HEREFORDSHIRE COUNCIL: Blasted by High Court judge for failings
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A High Court judge has condemned Herefordshire Council for what he described as some of the most “egregious and long-standing failures” he has ever encountered in his professional life.
Mr Justice Keehan has questioned whether the council’s children’s services are fit for purpose after failures spanning more than eight years compounded the emotional and psychological harm children in care have suffered.
Four children were placed with local authority foster carers in 2012 but the council since failed to promote contact between the children and their mother.
The council failed to use a fact-finding court judgement as a basis for challenging and changing the children’s distorted perceptions of their family.
It also failed to manage the foster placement properly and to ensure the children’s emotional needs were met.
The council failed to take any sufficient steps to preserve the children’s sense of identity with and connection to their family.
And while one of the children was hospitalised the council marginalised the mother and failed to accord her parental responsibility the weight and respect it deserved.
The council gave consent to medical procedures without any discussion with the mother or any application to the court for a best interest decision.
Despite being aware of the gravity of the child’s situation, they did not discuss with the mother the possibility of removing the child from life support.
The child died while the mother was on her way to the hospital to say her final goodbye.
The council also accepts that important documents were not always provided to the foster carers at an appropriate time, promptly or sufficiently in advance for them to consider, understand and assimilate the contents without feeling rushed or under pressure.
“My strongest criticism must be directed at this local authority,” Mr Keehan said in his judgement.
“In the whole of my professional life, I have rarely encountered such egregious and long-standing failures by a local authority.
“The worst of it is, I cannot after the closest possible enquiry, understand why or what motivated the local authority to fail these children, this mother and the interveners as appallingly and for as extended a period of time.
“The whole history of the role of this local authority in the lives of these children is highly inexplicable.
“The only matter which is clear to me is that it did not have the welfare best interests of the children at the heart of its decision-making, such as it was.
“The children have been utterly failed by this local authority. By its actions, failures and omissions over the course of the last eight years it has compounded the emotional and psychological harm the children have suffered.
“The local authority has ignored, indeed, challenged the advice of a hugely experienced child psychiatrist for reasons which I do not begin to understand.
“It has treated with contempt the clarion call of a senior family judge for the local authority to re-evaluate its approach to these children, to the family and to the carers.
“I can only hope there is now the time and the opportunity to repair this damage and to give the children a positive sense of their identity, of their family and to enable them to have meaningful, positive and beneficial contact with their mother and their wider family.
“The interveners have, albeit at a later stage, accepted and admitted their past failings and errors.
“These failings and errors have to be set out in proper context as counsel for the interveners was keen to stress. They were new and relatively inexperienced foster carers.
“This must call into question whether this local authority’s children’s services department is fit for purpose. That is a question which is not for me to answer.
“I can say that they had failed these children in an extraordinary manner over a prolonged period of time.”
Mr Keehan said that the mother and the interveners have been shocked by the evidence they have heard over the course of the hearing and he well understands why this is the case.
He concluded the hearing by thanking the mother, her husband and foster carers for the great dignity and composure they had each demonstrated throughout it.
Herefordshire Council’s acting deputy chief executive and head of paid service Claire Ward said she was upset by the judgment and deeply sorry they failed the family.
“We have neglected the needs of the children and their carers and deprived the parents of their rights.
“I am saddened that our actions deprived a mother of her right to say goodbye to her child and my deepest sympathies are with the family on their loss.
“We will provide the family with any required support and care to rebuild relationships and to help repair some of the damage we have done.
“I have taken immediate action to address the serious issues highlighted by this judgement.
“There is a clear need for an urgent and thorough external review of Herefordshire Children’s Social Care Services.
“The attitudes, culture and professional practice demonstrated in this judgment is shocking and well below the standards we expect.
“Appropriate action will be taken on the conclusion of our investigations, in accordance with the council’s HR procedures, any relevant professional body requirements, and the law.
“It is evident that our previous commitments to improve our social care services for children have fallen sadly short of the standards expected and we have failed to provide the expected and appropriate support to this family. This is indefensible.
“The incoming chief executive, Paul Walker, has been working closely with the senior management team to ensure we make real and sustainable changes to our Children’s Social Care services.
“We have appointed Cath Knowles as interim director of children’s services, who is a qualified and registered social worker, to provide professional experience, leadership and assurance for the coming months.
“Our social workers continue to do their best, often in very difficult circumstances, to support families and protect vulnerable children in our community.
“We will ensure our staff have the support they need and the confidence and commitment to report any concerns as we make significant and lasting improvements to Herefordshire Children’s Services.
“We have notified Ofsted and we are working closely with regulators and partner agencies to ensure we protect and safeguard the children of Herefordshire.
“We have added further reassurance measures within Children’s Services to ensure appropriate checks are undertaken for decisions relating to children in our care.
“The judgment also identified incorrect legal advice being given to management.
“This advice was plainly wrong and there have been significant changes made to the management and staff within the Children’s Legal Team to ensure processes are observed and advice is sound.
“I requested a Department for Education review of our Children’s Social Care services to assess whether children in care are safe in Herefordshire.
“This review took place last week and found no immediate actions were required on the cases they reviewed but clearly further external reviews will be required to make sure our service is fit for purpose.
“While we seek to understand the full extent of past decisions made within Children’s Services, we regret that we may find further instances that do not meet the required standards.”
If you have any concerns about the way you or your family have been treated by Herefordshire Children’s Social Care services, you can contact us at www.herefordshire.gov.uk/careconcerns or email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are a child or young person and need someone to talk to Childline is free, private and confidential. Call 0800 1111 or visit Childline.org.uk
The Samaritans are also available any time of the day or night – call 116 123 or visit Samaritans.org
Words: Carmelo Garcia, Local Democracy Reporter
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