Staffordshire County Council (17 009 624)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 May 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs B complain the Council did not provide adequate reasons for its decision they were not suitable to be adoptive parents. And the assessment went too far to be considered at stage one of the process and had moved into stage two. There was fault by the Council in the failure to give Mr and Mrs B sufficient clear and timely information, feedback and support to enable them to explore their views and presentation that were of concern to the Council. This meant the decision not to allow them to proceed to the next stage was not sound. The Council will arrange, within the next two months, for Mr and Mrs B to go through stage one again.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs B complain about the Council’s consideration of their application as prospective adopters. They consider the Council did not provide adequate reasons for its decision that they were not suitable. And the assessment went too far to be considered at stage one of the process and had moved into stage two.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the complaint and spoke to Mr B. I asked the Council for its comments on the complaint and additional information. I sent a copy of a draft of this statement to Mr B and the Council and invited their comments.

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What I found

  1. Mr and Mrs B applied to the Council to be considered as prospective adopters. The first part in the process is an assessment at stage one. At the end of that assessment the Council decided they would not be suitable.
  2. Mr and Mrs B disagreed with the decision and how the Council had assessed them. They complained to the Council. The Council responded under its complaints process. Mr and Mrs B remained dissatisfied and complained further to the Council. The Council declined to escalate the complaint to the next stage so Mr and Mrs B complained to the Ombudsman.

The assessment - what should happen

  1. Adoption services are provided by approved ‘adoption agencies’. All councils are required to provide an adoption service.
  2. The statutory guidance on adoption says that stage one begins when the agency (in this case the Council) notifies the prospective adopter that they accept their registration of interest in adoption. During this stage the prospective adopter will be exploring the extent of their interest in and capacity for adoption, before a firmer decision on whether to go to stage two. For this reason stage one focuses on initial training and preparation, and on ascertaining, through prescribed checks and references, whether the prospective adopter is not suitable to adopt a child and should not proceed. The expectation is that the prospective adopter will be closely involved in the stage one process and agencies are expected to take fully into account the prospective adopter’s wishes on how they wish to proceed through stage one. All prescribed checks and references must be carried out during stage one in parallel with initial training and preparation.
  3. The guidance goes on to say the agency should explain the stage one process in detail and what will be required of the prospective adopter. Agencies should support the prospective adopter and must draw up a Prospective Adopter Stage One Plan with the prospective adopter. This will set out the responsibilities and expectations of both the prospective adopter and the agency during stage one.
  4. Under the guidance of the agency, the prospective adopter should feel this stage of the process is ‘adopter-led’. The stage one plan should, as far as possible, be agreed with the prospective adopter.
  5. Prospective adopters should be encouraged to use any other materials that offer them the opportunity to explore and reach an informed view about parenting and their parenting capacity and help them to identify their own training needs. Agencies should visit or have a meeting or pre-planned telephone call with the prospective adopter to ensure they have the opportunity to ask for more information or training based on their particular needs.

What happened

  1. A stage one adoption plan was drawn up. This explained the process. It said that officers would meet potential adopters at least once to explain progress and offer additional support where required.
  2. Mr and Mrs B attended three days of training. Officers conducting the training had concerns about some of the views of Mr and Mrs B about changing an adopted child’s name and the presentation to the adopted child of information about their birth family and the sharing of information with the birth parents. They also had concerns with Mr B’s presentation and interaction.
  3. The Council says at the end of the three days one of the officers told Mr and Mrs B there would be further discussion with them about their views of birth parents. There are no records to show what information they were given. The case officer visited them shortly afterwards. The Council says this was to explore their views about the preapproval training and their views on birth parents. The Council says that often prospective adopters reflect on the training they have received and can show a broader understanding of the implications and issues within adoption after the training.
  1. The notes of the meeting record that Mr and Mrs B thought it would be confusing for an adopted child to meet their birth parents. The officer explained that would not happen and the training was a reference to a possible meeting between the birth parents and the adopting parents. Mr and Mrs B asked for more information about why sending photographs to the birth parents would be of benefit to the child. The officer spoke about the circumstances a birth parent may find themselves in that would lead to them not being able to care for their child. Mr and Mrs B said that they understood. Mr B commented that he would not want to meet a birth parent who had been violent or who had sexually abused a child.
  2. The notes refer to a discussion about the ages of the children Mr and Mrs B wanted to adopt. The notes record that Mrs B accepted why a child would need to know they were adopted and to have their life story explained to them. Mr B said he would explain their background in a neutral way and questioned how it could be explained positively.
  3. There was no written feedback given to Mr and Mrs B or any other resources provided. The Council has commented the purpose of this meeting was to seek the views of Mr and Mrs B about the training, having allowed them some time to reflect on the content and on the information given to them that there were concerns
  4. There was a supervision meeting for the case officer a month after the first three training days. The notes refer to Mr B’s views about birth families being a concern that was raised after the first three training days and there would be a need to discuss it further with the case officer. The notes record the case officer considered Mr B was set in his views about adoption. That he had a view of a perfect family and that if he was rigid that would be a concern as rigidity was a factor in placement breakdowns. There were concerns about his views about birth parents. The meeting concluded there should be a meeting with Mr and Mrs B, the case officer and the senior practitioner who ran the training days. The purpose of the meeting was to assess whether Mr B had shifted his thinking about birth families and the positive promotion of identity from when he attended the training days and later spoke to the case officer. Further exploration of his ability to be flexible was also required.
  5. This meeting took place a month after the first three training days on the Thursday before the final training day on the following Monday. Both the officers who attended made a detailed note of the meeting. They report there was discussion about changing the child’s name and sharing photographs with the birth parents. The case officer noted Mr B came across as lacking emotional warmth and rigid in his thinking. That he was not open to reflecting on the issues and debating them but would have an answer for the points raised. The officer considered this raised a concern about what would happen if presented with a challenging young person and how Mr B would work with the professionals involved. Mr B asked the officers to leave as they had upset Mrs B. The notes record the officer suggested that Mr and Mrs B talk and get back to her after the weekend which they agreed to do.
  6. The next day Mr B emailed. He said he would accept they can’t change the name of an adopted child and would send a photograph when asked. He said they were the only issues they had with the training and hoped they could move on.
  7. Mr and Mrs B attended the final training day. An officer who was present later provided a note of her recollection. She said there was intermittent engagement from Mr B and a confrontational style during an activity that involved discussion about values and how they can become stuck. She said his conversation became particularly rigid and he became focused on being ‘right’ rather than on the exercise.
  8. The day after the final training there is a note the case officer had decided that Mr and Mrs B should not proceed to the next stage. Mr and Mrs B were informed of the decision a few days later and it was followed up in writing. This referred to discussions with Mr and Mrs B and their engagement in the adoption preparation course as being the basis for the decision. It referred to Mr B referring to birth parents as ‘undesirables’ and the negative attitude by Mr D during group exercises. It referred to Mr B not being able to understand or accept the position of birth parents. It noted Mr and Mrs B had now said they would maintain contact with birth parents and keep the child’s name. But officers were not confident they could appropriately support an adopted child. They were concerned about Mr B’s ability to reflect and be open to other opinions and to accept advice of professionals.

Analysis

  1. Our role is to consider how the Council has undertaken the assessment; it is not our role to substitute our judgement for that of the Council’s officers on whether Mr and Mrs B would be suitable adoptive parents.
  2. Mr B considers the Council’s position is biased in favour of the birth parent. He considers some of the Council’s views on what is best for an adopted child are wrong or outdated. Mr and Mrs B can disagree with the Council’s position but there is no evidence of administrative fault in how the Council has reached its view on the arrangements for contact between adoptive and birth parents and what it expects of adoptive parents. The Council’s view, which it has made clear to Mr and Mrs B, was that it considered that Mr B’s presentation at the training days, and in meetings with officers, demonstrated he could not accept conflicting views to his own. The evidence I have seen of the officers’ meetings with Mr and Mrs B and the notes from the training days show that officers had good reasons for their decisions.
  3. However I do not consider that suitable support and timely feedback was given to Mr and Mrs B. There are no notes of the information and feedback that was given to them after the first three training days. The notes of the first meeting show Mr and Mrs B had misunderstood part of the training. They also asked for more information about why sending photographs to the birth parents would be of benefit to the child. There is nothing to show that this was provided. There is no evidence the Council offered any support to Mr and Mrs B to address the concerns the Council had identified or that it was made clear to them just how important these issues were.
  4. The second visit was shortly before the last training day. I consider officers made clear they had serious concerns. But there was little time before the final day for Mr and Mrs B to come to terms with what was being said or to address the issues. But they did accept they could not change a child’s name and would need to have some contact with the birth parents.
  5. The Council’s made the final decision immediately after the last training day. The Council has commented the professionals involved discussed their observations of the attendees. The Council says Mr B had attracted their particular attention; his presentation was described as challenging and he was considered to be dismissive of some information provided. The Council says this information was later verbally shared by a presenter with the assessing social worker and afterwards with the team manager before the final decision. The Council’s further comments show officers considered Mr B’s presentation on the last training day to be significant in their decision not to allow them to proceed to the next stage. But there were no contemporaneous written notes of the feedback from the people who ran the course. Nor did the officers making the decision record the feedback they received.
  6. I recognise Mr and Mrs B would have understood before the last training day that the Council had serious concerns about some of the issues they had raised and Mr B’s presentation. But the email they sent indicates they felt they were resolved by agreeing not to change the child’s name and to provide photographs. That was on a Friday and the training day was on the following Monday. The Council did not reply so Mr and Mrs B would not have known this was not sufficient to address the more wide-ranging concerns the Council had.
  7. I do not consider the evidence shows Mr and Mrs B would have understood the seriousness of the Council concerns until the meeting before the last training day. No support was offered to them although they had asked for more information about the provision of photographs to birth parents. Overall the Council did not give them sufficient clear and timely information, feedback and support to explore their views and presentation that were of concern and would form the basis of the Council’s decision that they were not suitable to proceed with the adoption assessment.
  8. This means the decision not to allow Mr and Mrs B to proceed to stage two was unsound. In reaching that decision I am not saying that officers were not entitled to make such a decision at stage one. Nor can I say that if there had been no flaws then the decision would have been to allow them to proceed to stage two. It could be that Mr and Mrs B would have been given clear timely feedback and the outcome would have been the same. As I cannot say what would have happened had there been no fault the only fair way forward is to allow Mr and Mrs B to repeat stage one. I know Mr and Mrs B are concerned that any further assessment of them at stage one will be biased against them but I cannot ask for them to proceed straight to stage two.

Other matters

  1. Mr B considered that this was not a decision that should have been made at stage one of the process. This is significant because had the decision been made at stage two then there would have been a right to go to the Independent Review Mechanism.
  2. Mr B considers that as officers interviewed references this showed that it had gone beyond the scope of stage one. The statutory guidance refers to interviews with referees as part of stage one. And the Council has said that it will normally do interviews at stage one. I do not consider the fact the Council did interviews shows this had gone beyond consideration that was appropriate at stage one.
  3. The Council did provide a clear explanation of its position to Mr and Mrs B when it wrote explaining its decision.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council will allow Mr and Mrs B to go through stage one again. The Council will look to engage the support of regional local authority adoption service partners to offer Mr and Mrs B the opportunity to attend training provided by different professionals. And for those adoption professionals to provide a view on suitability. The Council has said that it cannot be certain it will be able to secure support from partner authorities. If this proves not to be possible then the Council should come back to the Ombudsman and we will consider the matter further.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault by the Council in the failure to give Mr and Mrs B sufficient clear and timely information, feedback and support to enable them to explore their views and presentation that were of concern to the Council. This meant the decision not to allow them to proceed to the next stage was not sound. The Council will arrange, within the next two months, for Mr and Mrs B to go through stage one again.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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