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Fast and the Furious – Tunbridge Wells Drift

 

 

Okay, this piece isn’t really about Vin Diesel and The Rock racing cars around the backstreets of Kent. But it is about a case about  Medway (which is sort of near Kent) weren’t fast, and as a result the Judge got furious. And where the central issue was drift.  Section 20 drift, y’all.

(*Tunbridge Wells have done nothing wrong in this story – I just needed a “T” town for the Tokyo Drift reference. )

 

I’ve been writing about section 20 drift for a while, but perhaps given that this is a really strong judgment, it is worth a quick recap.  The Human Rights Act compensation to be paid to the mother by Medway was £20,000 and to the child also £20,000.   (And possibly costs to follow – see bottom of this post for an explanation of that)

 

 

  • Without a court forum it was solely the local authority that empowered itself to make decisions about a child unlawfully held by them, with simply a check in the form of the IRO system on the progress and welfare of a child in local authority care (and which system I consider further below).
  • T drifted in foster care without any clear focus on her contact, her need for therapy or her and her Mother’s rights to family life. I find shocking the inattention to contact, such that Medway Council is not even able to specify clearly what has and has not taken place, but is obliged to admit to serious gaps in contact and flaws in its support for this essential aspect of their family life. There would not only have arisen a duty under s34 Children Act 1989 to promote contact if an ICO were in place, but both T and Mother would have had a voice, legal advice and representation within proceedings to pursue their concerns about her accommodation, care plan, therapeutic needs and contact and Medway Council ‘s care of T would have been subject to the necessary judicial scrutiny applying the relevant careful tests relating to the threshold and welfare criteria set out in the Children Act to ensure interference with their family life was in T’s best interests, necessary and proportionate.

 

 

Section 20 is the power under the Children Act 1989 for children to be in foster care without a Court order – it is categorised as a voluntary foster placement. Typically, the parents are asked to consent, or even they come forward and say that they can’t manage, aren’t coping or the child needs a break.  Section 20 can be a really useful tool – if there’s genuine cooperation between the parents and the social worker, nobody wants to force the case into Court and up the stakes.

Where it starts to get problematic, as we’ve seen from a number of cases over the last three years, is where the consent and cooperation isn’t that genuine but that parents either don’t understand or have explained to them what section 20 really is and that they can say no, or are pressured/cajoled/threatened into agreeing, or in the latest spate of cases where a Local Authority is relying on a parent simply not objecting to the foster placement.  There are reasons why a parent might not come forward and object – most obviously that without access to a lawyer or it being explained they don’t even know that they can, or they are afraid of rocking the boat, or they are having faith that the system will work and do the right thing, or that they are intimidated that if they object then the case will be rushed off to Court and that this will be bad for them.

So ultimately, section 20 drift cases are about an imbalance of power – the State is taking advantage of the fact that parents without access to a lawyer won’t object or will agree to section 20.  And so it becomes an alternative to going into Court proceedings. Court proceedings are expensive, and involve a lot of work (going to Court, writing statements and chronologies etc) and of course in Court social workers don’t necessarily get things their own way and the Court can disagree with them.  So there can be a temptation, if the parents aren’t demanding the child back, to just keep going with the section 20 foster placement. And this of course is the drift element – these children can wait months or even longer, sat in limbo – nobody has decided whether the child can ever go home or whether the child’s future lays elsewhere, the case just drifts.  By the time the case finally gets to Court, that relationship between child and parent can be hard to put back together, and the problems the parent has may take time to address and it can be harder for them to get the child back.

Section 20 drift, in short, is bad.

It may be happening more as a result of a series of pressures – firstly a general demand within Local Authorities to save money and cut costs (due to significant cuts to their budgets) and secondly the reforms to Care proceedings that mean that more and more is expected to be done before going to Court – there can be a temptation to keep the case out of Court until all of the assessments are done and everything is just perfect. It is a bit of an unintended consequence – which we’re seeing a lot of since the PLO (Public Law Outline) reforms came into being.  This isn’t a problem limited to Medway here, or Brent as in the last reported case, or Gloucester/Bristol where their Judge has really seized the issue.  I’ve worked in a lot of Local Authorities, I’ve worked against a lot of Local Authorities and I’ve seen it all around the country.

 

That’s the background.

On with this case

Medway Council v M &T 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B164.html

 

This case was decided by Her Honour Judge Lazarus  (readers may recall her from the case where a mother tape recorded a foster carer being dreadfully abusive to her https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/06/03/tape-recording-paying-off/   )

 

When the child T, was five, she came to the attention of Medway Council, and her mother M, was having mental health problems and was detained under the Mental Health Act. Medway placed the child in foster care, but didn’t actually have mum’s consent (she probably would not have had capacity to give it in any event)

 

 

 

  • T was born on 9.1.08, making her 7 years 9 months old now, and just 5 when she first came to the notice of Medway Council. This was due to a referral made on 8.2.13 by T’s school that T was being collected by a number of adults and concerns that Mother may be a victim of trafficking. Coincidentally, within a few days T was placed in emergency foster care, as her Mother was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act on 11.2.13.
  • It is clear that Mother was too unwell to discuss T’s accommodation and there are no records whatsoever of any discussion with Mother of T’s whereabouts and care until her discharge in August 2013. It is likely, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that there was no proper explanation to her within this six month period, and Medway Council do not suggest there was, albeit I accept that for some of this time she would have been suffering from severe and disabling mental ill-health. There is certainly no document suggesting that there was any agreement by Mother to this accommodation. What Medway Council claims is that this was a different kind of lawful accommodation under s20, until she was well enough to consider T’s accommodation by Medway Council. It was not, and I shall deal with this further below.

 

 

That argument you may recall from the case I wrote about last week, decided by Her Honour Judge Rowe QC  – in which she decided that the power under section 20 needed to be exercised with capacitious consent, and not merely relying on the absence of objection.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/12/unlawful-removal-of-a-child-compensation-paid/

 

[That’s the one where I used the comparison of a 10 year old assuming that it was okay to eat all of the Penguin biscuits whilst his mum is upstairs because “mum didn’t tell me that I COULDN’T]

 

In this case, T remained in foster care ostensibly under section 20 until care proceedings were issued – the period involved was 2 years and 3 months. She was in ‘voluntary’ foster care rom February 2013 until proceedings were finally issued in May 2015.  The mother had not even known that this had happened until August 2013, some SIX MONTHS after the child was taken into foster care.  Mother and baby are currently together in a specialist foster placement, and I wish them both well.  As the Judge points out, this is the longest reported case of section 20 drift.

 

The Judge went through everything very carefully (it is an extremely well-drawn judgment and would be recommended reading for anyone dealing with such a case – particularly the analysis of damages)

 

The conclusions were :-

CONCLUSION

 

  • For all of the above reasons I find that Medway Council ‘s accommodation of T and her removal from her Mother was unlawful, and as a result I have no need to go on to consider whether it was ‘necessary’ within the meaning of Article 8(2) ECHR.
  • I also find that Medway Council failed to issue proceedings in a proper and timely manner. This was despite warnings from June 2013 onwards. I have not found it possible to understand why there arose the original misunderstanding of the correct legal approach, why the advice given was not followed, why further legal planning meetings were not held until 2015, nor even why proceedings were not issued immediately in 2015 once the matter was looked at again by Ms Cross in January. The period involved is 2 years and 3 months, the longest currently reported in any case reported on this issue to date.

 

REMEDIES – JUST SATISFACTION

A. DECLARATIONS

 

  • T and Mother are entitled to the following declarations:

 

a. The local authority breached their rights under Article 8 ECHR in that they

i. Unlawfully removed T from Mother’s care on 11.2.13;

ii. Failed to obtain properly informed capacitous consent for T to be accommodated, or to consider/assess adequately the question of the Mother’s capacity to consent, at that date or subsequently;

iii. Accommodated T without Mother’s consent between 11.2.13 and 7.5.15;

iv. Failed to inform Mother adequately or involve her sufficiently in the decision-making process in relation to T;

v. Failed to address the issues relating to their relationship and contact between them adequately;

vi. Permitted unacceptable delay in addressing all of the above.

b. The local authority breached the rights of T and Mother under Article 6 ECHR in that they failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner.

 

What were Medway going to do to avoid this in the future?

 

 

  • Ms Cross has set out in her statement a number of vitally necessary improvements to Medway Council’s procedures and performance which I heartily welcome, particularly as this is not the only case where the use of s20 by Medway Council has been of concern (I am aware of at least three such others, including a reported judgment of mine earlier this year). The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding and depends on consistent and rigorous application of these reforms. They are as follows:

 

a. “During the period of January to July 2015 we have reviewed a number of cases where the child/ren are accommodated under S20 and where the child/ren are aged 12 and under. Where required we have issued or are issuing proceedings;. We have begun this process for children aged 12 and over and this will complete by 1st October 2015.

b. These reviews will continue and with immediate effect we have agreed that our Legal Gateway Panel, chaired by the Head of Service for Advice and Duty, Child Protection and Children in Need, will continue to monitor and track children already accommodated under S20 and will in future review all new cases involving s20;

c. The reduction in the use of S20 accommodation is built into all our service and improvement plans

d. We have reviewed how court work is undertaken within the LAC & Proceedings service and going forward will be targeting this work at the social workers who have the most suitable skills for court work;

e. Training has been provided in recent weeks for social workers on legal processes and proceedings, including the issue of s20, and this will continue on a rolling basis throughout the year.

f. We will be holding workshops on the use of S20 in September and October to provide clear guidance and support for Social Workers to ensure they are equipped to deal with any s20 issues arising and that they fully understand how S20 should be utilised and monitored. We will be providing new policies and procedures for staff across CSC in the use of s20. We plan to have these finalised by September 18th and we would be happy to share these with the Court and partner agencies including Cafcass at our quarterly meetings with the Judiciary and other agencies.

g. At monthly meetings between the 2 Heads of service from CSC and the Head of Legal S20 will be a standing agenda item and we will discuss each child who has been accommodated under s20 in the intervening month to satisfy ourselves that the appropriate management oversight and case related activity is in place.

h. I am in discussion with the Head of Adult Mental Health services to organise workshops for staff on capacity issues and deprivation of liberty (DOL’s) awareness. I hope that these workshops can be completed by 01.11.2015.

i. We have an adult mental health duty social worker located within our advice and duty services to advise and assist on those cases referred to us where the parent/s have a mental health or learning disability.

j. We are organising PAMs training for a number of staff so that we have more staff located within CSC who are able to assess parents with a learning disability in order that we can improve the service provided to them. We hope that this will have taken place by 01.12.2015.

k. We have increased management capacity and have formalised an Operational Manager post in each of the service areas. They will have direct responsibility for ensuring that court work proceeds in a timely manner and that work is of a high standard

l. S20 cases will also be reviewed at a monthly Permanence Panel wherein the permanence planning for LAC children is reviewed. This panel, chaired by my HoS colleague has attendees from Legal services, the Principle IRO and the adoption service.

m. As a result of this review I am also working with my colleagues to review the S20 form that parents sign and we are introducing a checklist for staff when seeking S20 accommodation to ensure that they address all the salient issues with parents. These issues will include considering the parent/s needs arising from a mental health/learning disability. These reviews will have completed by 31.08.2015 and the updated forms will be in use thereafter.

n. Finally the reviewing service have implemented a new review whereby the allocated IRO will review all cases between the LAC review (ie every 6 weeks) to ensure that all planning is on track. Where required concerns will be escalated to the appropriate Operational Manager and if there is still no resolution to the relevant Head of Service.”

 

 

Now, an important check and balance on social worker’s actions or inactions is supposed to be the Independent Reviewing Officer system. The IROs are supposed to hold social workers to account and make sure that things like this don’t happen.  There are regular reviews of children’s cases when they are in foster care. What ought to have happened at those reviews was that the IRO should have got the social workers to commit to either a plan of short assessment and then review the outcome, or make a decision to return the child to mother’s care, or make a decision that the child couldn’t go home and make the Court application to have the child’s long term future resolved. That didn’t happen.

 

LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN REVIEWS & INDEPENDENT REVIEWING OFFICERS

 

  • Ms Dunkin’s statement is helpful in its analysis of the history and the role of the Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs). They are supposed to perform a crucial role monitoring the care of Looked After children by reviewing and improving care planning and challenging drift and delay.
  • It is highly concerning that there have been five IROs in the last two years before proceedings were issued.
  • There was no IRO allocated until 18.3.13, five weeks after T was accommodated, so she was therefore not afforded a review of her care within 20 days of her accommodation as is required under the IRO Handbook and Placement Regulations. By the end of May that IRO is recorded as being on long term sick leave, and this is considered to be the reason why there is no minute of the first LAC review available.
  • Every LAC review minute inaccurately records/repeats the date of T’s accommodation as having taken place a month later than it occurred.
  • I commend the second IRO LC for correctly requiring a legal review of Medway Council’s position not to take proceedings (11.6.13), however despite it not having taken place by the next LAC review that LC conducted there then began the series of failures by LC and each subsequent IRO to challenge the Social Worker and team manager and director of services about failing to follow the clear recommendation initially made in June 2013.
  • No subsequent LAC reviews (18.9.13, 17.4.14, 8.7.14, 25.11.14) made any further clear recommendations as to parental responsibility, legal status or the use of s20 although the issues are mentioned, save to repeat (presumably by cut and paste as opposed to direct engagement with the issue) the same paragraph that set out the original recommendation of 11.6.13. By 8.7.14 what is added is a recommendation to seek legal advice with a view to securing T’s permanency. I am concerned that this betrays that the review process and LC failed to recognise both the full range of T’s needs and her and her Mother’s rights to family life, and had moved on simply to consider how to regularise what had by then become the status quo, T having been in foster care for almost 18 months at that date. This is particularly worrying as that LAC review meeting also demonstrated Mother’s vulnerability: she was accompanied by an extremely domineering ‘friend’ who described herself as an ‘auntie’ (and whom the Poppy Project is concerned may have had some involvement in Mother’s exploitation), and which led to a decision that all future meetings must be conducted with Mother alone.
  • Contact is touched on in the LAC reviews, but no clear picture or recommendation emerges. For example, the review of 17.4.14 mentions the reintroduction of contact I have already referred to, but little further is pursued. At the same meeting the problem with T’s passport and therefore the implementation of respite care during her foster carer’s holiday was raised and not addressed adequately, let alone robustly.
  • Overall, it is clear that although the fundamental fault lay with Medway Council by its social work and legal teams, the IRO process failed T, and by extension her M, by frequent changes of IRO and each one failing to rigorously apply themselves to the outstanding issues with attention or subsequently following up Medway Council’s failings, and if necessary escalating the issue. Ms Dunkin rightly concedes that previous IROs were not robust enough in this respect.
  • The statutory provisions, regulations and the guidance in the IRO Handbook covering the function and performance of IROs has been carefully reviewed elsewhere (see for example A & S (Children) v Lancashire County Council [2012] EWHC 1689 (Fam) at paragraphs 168-217 in particular). I do not propose to make specific declarations in relation to this aspect of the case. No such declarations are sought, and the appointment and management of IROs falls to the relevant local authority in any event. Additionally, I take into account that the correct recommendation was made in June 2013 and subsequently repeated, albeit it was not followed up adequately or at all, and was ignored by the local authority from the outset.
  • Ms Dunkin confirms that since October 2014 there has been a ‘root and branch review’ of the IRO service: immediate allocation of an IRO, with 90% of reviews now on time; improved IRO requirements and monitoring; performance and training audits with areas of improvement requiring action within a set timescale; direct input by IROs onto the electronic system at Medway Council so alerting team managers to implement their own quality and performance processes; shortened timescales for escalating challenges with a 20 day period before it is referred to the Director of Children’s Services; and mid-way reviews between LAC reviews enabling the IRO to check on progression of care plans and recommendations. Ms Dunkin as Principal Reviewing Officer now sits on the Legal Gateway Panel, resource panel and permanency panel.
  • Again these are welcome and necessary improvements, but their effectiveness will depend upon rigorous application of those improved practices.

 

 

 

On the issue of costs, we have a peculiar situation at present, where if a parent follows the law which is to make the Human Rights Act compensation claim within care proceedings, the Legal Aid Agency (the Government department who pay for the ‘free’ legal representation of a parent within care proceedings) will take all of the compensation to cover the legal costs, and the parent or child would only get anything left over.  That pretty much sucks.  Is there anyone who thinks that it is the Legal Aid Agency who should be compensated for what was done to mother and this child? Of course not.

 

So, apparently there are moves afoot to reverse this fairly recent and frankly moronic policy, and the Judge reserved the issues of costs until then.  If the policy doesn’t change, I’d expect an order that Medway also pay mother and T’s court costs, so that the compensation award goes to the mother and T rather than to a Government agency.

 

While I have assessed this award, I am asked for the time being not to order its payment nor to consider costs. This is at the request of the Official Solicitor who is currently investigating the most appropriate way to manage such an award for a protected party within care proceedings given that this is an award properly made within care proceedings (cf. Re L (Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] EWHC 665 (Fam)) and Mother is rightly in receipt of non-means and non-merits tested Legal Aid, but where concerns exist that the Legal Aid Agency may intend to take steps purporting to claim the whole costs of Mother’s representation in these care proceedings from that award. I shall therefore deal with the issue of ordering payment and costs at a later date.

 

 

The Judge here also considered the issue that I raised in the Her Honour Judge Rowe case, as to whether a very short piece of section 20 accommodation if the parent is unable to care for the child and one is establishing whether that’s a really short period  (i.e mum goes into hospital overnight, but the next day is released with medication and is fine) might be warranted – because the alternative is for the mother to be sectioned and on the same day social workers go to Court to get an Emergency Protection Order which would be awful if she happened to be released the next day.

 

It could be argued that where there is such an emergency as this, and indeed as in the Brent case, that it may be reasonable to wait for a short period without taking proceedings in order to review the parent’s progress in hospital in the event that their ability to care for their child might return. This would then avoid the stress and expense of time and resources in bringing unnecessary proceedings that would then have to be withdrawn. I concur with HHJ Rowe’s analysis that a month in the Brent case was too long. It may be reasonable, in rare and very clear cases where such enquiries could be reasonably considered as likely to bear fruit, to wait for at most a day or two while the local authority explored the possibility of an imminent return to a parent’s care. I bear in mind here that both in logic and principle such a period should be less than the time limit of 72 hours which is stipulated in the Children Act as applicable to PPOs. However, otherwise, save perhaps for the first few hours while the child’s status is considered, and advice sought and steps taken to issue proceedings, it must be right that proceedings are brought as immediately as possible for all the reasons discussed above.

 

I think that’s really sensible and pragmatic.  Like the Brent case, this is not legally binding precedent on anyone other than the parties who were in the case, but it would certainly be persuasive in such cases and equally a Local Authority who go beyond that 72 hour period are badly exposed to a Human Rights claim of this type.

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Bad week for Gloucestershire continues to get worse

I wrote on Wednesday about Gloucestershire social workers getting a hard time from His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, and it is only Friday and they are getting another. For many of the same issues

 

 

C1 and C2 (Children :Section 20 of the Children Act) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B149.html

 

  1. This is the third case that I have seen this week where this Local Authority has allowed there to be protracted use of the accommodation of children under section 20 of The Children Act 1989. Without descending into full legal analysis of the statute ‘section 20 accommodation’ arises when a parent agrees that a Local Authority should arrange where a child is to live. With their mother’s agreement, therefore, the two children involved in this case went to live with foster carers in September 2013 and have remained with the same carers for over two years. In its own case summary the Local Authority says: ‘the Local Authority is aware that there has been delay in bringing this matter before the court and entirely accepts this is inappropriate and will attract judicial criticism’. It does.
  2. The one saving feature of this case is that the foster carers, through their dedication to these children, are now offering them a permanent home. However, initially, they were short-term carers for the children and there is still no certainty about where the children will live because, as yet, there is no agreement about the orders that will be made. It appears that the mother may agree to the children remaining with the foster carers. It also appears that the putative fathers may also agree to this. The guardian has proposed that there needs to be further assessment of the foster carers before orders are made (and I deal with that point later).
  3. The upshot is that, for two years, nobody has been able to tell these children where they will be living and that remains the current state of affairs. The only way that certainty can be achieved is by making court orders. For some inexplicable reason the Local Authority chose not to bring the case before the court until now.
  4. Over the past year I have i) met with this Local Authority on a number of occasions to discuss the issue of the protracted use of s 20 accommodation, ii) attended conferences in this area at which I have spoken on this issue, iii) issued newsletters where I have written about it, iv) placed judgments about it on the Bailii website, v) spoken to other judges and magistrates in this area all of whom seem to share my opinion and are also trying to combat what is happening and vi) raised the issue with the Local Family Justice Board.
  5. Where this type of very bad practice arises it is not possible for a judge to undo the past. The only thing that I can do, now, is to publish judgments where this occurs so that the public know what is being done in its name by this Local Authority in a bid to prevent other children experiencing the same procedures. The firm drive of the courts to deal with cases expeditiously in accordance with 32 of The Children Act 1989, as amended, (i.e. keeping cases to no more than a 26 week timetable) is of no benefit to the child if the delay during the overall period of state intervention remains the same because of procedures that are followed before the case is brought before the court.
  6. The effect of this type of procedure is not only that it is patently wrong from the point of view of the welfare of children and in the full spectrum of family difficulties that it creates for foster carers. It also means that limited resources and money are being taken up in a way that expedition would avoid. In the plainest possible language it takes much more time and money for a delayed procedure to be followed than an expeditious one. Inefficiency costs more than efficiency and takes up more time. It also means that the task of sorting out what is best for the children becomes even more complex than it would otherwise be with repeated episodes of crisis management.
  7. For these children not to know for two years where they will be living, who will be caring for them, where they will be going to school, with whom they can make friends and when decisions will be made about them is bound to have a profound effect on their emotional welfare. It is inevitable that the children form attachments to their current carers and do so without knowing whether those attachments will persist.
  8. The guardian says this in her initial assessment: ‘as a consequence of the significant delay to issuing these proceedings the two children have been deprived of having care that could be regarded by them as permanent. It is likely that this has had a significant impact upon the children’s ability to feel secure and this combined with the children’s early experiences had an impact on their personality development and attachment style. This I believe will impact upon their ability to regulate their emotions, feel secure and develop a sense of self-worth. They and any carer are likely to require support with this impact…the children were accommodated under section 20 on 2/9/2013. I am unable to evidence any reason or explanation for the delay in issuing proceedings’.
  9. Over the past two years when these children have sought comfort or reassurance about the future nobody will have been able to tell them what the future holds. In my experience schools do excellent jobs when this type of issue arises but the burden that this type arrangement places on teachers is immense – for instance, how can schools or nurseries protect the emotional welfare of children in these circumstances and what happens when there are discussions or projects at school about families, holidays or future plans?

 

 

[Also note, that despite a period of nearly two years in section 20 foster care  The putative father of the eldest child underwent DNA testing only yesterday ]

 

Powerful words.  The Judge here is quite right – the delay in section 20 cases coming before the Court is one that harms children.  The Government have tackled the delay that occurs within proceedings (firstly by the clause in the Children Act 1989 that specifically says that delay within proceedings is harmful to children and to be avoided if possible, and latterly by introducing the Children and Families Act 2014 to try to make care proceedings be resolved within 6 months).

 

The delay BEFORE proceedings are issued though, has not been tackled. It may even be that the introduction of the Children and Families Act actually made it worse – because there’s a relatively short space of time once the care proceedings start for the social worker to get absolutely everything done and the case can be finished, it can be tempting to not start the case until almost all of that is done. Which can mean, in a case where parents aren’t demanding the return of the child or their lawyer sending angry letters, that there’s delay for the child.

It may be that all that the Children and Families Act 26 week edict has done is “Shift the Drift” so that most of it happens before Court proceedings. Which is worse, because at least when the case is in Court, everyone has a lawyer and knows their rights and a Judge can control the timetable. Section 20 drift is a real problem.

 

Here, this was a case that was inevitably going to need care proceedings. The children were 3 years old and 15 months old when they came into foster care, and they came into foster care as a result of suspicious bruising.  And there was a background of concerns that went back to 2010. That was always likely to need to be resolved by a Court, and it was always the case that decisions needed to be made for these children quickly, so that wherever they were going to live permanently that could be done and the children settled.

It isn’t a problem that only happens in Gloucester, not by any stretch of the imagination. But Gloucester have a Judge who has realised the scope and nature of this problem and is going to express displeasure about it each and every time.

 

What would be some practical proposals, if one was to legislate to fix it?

 

Well, I would start with the requirement that any use of section 20 where the child is in care for more than a fortnight must go through the PLO procedure – that means the parents get sent a letter about the concerns and future plans and more importantly attend a meeting and get legal advice. That means that they will absolutely know that they have the right to remove the child from section 20 and can make the Local Authority ‘put up or shut up’ – either take the case to Court and persuade a Judge that the child needs to stay in foster care or to return the child.

Another helpful addition might be to incorporate into legislation that a Local Authority can’t take a section 20 consent given in September 2013 and be still relying on it in March 2015. What would be wrong with saying that section 20 consent must be obtained afresh after 20 days, then 3 months after that, and then every 6 months thereafter?   [That is the same timing as LAC reviews, and thus the IRO can be charged with establishing at the LAC review whether there is genuine and informed parental consent to the next period of section 20 accommodation, and if not the LA are to ‘put up or shut up’]

 

Could a Judge impose such stipulations on a Local Authority without legislation?   I don’t think that even the President would have such power by way of Practice Direction – those powers really only extend to what happens within care proceedings – a Judge can’t really fetter what a Local Authority can do before care proceedings are initiated.

 

An option available to parents is to make a claim under the Human Rights Act – as can be seen from the last blog, even if the section 20 consent is given freely and on an informed basis, there is the possibility of a claim on the basis that the State’s actions in using section 20 to keep the child in care rather than working actively on either rehabilitation or putting the matter before the Court are not proportionate.

 

[In the Hackney case in the last blog, the parents would have lost on the ‘proportionality’ argument based on the facts in that case, but the section 20 was only for two months, not nearly two years as here]

 

 

The other noteworthy element of this case was the Guardian’s tentative suggestion that there be a psychologist to assess the children. I wholeheartedly agree with the judicial approach here.

 

The guardian has suggested that she may seek an order for a psychological assessment of the attachment of the children to the foster carers; I have made it very plain that, having regard to the necessity test in Section 13 of The Children and Families Act 2014, I think it highly unlikely that I would make an order to that effect since the attachment between the children and the foster carers: a) is obvious; b) can be dealt with by evidence from schools, nurseries, health authorities, social workers and the guardian c) does not raise any evident psychological issues that could not easily be dealt with by the social worker and guardian. Further, by the time that a psychological report had been produced (e.g. in 3+ months time) and the case has come back to court the children would have been with the foster carers for at least two years and about four months so I cannot begin to imagine that psychological evidence would add anything to what was obvious about the attachment between the foster carers and the children by then.

 

 

I think I might be taking this to Bristol Family Court if I was cursed with having to do a section 20 drift case next week.

 

 

Your Honour, I represent the Local Authority. Did you get the exhibit to my position statement?

 

 

 

And I’m all outta bubblegum

 

 

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

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B147.html

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.

 

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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

 

  1. What the hell took the LA so long to issue?
  2. 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
  3. 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.

 

  1. 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’.
  2. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.