A judge presiding over a care hearing at Bristol County Court made strongly worded criticisms of the preparation and conduct of the case.
Judge Stephen Wildblood QC said “things have gone badly wrong” and he wished to “identify the points that I regard as having been so very unsatisfactory”.
The case concerned two children, aged three and two. Their mother suffered from dyspraxia and other difficulties, and their father only had a peripheral involvement in their lives. The boy lived with his maternal grandmother, while the girl was in temporary foster care, but enjoyed visits from her mother, brother and grandmother.
The family’s local authority – unnamed in the judgement – applied for care and placement orders for the brother and sister, which would have given them permission to take the children into care and place them for adoption. The grandmother, meanwhile, applied to be the boy’s ‘special guardian’, allowing her to look after him on a settled basis while he maintained a relationship with his mother. She did not feel, however, that she could look after the boy’s sister as well. The local authority initially opposed her application, and a social worker said her care of the boy was good but not “optimal”.
The authority later withdrew its objections to the special guardianship order. Meanwhile, care and placement orders were issued for the girl. The judge said:
“A particularly tragic consequence of that is that the boy and the girl will be brought up separately.”
He went on to highlight “the points that I regard as having been so very unsatisfactory about this case,” adding “I have never taken a step like this before in relation to a judgment that I have given.”
The judge noted that it had taken a total of 58 weeks to resolve, more than double the currently recommended maximum of 26 weeks.
“… there was nothing at all within this case that made it so unusual that it could not have been resolved with far greater expedition.”
Judge Wildblood was also concerned by the abandonment of a fact finding hearing concerning the case shortly before it was due to start, and the presentation of inadequate evidence, including medical evidence.
The local authority had not properly identified options for the children. “If they had been, the special guardianship report would have been ordered at the very first hearing as it should have been,” said the judge.
The authority had not made any attempt to consider the effects of removing the boy from his grandmother’s care, where he was already settled, or the significance of removing him from his natural family and placing him for adoption. Both issues were “utterly elementary and fundamental”, said the judge.
“I found it deeply demoralising that these simplistic issues could pass without even being mentioned. What happened in the hearing is that all possible negative points about the grandmother were explored in evidence. At least some of them had no foundation at all. Some of these negative ‘concerns’ were expressed in superlative, wholly unjustifiable and internally contradictory terms.”
The authority had involved too many experts in the proceedings and it had not been able to provide convincing evidence to back up its claims in the case.
“Time and again I was told that the Local Authority had ‘concerns’ about issues (the word ‘concern was used by the Local Authority advocate more than twenty times in one day). Those ‘concerns’ were not substantiated by direct evidence and should have been.”
The judge concluded by noting that:
“…the really sad upshot of this case is that these two young children will be brought up separately. That is bound to have very significant implications for both of them, in particular for the girl. The separation of these siblings will inevitably affect her emotional welfare as a child and as an adult. Proper and considered care planning at the outset of this case could and should have mitigated this, if not avoided it.”