The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B and Mr C complain about a lack of support after the Council placed children with them for adoption. The Council was at fault, including for delaying arranging therapy for the children and for not sharing information properly. Those faults caused the family unnecessary practical difficulties, upset and uncertainty. The Council has agreed our recommendations, including an apology, payments to the family, providing any outstanding adoption support and changing procedures and staff training as necessary.
- The complainants, whom I shall refer to as Mr B and Mr C, complain the Council did not properly deliver the adoption support plan for two children placed with them for adoption and did not deal properly with their formal complaint. As a result, Mr B and Mr C state the family suffered stress and anxiety, the children’s ability to settle in the placement and in their new schools was adversely affected and they had to go to time and trouble pursuing matters.
What I have investigated
- I investigated points that I considered might have caused a significant injustice and where I considered it likely my investigation might achieve something. The final section of this statement contains my reasons for not investigating the rest of the complaint.
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 considered the information Mr B and Mr C provided and discussed the complaint with Mr B. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered its response. I shared my draft decision with the complainants and the Council and considered their comments on it.
What I found
- In July 2017 the Council placed two children with Mr B and Mr C (who do not live in Liverpool) with a view to adoption. The complaint is about events in the following months.
- Before coming to the Ombudsman, Mr B and Mr C complained to the Council, which upheld some points but not others. I shall first deal with parts of the complaint that the Council upheld.
Personal education plans
- Under the adoption planning arrangements, the Council was responsible for each child having a personal education plan (PEP) after moving to the new area and for reviewing the PEP every six months. The Council accepts there were two months’ delay holding the relevant meetings on two occasions. In November 2017 and April 2018, the Council noted PEP meetings were overdue. There appear to have been delays, for which the Council was ultimately responsible, in completing documentation after meetings, causing delays in Mr B and Mr C receiving relevant paperwork.
- I agree the Council was at fault here. This fault would have caused avoidable confusion and uncertainty about whether the children’s education-related needs were being properly met and avoidable frustration to Mr B and Mr C.
Delay telling the new local authority about the children
- When children whom one council looks after are placed in another local authority’s area, the placing council must tell the new authority about the placement. Mr B and Mr C’s local authority did not know about the children for over six months, apparently until one child’s school told it. It then contacted Liverpool City Council about this.
- The Council suggests it told the new authority about the children in December 2017 though it cannot find that email and the new authority apparently did not receive it. However, taking five months (July to December 2017) would have been unreasonable delay anyway. The Council was at fault for not telling the new authority about the children much sooner.
- Mr B and Mr C report this caused difficulty registering the children with a GP and delayed the children having the medical check that all looked-after children should have. That check did not happen until June 2018, nearly a year after the placement. Those difficulties were injustices resulting from the Council’s fault.
- Soon after the children went to live with Mr B and Mr C, the children’s social worker left the Council. The next social worker was either not allocated the case straight away or was absent from work (the precise details do not significantly affect my findings). The Council accepts it communicated inadequately with Mr B and Mr C between 21 September and 3 November 2017. That was not long into the placement and soon after the children started their new schools.
- During this time Mr B and Mr C tried to contact the Council about various matters, including seeking consent for x-rays the children were supposed to have and having the Council confirm funding for psychological therapy the children needed. A later Council note dated 9 April 2018 suggests some communication difficulties persisted, with a delay obtaining the Council’s consent for one child’s dental treatment.
- Mr B and Mr C undoubtedly needed Council input on such matters. I agree the Council’s poor communication was fault. This prevented the children having the x-rays and delayed their therapy (I shall cover the latter point below). Mr B and Mr C also went to time and trouble seeking a response from the Council.
- The stage two complaint investigation report said that a Council officer, when asked about the complaint, said it was unusual for prospective adopters to need such a high level of support. Mr B and Mr C object to that comment and want an apology. The stage two report found it was understandable Mr B and Mr C sought more support from the Council than most other prospective adopters because the children were older than many of those placed for adoption and the children were having difficulty settling at new schools in a new area.
- The officer’s comment to which Mr B and Mr C object clearly did not affect the stage two outcome as the stage two report disagreed with the officer and upheld this part of the complaint. In that context, I do not consider the officer’s comment during the investigation caused Mr B and Mr C a significant enough injustice for me to consider further whether it amounted to fault causing injustice that merits an apology.
Delays affecting children’s therapy
- The Council knew the children were having therapy before moving to live with Mr B and Mr C and that the therapy would have to continue after the move. The adoption support plan covered this. The Council was responsible for arranging funding for the therapy. Mr B and Mr C identified a suitable therapist in September 2017.
- The Council accepts it delayed considerably arranging the funding for the therapy. I have seen one Council document suggesting therapy started by October 2017. However, that does not fit with other information including funding applications and the information Mr B and Mr C gave the Council in March and April 2018 (when making their formal complaint) about progress on this point. The balance of the evidence currently suggests the delays meant the new therapist did not assess the children until January or February 2018. Then, as the Council delayed paying until April 2018, the therapist did not release the assessment report before payment. So Mr B and Mr C and the schools could not see and act on the report’s contents and recommendations, including arranging therapy sessions for each child, until after then.
- The Council knew the children had needed therapy because of difficulties in their earlier lives and that the upheaval of moving to live with Mr B and Mr C in a different area and changing schools meant they would still need therapy. This was not a new, unforeseen need that emerged after the placement. Nor were Mr B and Mr C asking for more than they had been told would happen. Getting the children into therapy in the new area should have been a priority for the Council.
- Part of the delay appears to have been while the Council sought some money from a central government fund. However, as the Council was responsible for securing therapy for the children, that is not an excuse. The funding source is a secondary issue. The Council remained ultimately responsible for the children and it knew they needed therapy.
- As Mr B and Mr C identified a therapist in September 2017 and as getting an assessment and therapy for the children was important, I consider the Council could reasonably have resolved the arrangements enough to allow work to begin by late October 2017, which seems around six months earlier than happened.
- The Council’s investigation found the fault delayed therapy starting so affected the children’s ability to settle in their new home (which would have included settling in school). The Council also accepted Mr B and Mr C spent a ‘significant amount of time’ pursuing this.
- Mr B and Mr C believe earlier therapy would have helped the children, particularly one child who ended up with a school behavioural plan, was ostracised by other children and had other parents complaining about him. They say they had to try to restore those relationships and their relationship with the school suffered unnecessary stress. While certainty about such matters is impossible, it seems likely, on balance, the delay in therapy could have exacerbated difficulties the children were feeling, which could plausibly have affected their behaviour.
- I consider the Council’s delay here caused the children a significant injustice, with a significant knock-on effect on Mr B and Mr C.
Life story books and later life letters
- The life story books and later life letters the Council supplied for the children contained factual inaccuracies (including the wrong child’s name in one case) and spelling and grammatical errors. The Council then offered to do further work on these. During my investigation, I understood Mr B and Mr C have now received the life story books (albeit later than they should have) but have not received the later life letters. At a late stage of my investigation, in its response to my draft decision, the Council said it had now completed the later life letters.
- The Council’s fault here caused Mr B and Mr C unnecessary time and trouble having the problems rectified.
Lack of visits from children’s social worker
- The children’s social worker told the children he would see them every four to six weeks but only visited once in over seven months. The Council accepts that was fault, especially given the social worker’s assurance to the children and as the failure to visit happened when Mr B and Mr C were raising concerns and seeking Council support.
- I agree this was fault. This left the children without the consistency and regularity of visits from the same social worker that they had been promised. That disadvantaged the children at a time of considerable change in their lives. It also exacerbated the uncertainty and frustration Mr B and Mr C were already experiencing from the inadequate communications and failure to fund the therapy.
- Mr B and Mr C also made some complaints that the Council did not uphold. I shall now deal with the main points.
Council passing on birthday cards for the children
- Mr B and Mr C are dissatisfied the Council gave them unopened birthday cards for the children that turned out to contain messages and money from the children’s birth family.
- The adoption placement plan said the proposed future contact arrangements with the children’s birth family would be indirect or ‘letterbox’ contact at Christmas and birthdays. The adoption support plan referred to setting up indirect letterbox contact once yearly ‘after the making of an adoption order.’
- No adoption order had been made when the Council gave Mr B and Mr C the cards. Indirect birthday contact was in line with the adoption placement plan. So I do not consider the Council was at fault for passing on the cards it had received. Nor was it fault for the Council not to check the contents first. The Council gave the cards to Mr B and Mr C, not directly to the children. Mr B and Mr C could check the contents if they wished and decide what to do.
Use of birth family surnames on correspondence with the children
- As with most adoptions, the intention was legally to change the children’s surnames once Mr B and Mr C adopted the children. Mr B and Mr C report a Council social worker advised them to start using the children’s new surnames from the start, rather than waiting for the adoption to be finalised, to emphasise the placement’s permanence and to enable consistency at the new schools. The Council does not dispute giving that advice, which seems reasonable advice that a social worker might plausibly offer. So I accept Mr B and Mr C’s account.
- Mr B and Mr C therefore used the children’s new surnames from the start. The Council then sent questionnaires by post, addressed to the children using their birth surnames. Mr B and Mr C state this caused confusion and led one child to believe his placement was not permanent and he could return to Liverpool.
- The Council initially denied fault here because the children legally retain their birth surnames until a court makes an adoption order. That is true but it misses the point about the children’s circumstances and the reasons for using new surnames from the start of the placement. The Council was not obliged only to use children’s full legal names when addressing envelopes. Indeed, after Mr B and Mr C raised this, the Council agreed any future envelopes sent directly to the children would just use their first names.
- The use of the birth surnames contradicted the Council’s previous position and could predictably be unsettling to children who were in a vulnerable situation. In the circumstances, I consider the Council was at fault here. The fault appears to have caused some avoidable confusion or upset to at least one of the children and Mr B and Mr C would have had to devote effort to reassuring them.
Contact with the independent reviewing officer (IRO)
- All children in care have a care plan. They each have an independent reviewing officer (IRO) whose role is to review the care plan, including by taking account of the children’s views.
- Mr B and Mr C argue that, when the children’s social worker left, the IRO should have checked there had been a proper handover to the new social worker and that such a check would have revealed the children’s case was not allocated to a social worker who was at work and able to deal with it, so the IRO should have escalated the matter.
- A smooth handover between social workers was the responsibility of the Council corporately. I do not consider it was the IRO’s role to check that. So I do not fault the IRO here. However, as explained elsewhere in this statement, the Council overall was at fault for the lack of proper communication, action and support.
- Mr B and Mr C sent some emails to various Council staff, including the IRO, when they were having difficulty getting a response. The IRO did not respond directly. The Council states that was because the emails were not addressed directly to the IRO and she forwarded the messages to those responsible and sought a response for Mr B and Mr C.
- I understand Mr B and Mr C’s frustration here. However, in the circumstances, and given the IRO’s focus (reviewing the care plan), I do not consider the IRO was at fault for not doing more. Again, that does not detract from the responsibility of the Council overall and I have identified where there was fault.
The Council’s handling of Mr B and Mr C’s formal complaint
- The law requires the Council to follow a statutory children’s services complaints procedure for complaints such as this. The procedure has three stages.
Not holding a discussion with Mr B and Mr C at the start of stage two
- At the start of stage two, the investigating officer (IO) emailed Mr B and Mr C on 12 April 2018 saying, ‘The usual procedure is for the IO and IP to meet with complainants, discuss all of the issues and agree a statement of complaint at the beginning of the investigation.’ The IO asked if, given the distance, Mr B and Mr C were happy with telephone or email contact instead of a meeting. Mr B and Mr C agreed.
- Mr B and Mr C state they believed they were just agreeing a face-to face meeting was unnecessary and they still expected to discuss the complaint with the IO. There was no discussion. Mr B and Mr C emailed a statement of the points in their complaint. The IO considered that was comprehensive enough that nothing more was needed so proceeded with the investigation. The Council now states it would have been courteous to confirm this with Mr B and Mr C by telephone.
- The way the communication options were set out on 12 April understandably gave Mr B and Mr C the impression they could discuss the matters as well as providing a statement of complaint. So I consider it was fault neither to offer such a discussion nor to explain the view there appeared to be no need for that.
- This fault leaves Mr B and Mr C with a sense of missed opportunity. The opportunity would just have been to discuss the complaint at the outset, not to have ongoing detailed involvement as the stage two investigation is independent. Such a discussion might not have affected the stage two findings although obviously we cannot know that. The missed opportunity here is an injustice.
Time taken at stage two
- The law says in cases such as this stage two begins when the Council finalises the statement of complaint and stage two ends with the Council responding to the complainant(s), which must be no more than 65 working days later. (The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006, regulation 17)
- The IO accepted Mr B and Mr C’s statement of complaint on 20 April 2018 so 65 working days later was 24 July. The Council sent the stage two response to Mr B and Mr C on 14 August, three weeks late. That was fault. If stage two will take longer than 25 working days, the Council should explain the reasons to the complainant. The Council accepts it did not do so. That was also fault. The faults at stage two caused Mr B and Mr C some avoidable uncertainty and frustration.
The Council not taking the complaint to stage three
- A complainant who is dissatisfied with the stage two response can ask the Council to take the complaint to stage three, where a panel reviews the complaint. The complainant must request this within 20 working days of receiving the stage two response and must give reasons. Mr B and Mr C did this, writing to the Council on 27 August 2018 saying they were dissatisfied with the stage two outcome, giving reasons and ending, ‘We look forward to confirmation that this complaint is being progressed through stage 3 of your complaints process.’
- The Council replied that stage two had upheld most of the complaints and made recommendations. The Council said it did ‘…not feel that a review panel would be an effective mechanism for progressing any of the issues you feel remain unresolved.’ It offered a meeting to discuss ‘any outstanding issues.’ I would not criticise such an offer as long as it does not hold up proceedings through the three statutory stages. However, Mr B and Mr C had asked to progress their complaint to stage three and the Council had declined to do that.
- Mr B and Mr C’s complaint to us made clear their dissatisfaction with not being offered stage three. I asked the Council about this and I pointed out stage three is not optional. The Council’s response repeated its reasons in the previous paragraph and did not engage with my point that stage three is not optional.
- Councils must follow the statutory complaints procedure. The law says that, where complainants properly requests a review panel, as Mr B and Mr C did, the Council ‘…must appoint a panel to consider the representations.’ (The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006, regulations 18 and 19.)
- Government guidance also makes clear ‘…once a complaint has entered Stage 1, the local authority is obliged to ensure that the complaint proceeds to Stages 2 and 3 of this procedure, if that is the complainant’s wish.’ (Department for Education and Skills, Getting the Best from Complaints, paragraph 3.1.5.)
- The Ombudsman issued a Focus Report about the statutory complaints procedure in March 2015. This pointed out, ‘Once the process has started, the complainant has a right to have their complaint considered at each stage.’ (Local Government Ombudsman, Are we getting the best from children’s social care complaints?)
- The Council must follow the law, which does not make stage three optional or allow the Council to decide whether it thinks stage three would not be effective. The Council was clearly at fault for not taking the complaint to a stage three review panel. This caused Mr B and Mr C an avoidable missed opportunity to have a panel consider their complaint. We do not know what difference that might have made to the eventual findings and recommendations. That lost opportunity and uncertainty are injustices resulting from the Council’s fault.
My findings overall
- The placement with a view to adoption was naturally a significant and, in some ways, difficult event in the lives of the children and of Mr B and Mr C. They had a reasonable expectation the Council would do what it was supposed to do. Instead, there were a number of faults by the Council, which did not properly do what the adoption planning required of it.
- I described above some injustice the Council’s faults caused the children and the complainants. Overall, those faults caused unnecessary difficulty and diverted some of Mr B’s and Mr C’s energy and attention into trying to resolve matters. Mr B and Mr C also state the problems delayed their applying to the court for an adoption order because, as the Council was not giving the help it should, they feared it would do even less if the adoption was finalised. Given their experience at the time, I consider that view was understandable. So the faults unnecessarily delayed Mr B and Mr C feeling confident in seeking an adoption order.
- The Council apologised for the faults it identified and undertook to review staff training. I welcome those points but I do not consider they are a sufficient remedy for the extent of the injustice caused. I make further recommendations below.
- Responding to a draft of this decision, Mr B and Mr C said the Council should apologise to a school they say the Council’s faults adversely affected. We can only make recommendations to remedy injustice to ‘members of the public.’ (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26A and 26D) That does not include an ‘authority or body constituted for purposes of the public service’. (Local Government Act 1974, section 27(1)) The school in question is in the public sector. So I cannot make recommendations in respect of any injustice the Council’s faults caused the school.
- At my recommendation, the Council has agreed to:
- Apologise to Mr B and Mr C for the injustice its faults caused their family.
- Pay Mr B and Mr C £650 to recognise the injustice the Council’s faults caused them. This comprises:
- £500 for their avoidable anxiety, distress, uncertainty and missed opportunity. The Ombudsman’s guidance is normally to pay up to £350 in such cases but more can be recommended if appropriate. Here, the injustice happened over a period of some months and was exacerbated because it was a period of significant change in the complainants’ family life. So I consider £500 appropriate.
- £150 for their avoidable time and trouble pursuing matters.
- Pay Mr B and Mr C £1200 to use for the children’s benefit (£600 for each child). This is to recognise the injustice the Council’s faults caused the children.
- Clarify with Mr B and Mr C what more the Council needs to provide in terms of the ‘later life letters’ and what it still has to provide from the adoption support plan. The Council should then provide everything it has to without undue delay. The Council recently told me it has now completed the later life letters. Nevertheless, given the previous difficulties, it should still establish clearly with Mr B and Mr C if anything more needs to be done on that point.
- State in writing what it has done or will do, and when (e.g. changing procedures, staff training) on each of the points that were upheld at stage two plus each point on which I found fault. This should cover the faults in both service provision and the complaints procedure.
- I have completed my investigation because the Council’s agreement to my recommendations will put right the injustice its fault caused, as far as possible.
- 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.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have not considered every point raised in Mr B and Mr C’s communications with the Council and with us about the complaint. I considered it proportionate to focus on points I considered significant rather than on matters that might not in themselves cause a significant injustice. On areas where the Council had accepted fault, I considered it disproportionate to consider further particular details where the complainants and Council might still disagree.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman