A local council was scathingly criticised in the High Court today over its treatment of two children who have spent years caring for their invalid, wheelchair-bound father.
Deputy Judge Belinda Bucknall QC told lawyers for Essex County Council: "I take a pretty firm view of the way in which your clients have behaved".
The judge described how, for the past three years the boy, now aged 13, and his 11-year-old sister had desperately needed the council to help them.
Their father is severely disabled and suffers from a degenerative and debilitating disorder.
"They needed quite a modest intervention from your clients, but did not get it," said the judge.
"They were three, really important, formative years in their lives.
"There have been serious failures on behalf of your clients to comply with court orders."
The judge told Lisa Busch, appearing for Essex County Council: "They really must, this time, pick up the ball and do what is necessary before any further damage is done to these young children."
The judge's comments came as she approved settlement of a High Court action brought on behalf of the children, who cannot be named or identified.
Under the order the county council has agreed to accept that both are "children in need" under the 1989 Children Act and therefore entitled to be provided with support and assistance.
The council has also agreed to produce within 21 days "a lawful and realistic care plan" to meet the children's needs in the light of their father's deteriorating health.
It also provides for them to have access to a "suitable and responsible" carer in the event of a family emergency, such as their father being taken into hospital.
The brother and sister are also each to be provided with regular respite breaks at the council's expense of at least 20 hours a week.
Papers lodged with the court by the Children's Legal Centre, which is based in Essex, had described "significant and worrying" developments in the children's personal circumstances.
Lawyers for the children said they had lived with their father since around Christmas 2003 after leaving their mother, at whose hands they had suffered emotional neglect and abuse.
The father had obtained a residence order for the children, and they had become his long-term carers.
He suffered from irritable bowel, diabetes, short concentration and poor memory.
Essex council's adult social services and children's services departments had been fully aware for at least two years of the long-term impact of his illness on daily living and the emotional well-being of the family.
But it had refused repeated requests, including those from the children's paternal grandmother, for financial and practical assistance for the family, though "many empty and unfulfilled promises" had been made, said the children's lawyers in their written submissions.
The boy was suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of coping with his father's illness.
He had refused at one time to attend school fearing that he would come home and find his father had been taken into intensive care, or worse.
His sister wet the bed and suffered from night tremors.
The bulk of the father's care fell to the children, and included cooking, cleaning, helping their father with medication, and getting into and out of his wheelchair.
They also helped with bathing him.
The evidence from the Children's Legal Centre described how the father's condition was characterised by unpredictable relapses and remissions.
Over the past two-and-a-half years he had been taken to hospital in an emergency on at least four occasions.
On one, doctors gave him a 50/50 chance of survival after he fell victim to necrotising fascitis, a life-threatening flesh-eating disease. On another occasion he spent months in hospital with a broken back caused by the weakening of his bones.
On each occasion he had to leave his children at home, until the children's lawyers intervened.
There were no other family members able or willing to look after the children when he was suddenly taken ill.
Despite "assertions of benevolence", the council had "closed the children's file" in or around July 2009, and the pair had not seen their allocated social worker for at least six months.
The lawyers said it was also understood that the father had also not seen his allocated adult social worker for some time, and had not had a community care review of his needs since May or June 2008. .
The children's lawyers came to the High Court arguing that Essex council was unlawfully refusing to accept they were "children in need". It also apparently did not recognise them as young carers, despite previously having done so, said the lawyers.
They contended that Essex had never carried out a "lawful and accurate" assessment of the children's needs, or produced a care plan with safeguards to protect them when their father was taken ill.
The father had stopped going to medical appointments for fear that he would be hospitalised and his children stranded, and he had turned away ambulances from his home.
The case last came to court after a crisis in August. The father was unexpectedly and urgently admitted into intensive care with suspected swine flu and a blood infection. The previous month the family had been in quarantine for MRSA.
The children's lawyers said the council "did nothing to step into the fold and provide the children with suitable support and respite care".
On August 26 the lawyers obtained an emergency order from deputy High Court judge David Elvin QC that support and assistance, including full-time respite care, be provided.
Today Judge Bucknall was told the court order had not been complied with, and led to her strong condemnation of the council in open court.
After hearing that the council was now taking action, the judge said: "I hope the matter does not come back here again."
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