A two-year-old girl from Brighton and Hove is to be reunited with her birth family in an adoption case described in court as “tragic”.
The toddler will now live with her father and her sister and two brothers and have contact with her mother who suffers from mental illness.
The girl – referred to as W – was taken into care when she was just four weeks old and had been placed with adoptive parents just over a year later.
Final adoption orders were due to be made but they were set aside by the Court of Appeal in May after objections made by the girl’s father. The way that the case had been handled had given rise to concerns for the welfare of the girl.
A High Court judge, Alison Russell, said: “The local authority has an obligation, in law, to bring about reunification and to provide the help, support, advice and assistance necessary.”
Ms Justice Russell criticised Brighton and Hove City Council, four social workers – Gail Alsop, Beverley Hendry, Gail Miller and Lucy Wilkinson – and the child’s legal guardian Richard Madge.
She praised the “devoted” father of four who had provided “very good care” for his children and shown no “rancour or resentment”.
The “cavalier” actions of one of the social workers had cost the father his job as a school teaching assistant – a loss that he had “borne … with great dignity”.
The judge said: “I remain concerned however about the commitment, attitude and approach of the local authority in this case.
“The manner in which Ms Alsop dealt with the father’s employment was cavalier and undermining of the father at best.
“It is illustrative of the seemingly belligerent behaviour and oppositional stance adopted by this local authority toward the father and by extension his children.
“I am yet to be convinced that they would approach any reunification openly and offer the family the positive support that it needs and is entitled to.
“Therefore I am pleased that the local authority have indicated that they will fund an independent social worker to oversee the transition and its aftermath during which time it is to hoped that positive professional and mutually trusting relationships can be built.”
The judge referred to “unconvincing” evidence from one social worker at an earlier hearing.
She said: “Despite advocating the immediate removal of the three older children based on a decision reached at an unrecorded meeting in May 2013 between social worker, managers and solicitors, Ms Hendry had not assessed the effect on each child of such a removal and was unable to address it in her evidence.”
She said: “The parenting assessment carried out by Ms Hendry in October 2012, as I alluded to above, formed the basis of the local authority’s case and continued to inform it even after her oral evidence had not been accepted by the court.
“The evidence of the social workers now allocated to this case continued to focus on their perception of the father’s inability to change or accept the need for change (although the circuit judge had given him permission to oppose the adoption of W precisely because he had changed his circumstances).
“Despite the fact that there were no findings of physical abuse these allegations continued to be repeated by the local authority.
“And, I repeat, their concentration on ‘the need for the father to change’ remained a constant part of the local authority’s case and the basis for their opposition to his attempts to have W returned to his care.
“In September 2013 the court found that the father provided ‘very good care’.”
He had grown up with a violent father but had undergone counselling for over a year, paid for out of his own pocket.
Ms Justice Russell said: “In the light of the local authority’s stance in the Court of Appeal it was most regrettable that before me they continued to place emphasis in their approach to this case on the need for the father to accept their view that his own experiences as a child made him unable to accept help and advice as exemplified by the evidence of the current social worker Lucy Wilkinson.
“Their view of the father seemed to remain unaltered despite the fact that he had remained separated from the mother, had been to counselling and was successfully parenting three children on his own.”
She also said: “I heard the oral evidence of Lucy Wilkinson the current social worker. She had not filed a statement but her practice manager Ms Alsop had done so which was largely based on Ms Wilkinson’s interaction with the family.
“The statement of Ms Alsop, in addition to containing evidence which could only be attested to by Ms Wilkinson repeated outdated evidence (of Gail Miller) and what can only be described as psychobabble about the effect on the father’s parenting of his own childhood experiences.
“In short it voiced opinions which neither Ms Wilkinson nor Ms Alsop are qualified to make.
“To describe the social workers’ written and oral evidence as merely grudging when it comes to the care and security the father has given his children is too generous.
“Ms Wilkinson was certainly both grudging and defensive when giving oral evidence.
“Their unprofessional attempts at case building are reprehensible.
“There is no evidence that they have moved on from the social work assessment carried out in October 2012 by the then social worker Ms Hendry who was criticised by the district judge.
“Moreover it would seem that the actions of Ms Alsop led directly to the father losing his job.”
She said: “The local authority tried to excuse the misleading, damaging and inaccurate referral as a consequence of difficulties presented by the CareFirst IT system.”
She also said: “The father has borne the loss of his employment with great dignity.
“The local authority is obliged at the very least to take positive steps to ensure that the information held by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS records) in respect of the father is now accurate and that this error is not compounded by further loss or inconvenience to the father in future.
“In the light of their unprofessional behaviour and their negative view of him both as a father and as an individual as expressed in their evidence there can be little wonder if the father finds it hard to trust the local authority and to work with them from time to time.
“It is largely their responsibility to repair their working relationship with him.
“The father’s measured response to the local authority gives me reason to believe that he will play his part not least as he fully understands the need to do so for the sake of all his children.”
Ms Justice Russell also criticised the children’s guardian Richard Madge. She said: “The lack of any real child-centred analysis within these proceedings is inexcusable.
“Mr Madge explicitly criticised the father for pursuing multiple applications and appeals, which he described as at sixes and sevens with each other and blamed him for causing significant delay for W.
“He clearly accepted the local authority’s view of the children’s father describing the father as a thoughtful man whose reflection of W’s situation was ‘systemically closed’.
“I do not know to what he referred as it is a jargonistic phrase empty of meaning, unaccompanied by an explanation.
“The import of his last report was to swing behind the expert opinion but he was rancorous about it and I found his analysis lacking both depth and balance, bereft of objectivity and of little or no assistance.
“Richard Madge had been the guardian for all four children in the public law proceedings.
“Yet he failed to put forward the case for W’s siblings who all want her to come home.
“He did not visit W’s mother or seek her views during the course of these proceedings and – having visited W’s siblings in December 2014 – did not visit them again or ask for their views in advance of the hearing in May 2015.
“This guardian has been involved in the proceedings from their outset in December 2012.
“I accept the submissions of counsel for the father and for the mother that it was immediately apparent from his evidence that the guardian has failed to understand the requirement for a holistic analysis of the evidence or to engage with the possibility of W returning to her family in an appropriately open-minded manner.
“In opposing the father’s application to bring his appeal against the care and placement order … the guardian and W’s legal representatives set to prioritise a resolution in favour of adoption over any investigation of reunification and the rectification of an obvious injustice that W had suffered.
“The views of her siblings were not put before the court by the guardian at the final hearing. They should have been.”
The judge praised the expert evidence of clinical psychologist Hessel Willemsen who had been preoccupied by the powerful dilemmas raised during the case.
Having praised the care provided by the little girl’s adoptive parents, Dr Willemsen said: “The word that comes to mind is tragedy. There is something really tragic about what’s happened and some people are going to feel very hurt.”
The judge said that she had to put the welfare of the girl above the adoptive parents’ feelings.
She and Dr Willemsen agreed with the father’s barrister, Janet Bazley, that placing the girl with her adopters would be “fundamentally flawed and a miscarriage of justice”.