Haringey pays damages after conducting ‘unlawful’ child abuse probe based on anonymous letter
20:16 14 March 2013
The parents of a young girl have won a landmark case against Haringey Council after social workers broke the law investigating false child abuse claims made in a “malicious” unsigned letter.
Barrister and Liberal Democrat Cllr David Schmitz said:
“Section 47 enquiries are very serious. The judge himself observed that they can easily damage the life, career and family relationships of anyone caught up in them. If Haringey had got its way on this case, it would have got away with threatening to use their powers against innocent parents, who had done nothing more than make entirely justified complaints about the way that council officers were ignoring safeguards which are in place to protect all of us.”
The couple – who are both child protection professionals themselves – were today awarded £2,000 in damages by High Court Judge Anthony Thornton who ruled that social workers investigating the letter had breached their right to a private life.
During the course of their enquiries, social workers obtained private mobile numbers by stealth, contacted the girl’s GP and school without her parents’ permission and then contacted the girl’s aunt.
Judge Thornton ruled that a senior social work manager’s decision to elevate the investigation on the grounds that the girl was suffering, or may suffer, significant harm at her parents’ hands was both flawed and unlawful.
After receiving the letter, social workers in the council’s Service for First Response (SFR) began investigating the concerns in late April 2011, carrying out checks to see if the girl had ever come to the attention of the police.
The letter Haringey Council received
Dear Social Workers
Worried about the family living at [full postal address given].
I am a neighbour of the family living at the above address and I have some very big worries about how they are looking after the young girl in the house. I think the little girl is about 7 years old and there (sic) girl. The mother is always screaming at the little girl shouting and screaming. I have seen the mother pulling the little girl along by her arm and slapping her. The little girl looks so unhappy she is not allowed to speak to anyone and when you see her in the street the little girl looks very sad and never raises her head to look at you. There is often shouting late at night from the house. The man in the house is much older and could be granddad or a lodger.
I am worried to talk to the family because they don’t speak but I know they have been rude to other people in the street. Please could you make sure that the little girl is alright
They then unlawfully contacted the girl’s GP and her school, without her parents’ knowledge. Judge Thornton said the request sent to the GP contained “the erroneous information” that Haringey was, among other lies, already working with the family.
He added: “These were serious departures from permissible practice and these actions were unlawful.”
The first either parent knew of the investigation was when a student social worker called them on the husband’s private mobile phone two days into the probe.
The father said he was “flabbergasted”, while the mother told the student the letter was ridiculous – and reeled off serious procedural errors the social workers had already made.
Aside from going behind their back to their daughter’s GP and school, the social workers had not carried out an initial risk assessment to ascertain whether an investigation was even needed.
No visit had been made to see if the girl had been subjected to serious harm, or was at risk of it.
The social workers’ conduct had also put the careers of both parents at risk, and none of the appropriate steps had been taken which would have enabled an objective and fair decision to be taken.
The case was passed to the student’s manger, Jeffrey Baker, who called the mother on another mobile number they had obtained without permission.
She admits raising her voice at him in frustration at the SFR team’s unprofessional conduct – a reason Mr Baker later used to claim the threshold for the girl being defined as vulnerable had “definitely been met” as he believed mother and daughter were in a car together during the call.
The mother then complained to the head of Haringey’s Children and Young People’s Service by email on May 4, claiming her family were only being assessed “as a result of a maliciously motivated and bizarre anonymous letter”, the judgement says.
The same day, Mr Baker passed the case to his manager, SFR’s head of service Sylvia Chew. Less than 48 hours later a letter was in the post from Ms Chew telling the parents she had escalated the case to a Section 47 enquiry – an in-depth, multi-agency assessment which requires reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant physical, emotional or psychological harm.
Judge Thornton said the “so-called decision, on analysis, appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction to seeing [the mother’s] email to the director of service” and was an “ill-considered wish” that Ms Chew actually “never implemented” as due process was not followed.
Even if it had gone ahead, said the judge, the enquiry would have been “wholly unreasonable”, “unsustainable” and “unlawful”.
It was another three days before Mr Baker and social worker Katherine Mawdsley visited the family for the first time to interview them and their daughter separately. They reported that they had “no concerns” and recommended the case be closed.
Ms Mawdsley noted in her report: “It is my opinion that it is highly likely that the referral received was malicious”.
Cllr Katherine Reece, Haringey’s Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, said: “It is such a shame that Haringey has been found to have failed yet again. In this case they have been found to have acted overzealously resulting in a breach of parents’ rights.
“This comes on top of the recent case of the Haringey baby left on a bus by a foster carer; they can’t get the balance right.
“These two cases confirm that despite recent progress Haringey Council’s children services still have a long way to go and still require improvement.”
A Haringey Council spokesman said: ”Our handling of this case fell below the standards that we would expect, and we apologise to the family concerned. We are committed to learning from the findings of the court as we continue to make improvements to our child protection and safeguarding systems.”