The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms Z complains about the Council’s actions in relation to letterbox contact, future adoptions and setting up an ISA for the children. There was some fault in the Council’s communications and delays in organising the ISAs although any injustice is limited. The Ombudsman has recommended a remedy.
- Ms Z is the adoptive mother of two children. She says:
- The Council failed to provide a proper service for letterbox contact and its communication was poor.
- The Council failed to properly communicate with Ms Z and her family, when a sibling to her children was born. The family says it wished to enter into discussions with the Council to be considered as adopters for the child. However Ms Z believed the Council did not effectively respond to her initial enquiries and closed down discussions before they had begun.
- It delayed providing ISAs for the children.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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 Independent Investigator 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.
How I considered this complaint
- I have discussed the complaint with Ms Z and I have considered the documents she and the Council have sent and both sides’ comments on the draft decision.
What I found
- The Adoption and Children Act 2002 and regulations and guidance set out councils’ duties in the adoption process. I have summarised the provisions which are relevant to Ms Z’s complaint.
- Where a placement is sought for a child whose sibling(s) have already been adopted, it will be important to consider whether it is possible to place the child with the parents who have already adopted the siblings. It must be recognised however that this could place too great a burden on the adoptive parent and risk destabilising the existing adoptive family.
- Contact between an adopted child, his or her adoptive family and the birth family is often in the form of indirect (letterbox) contact which means both families exchange basic anonymised information via a social worker.
- If a child has been looked after for over a year, the local authority has a legal duty to inform the Share Foundation so that the Share Foundation can create a junior ISA for the child and deposit money into the ISA provided by central government.
- Mr and Ms Z are the adoptive parents of C and D. C and D were placed by the London Borough of Hounslow and this is the Council I am investigating. However Mr and Ms Z live in a different council area, council K and were approved as adopters by a different adoption agency.
- C and D have a half-sibling E who is not adopted.
- C and D’s birth mother had another child, F in 2014. The Council contacted a social worker from the adoption agency to discuss this matter with the couple. The Council also sent a social worker, appointed to the children. Both social workers advised the couple
- separately, of the potential impact an additional placement would place on such a new family unit. The adoption agency contacted the Council and said that after deliberation, the couple had concluded that they were not in a position to adopt F, as C and D had only recently been placed with them and they had been advised to concentrate on settling the children already within their care. F was adopted by another family.
- In May 2015 Ms Z signed an agreement that she would participate in letterbox contact with C and D’s birth parents and with E twice a year.
- In August and September 2015, Ms Z contacted the Council with questions regarding letterbox contact. She also said the Council told her it would set up a junior ISA for the children, but this had not happened yet.
- She also found out, via an external source, that C and D’s mother was expecting a child (G). The Council later confirmed this via email, when directly questioned about the matter.
- G was born in May 2016. Ms Z contacted the Council.The Council told her that if she and Mr Z wanted to be considered as possible adopters, they would need to go through the approval process again. Ms Z said she believed the social worker attempted to close down the enquiry from the onset. The social worker told Ms Z that the time and the processes involved would impede the application. Ms Z said the social worker sounded negative about the prospect of success and had told her that the plan for G was potentially a placement in a mother and baby unit. Ms Z did not pursue an application as she believed there was now no chance of her and Mr Z adopting G.
- Ms Z sent emails to the Council dated 3 and 25 November 2016, and the Council responded on 22 December 2016. Ms Z sent further complaints on 17 January 2017 and 22 February 2017 which the Council replied to on 17 February and 22 March 2017.
- I have summarised Ms Z’s complaints and have investigated the three different complaints separately.
- Ms Z contacted the Council over several months in 2016 seeking clarification about letterbox contact. The Council told her in May 2016 that the birth parents did not want to receive letterbox contact and that it would not contact E’s mother about letterbox contact as E was not adopted.
- Ms Z queried this as the birth mother had shown interest in letterbox contact in the past and the Councill had previously suggested that they were going to support her in writing a more appropriate letter. Ms Z also said the Council had said it would organise letterbox contact with E at the matching panel.
- Ms Z wrote to the Council about letterbox contact on 3 November 2016 and chased them again on 25 November 2016 as she had not received a response.
- The Council said in December 2016:
- It previously did not know where the birth parents were living and it could not force them to participate in letterbox contact.
- Both birth parents signed letterbox agreements on 13 December 2016 and the birth mother had given a temporary address. The Council had given both birth parents the letter box contact letters at a recent contact session.
- The birth parents had not participated in letterbox contact.
- It was unable to obtain E’s address. It said it explained this at the matching panel, but had hoped that E’s father, who has contact with E, could have given the address to the Council, but the father did not know E’s address.
- Ms Z complained that the Council had not done enough to ensure that letterbox contact was taking place, that there were delays in its communications and that it had given conflicting information about the birth parents’ engagement with the contact. Ms Z also said the Council told the matching panel it would facilitate contact between E and C and D but then failed to do this.
- I agree with the Council that there is little it can do if the birth parents do not participate in letterbox contact. The parents moved a lot so the Council did not have their addresses. It wrote to the addresses it had and the letters returned unanswered. I find no fault in those actions.
- There was some fault as the Council should have dealt with the letter from November 2016 when it received the letter. It also gave incorrect information to Ms Z about the birth mother’s participation as the birth mother had shown an interest in letterbox contact and had sent a letter.
- Any injustice Ms Z suffered as a result of this is limited. Even if the communication with Ms Z had been different, the outcome would have been the same in terms of what letter box contact the birth parents sent to the Council. The only difference may have been that the birth mother would have been supported earlier to write a more appropriate letter. I understand this support is now being provided.
- There is no fault in the Council’s actions in relation to letter box contact with E. It tried to find out E’s address but could not find it. However, it should have been clear in its communications with Ms Z that this was the reason why there was no letterbox contact with E, not because E was not adopted.
Communication about adoption.
- Ms Z sent an email to the Council on 3 November 2016. She said:
- The social worker had informed her that the process for Mr and Ms Z to be approved as adopters for G would take too long and would delay the plan for G. The social worker also said the Council was considering placing the baby with the mother in a mother and baby unit.
- She had not been contacted by the Council about G and she did not know what the long term plan for G was.
- The Council had a duty to contact her as the adopter of G’s siblings once it became clear that other possible plans for G such as living with the parents or extended family had been exhausted.
- Confirmation that the Council understood that her position now was different from two years ago when the Council contacted her about the adoption of F.
- She wanted reassurance that, if the birth parents had children in the future and if the plan was adoption, then the Council would inform her and let her know.
- She wanted it to be on the record that they were interested to be considered for any future child of C and D’s birth parents.
- Ms Z did not have an automatic right to be informed about future children as that was confidential information which could only be shared with the parents’ consent or the court’s permission.
- Ms Z contacted the social worker in June 2016 and asked about the likelihood that G would be placed for adoption. This was early in the process so the social worker could not say what the final plan would be. The social worker advised Ms Z in June 2016 to make a fast track application to be approved as an adopter. Ms Z knew about the pregnancy from September 2015 and did not progress her application to be approved as 2nd time adopters ‘for reasons known to you’. Ms Z had as much information as the Council was able to share from as early as possible.
- The plan for G was a foster to adopt placement. The Council did not approach Ms Z to be approved for a foster to adopt placement as she was not an approved adopter and she lived too far away for contact between the birth parents and G while the court proceedings were ongoing. Also, the uncertainty of the process meant G may be placed with Mr and Ms Z and then removed. This process would be difficult for C and D to understand and may have a detrimental effect on them.
- The Council never contacted her about the pregnancy, but she found out herself. It was therefore not correct to say the Council had shared information from as early as possible nor was it fair to say she should have started her application to be approved as an adopter on that basis.
- She tried to find out what was happening since May 2016 and had a conversation with the social worker in June 2016 where the social worker tried to dissuade her from going through the adoption approval process again.
- She queried the Council’s response of confidentiality as the Council had contacted her previously about adopting F and the Council had contacted F’s adopters regarding adopting G early on during the pregnancy.
- She suspected the Council chose a foster to adopt plan as it was easier and cheaper.
- She said it was disingenuous to say that she had not pursued her approval as adopter and that this was the reason she and Mr Z had not been considered as possible adopters. She said she did not pursue approval as the Council had made it clear it would be pointless.
- I have not further investigated G’s care plan and I do not know what the care plan was for G. If there were court proceedings then the court would have considered the care plan and it is therefore outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- I have further investigated the Council’s communications with Ms Z regarding the plan for G and any future children.
- I accept the difficulties the Council faced in communicating with Ms Z about the plan for G.
- Firstly, I agree with the Council that there are limits to the information it can disclose to Ms Z because of the birth family’s right to confidentiality and restrictions regarding communications about court proceedings.
- Secondly, the process of planning a child’s future when there are child protection concerns and / or care proceedings is complex. Councils are under a duty to ‘parallel plan’ to avoid delay for children. They therefore pursue several plans (birth parents, extended family, long term foster care, adoption) at the same time.
- The process does not lend itself to the assurances that Ms Z was seeking. Councils can often not confirm until late in the proceedings what the final care plan will be and even then, the court can always change this plan. Ms Z wanted assurance that, if she went through the adoption approval process again, she would have a good chance of adopting a sibling. The Council could not give her that assurance.
- However, I agree with Ms Z that some of the communications in the response to her complaint were not always a fair reflection of what happened. Particularly the suggestion that, as Ms Z was aware of the pregnancy of G from September 2015, it was her decision not to progress her re-approval as an adopter. Although this was strictly speaking correct, it did not reflect the fact that the Council had never contacted her or encouraged her in any way to apply and this is reason why she did not apply.
- In terms of future communication, I agree the Council cannot give a blanket assurance to Ms Z that it will contact her with a view to adoption in the future if C and D’s birth parents have another child and the plan is adoption. The Council has a duty to consider Ms and Mr Z, but ultimately its plan will depend on the needs and circumstances of each child at that time.
- However Ms Z asked for two things, firstly, to be notified of births and secondly, an acknowledgement the Council was aware of her wish.
- The Council did not respond to her second request. The Council could have agreed to put a note on the file to say that Mr and Ms Z had expressed an interest in adopting any future child of the birth parents if adoption was the plan. This would have reassured Mr and Ms Z that their wishes were recorded and that the Council was aware that their position had changed from the time when they were approached about F.
- The Council agreed to make the necessary arrangements for the ISAs in 2015. The Council apologised for the delay in setting up the ISAs in its letter in December 2016 and said it would chase this up. In February 2017 the Council said it had set up the ISAs but it had not yet transferred them in the children’s correct names. In October 2017 the Council acknowledged that there had been a problem in its systems which meant it had not provided the correct notification to the Share Foundation for one of the children.
- There was fault in the Council’s actions regarding the junior ISAs. It had a duty to provide the correct information and any update in the children’s status and it failed to do this within the required timescale.
Consideration of the complaint under the statutory procedure
- The Council has not considered the complaint under the statutory procedure for complaints about children’s social care services, only under its own corporate complaints procedure.
- The statutory procedure sets out who can complain and what the complaint can relate to. It says adopters who complain about adoption support services are covered by the statutory procedure.
- Ms Z is C and D’s adoptive parent and she was complaining about adoption support services for C and D such as letterbox contact and ISAs. Therefore the Council should have at least considered whether this part of her complaint would need to be investigated under the statutory complaints procedure and its failure to do so is fault.
- However, I agree that the main part of Ms Z’s complaint which relates to the care plan for G and her communications with the Council about the plans is outside of the statutory procedure.
- The Council’s corporate complaints procedure has three stages. It says the Council will not investigate the complaint at stage two if the complainant fails to provide any reasons why the findings at stage one were wrong. In that case the complainant still has the right to go to the Ombudsman.
- The Council refused to consider Ms Z’s complaint at stage 2 of its complaints procedure as it said nothing could be gained from proceeding to stage 2. However, it failed to inform Ms Z of her right to go the Ombudsman in any of its responses to her complaint despite the fact that she repeatedly asked the Council to confirm this. This further added to her stress and anxiety.
- I understand the Council has resolved the system error which partly led to the delay in the ISA.
- The letter box contact coordinator, who was on maternity leave in 2016, has returned to her post and this should improve communication about letterbox contact.
- The Council has acknowledged in a letter dated October 2017 that better communication would have prevented a lot of the issues. It has provided Ms Z with a contact person for issues regarding letterbox contact and adoption, which was one of the outcomes she was seeking.
- I recommend the Council takes the following actions within one month of the final decision:
- Apologises to Ms Z for the poor communication and delays.
- Places a note on its files that Mr and Ms Z have expressed an interest in adopting future siblings of C and D.
There was some fault in the Council’s actions and the Council has agreed to remedy the fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman