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Re W [2021] EWHC 2844 (Fam)

Care proceedings and children with disabilities – finding a way through the challenges

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The Local Authority sought a care order in relation to a 12 year old boy ('W') who had serious disabilities arising from a genetic defect and who required one-to-one care throughout the day with two-to-one care for moving and handling. Proceedings were commenced after the private care company responsible for delivering the care package stated that they were no longer prepared to do so, citing what they perceived to be interference and resistance from W's parents.

The court had earlier approved the instruction of Dr Hellin, a consultant chartered psychologist and psychotherapist, to undertake a psychological assessment of the parents. Her 'landmark report' was influential in the resolution of the dispute and agreement on the way forward, ie through the use of systemic intervention to assist the professionals and the parents to move from their polarised beliefs about each other and to minimise mutual blame and recrimination. Notably, Dr Hellin had identified that what was required was a recognition by the professionals that they were dealing with ordinary parents facing extraordinary circumstances, and that the evaluation of the issues in terms of the parents' perceived failures and/or mental health difficulties was therefore unhelpful.

In agreeing that the expert assessment had 'unlocked the case' and 'changed the landscape,' Mr Justice Hayden revisited two older authorities (both where judgment was given by Hedley J) noting that cases concerning profoundly disabled children with complex needs do not fit easily into the scope of Part IV of the Children Act 1989 and that resort to litigation is rarely constructive in these circumstances. 

Of far wider application (ie not limited to cases concerning disabled children) is the reminder of what is meant by 'the care given to the child…not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him'  under section 31(2)(b)(i) of the Children Act 1989. This must be evaluated by reference to the circumstances the parent is confronting and the individual child, rather than to some unachievable gold standard of parenting. Above all, it requires recognition that 'in a challenging situation many of us may behave in a way which might not objectively be viewed as reasonable' (para. 19).

Case summary by Abigail Bond, Barrister, St John's Chambers

For full case, please see BAILII