Family judges should not accept assessments from social workers on the impact of adoption in cases where children have experienced complex trauma, the Court of Appeal has confirmed.

The ruling stems from a tragic case in which a fire destroyed the family home, killing all but one child and his parents.

The family had been known to social services prior to the fire for alleged child neglect. The children had been placed on the Child Protection Register for suspected neglect, poor home conditions, inadequate supervision and an incident between the parents in 2017.

After the fire – the cause of which has not yet been determined – the local authority started care proceedings for the parents’ remaining child.

The boy was placed into foster care, but the carers, who had spent several months with the child developing a relationship with him, then decided they could not look after the boy long term. To the appeal judge’s credit, he mentions how this might impact the boy, at the end of the judgment.

The mother had been assessed, and was found to have mild to moderate learning difficulties, which the court said had become worse from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder she suffered after the fire.

It is not clear from the judgment who assessed the mother’s cognitive abilities, diagnosed her with PTSD and came to the conclusion that her cognitive functions were significantly impaired by the stress she felt. It is also not clear from the judgment how those impairments impacted the mother’s ability to look after her son.

The mother was then given an Official Solicitor to act on her behalf.

At the pre-trial review in January, the Official Solicitor for the mother applied  for a child psychiatric assessment to be produced, to report on the impact of a placement for adoption on the boy. The application was supported by the father, but not the local authority or the child’s guardian.

The paternal grandparents, who initially felt unable to look after the boy, came forward and said they would like to be put forward as long term carers for their grandson. The local authority agreed to undertake a viability assessment of the grandparents to see if they were suitable carers for their grandson.

The judge went on to refuse the request to have a child psychiatric assessment on the grounds that assessments provided by the social worker and the child’s guardian were adequate in determining, “the role of his birth parents in his care moving forwards and in particular whether A [the boy], given his loss and trauma would be able to attach positively to prospective adopters; whether given the trauma he has suffered, which may be triggered at different points in the future, there is an increased risk of adoption breakdown, with the detrimental impact that would have on A, and whether the importance for A of preserving his birth parent relationships is magnified or enhanced in this case given the experience he already has of the significant loss of his siblings.”

The judge also took the view that an expert opinion on the effect of the boy of this “double loss”, was “highly speculative” or “academic”.

The mother decided to put in an appeal.

On appeal, Lord Justice Baker confirmed that while the judge in the lower court had set out the correct tests and case law for the hearing, she had come to the wrong conclusions in her reasoning.

Lord Justice Baker explained that in cases like these, where complex trauma was clearly present, a child psychiatrist was the only expert able to offer informed opinion and that the judge had been wrong to call such an opinion, speculative or academic.

He also says this, which is worth reproducing in full, for its awareness around the impact of foster care and adoption:

“There are three, possibly four, options for A’s future placement. Rehabilitation to the parents has not been completely ruled out, although it is seemingly unlikely. The realistic options appear to be placement with the paternal grandparents, a move to a long term fostering placement, or placement for adoption. A’s tragic experiences are almost certain to have a profound effect on him as he grows up and throughout his adult life.

I accept Mr Rowley’s analysis that this is likely to include the impact or effect of direct trauma having experienced the fire, the indirect trauma of witnessing the aftermath, the impact of the loss of his siblings, the possible impact of realising that his parents were to a greater or lesser extent responsible for the fire and therefore for the death of his siblings, and very possibly survivor’s guilt.

All these strands of loss and trauma are likely to have a significant psychological impact on A for the rest of his life. They will influence all the attachments he forms with carers and with others and will impinge on the consequences of every break of those attachments, for example, when he leaves his current carers, or, if adopted, he ceases to have direct contact with members of his birth family.

All these matters are plainly relevant to the court’s decision about future placement. In this difficult case, the court needs to have the best possible expert evidence of the likely effect of this complex web of trauma on his future placement.

The social worker and guardian are plainly well-qualified and highly-trained professionals, but their expertise manifestly does not extend to expressing a professional opinion as to the impact of loss and trauma of this degree and complexity. In my judgement, only an experienced child psychiatrist can advise on such matters.”

Lord Justice Baker and Lord Justice Popplewell allowed the mother’s appeal, and the instruction of the requested expert.

You can read the judgment in full here.

Family Law Cases RR