Judge hits out at council social workers over handling of case involving disabled boy

A London council which hit the headlines after two children died has come under fire from a High Court judge over the way social workers handled a case involving a disabled boy.

Mr Justice Hayden spoke of a “litany of failure” at Haringey Council (pictured), which was criticised following the deaths of Victoria Climbie in 2000 and Peter Connelly in 2007, and said there was a “real cause” for public concern.

The judge said cumulative social work failures were “profoundly troubling” and signalled a need for “significant retraining”.

Lawyers representing the council said social services managers had a “real concern” about what had happened and a “determination that there should be a full investigation”.

They said there were “lessons to be learned”.

Mr Justice Hayden had been asked to make decisions relating to the care of the disabled boy and a second child.

He heard that the children’s parents were separated.

The judge, who is based in the Family Division of the High Court in London, has made criticisms in written rulings published online after considering the case at private hearings.

He had initially concluded that no-one, including the council, should be identified in published rulings.

The children’s father wanted the council named.

But lawyers representing the council, the children, and the children’s mother, initially successfully argued that the children might be identified, and harmed, if the council was named.

The judge changed his mind, and decided that Haringey should be named, after journalists challenged his decision and argued that the public had a right to know the council’s identity.

He said the children at the centre of the case could not be identified in media reports.

Mr Justice Hayden said he had made “trenchant criticisms” of the council’s conduct of the case and of two members of staff in particular.

“I am clear that failings on this scale cannot go unheeded,” he said.

“I do not think that I have ever had to criticise a local authority to the extent that I have found it necessary to do in this case.”

He said evidence showed “mismanagement” over many months.

“There is simply no defence to it,” he said.

“In her evidence, the social worker sought to apportion blame or responsibility either to her manager (who has since left) or to her legal department.

“It may be that both share some responsibility for what has happened here.

“But none of that avoids the inevitable conclusion that there was a root and branch failure of social work.”

Mr Justice Hayden said the boy’s father had become angry and frustrated with the council’s “delays and shortcomings”, and had “vented” his irritations “trenchantly and unambiguously” to staff.

The judge said at one stage social workers had “declined” to speak to or meet him.

“I am not convinced that was a proportionate response or a sensible one,” said Mr Justice Hayden.

“It created difficulties of a different kind and contributed, in due course, to the local authority making some fundamental errors in which they fell considerably short of their obligations to safeguard and protect the children.”

Mr Justice Hayden said at one stage the children’s mother had become involved with a man convicted of child sex offences.

Council staff learned of the relationship as a result of an anonymous telephone call.

But, the judge said, they initially failed to appreciate the significance of the risk the man posed.

He described that failure as “alarming”, and said there appeared to have been a “collective professional amnesia”.

The judge said council staff had not initially told the boy’s father about the sex offender’s involvement with his former partner.

He said that decision “defies comprehension”.

Lawyers representing Haringey had asserted that the deficiencies identified in the social work team involved were “not representative” of council practice and children’s services more generally.

“I profoundly hope that is correct,” said the judge.

“This team simply lost sight of the most basic of child protection and safeguarding procedures.”

The judge decided that the disabled boy would go into council care.

He said the father would care for the second child.

Mr Justice Hayden said his criticism of social services staff did not give the mother a “safe haven” to “hide from her own manifest failure” to protect her children.

The judge said she had been “repeatedly warned” about the danger the sex offender presented.

He said the disabled boy had “lost the opportunity” to live permanently at home with his family.

But he said the woman would be able to stay in touch with the children.

“As it transpired, the mother was ultimately, when confronted with the depth of her feelings for (the sex offender), unable to prioritise her children’s needs above her own,” he said.

“I have no doubt that with the father’s careful scrutiny, she can make her contact with them a positive and nurturing experience.”

Mr Justice Hayden said the father had “recently impressed all those who have met with him” and his love for the children was “deep and manifest”.

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