Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council committed “egregious” failings in a child care case so bad that “a public judgment is appropriate to attempt to ensure that repetition of those failings is avoided”, HHJ Sharpe has said.
Sitting in the Family Court at Liverpool, the judge said Wirral had used deceit to try to hide from a family that a child had been taken into foster care.
The judge said: “The essence of a family relationship is not in its form or label but in the quality of the personal relationship between the child and that other person and this is recognised in the law.
“In the case with which I am concerned that reality was either wholly ignored or completely misunderstood by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council in its decision-making in respect of Adam (not his real name), the child who is the subject of these proceedings, and, as a consequence, his family life was significantly disrupted without justification but with considerable and unnecessary emotional upset to the child.”
He said that Wirral has since reflected on its actions and returned Adam to the care of his family “but the failings which precipitated that removal were both multiple and egregious”.
Five year old Adam had, since November 2019, lived with his maternal grandmother and her partner, Ms R and Mr N under a care order.
His mother has a younger child, named ‘Beryl’, who lives with her and Adam’s maternal great-grandparents under a special guardianship order.
In March 2021 Adam alleged Mr N smacked him. The allegation was repeated including when a social worker attended.
Relations between the grandparents and Wirral Council deteriorated and in “an atmosphere of suspicion matched by defiance” Adam made a third allegation and Wirral moved him to the care of his great-grandparents Mr and Mrs R.
The judge said: “The care given to Adam during this time was more than adequate and Adam had a good relationship with his great-grandparents with whom he was obviously close.
“There were some concerns raised about the difficulty in ensuring that family members maintained a necessary distance from each other during the investigation and also about the absence of adequate sleeping accommodation for Adam in Mr & Mrs R’s home.”
Relations again worsened through a combination of Wirral’s concerns about the ability of septuagenarian great-grandparents to care for a five-year-old, accommodation restrictions and the difficulty of maintaining separation between family members, Wirral’s view of Mr and Mrs R as foster carers led the council to conclude Adam should move to foster care on a permanent basis.
HHJ Sharpe said: “That conclusion was not notified to the family when formed or even for some time thereafter and it follows that their ignorance about the decision meant that they had had no opportunity to make any contribution to the process by which it was made.”
The family was told at a meeting that Adam would be moved to foster care as soon as possible.
When the family disagreed, they threatened Wirral with legal action and the mother applied to discharge the care order.
The next day Wirral “instigated the move and an upset Adam was collected from school by the social worker and moved directly to foster carers”.
HHJ Sharpe said he had to decide whether Adam’s removal was justified in law, whether the process was adequate and appropriate and if not whether he should injunct Wirral to require the immediate return of Adam to the great-grandparents.
He said there had been a failure to properly apply the law and ensure the decision-making process was fair.
Wirral appeared to have decided Adam could not return to either his great-grandparents or grandparents and should go to foster care but “the family would not be informed about this decision but instead be informed that the above decisions have not yet been made”.
The judge said: “The guardian…refers to the outcome reached on that day as a deceit.
“I agree. The lack of involvement of the family in the decision-making process at any stage is itself a serious breach of protective procedural rights and worthy of criticism of the local authority for its failure to act in a fair and transparent fashion.
“However to then compound that error by deliberately misinforming the family of what had been decided, to effectively string them along, possibly with misdirection but certainly through omission, can only be deplored in the strongest terms.”
Wirral had spent more than two weeks making plans for Adam’s removal while failing to inform the family of this intention.
HHJ Sharpe said: “Procedures are important, they are not unnecessary bureaucracy serving only to generate meaningless delay, but create the architecture for decision-making by which timeliness, transparency, sufficiency of information and equality of access to resources such as information and professional advice can combine so as to render the process fair and thereby enable certainty to be accorded to decisions which affect people’s lives.
“Departures from established procedures must be justified by sound reason and limited to what is necessary to achieve good outcomes without sacrificing baseline requirements which might undermine that outcome. In this case there was a total failure of proper procedural safeguards which was compounded by a deliberate misdirection.”