Local Authorities urged to invest in providing early support before resorting to Care Proceedings
Date posted: 23 October 2017
Senior solicitor, Mark Gilmartin, highlights this familiar conundrum faced by the family court when considering applications for care orders by local authorities.
All too often those representing parents in Public Law proceedings are faced with the almost impossible task of helping those parents demonstrate effective change within the strict 26 week timescale.
Occasionally, the need for some support and intervention is clear at the early stages of proceedings and there is often a consensus as to the need for therapeutic treatment. Unfortunately, for reasons not always transparent but perhaps as a result of resources and pressure of Social Work commitments, therapeutic work recommended at an early stage is not progressed. This runs the risk of Final Hearings not being effective or Final Orders being made that impact significantly on a child’s future because the court does not have the necessary evidence of capacity to make and sustain changes as a result of delay and approach taken to side-lining the importance of early support.
This was the issue in the recent case of A Local Authority v The Mother & Anor [ 2017] EWFC B59.
An application for Care and Placement Orders came before HHJ Wildblood QC for final hearing. The case concerned a child referred to as ‘G’ who at the time of final hearing was five months old and residing in foster care. A second child ‘B’ had previously been made the subject of Care and Placement Orders and was also in foster care.
The mother who is in her early 20’s reported a troubled upbringing during which she is said to have experienced extreme abuse and deprivation. Past experiences and the impact that this has had on the mother was clearly apparent; yet the mother had not, it seems ever, been provided with therapeutic treatment.
During the course of the proceedings the mother underwent a psychological assessment that, amongst many other difficulties, observed an IQ of 66. The expert identified in detail the psychological and physical trauma suffered by the mother in the past which included neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. The child’s Guardian commented on how the mother presented as a ‘warm, gentle and vulnerable young woman [who] has a range of inherent difficulties in managing life which are now overlaid with extreme grief for the loss of her children. The mother is overwhelmed by her distress and is unable to contain or regulate this’.
HHJ Wildblood QC describes an emotive final hearing where the sadness of the decisions that were required to be made resonated with the court and both the lay and professional parties. Ultimately, the risk of ‘G’ suffering the same experiences as the mother were too high for reunification to be felt to be in the child’s best interest. The Judge stated that, in his mind, the outcome was one based on ‘G’s future risk as a result of the mother’s difficulties that we not of her own making but rather a product of the abuse that she had suffered and the absence of any support to remedy the damage that this had caused to the mother’s own functioning.
It was apparent during those proceedings that the mother, in the context of a highly supportive residential setting and with professional guidance, was able to make some positive changes. It was unfortunate to both the mother and ‘G’ that the support and treatment were identified so late within proceedings that the mother’s capacity to make sufficient progress was limited by the timescales of the proceedings. It is common ground that it is seldom in a child’s best interest to delay permanency to allow effective change and in those circumstances and although the mother in these proceedings sought to adjourn for further assessment, this was not supported by the Local Authority nor the Guardian who felt that decisions had to be made for ‘G’.
The Judge invites practitioners in reading his Judgment to ask themselves:
- Is it right that this mother should not have been offered therapy, bearing in mind that her last child was born three years ago and was himself the subject of lengthy proceedings?
- If she had been offered therapy at an early stage, is there not at least a possibility that the outcome of these proceedings might have been different?
- Even if the outcome would not have been different, would not an attempt at therapy make these proceedings more satisfactory?
- Has the money that has been spent on issuing these proceedings (£2055 is the cost of issuing a care application) and on psychological evidence (over £2000.00) well spent when the expenditure is incurred before attempts at therapeutic support have been made in cases of this nature.
In concluding, HHJ Wildblood QC reiterates his previous comments from a former reported matter:
This case is another example of how important it is that, if therapy is needed, it is obtained at an early stage. Time and time again I see a process whereby the following occurs: a) a Local Authority intervenes and begins making assessment of a family; b) months later proceedings are issued; c) an order is made for some form of expert evidence to be produced (often a psychological report); d) months later the psychological report is obtained which says, invariably and utterly foreseeably, that someone within the family needs therapy and e) it is stated that, by then, the beneficial effect of therapy would be ‘out with the timescales for the child’. In this case, for instance, it would have been perfectly obvious to all that, when the mother was referred before birth, she was a prime candidate for therapy. If therapy were to be obtained at an early stage such as that there is at least a prospect that outcomes in some cases might be different. I have therefore already set up arrangements in the New Year to look very carefully at how we facilitate and access therapy in this area, with a view to doing my utmost to encourage much earlier therapeutic intervention if possible. I ask for as much help as possible with that endeavor’.