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Judge hits out at lack of resources for councils looking after young vulnerable people at risk of harm

A Family Court judge has published a judgment in relation to a 15-and-a-half year old girl to highlight the resource issues that local authorities face looking after young vulnerable people at risk of harm, describing the problems as “huge”.

In Dorset Council v A (Residential Placement: Lack of Resources) [2019] EWFC 62 His Honour Judge Dancey, sitting as a section 9 judge, made a care order on 12 August 2019 and on 30 September 2019 a final deprivation of liberty (DOLs) order in respect of the girl, A.

The local authority has been involved with A’s family since 2017, the judge said. “Her parents used drugs. Their relationship was violent and abusive. They didn’t supervise A properly. She didn’t have proper boundaries. For a time A was living with her father. He gave her cigarettes. A said she used and dealt cannabis. A’s behaviour went downhill. She often went missing. Social workers were worried that she was at risk of sexual exploitation. They said she was beyond the control of her parents.”

In August 2018 the police used their powers to protect A. Her mother agreed to her being voluntarily accommodated in foster placements. However, A found it difficult to comply with the rules in her foster homes and went missing again. She was placed in a residential unit in Shropshire where she was able to get some therapeutic parenting. However, she had to go to hospital a number of times because she was self-harming.

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At this point, the judge said, A had been excluded from school and wasn’t getting any formal education.

On 11 January Dorset issued care proceedings on the basis that A was beyond parental control. The parents accepted that and did not oppose the court making an order placing A in the interim care of the local authority.

When the Shropshire placement came to an end, another placement was found for A in Somerset.

Because the placement in Somerset and later placements all involved 24/7 supervision of A and the need to be able to lock doors and windows to stop her going missing, Judge Dancey has made a series of DOLs orders authorising those restrictions on her liberty. These have been reviewed regularly and particularly when placements have changed.

A number of other placements have followed, all temporary and most unregulated, including periods in caravan parks. A permanent placement has not been found for A.

The judge made a final care order on 12 August 2019 which all parties had agreed was necessary. He has also continued to review the DOLs order down to 30 September when he made the final order.

Judge Dancey stressed that the social worker and her team manager (“for whose professionalism and dedication I have the greatest respect”) had been working tirelessly with the commissioning team to find a permanent placement for A.

“They had constantly been putting out literally hundreds of enquiries to possible providers around the country to try and find something suitable. It was not that Dorset were unwilling to find or fund a permanent placement. It was simply that nothing could be found,” they said.

Recent developments had seen A being told that she could not go back to an earlier placement in Wimborne because the place had been given to a boy with complex needs and that property needed repairs because of damage he had caused.

On 25 September, there was another move to a caravan park near Weymouth but A could not stay there beyond Monday 30 September. At the time of the hearing on that date A was due to move to a lodge at yet another holiday park in Weymouth with a firm promise given to her and the judge that she would be able to move back to the Wimborne placement on 2 October.

“A did not attend that hearing. A’s solicitor, Ms Cowlard, told me she couldn’t see the point. Who could disagree?” Judge Dancey said.

The judge continued the DOLs order in respect of the lodge placement for two days and then the Wimborne placement from 2 October. The team manager told him that they were optimistic that a permanent residential placement with a provider would be found for A shortly.

Judge Dancey said he was telling this story simply to highlight the resource issues that local authorities face looking after young vulnerable people at risk of harm. 

He added that for A the consequences had been:

  1. no residential placement or any sense of permanence or stability;
  2. by his count, excluding the initial foster placements, 10 placements over the course of a year, all bar two of them unregulated, and lasting from a few months to a few days;
  3. still no formal education;
  4. no real chance to address the things a court-appointed psychologist was talking about in his report;
  5. a situation within which A stayed with her mother in an unplanned way and there was an argument between them which will not have helped their relationship;
  6. break down in trust between A and the professionals (“however hard they might be working to support her”).

The judge said that it was his experience in Dorset that the number of vulnerable young people who needed to be looked after or otherwise supported by the local authority was increasing.

“There are growing concerns around child sexual exploitation, County Lines and other forms of criminal exploitation as risks for these young people. The need for regulated placements is likely to increase. Social workers work tirelessly (and some silly hours) trying to find placements. When they turn up they are seized upon. Sometimes it has taken so long and trust has so broken down that it can be difficult to move young people on,” he said.

"The problems are huge. That is why I have told A’s story."

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