Manchester City Council (15 013 411)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 Mar 2016

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was some fault and some issues of concern in the way the Council considered the complainant as a prospective adopter. It has agreed to take suitable action to resolve the complaint.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, referred to here as Mrs X, complained that the Council has failed to deal with her properly as a prospective adopter. She says it:
    • prepared an inaccurate and unfair prospective adopters report about her; and
    • did not give her a proper opportunity to discuss it before it went to the Adoption Panel.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. 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), 26A(1) and 34(3)))
  2. The Ombudsman cannot investigate complaints about what happens in schools. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5, paragraph 5(b))
  3. The Ombudsman cannot investigate a complaint if it is about a personnel issue. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5a, paragraph 4)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mrs X and the Council and considered the information they provided. I considered relevant law and guidance on assessing prospective adopters. I shared my draft decision with the Council and the complainant and considered their responses.

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What I found

  1. The process for assessing the suitability of prospective adopters is set out in the Agency Adoption Regulations 2005 (AAR) and the ‘Statutory Guidance on Adoption for local authorities and adoption agencies’.
  2. The adoption agency (in this case the Council) must prepare a report about the prospective adopter for the Adoption Panel to consider. The report must contain certain information including:
    • details of any experience the prospective adopter has had of caring for children
    • any other information which indicates how the prospective adopter is likely to relate to a child placed for adoption with them
    • details of their employment history
    • information about their capacity to provide for a child’s emotional and behavioural needs.
  3. During the assessment the agency may receive information which leads it to consider that the prospective adopter may not be suitable to adopt. In these cases the agency may prepare a brief report even though it may not have obtained all the information required by law.
  4. The statutory guidance says that in brief report cases, “it is likely that the information that suggests to the assessing social worker that the prospective adopter may not be suitable will be discussed during the course of supervision. A decision not to complete the full assessment is a serious step to take...The agency should explain its concerns to the prospective adopter and offer counselling, involving other professionals as appropriate. As a result of the counselling and advice, the prospective adopter may decide to withdraw their application. If they decide not to withdraw their application, the agency should prepare the brief prospective adopter’s report.” (Statutory Guidance paragraph 3.62)
  5. The adoption agency must give the prospective adopter a copy of the report, whether it is a full or a brief report, and invite them to send any observations in writing to the agency within five working days, or longer if there are exceptional circumstances. Once this time has elapsed or the views have been received earlier, the report should be sent to the panel together with the views expressed by the prospective adopter.
  6. In a brief report case, the adoption panel may recommend either that the prospective adopter is not suitable, or that the agency should complete a full assessment. If the agency decides the applicant is not suitable, the prospective adopter has the right to make representations to the agency or apply for a review to the Independent Review Mechanism.

What happened

  1. Mr and Mrs X applied to the Council to become approved adopters. Mrs X’s current and previous employment involves working with children. As part of the assessment the adoption social worker discussed Mrs X’s employment history with her and obtained references from her former employers. As a result of the information provided the Council decided to produce a brief report rather than going ahead with the full assessment. This was because it took the view that the information about her previous employment and her reaction to it indicated that she may not be a suitable person to adopt. The recommendation in the report was that the Adoption Panel should not approve Mr and Mrs X as adopters.
  2. Mrs X’s view is that the information from previous employers is biased and inaccurate as it arises from a campaign of harassment against her as well as false witness statements.
  3. The Council provided the brief report to Mr and Mrs X on 22 October 2014 and booked the case for the Adoption Panel for 6 November. The Council says the social worker telephoned Mrs X on 21 October 2014 to tell her she had completed the report and referred the case to the Panel. It says Mrs X agreed with the social worker that she could call the following day in the morning to discuss the report and the social worker warned her she might find it quite negative as it focussed on her employment history. The Council say the social worker visited Mr and Mrs X’s home on 22 October 2014 as agreed but there was no-one in and so she posted the report through the door.
  4. Mrs X disputes this account of events. She says she did not receive any telephone call from the social worker and did not agree the social worker could visit her in the morning as she would have been at work. She confirms the report was posted through her door.
  5. On 23 October 2014 the social worker emailed Mrs X asking her to confirm she had received the report. She said if Mrs X needed to speak to anyone about it she would have to contact her Team Manager as the social worker was going on leave. Mrs X replied by email the same day confirming she had received the report.
  6. The Council sent the report and supporting papers to the Adoption Panel on 29 October.
  7. A few days after receiving the report Mrs X contacted the Team Manager who visited her on 31 October 2014 to discuss the report. The Team Manager told her the report had already been sent to the Panel.
  8. The Council had to re-schedule the Panel meeting to 13 November 2014. Mrs X attended without her husband. The Panel agreed to adjourn the hearing and re-arrange it for a time when Mr and Mrs X could attend together.
  9. Mrs X met the adoption social worker and her Team Manager to discuss the report on 21 November 2014.
  10. In December 2014 Mrs X wrote to the Council to complain about the way the social worker had compiled information for the report. She said she had recorded interviews with her and used the information inappropriately. She disputed the information about her previous employment. She said she had been a victim of bullying and false accusations by senior staff at the schools where she used to work which the Council had previously failed to investigate. She also complained she had not had a chance to discuss the report with the social worker before it went to the Panel.
  11. As the complaint continued Mrs X said she had offered to provide proof that she was a victim of a hate campaign against her, but the Council would not look at the information she offered. She asked for a meeting to discuss her evidence. She wanted the Council to change the report to make it more balanced. The Council explained that it could not change the information from the references and had to take account of it in the report. It said the place to challenge any information she disputed would be at the Adoption Panel.
  12. Mrs X also wrote separately to the Deputy Director for Children’s Services, raising the issues in her complaint. In her response the Deputy Director said the social worker and her Team Manger “will have discussed the assessment with you and Mr [X] before it was signed off particularly because of the difficult conclusion”. However she also said it was regrettable that Mrs X received the report by having it dropped through the letterbox, although the visit had been pre-arranged. The Deputy Director said she accepted that with hindsight it might have been better for the social worker to have delivered it at another time. She apologised for this and acknowledged that Mrs X did not meet with the social worker to discuss the report until the visit on 21 November 2014, which was after the Panel meeting.
  13. The Council sent Mrs X its final response to the complaint in September 2015. In the meantime it tried to continue with the process of considering the application. Mrs X did not want to agree to another Adoption Panel until the report had been changed. Eventually the Council scheduled the case for the Adoption Panel in January 2016.
  14. Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman. She said she had been a victim of harassment by her former employers for many years and the Council had failed to investigate this matter. She said the report contained incorrect information and the Council had not considered her evidence countering the information provided by the referees. She felt the report was defamatory and she wanted the Council to produce an unbiased report. She said the social worker had not told her about the Council’s concerns before producing the report.

Analysis

  1. Mrs X complains that the Council failed over several years to investigate alleged harassment of her by Headteachers at schools where she used to work. I have no power to consider this issue. Matters relating to employment and internal management of schools are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
  2. The key issue in the complaint is the way the Council has dealt with assessing Mrs X and her husband as prospective adopters. The Council is entitled to produce a brief report without completing a full assessment where it receives information during the assessment which leads it to believe the applicant may not be suitable to adopt children. That was the case here. It received information from Mrs X’s former employers which was relevant to the matters it had to consider. It was not at fault in including this information in the brief report. I would not expect the Council to look behind or challenge the information provided by referees, or to remove it from the report at the applicant’s request. But it must give the prospective adopter an opportunity to comment on the report before it goes to the Panel.
  3. In this case the Council provided Mr and Mrs X with a copy of the report on 22 October 2014 and sent the report to the Panel on 29 October. So it did give them five working days to comment as required by law.
  4. However I have concerns about whether Mrs X had a full opportunity to comment meaningfully on the information the Council received and to discuss it with the social worker before it went to the Panel. There is a dispute between the Council and the complainant about whether she agreed to meet the social worker on 22 October 2014 when the report was delivered. I do not have enough information at this stage to be able to resolve this dispute. The Deputy Director’s comment that with hindsight the social worker could have presented Mrs X with the report at another time, raises doubts about whether she had a proper opportunity to respond. The Council has the option of extending the time for the prospective adopter to comment on the report before sending it to the Panel. Given that the social worker had not managed to discuss what was a very negative report with Mr and Mrs X, in my view it should have considered allowing them extra time. As it was, by the time Mrs X had the meeting with the Team Manager, the report had already gone to the Panel without her comments.
  5. Also I have not seen evidence that the Council discussed its concerns with Mrs X during the course of the assessment before writing the report, as advised in the statutory guidance. Mrs X described the contents of the report as a ‘bombshell’. In my view the Council should have prepared her for the prospect of a negative report and given her the option of withdrawing her application first. This does not appear to have happened and this is a matter of fault.
  6. I also have concerns about whether the Council provided Mrs X with sufficient information in the report to enable her to respond fully, and whether it considered evidence she offered to provide. Mrs X says the Council refused to look at evidence she offered. It is right to say she could present her evidence to the Adoption Panel and that it is not necessary for the Council to seek further information if it has enough to produce a brief report. But in my view if she has existing information available which could be included as part of the prospective adopter’s comments, the Council should consider it.
  7. I have found some areas of fault and raised some concerns. However I do not consider I need to investigate the concerns further because the Council has agreed a way of resolving the complaint.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council agreed to withdraw the case from the list for the Adoption Panel in January 2016 and take the following action:
    • offer Mr and Mrs X the chance to have a meeting with the social worker and/or Team Manager to discuss a revised brief report and have their observations added before sending it to the next Panel
    • issue the new brief report, incorporating Mr and Mrs X’s comments
    • arrange another Adoption Panel to consider the case, with a different Chair and, as far as possible, different members to those involved in previous Panels dealing with the case
    • ask any Panel members who received the previous report to disregard it.

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Final decision

  1. I am satisfied with the action the Council has agreed to take and so I have completed my investigation. If the Council decides Mr and Mrs X are not suitable to adopt a child, they will be able to make representations to the Council or apply to the Independent Review Mechanism for a review.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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