A judge has exposed a scandal in the care system which resulted in two baby boys being stripped of their family ties and moved around a series of foster care placements, suffering permanent psychological damage in the process.
Mr Justice Peter Jackson ruled that Lancashire County Council's treatment of the brothers, who were aged two years and six months respectively when taken into care, amounted to ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’, in violation of their fundamental human rights.
The judge's ruling, in which he indicated that the boys' story may be anything but unique, will send shock waves through social services departments and opens the way for the boys, who are now aged 16 and 14, to seek compensation from the Council for their ruined childhoods.
The judge said that the boys' parents had separated and their father was homeless when Lancashire social workers stepped into their lives in 1998. The boys were freed for adoption in 2001, but social workers never succeeded in finding new families for them.
Although adoption placement orders remained in force for 11 years, the boys were moved from foster placement to foster placement and, as their behaviour became more unsettled and disturbed, links between them and their natural family were ‘eradicated’.
The judge said that the Council had, over the years, "defaulted on its duties towards the children". The Council’s independent reviewing system broke down so that it was never brought to account, nor did the boys' cases receive independent scrutiny.
Urging a review of the adoption system and more powerful independent reviews of local authority actions in such cases, he added that questionnaires sent to other local authorities had revealed a number of other children in a similar position to the two boys.
The judge said that the history of the boys' progress through the care system ran to "a staggering 19,000 pages of social work records" and both of them are now suing the Council for alleged negligence, breach of statutory duties and violations of human rights.
The boys suffered abuse during two of the foster placements and one of their foster carers has since been convicted of sex offences against another child.
The Council had placed the boys with those fosterers although "aware of previous complaints against them" and the abuse they suffered during that period amounted to "inhuman or degrading treatment", banned by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the judge said.
The boys' Guardian did not exaggerate when he referred to the "havoc" in their lives during the series of troubled foster placements and the judge added: "These boys have suffered real, lifelong damage and they are now entitled to demand an effort at understanding".
He told the court that the result of the Council’s failure to act in the boys' best interests "was that these children, who were very young when they went into care, lost their links with their birth family without gaining a family of their own".
The judge made a formal declaration that the treatment of the boys - referred to in court as "A" and "S" - violated their right to respect for family life and amounted to "inhuman or degrading treatment".
He ruled: "Lancashire County Council failed to provide A and S with a proper opportunity of securing a permanent adoptive placement and a settled and secure home life".
As well as failing to afford them the legal protections they were entitled to, the Council had also "permitted ‘A’ and ‘S’ to be subjected to degrading treatment and physical assault and failed adequately to protect their physical and sexual safety and their psychological health".
Mr Justice Jackson said that, "after such a catalogue of difficulties", it was vital that the boys now be "valued for who they are".
The older boy, "A", is good with his hands and takes pride in his skill as a car mechanic. His brother was described as "articulate", although presenting a challenge to staff at the children's home where he lives.
The judge added: "It is to their credit that neither boy has been involved in offending outside the home. However, their care history has had disastrous consequences".
The boys' Guardian stated that “A” and “S” had remained subject to adoption placement plans for more than a decade, long after they became unrealistic, and that they were "profoundly damaged by their particular childhood journey through the care system".
The "optimism and good intentions which surrounded the early adoption plans" had not borne fruit.
The judge said that, throughout their lives, the boys' "only constant relationship has been with each other". However, they were separated in 2010 after their then foster parents could not cope with "S"'s challenging behaviour and he was moved to a children's home.
The judge added: "’A’ and ‘S’ are entitled to enjoy the same Convention right to respect for their private and family life as anyone else. This relates not just to the search for a substitute family, but to the maintenance of such birth family connections as were in their interests.
"Lancashire County Council had, as it now acknowledges, a continuing positive obligation to promote those rights. It accepts that the early history and delays significantly damaged the prospect of the boys finding a permanent adoptive placement.
"It further accepts responsibility for the lost opportunity of continuing contact with family members."
Had the boys' been under a care order, instead of spending 11 years awaiting an adoption that never happened, the judge said that the Council would have been obliged to promote their reasonable contact with their mother and siblings.
And the judge added: "What Lancashire County Council did was to circumvent these statutory obligations. Although it operated as if these children were under care orders, it remained positively resistant to family contact."
The failure to revoke the adoption orders "amounted to a denial of access to the court process" in breach of Article 6 of the ECHR, he ruled.
There had been 27 reviews of the boys' cases between September 2006 and last year and the judge said that many of them were of an "ineffectual 'let well alone' type".
He added: "The primary failings in this case were front line social work failings, compounded by abusive behaviour in two foster homes".
Mr Justice Jackson declared that the Council’s failings amounted to breaches of the boys' rights to respect for family life and a fair hearing by an independent tribunal, enshrined in Articles 8 and 6 of the ECHR.
The ban on "inhuman or degrading treatment", under Article 3, was also violated, he ruled.
The boys' damages claims will now be transferred for hearing to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court.
The judge said that, as a result of the case, 16 local authorities in the north west of England had replied to Freedom of Information Act questionnaires, revealing 14 other children in positions similar to those of "A" and "S".
He urged an urgent review of those cases to ensure that children are not being disadvantaged. He added: "There is a pressing need for the independent reviewing system to work more effectively than it did for these boys."