The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The ombudsman has found there was some fault by the Council in the way it handled the post-adoption letterbox contact arrangement and the complaint made about it. The Council has agreed to apologise for this fault.
- Mrs X complains about the Council’s administration of the post adoption letterbox contact arrangement she has with her biological grand-daughter. Specifically, she complains about the poor communication from the Council regarding delays and about the process in place to monitor the content of the letters. Mrs X also complains about the delays in the Council’s complaints procedure.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information and documentation provided by Mrs X in her complaint. I have also spoken with Mr X. I also considered information and documents from the Council. I gave Mr X and the Council an opportunity to respond to my draft decision.
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
What I found
- The post-adoption letterbox contact arrangements facilitate contact between adopted children and members of their birth family.
- It is a voluntary agreement and there is no legal requirement for either party to maintain this contact. Where the parties choose to maintain this contact, the Council’s role is primarily to receive and forward the correspondence to the relevant party and to ensure the content of the letter is appropriate. The Council has said that it’s role is to “ensure the letter to the child will be helpful to them, in light of their experience and life stage”. The agreement specifically says the best interests of the child will be paramount.
- Mrs X is the biological grandmother of Child C. In this case, letterbox contact was agreed in 2006 between Child C and their adoptive parents and Mrs X. The arrangement was that Mrs X would send a letter to Child C by a specific date each year and a reply is then to be sent by the adoptive parents within 21 days.
- Between 2007-2016 Mrs X complained about the delays in receiving the annual letterbox contact. These delays were due to the adoptive parents not sending the letter by the agreed time.
- Mrs X complains about the Council’s poor communication with her of the delays in receiving a reply to her annual letters from the adoptive parents.
- In March 2016 Mrs X sent her annual contact letter to Child C. She then received an acknowledgement that the Council had received it.
- On 13 April 2016 Mrs X telephoned to Council. She says she was told that the letterbox administrator was not available. Mrs X says she was told that he would call her back, but this did not happen. The role of the letterbox administrator is a part time role, where one day a week is dedicated to dealing with queries. The Council currently manages 480 letterbox arrangements.
- The Council made a number of calls to the adoptive parents to discuss the late reply to the annual letter.
- On 21 April 2016 Mrs X again telephone the Council. She was told that the administrator was on sick leave. Mrs X says she was told that someone would contact her by the following day, but this did not happen.
- On 22 April, the adoptive parents emailed the Council to explain their concerns about the contact arrangement and to say that they decided to wait until an appropriate time to share the letter with Child C. They also explained that Child C had indicated she did not want to write.
- On 27 April 2016 Mrs X’s husband, Mr X, contacted the Council to complain that the reply to the annual contact letter was a month late.
- On the same day, the Council replied to the adoptive parents. This was not done previously as the letterbox administrator had not been in the office. The adoptive parents responded, again expressing concerns about the contact arrangements. The Council replied and asked for an update and for comments on the issues raised.
- The Council then contacted Mr and Mrs X and told them about the issues raised by the adoptive parents. The Council also told them that it had asked for a brief update to be provided by the adoptive parents if Child C did not wish to write.
- On 28 April, the letterbox administrator contacted a relevant social worker to pass on information about the adoptive parent’s concerns.
- On 29 April Mrs X telephoned the Council. She was told that the letterbox administrator was not in the office but that he would contact her when he returns. Mrs X did not receive any contact from the Council in response.
- On 18 May Mrs X telephoned the Council again. She says she was told that the letterbox administrator was in meetings but that he would contact her.
- On 20 May the letterbox administrator contacted Mrs X. Mrs X complains that his attitude was unprofessional. Mrs X says she was told that the Council would contact the adoptive family and contact her again in a few days.
- On 25 May, when the letterbox administrator was back in the office, the Council wrote to Mr and Mrs X, as Mr X had requested that a response was provided in writing. The Council explained that the letterbox contact agreement is one between Mrs X and the adoptive family and asked that future contact about this was with Mrs X, unless there was a particular issue which meant that Mrs X could not make the contact herself.
- In this letter, the Council apologised for the delay in the letterbox contact and explained that they had not been sent an update from the adoptive family. The Council also explained the reasons it had been given by the adoptive parents for the delay, including a house move and finding it difficult to get Child C to engage. The Council also said that they had been told that an update was being sent by the adoptive parents and would be processed as soon as it arrived.
- On 28 May Mr X telephoned the Council. The letterbox administrator was unavailable. Mr X says that he was told by a member of staff who job shared with the letterbox administrator that a reply had been received by the Council from the adoptive parents. Mr X told this staff member that he was appointed as her agent for all communications between her and the Council, under Scottish Law. Mr X says that this staff member told him that the letterbox administrator would send the reply to Mrs X addressed to Mr X.
- In June, Mrs X received the annual letterbox contact letter from Child C’s adoptive family. This was accompanied by a letter to Mrs X explaining that contact must be with Mrs X and not Mr X as per the letterbox agreement.
- Mr X says he submitted a complaint to the Council on 20 June 2016. He said this was not acknowledged or responded to. The Council says it has no record of receiving this.
- In March 2017 Mrs X wrote her annual letter to Child C. Mrs X received an acknowledgment from the Council that this was received. Mr X complains that this acknowledgement was sent to Mrs X directly and not to Mr X.
- In March, Mr X wrote a letter to the Council reiterating his position as Mrs X’s agent. In this letter Mr X also said that a complaint would be submitted to the Council on behalf of Mrs X. In this letter Mr X also said the Council failed to recognise a complaint from them in 2016.
- On 2 May the letterbox administrator received an email regarding concerns about the content of the annual letter from the adoptive parents.
- On 3 May, Mr X submitted a formal complaint to the Council. This again repeated that he was appointed as Mrs X’s agent.
- On 4 May the Council received a telephone call from Mr and Mrs X, the Council says it told them that nothing had arrived as yet, unless it had been emailed to a colleague who was currently on sick leave.
- In May 2017, a reply to Mrs X’s annual letter was sent. This explained the delay in providing a response and detailed some of the concerns raised by Child C about the content of the previous letter.
- On 15 May 2017 verbal consent for Mr X to act on behalf of Mrs X, regarding the complaint, was obtained by the Council.
- On 20 May Mr and Mrs X telephoned the Council asking for a response to Mrs X’s complaints about the delay in the annual letterbox contact in writing. He also asked that he wanted an explanation as to what the Council has done to rectify the situation.
- On 24 May the Council sent a complaint response to Mrs X. This was addressed to Mrs X and not Mr X. The Council in its response said that:
- It is not always possible to provide an immediate response to letterbox queries due to resourcing.
- Scottish law does not apply in England. The Council reiterated that the letterbox contact agreement is between Mrs X and Child C.
- The Council has no record of receiving a complaint from 20 June 2016.
- Operating a letterbox scheme is a service that is not enforceable. The Council explained that all parties have a right to change their involvement at any time or cease to engage at all and there is nothing the Council can do other than try to explore the decisions and attempt to reach a resolution for the benefit of the child.
- It acknowledges Mr and Mrs X’s complaints about the attitude of the letterbox administrator. It also said that the letterbox administrator apologised if he has offended Mrs X.
- The Council explained actions to be taken to ensure others taking telephone calls are fully cognisant of the arrangements and can provide a helpful response to callers when letterbox staff are not available.
- The Council are considering how it could resource being able to update parties if letters are not received by the due date.
- The Council confirmed that it will accept Mr X as a representative for Mrs X in respect of the complaint. It also confirmed that letterbox contact must only be between Mrs X and the adoptive family.
- The Council agreed that it would be helpful to review the timings in the letterbox agreement.
Communication about letterbox contact delays
- My role is to consider whether there was fault in the way the Council handled the administration of Mrs X’s annual letterbox communication with her biological grand-daughter.
- The Council’s role regarding this agreement is to facilitate the exchange. Primarily this involves receiving letters from one party and forwarding these letters on.
- In this case, it is clear there were delays in the adoptive parents providing a response to the annual letter from Mrs X, causing her distress and upset. As this is a voluntary arrangement, it is up to each party whether they wish to continue with the contact. It is not the Council’s role to enforce the agreement.
- My understanding is that Mrs X’s expectation of the service is that, when there are delays in the adoptive parents responding to the letter, she would like to receive updates from the Council explaining why there are delays and providing detail of what it has done to chase a response.
- Mrs and Mr X made a number of calls to the Council throughout April and May 2016 because Mrs X had not received a response from the adoptive parents. Mr and Mrs X did not receive return calls from the Council, despite being told that they would.
- During this time, the Council contacted the adoptive parents to ask about the delay in providing a response to the annual letter from Mrs X. It engaged in dialogue with the adoptive parents and made attempts to help facilitate contact despite concerns being raised and some reluctance from the adoptive parents.
- There is no legal requirement to, or guidance on how or when the Council should, communicate with parties if there is a delay in providing voluntary letterbox contact. There is also no provision within the Council’s policy for updating parties in this circumstance.
- Whilst I appreciate it would have been helpful to update Mrs X if no letter had been received, the Council does not have to do this. The Council has explained its limited resources to run this service and so I would not expect it to be able to communicate delays with parties.
- In this case, however, the Council could have communicated its actions better to Mrs X. It was clearly considering the communications from Mrs X and was making attempts to encourage the adoptive parents to continue engaging with the voluntary agreement. It should have made more of an effort to return Mrs X’s calls and communicate its actions to her, despite not being able to provide her with a significant update during this time.
- Ultimately, the Council’s role is to facilitate contact, not enforce it. Given the limited resources available to run this service, I would not expect the Council to update Mrs X until it has a letter to send or it had information that needed to be relayed about the contact arrangement. The Council are considering how it could resource being able to update parties if letters are not received by the due date. However, in this case, I would have expected the Council to return Mrs X’s telephone calls when it said it would. This is fault.
- In 2017, Mr and Mrs X say they decided not to contact the Council to chase the response to the annual letter. As explained above, given the limited resources and an absence of any guidance that says the Council must contact parties when there are delays, I would not have expected the Council to contact Mrs X to notify her of the delay.
- Once it had received the letter from the adoptive parents, it forwarded this on within an appropriate time frame. Therefore the Council acted without fault.
- The Council’s role in the letterbox process is predominantly to facilitate the exchange of letters between an adopted child and identified members of their birth family. Part of its role includes considering the appropriateness of the content of each letter before passing it on to the recipient.
- Practical advice was provided to both the birth family and adoptive family about what should be included in the letters. However, this must be considered along with the wishes of the relevant parties, predominantly, the wishes of the child.
- Mrs X complains that the content of the 2017 letter from the adoptive parents was patronising and controlling and should not have been passed through by the Council.
- In this case, both parties, at times, have found the content of the letters to be inappropriate and upsetting. Specifically, Child C expressed concerns over the inclusion of some information in the 2017 letter. The Council worked with the adoptive family to help them manage the exchange and encourage them to continue with the agreement.
- There is no legislative requirements or guidance on the appropriateness of the content of the letters. The Council does however provide relevant parties with guidance on appropriateness. This should be considered alongside the wishes and feelings of interested parties, particularly the child. The decision to pass letters through is one that is made by a qualified social worker.
- Whilst I appreciate Mrs X may have found the content of the letter upsetting and inappropriate, the decision to pass the letter through was one that the Council was entitled to make, based on professional judgement. Without fault in the way its decision to pass the letter through was made, the Ombudsman cannot question the decision itself. Therefore, the Council acted without fault when it passed the letter to Mrs X.
Mr X as Mrs X’s representative
- On 28 May 2016 Mr X told the Council that he was appointed as Mrs X’s Agent for all communications between her and the Council, under Scottish Law. Mr X says that this staff member told him that the letterbox administrator would send the reply to Mrs X in the care of Mr X. When the letter was sent, it was sent to Mrs X with an explanation as to why the contact should remain between her and the Council.
- The Council’s decision to send the reply letter to Mrs X and not Mr X was not made with fault. Scottish Law does not apply in England and in any case, the letterbox contact agreement is one made with Mrs X and child C and not Mr X and so the Council was right to direct this communication to Mrs X.
- I cannot determine whether the Council told Mr X it would send the letter to him directly. Ultimately, the Council sent the letter to Mrs X, this was an action it was entitled to take and so the Council’s actions were without fault.
- After Mr X submitted a formal complaint on behalf of Mrs X, the Council sought verbal consent from Mrs X for Mr X to act on her behalf in respect of the complaint. This was appropriate.
- The Council sent its response to Mrs X after agreeing that complaints correspondence would be sent to Mr X. It is at the Council’s discretion whether to accept Mr X as a representative for Mrs X in the circumstances. However, as the Council did accept Mr X as a representative for the complaint and yet continued to send the correspondence to Mrs X, this is fault.
- On 2 August, the Council wrote to Mrs X regarding the review of the timings involved in the letterbox agreement. Mr X complains that this should have been sent to him and not Mrs X.
- In the Council’s complaint response sent on 16 June 2017 the Council provided clarity by saying that Mr X has permission from Mrs X “to act for her in relation to this complaint and in relation to queries about the progress of letters.” It also says the actual exchange of family letters can only be between Mrs X and Child C or the adoptive parents as per the agreement. Again, it is at the Council’s discretion whether to accept Mr X as a representative for Mrs X for queries about the progress of letters, in this case it has decided to.
- The letter that was sent to Mrs X on 2 August was neither the letter exchange, nor was it about the progress of letters. This letter was about a proposed variation of the agreement made between Mrs X and Child C. The Council may decide who it should direct this correspondence to. In this case, given that the letter relates to a variation of an agreement that Mr X is not party to, the Council sending this to Mrs X does not appear to be fault.
- Mr X says he submitted a complaint to the Council in June 2016. The Council has no record of receiving this. I cannot say on balance whether this complaint was received by the Council. I therefore cannot say whether there was any fault.
- On 3 May, Mr X submitted a formal complaint to the Council. The Council responded on 24 May under its corporate complaints procedure.
- On 8 June the Council completed the corporate complaints resolution and review plan for Mrs X’s complaint, under the second stage of its procedure. A letter response was sent to Mr and Mrs X on 16 June 2017. In this letter the Council outlined its intended actions.
- These responses were both sent within appropriate timeframes and so the Council acted without fault.
- On 22 June 2017, the Council told Mr X that it aimed to respond by 12 July. The Council did not send a response until 1 August. The Council did not update Mr X of the delays which were caused by staff changes. Not updating Mr X of the delays when it said it would is fault.
- When Mr X contacted the Council on 1 August, the Council could not tell Mr X who was dealing with his complaint, despite the review response being sent that day. Whilst it does not amount to fault, this poor communication was unhelpful and confusing.
- The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr and Mrs X for:
- the poor communication in 2016 when it did not return her telephone calls when it said it would.
- wrongly addressing complaints correspondence to Mrs X after accepting Mr X as the representative.
- not updating Mr and Mrs X of the delays in the complaints process.
- The Ombudsman has found there was some fault by the Council in the way it handled the post-adoption letterbox contact arrangement and the complaint made about it. The Council has agreed to apologise for this fault.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have considered the Council’s actions since 2016 and not before. This is because 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. I am considering more the Councils actions since 2016 due it being annual contact, this allows me to address the ongoing nature of the issue.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman