A judge has sharply criticised social workers for giving "visibly biased" evidence when a local authority applied for a final care order in relation to a three-year-old boy with a view to placing him for adoption.
In North East Lincolnshire Council v G & L  EWCC B77 (Fam), the judgment for which was given in June but has only just been published, the guardian for the boy (J) had supported the local authority’s application.
It had been accepted that J could not have remained with either of his parents. The mother could not look after J because of substance abuse (and she has since died). There were also allegations of violence between the mother and her partner.
North East Lincolnshire had ruled out both sets of grandparents when it came to caring for J. One set were said to have problems with drink and domestic violence. The other were said to have too many problems on their plate because they had older children with difficulties, and they already looked after J’s elder sibling, R, who also had difficulties.
But at the Combined Court Centre in Hull His Honour Judge Jack said after hearing evidence from social workers Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley that the council’s case had been “wholly undermined”. He also criticised a third social worker.
The judge said Swaby had been very reluctant to accept that anything positive could be said about either set of grandparents.
“When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, ‘Well, I suppose you could say that’,” HHJ Jack said.
“He was very begrudging indeed in his evidence and I had the clear impression that he was, for whatever reason, whether it was his own inclination or instructions from above, that he was intent on saying only things which supported the local authority's case and was very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.”
The judge added that Olley’s evidence was “totally discredited” in his view. “She sought to make it a substantial plank of her evidence that J was a child who had real behavioural problems, and had had them throughout his placement with foster carers. That, unfortunately, conflicted very strongly with not only what she had said in her own statement but what was said in the adoption social worker's statement.”
HHJ Jack continued: “Again I had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable. In those circumstances I found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.
“In particular, so far as Mr. and Mrs. G are concerned, it did emerge during the course of the evidence that although, yes, I and C [their older children] may have had some problems in the past there was no recent evidence of their conditions causing any significant difficulties to Mr. and Mrs. G.”
The judge added: “So far as R was concerned I had the clear impression that although he is clearly a lad who is suffering a serious sense of grief and loss because of the death of his mother, that on the whole Mr. and Mrs. G were dealing reasonably well with that. So far as J was concerned my impression, having heard the local authority case, was that he is not a child who has any real behavioural difficulties which are going to present problems to whoever has to care for him.”
In relation to the other set of grandparents, the judge said he deplored any form of domestic violence and parents who cared for children when they were significantly under the influence of drink.
But, he added, “so far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place.
“The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the Courts are not in the business of social engineering.”
The courts, the judge said, were “not in the business of providing children with perfect homes”. He called for a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the courts.
On the social workers’ evidence undermining the council’s case, Judge Jack said: “Their concerns appeared to be grossly overstated in order to try and achieve their ends.
“I have never, in over ten years of hearing care cases taken the view, as I did in this case, that the local authority's witnesses were visibly biased in their attempts to support the local authority's case. It is very unfortunate and I hope I shall never see that again.”
The judge said, after considering a statement from a new social worker, his view remained that the best way forward for J was placement with Mr and Mrs G, one of the sets of grandparents. He added that care should be given in the way that this was dealt with, and that he relied upon the council to provide as much support as was needed to assist in ensuring that that placement worked.
A spokesman for North East Lincolnshire said the authority has carefully considered the judgment of the court and noted the remarks of the judge, adding that a rigorous process had been gone through to support the social workers in preparing their evidence.
He added: “North East Lincolnshire Council is committed to ensuring the best outcomes for children and young people and where possible allow them to stay within their extended family. We have a growing number of young people supported in this way and we continually review and update our policies and practices to assist with that aim. This case illustrates the complexities and difficult decisions that have to be made while striving to act in the best interests of children.
“In light of this judgement, we have also reminded social workers of the importance of giving a balanced point of view whilst recognising their right to giving a professional judgement on specific cases as required.’’
The spokesman said: “The council does not regard this decision as a criticism of its child protection procedures as the safety of the child concerned was protected at all times by the authority’s actions.”
Unison told the BBC that it was “unacceptable” social workers should “carry the can” and that Olley had been made a scapegoat.
The union added: "This blaming culture in local authorities is likely to have an impact on an already depleted workforce. [This] type of case will only drive more social workers away from the profession."