It is always enjoyable for me to receive a judgment from His Honour Judge Wildblood QC. I expect that there may be a slightly different qualitative experience between reading one at a safe geographical distance and being physically present to receive it on a case you’re involved in.
My mental image of His Honour Judge Wildblood QC is that of a kindly man who nonetheless would be able to come into his Court room and open with the Rowdy Roddy Piper (God Rest his soul) line
“I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all outta bubblegum”
[Incidentally, the fight scene in this movie, They Live, which is between two characters, one of whom wants the other to put on a pair of sunglasses and the other who is reluctant to don said sunglasses, is so epic that my dad came and got me out of bed to come and watch it at about three am, when he was watching this film on TV. And I was glad that he did. It is marvellous. In case you are in any doubt – when I compare HH J Wildblood QC with Rowdy Roddy Piper it is intended as high praise]
This case does not disappoint on that level. There was clearly a deficiency of gum that day, but no deficiency of kicking ass.
Gloucestershire CC and M 2015
I am publishing the judgment in this case because it is an example of the following:
i) The unnecessarily protected use of accommodation of a child under section 20 of The Children Act 1989. This child was accommodated with short term foster carers for 12 months before these inevitable proceedings were issued and has now been with them for about 16 months.
ii) The delayed identification of the need for therapeutic intervention for this mother. 19 months after the Local Authority intervened in a family where the mother had obvious difficulties it was identified that the mother needed therapy. It was then said that, by then, the benefit of therapy was ‘outwith the timescales of the child’. If psychological evidence was to be obtained with the invariable recommendation of therapy (and I have never known a psychologist not recommend therapy in a report) I cannot understand why it was not obtained much earlier.
iii) Failure to identify realistic options leading to the adjournment of this final hearing and a consequent inability to meet the timetabling demands of section 32 of The Children Act 1989, as amended.
Section 20 drift has been something of a theme of the Courts and hence this blog, for some time now.
As a quick rule of thumb for a social worker thinking about a case in their cabinet/caseload where there’s a section 20 agreement, ask yourself this question
If the mother or father rang you this afternoon and said “I want the child back” would you be ?
(a) Perfectly fine about that and make the arrangements
(b) Okay about it, but suggest that the move take place over the next 2 days to make the preparations
(c) Concerned and thinking that the child would not be safe at the moment, if they went home
(d) In a blind panic, and wanting to do anything to stop that happening
If your answer is (c) or (d), then it isn’t really a proper use of section 20 any more. The section 20 here is a very short holding position until you can either have a Meeting Before Action at which the parents will have lawyers, or care proceedings at which the parents will have lawyers.
- C grew up in the primary care of his mother until 28th May 2014 when, at the age of 5, he was removed from the mother under police powers of protection and then accommodated by the Local Authority with foster carers. The mother does not accept that the threshold criteria in s31 (2) of The Children Act 1989 are fulfilled and has also issued a claim for damages under The Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to the circumstances in which C was removed from her care and the manner in which the Local Authority has conducted itself in relation to C. On the same day in May 2014 A went to live with Mr D.
- For no valid reason it took the Local Authority a year, that is until 15th May 2015, to issue these proceedings. In its application the Local Authority said at B9: ‘C was the subject of a child protection plan from August 2013 until 19th May 2014 as a consequence of neglectful parenting. The concerns related to the dirty and unhygienic home conditions and the mother’s mental health and its impact upon her parenting and capacity to meet her child’s needs. A week after de-registration a further child protection referral was received. C was accommodated on 29th May 2014 following police powers of protection being used on 28th May 2014. The police removed C as a consequence of a person known to be a risk to children continuing to have contact with him (against professional advice) and because of the unsuitable home conditions. On 29th September 2014 the mother was evicted from her flat which had been significantly damaged. The mother was sofa surfing. Roger Hutchinson, psychologist, completed a report on the mother on 9th March 2015. This concluded that the mother experiences social anxiety and schizoid and paranoid traits with poorly developed social, functional and adaptive skills. Therapy is indicated over a nine month period’.
- C has therefore been with his current foster carers for 16 months of his life, has settled with them and is integrated into life with them. His mother has been having contact with him twice a week for sessions lasting one hour and although there have been inevitable niggles about that contact, a condensed analysis of that contact could not express it as falling below the grasp of the adjective ‘reasonable’ on my current reading of the papers and submissions that were made at the IRH. C’s educational and social connections, at an important time of his life when he is settling into school, have all been made from the base of his current foster home. The foster carers have done an excellent job in caring for him and, in his letter to the judge, C says ‘my family is [the foster father, the foster mother and their cat]‘ and draws the foster father with a big smile on his face. The guardian reports that C is making ‘greatly improved progress at school and his health has improved’ since living with them [A14].
These three paragraphs of background raise the three obvious questions
- What the hell took the LA so long to issue?
- Is it fair for the LA to have delayed so long in finding out that mum needed 9 months of therapy – because if they’d found out earlier, she’d have had it by now
- IF the child can’t go and live with mother, surely this child is going to stay with the current carers if humanly possible
However, the LA in this case had delayed for so long, were saying that the child couldn’t wait for mum to have therapy, and had ruled out the current foster carer as an option.
Taking these in turn
i) Having been involved with this mother since August 2013 and having accommodated this child in May 2014 it is inexplicable that it took a year for the Local Authority to issue these proceedings. That has absolutely nothing to do with limited resources. It is simply bad practice.
On the issue of therapy :-
ii) The Local Authority knew the mother’s level of functioning but still took until 9th March 2015 to identify that this mother needed therapy. Knowing the mother’s level of functioning why did it take 19 months (from August 2013) to do that? How can it be regarded as satisfactory for the Local Authority now to say that the mother needs therapy which is outwith the timescales of the child? For instance, if a psychologist’s report had been obtained within three months of C being accommodated (i.e. in August 2014) there could have been 13 months of therapy by now at far less expense than the cost of these proceedings leading to the possibility that the consequences of this mother’s unfortunate background could have been mitigated with the child receiving an upbringing with her
[I have a bit of sympathy with the LA here – I’m not sure whether anyone actually argued that as a result of House of Lords authority Kent County Council v G, it is not within the Court’s powers to compel the provision of therapy, that therapy thus has to be resourced through the NHS and the NHS aren’t going to provide therapy without a clear diagnosis and recommendation, at least not without a huge waiting list. So tempting as it is to just start the therapy whilst waiting for the expert report, that isn’t how the real world works. It is fair enough to say that the real world in this regard sucks and it needs to change. There is possibly a big argument to come as to whether the House of Lords settled position that “there is no article 8 right to be made a better parent at public expense” is compatible with what Baroness Hale says in Re B about the State needing to provide the resources to do just that, but that’s a debate that can only be resolved by the Supreme Court. ]
On the last issue, why the current foster carers had been rejected in favour of adoption by the LA.
- At the IRH, on 8th September 2015, I was told that the current foster carers were not offering C a long term home. The guardian says in her position statement: ‘since the IRH on 8th September 2015 the guardian has spoken to C’s current foster carers. They have confirmed they have never said they would not keep C long term as foster carers. They would not wish to consider special guardianship or adoption because they see themselves as foster carers and may well wish to foster another child and would wish both children to be placed with them on the same basis. The foster carer has also informed the guardian that Mr D has on a number of occasions said that he would be prepared to care for C if there were no other options’.
- It is right that, on 27th August 2015 there was a discussion between the adoption social worker, TG, and the foster carers. I have the case note in relation to that. This conversation therefore took place six days after the placement application had been filed by the Local Authority (so the Local Authority had already ruled out long term fostering then). The foster carers were saying at the time of that note that they did not feel able to adopt C. They are not recorded as saying that they would not foster C. It took one conversation between the guardian and the foster carers to clarify matters. When asked directly by the social worker on an unspecified date (but after the IRH) ‘the foster father confirmed that he and the foster mother would have C for as along as is needed in long term foster care with a care order if they were supported by the Local Authority’. The clear impression that I have, having read the papers, heard the IRH and listened to submissions today, is that the Local Authority did not consider the possibility of long term fostering with the foster carers and, once it regarded the mother as ruled out, its linear analysis took it to adoption.
So the child’s current foster carer, who everyone involved would agree had done a marvellous job, was willing to be a permanent carer for the child, just that he didn’t want to adopt the child. The LA had approached this on the basis of “our plan is adoption, you don’t want to adopt, therefore you are out”, rather than looking at whether the child could remain with the carer on a different basis THUS avoiding the need for adoption.
The case simply could not be concluded, as there were too many unknowns.
Following a heavy IRH on 8th September 2015 the case is listed before me for final hearing for the rest of this week. That final hearing cannot proceed because there are realistic options in relation to the future care of C that have not been assessed by the Local Authority. That means that large amounts of public money and time have been wasted in a Local Authority involvement that has spanned 16 months. All parties now say that the case has to be adjourned. Eventually, I have had to give up my attempt at keeping this case on the rails of this final hearing and have had to accede to adjournment. To adjourn a case where there has been lengthy Local Authority involvement with a family in a straightforward case is absurd but now unavoidable.
and in conclusion
- What are the options that need to be considered? They are these:
i) That C should be rehabilitated to his mother. Of course, nature, law and common sense require that it be recognised that the best place for a child to live is with his natural parent unless proven and proportionate necessity otherwise demands. As matters stand the professional evidence is all stacked up against this mother but her case will require very careful consideration at a final hearing.
ii) That C should continue to be a child fostered by Mr and Mrs B. If the Local Authority will not support this the only way in which C could live with the foster carers would be through private law orders. If special guardianship orders were to be proposed there would need to be a report under s14A(8) of The Children Act 1989. Therefore I need to flush out what the Local Authority is saying. If it will not agree that C should remain with the foster carers (should the court so recommend on the making of a care order and a rejection of the placement application), I will have to give directions for a special guardianship application to proceed (a written application is not necessary if I so determine – s14A(6)(b) of the 1989 Act). The possibility of C remaining with the foster carers is unassessed by the Local Authority and there has not been sufficient discussion with them.
iii) That C should live with Mr D and A. This is also unassessed. There is no blood relationship between Mr D and C but there is a blood relationship between A and C. They have a clear fraternal attachment (in which C is A’s big brother). That possibility remains unassessed also.
iv) That C should be placed for adoption. That is an option upon which I have already commented. I am not suggesting that there are difficulties about that option on the basis of age alone. I say that there are difficulties about it because of the particular circumstances of this child.
- Therefore today I have had to give directions for the future of these proceedings. By the time that the case comes back the new baby will have been born, and I wish the mother well with the birth. However, the advent of the new baby will mean that there are additional complications that will arise in ensuring that the best solution is found for C.
- I have given this judgment in writing so that there is a formal record of what has gone wrong in this case and how matters must now be put right. The Local Authority must consider the realistic options that arise and must put its case into order.
- Proper plans must be put in place for the birth of the baby and where the inevitable assessment of the mother and the baby will take place. That should have been done already. The mother is in and out of hospital at the moment and it is manifestly unfair that, as well as dealing with the physical demands of impending birth and repeated hospital appointments, she is also having to deal with the uncertainties of these proceedings and a lack of knowledge about what will happen when she does give birth – where will she be living and what is planned for the baby?
- The Local Authority must therefore look at the options that arise and file proper evidence in relation to them. The case will have to come back before me later this week when I will have to give further directions as to how that will be achieved. It is deeply frustrating that a case such as this has to exceed the timescales provided by section 32 of The Children Act 1989 and that should be recorded as having been caused by systemic failure by the Local Authority
There is also some pending litigation in this case as to whether when the child was originally removed from the parents by police protection, whether that was in breach of the families human rights – it being really settled law that where removal of a child is being contemplated it should be a decision of the Court unless there are exceptional and compelling reasons why the removal cannot wait for a Court hearing.