Council placed four-year-old in foster care of suspected paedophile then spent £23,000 trying to keep blunders a secretBristol City Council left girl with family despite suspicions the father had accessed child pornographyDespite child’s identity being protected, council said all details of the case should be kept from newspapersIts expensive bid to hush the scandal up cost thousands and was overturned at the High Court.
A council spent £23,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to gag reporting of a case where it had placed a four-year-old in foster care with a suspected paedophile.Bristol City Council tried and failed to obtain a High Court injunction which would prevent embarrassing details of the case being made public.Social services took nearly three weeks to remove the girl from a foster family, despite the father being under suspicion of possessing indecent images of children.He later killed himself after police took a laptop away from the property which contained a cache of child abuse images.Despite the little girl and the children of the suspected paedophile being automatically granted media anonymity, the council still tried to obtain a blanket gagging order.On the final ay of the two-week hearing in October last year, the council’s barrister Jo Lucas went to the civil court to get an injunction banning any reporting of the case.Temporary restrictions were then put in place to prevent publication of Bristol City Council, or the names of the social service workers who failed to protect the little girl.But these were overturned in London’s High Court in January following a costly three-month legal wrangle.
Mr Justice Baker ruled it was in the public interest for the story to be published, but that the identities of the girl, her family and foster family should all be protected.
A Freedom of Information Act request has now revealed that the ‘external cost’ of the legal wrangle to Bristol City Council came to £23,528,40.But the true cost is likely to be much higher as the quoted figure does not include the time council employees spent working on it.The hefty bill included £11,730 for legal advice, preparation and representation by Robin Tolson QC for two High Court hearings in London and one in Bristol.The council also paid the legal costs for the foster family, which came to £3,623.40.However, a spokesman for Bristol City Council today insisted the legal action was only taken to protect the identity of the child.‘The object throughout was only to protect the identity of the child,’ he said.‘It is important to realise that automatic reporting restrictions in respect of children subject to care proceedings do not last once the proceedings have ended…‘
The council did not think that this was in the child’s best interests and, as the press were already involved and had attended some of the hearings in relation to the care application, we considered that we had no option but to seek to protect the identity of the child beyond the care proceedings.’The case at Bristol’s Family Proceedings Court heard that concerns were first raised in March 2012 when the girl had been living with the family for three months.Police informed social services that child sex abuse images had been accessed at the house for the second time.Unlike the first incident, which was blamed on a foster child at the house, the police strongly suspected the father had accessed the sick images.But despite being informed by police, social services did nothing for two weeks, leaving the little girl where she was.The child also told her real father and a social worker that she had been ‘strangled’ by another child at the foster home, but still she was returned to the house.Social worker Sherilyn Pritchard told the hearing, chaired by Annette Young, that there was ‘not enough information to justify immediate removal’ of the girl when the allegations arose.
The child’s appointed legal guardian said: ‘I think we have to bear in mind that she may have been sexually abused in that foster placement.’Chairman of the magistrates Mrs Young criticised Bristol City Council for not following child protection procedures, saying: ‘These matters concern us greatly and we believe should be thoroughly and forensically investigated and reviewed in an independent forum.’No disciplinary action has been taken against anyone from social services following the council’s internal review, but an independent review has not yet been published.High Court judge Mr Justice Baker said the authority’s bid for a gagging order was ‘unjustified’, adding: ‘It is in the public interest for these matters to be published.’The girl is now in a new foster home. But speaking at the time of the court hearing, her natural father said: ‘I am livid.‘They said she wasn’t safe at home but they put her where someone had been downloading child abuse images.’He added: ‘There is a danger that those who practise in the family justice system fail to give proper consideration to the Article 10 rights of the media. This must now cease.’Robert Oxley, Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘This was a shameful attempt to suppress the media from reporting council bungling.‘It’s a disgrace that Bristol City Council have spent taxpayers’ money trying to hide its involvement in a very serious and disturbing case.‘Questions must be asked not only of those responsible for the mistakes in the original fostering case but also of whoever authorised the use of taxpayers’ money for the legal action to cover it up.’