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Lord Justice Wall in outspoken attack on social workers

13 April 2010

Lord Justice Wall, who will replace Sir Mark Potter today as president of the Family Division, has launched an outspoken attack on social workers in care proceedings. Greenwich Council has promised to carry out an independent review of the case.

“What social workers do not appear to understand is that the public perception of their role in care proceedings is not a happy one,” Wall LJ said.

“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.”

Wall LJ said social workers should aim to “unite families rather than to separate them”.

The Court of Appeal was giving judgment in EH v London Borough of Greenwich and others [2010] EWCA Civ 344.

The case concerned two young children who were taken away from their parents by the council and looked after first by their maternal grandmother and then by foster parents.

Action was taken in January 2008, when one of the children, a baby girl, arrived at hospital with an arm broken in three places.

Mrs Justice Baron said that although the parents could not explain the injury, the mother (EH) had previously been “steadfast” in her commitment to the children.

The father, however, ceased to have any contact with them since June 2009 and failed to appear at the last three court hearings.

Mrs Justice Baron said the mother was given the “clear impression” by Greenwich that, whatever she did, the children would be removed permanently from her care.

Lord Justice Wall went further, describing the treatment of the mother by the local authority as “quite shocking”.

“Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that in 2010, more than 18 years after the implementation of the Children Act, a local authority can behave in such a manner.

“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.

“If we have learned anything in the past few years it is quite how difficult some women find it to break away from abusive relationships, however rational such a breach would appear to a disinterested outsider.

“Here, in my judgment, was a mother demonstrating that this is what she wanted to do. She went to a refuge. She both needed and sought help, and was quite improperly rebuffed by a local authority which had plainly pre-judged the issue.”

Wall LJ said he was conscious of the criticism that social workers are “damned if they do and damned if they do not”, but their duties under the Children Act were plain.

The Court of Appeal allowed the mother’s appeal, set aside the care orders and referred the case back to the judge for a fresh hearing.

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Children Vulnerable Clients Local government