The most senior family law judge in England has described a local authority’s handling of a foster care placement as “almost a textbook example” of how not to conduct a case.
In the matter of A (A Child) concerned a baby who is still just a year old. His father, who is in his mid-20s, lost contact with his own father and was brought up his mother. A’s father met the mother in early 2013 and she had fallen pregnant by the spring. However, the mother was sent to prison while still pregnant with A after being convicted of both dishonesty and sexual offences.
As a result ‘A’ was born in jail, although the officers did not initially realise that A was pregnant.
A’s father attended a number of assessment meetings but he was told that he would not be suitable as a carer for A. Social workers continued their assessment of other members of his family while a foster placement was sought.
When A was born in January, he was taken into local authority care under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. This requires local authorities to provide accommodation for children in need.
During the subsequent proceedings, A’s father pursued an interest in caring for his son. The mother supported his application rather than applying to be a parental figure for A herself. But social workers at Darlington Borough Council were opposed to the father having a role in A’s life, raising concerns about his background. He been involved for a period with the English Defence League, and as a teen had also received a police caution after becoming sexually involved with a younger girl.
Social workers declared these episodes “immoral” and asserted that A should be adopted instead of being sent to live with his father.
In the Family Court sitting at Middlesborough, President of the Family Court Sir James Munby expressed incredulity at the use of the term ‘immoral’, describing this as “a characterisation that is neither appropriate nor relevant”.
“The city fathers of Darlington and Darlington’s Director of Social Services are not guardians of morality. Nor is this court. The justification for State intervention is harm to children, not parental immorality.”
Despite their concerns about the father’s character, the local authority had failed to show that A would be at any risk of harm in his father’s care, Sir James declared.
“The local authority was too willing to believe the worst of the father, which led to it being unduly dismissive of what he was saying. The local authority failed to link the facts it relied upon with its assertions that (the toddler) was at risk.”
He was highly critical of the council’s conduct, saying one social workers involved in the case had failed to properly analyse the basis of the council’s position and another had been too inexperienced. However, the council’s legal department was also responsible for the failings, after approving the unsatisfactory assessments used in the court, as was the council’s senior management he insisted.
A should live with his father, Sir James ruled.
The judgement is available to read here.