The Court of Appeal has overturned a supervision order in relation to a seven year old girl and her younger brother.
Supervision orders require a local authority or probation officer to monitor the welfare or behaviour of delinquent or vulnerable children.
In Z-O’C (Children), the two youngsters had different fathers. Their mother also had three older children from earlier relationships. The seven year-old, referred to in the judgement as ‘L’, currently lives with her paternal grandparents while her younger half-brother, ‘A’, has been in foster care since he was just a few weeks old.
Social workers have been involved with the family for more than a decade. In May 2012, they began an assessment of the mother’s parenting skills, concluding that she struggled to maintain good routines and to maintain “a clean and healthy environment” for her children.
But in October 2013, social services again intervened in response to concerns that one of the older children was hungry and poorly clothed. The police searched the woman’s home, amidst reports of drug use and antisocial behaviour, and were so concerned by the conditions they found that L and A were taken into police protection, under the Children Act 1989.
At the Court of Appeal, Lady Justice King noted:
“The mother was arrested and charged with neglect in respect of the children as the house was in what was referred to as an “uninhabitable state”. The description of the property was one that was not fit for human habitation.”
There was no food in the house, only “large quantities of takeaway food packaging”, and electricity was only available in some rooms.
Formal care proceedings for A and L began in January last year. The local authority wanted L to remain with her grandparents while A would be adopted.
In the courtroom, the judge considered three pieces of evidence: a psychological assessment of the parents which suggested they may be able to improve their parenting skills to a level sufficient to properly care for the children; a welfare report which instead suggested that might not be able to do so; and a report by the children’s legal guardian which had only been compiled recently and on the basis of a single visit to the parents. This also relied for its conclusions on the negative welfare assessment.
The Judge declined to allow a fresh assessment of the mother by an independent social worker, which counsel for the defence argued was essential for a fair assessment. He also rejected the negative parenting assessment, saying there were issues with it.
That left the Judge with only the positive assessment and the parents’ own evidence to base a conclusion on. He decided that the authority had failed to demonstrate that there was no alternative to permanent removal of the children from their parents’ care, as required by law. He therefore declined to issue the orders sought by the authority, making a supervision order instead, with the aim of returning both children to the care of both parents.
The children’s legal guardian launched a successful appeal, with the backing of the local authority. Lady Justice King declared:
“…the judge, having discounted the welfare evidence filed, was, as was recognised at trial by counsel, left without essential evidence to enable him to carry out the welfare evaluation. Without parenting assessment evidence in the broadest sense the judge was left without the material he needed with which to compare the benefits and deficiency of each realistic option.”
Her Ladyship sent the case back to the lower courts for a rehearing.
The full judgement is available here.