Page last updated at 18:08 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 19:08 UK

Judges criticise social workers in Devon and Greenwich

A judge at the Court of Appeal has criticised attempts by Devon social workers to take a baby away from his teenage mother and have him adopted.

Lord Justice Aikens said it was likely to be perceived as "more like Stalin's Russia... than the west of England."

Lawyers for Devon County Council later withdrew their appeal.

In a separate case social workers in Greenwich, London, were criticised for their lack of support for a mother who was trying to get her children back.

The first priority had to be for the welfare and protection of a vulnerable child
Devon County Council

The Devon case involved teenage mother S and her baby son H.

County council lawyers were appealing against a previous judgement that the mother should be allowed a last chance to prove she was fit to keep her child.

They argued that she formed relationships which put herself and her baby at risk and it was in his best interests that he be placed in foster care and adopted.

Lord Justice Aikens, sitting alongside Lord Justice Wall, said there was no evidence that the mother had maltreated her baby in any way, or that the violent father of her first child would have anything to do with him.

He said the perception might be that social workers were effectively saying to the mother "whatever you do doesn't make any difference, we are going to take your child away".

"That is more like Stalin's Russia or Mao's China than the west of England," he added.

Final chance

The judges said they were not saying S could keep her baby but wanted her to have a final chance to prove her son would be safe with her.

A spokesperson for Devon County Council said: "This is a difficult and complex case in which the county council's first priority had to be for the welfare and protection of a vulnerable child.

"It was the view... that a care order was the most effective way of providing an appropriate level of protection for the child concerned."

The council is now planning to review its position.

The Greenwich appeal case involved a mother seeking the return of her five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

They were taken into care after the girl was taken into hospital with a broken arm and doctors decided the injury was not an accident.

In October a judge made a full care order in favour of Greenwich Council after concluding that the children's father was to blame for the injury and the mother was still in contact with him.

Denied help

On Friday Lady Justice Smith, Lord Justice Wall and Mrs Justice Baron set that judgement aside.

Lord Justice Wall ruled the local authority ought to have made it clear to the mother that she was expected to prove that she was no longer in contact with the father.

He said: "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."

He added that social workers were perceived by many as the "arrogant and enthusiastic removers of children from their parents" and that their aim should be to "unite families rather than separate them."

However, he did acknowledge that social workers faced "difficult tasks" and were often "damned if they do and damned if they do not."

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