On 5th April 2019, the Family Court ruled that, a case involving child care and a history of alcohol abuse, required a more ‘sophisticated analysis of the risk’ rather than a simple reliance on the past. The judgment also exposed flaws in the Local Authority’s care plan including a failure to provide the evidence and assistance required by the court. The judgment also notes that relying on terminology such as ‘good enough parenting’ is unhelpful, as each child has different needs and there is no single fixed point at which good parenting exists.
The case involves a nine year old boy (A), who suffered the death of his father and then further hardship when he was removed from the care of his mother (M). Historically, both the mother and father were heavy drinkers and consequently neglected A.
Child protection procedures began in April 2011 when A was found in M’s care in ‘unsuitable filthy conditions' by the police who responded to reports that both parents were drunk. This process came to an end in November 2011 after several months of engagement and insight by the parents.
In February 2015, A’s school became concerned about M appearing intoxicated at the school and A was taken into police care. Care proceedings commenced and A was returned to his parents, with his father as the primary carer. These proceedings concluded in June 2015 with the making of a 12-month supervision order. On 26th October 2017, the police were called to the house on reports of the parents being intoxicated. A was reported to 'have left the family home and walked to a neighbour's pleading for help as his parents were drunk and asleep’, and was once again removed from his parents care.
Subsequently, an assault took place between the parents which saw M incarcerated for several months. During this period, the father had difficulties with his levels of alcohol consumption and was struggling to accept the care plan of the Local Authority (LA), which intended to place A with a family member who lived abroad. In June 2018, the father left the country and in September he was found dead at his property.
In the interest of A, M tried very hard to turn her life around. She sought to be assessed for care, but the assessment was negative. From the day she left prison, M maintained sobriety and had positive interactions with A during visits. Consequently, A’s guardian sought an update from the experts instructed in the case.
A’s guardian was not satisfied that adequate enquiries were made by the LA about the support that could be offered to the mother, so that A could return home. The LA was clear in its view that A should not be returned home and that this was not a care plan that they would put forward.
The judge stated;
“…it is simply not open to a local authority within proceedings to decline to accept the court's evaluation of risk, no matter how much it may disagree with the same. Furthermore, it is that evaluation which will inform the proportionality of the response which the court decides is necessary.”
The judge further elaborated on specific legal principles relevant in the case;
“Where the care plan remains unclear in important respects, then the litigation process should be duly considered and the Court may not be satisfied with the care plan in such circumstances. In such circumstances, the Court may adjourn the matter for refinement of the care plan. There is a powerful quasi-inquisitorial aspect to the proceedings with the Court and the Local Authority having a shared objective to achieve a result in the best interests of the child. If a case is adjourned to permit a Local Authority to reconsider its care plan, then it should do so. If after such a reconsideration the Local Authority is unchanged, then the Court may have to decide whether or not to make a care order.”
The judge went on to consider the main concerns of this case with alcohol being the key instigator for the neglect that A had been subjected to. M made it clear to the court that she wishes to maintain abstinence and that she had in fact remained ‘clean’ for a substantial period of time. The local authorities did not agree that this was enough, given the history of the case. The judge relied on the evidence before him to comment that the mother remained sober, engaged appropriately with services and also wore a SCRAM bracelet; all of which confirmed abstinence.
There was dispute amongst instructed experts as to whether the mother was alcohol dependent (AD). The judge commented as follows;
“My understanding is that AD is indicative of an inability to have a 'healthy relationship' with alcohol, i.e. inconsistent with social drinking. In such circumstances any relationship with alcohol is prone to a deterioration into further dependence. I intend to approach this case by assessing M's stated intention to remain abstinent.”
Experts at the Westminster Drugs Project (WDP) shared their opinion on M (referred to here as JS) during her treatment program with them.
“In my professional view [M] has taken both her recovery and treatment here with WDP seriously…During her time with WDP [M] has gone above and beyond what has been asked and expected from her…I am extremely encouraged by the way JS has and continues to embrace her sobriety and new life. It is with this I feel the likelihood of JS to slipping back in to destructive behaviour patterns and subsequent relapse negligible.”
The judge noted that the LA were perfectly within their right to be cautious in light of the history in this case. He felt that the LA were entitled to be ‘highly cautious’ but noted that the case required a more sophisticated analysis of the risk than simply relying on history.
Alcohol was the prevailing issue in this case, because M’s parenting was assessed as capable of providing ‘a good level of care’ to A when not drinking. In fact, it is noted that A was thriving in her care when she was sober.
The LA argued that A needs more than ‘good enough parenting,’ in light of his neurodiversity needs. The expert said A would be a challenge for any placement but noted that a combination of his medication, positive parenting, and therapy would be likely to maximise A’s development, with the carer benefiting from support and guidance.
The judge commented that;
“…all children have individual needs and demands for different levels of parenting and that the parenting each child requires sits on a spectrum at such a point as is good enough for that child. There is a level of artificiality in raising the bar by reference to this terminology as there is not a fixed point at which good enough parenting exists, against which all parenting can be judged.”
The judge expressed disappointment in the LA for failure to furnish the court with the various support options available to this family and noted that during cross examination, what appeared to be the care plan was in fact not one. The judge stated that;
“It is concerning I would have been asked to approve a care plan which was not the care plan of the Local Authority. I was troubled that a team Manager did not attend Court to assist the social worker in circumstances in which it was plain such assistance was required.”
The judge ruled that the evidence pointed to the parents’ relationship as a prevailing force behind periods of poor care. He stated that M can provide good care for A when sober and based on the evidence, there are significant grounds to be confident that she will remain sober. Thus, the remaining risk is not at a level that justifies the proposed intervention.
His Honour Judge Willans did not approve of a long-term foster care plan and returned A back to the care of his mother under a supervision order.
The guardian and child were represented by child care director, Kathy Walker from the Croydon office. Counsel for the final hearing was Henry Lamb from Fourteen Chambers.