The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains the Council failed to provide support to her family when her adoptive daughter was taken into care. There was fault by the Council as it failed to put in place any long term plan for Ms X’s daughter. As a result she stayed in a children’s home for two and a half years and her behaviour deteriorated as a result. This had a significant impact on Ms X’s relationship with her daughter. The Council also took too long to investigate Ms X’s complaint. The Council should apologise to Ms X and pay her £2100 to recognise the distress caused and reimburse her legal fees.
- Ms X complains about the way the Council investigated her complaint. She says there were delays and the Council failed to consider available evidence including court records. Ms X complains the Council has not upheld all of her complaints including that she had to pay for legal advice because the Council did not give her advice about what was happening with her adopted daughter. Ms X also complains that she was not provided with an appropriate remedy for parts of the complaint which were upheld.
- Ms X says the Council’s actions have put a significant strain on her and her family. She says her relationship with her daughter is difficult and her son has been caused distress as a result of what happened.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We 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, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have spoken to Ms X about her complaint and considered information she provided to the Ombudsman. I have also considered the Council’s investigation of Ms X’s complaint and its response to my enquiries.
- I have visited the Council’s offices and viewed the relevant files.
- I have written to Ms X and the Council with my draft decision and given them an opportunity to comment.
What I found
- The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers the investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
Children Act 1989, section 20
- Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 says councils are under a duty to provide accommodation to children in their area if:
- There is no one with parental responsibility for them.
- The child is lost or abandoned.
- The person who has been caring for them is prevented from providing the child with suitable accommodation or care.
- Section 31 of the Act says the Council can apply to court for a care order if:
- The child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
- The harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to the care given by the parents or the child being beyond parental control.
- Ms X adopted her daughter, whom I shall call Y, when Y was 2 years old.
- On 12 April 2013 Ms X contacted the Council to say that she was struggling to cope with Y’s behaviour. Ms X asked the Council to accommodate Y. Y was 9 years old.
- The Council provided respite accommodation for Y over the weekend with foster carers.
- The Council said it would provide ongoing support for Ms X and Y whilst looking for an alternative placement for Y.
- On 12 May 2013 the Council placed Y with the same foster carers she had stayed with in April. The Council’s plan at this time was for Y to return to live with Ms X. The Council placed Y under section 20 of the Children’s Act.
- The Council held a Looked After Child (LAC) review meeting on 4 June 2013 to discuss Y’s placement. Y’s social worker advised the review meeting that Y had settled into the placement and formed a “good relationship” with the foster family. The plan was to move Y to a children’s home by the end of June 2013. Y’s social worker was to arrange contact sessions between Ms X and Y and Ms X was going to seek support from an adoption charity.
- The minutes of the LAC meeting were not circulated until 8 November 2013.
- On 24 June 2013 the Council placed Y in a children’s home. The Council’s plan was for Y to remain in the home until she could return to Ms X’s care.
- The Council held a LAC review meeting on 16 and 23 July 2013. At the meeting Y’s school said it was concerned about her behaviour since she had moved into the children’s home. The school said Y’s behaviour deteriorated when Y began visiting the home before being placed there. The school said Y’s behaviour was much better when she was living with the foster family.
- Y’ social worker said Y had “settled in well”. Y’s social worker said she had visited Y regularly and did not have “any concerns about my observations of her with the other children and staff”.
- The plan at the time of the meeting was for Y to remain in the children’s home but there was “no current timescale of how long [Y] would remain there”. The Council said the placement would be reviewed “periodically”. The Council said it would look to identify specialist support for Ms X, possibly from the charity which had been mentioned in the minutes of the previous meeting. Ms X and Y were to have contact every Wednesday in person and by telephone on a Sunday. The Council said consideration would be given “to extra time” for contact.
- The minutes for the meeting were not circulated until 8 January 2014.
- The Council held another LAC review meeting on 19 September 2013. At the meeting the social worker said Ms X had “given up caring for [Y]” and begun to “emotionally detach herself from [Y] but still wants some contact with her but does not want her to return to her care”. The social worker said Y was having some difficulties with other children in the home.
- The Council’s plan was for Y to move to a “Behavioural Support Unit for education”. Y was to remain in the home whilst a placement was identified. Y’s social worker was to liaise with Ms X to try and increase contact time and for Y to visit Ms X at her home.
- The minutes of the meeting were not circulated until 7 February 2014.
- The next LAC review meeting took place on 9 January 2014. At the meeting Y’s social worker said the Council “acknowledges that [Y] has been Looked After since [May 2013], and plans for her permanency need to gather impetus”. Y’s social worker said both Ms X and Y “want to test out the viability of [Y] being rehabilitated to [Ms X’s] care”. The social worker said:
“… the process needs to be more proactive and intense than is currently the case. Contact needs to be built up, with overnights included. However firstly there needs to be focussed work on what [Y] and [Ms X] feel are the issues that need addressing so that rehabilitation has a chance of success. This work needs to be completed by [the children’s home], Children’s Social Care with the family”.
- The children’s home said it did not feel it was “an appropriate placement for [Y]”. The home said Y was struggling to form relationships with other children in the home and she was often the “instigator of challenging situations”.
- Y had started to attend an Emotional Behavioural Support Unit part time and remained in school for the rest of the time. The minutes of the meeting said the school were still having difficulties with Y’s behaviour.
- The plan was for Y to remain at the children’s home but for regular “team around the children” meetings to take place. Y’s contact with Ms X was to include a monthly sleepover.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 13 March 2014.
- The next LAC review meeting took place on 7 April 2014. The minutes of the meeting say Ms X and Y were meeting at Ms X’s home and this was “going positively”. Y was also staying overnight with Ms X every three weeks and this was “working well”.
- The children’s home said it was still not an “appropriate placement” for Y. It said Y continued to have difficulties with other children in the home. The children’s home said it was “struggling to support [Y] emotionally” and Y was demonstrating challenging behaviour towards staff and other children.
- The plan was for Y to remain in the children’s home. However, the Council said that as Y had been looked after since May 2013 it was “necessary to formulate plans for permanency”. The minutes of the meeting said it was “important to urgently identify an alternative placement for [Y] which will provide the emotional support necessary”.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 30 May 2014.
- The next LAC review took place on 18 July 2014. The minutes of the meeting said Y had been without a social worker for 2 months between April and June. No steps had been taken since the last meeting to find an alternative placement for Y and no planning meetings had been held.
- The children’s home said Y’s behaviour continued to deteriorate and a “Behaviour Management Plan” was in place to force Y to comply with morning and evening routines.
- At the meeting it was acknowledged that contact between Ms X and Y was positive and Ms X was receiving support managing Y’s behaviour.
- The plan was to “identify the appropriate placement for [Y], as [the children’s home] was not meeting her needs. Return back to her mother, [Ms X], is not appropriate... A Planning Meeting is to be held, to draw up a Profile of Needs required for identifying a new placement… [Ms X]is to be fully involved in this”.
- The next meeting was scheduled for 16 December 2014. The minutes of the meeting were not circulated until 2 February 2015.
- The next LAC review meeting took place on 12 and 19 January 2015. At the meeting it was acknowledged that the children’s home was still not an appropriate placement for Y. Y had spent several nights sleeping at Ms X’s property after calling her asking to be collected from the home.
- The children’s home said there had been a further deterioration in Y’s behaviour and she had been abusive to staff and “targets other young people by controlling and manipulative behaviour”.
- Y’s school said there has been difficulties with Y resulting in two fixed term exclusions. The school said it may no longer be suitable for Y and said an alternative setting such as a Pupil Referral Unit may be more appropriate.
- The minutes also say that Ms X had discovered Y was having contact with an older male through social media. Y had told the male she was 18 years old and provided him with her mobile phone number. The children’s home completed work with Y about internet safety as a result of this.
- The plan was for Y to be either placed with a foster family or return to live with Ms X. The minutes of the meeting said a meeting would take place on 4 February 2014 to discuss this further and placement support could be put in place for Ms X until there was “a clear plan for a return home”. CAMHS were providing support sessions for Y and Ms X.
- The minutes of the meeting said a three month timescale would be put in place for “working towards moving [Y] from the [children’s home]”.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 30 April 2015.
- The next LAC review took place on 23 March 2015. The minutes said Ms X had refused a plan to return Y to her care. The Council was therefore looking to move Y to foster care.
- The minutes of the meeting said it was important Y move from the children’s home “as quickly as possible” as Y had “become involved with other young people and has been going missing with them”.
- The Council said that if Ms X did not agree to Y being placed with a foster family the Council would need to consider obtaining a care order.
- The plan was for the Council to arrange to move Y to a placement with a foster family and for the Council to consider obtaining a care order if Ms X would not agree to this.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 18 May 2015.
- The next LAC meeting took place on 22 June 2015. Y was still in children’s home. The children’s home said Y had been reported to the police three time and had run off with another group of young people. It was noted that Y preferred adult attention.
- Y’s school reported Y had been excluded due to a “physical incident regarding another pupil”. Y had begun to attend a Pupil Referral Unit for pupils with behavioural difficulties.
- The plan was for Y to remain at the children’s home “until a short term foster placement is urgently identified”. The minutes of the meeting said it was “important this happens swiftly, so that [Y] can be settled in her new placement during the summer holidays before the start of the new school term in September”.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 3 August 2015.
- At the end of September 2015 there was a difficult contact between Ms X and Y.
- The Council wrote to Ms X on 23 September 2015 and said contact would be suspended until it could meet with Ms X to “form a contact agreement”. The Council said it had identified a potential placement for Y. The Council said it had not informed Y about this and asked Ms X not to share the information with her.
- Ms X complained to the Council on the same day. She said her views about Y’s care had been ignored and there had been a communication breakdown between her, social workers and the children’s home. Ms X said she was unable to attend the LAC review meeting which was due to take place the following day.
- On 24 September 2015 the Council held a further LAC review meeting. The minutes of the meeting said Y’s behaviour at the children’s home had improved. The plan was for Y to remain in the home until a suitable foster placement was identified. This was because Y no longer wanted to return home to Ms X’s care. It was acknowledged that contact with Ms X had been suspended until a contact agreement was established.
- The minutes of the meeting were circulated on 23 October 2015.
- The social worker made notes in the meeting. The social workers notes said all professionals “were of the opinion that a care order should be sought as [Ms X] is not working with social care and there is a real potential she could sabotage plans”. There is no mention of the need to obtain a care order in the LAC review minutes.
- Ms X e-mailed the Council on 25 September 2015 and said she would be attending contact with Y on 29 September as normal and expected it to go ahead. The contact did not go ahead.
- The Council met Ms X on 5 October 2015 at her home. Ms X’s 17 year old son was present. The Council explained it was looking to place Y with a foster family and that Y did not want any contact with Ms X at present. The Council’s notes of the meeting say Ms X became “very upset and distressed” when discussing contact and social workers decided to leave. Following the meeting social workers sent a text message to Ms X’s son which said:
“Hi… it’s [Y’s social worker]. We are sorry to see your mum upset. We did not finish the conversation however we can come back to that. The most important part that we did not get to is that [Y] is not yet aware of recent plans for foster carers and if that message can be relayed to your mum when appropriate that would [be] helpful. Many thanks”.
- On 6 October 2015 Y had telephone contact with Ms X. Ms X asked Y if it was true that she no longer wanted contact with her. Y said yes and left the room in a distressed state. The children’s home worker informed Ms X what had happened and terminated the call.
- On 11 October 2015 Ms X turned up to the children’s home unannounced and handed over postcards and stamps and asked Y to stay in contact with the rest of the family even though Y didn’t want to see her.
- On 20 October 2015 the Council phoned Ms X to provide her with an update. It said it was looking to placing Y with a foster family. The Council advised Ms X about a meeting with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) on 2 November 2015. Ms X said she would like to attend. The Council advised Ms X she could not attend the early part of the meeting as this was time for Y to discuss issues on her own. Ms X said she knew her rights and terminated the call.
- On 28 October 2015 supervision took place between Y’s social worker and her manager. The notes of the meeting say the Council had been contacted by Ms X’s solicitors about action the Council was taking. The notes say “it seems they are stating that [the Council] need to apply for [a care order]”. The Council had identified a suitable foster family for Y and were planning on starting to introduce her to the family.
- The Council contacted Ms X on 11 November 2015. The Council advised Ms X about the possible placement with the foster family and said it could arrange for Ms X to meet with them. This was the same foster family that Y had stayed with in 2013.
- Y moved in with the foster family on 14 November 2015. By this time she had spent almost 2 and a half years in the children’s home.
- The next LAC review meeting took place on 1 December 2015. The minutes of the meeting said Y had settled in well to the placement. Y was still having phone contact with Ms X but face to face contact had not been re-established. The Council’s plan was to obtain a care order for Y.
- The Council provided a statement to the court dated 15 December 2015 which said:
“The Local Authority fully accept that there has been inexcusable drift and delay in bringing this case to the attention of the court to help ensure that timely decisions of permanence could be made for [Y]. Whilst the Local Authority is confident that [Y’s] needs have been met by the placements available to her, it is acknowledged and extremely regrettable that [Y’s] holistic needs would have been far better served by a more robust and effective response by the department in determining her permanence and that such delay can have a detrimental impact upon the wellbeing of a young person. Notwithstanding that [Y’s] needs have been regularly reviewed throughout her period in Local Authority care, the delay in this case should have been avoided and decisions taken at a much earlier stage in the planning process. It has been identified earlier within the statement that despite efforts to rehabilitate [Y] back to the full time care of [Ms X] this has not been possible and the Local Authority has now taken steps to apply to the court for a [care order]. The Local Authority is currently taking steps to ensure that the process of planning and tracking of cases across the department becomes increasingly robust to reduce future incidents of delay as experienced in this case.”
- A court hearing took place on 14 January 2016. During the hearing the Judge said “I have to obtain from the Local Authority – who have, on their own admission, let her down – that they have now provided and will continue to provide an appropriate level of support and placement for her during her minority”.
- The Council responded to Ms X’s complaint on 17 February 2016. The Council did not uphold Ms X’s complaint except to say a social worker had not given her full attention during a meeting and reasons for meeting with Y’s foster carer had not been made clear.
- A care order was granted for Y on 15 March 2016.
- On 21 March 2016 Ms X requested her complaint be investigated at stage 2 of the statutory complaints process. The Council allocated an investigating officer and independent person on 9 May 2016.
- The next LAC review meeting took place on 10 May 2016. The Council confirmed its plan was for Y to remain living with the foster family on a long term placement. The Council said support would be offered to Y once she was settled. The Council said contact with Ms X and other family members would be “encouraged and facilitated”.
- On 9 June 2016 the Council identified that the investigating officer had a “conflict of interest” and had to be replaced. A new investigating officer was appointed on 22 June 2016.
- The investigating officer produced a report on Ms X’s complaint on 7 February 2017. The investigator considered 31 separate complaint from Ms X about what happened. The investigator upheld the following complaints:
- The Council found it difficult to balance Y’s needs with the ongoing involvement of Ms X.
- The Council failed to provide Ms X with advice about changes in its relationship with her when Y became a looked after child.
- There was a period of time when Y did not have an allocated social worker and she had had more social workers than would normally be the case.
- There was no evidence that discussions about contact between Ms X and Y were always shared with Ms X.
- Allegations made by Y about Ms X were not properly investigated.
- There was no contact and mediation plan in place to try and establish better contact between Y and Ms X and the possibility of Y returning home.
- The Council used the term “broken down” to describe Ms X’s relationship with Y. The Council should have described Y as “a child living away from home” as this is the preferred terminology.
- LAC review minutes from 23 March 2015 should be reworded regarding Ms X’s actions.
- There was no evidence social workers had explained why Y’s views were important when explaining to Ms X that Y did not want to see her.
- The social worker failed to manage contact between Ms X and Y at the end of September 2015. The social worker should “have acted in a more professional manner and not allowed the situation to get to the point of arguing with [Ms X] in front of [Y]”.
- Continue to facilitate contact between Ms X and Y.
- Apologise to Ms X for “the issues that have been mentioned in this report where children’s social care could have acted in a more appropriate way”.
Timescale of my investigation
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. It took the Council almost a year to investigate Ms X’s complaint at stage 2 of the complaints process. The law says it should take no longer than 65 days for complex cases. I have taken this into account and the pressure Ms X was under when Y was in the children’s home. I have therefore decided to investigate what happened since April 2013.
- Ms X has raised new complaints about what happened since she raised her complaint at stage 2 of the complaints process. Therefore, I have only investigated what happened to March 2016.
- If Ms X is unhappy with the Council’s response to these further complaints she can raise a new complaint with the Ombudsman.
Council’s investigation of Ms X’s complaint
- The Council took almost a year to investigate Ms X’s complaint at stage 2 of the complaints process. This is fault. The Council has offered to pay Ms X £150 to recognise the impact this had on her and says it has put resources in place to ensure this does not happen again.
- The payment of £150 is towards the lower end of what the Ombudsman would normally recommend. Given the extent of the delay a higher financial remedy would be appropriate given the time and trouble Ms X was put to pursuing her complaint.
- There is also fault with the stage 2 investigation. The investigation identified a number of faults in the way the Council had handled the case including that Y had been without a social worker for a period and had more social workers dealing with her case than would be normal. However, only two recommendations were made in the form of an apology to Ms X and for contact between Ms X and Y to continue. There was no consideration of the impact a lack of support might have had on Ms X and Y.
- Statutory guidance says it is good practice for stage 2 investigation reports to contain the investigator’s comments on a complainant’s desired outcomes. However, this is missing from the stage 2 report in this case.
- There is also fault in the way the stage 2 and stage 3 investigations considered Ms X’s complaints that the Council said it had let Y down during court proceedings. The stage 2 investigation said there would be no documents that would refer to this. The stage 3 panel said the investigating officer would not have had access to the court transcript.
- Ms X has obtained a copy of the court transcript which confirmed the Judge stated the Council had accepted it had let Y down. I would not expect the investigating officer or stage 3 panel to ask for copy of a court transcript. However, I would expect both the investigating officer and stage 3 panel to have considered documents the Council submitted to the court. In a statement to the court the Council said it accepted there “has been inexcusable drift and delay in bringing this case to the attention of the court to help ensure that timely decisions of permanence could be made for [Y]”. Failure to consider this evidence is fault.
- The fault I have identified casts doubt on the findings of the investigating officer and stage 3 panel. Therefore, I have investigated what happened.
Y’s placement under section 20
- There is significant fault in the way the Council supported the family and planned for Y’s future. The initial plan was for Y to return home however there is no evidence of any work taking place to facilitate this or any timescales set as to when a return home was expected to happen.
- During this period Y’s behaviour in the children’s home and at school deteriorated culminating in the police being called when Y absconded and Y being excluded from school. There is also evidence that Y was at significant risk due to her behaviour on social media.
- Despite this the Council did not have any firm plans for Y’s future accommodation until 23 March 2015 when the Council decided to look at moving Y to foster care and obtaining a care order. At this point Y had been in a children’s home for 2 years with no long-term plan for her future.
- The delays in developing a long term plan for Y were exacerbated by fault in the LAC review process. Agreed actions were vague and were not linked to any long term plans for Y’s future. There were also very few timescales put in place by which action should be taken or decisions reached. The minutes of the LAC review meetings were also not circulated after the meetings in line with guidance which says they should be produced within one month. In one instance, it took 5 months for minutes to be circulated. The Council says an “outcomes report” from LAC reviews are place on its systems within 5 working days of the meeting however I did not see these when I viewed the files at the Council’s offices.
- Delays in the LAC review process contributed to a lack of action in Y’s case as professionals lacked formal records of what actions had been agreed at review meetings.
- Although the Council decided to consider obtaining a care order in March 2015 there is no evidence it did anything about this until it was contacted by Ms X’s solicitor in October 2015. Ms X should not have had to instruct a solicitor to force the Council to take action regarding a long term plan for her daughter.
- When Y moved out of the children’s home into the placement with the foster family it is notable that her behaviour improved and she was more settled. Overall Y was in the children’s home for almost 2 and a half years.
- The Council was also at fault for stopping Ms X’s contact with Y in September 2015. Y was accommodated under section 20 of the Children’s Act 1989 and the Council had no legal basis for stopping contact. However, there were times when Y did not wish to see Ms X and so this limits the injustice caused to Ms X.
- I could never say if Y would have returned to Ms X’s care if the Council had planned her long term future when Y was first accommodated. However, it is clear that the uncertainty about Y’s future over such a prolonged time has had a significant, detrimental and irreparable impact on Ms X and Y’s relationship with one another.
- As a result of the Council’s failure to properly plan for Y’s long-term future both Y and Ms X have been caused significant distress and Ms X has had to resort to seeking legal advice to force the Council to take action.
- Following my recommendations the Council has agreed to take the following action to remedy the injustice caused to Ms X:
- Write to Ms X to apologise for the failure to properly plan for her daughter’s long term future and for the impact this had on her relationship with Y.
- Pay Ms X £2100 to recognise the distress caused as a result of the impact the fault had on her and her relationship with her daughter. This figure also reflects the time and trouble she was put to pursuing her complaint. This amount is in addition to the £150 the Council has already paid to Ms X.
- Pay Ms X £558 to cover the unnecessary legal expenses she had to pay.
- Review the use of section 20 to accommodate children to ensure the Council is using its powers appropriately.
- Review the LAC review process to ensure actions are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time specific.
- Remind staff that minutes of LAC reviews should be circulated as soon as possible after the meeting in line with guidelines.
- Review training needs of all social care staff to ensure they have received up to date training on child sexual exploitation.
- Ensure officers carrying out stage 2 investigations have received training in handling complaints.
- Review current arrangements to ensure the Council continues to have resources in place to deal with children’s services complaints.
- I have completed my investigation. This is because I have found fault causing injustice and the action I have recommended provides a suitable remedy.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman