The recent case of Surrey CC v AB and Others [2014] EWHC 1115 (Fam) is a cautionary reminder that whilst courts may frequently repeat the mantra that social workers are experts, some will necessarily have far less experience/expertise than others. If the local authority fails to provide the necessary support and supervision as a result of their own systemic failings, this has the potential to place a family at a significant disadvantage by the time care proceedings commence and lawyers step onto the scene.

This particular case concerned X who was two years old by the time of the final hearing. X had complex health needs requiring a significant amount of care. The parents also had their own health difficulties. The social worker allocated to the case in June 2012 had qualified in 2011. This was her first case to result in care proceedings. The social worker acknowledged that the case had been a steep learning curve, and unfortunately this family had been at the bottom of that curve.

During the course of the final hearing the parties reached an agreement that X should remain living with his foster carers and that a regime of contact should be set up with the birth family. Mrs Justice Theis was requested however to give a judgment which considered the parents’ and paternal grandmother’s criticisms of Surrey CC’s handling of their case.

The actions/inaction of the local authority

Mrs Justice Theis noted a number of concerns in the local authority’s management of the case:

  1. Delay

The care proceedings commenced in March 2013, 10 months after X had been placed with foster carers, 4 and a half months after the local authority informed the parents that they would be initiating proceedings. Such a delay increased the difficulty in arguing a return of X to the parents’ care.

Mrs Justice Theis noted that although the mother had seemed to agree to the local authority’s plan at the November 2012 PLO meeting this was without the benefit of legal advice. At paragraph 80 the judge commented that “...reliance on the fact the parents did not take up legal advice for the PLO meetings is unhelpful. On one analysis it should make the local authority more anxious to ensure there is no further delay by issuing proceedings promptly, particularly when the local authority plan was, in reality, adoption.”

The local authority could also not be accused of excessive speed once proceedings commenced. In February/March 2013 the parents consented to an assessment and a referral was made by the social worker to the adult services team. That referral was not accepted until September 2013. When the assessment was finally completed it was deemed inadequate.

  1. Ineffective planning, supervision or coordination

The Core Assessment left blank the section asking whether there were any disability or communication issues for the child or parents – this was despite X’s clearly complex needs, the mother’s cerebral palsy and the father’s Aspergers. Boxes were ticked for there to be a referral to another agency and for there to be a specialist assessment, and it was noted that the parents were willing to work with the local authority, yet absolutely nothing happened.

When the allocated social worker took on the case she formed the view that the mother had refused a residential assessment. This was despite a number of documents which clearly showed the mother had been willing to engage with such an assessment.

  1. Not keeping an open mind about placement

Despite the talk of parallel planning there was no evidence of effective parallel assessment of the parents’ ability to care for X at the same time as investigating options in the care of the local authority.

  1. Content of the statements filed on behalf of the local authority

The social work statements were described as being “far too long and, in part, unfocussed and there was a lack of balance regarding their content” (paragraph 75)

Conclusion

By the end of proceedings a comprehensive community based assessment had been conducted of the parents and an independent social worker was instructed who was satisfied with the assessment and agreed with its conclusion that the parents were not able to care for X.

On the issue of the local authority’s approach to the case, the local authority issued a prompt response following receipt of the draft judgment. It was noted at paragraph 85 that “the local authority are undertaking a wholesale review looking at the PLO process and tracking of cases to ensure there are no systemic failures. This includes safeguarding officers regularly reviewing existing policies to ensure difficulties encountered are appropriately escalated within the management structure. A programme is also being devised to provide robust support for newly qualified social workers, which is likely to include co-working cases and enhanced supervision”.