This judgment was delivered in private. The judge has given leave for this version of the judgment to be published on condition that (irrespective of what is contained in the judgment) in any published version of the judgment the anonymity of the child[ren] and members of their [or his/her] family must be strictly preserved. All persons, including representatives of the media, must ensure that this condition is strictly complied with. Failure to do so will be a contempt of court.
Case No: CM13C05191
IN THE FAMILY COURT SITTING IN CHELMSFORD
IN THE MATTER OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1989
AND IN THE MATTER OF A, B, C, D, E and F
Date: 4th April 2014
Before Her Honour Judge Staite
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Richard O’Sullivan (instructed by Thurrock Borough Council) for the Applicant
Liam Sullivan (instructed by Hatton Solicitors) for the Respondent Mother
Gerald Cummings of Cumming Riley Solicitors for the Respondent Father
Stella Young of Jefferies Solicitors for the Respondent Children
Hearing dates: 17th - 19th March 2014
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
HER HONOUR JUDGE STAITE
1 The court is concerned with the present and future welfare of six children namely A (aged 12 years), B (aged 9 years), C (aged 8 years), D (aged 6 years), E (aged 3 years) and F (4 months). All six children have the same mother (the Mother). A’s father was named on A’s birth certificate, but has played no part in his upbringing. B and E and have the same father, but he has played no part in these proceedings. D and C have the same father, but likewise he has played no part in these proceedings. Indeed, with the exception of F’s father none of the other fathers have played any part in these contested public law proceedings.
2 Until the first day of the final hearing (17th March 2014), F’s father was indicating that he wished to provide long term care for his daughter, F, in the event that the mother could not care for her. His position changed when he learned that an initial viability assessment of his aunt (“the aunt”), had been positive and that Thurrock Borough Council (“the local authority”) were seeking a more detailed connected person’s assessment to assess her ability to care for F on a long term basis. As all parties agreed, in the light of this further assessment, that the future care and placement options for F could not be determined at the hearing in March 2014, a further hearing was listed in May 2014 for the court to consider F’s long term welfare needs.
3 For her part, the mother made it clear that she sought to care for F on a long term basis. She accepted that there should be an adjournment of any final orders pending the connected person’s assessment of the aunt. However, her position was that the court should order a supplemental report as to her parenting capacity from the psychologist who had been appointed by the court (Dr Dawn Bailham) which would assist the court, at a further hearing, in clarifying those changes which the mother said she had made since the children were received into care and which would (on her case) enable her to care for F in the foreseeable future. The local authority’s position in relation to F was that the mother had not made sufficient changes to be able to offer a safe home for F in the future and that if the further assessment of the aunt was not positive, then, in the absence of any other family member to care for her, the local authority would seek to place F for adoption. The local authority (supported by the guardian) did not support any further assessment of the mother at this stage of the proceedings.
4 Since the children were received into the care of the local authority in April 2013, the two oldest children have lived continuously with their maternal grandfather and his partner, the childrens’ step-maternal grandmother. In late October 2013, B joined her brothers in her grandfather’s home. A viability assessment undertaken in relation to the maternal grandfather and his partner in advance of B being placed in their home with her brothers, identified many very positive features of the care which they gave (and have continued to give) to the boys. This included the very good relationships, which individually they had with the children, their ability to prioritise the needs of the children and to provide them with consistent, committed and loving care. I really commend the maternal grandfather and his partner for all they have done for the children in their care. Having seen the maternal grandfather in court throughout the final hearing -and having asked him to speak to me directly- I know that his commitment to the future welfare of the children is completely genuine and well rooted. The eldest three children are, in my judgment, exceedingly fortunate that they can remain with their grandfather and his partner in a safe and secure home on a long-term basis.
5 I note that the grandfather and his partner may not, for financial reasons, be able to consider being assessed as Special Guardians for the three children. They have been advised that issues of financial support and other support, which the children may need in the future may be more readily available if the children remain looked-after children. I completely respect their position in this regard. Their stance in relation to special guardianship (which would of course give them parental responsibility for the three children) should not, in the particular circumstances of this case, pose any threat or challenge to their long term care of the children. In my judgment, the essential issue is their willingness and ability to provide a long term home for these young children in a sibling group and in my judgment if is not, in those circumstances, crucial for them to have parental responsibility for the children. With the number of children who have been placed in their care, I urge the local authority to be responsive to requests for appropriate financial assistance and other support from the grandfather and his partner in future years as the needs of the children as they grow older will inevitably make them more expensive to maintain.
6 The local authority’s final care plan in relation to the three oldest children is therefore that they should remain in the care of the grandfather and his partner under a full care order. Although the mother would dearly wish to care for the children, she recognised at the outset of the final hearing that her father and his partner were providing excellent care for the children and that the children were thriving in their care. Although there was an outstanding issue about contact between the mother and the three oldest children at the start of the final hearing, this was resolved by the mother conceding that her current twice weekly contact to the children should be reduced to 4 hours of supervised contact on a fortnightly basis, a proposal which was expressly endorsed by the childrens’ guardian. As a result of this agreement at court, final care orders were drafted by counsel for the local authority in relation to the eldest three children.
7 Following these arrangements made at court on 17th March 2014, the substantive contested issue between the parties related to the long term placement of D (aged 6) and E (aged 4). These children have been in foster care since October 2013 after their removal from a family placement with the maternal grandmother. The local authority’s final care plan is for them to be placed with long-term foster carers and for them to have supervised contact to the mother. The mother does not support the placement of D and E in long term foster care. She seeks to care for them either in the immediate future or following further assessment of her capacity to care for them, which would reflect, on the mother’s case, the huge strides which she has made in meeting any previous deficiencies in her parenting. The mother believes that the programmes she has undertaken since the children were removed from her care have enabled her to see where things went wrong in the past. She believes that, as the children’s mother, she should be caring for them and, moreover, that she can now care for them appropriately. The guardian supports the placement of D and E with long term foster carers and she does not support the mother’s application that there should be any further assessment of the mother either in relation to her care of D and E or in relation to her capacity to care for F.
8 For the final hearing, the court heard evidence from (a) the current social worker in the case for the four oldest children, (b) the social worker for F (c) the previous social worker for the oldest three children and author of a parenting assessment of the mother (d) the court appointed psychologist, Dr Dawn Bailham (e) the mother and (f) the guardian.
9 The background to the case. During the period 2004-2010 various referrals were made to social care about the mother’s rough treatment of A and various domestic violence incidents between the mother and the father of B and E, including some physical abuse of A by him. There were concerns that the mother placed herself in violent relationships with unsuitable men and prioritised these relationships over the safety of her children.
10 On 26th May 2011, A advised a teacher at school that his mother had hit him around the face and on his back. The mother had earlier that day told the head teacher that A had been off school because he had fallen off his bike and had hurt himself. The mother subsequently admitted hitting A when she was angry.
11 On 19th March 2013, there was an anonymous referral to social services during which the caller expressed concerns that the mother was not caring for the children adequately and was leaving the children in the care of inappropriate young teenagers five days a week. It transpired that one of these teenagers was subject to Child Protection Plans. When the mother was contacted about these arrangements she said that she would no longer leave the children with the adolescents concerned.
12 On 23rd April 2013, B disclosed that a 15 year old male babysitter had kissed and cuddled her and had put his fingers in her nonie (vagina) and that it had hurt. She also said that the babysitter had kissed D (which D later confirmed). B disclosed this to her mother and to her friend. Only after the friend had raised the matter did the mother decide to report the matter to the police. The mother said that she had had her suspicions, but she agreed that she had continued to leave B in the care of the teenager after B’s disclosure in order “to try and catch him in the act”. On 24th April 2013 B maintained her account of sexual abuse during an ABE interview.
13 All the children were removed from the mother after these disclosures and placed with the maternal grandparents in separate placements under a family arrangement.
14 The local authority then commissioned a report from a chartered clinical psychologist, Dr Dawn Bailham, who was instructed to undertake a full psychological assessment of the mother including a cognitive assessment. She was asked, specifically, to comment on the mother’s ability to understand and accept the local authority’s concerns and to consider the mother’s ability to safeguard the children and meet their needs until adulthood. Additionally, she was asked to comment on the mother’s ability to implement changes and sustain those changes and whether such changes were within the childrens’ timescales.
15 Dr Bailham saw the mother on 16th August 2013. At the time she was pregnant with F. Dr Bailham described the mother as having immature reasoning skills and egocentric focusing on her perspective of the situation. Although she became upset when talking about the children and wanting them returned to her care, she showed little emotion and demonstrated little empathy when she was asked about the sexual abuse of B. She accepted, however, that she had made some rash decisions about previous relationships which had had negative consequences for her children.
16 In her summary of conclusions, Dr Bailham said that the mother was a woman with low self-esteem who had difficulty with verbal and social reasoning skills. She tended to focus on her own needs while neglecting the needs of her children. She continued to find herself in relationships with men who presented a risk to the children and she lacked any insight into these risks, appearing to be unwilling to recognise them and to make necessary changes to her life style. Dr Bailham doubted that the mother had separated from F’s father at the time of the interview, a view also shared by the social worker, who had advised Dr Bailham that a probation worker working with F’s father had told Childrens’ Services that they continued to be in a relationship and had only said they were separated because they wanted the children back. The social worker had also told Dr Bailham of a more recent disclosure by B that F’s father had hit her with a spatula over the hand. B had also told the social worker that she did not want contact with her father because he used to hurt her all the time.
17 Dr Bailham said in her report that the mother would benefit from having individual work about the effects of sexual abuse on children and would also benefit from psychotherapy to assist her in understanding why she had made past relationship choices and how these had put her children at risk. At paragraph 9.7 of her report, Dr Bailham said this:
“In my opinion I feel that the mother does have the ability to implement change but because she is egocentric and immature in her thinking she solely focuses on her need to stay in a risky relationship. The mother’s needs are so great to maintain the relationships that she is unable and unwilling to recognise risks to her children…….She needs to make significant changes to enable her safely to parent her children but I do not feel at present she has sufficient insight to make these changes within the children’s timescales”
18 The conclusions expressed by Dr Bailham concerning the mother’s perceived difficulties in resuming the care of her children prompted an application to the court by the local authority on 10th October 2013 for supervision orders in relation to all five children while they remained in separate placements with the maternal grandparents. The interim threshold document dated 9th October 2013 set out the concerns of the local authority following receipt of the report of Dr Bailham and a negative parenting assessment of the mother dated 24th September 2013 which had concluded that the mother was not a suitable long term carer for any of her children.
19 A parenting assessment of the mother was carried out by the social worker for the children and was dated 24th September 2013. In that assessment, the social worker commented on the mother describing herself as a good mother who was able to take good care of the children and who was being punished for “one mistake”. The mother had also told the social worker that she did not want to be in a relationship and had decided to focus on her children and become a better mother to them.
20 In her assessment, the social worker stated that the mother lacked insight into how her impulsive actions have impacted on her childrens’ emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. Throughout the parenting capacity domains there had been significant issues which had impacted on the mother’s ability to parent the children which included:
· Chaotic lifestyle
· Lack of safety awareness
· The Mother’s inability to prioritise her childrens’ needs above her own
· Domestic violence
· Low self-esteem
· Failure to create change and work in a transparent manner with the Local Authority.
In the social worker’s opinion, these issues had compromised the emotional stability and safety of the children and had also caused them significant harm. Although the mother “had voiced that she will change in her approach in order to provide a better standard of care to her children, her actions highlight that the Mother does not implement what she says into practice in order to bring about change”. The assessment concluded with the social worker expressing the professional opinion that the mother was not capable of meeting her “children’s holistic needs and create change within the children’s timescales”.
21 The guardian prepared a report for a hearing on 25th October 2013. She noted the conclusions of Dr Bailham’s report and the parenting assessment and the concerns about the mother’s capacity to change sufficiently within the children’s time scales for her to be able to provide them with appropriate safeguarding and care. In particular, the parenting assessment, prepared in September 2013, had highlighted the mother’s perception of herself as a good parent. The mother had told the guardian that she was in receipt of advice from Womens’ Aid in respect of domestic violence and the impact of this on her past parenting. At the time that the guardian prepared her report, the maternal grandmother acknowledged to the guardian, with much regret, that she could not meet the long term needs of D and E. She acknowledged the struggle she was having in coping with the situation, practically, physically and emotionally and she clearly felt very conflicting loyalties about the situation. The Guardian noted that the responsibility for the care of her grandchildren had been imposed on the maternal grandmother and had not been assumed by choice but that, as the children’s grandmother, she could not agree to the placement of D and E in foster care.
22 The guardian supported a reduction in contact to the mother (at that time) from every day to twice a week for the older children and twice a week for the younger children after school. She also highlighted the need for inter-sibling contact.
23 At a hearing on 25th October 2013, and in circumstances where D and E could no longer remain in the care of the maternal grandmother, the local authority were left with the only option of placing the children together in long term foster care. On 31st October 2013, by direction of the court all five children were made subject to interim care orders with the three elder children remaining in the care of the maternal grandfather and his partner.
24 F was born on at beginning of November 2013. On 12th November 2013 and prior to her discharge from hospital, the local authority applied for an interim care order. The application referred to the mother’s initial denial that she had been in a relationship with F’s father despite social care having been advised by probation that he was released from prison to her address. F’s father was found to have 14 aliases on his PNC and there was reference to him being an over stayer in the UK for immigration purposes. There was also reference in the application to an allegation made against F’s father that he had raped a 16 year old girl (although he was never prosecuted for this offence) and earlier investigations in relation to possible exposure to two boys. On 13th November 2013, F was made the subject of an interim care order and placed in foster care. Since F’s placement in foster care the mother has had twice weekly supervised contact to F for one hour at the Oaktree Resource Centre in Grays. There are positive reports relating to the mother’s interaction with F. F’s father sees F for one hour of supervised contact each week at the same venue.
25 In her first statement to the court, the mother said that she had been attending Womens Aid since 4th October 2013 and was due to start the WISP Programme in February 2014. She was also engaged in a Domestic Violence Group and had undertaken work with Coram in relation to parenting and domestic violence. In her response to threshold, she agreed that B and E’s father had hit her once during the early months of her relationship when she was pregnant with B but only on one occasion. She agreed that when D was about 6 months old. In early 2008 her relationship with the father of C and D had ended and that she had then resumed her relationship with B and E’s father. She said that all had been well until after E’ birth in April 2009 when the domestic violence became worse .She agreed that on occasions he had hit the children and said that she had intervened to protect them. Her relationship with F’s father had started around June/July 2012.
26 In his statement dated 2nd December 2013, F’s father said that he had been born in Sierra Leone and had lived in the UK for approximately 9 years. He had been granted temporary admission to remain in the UK. He said that he had an older child who lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone with his mother. He said that he had separated from the mother in late June or early July 2013. He disputed that he had used aliases, that he had ever been charged with rape or that he had served a prison sentence in 2013 following which he had been discharged to the mother’s home. He agreed, however, that on 30th July 2013 he had received a community order with 12 months supervision for possession of documents with intern and dishonestly making a false representation.
27 In his final statement to the court the current allocated social worker for the five oldest children, who has held this role since 11th December 2013, sought final care orders for all five children on the basis that the mother was “unlikely to be able to achieve the imperative improvements in her care and the sustainability thereof within the children’s timescales”. He noted that the mother had engaged well with the Domestic Violence Awareness course and had learnt (for the first time) that sexual abuse and rape was possible within a relationship. She had also engaged with Womens’ Aid. Women’s Aid had advised social services that while the mother did not put her children deliberately at risk she had no understanding of the risks which her children faced. However, the mother had showed good commitment to the course.
28 In January 2014 the mother started an 8 week programme focussing on the effects of children witnessing domestic violence. She had engaged with SERICC between September 2013 and November 2013 in order to understand the effects of sexual abuse on children. The mother advised social services that she had come a long way and had now developed an understanding of the children’s needs and how to keep her children safe.
29 In his statement, the older children’s social worker gave a snapshot of the five older children:
a. A –his behaviour had greatly improved since being in care. At his new school there has been a massive improvement in his behaviour and development. He enjoyed the structure and safety of living with his grandfather. He appeared to feel guilty about previous behaviour and wanted to learn to manage his anger.
b. B –she had settled well in the placement with her grandfather and has said that since being in care she was not scared anymore. She came across as a self confident and happy girl. She wanted no contact to her father and said that she was scared of him. She wanted to see her mother and F.
c. C –he was described as a quiet boy and more introvert than his siblings. He spoke openly about the nightmares he had nearly every night and felt that these were triggered by the movies he watched when he was living with his mother. He was progressing well at school. He was “happy with life as it is”. He liked seeing his mother for contact.
d. D –she was described (along with E) as more boisterous than the older siblings. She and E had broken all the “breakable” presents which they had received at Christmas. She was described as challenging at school. She presented sometimes as a little “diva” with pretentious behaviour. She said that she wanted to live in a house with five flats with one flat for each of her siblings. She wasn’t sure if she wanted her mother to live in the house. She said, categorically, that she did not have a father.
e. E –he was described as a lovely little boy who engaged well in games and responded well to one-to-one attention, He had taken a while to settle in the foster placement. He did not express any wishes and feelings.
30 An assessment of risk and contact in respect of F’s father was undertaken by the allocated social worker and filed at court on 23rd December 2013. The report raised concerns about F’s father’s basic parenting skills, uncertainty about his background history and physical abuse by him towards the mother’s older children while he lived with her.
31 In her third and final statement, the mother annexed documents in support of the work, which she had done to improve her parenting skills. Women’s Aid stated that there had been a “great improvement in the mother’s awareness of domestic abuse and the effect on herself and her children while she has been attending our sessions”. SERICC commented that before giving birth to F it had been her professional opinion that the mother’s understanding and insight into the safeguarding of her children was not at a level that would ensure their safeguarding “and that there would need to be more ongoing long term work undertaken with the mother to enable this to happen”. Since November 2013, however, the mother had, in the opinion of her SERICC worker, moved forward in her ability to make the links and to identify the concerns of the professionals. She was now able to admit that she did not safeguard her children previously and was “very much aware” that she placed not only herself but also her children at risk of harm.
32 In a short letter to the court dated 28th February 2014, the maternal grandfather said that he fully accepted and agreed with the actions of the local authority when they had stepped in to remove his grandchildren from his daughter’s care. He felt that the work, which the mother had done with the support agencies had brought about a change in her attitude to the children and her engagement with them. During contact she was now calm with the children whereas, previously, if one of the children misbehaved, her first instinct had been to slap them on the arm.
33 The guardian prepared a final analysis for the final hearing dated 11th March 2014. She commented on the various pieces of work, which the mother had done to address her parenting of the children. On 7th March 2014 she had spoken to the SERICC worker who had worked with B and D and was currently working with the mother. She had commended the mother for the changes which she had made since December 2013, but was clear that the shift in the mother’s engagement and understanding had only occurred following a session prior to Christmas when she had broken down for the first time and had recognised that her children had been exposed to harm. The mother had then expressed real feelings of guilt. The SERICC worker felt that since this time, the mother had engaged with the programme in a meaningful way, her demeanour had changed and the barrier of anger had dissipated.
34 In acknowledging the positive nature of the various interventions undertaken by the mother to improve her parenting and the change in the mother’s general attitude, the Guardian commented on the need for the court to assess “whether her timescales for demonstrating essential sustained changes (in both her understanding and her functioning) are compatible with the timescales of her three younger children”.
35 In a discussion with the guardian prior to the preparation of her report, the mother had been candid in her past admissions of other inadequacies in her parenting. She had described the home as chaotic (and had described her previous property as a “shit hole”) and said that she had been unable to manage her finances. She also described leaving the children to their own devices, not supporting them in their schoolwork and screaming and shouting at them when they were challenging. On a visit to the mother’s home, the Guardian described holes in one of the bedroom doors (caused by A when he had been angry) and noted that the front and back garden were in a very messy condition.
36 The Guardian commented on the mother’s patient handling of F during contact. The older children tried to gain their mother’s attention and were involved in brief disagreements with each other during contact. In the opinion of the Guardian (who was present during the contact visit), the mother did not seem to be aware of the individual reactions and responses of her children but interacted with them as a group. In her opinion, this highlighted the difficulties which the mother would have in ensuring appropriate boundaries in place for each of the children,
37 The Guardian described D as quite a precocious and attention seeking little girl who could be stubborn and confrontational. She was described by her foster carer as having no respect for women and little regard for anyone else. The guardian had been advised of a recent incident when D had kept swinging around one of the poles on the underground train at a time when a disabled man had needed to hold the pole to secure himself. D had taken no notice of him and had ignored her carer’s request to stop. At the next station the carer had to remove D from the train to stop her. However her behaviour had continued on the next train and on subsequent ones leading to five changes of train before she had finally responded appropriately.
38 At school there had been concerns about D’s lack of respect for her teacher. She was not reaching her potential academically. Her behaviour had deteriorated in the weeks preceding the LAC Review at the beginning of February 2014.
39 E had been described by his maternal grandmother as being a particularly challenging and demanding little boy when he had lived with her (April –October 2013) and he had been described to the guardian by his grandfather -more recently- as a very angry child. However, he was not considered particularly difficult or challenging within the foster placement. He was significantly overweight wearing clothes for a 7-8 year old when he was not yet 5 years old. At school he was described as being ready to learn, well motivated and gaining in confidence.
40 In the guardian’s opinion, the benefit of the three youngest children being reunited with their mother would mean that all six children could grow up within their family, maintaining important relationships in a flexible manner, which would promote their respective sense of identity. However, D and E had suffered harm from their past experiences with their mother. As the guardian pointed out, the children were “exposed to domestic violence through their mother’s relationships, their needs were neglected, there were inadequate boundaries and poor supervision; D was sexually abused; there are indications that inappropriate physical punishments were used; E became obese. Both now exhibit challenging behaviours because of their respective insecurities and attachment difficulties……..I would be concerned that without the successful completion of the work in which the mother has only very recently been engaging in a meaningful way and with her also undertaking the recommended psychotherapy, reunification would again place these children at an unacceptable level of risk.”
41 In relation to F, the guardian commented that whilst F would not pose the same behavioural challenges, the other identified risks with regard to D and E could be considered equally applicable to her. Additionally, reunification with her mother would significantly increase the risk of communication and contact between F’s father and the mother and the potential for their relationship to be resumed.
42 At paragraph 33 of her final analysis the Guardian said this: “the benefits of long-term foster care for D and E (for whom there is no family alternative if reunification to their mother is not possible) would include the maintenance of direct established family relationships …which are important for their respective identity needs. They would be reassured of their mother’s and grandparents’ love for them through their commitment to contact. They would be provided with different parental role models and protected from harm. The negative factors, as for their older siblings, include the continued involvement of the Children’s Services with the associated restrictions and feelings of being different from their friends; some risks of placement breakdown and the potential for being moved around in care…Whilst adoption would provide more legal security, the firmly established extended family relationships would make it difficult for these two children to cope with permanent severance, particularly when they know their older siblings are being maintained within the family”
43 The Guardian felt that having particular regard to D and E’ behaviour issues and challenges and their associated need for insightful and sensitive care if these were to be addressed and overcome, it was her opinion that the mother’s “remaining vulnerabilities and identified areas of difficulty are such that at this time she would not be able to provide appropriate and safe care to meet their specific needs. Their timescale for clarity about their future and permanence is such that decisions need to be made now for these to be secured. In all the circumstances I believe that the only appropriate order for the Court’s consideration is a care order and I endorse the care plan for them to be placed together in a long term foster placement”.
44 In his oral evidence to the court, the current social worker for all the children except F, indicated that if the court approved the care plan for long term fostering of D and E, they would take steps to find a new placement within the next 2 months as the current placement was not entirely satisfactory and a new placement would be likely to bring about significant improvements in the children’s behaviour. He said that while the mother should be commended for her recent progress, the main concern of the local authority was her ability (or otherwise) to keep the children safe from abusive relationships with men and in his opinion, there was “more for the mother to do” in terms of meeting the children’s emotional needs before she was in a position to offer them “good enough” parenting.
45 Although the contact notes showed that there were positive features in the mother’s relationship with the children, this was very different from a capacity to look after the children on a 24/7 basis. In his opinion, the ongoing progress of the mother could not be achieved with the timescale of the children and the proceedings. While the children enjoyed contact with their mother, they did not wish to return to live with her and the risks associated with the children’s return home were too great not only in relation to safeguarding issues but also in relation to the mother’s ability to meet the needs of her children. E’ behaviour, in particular, had improved markedly since his reception into care, but the underlying issues of why he had behaved as he had while in the care of his mother remained unresolved. Before and after contact, E’ behaviour could be very destructive.
46 He saw no benefit in obtaining an addendum assessment from Dr Bailham in relation to the mother’s capacity to care for D and E and considered that the children needed certainty now. Any work with the mother could only start after there had been a more positive assessment of the mother and identifiable improvements in her parenting capacity, which, in his opinion, would not be in the children’s timescales. He considered that if D and E remained in foster care, contact to the mother should be limited to once a month as more frequent contact would jeopardise the stability of the placement.
47 In advance of giving oral evidence at the final hearing, Dr Bailham had read all the updating material –including the guardian’s final analysis –which had been completed following Dr Bailham’s assessment of the mother in August 2013. In her oral evidence, Dr Bailham commented that although the mother’s insight and awareness as to her past parenting had increased in relation to the sexual abuse of B and D, she had not, in other respects made the changes in her understanding of past deficits which Dr Bailham would have hoped for.
48 In her opinion, although the mother might now understand the impact of sexual abuse, she had not been horrified, remorseful or shown any real emotion when she had seen her. Until very recently she had blamed external factors for her children’s plight. Although her awareness had developed, she had not shown as much emotion or shame as would have been expected given the children’s history. Equally, her insight into the impact of domestic violence was not as much as would have been expected. Dr Bailham had not been convinced at her meeting with the mother in August 2013 that the relationship with F’s father had ended despite the mother’s efforts to persuade her that this was the case. In her opinion, given the mother’s history of relationships, it was highly likely that she would find herself in another “risky relationship” or would go back to F’s father. The mother had a juvenile and immature approach to relationships with men (akin to the way an adolescent girl perceived a relationship) and she was not wary of men nor did she think through the consequences for herself and her children in engaging in intimate relationships with men.
49 Dr Bailham felt that a major concern at interview was the mother’s lack of emotion and she felt that it would take years for the mother to come to terms with the past and be able to make real changes in her outlook on life. Ideally she would need psychotherapy for up to 4 months and then a period afterwards to see if any change had occurred. It had only been in December 2013 (after F’s birth) that there had been an indication of the mother’s understanding of her situation at a deeper level. However, in Dr Bailham’s words the mother had “only started on the journey”. In her opinion, F could not safely be placed in her care and certainly not at a time when she was undergoing psychotherapy. She would need psychotherapy without the distraction of a child and then an assessment without a child being in her home. There had been very poor parenting in the past with risk factors, which would need an extended period of assessment to determine whether any substantive changes had been made.
50 Dr Bailham felt that the mother would struggle having D and E in her care, as these two children were emotionally damaged by what they had seen at home while in their mother’s care. In her professional opinion, a further assessment of the mother was not required because much more time was needed to assess whether the mother could make significant changes in her parenting to enable her to care safely for any of her children. An assessment carried out in the next two months would not enable Dr Bailham (from a professional perspective) to be in a better position to advise the court on a subsequent occasion.
51 Dr Bailham felt that the mother had misinformed her at the interview about her ongoing relationship with F’s father and she commented that bearing in mind the abuse of B and D, she wondered why she had continued in a relationship with a man she knew very little about. It was, in her opinion, very worrying that the mother had told the guardian that the risks associated with F’s father were exaggerated. In August 2013, the mother had referred to the children being “supposedly” sexually abused and had appeared to have an emotional disconnection from her children. Although she had started to show some insight following her attendance at various programmes, the progress had been “incredibly slow” and there was not enough evidence to show that this could be maintained over time.
52 Although Dr Bailham said in cross-examination that she would be happy to re-assess the mother, her principal concern was the amount of time that it had taken the mother to reach the level of insight, which she had now about her inadequate past care of her children. There was a repeating pattern of the mother choosing to have relationships with abusive men, which had disastrous consequences. She queried, in this context, how the mother could change her ways and moderate her impulsive relationship choices. The mother did not understand about domestic violence until she started the programmes and her low self-esteem was likely to continue to put her in very risky situations. Dr Bailham said that the mother was very literal in her thinking and that although she took concepts on board, it was “questionable whether she could integrate this into her own thinking and put it into practice”.
53 She said that she could assess the mother now, but any changes would only occur later and the mother’s very late insight into how the children had been treated when they had been in her care called into question whether she had the ability to go back to the job of parenting again. She had started the journey, but had a long way to go and needed a lot of therapy to change. In August 2013 she had showed no empathy towards the children and had not seen the situation from their perspective at all. She had now shown some changes in this regard but late in the day.
54 In Dr Bailham’s professional opinion, there was no need for any further assessment of the mother. If any assessment was ordered by the court this would be better focussed on the mother’s ability to care for F only as the prospect of her caring for all three children would be a real challenge for the mother. The mother would struggle greatly with the parenting of D and E who had specific behavioural difficulties. Dr Bailham said that psychotherapy was essential for the mother to address her historic problems and that it was not enough for her to reflect on her relationship patterns and show insight in this regard; she needed psychotherapy in order to understand and address the need for her to change as a parent. There was a lot of work to be done.
55 The author of the parenting assessment said in evidence that while the mother now had some awareness of domestic violence, which would hopefully aid her decision making process, the concerns about her overall parenting capacity were still viable. The children needed a parent who was able to meet their needs and it was clear from their behaviour now just how much their previous care from their mother had impacted on their development.
56 At contact the mother had struggled to focus on the individual needs of the children and given the behavioural problems of D and E, there were real concerns about how the mother could care for them without boundaries, which she was unlikely or unable to put in place. There was no real evidence that the mother was moving on and she still believed that F’s father had had a positive parental role in the children’s life even though B had expressed a negative view of F’s father. In her opinion, changes in the mother had been initiated but not completed. When she had been the social worker for the children, the mother had attended CORAM but had been unable to put the advice, which she had received into practice and it had been only after F’s birth that she had acknowledged the need for change. She had not been proactive earlier in addressing her problems.
57 In her oral evidence F’s social worker stated that if the aunt’s further assessment was not positive, she would maintain her recommendation that it was in F’s best interests to be placed for adoption. Having heard from Dr Bailham she could not see how a further assessment could be of any value. The mother needed psychotherapy, which would take time. F was a young baby who needed permanency and stability in her life. At the moment, although the mother had engaged with professionals, there was no evidence that the work she had undertaken was sufficient for F to be returned to her care. F could not wait for her mother to change. She said in cross-examination that if a child was at risk in a parent’s home, it did not matter whether the issue was one of insight or failure to protect and that the critical issue was about a child’s overall safety when living with a parent. Dr Bailham had recommended psychotherapy for the mother, which was not a short piece of work and had not started yet. F could not be safely placed with her mother while she was undergoing psychotherapy. There was therefore, in her opinion, no benefit to be derived from any further assessment of the mother at this juncture.
58 The mother told the court in evidence that she had attended Coram, Women’s Aid, SERICC and WISP to enhance her insight into giving the children a better life. She accepted that she had not had insight previously. She had found that the courses had been very helpful. She said that when the children had been with her, things were not as they should have been and that she had low self-esteem, which she had now been able to build up. She now realised that her children’s needs were greater than her own. Previously there had been no real boundaries in the home but she could now put these in place.
59 She said that although F’s father had seemed a nice person at first she had subsequently realised that he had criminal offences and she had not wanted to continue a relationship with him. She now understood the sort of person that he was and would now be able to make a decision about him based on his “actions, body gestures and verbals”. She still considered, however, that he had been good with the children. She had not seen any frightening behaviour on his part towards any of the children and the description of his behaviour towards F during contact (as recorded by the guardian in her final analysis) was behaviour she had never seen before. She had never met any members of F’s father’s family.
60 In the future, if she met someone she would set a test and see what they were like; if there were “red flags” she would finish the relationship. She said that D and E could be challenging but that now she could deal with this and she knew that she could manage to care for the three youngest children. She was no longer as stressed as she used to be. She said that D had never behaved towards her as the guardian had described in her report (when the foster carers had taken her on the London underground) and that, in her opinion, there had been no need for the foster parents to change tube five times as a result of D’s behaviour. She considered that any behavioural problems with the children were because they were now in care and did not stem from the parenting, which they had received from her.
61 The mother agreed that she needed to undertake psychotherapy and she was willing to do anything if it meant that the children would return home. She said, however, that it was not necessary for her to do the work before the children came home and that with a bit of support, she could look after all three children and they would be safe. She said that she could deal with any challenges, which were presented to her.
62 In her oral evidence the guardian said that the mother had demonstrated a clear willingness to want to change but she was concerned that she had “struggled quite considerably with the understanding of concepts which had been discussed with her and her ability to internalise those concepts”. She had been a parent for 12 years and there had been entrenched difficulties over a long period of time, which could not be rectified without a lot of support. The mother needed to understand how and why changes needed to be made and to be empathetic towards the children’s needs. D and E had both demonstrated challenging behaviour and as they had not been diagnosed with any particular difficulties, their behaviour had to be attributed to their experiences and care to date.
63 Having regard to the oral evidence of Dr Bailham, the guardian saw no benefit or necessity for a further assessment to be carried out within the next 8 weeks. She said that although the mother had taken the words of the professionals on board, there was some doubt about how much she had understood. Although the mother could recognise that the professionals had serious concerns, she could not see the concerns. She continued to struggle with the concept of F’s father posing any risk to F when he had been a good father figure to the older children. She could not link the past experiences of her children (and particularly D and E) to their present behaviour in foster care. The mother was, in the guardian’s opinion, quite naive to suggest that because she had attended a few sessions of Coram she had now sufficient parenting skills to deal with the “concerning behaviour” exhibited by D and E.
64 In relation to future contact between the mother and D and E if they remained in foster care, the guardian considered that monthly contact was appropriate with contact reducing initially to fortnightly and then moving to monthly. She said that there had to be a distinction made between the three older children staying in the family (and seeing the mother fortnightly) and the situation if D and E were placed in long term foster care. It was important for D and E to have a proper sense of belonging to a long term foster family. The purpose of contact to the mother was to retain their identity not to enhance their relationship with their mother with a view to reunification. There should also be three weekly contact between the siblings.
65 Conclusion: I have referred to the evidence at some length in this judgment because I am acutely conscious of the mother’s wish to care for D, E and F and her genuine belief that having engaged on various programmes since the children were removed from her care, she is now able to care competently for them within her home. I start from the premise that if at all possible children should be brought up within their birth family rather than cared for within a foster placement outside the family. My decision in this case requires particular analysis because in this large sibling group, the three oldest children are to remain within the extended birth family living in the home of the maternal grandfather. My starting point in this judgment is therefore to recognise the benefits for all the children remaining within the family if at all possible and to consider, very carefully, whether this mother has made changes in her parenting which would enable the court to be confident either now or in the foreseeable future, that the three youngest children could be safely returned to her care.
66 An arrangement whereby the six children remained within the family would of course lead to far greater flexibility in the interrelationships between the siblings and, as the guardian pointed out, would enhance their individual sense of identity in knowing that they belonged within the same family group and were treated equally and fairly. I am only too well aware that a long-term foster placement brings with it a degree of uncertainty and a potential lack of stability particularly as children in a foster placement grow older and realise that the arrangements within the foster home do not mirror the arrangements of their friends who are not engaged with the care system. I also recognise that there is always stigma, from a child’s perspective associated with being “a child in care.”
67 That said and while long term foster care is not an ideal placement for children, it is an arrangement whereby children who cannot live with their parents are cared for by individuals committed to care for them in a safe and consistent manner and where, significantly, children are not exposed to harmful situations within the home. I am quite clear from all that I have read that all of the mother’s children (save F) suffered significant harm while they were in her care. They were at best neglected having been denied any stimulus or meaningful emotional rapport from their mother and at worst were subjected to physical abuse by various of the mother’s partners whom, in my judgment, the mother clearly prioritised over her young dependent children. The mother appeared to move seamlessly between unsuitable partners (reuniting and having another child with one particularly violent individual) and, in my judgment, she had no sense of responsibility towards the children.
68 Her last partner and father of F may have been a less violent individual from the mother’s perspective but there are clear indications from more recent disclosures from B that she was scared of him and there may have been some sexualised behaviour on his part towards her while he was living with the mother. Moreover, F’s father was prepared to support the arrangement whereby the children were cared for by totally unsuitable babysitters in early 2013 who sexually abused both D and B while he and the mother and went out socialising on a regular basis. In my judgment, the situation in the mother’s household in April 2013 (the date of the referral to social services) represented a level of care given by the mother to her (then) five children which was chaotic and damaging to the physical and emotional welfare of these young vulnerable children. Although I fully accept that this mother never set out to be cruel to her children and that the harm caused to them was not deliberate, I am entirely satisfied that she had, until fairly recently, a completely misguided confidence about the way in which she had cared for the children which was borne out by evidence of her anger - not remorse- in the months following the children’s removal from her care. It was clear from Dr Bailham’s report and her evidence during the final hearing, that in August 2013 (4 months after the children were removed) the mother could not see anything wrong about her previous parenting of the children and she not only lacked any empathy towards her children having no insight whatsoever into the harm which individually and jointly they had suffered while living with her at home.
69 I am entirely satisfied that this mother only woke up to the realities of the situation once her own mother could no longer care for D and E when these children were placed outside the family and the mother’s unrestricted contact to her children ceased. The placement of D and E in foster care combined with the removal of F after her birth in November 2013 were, as I find, the trigger for the mother’s realisation that she bore primary responsibility for her children’s circumstances and their separation from each other. I do believe that the mother has now made some progress emotionally towards understanding why the children were removed from her care. Nevertheless, it is, in my judgment, very early days.
70 I found that when the mother gave evidence at the hearing, she adopted the professional views of those who had been advising her on various programmes without really recognising how she would do things differently in the future if she cared for the three youngest children. By way of example, when the mother was asked about the disclosure made by B that F’s father had stayed in her bedroom while she went to sleep, the mother seemed at a loss to know how to deal with the impact of this disclosure with her answers ranging from a dramatic “if she had told me he would have been away” to subsequently adopting, with relief, a possible less sinister explanation for this behaviour.
71 I was left with the clear impression that although the mother had been taught about warning signs and dangers in relation to the risk of sexual abuse, she could not really explain how she would put into practice what she had learned if one or other of her children were or appeared to be at risk. I agree with the guardian that while the mother took on board the language of change (and described, for example, a changed “presentation” of herself) I was not convinced that, as yet, she had understood the significance of having to make huge changes in her parenting to enable the youngest children to live with her.
72 The mother has undoubtedly started on a road to change and her admission in December 2013 of previous poor parenting and her guilt about this was undoubtedly a key to moving the work forward. However, an admission alone cannot undo all the years of very poor parenting. Although the mother said that she would do any amount of psychotherapy if this meant that the children could come home, her evidence (in the face of the clearest professional evidence to the contrary) was that it was not necessary for her to do the work before she could resume care of the children and that she wanted the three youngest children to come home now. As she put it “with a bit of support, I could look after all three children and they would be safe and I could deal with any challenges”.
73 The mother has not, in my judgment, made sufficient changes at this stage of the proceedings for me to have confidence that she can provide safe and consistent care for her children. I do not consider that any further assessment of the mother by Dr Bailham in the next few months will assist the court in making final orders for the placement of D and E. There is a lot more work for the mother to do and she is only at the start of a process of change. The children cannot be expected to wait until there is an assessment, which identifies changes which are of such significance that she is able to resume parenting these children. I therefore do not accede to the application that I should defer making final orders for D and E. They have serious behavioural and developmental issues, which are, as I find, a reflection of the very poor quality of care which this mother gave her children. Moreover, it is of importance that the children want to see their mother for contact but are not asking to come home to live with her.
74 I am troubled that despite the programmes with which the mother has engaged she cannot understand how the troubled behaviour of D and E (breaking all their breakable Christmas presents and D’s behaviour on the underground while in the care of the foster mother) is a reflection of how she treated them. The mother wants to forget about the past and start again with a clean slate but I’m afraid her inability to grasp the impact of her very poor parenting on her children and her belief that all will be well once they come home, shows the limitations of her insight into what went wrong during the 12 years of parenting her children.
75 In my judgment, it would not be in the best interests and welfare of D and E to be returned to the care of their mother. I have concluded, based on all the historic and updated evidence, that the mother does not currently have the capacity to parent these children to a “good enough” standard”. At the present time, there are no identifiable changes which would enable me to conclude that it would be safe for the children to return home and I am not prepared to take chances with their future development and welfare when they have already been exposed in their short lives to a harmful environment while living with their mother.
76 I have concluded, in accordance with a careful consideration of the welfare check list in s1 of the Children Act 1989 that in circumstances where (as I find) the mother does not have the capacity to care for D and E for the foreseeable future, the only option is for them to be placed in long-term foster care. These children need finality and having given detailed reasons for the mother’s inability to care for the children, no further delay in making plans for their long term placement should be sanctioned by the court.
77 I have considered carefully whether I should order any further assessment by Dr Bailham of the mother to guide my decision making in relation to the long term placement of F. I am satisfied, having heard the evidence of Dr Bailham and the guardian that the preparation of a further assessment during the next 8 weeks and before the matter returns to court is not necessary or required to determine the placement options for F. Having concluded that the mother has not made sufficient changes at this time for me to be confident that she could look after her older children safely, I consider that it would be a misguided approach for me to offer the mother hope that as a result of a further assessment by an expert (an expert who, herself, does not think that a further assessment of the mother will be of assistance) the court might nevertheless order at a further hearing in May 2014 that F should be placed in the care of the mother. In my judgment, no further assessment of the mother is required. My criticism of her parenting of the older children are, at the present time, entirely valid in relation to the mother’s capacity to parent F. F is a young dependent child who needs constant vigilance, nurturing and committed care and I am satisfied that the mother is currently not able to meet her needs without exposing her child to the risk of harm. I therefore decline to order a supplementary assessment of the mother by Dr Bailham.
78 For the reasons given above, I make final care orders in relation to D and E as requested by the local authority. I approve the care plans for those children particularly in relation to ongoing contact between the mother and the children. I entirely accept the plan for frequent inter-sibling contact as advanced by the guardian.
79 Even though I have commented specifically on the mother’s situation in relation to her future care of F, I do not consider that it would be appropriate for me to make a final care order today in relation to F. There will be various placement avenues to explore at the hearing in May 2014 and in my judgment no final order should be made without all relevant parties (including F’s father) being able to make appropriate representations to me at court.