The failings by the north-east local authority are so severe the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has placed its report before the Scottish Parliament today to ensure all other councils note its 15 recommendations to prevent a repeat of the actions which left a family “traumatised”.
Moray Council social workers, along with police, removed two girls from their family home within five months of their mum seeking support for her eldest child who is autistic, and over the course of two years continually breached their own regulations and policies.
The inquiry report by SPSO states that social workers failed to provide clear assessments of risk, made unfounded allegations about the mum’s mental health, and denied the children the right to attend hearings about their care or include their feelings and views in what was happening to them.
They also placed the older child in a residential home for teenagers when she was only 11, and the other into foster care, without any attempt to have them live with extended family, despite offers from grandparents - and even failed to inform the parents when the younger child was hospitalised after being taken into care.
Further, the ombudsman said it was “deeply concerning” that when complaints were raised with the council, it did not act on them.
“The impact of these failings, both on Mrs A and her children should not be underestimated. This, together with the lost opportunity to learn lessons from the case when the complaints were first raised means the potential that these failings could re-occur, has not been acted on. This is deeply concerning,” the report states.
It adds that the report has been made public “because of the significant personal injustice to Mrs A and her family arising from the failures identified; including significant local complaint procedure failings.”
The Scotsman understands the mother only had her eldest daughter returned when she moved to another local authority district, while her youngest is now living with her estranged husband.
The family cannot be named for legal purposes, but the mother said: “Our family was torn apart and our children traumatised and damaged by their treatment by the social work service of Moray Council.
"Asking for assistance and support in coping with a child with special needs led to us experiencing a nightmare of aggressive and unprofessional interventions, and the unnecessary and traumatic removal of the children by uniformed police. Worse, our children had to suffer over 18 months of loss of the love and care of their family while they were in the “care” of the council.”
She said other agencies involved in the case had apologised but added: “Moray Council has consistently refused to acknowledge the damage it has inflicted. The children’s trust in adults has been broken and both have suffered dreadfully.”
Today the council said it accepted the findings of the SPSO and would “issue apologies to all involved”.
But the ruling comes just four months after SPSO also criticised Moray Council for failing in its duties to support another vulnerable youngster, and was ordered to improve its complaints handling process.
Maggie Mellon, of the Parents Advocacy and Rights (PAR) charity, which supported the mother in her complaint against Moray Council, said the local authority’s actions sounded a warning to all parents.
“If this committed and capable mother could lose her children, and the children suffer separation from each other and from their entire family for nearly two years, it could happen to any family,” she said. “This is especially where there are one or more children with special needs.
“I am very pleased that the SPSO has recognised the seriousness of the failings of Moray Council in this case. It is disturbing that senior managers in the council consistently refused to recognise the concerns about their decisions and actions that were brought to them very early on by firstly the family and then by me in my professional capacity.”
She added: “Two of the senior managers involved have since moved on to be Chief Social Work Officers in larger councils. They both were personally involved in rejecting all attempts to have an earlier resolution, ignoring all evidence of breaches of regulations and guidance and of their own advertised policies.
“The individual social workers pursued a damaging course of action based on unbalanced and unprofessional judgements, but it was the duty of their managers to challenge not to blindly support them. It is also very disappointing that there was no challenge from health, education, or any part of the children’s hearings system to protect these children.”
A spokesperson for Moray Council said: “We accept the findings of the SPSO and will issue apologies to those involved. We have also liaised with SPSO and agreed a number of recommendations that we will put in place to address the identified failings in this case.”
PAR Trustee, Taliah Drayak, said that the case underlined the organisation’s belief that there is an “urgent need for reform of our child protection and care systems” and as a result it was supporting a petition to the Scottish Parliament that applications for Child Protection Orders to remove children from their families in emergency should be made under oath and should be subject to immediate appeal in court.
She added: “Too many children are removed “through the back door” by the improper use of emergency procedures. Lay panels at Children’s Hearings are in no way equipped to take life changing and often irreversibly harmful decisions to separate children from their families.
“These decisions can stand for many months and even years before any evidence is actually heard or tested in a court of law. Often when cases finally get to court, the evidence given is tainted with prejudice, and too much reliance is placed by Sheriffs on presumed checks and balances in the Hearings and child protection systems. This reliance is mistaken.
“We have the highest rate of child removal in any country of the UK, which in turn is experiencing higher rates of removal than similar countries in Europe. Until there is greater listening to children, parents and families, and greater support for families rather than for the increasingly privatised and unaccountable care system, this rate of removal and the harms of care to children, families and communities will continue to rise.”
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