The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X and Ms Y complained about the Council’s handling of placement and adoption proceedings in relation to their daughter, C. They also complained about not receiving any financial support for C’s adoption. The Council were at fault and has agreed to the recommendations to remedy the injustice caused to the complainants.
- Ms X and Ms Y complain that during C’s placement and adoption, the Council;
- Failed to distribute the minutes of C’s Looked After Child (LAC) Review in a timely manner, they were sent six months after the meeting was held.
- Failed to forward C’s life story work to Ms X and Ms Y.
- Sent a letter to Ms X and Ms Y that was addressed to ‘Mr and Mrs’.
- Provided inadequate communication and support to Ms X and Ms Y during the placement and adoption process.
- Did not have ‘goodbye contact’ with C.
- Failed to provide Ms X and Ms Y with financial support.
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)
- 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)
- 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 Ms X and Ms Y’s complaint and discussed it with Ms X on the telephone.
- I have considered the information the Council sent in response to my enquiries.
- Ms X, Ms Y and the Council were given the opportunity to comment on a draft of my decision. I have considered the comments received from both parties.
What I found
- C was placed with Ms X and Ms Y in September 2016 and subsequently adopted by them in May 2017.
- The Council works jointly with an agency (the Agency) to provide adoption services in its area. The Agency worked with Ms X and Ms Y throughout the placement and adoption process.
- Ms X and Ms Y submitted their complaint in writing to the Council in June 2017 regarding lack of financial support from the Council and the lack of communication and support from C’s social worker.
- In July 2017 Ms X and Ms Y telephoned the Council and asked it to consider additional elements to their complaints. These related to;
- delays in receiving LAC review meeting minutes
- delays in receiving C’s later life letter and life story book
- the social worker not having ‘goodbye contact’ with C and
- a letter incorrectly addressed to ‘Mr & Mrs’ instead of Ms and Ms X and Y
C’s Looked After Child (LAC) Review was held in January 2017 but they did not receive the minutes of this meeting until July 2017.
- The Adoption and Children Act 2002 made it a legal requirement for an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to be appointed. IROs have a key role in chairing reviews and ensuring actions have been carried out.
- The requirements in the statutory guidance for Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO) and local authorities on their functions in relation to case management and review for looked after children must be followed by the Council unless there are exceptional reasons.
- The guidance states;
- ‘The full written record of the review, including the decisions, should be distributed within 20 working days of the completion of the review.’
The Council failed to forward C’s life story work to Ms X and Ms Y.
- The Council must have regard to the “Statutory Guidance on Adoption for Local Authorities, Voluntary Adoption Agencies and Adoption Support Agencies, July 2013”.
- The life story book helps the child understand their early history and life before adoption. The later life letter for the child should explain the child’s history from birth. It should be sufficiently detailed so in the future the adolescent child or young adult, will have factual details about their birth family and their life before adoption. This is to help the child understand why they were adopted.
- The statutory guidance states the completed life story book and the later life letter should be given to the prospective adopter within ten working days of the adoption ceremony.
- The Council’s policy and procedures on its website reflects the statutory guidance.
- C’s adoption ceremony was in June 2017.
- The Council informed Ms X in its response to her complaint in June 2017 that work on C’s life story book had begun and it would be completed by the end of August 2017 at the very latest.
- The Council has highlighted the reasons for the delay were due to the ineffective management of workloads by staff and an oversight meant the life story work was incomplete. The social worker moved teams in October 2017 and her new manager did not know the work was outstanding.
- The Council apologised to Ms X and Ms Y for the delay and planned to complete the life story work and give it to Ms X and Ms Y.
- Ms X and Ms Y chased the Council for the life story book and later life letter on several occasions. Ms X and Ms Y received C’s later life letter in December 2017 via email but they were unable to access it. They have sent emails to the Council requesting a hard copy of the life story book but the Council has failed to respond to them. They have not received the life story book. Ms X and Ms Y find it upsetting that they are being ignored by the Council and they feel it is having an emotional impact on C as she is beginning to talk but they have no life story work to show her.
- In accordance with the statutory guidance local authorities are required to follow, the Council should have provided the later life letter and the life story book in June 2017. The Council has failed to do this and this is fault. Ms X and Ms Y requested several updates and submitted complaints to the Council and to the Ombudsman.
- The Council has apologised to Ms X and Ms Y and although it has sent the later life letter, it is in a format they cannot access. Ms X and Ms Y have not received C’s life story book despite repeated requests. To put things right, I recommend the Council send to Ms X and Ms Y a hard copy of the later life letter and the life story book.
The Council referred to Ms X and Ms Y in the minutes of a meeting as ‘Mr and Mrs’.
- Ms X and Ms Y complained to the Council they had been incorrectly referred to as ‘Mr and Mrs’ in the minutes of a meeting.
- The Council apologised for this error and raised the matter with the relevant team and there is no evidence of it happening again. This is a satisfactory response from the Council to the matter.
There was a lack of communication and support from the Council during the placement and adoption process by the Council, namely the social worker.
- The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, regulation 28 (2)(b) provides the child must be visited by the Council at intervals of not more than six weeks.
- The social worker did make visits to the family throughout the placement and adoption proceedings however they were not always within the six-week statutory timescale.
- The Council state this was due to the social worker being unable to find mutually convenient times with the family to visit. However, the Council is under a statutory duty to abide by the timescales therefore the Council is at fault for failing to do this.
- Ms X and Ms Y were also supported by their adoption social worker during this period therefore although the Council is at fault for not adhering to the statutory timescales, the injustice is not significant. The Council have apologised for the lack of communication and support and I consider this a satisfactory response.
The Social Worker did not have ‘goodbye contact’ with C.
- The social worker had visited C from when she was six months old to when she was fifteen months old. The visits were sometimes six weeks apart but on occasions longer.
- I appreciate Ms X and Ms Y are disappointed the social worker did not have ‘goodbye contact’ with C. This is not something the Council is required to do. However, the Council acknowledge that it would have been courteous and helpful for the family. I find no fault on this aspect of the complaint
- Due to C’s age and the frequency of the visits, it is unlikely C would understand a formal goodbye. I do not consider the absence of a formal goodbye caused any detriment to the family.
The Council failed to provide Ms X and Ms Y with financial support.
- The Adoption Support Services Regulations 2005 (ASR) and the Adoption Statutory Guidance 2013 set out the circumstances in which councils must pay financial support to people who adopt and where they have discretion to do so. They also explain how councils should assess the amount of support to provide.
- Key principles include:
- It is important that adoptive parents apply for statutory adoption pay (SAP) and leave, and all benefits and tax credits to which they are eligible. Financial support under the ASR must complement and not duplicate financial support available through the benefits and tax credits system (paragraph 9.32).
- The local authority should consider making a payment of financial support equivalent to the Maternity Allowance to adoptive parents who are ineligible to receive SAP because of low earnings, length of service or self-employment, but otherwise satisfy the relevant criteria for Maternity Allowance (paragraph 9.38).
- Financial support (subject to means testing) can be provided where the child’s health or circumstances make it hard to place the child for adoption.
- Ms X and Ms Y were self-employed at the time C was placed with them.
- The Council, via the Agency, considered Ms X and Ms Y’s financial arrangements they had made to support adoption leave and balance future work commitments once C was placed with them. No concerns were found about their financial stability.
- After C was placed with Ms X and Ms Y, they stopped working to build a bond with C. They used their savings to cover living costs and struggled to manage their finances. Ms X and Ms Y obtained a loan for C’s nursery fees.
- Ms X and Ms Y requested financial support from the Council on several occasions and were told C did not have any identified needs and therefore they were not eligible for financial support.
- The Council advised Ms X and Ms Y that if they felt C’s needs had changed, they could request a reassessment of needs.
- The Council’s Adoption Support policy sets out the circumstances in which financial support may be provided to adopters. In their complaint to the Council, Ms X and Ms Y relied on the first criteria;
- ‘Financial support may be paid…where it is necessary to ensure that adoptive parents can look after a child’.
‘would agree to a recommendation to consider a review of its policy in line with the statutory guidance. Such a change in policy would have financial implications for the Council and would require the approval of the relevant Policy and Service Committee. In this case the Council would agree to a recommendation to consider applying any change in policy retrospectively to the complainant’s case.’
- The Council has agreed that within 4 weeks of my final decision, it will send Ms X and Ms Y a hard copy of C’s later life letter and life story book.
- The Council has agreed that within 3 months of my final decision, it will;
- Review its Adoption Support Policy and ensure it is in line with the Adoption Statutory Guidance 2013, specifically in relation to paragraph 9.38 of the guidance.
- Apply the changes it makes to the Adoption Support Policy to Ms X and Ms Y’s complaint regarding financial support and reconsider their request for support. If the Council decides payments should be made these should be backdated to the relevant period.
- I have found fault by the Council causing Ms X, Ms Y and C injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendations to remedy the injustice caused. I have therefore completed my investigation of this complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman