SCC safeguarding failings

Yesterday in a hearing before Mrs Justice Roberts, Somerset County Council (SCC) appeared to defend its adoption process. Whilst the legal case hinged on SCC’s performance in the case of 12 children, up to 300 others could be effected. In a press release yesterday, SCC acknowledged the judgement. However the tone was very much, this was an administrative failing. Cllr Frances Nicholson noting “This may seem like a minor bureaucratic issue, but we know that ensuring that all processes are followed to the letter is important for a child’s future. I’d like to apologise to the children, families and anyone directly affected in this case.

Trivial?

A lot of the reportage to date has gone along with that line. Unfortunately, having read the 72 page judgement, that is not how it looks to us. Firstly the implication for the children. The judge was scathing in noting that the failings by SCC will have had a profound impact on their adoption process. To be precise, this is what Judge Roberts said “Each of the children within the primary cohort has been materially prejudiced by these regulatory breaches and the systemic failings of SCC in that decisions in respect of their future placements and, in some cases, the process of matching the children with prospective adopters, have come to an abrupt halt to await the court’s decision in relation the legality of
their placement orders. They have thus been in a state of legal limbo since April 2021. Given the ages of these children, that delay over a period of almost six months is likely to have had a potentially detrimental effect on their welfare and their opportunity to achieve early permanence.”

It is also worth noting that the administrative failing at SCC did not come to light as a result of SCC identifying a problem. Officers were, according to the judgement, completely unaware that they were breaching the requirements of the adoption process. It was only the coincidence of two separate cases involving SCC’s adoption process coming to the attention of the same judge that revealed a systematic problem.

So what went wrong?

The case hinges on two sections of The Adoption Agency Regulations 2005. Section 15 and section 17. The judge decided that there had been breaches of both, as follows:

Breach of Article 15
▪ failing to make arrangements for each child to be examined by a doctor;
▪ failing to obtain from that doctor a written health report or alternatively to obtain advice from the medical adviser that such an examination and report was unnecessary.

Breach of Article 17
▪ failing to prepare a written report (CPR) which included a summary written by the medical adviser of the state of each child’s health, his/her health history and any need for health care which might arise in the future. It appears that in some cases a fully updated child permanence report for the relevant child may only have been prepared by SCC at the
point when placement proceedings were issued. In these instances, no such report was prepared for the purposes of the ADM’s earlier decision to proceed to recommend adoption as the appropriate outcome for these particular children
. There remains an issue as to whether or not these CPRs were, in each instance, served on the children’s Guardians;
▪ failing to make a direct request of Dr Smith (the agency medical adviser) to determine the necessity of, or need for, the child to be examined with a view to the preparation of a health report or to draft a regulation 17 summary.

Correct decision

We should say that the judge appeared to agree that medical evidence was available in the adoption papers. Judge Roberts also agreed that the adoption of the 12 children was ultimately correctly made. However the point of a final review by a medically qualified doctor is required for a reason. It is supposed to give a medical overview of each child at the time of the signing off on the adoption process. It offers the opportunity for a doctor to give a considered opinion on the medical (and psychiatric) issues. It is in short an important piece of evidence in the paperwork in assessing the suitability of adoption.

Ignorance is no defence

Bear in mind this is part of a service that in the past has been deemed “Inadequate”. Julian Wooster the head of service (who gave evidence in this case) was brought in specifically to turn things around. And there has been some evidence of an improving service since his appointment. Yet what was perhaps most disturbing is that SCC’s Claire Winter (Deputy Director of Children’s Services for SCC), accepted that she was unaware of the need or requirement laid out in regulation 15 to consult Dr Smith, the medical adviser, in order to seek her opinion as to whether or not a fresh report was required for each individual child in circumstances. If the correct decision had been made, that was a happy accident, rather than a result of rigorous process.

In summing up Judge Roberts noted amongst other things:
SCC adopted a flawed decision making process in that the agency decision maker proceeded to make her decision and recommendation to the court in the absence of a report from the agency medical adviser;
In each case which I am considering in this judgment, the Child Permanence Report was completed without any apparent input from the agency medical adviser.
Those breaches occurred over a significant period of time and amounted to a systemic failure on the part of SCC.

We’ll leave the final word to Judge Roberts “Nothing of this sort can be allowed to happen again.  SCC must conduct a complete and comprehensive overview of its compliance procedures”. 

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