When a local authority seeks to issue care proceedings for a child within a family connected to alleged radicalisation or a family thought to be sympathetic to extremist views it is important for professionals to review and challenge, if necessary, the evidence presented by social services. It is also necessary to reflect on whether concerns about a parent's views or actions necessarily lead to legitimate concern that their child has suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm.
Mr Justice McDonald, in the case of A Local Authority v X and others  EWHC 3741 (Fam), granted permission for the local authority to withdraw their application as they were not able to satisfy the threshold criteria set out in section s.31 (2) Children Act 1989. This essentially meant that concerns were not at a level able to justify the court interfering further in the life of the family concerned. A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied—
That the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
That the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—
The care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
The child’s being beyond parental control.
The local authority had issued proceedings in circumstances where the father had been convicted for the offence of inviting another to provide money or property intending it to be used for the purpose of terrorism, was subject to a terrorism prevention and investigation measure (TPIM) and when the TPIM was reviewed in civil proceedings findings were made against the father where his conduct amounted to radicalisation and the TPIM was extended. The local authority also alleged that the mother was sympathetic to 'extremist' views and she was alleged to have participated in the Sisterhood; a group it said was associated with Al-Muhajiroun (ALM), which itself is an organisation banned by the UK government.
Mr Justice McDonald raised issue with the local authority’s initial statement, which was prepared by the social worker and her team manager. Within this statement there was a section titled ‘Parenting Profile- Al Muhajiroun’. The social worker’s team manager had worked as the lead child protection co-ordinator for children exposed to extremist ideology and through what she had experienced she tried to fit this family into behavioural patterns that she had previously witnessed through other families. These behaviours included making little use of health services and to remain invisible in society. However, the statement ignored evidence from this family that did not fit the ‘patterns’ of the generic parenting profile, such as:
The mother alerted the local authority to the father being subject to a TPIM;
The father worked before becoming subject to a TPIM;
The mother was degree educated and was training to become a teacher before having children;
The two elder children were home schooled but had their education assessed as adequate by the Secondary Learning and Assessment Team; and
The youngest child did in fact attend a nursery, and so on.
This was a failing and Mr Justice McDonald reminded the local authority of best practices and that each family should be assessed on their own individual circumstance in line with the Working Together statutory guidance (HM Government March 2015) and not a subjective model as devised in this case.
Within the subsequent social worker statement, other assessments and a specialist risk assessment about the family’s potential radicalisation the local authority accepted that there was no evidence to suggest that the children had been exposed to or affected by extremist material or that they had been 'radicalised'. Therefore they applied to have their application for care orders withdrawn, which was supported by all parties.
The issue that arose was with the law that the court must consider when deciding if permission should be given to withdraw care proceedings- according to FPR r 29.4(2) an application for a care order can only be withdrawn by a local authority with the permission of the court.If an application to withdraw is made because the local authority is not able to demonstrate that the threshold criteria in s.31 (2) Children Act 1989 has been met then their application will be successful without overall consideration of the children's welfare. On the other hand, where an application for withdrawal is made and the threshold criteria can be met the court must consider the withdrawal against the children’s welfare interests (the court’s paramount concern), but clarify that no order would be in the children’s best interest in line with s 1(5) of the Children Act 1989.
The local authority argued that the criteria had been met due to the risk of significant harm being or likely to be suffered by the children. However on the facts of this case Mr Justice McDonald concluded that the local authority would not be able to meet the criteria therefore permission had to be granted for the local authority to withdraw their application, saying in his judgment:
However, whilst the evidence in respect of the parents might be capable of grounding serious findings, before the threshold criteria can be met s 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 requires the court to be satisfied that the children have suffered or are likely to suffer significant harm attributable to the care given, or likely to be given to them by the parents. It is in this respect that I am satisfied that the local authority finds itself in grave, indeed insurmountable forensic difficulty.