This case is not a legal authority, in that it was delivered by a Circuit Judge, (Her Honour Judge Atkinson) but it is a good judgment, on an important issue, so I am sharing it.
Re P (A child : Use of section 20) 2014
By way of context for non-lawyers, section 20 is the provision in the Children Act 1989 where a parent can agree to the child being placed in foster care – that doesn’t automatically trigger court proceedings, so the case might not go before a Judge and the parents would not have lawyers to give them free advice about their situation.
If you want to know more about section 20, Sarah Philimore has written an excellent and comprehensive guide – it is valuable for lawyers, professionals and parents alike http://www.childprotectionresource.org.uk/what-does-section-20-mean/
P is a little boy who was born on 04/08/09 and is now aged 5 years and 4 months. P has not lived with his mother and father for 2 ½ years. He was accommodated under s.20 Children Act 1989 by the applicant local authority, London Borough of Redbridge, (LBR) on 28th June 2012 and placed in foster care. Care proceedings were not issued until almost 2 years after his removal, on 30th May 2014.
There is not (currently) anything in law that prevents section 20 going on for so long, but it is not good practice. With a child of this age, decisions need to be made in good time about whether he is able to go home to his parents, or be found a home elsewhere. The longer he remains in limbo, the more uncertain his future is. Two years, for a child who was not quite three at the time the s20 started, is a long, long time.
In this case, that’s made even worse, because once the care proceedings did start, assessments showed that these parents would, with help, be able to look after him.
These parents accept that at the relevant date in 2012, they needed help in developing the parenting skills necessary to meet their son’s needs and that the statutory threshold is crossed as a result. On the issue of welfare, suffice to say by way of introduction, that by September 2014 it was clear, on the evidence of the jointly instructed assessment service, Symbol, that these parents were able to resume the care of their son. It was also agreed that they needed a carefully managed programme of rehabilitation which could only commence once they had somewhere to live. The problem in this case and the only reason why P has not been returned to their care is that these parents have no home of their own and it is suggested that the local authority fixed with the obligation to house them, the Royal Borough of Greenwich (RBG) is unwilling to assist.
It didn’t help that the stumbling block was housing, and that the Local Authority wasn’t doing all it could to provide the parents with suitable housing
- In my judgment, P has not been appropriately cared for by the applicant local authority within the care system where for many years he has languished in s.20 accommodation with no clear plan. It is likely that he will have suffered confusion and some harm as a result. To its credit, the authority fixed with the responsibility for P’s care, LBR, has recognised the errors in its management of this family.
- However those errors are compounded by P’s ongoing separation from his parents caused, I am told, by the wholesale failure of another public authority to find them somewhere to live. The RBG is unrepentant in the way that it has handled this housing issue maintaining that it has followed all proper procedures and denying any bad faith. I have listed this case next week for me to determine whether there has been any bad faith in its handling of this case and to give the authority concerned the opportunity to reflect upon the circumstances in which this family finds itself. In the interim I have fixed RBG with the responsibility to support this family through an interim supervision order in the hope that by bringing children’s services on board I will see some “joined up thinking” develop within the authority as between housing and children’s services.
[If you want to know more about the housing side of things, I recommend Nearly Legal’s blog piece on it http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/2014/12/every-possible-obstacle/ which highlights that this appears wasn’t just the wheels of bureacracy moving slowly, but a conscious decision not to offer housing]
The Judge had this to say about the Local Authority’s use of section 20, particularly in relation to establishing threshold criteria (the test for whether it is right for the State to intervene in a family’s life and seek orders) and fairness
29. The relevant date for the purpose of this threshold is the date when P was first accommodated – 2 ½ years ago. For reasons which I am sure are obvious, the significance of those facts is reduced the more distant we are from them. In this case, for example, the more difficult it is to discern whether the child in question has suffered harm as a result of the parenting given to him before separation rather than the events he has had to endure after. I wonder at the impact upon P of the changes in his carers over the 2 years before proceedings were issued in circumstances in which he was living away from his parents with no real sense of why or for how long because LBR had no plan in place. I wonder at how damaging the process of holding him in s.20 accommodation without any plan for his future will have been for him.
- It goes without saying that it is totally inappropriate for a local authority to hold a child in s. 20 accommodation for 2 years without a plan. That is what happened here. The local authority has “disabled” these parents from being able to parent their child with every day of inactivity that has passed. The driver for the issue of proceedings was the parents’ lawyers making clear that they did not give their consent. To its credit LBR, during the hearings before me, has accepted its errors in this regard and has tried to make good but there needs to be a careful examination internally of how it was this family was treated in this way.
- In these situations it is the local authority that holds all of the power. I think it likely the mother was told that if she did not agree to P’s accommodation then the LBR would issue proceedings. Parents are unlikely to want to drive the local authority to issue proceedings and so the vulnerable are left almost powerless to object. Meanwhile the child is “parked” and the local authority is under no pressure or scrutiny to ensure that it is dealing with the case in an appropriate and timely fashion. In my capacity as DFJ for East London I warn that there will be nowhere to hide for those authorities in this designated family area who fail the children in their borough in this way.
- Finally, I would also add that on my assessment of the undisputed facts in this case there is real doubt as to whether LBR had proper consent from the parents to the accommodation of P after he was removed from the PGF. In the first statement filed by the LBR there is an acknowledgement that the parents did not want P to be placed in foster care after he had been placed with the PGF. The author of the statement comments that in spite of this knowledge once he was moved to foster carers the parents did nothing to come and get him – as if the responsibility was somehow theirs. These parents go everywhere with an advocate. They are vulnerable young people. It is the responsibility of the local authority to ensure that they give proper consent. Unless they abandon their child, they do not give consent by omission. I should add that they have never abandoned him.
With all of that in mind, you might well be amazed that the Local Authority proposal for the way forward was for section 20 to continue whilst housing was resolved. That shrill beeping noise you are hearing is the Court metal detector still going off three weeks later due to the balls of steel that London Borough of Redbridge’s team must have had to even suggest that as a solution.
Iron cojones or not, the Judge wasn’t much taken with that as a plan.
Turning now to the welfare decision, and contrary to my usual instinct to bring matters to a close and leave the LA to do its job, I absolutely agree that I am unable to make final orders here today. I am horrified that LBR should even ask and in doing so suggest that we should revert to the arrangement in which we use s.20 accommodation to “hold” the child until an unspecified point in the future when the other authority in this case complies with its housing obligation.
If you remember being at school and watching a classmate being told off and enjoying it, only to then have the teacher swivel towards you and say “And I don’t know what YOU’RE grinning about…” this next bit will bring back memories. Royal Borough of Greenwich are about to cop an earful too
I now turn my focus away from LBR to the RBG. The evidence before me today seems to suggest that there has been a complete and utter failure of the RBG to meet its responsibilities to provide housing to this family or even allow them to apply as a family such that these parents are prevented from bringing to an end the 2 ½ years (half of his life) that P has spent as a “looked after” child. Indeed the information that I have received suggests that the RBG has acted in bad faith and has sought to engineer a situation in which they would be freed of the obligations I might impose pursuant to a Supervision Order. I make no findings in that regard but intend to investigate that matter further when this case returns next week. I observe, however, that the most recent position statement from RBG indicates that the housing department are now satisfied that it can be reasonably be expected that P will reside with his parents and they will now consider him as part of any application for housing. However the final paragraph of that statement indicates that the RBG has failed to grasp what it is that this family needs in order to succeed in their reunification because it ends by pointing out that the most likely outcome of the application for housing will be the provision of “temporary accommodation” and that this may include accommodation outside of the Borough.
At least to their credit, after the judicial dressing down, accommodation was found for the family, and they were reconciled, nearly 2 1/2 years after first being separated
At the first listed hearing after the one at which I gave the Judgment transcribed above, RBG attended, asserting that they had found accommodation for the family which could be taken up by 15th December. A transition plan drafted by LBR was drafted on the basis that they would take up residence by Monday 15th. It transpired that this was not a tenancy or even an offer of tenancy but rather a referral or nomination to be considered for a tenancy by a local housing association. It also became clear to me upon hearing from the senior housing officer who attended on the day that juggling the housing resources of this London authority meant that this family was only ever going to be top of the list when they were recognised as an emergency and it had taken my order that he attend a hearing for them to be so recognised. That is not an acceptable way of working by public authorities in my view. It was known to RBG that the situation was as I have described it as long ago as September. I suggest that RBG ensures that it has systems which enable it to respond more appropriately to such emergencies.
Happily, at the second hearing on 16th December, the tenancy was confirmed as signed. The transitional arrangements had to be redrafted. I hope and expect that the parents will be assisted to take up their housing.
As a result I had no need to make findings on the disputed facts.
The LBR have committed to embark upon an investigation as to how this child was accommodated without a plan for such a long time. I am grateful to them for that.
This Judge did remarkably well to secure justice for this family. It is a shame that her remarks about section 20 drift aren’t authority, but they will be useful pointers in framing the argument in similar cases. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before Courts set down an authority that such drift and delay amounts to an article 8 breach for which compensation is payable.
I’m afraid that this can be part of human nature – social workers are busy and are fire-fighting crises all of the time. If the child is in section 20 and the parents aren’t clamouring for the return, there’s a danger that the case drifts not by design but because it never presents as being a towering inferno that has to be tackled as an immediate priority then and there.
The IRO in this case also got away without criticism, but this drift ought to have been nipped in the bud at the Looked After Child reviews. There has to be a LAC review for a child in care after 28 days, then after 3 months, and then at least every 6 months. So for P, there should have been at least four, perhaps five LAC reviews before the proceedings were issued.
And by the second LAC review, there should be a plan for the child’s permanent future, which probably did not happen here. It is the job of the IRO to make sure that this sort of drift doesn’t happen and that the case doesn’t get put on the backburner over and over.