The Court of Appeal has overturned a ruling that a one-year-old boy should be placed for adoption.
In J (A Child), the boy was born when his mother was just 16 years old. She had spent much of the previous three years in care and was reportedly sexually abused while living in a care home. J’s father was three years older.
In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice McFarlane explained that:
“The parents, despite their relative youth, had been involved in a relationship with each other for a significant period prior to J’s birth. J is their first and only child.”
When she fell pregnant, the mother was sent to live in a mother-and-baby foster placement but this broke down “through no fault of the mother’s”. A second placement lasted until after J’s birth but the mother later left this home shortly afterwards, leaving her son with the foster carers.
Subsequently, social workers carried out an assessment of the couple’s parenting abilities, concluding that J should not be left in their care. Their assessment was not based on matters typically raised in such matters, the Judge noted.
“This is not a case where features such as learning disability, addiction to Class A drugs or alcohol, mental health or concern over sexual matters feature at all.”
Instead, the social workers believed that the parents did not demonstrate sufficient co-operation with the social workers themselves or with the assessment process itself, and they had not shown “any significant insight into the concerns regarding their care of J”. They also said they had detected strains within the couple’s relationship, were concerned by the father’s use of cannabis and also suspected domestic violence between the couple.
Having also ruled out other members of the couple’s family as carers for J, social workers used the assessment as the basis of a push to have the boy adopted. Rehabilitating J into the care of his parents was not a “viable option”, they insisted, and J’s legal guardian took a similar stance.
The parents unsuccessfully contested the local authority’s claims. Care and placement orders were made in August last year, formally taking J into care and making him available for adoption.
The parents appealed, citing major concerns with the judgement taking J into care. They argued, for example, that the Judge had failed to identify facts or circumstances that justified taking J away from his parents.
Lord Justice McFarlane agreed with the assessments made by their legal team. He declared that it had been “a wholly inadequate evaluation of the important issues that fell for determination.”
When reading the judgement, It was not possible, said His Lordship, to follow the process of analysis undertaken by the Judge. This failure to identify a sound basis for the adoption had been “wholly disastrous” for J who was “entitled to have his future determined by a proper process”.
In a statement agreeing with the judgement of Lord Justice McFarlane, Lord Justice Vos said he had found the case “rather shocking”.
“… there seems to me to have been an assumption made at an early stage by the Local Authority that adoption is the only course to be followed.”
Adoption is a last resort, he stressed, “only appropriate when nothing else will do.”
The case was sent back to the lower courts for a rehearing.
Read the judgement here.