Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council is about to lose all responsibility for children’s services, according to the Department for Education.
After years of controversy and criticism, the control over children’s services in the South Yorkshire city will be passed to “an independent trust” beginning in April of next year, a situation that may well hold for a period of up to ten years.
The existing department had been placed under government scrutiny as long ago as 2009. A recent report entitled Report to the Secretary of State for Education on ways forward for children’s services in Doncaster recommended the measure as a way to make a decisive break with the departmemt’s previous history of problems.
The report begins with an one-line summary that says it all: “There is an abundance of evidence that testifies to long-standing service and corporate problems with Doncaster children’s services.”
The report continues on to explain:
“A culture of failure and disillusion pervades the service and that serves to obstruct every attempt at reform. There needs to be a line drawn under the historic failure, a separation that permits the development of a new culture.”
In a letter to Doncaster Mayor Ros Jones, Education Secretary Michael Gove writes:
“I agree with the recommendations and will now seek to put them into effect. . . When improvements to the service are secure and confidence in Doncaster Council’s ability to deliver children’s social care functions is gained, those services should return to council control.”
History: Defensive Social Work
Takes England by Storm
Up inched the numbers of children removed, as local councils sought to meet the fiscal targets imposed by the Blair administration’s reforms. As if that wasn’t bad enough, along came the case of “Baby P.” Peter died at the age of 1 on August 7, 2007. His death was undeniably the kind of brutal murder that inspires justified outrage from all quarters.
Adding fuel to the fire was not only the magnitude of his injuries, but that Peter lived in the London Borough of Haringey, under whose watchful eye the same authorities had failed ten years earlier in the case of Victoria Climbié.
The heat was on, and the number of children “rescued” from their homes continued to rise. Defensive social work took hold, and with predictable results. In 2009, the Daily Mail ran with headlines on stories such as: “Damning report finds social services department ‘not fit for purpose’ after eight deaths,” and “Fears of new Baby P scandal as social services face probe into seven child deaths in one town.”
In this particular go-round, it was the Birmingham City Council that was hardest hit by the report.
Councillor Len Clark opened up the report with these observations: “Many of the findings of this Inquiry report into children’s social care may not make comfortable reading for the Council. This is not by intent. Rather, it is the result of the intensive and forensic exploration of the evidence presented to the Inquiry, supported by authoritative independent audit reports.”
These points are not entirely lost on the government, as a report issued in November 2012 entitled Children first: the child protection system in England explains that there may be a combination of factors leading to the number of increased care applications, however:
The single most important factor is likely to be the response to the death of Baby P (Peter Connelly) in 2008. There is clear evidence that levels of Section 31 applications made by English local authorities rose in the wake of the publicity around this case. Research by Cafcass identified a “sharp increase” of 37% across England during the three weeks immediately following publication of the Serious Case Review in November 2008.
Nor is this point lost on the courts of appeal. In SS v KS, the Court noted that: “There has been a substantial rise in the number of applications under Part IV of the Children Act 1989 in the aftermath of Baby ‘P’.” Other factors also account for mounting pressure on courts, and the combination of these factors “is testing the family justice system in London to the limit and one inevitable consequence is greater delay.”1
On those relatively few occasions that adoption cases have risen to the courts of appeal, they have reiterated that councils owe a duty to the parents, the children, and in some cases the prospective adoptive parents as well. In Re F (a child) (placement order)  EWCA Civ 439, the Court reviewed a case involving a father who sought to contest the adoption of his child. The court of appeal noted that the East Sussex County Council, by failing to reply to the father’s last-minute letter of notice, gave “the clearest inference that the council was out to gain its ends by means more foul than fair.” The Court further found that:
There are many who assert that councils have a secret agenda to establish a high score of children that they have placed for adoption. When such suspicions are rife a history such as this only serves to fuel public distrust in the good faith of public authority.
In EH v Greenwich  EWCA Civ 344 the Court found it difficult to believe that Greenwich, the local authority seeking the adoption of a child against her mother’s wishes, “can behave in such a manner.” It was evident that the local authority had sought to undermine the mother’s progress, even to the extent of failing in its legal obligation to assist her. “Here was a mother who needed and was asking for help to break free from an abusive relationship. She was denied that help abruptly and without explanation. That, in my judgment is very poor social work practice,” wrote Justice Wall. More to the point, Justice Wall added:
What social workers do not appear to understand is that the public perception of their role in care proceedings is not a happy one. They are perceived by many as the arrogant and enthusiastic removers of children from their parents into an unsatisfactory care system, and as trampling on the rights of parents and children in the process. This case will do little to dispel that perception.
As a joint investigative report issued by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate in December 2012 explains:
Many of the children and young people whose cases we examined during the course of our inspection had been placed in a succession of children’s homes. It was difficult to track them precisely, but we saw one young person with 31 placements and one placement that lasted less than 24 hours. Nearly one-third had had more than three placements outside their home area and 18% had had more than five (that were recorded); 63% were living more than 50 miles from their home and 24% more than 100 miles.
According to the report, one council shipped all of its foster wards out of its boundaries, presumably because it did not want to deal with the responsibilities of caring for the children that it had itself removed.
1. SS v KS  EWHC 1575 (Fam) (03 July 2009). See also S-B Children, Re  UKSC 17 (14 December 2009) (re-emphasising that in the wake of the “Baby P” case allegations that social workers and other professionals were not being sufficiently active in their protective role resulted in an increase in the numbers of care proceedings). The Baby P case continues to resonate in the courts. See for example Christou & Anor v London Borough of Haringey  EWCA Civ 178 (caseworkers unfair dismissal claims against former employer Haringey London Borough Council); Cairns v Modi  EWCA Civ 1382 (false accusation by newspaper that Baby P’s father had been convicted of raping a 14 year old girl); Shoesmith, R (on the application of) v OFSTED & Ors  EWCA Civ 642 (Director of Children’s Services, Haringey, appeal of adverse job action); Henry v News Group Newspapers Ltd  EWCA Civ 19 (defamation case involving allegedly “sustained and vitriolic campaign” by newspaper against senior social worker).
In a follow-up to this series, recent moves toward privatization, concurrent planning, cutbacks in legal representation for families, and other issues will be also examined.