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Judge raps council over planning in child protection case

A Family Court judge has made scathing criticisms of a borough council’s handling of a child protection case.

Her Honour Judge McCabe said in her judgment in P, J, E-R, E-L (Children : Care Orders) [2022] EWFC 73, which was handed down in March 2022 but published recently, that the local authority’s evidence had been “unreliable” and “generally weak”.

She said: “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.”

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The judge said: “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.”

HHJ McCabe was dealing with a case involving four siblings and whether they should be placed for adoption and if so in which combinations together.

The council had made a placement order application for all four children and they have lived with foster carers since July 2020 due to mental health issues with their parents and “profound neglect”.

The children’s guardian though felt only the two youngest children had sufficiently well thought out, reliable care planning and should have placement orders made.

She said for the older two children, the court should adjourn the application on the basis of interim care orders and commission a further expert report.

HHJ McCabe said: “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.

“If I say that the local authority evidence has been lacking / unreliable / generally weak, I am afraid that that would be an understatement.”

Confusion over the local authority’s position on how the children should be placed made it “not far short of bewildering to try to follow the local authority’s care planning in this case”, the judge said.

She found: “The mother does not truly accept that she caused the profound neglect to her children that she caused whilst they were in her care. The father does not accept the [earlier] findings of HHJ Dowding in that he perpetrated domestic violence to the mother.”

Matters were “just, sufficiently clear” for her to decide that a care order and placement order should be made for one child while another should stay in long term foster care and the two youngest should be adopted.

These orders “could be considered to be fairly predictable and reasonably uncontroversial on the facts of this case” and were those suggested by the guardian.

HHJ McCabe said: “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.”

Mark Smulian

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