A grandmother who wanted to care for her grandchild had to fight a local authority with no lawyer after a social worker recommended that the baby be put up for adoption.
As the parents were unable to look after the baby, the paternal grandmother – who cannot be named to protect the child’s identity – put herself forward to be the special guardian, similar to a foster carer.
The case, heard in Gloucester’s family court last month, could not be reported until now because Gloucestershire County Council was demanding anonymity. After this was challenged by BuzzFeed News, The Guardian and the BBC, a judge ruled on Monday that they should be named and that the grandmother’s account of her experience should be made public.
The case raises questions about the challenges faced by families trying to get the legal help they need to hold on to children.
More people than ever are becoming special guardians for their relatives’ children - and most of these are grandparents. As changes to legal aid eligibility make it harder to get free legal help in family law cases, many will be facing these battles alone.
The grandmother told BuzzFeed News: “I was told that it would cost me between £10,000 and £12,000 had there been a full hearing.… That would have been a joke, that’s my income for a year.”
Gloucestershire children’s services were judged “inadequate” by Ofsted earlier this year. The inspection report said it had “serious concerns about the integrity of the current senior leadership team” and that it was prompted by “an unprecedented number of whistleblowing concerns”.
Following the inspection the local authority insisted it had made changes “immediately”, but this grandmother’s experience happened afterwards.
The grandmother, a professional who works with children, initially received what the judge described as “very positive and full assessments” about her suitability as a carer. However, more than five months after care proceedings began it was followed by a second negative report from another independent social worker who questioned her commitment. At this point, the social work team recommended that the baby instead be put up for adoption.
The guardian, which represents the best interests of children in court proceedings, disagreed with Gloucestershire’s assessment of the grandmother and was critical of the delay it had caused.
When the case came to court, the judge ordered that the grandmother should become the baby’s special guardian after all. Describing the hearing, the judge said the grandmother had “expressed profound dissatisfaction about the way in which she had been assessed and treated”.
The protracted battle has meant the baby only recently joined the grandmother after a long stay in foster care.
Care decisions are meant to be made within a maximum of 26 weeks but despite the baby being taken into care shortly after being born, it has taken more than seven months for it to be finally agreed that the grandmother may become a special guardian.
She said in a statement to the court that the experiences had left her “utterly exhausted and feeling shattered by the lack of kindness and understanding I experienced in such a painful context”.
Commenting on the delays, she said: “Ultimately, and above all, this baby has remained far longer than was justifiable, in foster care. Her parents have experienced a protracted agony of uncertainty. And, we go forward without full medical understanding [of the baby’s health].”
Last month BuzzFeed News revealed the number of people seeking help to represent themselves in court because they had no lawyer had risen by 520% since 2011. Since cuts to legal aid were brought in by the coalition government in 2012, it is harder than ever to get free legal help in family law cases.
Despite having a low income the grandmother in this case was told she was unable to get legal aid because she owns her house. She was offered half an hour of free legal advice but not any representation in court.
“Some of it is way out of my depth,” she said of the legal process. “It’s a joke. The local authority has a barrister. It’s shocking because this whole thing consists of something so deeply personal and these people have never met most of the people involved and they are there judging you. It’s a very nerve wracking thing where there’s so much at stake to be feeling that you don’t have complete command of the terminology and the protocol.”
The case was heard by Judge Stephen Wildblood, who gave an exclusive interview to BuzzFeed News earlier this month about his efforts to help people appearing in court without lawyers.
Following representations from BuzzFeed News, the BBC and The Guardian, the judge ruled that the arguments in favour of identifying it were “overwhelming” and that the council had not got “anywhere near” justifying anonymity.
Gloucestershire argued – along with the court guardian – that naming the local authority might risk identifying the child. The council also argued against the facts of the allegations and even that airing the grandmother’s complaint risked “making retention and recruitment of social workers more difficult”.
The judge paid tribute to the grandmother as “an intelligent and courteous woman” who had “put herself out considerably to offer her grandchild the opportunity of being cared for within the natural family".
The solicitor representing the interests of the child in court, said in a foreword to the grandmother’s statement that she was “a capable and educated grandmother who has successfully raised her own family as a single parent".
They added: “It can be seen that she felt unsupported through the assessment and that it was a difficult and protracted process. While rigorous assessment is of course important in the process of considering family members as prospective special guardians, what this grandmother writes raises important questions about whether there needs to be a re-evaluation by local authorities nationally of how family members putting themselves forward in these situations can be better prepared, informed and supported through the process.”
According to the grandmother, the second negative assessment by a social worker was based on “a very narrow interpretation of my character and behaviour”. Among the reasons described by the grandmother for the adoption recommendation, were that she did not immediately take the baby home from hospital and that she asked for a medical assessment and to find out what financial help she might be able to receive.
“It was put to me that I had failed because I had not wanted to take the baby straight home from hospital,” she wrote. “That I ought to be expressing that I wanted her. I reason that this is a vast decision for anyone to make, and that to respond purely emotionally or instinctively would be a less appropriate way to decide. I have been very open about my deliberations and judged negatively for that.”
She added: “It was put to me by her that I ought to express commitment in the absence of clear health understanding or a financial assessment, which I felt was an outrageous transfer of responsibility from the local authority to me for their failings [to provide that information].”
She says she was told by the local authority that no financial support would be offered to help her care for the baby and that she “was ineligible even for assessment”. But after going to charities for advice she discovered she was in fact eligible.
In a stinging attack on the Gloucestershire county council, she said: “It has seemed that the local authority is unused to being questioned or called to account for their conduct, decisions or even their misinformation. Emails are frequently not acknowledged, questions not answered most of the time. When false information or advice is given it leads to a great deal of anxiety and sometimes extra costs. This has happened throughout this process. Yet no one takes responsibility for their actions. It struck me that social workers are unused to the clients they work with demanding to be treated with respect, honesty and efficiency. There is a reliance on procedure without examining the particulars of a situation.”
She added: “I would hope that by airing these facts that those concerned might improve their practice. The central cog in this process needs to be well informed, efficient and dare I say kind, in such a sensitive situation. Their actions have cost me around £700 in legal fees which ought not to have been needed. I could have left this court with no financial support if I had not undertaken to investigate independently and share my knowledge with the local authority, to press for adherence to the Department for Education guidelines.”
Speaking about the challenge of fighting a local authority without legal backup, she told BuzzFeed News: “I’m a bit of a warrior. You’re either a warrior or you buckle.”
In her court statement she says: “I have wondered how this would have ended if I had been a less vocal, expressive or determined person. I am under no doubt that this baby may have been adopted, that others may be, because many people who find themselves in this position do not have the personal resources to cope effectively.
“It has left me utterly exhausted and feeling shattered by the lack of kindness and understanding I experienced in such a painful context. To add insult to injury, I am accused of being problematically subject to stress by the social worker for the baby in her final statement.”
BuzzFeed News attended a hearing in Gloucestershire earlier this month expecting the grandmother to read out a statement about her experience. Instead, the hearing was dominated by Gloucestershire County Council’s attempt to get their name expunged from any reporting.
Neelam Bhardwaja, interim improvement and operations director at Gloucestershire County Council, said: “The council’s only motivation has been to protect this child’s right to privacy. Our concerns are also shared by the child’s independent representative - the voice of the child in court. We know that taking responsibility for a young child is a huge decision and can be very stressful. We acted with integrity and kindness towards everyone involved in this case, as well as providing financial support including paying for some independent legal advice.
"The council would like to go into more detail on the issues raised as we did in court, but we don’t believe this is in the best interests of the child. Also, the judge made it very clear that he was not commenting on these issues, but on what information could be reported by the media.
“We feel confident this child has the loving and committed family they need and we support the special guardianship arrangements.”
Concluding her statement about the case, the grandmother wrote: “The Order of Special Guardianship has now been made. I will love and care for this baby in every way. She will enjoy contact with her parents and develop a positive sense of Identity, drawing on the love of her family and our wonderful friends.”
- This story was amended to update Gloucestershire County Council's response.