In a case which represents an important development in highlighting unethical practice inside the child welfare sector, a High Court judge has ruled that a council and its social workers as well as the legal team advising, purposefully blocked a mother from challenging an adoption order.

The council did this by failing to tell the mother about the timing of the placement plan and the process she would need to go through in order to apply for the order to be revoked.

Community Care tells us Judge Charles said, “fairness (and in my view, common sense and straightforwardness) meant the council should have explained to the mother that unless she issued an application by a certain date, it would proceed with placing the girl… I suggest that not only is a race between an under-informed parent and the adoption agency likely to be unfair, it is also likely to create significant risks to the achievement of a result that best promotes the welfare of the child and the timely completion of a plan for adoption.

The judge then quashed the placement decision.

Speaking directly to the ethical concerns, Judge Charles also said the case raised issues which needed to be considered by officials drawing up guidance in this area.

The argument that took place in court was over whether the council had a duty to tell the mother the date on which her child would be placed or how she could challenge the placement. The judge then drew the council’s attention to the statutory guidelines on adoption:

“If, before the child is placed, an application is made for the revocation of a placement order, the local authority cannot place the child without the leave of the court.. It is not however appropriate for a local authority to proceed with the placement when it is aware of the application for leave, and an attempt to do so in order to frustrate the birth parents’ application could be challenged in court by an application for judicial review.”

Judge Charles went on to suggest that the guidance should be clearer so that family professionals understood that being “aware” of an application not only covers a position where an application has been made with the court, but also where a council knows an application is being considered.

The mother now has permission to make her application to the court, and the legal status of the child’s prospective adoptive parents has been scaled back to ‘foster carers’. The mother will also be able to claim damages under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights – the right to a fair trial.

This kind of ‘race to adoption’ where parents are intentionally left in the dark is something we see often when assisting families, so we hope this new judgment will have a positive impact moving forward.

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