quotation in full. Accordingly, I set them out in an Annex to this judgment. I respectfully agree with everything said by Gillen J. I commend his powerful words to every family judge, to every local authority and to every family justice professional in this jurisdiction.
David Burrows and I will probably ponder for aeons as to whether this is actually binding on anyone, and whether it actually forms part of the decision or is simply part of the President’s stylistic approach to judgments whereby they are part judgment, part speech, part policy initiative and part a Practice Direction without a consultation process. But for non geeks, it is a pretty simple message. Follow this stuff, or else.
- Extract from the judgment of Gillen J in Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability)  NIFam 8, para 5:
“(1) An increasing number of adults with learning difficulties are becoming parents. The Baring Foundation report records that whilst there are no precise figures on the number of parents with learning difficulties in the population, the most recent statistics come from the First National Survey of Adults with Learning Difficulties in England, where one in fifteen of the adults interviewed had children. Whatever the figure it is generally recognised that their number is steadily rising and that they represent a sizable population whose special needs require to be adequately addressed. The Baring Foundation report refers to national policy in England and Scotland committing government to “supporting parents with learning disabilities in order to help them, wherever possible, to ensure their children gain maximum life chance benefits.” Nonetheless the courts must be aware that surveys show that parents with learning disabilities are apparently more likely than other parents to have their children removed them and permanently placed outside the family home. In multidisciplinary jurisdiction such as the Family Division, it is important that the court is aware of such reports at least for the purposes of comment. It is important to appreciate these currents because the Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 places an emphasis on supporting the family so that children can remain with them and obligations under disability discrimination legislation make public services accessible to disabled people (including parents with learning difficulties). Moreover the advent of the Human Rights Act 1998 plays an important role in highlighting the need to ensure the rights of such parents under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”).
(2) People with a learning disability are individuals first and foremost and each has a right to be treated as an equal citizen. Government policy emphasises the importance of people with a learning disability being supported to be fully engaged playing a role in civic society and their ability to exercise their rights and responsibilities needs to be strengthened. They are valued citizens and must be enabled to use mainstream services and be fully included in the life of the community as far as possible. The courts must reflect this and recognise their need for individual support and the necessity to remove barriers to inclusion that create disadvantage and discrimination. To that extent courts must take all steps possible to ensure that people with a learning disability are able to actively participate in decisions affecting their lives. They must be supported in ways that take account of their individual needs and to help them to be as independent as possible.
(3) It is important that a court approaches these cases with a recognition of the possible barriers to the provision of appropriate support to parents including negative or stereotypical attitudes about parents with learning difficulties possibly on the part of staff in some Trusts or services. An extract from the Baring Foundation report provides a cautionary warning:
“For example, it was felt that some staff in services whose primary focus was not learning difficulties (eg in children and family teams) did not fully understand the impact of having learning difficulties on individual parents’ lives; had fixed ideas about what would happen to the children of parents with learning difficulties and wanted an outcome that did not involve any risks (which might mean them being placed away from their family); expected parents with learning difficulties to be ‘perfect parents’ and had extremely high expectations of them. Different professionals often had different concepts of parenting against which parents were assessed. Parents’ disengagement with services, because they felt that staff had a negative view of them and ‘wanted to take their children away’ was also an issue, as were referrals to support services which were too late to be of optimum use to the family – often because workers lacked awareness of parents’ learning difficulties or because parents had not previously been known to services”.
(4) This court fully accepts that parents with learning difficulties can often be “good enough” parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need. The concept of “parenting with support” must underpin the way in which the courts and professionals approach wherever possible parents with learning difficulties. The extended family can be a valuable source of support to parents and their children and the courts must anxiously scrutinize the possibilities of assistance from the extended family. Moreover the court must also view multi-agency working as critical if parents are to be supported effectively. Courts should carefully examine the approach of Trusts to ensure this is being done in appropriate cases. In particular judges must make absolutely certain 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 normal parents. Their competences must not be judged against stricter criteria or harsher standards than other parents. Courts must be acutely aware of the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination and how this might be relevant to the treatment of parents with learning difficulties in care proceedings. In particular careful consideration must be given to the assessment phase by a Trust and in the application of the threshold test.
(5) Parents must be advised by social workers about their legal rights, where to obtain advice, how to find a solicitor and what help might be available to them once a decision has been taken to pursue a care application. Too narrow a focus must not be placed exclusively on the child’s welfare with an accompanying failure to address parents’ needs arising from their disability which might impact adversely on their parenting capacity. Parents with learning disabilities should be advised of the possibility of using an advocate during their case eg from the Trust itself or from Mencap and clear explanations and easy to understand information about the process and the roles of the different professionals involved must be disclosed to them periodically. Written information should be provided to such parents to enable them to consider these matters at leisure and with their advocate or advisers. Moreover Trusts should give careful consideration to providing child protection training to staff working in services for adults with learning disabilities. Similarly those in children’s services need training about adults with learning disabilities. In other words there is a strong case to be made for new guidelines to be drawn up for such services working together with a joint training programme. I endorse entirely the views of the Guardian ad Litem in this case when she responded to the “Finding the Right Support” paper by stating:
“As far as I am aware there are no ‘family teams’ in the Trusts designated to support parents with a learning disability. In my opinion this would be a positive development. The research also suggests that a learning disability specialist could be designated to work within family and childcare teams and a child protection specialist could be designated to work within learning disability teams. If such professionals were to be placed in the Trusts in Northern Ireland they could be involved in drawing up a protocol for joint working, developing guidelines, developing expertise in research, awareness of resources and stimulating positive practice. They could also assist in developing a province-wide forum that could build links between the Trusts, the voluntary sector and the national and international learning disability community.”
(6) The court must also take steps to ensure there are no barriers to justice within the process itself. Judges and magistrates must recognise that parents with learning disabilities need extra time with solicitors so that everything can be carefully explained to them. Advocates can play a vital role in supporting parents with learning difficulties particularly when they are involved in child protection or judicial processes. In the current case, the court periodically stopped (approximately after each hour), to allow the Mencap representative to explain to the parents what was happening and to ensure that an appropriate attention span was not being exceeded. The process necessarily has to be slowed down to give such parents a better chance to understand and participate. This approach should be echoed throughout the whole system including LAC reviews. All parts of the Family justice system should take care as to the language and vocabulary that is utilised. In this case I was concerned that some of the letters written by the Trust may not have been understood by these parents although it was clear to me that exhortations had been given to the parents to obtain the assistance of their solicitors (which in fact was done). In terms therefore the courts must be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of parents to change might itself be an artefact of professionals ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in appropriate terms. Courts must not rush to judge, but must gather all the evidence within a reasonable time before making a determination. Steps must be taken to ensure that parents have a meaningful and informed access to reports, time to discuss the reports and an opportunity to put forward their own views. Not only should the hearing involve special measures, including a break in sessions, but it might also include permission that parents need not enter the court until they are required if they so wish. Moreover the judges should be scrupulous to ensure that an opportunity is given to parents with learning disabilities to indicate to the court that something is occurring which is beyond their comprehension and that measures must be taken to deal with that. Steps should also be taken throughout the process to ensure that parents with learning disabilities are not overwhelmed by unnecessarily large numbers of persons being present at meetings or hearings.
(7) Children of parents with learning difficulties often do not enter the child protection system as the result of abuse by their parents. More regularly the prevailing concerns centre on a perceived risk of neglect, both as the result of the parents’ intellectual impairments, and the impact of the social and economic deprivation commonly faced by adults with learning difficulties. It is in this context that a shift must be made from the old assumption that adults with learning difficulties could not parent to a process of questioning why appropriate levels of support are not provided to them so that they can parent successfully and why their children should often be taken into care. At its simplest, this means a court carefully inquiring as to what support is needed to enable parents to show whether or not they can become good enough parents rather than automatically assuming that they are destined to fail. The concept of “parenting with support” must move from the margins to the mainstream in court determinations.
(8) Courts must ensure that careful consideration is given to ensuring that any decision or judgment is fully explained to such parents. In this case I caused a copy of the judgment to be provided to the parties at least one day before I handed it down to facilitate it being explained in detail before the attendance at court where confusion and consternation could be caused by a lengthy judgment being read which the parents could not follow at the time.”
[I’m rather struck by the underlined words in paragraph 4 In particular judges must make absolutely certain 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 normal parents
Although threshold had already been established in this case when the original Care Orders were made, it does appear that the worst thing that happened to D whilst he lived with his parents before being removed and a plan of adoption approved was that there was an occasion when mother closed a kitchen drawer not knowing that D’s finger was in the way, giving him a swollen and no doubt quite painful finger. Hmmmm.
The Judge had this to say about that
- First, the question of D’s physical safety. It is important both to keep this in perspective but at the same time also to understand the real focus of the local authority’s concerns. I start with two obvious but important points. The parents have never done nor, I am satisfied, would they ever dream of doing anything to harm D. And the fact is that, with the sole exception of the occasion when his finger was trapped in the drawer – something that could happen to any child in the care of the most attentive and careful if momentarily distracted parent – D has never suffered any physical harm while in their care. Moreover, the specific incidents to which the local authority understandably draws attention are none of them, viewed in isolation, anything particularly out of the normal; indeed, probably familiar, if we are honest about it, to any parent. On occasions, children do escape. On occasions they find things which may cause them injury if they fall over. On occasions they make more or less perilous journeys up or down potentially dangerous staircases. On occasions parents, in exasperation, throw things.*
- I should add that I reject any suggestion that the parents have ever been other than caring and diligent in making sure that D receives appropriate medical treatment whenever the need arises. I accept the mother’s explanations as to why, and in my judgment quite reasonably, she took the view that D did not need medical attention after his finger was trapped in the drawer. Whatever she may have said to TG, and the words TG reports are capable of more than one meaning, I reject any suggestion that this was a deliberate attempt by the mother to cover up. She would, I am confident, always have put her child’s safety first. That is simply the kind of mother she is.
[*Expect to see Re D a child No 3 2016 turn up in responses to thresholds for all manner of similar issues over the next few months. This seems to be judicial authority for it being okay to throw things in exasperation and will no doubt be pleaded as such]
He does, however, say that the evidence was that the parents could not properly anticipate risks
- So what is the real focus of the local authority’s concern in relation to safety? Looking to the various views expressed by A+bility (paragraph 52 above), by MB (paragraph 61), by TG (paragraphs 67-70), and by Ms Randall (paragraphs 78-79, 81), all of which are to much the same effect and point in the same direction, and which I have no hesitation in accepting, the problem is a group of difficulties the mother has: in anticipating possible risks (particularly if they are novel); knowing how to react quickly and effectively in the face of potential hazard; not always being able to anticipate or control D’s actions; not being able to transfer past experiences or training into practical precautions next time round (as TG put it, progress ‘in the moment’ tended not to be carried through over time); not being able to bring her theoretical awareness of risk to bear effectively when confronted with a live situation; and not being able to multitask in situations where she might be distracted from her focus on D. TG’s description (paragraph 67) of the contrast between the mother’s fluent explanations and her inability to translate this into practical terms is striking and illuminating, as indeed is the whole of TG’s evidence on the issue of danger.
- In my judgment, these are very real and very worrying concerns. The cumulative weight of all the professional opinion on the point is compelling in identifying and evidencing just why the professionals are, and in my judgment rightly, so concerned. Not just for the here and now but also for the future, as D, who Ms Randall describes as a child with little sense of danger, becomes more challenging and finds himself exposed to new and different forms of danger.
Again, hmmm. In all the time that D lived with the parents (and remember, against a backdrop of the LA REDUCING the practical support to the family), this failure to anticpate risk led to just one injury, a pretty innocuous one. Have we really here ensured that:-
In particular judges must make absolutely certain 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 normal parents
And I have to ask myself, rhetorically, whether the Judge who decided Re A, would have countenanced within a threshold that a child’s finger was accidentally caught in a drawer that mother was closing IF THE MOTHER DID NOT HAVE LEARNING DIFFICULTIES and that was being used as evidence that her difficulties made her a poor parent?