This is a case determined by Her Honour Judge McCabe – it isn’t binding authority for anything and is a fact specific case.
Given that, regular readers of the blog will discern that either the case has got some interesting quirky detail or it is a case where something has gone badly wrong. That is correct.
P, J, E-R, E-L (Children : Care Orders)  EWFC 73 (28 March 2022)
It was a set of care proceedings involving four children. The Local Authority were asking for Care Orders and Placement Orders (ie that they felt the four children should be adopted). I’m not going to go into the reasons why the children couldn’t live with the parents here – the judgment deals with it, but that’s not the significant part.
18. Much of the time in evidence was taken up exploring the rationale behind the Local Authority’s care planning and seeking to put ‘flesh on the bones’ thereof.
19. Given the very stark difference of opinion between the Local Authority and the Guardian, and the fact that the social worker went off sick after the first day of the hearing, it became necessary to seek to look further up the ‘food chain’ to consider whether the Guardian’s concerns might be taken on board by the Local Authority. I ended up directing the head of services to attend on what should have been the final afternoon at a time when I should have been giving judgment in this case.
20. If I say that the Local Authority evidence has been lacking / unreliable / generally weak, I am afraid that that would be an understatement.
The Local Authority plan at the start of proceedings was that they wanted to place all four children together, but that if they couldn’t manage to find a placement for all four children together that they would be instead in two placements of two children each.
Something so fundamental as to how to divide the four siblings into two groups of two if they are not to be placed together. The care plans submitted placed the children in a particular format of two groups of two. The ADM documents placed them in a different two. When asked why this was, in her oral evidence the SW started by saying that it was a typographical error. She then went on to acknowledge that it wasn’t, it had in fact been her view that the middle two should be together and the oldest and youngest together due to the strength of relationship of the middle two, and that this had been a well considered plan, due to the nature of the relationship that they had. This had then changed when the team manager assessed the documents.
- Now I am told, in the team manager’s witness statement, that indeed it had been a typo, never picked up in the court documents. That it is a typo is confirmed by the ADM in his statement.
- It is not far short of bewildering to try to follow the Local Authority’s care planning in this case. The together and apart assessment, which the team manager and the ADM in his recent statement, confirm that they relied on in their decision making, was accepted by the social worker in her evidence (quite rightly, in my view) as being an assessment that is “fundamentally flawed”.
Obviously typographical errors do get made, and that’s unfortunate with something so important, but the Court was put in a very difficult spot here – there were effectively two different plans as to how to place the children separately – the social worker’s evidence was originally that this was purely because of a typo, but then that it was not a typo but that she had been overriden by her manager and that her assessment of how the children should be placed based on her knowledge of them had been overruled.
Now, frankly this does happen sometimes. Social workers do not work in isolation – they do have managers and senior managers, and sometimes the views of those managers does overrule the social worker. But it seems that there was not candour about this. Two differing explanations were given.
By the end of the case, the Local Authority had abandoned the plan for all four children to be placed together and was presenting instead the proposal that two placements be found, each caring for two children. (I can’t establish with precision whether this proposal was the one in the care plans, or the social worker’s view that the eldest and youngest be placed together and the middle two placed together)
I directed that the head of services should attend Court for 2pm on the last day of the trial so that investigation and explanation could be provided. I was rewarded by the team manager physically attending at 3pm. By 5pm the Local Authority was absolutely no further forward in being able to explain what therapeutic intervention would be made available and when. The head of service had declined to attend via Teams (I having been told earlier in the afternoon that she was available to attend remotely ‘from 4pm’) but then attended at 5.05pm and, in fairness, immediately appeared to understand the severity of the situation.
There then followed an ‘emergency’ statement from the team manager that came in after the close of the oral evidence, making efforts to put flesh on the bones in justifying the Local Authorities’ care planning. I’m afraid that I did not find this to be an impressive piece of evidence. It repeated the various platitudes (examples being: it is best to place siblings together if you can, adoption provides the most permanent sort of permanence and so forth) but I’m afraid that it took me no further in truly understanding these particular siblings and their particular needs.
The judgment sets out the evidence given by the Guardian in some detail
When she was recalled to give evidence on the final day, the GAL said this:
- “It’s really difficult to say it without saying it: the lack of appreciation from the trust as to what these individual needs are for the children and the lack of ability to reflect on what we’ve heard and take into account both now and in longer term….
- The landscape as to what has been progressed by LA and put remains confusing, I’m confused, I don’t know what the Care Plan is, I don’t understand contingency measures. I don’t know how court can make final orders and trust can be trusted to execute those Care Plans properly…..
I’ve never been in this position ever as a GAL, I wouldn’t feel I am executing my roles to the children if I allowed the care plans to be signed off now…..
- Concerns me we’ve had these proceedings running now for almost two years, the children have been represented by me, a solicitor, significant oversight from a number of professionals, should have been concluded last week, with decisions that appear to be made off the hoof, knee jerk decisions, with long lasting outcomes for the children…..
- No confidence that the Care Plans we are being provided with on rolling basis are right”
- She talked of an atmosphere in the case of confusion and said this:
- “It’s massively concerning the state of the evidence and how its been presented to the court, even now today, the trust don’t seem to have a proper understanding of what the children need moving forwards…..
- Less than 40 minutes ago, the plan changed from placement all four together, to the parallel of two and two……
- It’s confusing and I think the court needs proper evidence before it is in a position where trust is given to professionals to ensure the childrens’ needs are properly met in the longer term. Options extremely limited……
- I’m not happy, I’ve known these children long enough to know they deserve what’s right for them, not confident that the Care Plans meet their needs”
- It should be noted that all of this was said at a time when it was necessary to recall the Guardian to give evidence after having a further morning of evidence from the team manager who had had to prepare a statement of evidence over the weekend.
- The way in which this case has proceeded is, in my judgment, wholly unacceptable. These are applications for placement orders for four children. The parents, each of whom have their own mental health vulnerabilities, oppose the applications. They should not be having to react, with their Counsel, to ever changing plans and evidence served last minute. It is difficult to understand how it is that these proceedings can be so heavily delayed and yet come into Court in such poor order, and as I made clear at various points during the hearing, this could not have been rendered more painful and difficult for the parents had it been deliberately designed that way. Having said that, I ensured that time was given at each stage that it was necessary, and I am satisfied that the parents have in fact had a fair and full hearing. It was unfortunate, however, that parents who are facing the permanent loss of four children, had to endure and listen quite so much and wrangling between professionals.
The Guardian made an application for an independent social work assessment to carry out the social work assessment of the children’s needs and relationship dynamics to inform how the children should be placed.
- The Guardian has made, after the close of the evidence, an application under part 25 for a further assessment. She considered that this was necessary because somebody independent was needed to carry out, in blunt terms, the work that the Local Authority should have done and that she no longer trusted that they would do. She believes that there needs to be a proper assessment of the needs of J and P, whether they should be placed together or apart, whether they should be placed for adoption or long term foster care, what their therapeutic needs are and how they can be met, by whom and when.
- I have found this difficult to wrestle with. On the one hand, I completely understand why the Guardian has felt compelled to make this application. Such ‘analysis’ of realistic options as could be found from amongst the thousands of pages of evidence in this case was woefully inadequate. That much the team manager, in fairness, accepted. For these two children, on the very cusp of what would be considered an ‘adoptable age’ and with marked behavioural difficulties, and difficulties in their own relationship, the welfare analysis carried out by the Local Authority should have been exquisitely sensitive and absolutely focussed on the individual characteristics of the children.
- Instead, what the Local Authority provided was little more than the usual platitudes of ‘adoption provides the best permanency’ and ‘siblings should be raised together’. I am afraid that, even after the additional statement of evidence of the team manager, things did not get much better. I agree with the Guardian that the care planning, when a limited concession was finally made at Court, could be described as ‘knee jerk’.
- I understand why there is so little trust in the Local Authority by the Guardian.
The Court did not grant that assessment – the Court made Care Orders and Placement Orders for the youngest three children, but determined that the eldest child P should be placed in long-term foster care rather than adopted.
I make some concluding remarks. This case has been extremely difficult and almost impossible to ‘keep on track’. It has taken the strenuous efforts of the Guardian, Counsel for the Guardian, and the Court to ensure that the case proceeded in a proper manner, to the extent of the Head of Services for the Local Authority having to be summoned to Court at 5pm on a Friday afternoon.
- This should never have been necessary and was only made necessary because of the almost absence of proper, responsive, careful planning by the Local Authority. The Local Authority’s advocate was, at some points, left with nobody at all at Court to assist her or give her instructions, and at times with nobody from the Authority even listening in to the evidence on the Teams link.
- The allocated social worker, who absolutely did her best to assist the Court, had to admit that her together and apart assessment was fundamentally flawed. That evidence was given on the first day of the hearing. From that point onwards it should have been patently obvious to the Local Authority that there was a real issue with their care planning and that careful consideration needed to be given to the complexities of the sibling relationship and their individual needs. Instead, the Local Authority remained doggedly fixed with its original care plan, providing generic reasoning only in its defence, and failing to see the complexities and nuances of the case.
- In the end I have made orders that could be considered to be fairly predictable and reasonably uncontroversial on the facts of this case. They were the orders initially being suggested, for very good reason, by the childrens’ Guardian, and had the Local Authority been able to bring a more responsive, thoughtful, flexible eye to what was happening in Court the proceedings could have been much shortened and the parents spared having to listen to lengthy arguments amongst professionals about how care planning for their children should or should not be undertaken. I very much hope that this will not have to happen again.