17 October, 2019
Re H (A Child) (Refusal of placement order)  EWCA Civ 1557
On 12 September 2019, the Court of Appeal held that an 18-month adjournment of care proceedings concerning a baby, who was 7 months old at the time of the judgement, to allow time for the parents to make sustained changes, is prejudicial to the child's welfare.
The child had been placed in foster care at birth because of concerns that she would be at risk of physical and/or emotional harm due to the parents' chaotic lifestyle. The parents had a history of cocaine, heroin and alcohol abuse and failed to engage with appropriate services. Over 40 police calls to attend domestic violence incidents had been made concerning the couple and the mother suffered with her mental health and had previously attempted suicide.
HJ Greensmith had found that the parents were committed to change because they had found suitable accommodation, they had reported a reduction in their drug use and the father had recently gained employment. Though HJ Greensmith acknowledged that there had been continuing incidents of domestic violence, he found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the parents would change sufficiently soon enough in the child's lifetime. HJ Greensmith therefore made an interim care plan by which the child would stay in foster care for 12-15 months to allow the parents to demonstrate change.
Baker LJ allowed the appeal and found that the order made by HJ Greensmith was deficient. The parents' self-reporting about their drug use did not correspond with test results. In fact, the father had been using cannabis, heroin and codeine in the months leading up to the hearing. HJ Greensmith did not deal with the recent domestic violence reports and Baker LJ emphasised the harm that domestic abuse may cause children and stated that, "[u]nless this issue is addressed head-on and tackled by the parents, it is difficult to envisage any court placing a child in their care". Baker LJ had failed to find evidence that the parents were committed to change and the father had even expressed his unwillingness to undergo the therapy that was recommended.
Although adoption is a last resort and a child, where possible, should be brought up within their birth family, Baker LJ found it "difficult to envisage any case where it would be appropriate to wait as long as 18 months before making a decision about whether a 7 month old child should be placed for adoption".
Although a two-year-old child is "adoptable", children make crucial attachments in their first two years and postponing any decision until the baby had reached such age would increase the difficulty of achieving a successful placement.
Baker LJ remitted the case for a rehearing and concluded that the decision was wrong in principle.
In this case, the Court of Appeal confirms that an 18-month delay is never unjustifiable. However, it is difficult to envisage circumstances when it would be appropriate. Though there sometimes can be good reasons to adjourn care proceedings, this case has reinforced the need to be aware that the passage of time has consequences on children, particularly young children, as in this instance. The Court of Appeal considered the no delay principle found in section 1(2) of the Children Act 1989 coupled with the lacking evidence of the parents' dedication and ability to change within the child's timescale to come to the finding that the adjournment would be prejudicial to the child's welfare. This case therefore restates the importance of prompt decision making in matters involving children and confirms that the Courts will look meticulously at any evidence put before them.