The possibility of a Slovakian grandmother taking on the care of her four grandchildren was prematurely dismissed by a local authority, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
The case of V-Z (Children) concerned three girls, aged seven, five and three, and a six year-old boy. The father of the three older children had left the country and the English authorities had been unable to locate him, but the father of the youngest child did become involved, in a limited way, in the subsequent care proceedings.
Both he and the mother are from the Czech Republic, and also have family connections with Slovakia. The oldest child was born while the mother still lived in the former country.
In 2011 social workers became concerned about the welfare of the children, as well as the mother’s health and her failure to make use of “therapeutic assistance”.
Finally, in June 2014, all four youngsters were taken into emergency protection after the oldest child went to school with a black eye and told teachers her stepfather had hit her. They have been in a single foster care placement since that time.
Care proceedings began but were “much delayed”. As they moved forward slowly, the courts conducted a fact-finding hearing to try and establish the circumstances behind the infliction of the black eye. This concluded that the stepfather had indeed been responsible, but as “the result of an isolated loss of temper and not part of a pattern of ill-treatment.”
The fact-finding ruling included criticism of the local authorities for apparent tardiness and disorganisation.
The Judge described this continuing delay as “unacceptable” and declared that it was
“…impacting on the welfare of the children who remain without permanence.”
Reasons for the delay included the use of interpreters as neither the mother nor her partner speak fluent English, the need to appoint a social worker familiar with Eastern European culture, and the need to assess relatives in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as potential carers.
Eventually, in February of this year, a Judge made formal care and placement orders for all four children, saying the older two should remain in foster care and the youngest two should be adopted. All four were to be placed in separate families.
The mother launched an appeal, arguing that a grandmother of the children who lives in Slovakia, had been unfairly ruled out as a carer despite volunteering to look after them.
Two assessments by the Slovak authorities “concluded that [the grandmother] could provide proper care for all of her grandchildren, having ample appropriate accommodation, an enduring relationship with her partner, and family living nearby.”
But the Judge believed the grandmother would not be able to look after all four children properly. He also rejected the possibility of the grandmother taking on care of the youngest child alone, citing issues such as:
“…managing the temper tantrums of a three year old, whether the care would be long term or temporary, and whether the grandmother acknowledges the risk posed by the father”.
He added that “her ability to provide long term a safe and secure environment has never been satisfactorily established.”
In the Court of Appeal Lady Justice Black said the Slovakian social workers who had assessed the grandmother’s parenting abilities had been given case material by their English counterparts with contained “significant gaps” and as a result, they had not provided fully detailed reports.
The Judge concluded:
“In the light of this, it is hard to reach a reliable conclusion that she would be unable to do so. Furthermore, there is no evidence that there was any request for an investigation of what the plans were for care of the children during the grandmother’s working hours and whether they were adequate. And, if the local authority thought the Slovak assessment inadequate as it stood, why did they not pursue their further questions of the Slovaks or take up the offer of a more detailed assessment of the grandmother?”
“The net result, in my view, was that the assessment of the grandmother remained incomplete and the position had not been reached where it was possible to say that she was unable to care for any of the children.”
Proceeding further on that basis would be “unfair”, said Her Ladyship. Consequently, the case would be sent back to the lower courts for a rehearing.
Read the ruling here.
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