The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault on Mr and Mrs K’s complaint about the way the Council dealt with the assessment of their application to adopt a third child. The Council delayed the assessment by 3 months. The agreed action to make procedural changes, send a written apology to Mr and Mrs K, and pay £300 remedies the avoidable injustice caused.
- Mr and Mrs K complain that during the Council’s assessment of their application to adopt a third child, which it rejected, the Council failed to:
- Process it promptly;
- Carry out an accurate and complete assessment supported by evidence:
- Ensure the social worker carrying out the assessment has experience of children with special needs and experience of this type of adoption;
- Follow the correct procedures when obtaining references for the application;
- Amend the assessment and provide an offered meeting before the panel meeting; and
- Ensure the panel properly considered their application.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. She must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, she may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information Mr and Mrs K provided, the notes I made of the telephone conversation I had with Mr K, and the Council’s comments, a copy of which I sent them. I could not send them a complete copy of the Council’s response. This is because it served a legal notice requiring some information to remain confidential. This means I cannot disclose it or directly refer to it. I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mr and Mrs K and the Council. I took account of the responses received.
What I found
- Mr and Mrs K married almost 12 years ago. In 2008, they adopted 2 brothers aged 2 years old and 11 months old through the Council. The Council’s Children and Young People’s Services is an adoption agency.
- Their older son attends a specialist school. He has speech, language and communication difficulties, delayed self-help and independence skills, and severe learning difficulties. Their younger son has significant global developmental delay, delayed gross and fine motor skills, and delayed self care and independence. He attends the same school as his brother.
- In June 2014, Mr and Mrs K contacted the Council after deciding they wanted to adopt a third child. They asked the Council to assess them as potential adopters. Mr K decided not to look for a job to be available to care for the third child and to prepare the house. Mr K redecorated all 3 bedrooms and the 2 boys began to share a bedroom. They took out a loan and bought a new kitchen, boiler, furniture, and converted the garage to a play room.
- In May 2015, the Council told them they could not adopt a third child. They are unhappy as they believe the Council raised their expectations by starting the assessment. The reasons for rejecting their application were the same as the concerns raised by social workers at their first meeting following their request. They believe the Council failed to warn them at the start that these concerns meant it was unlikely it would approve them for another adoption.
- Government guidance (Statutory Guidance on Adoption: For local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies 2013) states:
- Prospective adopter’s reports should be objective and prepared only by individuals who either have the necessary qualifications and experience or are supervised by a person who has (paragraph 1.9) Necessary experience is at least 3 years post qualifying experience in childcare social work, including direct experience of adoption work (paragraph 1.13);
- Information in the reports should be accurate and based on evidence that distinguishes between fact, opinion, and third party information. The information needs checking to ensure it is accurate and up to date before submission to the adoption panel (paragraph 1.17);
- Adoption panels help the agency reach the best possible decision about the suitability of prospective adopters or the termination of approval of a prospective adopter (paragraph 1.19). The panel makes a recommendation to the agency’s decision maker;
- Panels should not be the ‘bottleneck’ in the decision-making process. They must meet frequently and be able to do so at short notice for urgent cases (paragraph 1.25);
- Stage 2 of the assessment process starts when the agency receives notification from the prospective adopters of their wish to proceed with the assessment process. It should take 4 months unless there are exceptional circumstances (paragraph 3.48). It ends with the agency decision-maker’s decision about their suitability (paragraph 3.53);
- Where there are any issues of significant concern or clarification needed, the manager may arrange for a second person to visit the prospective adopter to discuss them (paragraph 3.57); and
- The independent review mechanism is a review process used when an agency makes a qualifying determination, which would include a decision not to approve prospective adopters (paragraph 1.58).
- On 2 June 2014, Mr and Mrs K contacted the Council about adopting a third child. Social worker X was allocated the case because of her previous involvement with their adoptions. She arranged a home visit for the following month. Social worker Y, from the adoption team, also attended. This was because it was unusual to assess adopters for a third child where existing adopted children have high level needs.
- In July, there was a pre-assessment meeting. While the minutes of this meeting are positive about Mr and Mrs K, they highlighted areas that needed exploring. These included how their existing children will manage sharing a bedroom, how Mr and Mrs K will have time for themselves, and how their boys will cope with a new sibling. The recommendation was an assessment considering them for 1 child aged 0-2 years. The Council sent a copy of the minutes to Mr and Mrs K. This was to allow them to consider their contents and discuss their feelings with the social worker and explore whether they wished to proceed with a formal application to adopt.
- When they received the minutes towards the end of the month, Mr and Mrs K told the Council they wished to carry on.
- In mid-August, after chasing the Council, Mr and Mrs K were told their social worker was on leave for the last 2 weeks of the month and so could not start the assessment until mid-September. The Council also warned about high case loads.
- In early September, their social worker emailed Mr and Mrs K about visiting them to start the assessment. The social worker arranged this for the start of October. The social worker also told them that the assessment process usually took 4 months to do but it could take longer. Their application would likely go before the adoption panel in February 2015.
- The social worker visited them on 1 October 2014 and again warned about how busy panels were. This was because there were more potential adopters to consider because of government reform to encourage their recruitment. On 15 October, the Council accepted the application they sent and the assessment process formally started. As they had previously adopted, the Council decided to fast track their application. Instead of proceeding through stage 1 and stage 2, it went straight to stage 2.
- In November, their social worker again visited Mr and Mrs K and took further information. Later that month, she told them she would meet a teacher from the boys’ school and 2 referees. Towards the end of the month she visited them again. This was to look at real children’s profiles and their parenting capacity given their boys’ needs. The Council explains this helps those wishing to adopt to focus on the realities of a particular child and the impact on their lives.
- In December, the social worker gave links to websites to look at real children’s profiles. The social worker interviewed a personal referee and then fell ill briefly on the day she was to meet Mr and Mrs K. She also had Christmas leave.
- In January 2015, social worker Z wrote to Mr and Mrs K about the delay with the panel hearing. The letter explained over the following 3 months the panels are very busy because of the high number of adopters wanting approval. The Council introduced more panels. Their social worker met a teacher to discuss the children which highlighted areas of concern.
- In February, their social worker visited them again. This was to discuss concerns about placing a third child with them given their own boys’ needs. She had a week’s leave at school half-term.
- On 18 March, the Council’s records show a telephone conversation between the social worker and Mrs K. It records that the social worker would call her the following day to let her know the recommendation. The following day, the social worker visited to discuss vulnerabilities. Following this, their social worker met social worker Z. They agreed the risks of placing a third child with Mr and Mrs K were too great. The social worker telephoned Mrs K at work and told her the Council would not recommend them for adoption.
- At the end of the month, social worker Z emailed the draft assessment to Mr and Mrs K, giving them 2 weeks to make comments. The social worker told them the panel set for 16 April was now cancelled as it would not give them the required 10 days to consider it, make amendments, for their social worker to make amendments, and for the panel to receive the papers.
- On 13 April, Mr and Mrs K provided the Council with their amended assessment and asked to meet their social worker. They were told she was off because of bereavement. Their amendments would wait until her return.
- On 1 May, Mr and Mrs K met social workers Y and Z. They discussed areas of concern. Their social worker was still off work but had managed to make some amendments to the assessment. The social worker did not amend matters which fell within her professional judgement. The same month, the panel decided not to approve the application. The agency’s decision-maker decided not to approve them as prospective adopters on 21 May.
- The Council notes the impact on Mr and Mrs K’s boys was not known in sufficient depth at the start of the assessment. The Council also explained the assessment took longer than usual because of its complexity, high workloads for panels, and the social worker going on leave. The Council apologised for this.
- There was some delay with the Council responding to Mr and Mrs K request in July 2014 that they wished to proceed with an assessment. I note their social worker was on leave for the last half of August. As she was familiar with the family and involved with their previous adoption, it was appropriate to wait for her to return. This means the Council could do little until then. At the start of September, the social worker contacted them to arrange a first visit with her colleague. The visit went ahead at the start of October which marked the start of their assessment.
- I am not satisfied this initial delay amounts to fault in these circumstances. Many people go on leave during the summer holiday period. I have also taken account of the fact their social worker contacted them promptly on her return. She then arranged a mutually convenient date to meet for Mr and Mrs K, her, and her colleague.
- The social worker worked on their application during November and December until she fell ill. She was off work for one day in December, the same day she was due to meet Mr and Mrs K. During a call, Mrs K told the social worker she had the flu. The social worker continued working on the assessment and took Christmas leave.
- In early January 2015, the social worker visited Mr and Mrs K, the children’s school, and contacted the Disabled Children’s team.
- The social worker started writing up the report and the references. She also met Mr and Mrs K. She took a week off at the school half-term holiday. The 4 month period for completing the assessment ended this month.
- In March, there was a further visit to Mr and Mrs K and a meeting between social workers which decided not to recommend them. A social worker told Mrs K of this decision by telephone. On balance, I cannot say telling her this way amounts to fault. This is because the records show the social worker agreed with Mrs K the previous day that she would call her with the outcome. This complaint might have been avoided if the record had perhaps clarified whether Mrs K was happy to receive a call at home or at work.
- It took a further 11 days before the draft assessment was sent to them. The Council says this was because the background and reasoning for the report had to be clear, social worker Y contributed to it, and social worker Z checked its quality.
- I am satisfied the following amounts to fault:
- Taking 11 days to send Mr and Mrs K the draft decision following the telephone call;
- Taking 5 months to send them the draft assessment: I appreciate this was a complex case and there were times when the social worker was off work. The guidance provides the assessment should be completed within 4 months. There is little evidence of what was done to move the assessment on during February. I have taken account of the Council’s response to the draft decision which noted this was a complex assessment and there were problems getting a panel booked; and
- Taking 7 months to complete the assessment process: The whole process, including the agency decision-makers decision should have taken 4 months. The decision was taken in May, 7 months after the assessment started. The information I have shows the Council was aware of the problem of delays with the panels in December 2014. Despite claiming to arrange extra panels, the main source of the delay on Mr and Mrs K’s application was arranging the panel hearing.
- I recognise there was a problem arranging a panel hearing but government guidance states this stage should not become a ‘bottleneck’. I am satisfied that this is what happened in this case.
- I am also satisfied the fault identified caused Mr and Mrs K injustice. They were caused avoidable frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty.
- I am not satisfied that Mr and Mrs K were misled by the Council at the start of the process. This was not a rubber stamping exercise and there was no guarantee the Council would approve them for a third adoption because it had done so for their boys’ adoption. The meeting at the start of the process set out concerns. The Council did not hide these concerns which needed exploring. The process allowed the Council to explore these in further detail and provided Mr and Mrs K with the opportunity to address them.
- Mr and Mrs K believe the social workers involved, particularly their social worker, did not support the reasons for refusing the application with evidence. They argue the assessment contains nothing more than unsupported opinion.
- Mr and Mrs K also believe their evidence was ignored. They provided a document explaining how they could parent 3 children as well as a separate one setting out the strengths, challenges, and the strategies for 3 children they put in place at home.
- The Council told Mr and Mrs K there was ‘considerable evidence’ in the assessment about parenting concerns which is known from the experience of placing children in families where there are already children. It explained their boys ‘could be unsettled’ by the arrival of another child. Parenting their boys and a third ‘could be’ difficult. The Council was concerned about how they would manage the competing demands of the new child and their own boys.
- I found no fault on this complaint. In reaching this decision, I considered government guidance which requires that assessments are accurate with evidence checked and separated out to show fact, opinion, and third party information.
- I note the assessment had a separate section in part 2 setting out the factual information used to support the report. Another section sets out information received from third parties.
- For part 1 of the assessment, the social worker is asked to summarise key aspects of the information for each applicant and evaluate its significance when considering their suitability to adopt. The social worker considered their strengths, such as their wealth of skills and experience, as well as areas of concern.
- These included ‘unknowns’ such as whether Mr K can get a job meeting all the needs of the family, whether one person could take all 3 children out, and issues about respite. The social worker noted a ‘number of significant risks’ and the potential impact of placing a third child with the family. She noted the boys’ needs ‘will regress’ and the impact a third child will have on their dynamics and behaviour.
- Mr and Mrs K take issue with some of the report’s comments which include:
- The comment (page 30) that many parents and adopters wish to expand their families but need to think long and hard about the realities of adopting again and whether the stability they strived for and experienced only in the short term will be severely impacted.
I consider this is an obvious consideration Mr and Mrs K, like any potential adopter with an existing family, needed to consider.
- On the same page, the social worker noted that while they feel confident in their capacity to manage, concerns and vulnerabilities cannot be minimised in this area due to risk of placement disruption in the future.
I consider it was legitimate for the social worker to raise this. The social worker is providing, and is entitled to provide, her professional view.
- The social worker also raised the question about whether it was in the family’s best interest to adopt when their boys reach adolescence, for example, to allow them a longer period of stability.
Again, I am satisfied this was a legitimate question for the social worker to raise.
- While I appreciate Mr and Mrs K’s concerns about the assessment, it had to look at the potential impact a third child could have on the family as a whole. The assessment had to consider what could happen, its impact on the family, and how the family might react. These are not given certainties. The process involved the social worker using her knowledge and experience about adoptions to take a view about their suitability and the possible impact of another child on the family.
- I am also satisfied that some statements they challenge were presented as fact and some acknowledged a degree of uncertainty. For example, introducing a third child would clearly impact on the boys. The dynamics of the boys and the family as a whole would undoubtedly change.
- I also note many of the social worker’s comments in the assessment were in the form of questions. For example, she asked whether what was achieved in terms of their boys’ relationship and Mr and Mrs K’s ability to calm them would be undone by the regression of becoming siblings again. This was a legitimate question as the boys would have to adapt to a new sibling.
- The assessment refers to the social worker asking Mr and Mrs K to reflect on how their current parenting and daily routine would need to change with a third child. Their reflections were included as an addendum to the document. The social worker goes on to note their coping mechanisms, for example, and comments on how these could be affected. The assessment also notes the strategies they use looking after their children and comments on what they said in a document called ‘Where they are now’.
- I am satisfied proper consideration was given to Mr and Mrs K’s evidence which was also presented to the panel. I found no fault on this complaint.
The social worker
- During a meeting on 1 May 2015, Mr and Mrs K claim social worker Y admitted she had no idea about children with special needs.
- The Council explains the social worker is experienced and has worked in adoption for many years. The Council accepts she said she was not an expert on children with significant learning needs. This was why the social workers wanted to speak to staff from the boys’ school and the Disabled Children’s Team.
- The Council accepts social worker X did not have experience of adoptions involving a third child. It explains there are very few adoptive families who want to adopt a third. The Council explains how both social workers have done this type of work for more than 20 years. Both are regularly supervised.
- In the last 5 years, the Council states it received only 2 applications for third child adoptions where applicants already had 2 adopted children. In both, the third child was the sibling of the other 2 children.
- I found no fault on this complaint. I am satisfied the social worker was qualified to carry out the assessment. The social worker involved had more than 3 years experience in post qualification child care social work, which included direct experience of social work.
- I am also satisfied the social workers properly obtained and considered evidence from staff at the children’s school and the Disabled Children’s Team when preparing this assessment.
- One of the reasons for refusing to recommend them as adopters was references received around their capacity. Mr and Mrs K claim one referee disputed what the Council claimed was said. Two referees told them the Council failed to send them the references to check and sign. Another amended the reference as it included comments he or she had not said.
- The Council accepts only one personal reference out of 3 was agreed before the panel hearing. The Council apologised for this error.
- Of the 2 professional references, a teacher confirmed hers reflected her discussion with the social worker. The second was from the Disabled Children’s team. When that officer went off sick, her manager who was aware of the case, confirmed the contents of the reference.
- The Council explains the problem with checking 2 references arose when the social worker sent them to the personal referees in March 2015 to check, sign, and return. They were chased but the social worker did not realise one had changed his email address and the wrong email for another was recorded. The 2 personal references went to the panel without confirmation by the referees.
- The failure to get the 2 personal references checked, agreed and signed by the referees was significant fault. The social worker could and should have attempted to contact them either by telephone or by post when they failed to respond.
- I am not satisfied this failure caused Mr and Mrs K a significant injustice. This is because I have seen 2 emails from their referees to the Council. Neither raise any problems with the references and one confirms the contents.
Action before panel hearing and panel consideration
- Mr and Mrs K claim many of their comments made during meetings with social worker X were not included in the assessment. They wanted their comments including in their amended assessment but claim the social worker failed to update it properly.
- One month before the hearing, social worker Z told them they had 10 days to make amendments to the draft assessment. Their social worker, who was off because of bereavement, then had 10 days to make the amendments, and the panel administrator had a further 10 days to circulate the report to panel members. They were also told they would need a fuller discussion about any changes. They are unhappy they were not offered a meeting to have this fuller discussion.
- They are also unhappy the questions the panel asked them did not reflect the reasons given for refusing their application. They were asked why they wanted to adopt now, the level of need of the child they feel they could adopt, and how their boys will benefit from another child in the home.
- The Council accepts it was reasonable to assume a more thorough questioning by the panel about raised concerns. The Council talked to the chair of the panel who confirmed the panel felt it had enough information to make the recommendation. No evidence of this conversation was provided.
- The Council wrote to Mr and Mrs K having considered the recommendation from the adoption panel on 22 May. The decision was made by the agency decision maker. The reasons given were:
- The potential impact on their boys of adding another child;
- While managing their current communication and interaction, a third child would impact on their ability to keep the boys safe; and
- The higher level of needs and additional support their boys have.
- The Council provided a copy of the minutes of the panel hearing.
- The Council apologised for not giving them a proper opportunity to discuss their amendments and the recommendation until 1 May.
- Mr and Mrs K would have preferred to have spoken to their social worker before the panel hearing but she was off work. I am satisfied they met other social workers before the panel hearing.
- I am also satisfied the panel was aware of their comments on the assessment. This is because Mr and Mrs K put their comments in the adopters’ section of the assessment that went to the panel.
- The minutes show the panel asked Mr and Mrs K 10 questions. Three of the questions related directly to the reasons given for refusing their application. While the minutes satisfy me that the members carefully considered this application, the questioning could give the perception that the panel had either already taken a view on the application or was not fully prepared.
- Within 12 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, the Council will take the following action:
- Ensure proper records are kept where an applicant confirms he or she is prepared to receive the decision by telephone;
- Take steps to ensure the delays identified are not repeated in the future, particularly at the panel stage;
- Ensure all references are checked, approved, and signed by the referees before an assessment goes to panel;
- Ensure panels are reminded of the need to ask questions relevant to any areas of concern raised in an assessment;
- Provide Mr and Mrs K with a written apology for the fault found; and
- Make a payment to Mr and Mrs K of £300 to remedy the avoidable distress, frustration and inconvenience caused by the fault.
- The Ombudsman found fault on Mr and Mrs K’s complaint. The agreed action remedies the avoidable injustice this caused.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman