Judge raps care 'failures' in paedophile case

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The Independent Online

A High Court judge investigating a mother with learning difficulties whose children became victims of a dangerous paedophile has strongly condemned the way the case was handled by a county's social services.

Mr Justice Baker expressed alarm that Kent County Council had failed to comply with Government guidance on working with parents with a learning disability.

The background to the case demonstrated "a catalogue of failure by the local authority to take steps which might have protected the family and prevented the abuse of the children in this family", said the judge.

He said: "If there are local learning disability protocols in existence in Kent, none of the social workers called in this case was aware of them."

The judge called on Kent "urgently to review its practice".

He said: "I hope that those with responsibility within the authority learn the lessons of this tragic story."

All social workers, and family support workers, working with children and families needed "to be trained to recognise and deal with parents with learning disabilities".

Mr Justice Baker, a High Court Family Division judge, called for action in a ruling given recently, but revealed for the first time today.

The judge said the case concerned a mother of several children, three of whom had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a paedophile who pleaded guilty and was jailed for a number of sexual offences against them and other children.

The three were a girl, who can only be identified as X, now aged 16, Y, a 15-year-old boy, and Z, a girl aged seven.

The mother was befriended by the man following the breakdown of a previous relationship in 2007 and her being moved by a police domestic violence unit to bed and breakfast accommodation.

When the man moved out of the B&B shortly afterwards, the children started to visit him and stay overnight at his new address.

Kent council had concluded that all three had suffered significant harm, caused in part by a failure of their mother to give them reasonable care.

The judge said the county council had started care proceedings under the 1989 Children Act, and he had been called in to determine whether the council's conclusions were correct.

A "number of alarming matters" had come to light about the practices and procedures of the authority, which might also concern other local authorities.

The judge said he was only too aware of the difficulty facing Kent and other local authorities with the squeeze on their resources.

The case had also highlighted concerns about the work of other agencies - "there are lessons here for the court, the police, counsel and politicians".

The government had published in 2007 guidance entitled "Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability".

The judge said the clear impression he had formed from the evidence of the Kent social workers called to give evidence before him "is that they were completely unfamiliar with the guidance".

During the proceedings, the director of the county's specialist children's services group had told him that work had begun on "developing a policy in relation to learning difficulties" which would be completed this year.

Meanwhile, all staff would be reminded of the guidance and the need to seek specialist assessments where appropriate.

The judge said he would be "carefully scrutinising" future work carried out with the single mother to ensure the guidance was followed.

He said a series of errors and omissions by the council staff included failing to investigate the "manifestly worrying information" that the children of the mother were staying with a single man.

The local authority was obliged to have in place a system for monitoring private fostering arrangements, but there had been a "deplorable breach of duty", said the judge.

If it had carried out its duties properly and conducted a proper assessment, the truth about the true identity of the paedophile, who was using another name, would have come to light sooner.

"As it is, his true identity remained a secret for another year, during which time he was free to commit acts of sexual abuse on children, including the children of this family."

The judge also criticised the local authority's "seriously deficient" record-keeping and its "wholly unsatisfactory piecemeal and haphazard" disclosure of documents.

The judge said an Ofsted inspection in 2010 had concluded that services in Kent to safeguard and protect children were inadequate and did not meet minimum requirements. The case before him demonstrated that that assessment was correct.

He said it would be "hypocritical" not to acknowledge that the court had also fallen short and, if it had had a stronger grasp of the detailed facts at an earlier stage, different decisions might have been made and unnecessary delays avoided.

The police, too, had failed to carry out checks which could possibly have led to the identification of the paedophile abuser earlier.

The abuser had also been assisted by his local MP in acquiring a new National Insurance number after saying he was suffering from amnesia. This had helped him obtain a new identity.

The judge said it might be that some thought needed to be given as to whether greater caution should be exercised by MPs before giving help of that sort to a constituent.

He concluded: "There will always be people who seek to commit wicked crimes on children.

"All professionals involved in child protection must seek to improve their practice to ensure that, as far as possible, children and vulnerable young adults like this mother are protected from their predations."