Council deeply regrets children’s service failings saying it has ‘changed its practice’

Bosses at a council condemned by a High Court judge over the handing of children in care say they deeply regret “past failings”.

Herefordshire Council says it has “changed its practice”.

Mr Justice Keehan had complained of “egregious abuse” of legislation designed to provide accommodation to children who did not have somewhere suitable to live.

The judge said bosses had been too slow to ask family court judges to take control of cases and make long-term decisions about children’s living arrangements.

He said about a third of approximately 50 children in the council’s care had been affected.

Mr Justice Keehan had outlined criticisms and concerns after analysing the cases of two children in the council’s care at a family court hearing in Nottingham.

He complained of “dreadful failures” and said he had decided to publicly identify the council because people had a “legitimate interest” in knowing what public bodies do and do not do.

The judge, who is based in the Family Division of the High Court in London, said a new senior management team was in place and aimed to make significant improvements.

Mr Justice Keehan said his concerns centred on Herefordshire’s use of section 20 of The Children Act – a provision which gives councils the ability to provide accommodation to children who have nowhere suitable to live.

He said the provision was a useful tool in “appropriate circumstances – such as a case involving an unaccompanied child who arrived from abroad seeking asylum.

But he said it was wholly inappropriate to use the provision as an alternative to launching legal proceedings and asking family court judges to make long-term decisions.

A council spokesman said: “Herefordshire Council deeply regrets these past failings and has changed its practice to reduce the likelihood of similar cases occurring in future.”

Chris Baird, the council’s director for children’s wellbeing, added: “In the past, Herefordshire Council has lacked a consistent focus in achieving permanency for children held under section 20 of The Children Act.

“We undertook a comprehensive review of our practice during 2016/17 and developed new guidance and processes to ensure children’s needs are appropriately met.

“Herefordshire Council now has a clear approach to managing and reviewing children admitted to care under section 20, which involves legal advice at the start and ensures children do not remain under section 20 for extended periods.”

Mr Justice Keehan told how he had asked the council for a statement detailing the circumstances of “each and every child” in its care.

“The… document made very grim reading,” he said in the ruling. “Excepting (five) children who are now the subject of (family court) proceedings, the local authority is accommodating 42 children.

“Of these 42 children, the local authority have now recognised that 14 have wrongly and abusively been the subject of section 20 accommodation for a wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time and/or should have been the subject of legal planning meetings and/or care proceedings at a much earlier time.”

The judge raised particular concern about the two children whose cases he had analysed.

He said they have been accommodated under the terms of section 20 for a “very considerable period of time” and added: “Their treatment by Herefordshire Council represents two of the most egregious abuses of section 20 accommodation it has yet been my misfortune to encounter as a judge.”

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