A Northamptonshire baby taken was taken from its mother for two years while social workers delayed a decision on where he should live, in case a judge described as “unfortunate and woeful”.
The case centred on a 15-day-old baby, referred to in court papers as ‘DS’, whose mother lived with an aggressive and threatening partner in “exceedingly poor” living conditions. The mother also reported the partner left used needles round the house.
Despite the less than ideal conditions, Mr Justice Keehan said Northamptonshire County Council social workers misused a law designed to remove children when their parent cannot provide suitable home and care.
After swapping social workers seven times and various other delays, the boy’s guardianship was not eventually decided until two years after he was taken from his mother.
Awarding damages totalling £16,000 against Northamptonshire County Council, he said he considered the local authority’s powers, under section 20 of the Children Act, had been “seriously abused”.
Although the child is now ‘thriving’ in the care of his grandparents, Mr Justice Keehan said there was a ‘real risk’ that the first 23 months of his life would have a detrimental impact on his future development and emotional health.
He added: “The catalogue of errors, omissions, delays and serial breaches of court orders in this matter is truly lamentable.
“They would be serious enough in respect of an older child but they are appalling in respect of a 15-day old baby.
“Each day, each week and each month in his young life is exceedingly precious.
“Where so young a child is removed from the care of his mother or father, his case must be afforded the highest priority by the local authority.
“I cannot conceive of any circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional circumstances and where removal is intended to be for a matter of days at the most.”
Social worker intervention began on January 30, 2013 when Northamptonshire Council Workers placed DS with foster carers 15 days after he was born. His mother’s GP had made a referral to the local authority due to her lack of antenatal care and because she claimed to be sleeping on the street. The mother then told a midwife that she had a new partner, who was a heroin addict.
After the birth DS’s mother avoided seeing her midwife, frequently moved addresses and conditions at home were very poor.
Three days before DS was taken into care, his mother told social workers that her new partner was being aggressive and threatening to her. She also reported that he was leaving used needles around the house.
It was at that point that DS’s mother, who was not British, agreed, without an interpreter, to her baby being accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
The law states that local authorities should provide accommodation for any child in need in their area who appears to them to require it as a result of:
there being no person who has parental responsibility for him;
his being lost or having been abandoned; or
the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation and care.
Almost four months then elapsed before the local authority decided to initiate care proceedings, on May 23 2013.
“Quite astonishingly”, the judge said, the issuing of those proceedings did not take place until November 5. 2013.
Addressing other failures by social services, Mr Justice Keehan’s judgement said that, even after court proceeding began, there were also further delays caused by the “egregious failures” of the local authority, namely:
-To undertake assessments of the mother, of the maternal grandparents, [who lived abroad], and of the Spanish-based paternal grandparents.
-To undertake any proper or consistent care planning for DS; and
-To comply quickly or at all with court orders for the filing and service of assessments, reports and statements.
A letter from the Director of Children’s Services to the court, dated April 7,2014 said a social worker with little court experience had been assigned to the case.
Although she was supposed to be supported by a colleague with more court experience, this did not happen until August 2013.
The letter also apologised for the failures to adhere to court orders. It pointed to ineffective communication between social workers and managers.
Mr Justice Keehan said: “I cannot begin to understand why an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings was allocated as a social worker for a 15-day-old baby.
“I do not understand why it took until August to provide her with support or why senior managers did not intervene in this case.
It is wholly inexcusable for a local authority to take three months to decide to issue care proceedings in respect of a very young baby and then a further five months to issue care proceedings.
“The fact that the parents are Latvian and that close family members lived abroad, provides no explanation less still an excuse for the extraordinary delay in this case.”
He also described as “deeply worrying” the fact that over the course of his short life DS had been allocated eight different social workers.
He said: “It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers… had DS’s welfare or best interests at the forefront of their minds.
“Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby’s care and future life was dismal.”
The mother issued proceedings against the local authority seeking damages for breaches of her Convention rights, namely her Article 6 right to a fair trial and her right to respect for family life protected by Article 8.
The county council agreed to pay £12,000 to the child and £4,000 to his mother.
It also agreed to pay the maternal grandparents £1,000 to assist in the care of DS who, the judgement indicates, is now doing well.
Since social workers intervened, Ofsted inspectors labelled Northamptonshire’s children’s services as ‘inadequate’. Although the rating has not been removed, further informal inspections by the watchdog have indicated the county council has made some improvements.
A Northamptonshire County Council spokeswoman said yesterday: “There have been significant changes made to many of our systems and practices concerning looked after children as a result of the council’s Children’s Services Improvement Programme and we continue to work hard to improve outcomes for children and families in Northamptonshire.”