The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complained that the Council failed to continue matched financial support beyond a two-year period after she adopted three children she had previously fostered. There is no evidence that the Council agreed to continue the funding prior to the adoption or before the two-year period expired. But the Council did not properly document or explain, in 2015 or 2017, how it reached its decision that Ms B’s situation was not exceptional enough to warrant continuation of the payment. The Council has now carried out a further financial assessment but has not changed its view that Ms B’s situation is not exceptional
- Ms B complained that Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council (the Council) failed to continue matched financial support (at the fostering allowance rate) beyond the two-year period (after adoption) despite agreeing to do so when Ms B adopted three 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)
- 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 considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Ms B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
- 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
- In line with the Adoption Support regulations 2005, the Council’s Adoption Support Policy allows for former foster carers to receive the foster allowance at the same rate for a transitional period of two years from the date of the adoption. The policy also says that the payment can be extended in exceptional circumstances. In deciding whether the circumstances are exceptional the Council should consider the particular needs of the child over and above the needs of other children with an adoption plan and the financial resources of the foster carer.
- The policy also allows the Council to provide means-tested financial support to adopters on a discretionary basis. It details the criteria the Council should consider when deciding if adoption support is payable. These include where a child has special needs and where the Council had to make special arrangements to facilitate the placement.
- The Council uses the means test recommended by the government. This recommends that Councils link their adoption allowance rates to fostering rates including the different enhancements for special needs. It also says there should be no element of financial reward in adoption allowance beyond the two-year transitional payment.
- The Council has used the same adoption allowance rates for a number of years. These are set out below:
Age of child
Weekly adoption allowance rates £
- The equivalent weekly fostering rate for a 5 to10 year old child is £142.49 plus a skills payment of £134.82.
- The Adoption Support Plan should include details of any proposed financial support.
- Ms B had been a foster carer for many years for the Council. She had been looking after three boys from two different families since 2009 and in 2011 started the adoption process. Up to that point she had been receiving fostering allowances for the boys including a higher-level skills payment.
- A report completed in April 2011 as part of the court process said that the children had no significant health needs but one child required extra help with speech and learning. The report also noted that Ms B’s only income was from fostering and her partner was unemployed, supporting her in looking after the children. They recognised their current lifestyle may not be sustainable after adoption and changes would have to be made. Their decision-making was reliant on being eligible for adoption allowance. The report concluded that adoption of the three children:
“would result in significant financial hardship which would impact greatly on the wellbeing of the children. Therefore an agreement about adoption allowance is key if we are to progress to a full assessment”.
- Ms B says she was told all the way through the assessments that her situation was exceptional because she was adopting three boys over five years, from two families and her only income was from fostering. She says at a meeting in April 2011 the Council made clear to her that if her circumstances did not change, an allowance equivalent to that received prior to adoption would continue post-adoption beyond the two-year limit.
- The notes of a professionals meeting in April 2011 say that the foster carers advised that fostering is their only income. The foster carers felt that the figures initially discussed with them with regard to adoption allowances were too low and would leave them in financial hardship. The initial viability needed to consider the financial implications for the carers, and they were asked to indicate what income they would require in order to continue to care for the children in an appropriate manner, ensuring all their needs are met.
- At the bottom of these notes, handwritten in red are the following comments:
“Why have we assessed foster carers where their only income is fostering?? No mention of finance till 18”.
- In July 2011 the Council completed a Prospective Adopter Report including a financial assessment. This detailed their financial situation and acknowledged that adoption would reduce their income significantly. It mentioned that adoption allowance would be needed and the two-year skills payment would partially support them in the transition. It also mentioned Ms B’s possible plans for employment and their purchase of a third house with a mortgage to facilitate further fostering opportunities.
- The Council has provided case records, from 13 January 2012, of a telephone call with Ms B where the financial arrangements of the adoption were discussed. This said that the Council had agreed to pay for two years full fostering allowance and skills payments, then Ms B and her partner would be assessed for adoption allowance. It records Ms B questioning why she cannot be assessed now so she can be certain of the availability of support in two years’ time.
- It has also provided a statement from a Service Manager dated 11 January 2012 saying that the Council had agreed that Ms B and her partner would continue to receive the same rate as they had been getting as foster carers for a period of two years after the Adoption Order.
- The Adoption Matching Meeting Minutes dated 31 January 2012 say the same thing in respect of the financial situation: the current level of finances would continue for two years after the making of an adoption order, following by an assessment for adoption allowance.
- Ms B and her partner adopted the children in March 2013 and received the same level of fostering payments until 13 March 2015. After this date, the payments reverted to the lower adoption allowances.
- Ms B applied to the Council to continue to foster other children in 2014. A prospective foster carers report from March 2014 noted that after March 2015 their income would drop significantly. It concluded that, with either one or two children in a foster placement, they could manage their outgoings comfortably. It took into account the rental income from the houses and noted that Ms B and her partner would consider selling one of the houses if necessary.
- On 1 February 2015, Ms B requested that the higher rate of support continue beyond March 2015. Her social worker visited to discuss the case on 12 February 2015. The Council says Ms B said at the meeting she wanted to continue her career as a foster carer and the allowances would enable her to do this. She was willing to forgo extra payments for Christmas, birthdays and holidays. She did not mention specific needs for the boys nor the fact she would incur financial hardship.
- The Council has provided notes from a supervision record dated 13 February 2015 saying the social worker had visited Ms B regarding adoption allowances and concluded there were no specific identified needs for the children. The Council wrote a brief summary of the situation in March 2015 noting that the available documents prior to the adoption state that the matched funding would continue for two years and then Ms B and her partner were willing to look at alternative sources of income. It said none of the boys had any identified needs and the couple were fostering three more children.
- On 7 July 2015 the Council wrote to Ms B and her partner saying there was no evidence to support Ms B’s view that the Council agreed to continue the matched funding beyond the two year period and there was clear evidence that they were aware the funding would end after two years.
- Ms B met with the Council on 9 July 2015. She made notes of the meeting but the Council did not. Ms B reiterated her recollection that the Council said at the professionals meeting in April 2011 that the matched funding would continue because their only income was from fostering. She also said adopting three boys over the age of five form two different families was exceptional and that they did have particular needs. She considered that their circumstances were exceptional and the Council should continue the funding.
- The Council confirmed on 20 July 2015 that it had kept to its agreement to continue with matched funding for two years and there was no evidence to support its continuation. Ms B made a further request for matched funding in August 2015 and queried the content of a financial assessment, but there is no record of a response.
- Ms B then had a number of personal issues (included the breakdown of her relationship) which prevented her from pursuing the complaint until June 2017. She raised the issue again with the Council and in July 2017 it repeated its view that the Council only agreed to make the matched payment for two years but it offered to carry out a new financial assessment.
- The Council carried out another financial assessment in 2018 and confirmed that Ms B is entitled to the maximum allowance due to the level of her income.
- The Council considered Ms B’s finances as part of the adoption process and noted that, due to her reliance on fostering income only, the viability of the adoption was dependent on her receiving adoption allowance. The various reports and paperwork available from this period show that the recommendation was for her to receive the two-year transitional allowance at the fostering rate and then the adoption allowance. I can find no documentary evidence to support her recollection that the higher allowance would continue beyond the two years. I am not dismissing her account of events back in 2011; but given the passage of time and lack of documentary evidence I cannot safely conclude that the Council intended to extend the higher payment.
- It could be argued that Ms B’s case is exceptional because her only income was fostering allowance and she was adopting three boys from two different families. This was definitely seen as unusual and worthy of comment by somebody reviewing the case at an unknown point. However, the exceptionality has been recognised in part by paying the higher allowance for two years and then paying the maximum amount of adoption allowance. Both these allowances are discretionary, for the Council to decide on the circumstances of each case.
- The policy allows the Council to extend the transitional payment beyond two years in exceptional circumstances and says that the Council should consider the particular needs of the child over and above the needs of other children with an adoption plan and the financial resources of the foster carer.
- Ms B requested the Council extend the payment and the Council considered the request. There is very little documentary evidence of what was considered and the only notes provided of the meeting are those made by Ms B. But there is evidence the social worker considered the children and concluded none of them had specific or special needs. The Council did also carry out a means-test to establish Ms B’s entitlement to adoption allowance but there is no other evidence to show how the Council considered her financial resources or whether they were exceptional. It seems that the Council concentrated instead on disproving Ms B’s view that the Council had orally agreed at a meeting to continue the matched funding beyond the two-year period.
- I would have expected to see better and more complete recording of the reasons to refuse to extend the transitional payment at this stage in line with the requirements of the policy.
- As a result of Ms B’s complaint, the Council agreed to carry out a financial assessment to further consider Ms B’s circumstances. It did not do this until 2018 after Ms B complained to the Ombudsman. The assessment has merely confirmed that Ms B’s income is low and she is entitled to continue to receive the maximum adoption allowance.
- There is no evidence that this assessment has been considered in the context of extending the matched funding beyond the two-year period, in accordance with the adoption support policy.
- I asked the Council to consider in the light of the recent financial assessment and any other evidence that Ms B wished to provide, whether Ms B’s situation is exceptional and whether it should have warranted continuation of the two-year matched funding. I said it would be helpful if as part of this process the Council could give examples of what type of needs and what kind of financial resources it considers to be exceptional.
- The Council said in response, that it recently requested information from Ms B, considered this within the financial assessment and found no exceptional evidence or circumstances.
- It says would consider exceptional circumstances to be for children who had severe disabilities, health (including emotional) and or education needs and that those needs cannot be met by universal services or adoption support.
- In exceptional circumstances adoption support would provide a holistic assessment and this would firstly offer therapeutic support. Financial recompense and or payments in exceptional circumstances would only be made if this were the only possible solution.
- It concluded that it has assessed Ms B and found that neither she nor the children are exceptional and do not have exceptional circumstances. It will continue to complete annual financial assessments for Ms B.
- I am satisfied that the Council has carried out my recommendation and I have completed the investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman