A four-year-old girl from Brighton must stay with her adoptive parents, the most senior family court judge in the country has ruled.
Her father is raising her three siblings but Brighton and Hove City Council put his youngest child – referred to as “W” for legal reasons – up for adoption. The children’s mother had mental health problems and was unable to care for them.
A High Court judge, Alison Russell, ruled that the girl should be returned to her “devoted” father almost two years ago.
Ms Justice Russell criticised the council, four social workers and the girl’s legal guardian in what was described in court as a “tragic” case.
But the adoptive parents – referred to as “Mr and Mrs A” – appealed and Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, supported their case.
He described the girl’s father as “exceptional” and said: “The father comes over as an impressive individual and a highly capable and emotionally attuned parent. He is intelligent, articulate and insightful.
“He has proved to be resilient, resourceful and adaptable. He has risen to the challenge, parenting his children while facing a significant number of obstacles, not least the loss of W, the end of his relationship with the mother of his children, the highly negative attitude of the local authority and the near continuous proceedings since the end of 2012 – all matters of which he spoke movingly.
“He has exceeded the expectations of the professionals.”
Sir James echoed earlier criticisms of the council and its social workers who, among other things, inexcusably hounded the girl’s father from his job. He also criticised two of his fellow judges for their handling of earlier hearings in the protracted case.
The judge removed the girl’s legal guardian, Richard Madge, from the case, describing his position as untenable.
But he said that legal proceedings had gone on for so long that the girl was settled with her adoptive parents who were also praised.
Sir James said: “There are ‘considerably’ more risks and uncertainties in moving W from Mr and Mrs A than in leaving her where she is.
“There was a clear consensus among all the experts that, if W is to remain with Mr and Mrs A, it is in her best interests that there should be increased contact leading to direct contact with her birth family as soon as is practical.
“There was general agreement that W’s long-term psychological wellbeing – her ability to understand her status as an adopted person and to put her particular ‘narrative’ in context – would be best safeguarded if contact with her birth family took place sooner rather than later.”
Sir James also said: “This is a very complex and worrying case. It is, I think, by some margin the most difficult and concerning case of its type I have ever been involved in.
“This litigation has been proceeding for an unusually long time. To say that it has proceeded in an unsatisfactory manner would be understatement on a grand scale.
“The simple fact, which demands explicit acknowledgment, is that the system has failed W, her siblings, her father and mother and Mr and Mrs A, on a scale which although, happily, unique in my experience – no comfort, of course, to those involved – must be profoundly concerning to anyone and everyone involved in the family justice system.
“The delay for W has been deplorable. And the terrible reality, and there can be no shrinking from this, is that this delay – I am referring here to the delay down to the hearing before me, not to the very regrettable further delay, for which I apologise, since I reserved judgment – has, in the event, been determinative of the outcome; an outcome which might perhaps (I emphasis, might) have been different had the case been resolved sooner.
“The case is complex. The history is both complex and disturbing.”
The judge criticised Brighton and Hove City Council’s conduct and the way that social workers behaved, highlighting “the local authority’s cavalier approach to the facts”.
They had infected earlier – crucial – hearings with false evidence polluted by insinuation and he said: “How a careful and conscientious local authority could have acted in this way is beyond me.”
The judge added: “There is one other aspect of this to which I must draw attention. In February 2015 the local authority made certain disclosures to the father’s employer.
“The disclosure was inaccurate and misleading. It led to him losing his job.
“The local authority’s failure to comply with the law was shocking.
“What happened was the all too foreseeable, indeed probably the little short of inevitable, consequence of the local authority’s actions.
“And, as the local authority well knew, this was a father who was bringing up three children.”
In a previous hearing Ms Justice Russell had criticised social workers for making unsubstantiated allegations about the girl’s father and for spouting psychobabble.
The council has previously apologised for its conduct, promised to learn lessons and said it always tried to work in the best interests of the child.