In a landmark case, parents with learning disabilities who were separated from their baby daughter for over a year whilst social workers dragged their feet have won £12,000 in damages after the local authority admitted violating their human rights.
Both parents were highly vulnerable, and medical professionals had no idea that the mother was pregnant before she gave birth. It was unclear whether she had concealed her pregnancy or was genuinely unaware that she was having a baby. However, social workers decided that the little girl – H – was ‘at risk of significant harm’ and the couple were prevented from taking her home from the hospital.
H was placed with a couple the mother knew and there she remained for month after month. All the while, the parents – who only had a ‘basic’ understanding of what was happening – were ‘subjected to unnecessary delay and uncertainty’. Almost a year passed before the council finally launched care proceedings, and H had passed her first birthday before her parents were sent on a 12-week residential course to assess their ability to look after her. H was subsequently returned to her parents’ care under close supervision.
The council had admitted a total of 14 mistakes, including failing to keep the couple properly informed or to explain to them why their daughter was being cared for far away from them against their expressly stated wishes. The council had failed to properly consider the couple’s lack of understanding and their mental capacity to consent to what was being done with their daughter.
The council admitted that its conduct had breached the parents’ human rights to a fair hearing and to respect for their privacy and family life. The judge remarked, “The nature and extent of the poor practice admitted by the local authority is such that an adverse impact on these parents was inevitable.”
Despite its admissions, the council argued that it was as ‘inappropriate’ to award the parents damages. However, the judge said that the parents had suffered a loss of time with their baby which was both unnecessarily lengthy and deeply distressing. Ordering the council to pay £6,000 in damages to each parent, he ruled that that was the least required to ‘afford just satisfaction’ for what they had endured.