This Week’s Child Welfare Complaints Decisions

The latest complaints about the way councils treat children are in, with the focus this week being on children with special needs. There has also been a marked drop in the number of complaints about family law cases.

The news published on this site last week that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman was unable to investigate complaints relating to evidence and conduct brought to light in court hearings is unlikely to have affected the number of complaints in this area, though only three such cases are listed this week.

Most of the cases in the latest newsletter highlight councils withdrawing support services for children with special needs. The Ombudsman does hold several councils liable for removing these services and tells those councils at fault to reinstate support, though it’s clear from these cases that councils are cutting back and trying to save costs.

You can read the decisions here. 

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Question It

Welcome to another week.

Former President of the Family Division, James Munby has urged the government to ask the public if it would like to be able to Skype judges during hearings rather than attend a physical court.

The question comes as the country faces mass court closures, with many already unable to attend available court houses without having to travel vast distances. Munby highlighted this issue by giving an example of  a mother living in a rural area, who does not own a car, having to get to the court.

Our question this week then, is just this: do you think being able to virtually attend court hearings using Skype is a good idea?

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Home Office Using Children As Spies

An obscure arm of the Home Office which uses children to spy for the government has come to light, after a report by a House of Lords Committee was published this month.

The report, produced by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, examines the Home Office’s request to extend the period of time it can use of a person under 18 years of age as a spy, or covert human intelligence source (CHIS) as they are known.

A desire to gather information about suspected terrorists within specific communities may be at the heart of the proposal. Activity around alleged county lines drug gangs could also be motivating the Home Office’s demand.

The committee was deeply concerned by the request, viewing the demand to be more about accommodating the Home Office – which has to place an application to renew authorisation every month in order to keep the child spy on a particular operation – than the welfare of the children involved.

The Home Office defended its proposal, saying that child spies felt pressure to complete their tasks within the month and so the extension would offer relief.

The Lords though, were not convinced by the reasons offered, and had this to say:

“We were concerned, from the material presented in the original Explanatory Memorandum, that the change is founded on the premise of administrative convenience. The associated Code of Practice is very vague on how the welfare obligations indicated are to be fulfilled. We were unclear whether the risks to the CHIS would be different over the extended period and how the welfare of the young person in this situation would be protected. We asked the Home Office for a more detailed explanation. The correspondence, published in an appendix to our Report, is helpful but does not fully satisfy our concerns about the extent to which juveniles are being used for covert surveillance nor whether their welfare is sufficiently taken into account in practice.”

The Lords also observed something interesting about the original request:

“While the Government state that the rationale for the change is that the one month authorisation for juvenile CHIS increases pressure on the CHIS and their handlers to get results swiftly in order to justify the renewal of the authorisation, the predominant tone in the EM originally presented was about the administrative convenience of the authorities concerned.”

In conclusion, the Lords took the view that the request raised some serious questions about how an extension might affect the children’s mental and physical wellbeing, the lack of clarity over safeguards for these children should an extension be allowed, and any attempts to weigh up the benefits of these operations against the negative effects on these children.

The practice of using child spies has been widely condemned. Tory former cabinet minister, David Davis, called the recruitment of child spies “morally repugnant”, and Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at Liberty, said: “This practice is deeply troubling. Vulnerable children are just that – they should be protected, not co-opted by the government into potentially dangerous activities.”

The revelation has also ramped up anxiety levels within minority communities, who, in the wake of rising terrorism, feel targeted and under attack by the government.

Massoud Shadjareh, who is the chair of the Islamic Human Rights Council, compared the practice to the government’s Prevent strategy, calling it “a community-wide spying programme that sees mothers spying on their own children.”

He goes on to say:

“While it is shocking to even consider the abuse of children in this manner, it is not far removed from the spirit of Prevent and the ever-increasing criminalisation of innocent communities in the name of security”.

For those who would like an in-depth analysis of this development, there is an excellent piece over at Just Security, written by barristers Shaheed Fatima Q.C. and Hanif Mussa, which offers a detailed and very well informed view.

Researching Reform is disgusted by the practice, though not surprised.

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Interesting Things

As social care, mental health and family justice continue to dominate the news, we thought we would add some interesting reports and announcements making the rounds this week:

Government Response to the First Joint Report of the Education and Health and Social Care Committees of Session 2017-19 on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision

Published today, this Green Paper  looks at vulnerable children, mental health and the education workforce. The government’s response to the Committee’s report is scathing:

“We welcome the publication of the Government’s Green Paper. However, we
consider that it lacks any ambition and fails to consider how to prevent child and
adolescent mental ill health in the first place. The narrow scope does not take
several vulnerable groups into account, the proposals put more pressure on the
teaching workforce without sufficient resources, and the timetable for
implementation ignores hundreds of thousands of children over the next twelve
years. We are also concerned that the funding for the Green Paper’s proposals is
not guaranteed and contingent on an unspecified level of success. 

The long timeframes involved in implementing the Green Paper’s proposals will
leave hundreds of thousands of children and young people unable to benefit from
this strategy over the next few years. Rolling out the plans to only “a fifth to a
quarter of the country by 2022/23” is not ambitious enough. We advocate more
widespread implementation and iterative learning methods to inform best practice
across the piece. 

The Green Paper notes that the precise rollout of its proposals will be determined
by the success of the trailblazers, and securing funding after 2020/21 (the end of
the Government’s current spending period). The long-term success of the Green
Paper will rely on adequate funding being made available beyond 2020/21. We
recognise the limited time frame for the Green Paper’s proposals to be
implemented with the currently allocation of funding, and have concerns that
attempts to secure longer term funding could result in pressure for short-term
delivery, before 2020/21. We caution the Government against attempting to ensure
short-term, rather than long-term success of the Green Paper, by choosing only
high performing areas for the trailblazers.”

The Committee’s reply to this view was, as you might imagine, quite strong. (You can read it on  page 7 of the report).

Court Closures

The government announced several court closures this week. Along with the job losses involved, the closures may have a knock on effect for people living in these areas who will now need to travel further to make their hearings, which will be more costly to the parties involved.

The courts closing are:

 

Report on Transforming courts and tribunals

The government was less than impressed with HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s efforts at implementing its £1.2billion reformation programme, which has barely moved an inch since its launch.

In its report, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that it had little confidence in the service’s ability to deliver:

“We have little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme to bring the court system into the modern age..

HMCTS has failed to articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like, which limits stakeholders’ ability to plan for, and influence the changes..

Despite the revised timescale, HMCTS’s imperative to deliver at such a fast pace risks not allowing time for meaningful consultation or evaluation and could lead to unintended consequences…

HMCTS has not adequately considered how the reforms will impact access to, and the fairness of, the justice system for the people using it, many of whom are vulnerable…

One third of the way through the programme, the Ministry of Justice still does not understand the financial implications of its planned changes on the wider justice system…

We remain concerned that the Ministry of Justice is taking on significant amount of change, without a clear sense of its priorities, at a time when it is facing severe financial and demand pressures…”

It’s all going swimmingly well then.

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Question It!

Welcome to another week.

A Private Members Bill going through the House of Lords asks the government to review divorce law in England and Wales. The draft Bill also calls for the implementation of no fault divorce, which would allow spouses to set aside their marriages without having to show any proof of wrongdoing or misconduct.

Currently in the UK, married couples need to select one of five reasons to apply for a divorce. In practice, family lawyers have been producing anodyne petitions for years in order to bypass an often convoluted and high conflict fault based system. Anodyne petitions are diplomatic statements filed with the court, which while still citing one of the five grounds for divorce, avoid using inflammatory language or the addition of laboured descriptions of wrongdoing.

The Bill has been produced by former President of the Family Division Baroness Butler-Sloss, who is perhaps better known for her short stint as Chair of the nation’s child abuse inquiry. Butler-Sloss left the position after it emerged that she had close ties with the establishment. The Baroness was also accused of covering up child sexual abuse committed by Bishop Peter Ball.

Private Members Bills very rarely make it to the finish line. As a former President of the Family Division, Butler-Sloss’s proposals carry more weight than most, which may help push the Bill along a little, however it faces strong opposition from government , which has repeatedly set aside calls for no fault divorce. The current Conservative government, deeply invested as it is in marriage, is unlikely to bow to renewed pressure to change the law in this area.

Those in favour of implementing no fault divorce argue that it is the right and progressive thing to do, reduces conflict, and that the system is already behaving as if no fault divorce exists through the ever increasing use of the anodyne petition, anyway.

Those against no fault divorce view the concept as a direct attack on marriage, that it risks increasing the divorce rate if people believe it is easier to separate, and could lead to a rise in family breakdown.

Our question this week then, is just this: do you think England and Wales should implement no fault divorce?

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Government Ombudsman Cannot Investigate Matters Raised In Family Courts.

Children and education complaint decisions by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) have revealed that the law prevents the independent body from investigating matters which have been raised inside the family courts.

Child protection reports, family assessments for court proceedings and adoption orders are just some examples of documents which the Ombudsman is unable to review as a result of the legislation. 

This exemption appears to be little known, as the LGSCO’s weekly publication offering details about the decisions it has made, shows an ongoing spate of cases requesting that the reviewing body intervene in alleged family law malpractice and misconduct.

The LGSCO’s most recent update features a significant number of cases where parents have asked it to look into social worker misconduct, report production, faults within the adoption order process and duty of care breaches towards children going through the courts.

There is also a complaint about Section 20 agreements, which is topical, after the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that councils must provide parents with full information about their rights, and the process regarding Section 20 arrangements. 

The complaint involves a mother and her child. The child was placed in a care home after the mother signed a Section 20 agreement. The mother contends that she was not fully informed of her rights under the agreement. The social worker alleged that she had explained those rights under the agreement several times to the mother. Unfortunately, as there is no law requiring these agreements to be written down, there was no way of proving whether or not this was the case. The facts within the complaint are detailed and not as simple as this brief summary suggests, but what is also important is that the mother alleges she was coerced into signing the agreement.

It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why written agreements are a win-win for everyone.

You can access the latest children and education complaint decisions by the LGSCO here.

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Supreme Court Rules Parents Must Be Informed About Their Rights Under Section 20 Agreements

 

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A judgment in the Supreme Court handed down this morning confirms that councils must fully inform parents of their rights in relation to section 20 arrangements. The Court suggested that a failure to do so could amount to a breach under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for private and family life.

S.20 agreements enable local authorities to accommodate children in need, where parents cannot look after their children or where children seek alternative housing, for short periods of time.

The Supreme Court judgment in Williams and another v London Borough of Hackney, overturns current child protection practice which allows social workers to use S.20s to remove children, without giving parents substantive information about the arrangements.

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed that the Children Act 1989 did not contain any clauses requiring councils to get informed consent from parents, however Lady Hale made it clear that this was good practice. We remain of the opinion that whilst the need to obtain consent from parents under such arrangements is not written into the legislation, it is implied, given the nature of these agreements. Nevertheless, this judgment represents an important step in addressing the unlawful detention of children in state care under these arrangements.

Lady Hale went on to say that S.20 arrangements did not give local authorities any compulsory powers and that councils were not able to offer accommodation where there was a parent willing and able to provide, or arrange, accommodation for a child. Furthermore, the court held that S.20 arrangements could never be exercised by a local authority unless a parent voluntarily delegates their parental responsibility to the local authority in question.

Summing up her judgment, Lady Hale explained that parents should always be informed on the basis upon which their children are being looked after, and their rights to object to that care under S.20 arrangements. She also reminded councils that they could only keep a child if they had been given permission by the family courts to do so.

This final point is hugely important given that councils have been routinely detaining children in state care without filing applications with the family court requesting permission to do so, which is illegal.

Researching Reform is encouraged by this judgment, which echoes our previous calls to acknowledge the need to ensure that families are fully informed about their rights under S.20 arrangements.

The Supreme Court Website offers, as always, a very helpful breakdown of the case, including a press summary, which we add below, along with more information about S.20 arrangements for those who would like it:

You can watch Lady Hale explain the facts of the case and her judgment in this video:

 

 

Important Child Welfare Cases To Watch

Three cases have surfaced which test the boundaries of councils’ and other government bodies’ duties of care around vulnerable children.

On our Watch List are the following:

CN & Anor v Poole Borough Council

This case involves two men who were children at the time, and who along with their mother, were placed in accommodation near a family with a history of  anti social behaviour. The mother and her sons, one of whom was severely disabled, were targeted, and suffered deep distress from the harassment they experienced, with one child trying to commit suicide as a result. The family had tried to get help from the local authority, police and housing association, without success. They were relocated some time later.

The case has now made it to the Supreme Court, and looks at whether the local authority has a duty to protect children from harm by third parties whilst under the council’s control. The appeal will take place over a day and a half with the hearings set to end today. Lady Hale, Lord Reed, Lord Wilson, Lord Hodge and Lady Black are reviewing the case. Aswini Weereratne QC, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Nicholas Brown are acting on behalf of Article 39 & the Care Leavers’ Association.

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Rotherham Survivors

Individuals who were abused as children in Rotherham are awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court on whether they can bring a case to hold local authorities accountable in negligence for exploitation at the hands of grooming gangs and paedophiles. The action is being led by Sammy Woodhouse, who is herself a survivor of child sexual abuse in Rotherham.

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Forced Adoptions

A high profile case in Dublin, Ireland looking at the legality of forced adoptions, has resulted in a settlement after a mother challenged the state and the religious organisation responsible for removing her son from her care, 57 years ago.

The media in Ireland had previously revealed a host of illegal registrations, as well as evidence of tampering with birth records, including name changes, cash payments and other ‘irregularities’.

The case is likely to offer hope to forced adoption campaigners, who would like to see the practice of non consensual adoption come to an end in the UK.

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