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England and Wales Family Court Decisions (other Judges)
You are here: BAILII >> Databases >> England and Wales Family Court Decisions (other Judges) >> A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) (Rev 1)  EWFC B94 (18 December 2017)
Cite as:  EWFC B94
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B e f o r e :
| A Local Authority
|- and -
A, K and T
(by their Children's Guardian CG)
Emma Harman (instructed by Jacobs Reeves) for the 1st Respondent
Omar Malik (instructed by Aldridge Brownlee) for the 2nd Respondent
Dylan Morgan (instructed by Dutton Gregory) for the 3rd Respondents
Hearing dates: 13-15, 20-24 and 27-29 November 2017
Crown Copyright ©
His Honour Judge Dancey:
i) the father's maternal aunt and her husband and A's paternal uncle and his wife in respect of the care of A;
ii) the paternal cousin of K and T in respect of their care;
i) The first and most important thing to say is that these parents love their children very much indeed.
ii) Secondly, the mother in particular has done everything she possibly could to care for the children. I would like to quote from the evidence of the current social worker, JT, when she told me at the start of her evidence about the mother:
"She is a very lovely lady who loves her children very, very much indeed and wants the very best for them and does her very best for them. She has a very active love - not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. She tries her best to make sure they have the care she can offer. She wants the best for them, even at the sacrifice of what she would like."
I agree with every word of that.
iii) Thirdly, the parents have throughout been willing to work with the local authority and want to take advice, even if the father in particular has not always been prepared to accept all their concerns.
iv) Fourth, the parents have acted throughout this case, and during what must for them have seemed like an endless final hearing, with the utmost dignity and bearing. Mr Howard told me that they have spoken courteously and in a friendly way to the professionals during breaks in the hearing. They have attended every day, always on time. They have engaged in the hearing in the most constructive way. I have immense respect for the way they have behaved in enormously trying circumstances.
i) statements by previous social worker LA, Mrs N, PD (safeguarding lead and deputy head at A's school), JD (K and T's foster carer) and BJ (contact supervisor);
ii) reports by JL of the Adult Learning Disability Team (ALDT) who advised FAST and social workers
iii) reported information from AL, the mother's adult social worker;
iv) psychological reports about the mother by Dr K, Psychologist, dated 8 November 2016 and about the father by Dr N dated I June 2017;
v) sections of the parents' medical records to which I have been referred, dealing in particular with their mental health and diagnosis of the mother's learning disability;
vi) contact notes;
vii) FAST visit records;
viii) the special guardianship assessment of Mr and Mrs N (relevant to the question of the care of A).
Legal principles and relevant Guidance
"..society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, whilst others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done."
"The assessment of credibility generally involves wider problems than mere "demeanour" which is mostly concerned with whether the witness appears to be telling the truth as he now believes it to be. With every day that passes the memory becomes fainter and the imagination becomes more active. The human capacity for honestly believing something which bears no relation to what actually happened is unlimited. Therefore, contemporary documents are always of the utmost importance."
"the test for severing the relationship between parent and child is very strict: only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child's welfare, in short, where nothing else will do."
"family ties may only be severed in very exceptional circumstances and that everything must be done to preserve personal relations and, where appropriate, to 'rebuild' the family. It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing. However, where the maintenance of family ties would harm the child's health and development, a parent is not entitled under article 8 to insist that such ties be maintained."
"The only 'right' is for the arrangements for the child to be determined by affording paramount consideration to her welfare throughout her life (in an adoption case) in a manner which is proportionate and compatible with the need to respect any ECHR Art 8 rights which are engaged."
"… the phrase "nothing else will do" … does not establish a presumption or right in favour of the natural family; what it does do, most importantly, is to require the welfare balance for the child to be undertaken, after considering the pros and cons of each of the realistic options, in such a manner that adoption is only chosen as the route for the child if that outcome is necessary to meet the child's welfare needs and it is proportionate to those welfare needs."
i) Re S (A Child)  EWCC B44 (Fam) where Munby P said about assessment of the ability of parents to make changes within a child's timescale
"These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that 'something may turn up'. Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child's timescale?"
Although said in the context of assessment Mr Howard submits this is of wider application.
ii) Re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach)  EWCA Civ 1625: where it was made clear by Munby P:
"Where adoption is in the child's best interests, local authorities must not shy away from seeking, nor courts from making, care orders with a plan for adoption, placement orders and adoption orders. The fact is that there are occasions when nothing but adoption will do, and it is essential in such cases that a child's welfare should not be compromised by keeping them within their family at all costs."
Parents with learning disability/Parenting with support
i) Parents with learning difficulties can often be 'good enough' parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need.
ii) The concept of 'parenting with support' must underpin the way in which courts and professionals approach parents with learning difficulties.
iii) Courts must make sure that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against parents without such difficulties. To that end parents with learning disability should not be measured against parents without disability and the court should be alive to the risk of direct and indirect discrimination.
iv) Multi-agency working is critical if parents are to be supported effectively and the court has a duty to make sure that has been done effectively.
v) The court should not focus so narrowly on the child's welfare that the needs of the parent arising from their disability, and impacting on their parenting capacity, are ignored.
vi) Courts should be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of the parents to change is not itself an artefact of professionals' ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in an appropriate way.
Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (updated September 2016) DoH/DfES
i) Services need to help enable children live with their parents (as long as this is consistent with their welfare) by providing the support they and their families require. This accords with the general duty of local authorities under section 17(1) of the 1989 Act to provide a range and level of services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need and their upbringing by their families (insofar as it is consistent with their welfare).
ii) Good practice is also underpinned by an approach to parenting and learning disability which addresses needs relating to both impairment and the disabling barriers of unequal access and negative attitudes. Such an approach recognises that:
... If the problem is seen as entirely related to impairment and personal limitations, it is difficult to understand how to bring about positive changes for parents and their children.
... If the focus is, instead, on things that can be changed (such as inadequate housing) and support needs that can be met (such as equipment to help a parent measure baby feeds), there are many more possibilities for bringing about positive improvements. [p4]
iii) There are five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities: [pii]
• accessible information and communication
• clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures and processes, eligibility criteria and care pathways
• support designed to meet the needs of parents and children based on assessments of their needs and strengths
• long-term support where necessary
• access to independent advocacy
iv) Adult and children's services, and health and social care, should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children. [1.2.1, p8].
v) It is important that services understand who is to take the lead on assessments:
• where there are no welfare concerns but adults need assistance with routine tasks of looking after children, adult learning disability services should take the lead on assessment and care planning
• where parents need support in the medium to long term adult learning disability and children's services jointly co-ordinate assessment and care planning
• where intervention is required to prevent children suffering impairment to their health or development or significant harm, children's services lead assessment and planning with specialised input from adult learning disability services (1.2.5 p12).
vi) Services in contact with parents with learning disabilities should use appropriate assessment materials and resources and/or access specialist expertise. Failing to do so will result in the parent receiving an unfair and therefore invalid assessment, in breach of their legal rights. [1.2.6, p13].
vii) Where a parent has a learning disability it will be important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning disability does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills. [p13].
viii) In the case of parent support services, an assessment of a parent's learning needs and circumstances should inform the support provided to develop parenting skills. Research indicates that – for parents with learning disabilities – the key elements of successful parenting skills support are:
... clear communication, and ensuring parents have understood what they are told
... use of role-play, modelling, and videoing parent and professional undertaking a task together, for discussion, comparison and reflection
... step by step pictures showing how to undertake a task
... repeating topics regularly and offering opportunities for frequent practice
... providing/developing personalised "props": for example, finding a container which will hold the right amount of milk for the child so that the parent does not have to measure out the milk. [p16]
ix) A range of services is required. All families are different and at different stages of their life cycle families require different types of support. [1.3.3, p16]
x) A need for long-term support does not mean that parents cannot look after their children. [1.4.1, p20]
xi) Although a parent with learning disabilities can learn how to do things, their cognitive impairment will not go away. Just as someone with a physical impairment may need personal assistance for the rest of their life so a person with learning disabilities may need assistance with daily living, particularly as new situations arise. Secondly, children and their needs change. A parent may have learned to look after a baby and young child and be coping well. However, as the child enters adolescence other support needs may arise. [p21]
xii) Where a need for long-term support with parenting tasks is identified, it should form part of the community care and/or child in need plan. [1.4.2, p21]
xiii) Advocacy and self-advocacy should be made available to help parents access and engage with services. The Care Act 2014 imposes a duty on local authorities to provide an independent advocate where an individual would otherwise have substantial difficulties in being involved in processes such as their own assessment and care planning. [p22]
xiv) The Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on local authorities to make reasonable adjustments so as to eliminate discrimination and to advance equality of opportunity; the provision of an independent advocate may assist with this. The Human Rights Act 1998 entitles a parent to participate fully in the process; this includes stages prior to any formal legal proceedings being initiated. [p22]
xv) It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care, which do not, however, meet the threshold of being of significant harm to a child, subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent. A failure to provide support in this type of situation can undermine a parent's rights to a private and family life, and may also contravene an authority's disability equality duty. [p25]
xvi) Families affected by parental learning disability are likely to have an on-going need for support. [p27]
xvii) When children are placed in foster care, parents should receive practical support to maximise their chances of improving their parenting capacity. Without this, parents will have little chance of reunification with children who have been removed from their care. [2.2.12, p29]
xviii) Both children's and adult workers will need specific training in order to respond appropriately to the needs of families affected by parental learning disability. Child protection training strategies should include adult learning disability services. [p38]
xix) It is essential that assessments, training and support are both timely and appropriately tailored to the parent with a learning disability. Failure to build in, from the outset, the extra time that a parent with a learning disability needs in order to learn and understand, puts that parent at a significant disadvantage in child protection proceedings, compared to parents without a learning disability. [piii]
xx) There must also be joint working across all the agencies (in particular adult and children's services) and appropriate and effective communication permitting parents to participate fully in the process. [piii]
"28. … the court's assessment of the parents' ability to discharge their responsibilities towards the child must take into account the assistance and support which the authorities would offer. So "before making an adoption order … the court must be satisfied that there is no practical way of the authorities (or others) providing the requisite assistance and support." In this connection it is worth remembering what Hale LJ had said in Re O (Supervision Order)  EWCA Civ 16, para 28:
"It will be the duty of everyone to ensure that, in those cases where a supervision order is proportionate as a response to the risk presented, a supervision order can be made to work, as indeed the framers of the Children Act 1989 always hoped that it would be made to work. The local authorities must deliver the services that are needed and must secure that other agencies, including the health service, also play their part, and the parents must co-operate fully."
That was said in the context of supervision orders but the point is of wider application.
29. It is the obligation of the local authority to make the order which the court has determined is proportionate work. The local authority cannot press for a more drastic form of order, least of all press for adoption, because it is unable or unwilling to support a less interventionist form of order. Judges must be alert to the point and must be rigorous in exploring and probing local authority thinking in cases where there is any reason to suspect that resource issues may be affecting the local authority's thinking."
Dispensing with consent
Background history leading to the issue of proceedings
i) A's health was not assessed but she presented as physically well;
ii) A presented as a happy and settled little girl who chatted very confidently;
iii) the father was still in the process of adopting A and the family had met with the Adoption Team to start the process;
iv) the mother was unaware that A had been left alone with her friend's partner, thinking she was being cared for by the friend; she said she had spoken to the friend and was confident she would not allow it to happen again;
v) it was noted that the mother had a mild learning disability and hearing impediment which did not negatively impact on her parenting capacity;
vi) there were no concerns for A's welfare - indeed it is noted that A appeared well cared for by her parents;
vii) the parents were happy with their family life;
viii) the mother was expecting (K) and would like to be re-housed.
i) The mother was worried about working in a group - nobody else in the group had a learning difficulty and the mother thought the others would laugh at her.
ii) The IY course is presented at basic level but is not tailored for those with learning difficulty. HP is not trained to work with people with learning disability.
iii) HP was not aware for certain of the mother's difficulties. She knew she had been to a special school, that she was deaf and did not wear hearing aids and founding reading difficult.
iv) However, HP told me that they used a number of different teaching styles, including video clips, discussions and practical role play. The mother did not always do the role play and was not made to if she was not comfortable. HP did not think that the mother stood out as being behind the group and she seemed to understand.
v) HP told me the couple seemed to find it difficult working as a team and would see things differently, despite talking to them about working together.
vi) The mother in evidence told me she found the IY course difficult. She did not understand the video clips. The father said he understood 90% of it.
vii) At a CIN review on 14 September 2016 HP said that the mother had become overwhelmed with the information presented [at IY] and would do some one to one work recapping work with her. She said that the mother was struggling to retain information.
i) A was healthy and active and enjoying school with a positive outlook and view of herself. She presented as having a good attachment with her parents and enjoyed family activities. She was appropriately dressed (although HP raised a concern about her being under dressed for cold weather) and spoke fondly of immediate and wider family. Her parents help her with her homework. She had developed a good relationship with the father who was the father figure in her life.
ii) There were some issues relating to the cramped accommodation at home (it is a small two bedroom flat).
iii) K was meeting developmental milestones and was attending the Children's Centre with the parents. She was developing speech and language and was mobile and walking.
iv) The parents had been struggling with day to day living. They had engaged well with support from professionals around parenting and routines, however they were struggling to implement and maintain any positive changes. The mother was struggling because of her learning difficulties and mental health and the father because of his mental health and competing responsibilities of trying to care for both the children and the mother. They sometimes struggled to work together and frustration sometimes led to arguments. That said they were supportive of one another and were open to support to improve their parenting skills. There were times when the father had to remind the mother what they had learned on the IY course.
v) The parents reported difficulty managing behaviour. K could have tantrums (normal for toddlers) and there were problems with A's attitude and she got into arguments with the mother.
vi) The parents had a couple of friends but were largely socially isolated, the mother because her learning disability made it difficult for her to make friends and the father because his focus was on looking after the mother and the children and he had no time for himself outside the home. It was noted that he was not doing any DJ work because of his commitments in the home.
vii) The mother was noted to have learning difficulties and was receiving DLA and needed support with tasks around the home, reading and writing, managing her emotions, dealing with social anxiety and processing information. She had experienced early childhood abuse and had been referred to Dorset Action on Abuse.
viii) The father had recently been experiencing mental health difficulties with feelings of stress and depression. This impacted on his functioning. He had sought support from his GP but there were still days when he was struggling. He had been signposted to Steps2Wellbeing.
ix) The family had significant financial and housing issues which caused additional stress, impacting on them almost daily.
x) The health visitor (CM) had been visiting fortnightly. She had concerns about the ability of the parents to meet the children's needs consistently. The mother would put the cooker on and forget she had done so. There was shouting in the home and the father had become depressed so that he was not washing or dressing himself. The mother had mood swings. There is warmth shown by the parents towards the children but they struggled to know how to cope when K cried. The mother had been heard to shout at A calling her a 'c**t'.
xi) A's school reported some low level concerns, for example A commenting that she had not had breakfast that morning as she had been helping to feed K. A had been late a couple of times.
xii) The parents said the support they had been getting from the health visitor and Children's Centre was very helpful and were happy to have support from them, Home Start and First Point. They said they were benefitting from IY and hoped that would improve their parenting skills.
xiii) The parents had engaged with support and improvement in the functioning and presentation of the parents and home conditions had been seen. There was concern about how positive changes could be sustained and the need for additional support if they struggled was identified as essential. Home Start was identified to provide such support around the time of birth of T.
xiv) The mother was reliant upon the father for support. It was important if he was not well or able to provide his normal level of support that additional support was provided by others such as the Children's Centre or school.
i) The parents to spend some time together without the children supported by family and friends looking after the children at those times.
ii) The parents doing a specific activity with the children once a month. And the mother to spend time with A.
iii) The parents to de-clutter the flat and decorate helped by family members and friends.
iv) The godparents and aunt to help setting a routine for the children.
v) Various ways to help the mother with her confidence and both parents with their medication and wellbeing, again involving family members.
vi) Friends of family helping the mother, if she was on her own, getting in and out of the flat with the children and to have somebody she could contact.
i) No specific concerns were noted but the parents were clearly at a low point. The mother felt as though she was stuck and needed a push while the father said he was "knackered". He was the main carer for the mother and said he did not know where to start. They were falling out a lot and he was getting frustrated with her as she could not do anything right. They talked about having "screaming matches" and snapping at one another, although the father thought the mother had been shouting at the children less.
ii) Although A said things were going well there were concerns that she may be a young carer, begging the question who was caring for her? The school thought if the parents were ill A may be staying home to look after K and T. A was giving reassurance to her mother.
iii) The resulting CIN plan identified that the parents were in need of support and services to help them meet the needs of each of the children.
iv) K was meeting her developmental milestones and there were no child protection concerns about her. However living conditions needed to improve immediately and needed to be sustained through infrequent prompts rather than frequent practical help. The social worker recognised that the mother may need information delivered in "simplistic and gradual manner" to assist her understanding and increase the chance of her addressing issues; a 'task centred' approach was thought to be more helpful.
v) The father had been to Steps2Wellbeing who recommended CBT but he had missed an appointment. The father agreed to make contact with Steps2Wellbeing or his GP by 23 September 2016.
vi) In terms of support offered:
a) the family were living in over-crowded accommodation but could not be re-housed because of a lack of local connection. Professionals at the CIN would write supporting letters;
b) the professionals would no longer maintain home conditions on behalf of the parents but instead would prompt and encourage, offering guidance rather than practical help;
c) ongoing fortnightly visits by HP including re-capping work under IY;
d) Home Start had competed an assessment and an initial appointment was awaited;
e) First Point were assisting with housing and financial needs and had contacted environmental health (presumably to get the landlord to take some action to improve conditions in the flat).
"[The mother] reports that she cannot manage money, bills, telephone calls etc and [the father] deal with such things. She can cook under supervision but can have difficulties with using appliances such as the hob, particularly working out which dial corresponds to which hob ring. [The father] reports that [the mother] can sometimes require prompts with daily tasks such as changing her daughter's nappy. In terms of accessing the community, [the mother] reports that she does not like going to places on her own and would struggle with navigating buses and reading maps. [The mother's] fear of going out on her own means that she has a limited social life, but does attend a weekly under 1's class at a local children's centre which she enjoys."
"The changes made need to stay in place and professionals need to continue to see changes over the next review period. IF [original emphasis] changes have not been kept and further changes are not made Children Social Care will need to seek legal advice, this will be so the court can make a decision whether the children should remain in the care of [the parents]."
1 = all needs met, 2 = essential needs met, 3 = some essential needs met, 4 = many essential needs unmet, 5 = most/all essential needs unmet.
Clothing 5 (in evidence CD accepted this should have been 4)
In carer's presence 5
Mutual engagement 5
i) On 21 April the father left the mother alone to look after the children while he went to help a friend, returning at about 1am. The mother did not have a mobile phone (and would not have been able to use one even if she did). The father says he arranged with his brother and his wife to look out for the mother and she knew to contact them in the event of need. The local authority points out however that the father knew the mother had difficulty asking for help from people she does not know well. That evening K suffered another fit. The father's brother or his wife called an ambulance. The ambulance crew reported that K was dehydrated and had a nappy full of dark urine. They thought it looked like a case of neglect. On admission K's temperature was 40.8° and no Calpol had been administered (indeed they had not taken any with them on the camping trip). In evidence the father could not see any problem with what he had done. This was K's 7th febrile convulsion. [Threshold 9].
ii) Later during the same trip the mother made the father a cup of tea. They left the camp site for the day. When they returned they found a large burn hole in the tent. They were told by nearby campers that the stove had been left on and burnt the tent. The mother accepts she forgot to turn the stove off.
The issue of proceedings
i) home conditions remained cluttered and unhygienic posing a risk to the children of accidents, hazards and hygiene;
ii) supervision of the children and responsiveness to K and T's needs was wholly inadequate with K and T appearing pale, unkempt and vacant in their expressions;
iii) basic care of the children was inadequate;
iv) frequent prompts were needed to change nappies;
v) the children had been observed to be dirty;
vi) there had been rough handling of K by the mother;
vii) the mother was unable to manage simple daily routines, multitask or meet the children's competing needs;
viii) the father:
a) was inclined to blame the mother for difficulties and infantilised her;
b) did not accept there was neglect or any failure in supervision;
c) made derogatory comments to the mother and to A;
d) had left the mother alone to care for the children and did not appear to understand the mother's needs;
e) did not recognise the need for change;
ix) it was clear that all three children were suffering neglect - "Their presentation is the epitome of neglected children".
The FAST parenting assessment
i) their final parenting assessment report dated 31 May 2017 based on the appointments that took place down to 8 May 2017; this report concluded that the parents could not care for the children;
ii) a report dated 20 July 2017 which addressed two questions asked by the court:
a) whether the findings of the parenting assessment in the report of 31 May 2017 would have been different if additional support could be provided by the ALDT;
b) whether the parents had made any changes since the report of 31 May and, if so, whether they were sufficient to change the recommendations in that report; for the purpose of this part of this report a number of contacts were observed.
The FAST parenting assessment report 31 May 2017
The third FAST report 20 July 2017
• First Point for housing and financial needs;
• daily phone calls from the Learning Disability Intensive Support Team for emotional support and to assess her mental wellbeing;
• GP to review medication and support with any health issues;
• the mother could be referred to psychologist Dr K for further support;
• a psychiatrist oversaw the mother's medication and mental health;
• emotional and practical support from JL of the ALDT, including visual guides to help her learning;
• the mother was attending Dorset Action on Abuse every week for specific support around her past experiences of abuse;
• the parents had approached the Children's Centre for a place on any available parenting courses, although none were available at that point;
• the mother was in the process of applying for a blue badge and bus pass;
• the ALDT could commission support for the mother in her caring role if the children were returned to her care.
• K was now calmer and no longer running off in the street (a result of consistent boundaries);
• K was now wearing her glasses (which she had not done with her parents);
• K's speech had improved and she was singing songs;
• she was not presenting with aggression as before;
• she had started to use the toilet consistently;
• having started the placement by "eating loads", T's appetite had returned to a normal level;
• he was walking independently;
• he continued to present as placid and had no behavioural issues.;
• the children were learning to play and share together following early disagreements.
"The outcome of this case is not therefore reliant on an increased level of support being available to [the parents] because [the father] has the capacity to develop his knowledge in order to assist [the mother] but he has been unable to do so to date. This is in my view because he does not accept professional concerns about the children's care. He has not actively engaged in the advice offered by the FAST. He does not prioritise his children's needs over and above his own. He has not engaged in the support offered in regard to his symptoms of depression."
A's expressed views
"I don't want to live at home because I feel I would still have parental responsibilities and be asked to look after [K] and [T]. I felt left out at times, and this still happens at contact. I still love Mum and Dad very much and don't want to hurt their feelings.
If the judge says I should go back home, I wouldn't mind but only if things have really, really, changed.
I think the best thing for me is to find a nice foster family, and that is top of my list."
Impression of the witnesses
i) that the flat was too small for a family of five and the parents' attempts to obtain better housing have been unsuccessful;
ii) that the mother made efforts to clean the flat, trying hard for example to clean the evidently unsuitable lounge carpet;
iii) that there were times when, with support, the conditions improved, but improvements were not sustained while the children were still at home;
iv) as AM told me, the parents only seemed to be able to sort one room at a time and could not maintain acceptable conditions in the whole flat;
v) since the children have left, the parents have been able to thoroughly clean, re-floor and decorate the flat to what seems a very high standard from the photographs I have seen;
vi) the question is whether those standards could be maintained if the children were at home.
Mother's mental health
Father's mental health difficulties
148. The father accepts that he has suffered from depression for many years and has taken anti-depressants. Within the background history are a number of references to the father being referred to Steps2Wellbing. He failed to engage properly with that support. During 2016 and into 2017 it is clear that the father was not functioning properly. He described himself that he was not doing things he should and was having a really bad time with depression. The father's depression was not helped by the death of his own father just two days before T was born. This was just after he missed an appointment with Steps2Wellbeing which he did not then go back to. He told me he got to a state where he did not even want to wake up but only did so for the sake of the children. At times he did not wash or dress himself. He lacked motivation.
149. The father told me that physically he cannot do a lot of things he would like to. He gets out of breath very quickly. However he told me that, like the mother, he has been going to the gym, playing football and he has taken up golf. He says that his mental state is currently very good, almost back to being normal.
150. Again there is no medical evidence supporting what the father says about the improvement in his mental state. Ms Harman and Mr Malik point out that, having lost the children into foster care, it would have been very easy for the parents to have sunk further into depression and let things go. Instead they have picked themselves up, improved the condition of their flat so that it is unrecognisable, engaged constructively in the proceedings and generally tried to make the most of things. This would tend to support the parents' evidence that their mental health state has improved.
151. That said it is also apparent that this improvement comes about at the same time that the children came into foster care and the parents were no longer having to look after them. The father described how he had started to learn how to become a husband to the mother again and to re-learn how to love her. It may be that was something it was difficult for him to do when he had the responsibility, as he saw it, of looking after three children (including the mother) and A.
152. So, as with the improved state of the flat, it is not clear to me that the parents' mental health improvement would be sustained if the children were returned to their care and they found themselves under the same sorts of pressures that existed when the home conditions and their mental health states were so poor in 2016 and the first part of this year.
153. I do find that the children were exposed for an extended time to the father's depression and its consequences. Things were not done for the children that should have been done. They saw their father in a depressed state and he was unable, despite support, to do anything effective about it until the children were removed. This was emotionally harmful and affected the ability of the parents between them to meet the children's basic and emotional needs.
154. The father's depression also impacted on his decision whether to stop work to support the mother in her care of the children. The father said he was medically advised not to stop work as it gave him something to do outside the house and afforded him some respite. Social work advice was for him to be at home to bridge the care gap. He says this confused him, which I understand.
Mother's learning disability
Failure to meet the children's basic needs
K's febrile convulsion on 21 April 2017
Domestic violence/chaotic lifestyle
Did the father record A?
Conclusion as to threshold
Were the assessments properly carried out and were the parents given the right support?
a) None of the professionals had been specifically trained to deal with parents with learning disability. This was demonstrated by the inability of witnesses (less so says Ms Harman, CD) to keep their language simple and sentences short, demonstrating their inability and experience to be able to work effectively with a learning disabled person. There is force in the first point but I do not accept the second. LW, who gave evidence first, did struggle during her evidence to avoid jargon. The other witnesses were better and were generally able to use everyday language. Perhaps they had got the message about what was needed, perhaps they were less inured in social work jargon than LW. I accept Mr Howard's point that the comparison between how a professional behaves and speaks in the formality of the witness box and how they deal with their clients is likely to be an artificial one.
b) Although the professionals spoke to the ALDT for advice how to work with the mother, this on its own was insufficient. Somebody from the ALDT should have been asked to attend each training session and an advocate provided to the mother to ensure she understood the sessions. For those not trained in learning disability the 'nod' given by a person with learning disability when asked whether they understand may be taken at face value, whereas those trained will be able to find out whether there is true understanding and deal with it.
c) There was an inexcusable delay (7 months) between making the referral and getting the ALDT involved with the family. Ms Harman says that the referral should have been made when the children were made subject to CIN plans in January 2016, by which time it should have been clear to the local authority that the mother had a learning disability (remembering that NB had identified it in her assessment in 2014). In fact the formal ALDT assessment of learning disability did not take place until November 2016, denying the mother help and support which would have helped her learn new tasks in the home and in the care of the children. This, says Ms Harman, would have reduced the burden on the father.
d) the local authority does not have a protocol or policy for dealing with parents with learning disability, so there is no care pathway or specialised response. The only working together was conversations about how to work with the mother.
e) It was not until the third FAST report that it was identified that 2 hours support a day could be offered. Failure to consider such support during the assessment renders the assessment unrealistic and unfair because there has been no assessment of how the family manage when they have appropriate support.
f) The IY course was universally delivered (before the formal diagnosis of learning disability) and not adapted to the mother's needs, as HP accepted. Nobody else in the group had learning disability. The trainers were not trained in learning disability. The group environment was intimidating for the mother who did not like to get involved. No other work for the mother was considered. The video was not adapted to the mother's needs and HP did not know the mother had found it difficult.
g) The updating IY sessions delivered in the home in January 2017 were provided by somebody with no training in learning disability.
h) The FAST assessment started in February 2017 and ended on 8 May 2017. About this Ms Harman says:
i. The four formal teaching sessions did not start until 10 April 2017. The FAST witnesses said they needed to establish what needed to be taught before teaching could start (although they say there was an element of teaching and guidance in all sessions). AM accepted in cross-examination that in hindsight the teaching given to the family was too late. She said that AL and JL did not complete their assessment until April 2017 (in fact March 2017), so information was still coming from them at that stage, presumably feeding into the question what teaching should be delivered.
ii. CD accepted in her evidence that each topic was only taught once and not repeated. This is contrary to the advice in the Dr K assessment (encouraging her to carry out the task with prompting and encouragement until she can carry it out independently). Teaching sessions were theoretical and lacked role-modelling with mother being asked to carry out each task repetitively. Although the FAST witnesses said they did role-modelling, the only role-modelling evidenced in the notes was role modelling of play on 21 March 2017. LW talked about 'subtle' role modelling which Ms Harman says is not enough for this mother, again highlighting the lack of understanding of the professionals about the mother's needs.
iii. Although the FAST provided books and leaflets they were of no use to the mother who could not read them. The pictures on their own were meaningless.
iv. The lack of specialised training highlights how support becomes ineffective.
v. The Graded Care Profile shows that the FAST failed to identify areas of concern and action to be taken. There was no plan and one was essential. Ms Harman questions whether LW's focus and attitude was negatively skewed, explaining why the support needed for the family has not been focused and provided. In this respect Ms Harman refers to this paragraph from the interim FAST report as demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and duties of the local authority and evidencing the lack of focus on the support needed:
"It is important that agencies work together to find a solution for the children within their timescales rather than concentrate their efforts on supporting the parents as the cost of the children".
vi. Ms Harman says that the first two FAST reports focused on negative aspects of the parents' care and ignored the positives, suggesting a negative approach.
What support would the parents need and would that amount to substituted parenting?
The parents' capacity to change
Discussion and conclusion
i) A seems to have become a resilient child at an early stage and to some extent self-sufficient;
ii) whether or not the parents were able to care well enough for A, they plainly have not been able to manage with K and T even with some help from A.
Placement for adoption
Note 1 Prochaska and Di Clemente’s (1983) Cycle of Change [Back]
Note 1 Prochaska and Di Clemente’s (1983) Cycle of Change [Back]