The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr and Mrs X complained about the Council’s delays in applying to the Adoption Support Fund and in dealing with their complaint about this matter. We have not investigated the part of their complaint about adoption support as they may pursue this further through the statutory children’s social care complaints procedure. There was fault in the way the Council dealt with their complaint. The Council has agreed a suitable remedy including an apology, payment and a review of its complaint handling.
- Mr and Mrs X complained that the Council:
- failed to progress an application to the Adoption Support Fund for them as promised; and
- delayed in dealing with their complaint about this matter.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the part of the complaint about the Council’s complaint handling. I explain at the end of this statement why I have not investigated 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 discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the complaint documents the Council provided. I shared my draft decision with the Council and the complainants and considered their responses.
- 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 law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
- The Government has provided guidance for local authorities, ‘Getting the Best from Complaints’, on the operation of the complaints procedure. This sets out who may use the procedure. It includes adoptive parents wishing to complain about adoption support services.
- The guidance also says:
- stage 1 should normally be completed within ten working days, and should take a maximum of 20 working days;
- the council should tell the complainant there is a right to move on to stage 2 if there is no stage 1 response in the required timescale;
- where the matter is not resolved at stage 1, the complainant has the right to ask to go to stage 2;
- there is no statutory time-limit for asking to go to stage 2 after the stage 1 response, but councils “may wish to recommend” a 20 working-day time limit;
- stage 2 should be completed within 25 working days, but this may be extended to a maximum of 65 working days;
- the local authority “is under a duty to operate expeditiously throughout the complaints handling process”.
Adoption Support Fund
- The Adoption Support Fund is a national fund set up in 2015 to help adoptive parents and their adopted children access therapeutic support. The local authority must first carry out an assessment of the family’s need for support and then apply to the Fund.
- Mr and Mrs X adopted a child, Y, as a toddler in 2014. As Y got older he developed behavioural problems. Mr and Mrs X discussed this with their social worker and identified a suitable therapist who could work with Y. They say the social worker advised them the cost of therapy could be covered by the Adoption Support Fund and in July 2017 said she would make an application.
- Mr and Mrs X decided to engage the therapist as she had a vacancy. They started paying for the service privately. Meanwhile discussions continued with the social worker about applying to the Adoption Support Fund.
- In December 2017 the Council transferred its adoption services to Adopt Thames Valley (ATV). This is a regional adoption agency shared by seven local authorities, managed and supported by one of these councils, ‘Council 2’.
- In April 2018 Mr and Mrs X made a complaint to the Council about lack of progress with the application and assessment for the Adoption Support Fund. The Council acknowledged receipt of the complaint.
- When they had not received a response by mid-September 2018, Mr and Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman asked the Council for an update. The Council replied in early October 2018 saying it had received the complaint in April 2018 and the investigation was “due to conclude in the next couple of days”. The Council said it was currently finalising the response and would send it to the complainants with a copy to the Ombudsman. It asked if it could share the complaint with ATV, which the Ombudsman confirmed.
- By mid-November the Council had not provided a response. The Ombudsman contacted the Council again. The Council said there was “no further update” but a service manager had the task of finalising the complaint response and hoped it would not be much longer.
- Mr X sent an email to the Council on 26 November 2018 chasing the response.
- In reply the Council apologised for the “unacceptable length of time” taken to provide a written response. It said it was currently with its legal team and the Council expected to send it out by 6 December.
- The Council sent the stage 1 response on 10 December 2018. It consisted of a covering letter from the Council enclosing a report on the investigation by ATV.
- The investigation report said ATV had liaised with the Council in relation to the parts of the complaint about events before 1 December 2017 when ATV took over running its adoption support services. It said it had liaised with Council 2 about events after this date. It apologised for the time taken to investigate and provide a response to the complaint. It found fault with the Council and ATV. It ended by saying the matter had been dealt with as a formal complaint at stage 1 of the statutory children’s services complaints procedure. It invited Mr and Mrs X to contact the complaints service at Council 2 if they were not satisfied with the outcome, to discuss “further options in respect of your complaint”.
- The covering letter from the Council also apologised for the delay in the investigation process. It apologised for the failings the investigation report had identified and offered to refund the costs Mr and Mrs X incurred in arranging therapy for their son. The Council invited Mr and Mrs X to provide details of the costs and the compensation they were seeking. The letter ended by giving them contact details if they had any further questions.
Analysis – was there fault causing injustice?
- I have considered whether the Council was at fault in the way it dealt with Mr and Mrs X’s complaint. It has confirmed it received the complaint in April 2018, although I do not know the date.
- Mr and Mrs X were eligible to have their complaint considered under the statutory children’s social care complaints procedure, and the response from ATV confirms it was. Even if the Council received the complaint at the end of April 2018 it should have provided the response at the latest by the end of May. Instead, the Council sent it out on 10 December 2018, over six months late. The Council has not provided any explanation for this delay. I find that the delay was fault.
- I also consider that the Council was at fault in the information provided about the complaints process. As far as I am aware it has not made it clear to Mr and Mrs X what the next stage in the process is if they are not satisfied with the outcome at stage 1, or what the timescales are. The investigation report from ATV says they may contact the complaints team at Council 2, but does not mention stage 2. The covering letter from the Council does not say what to do if they wish to pursue the complaint further. It only offers a contact point for further questions.
- It is also not clear from any information I have seen, including on the Council’s website, how a complainant may access the statutory complaints process to complain about adoption support services. ATV acts on behalf of the Council and the Council should have a clear process for making complaints about the services provided. It should provide information about this to potential complainants. I do not know what the process is for investigating and responding to complaints about adoption support services following the transfer to ATV. In my view the lack of clarity about the process is fault. I do not know whether the delays in this case were the result of any flaws in the procedure itself.
- If Mr and Mrs X are not satisfied with the stage 1 response to their complaint they have a right to ask for a stage 2 investigation. They may then approach the Ombudsman again if they are not happy with the result once they have gone through the statutory procedure.
- But I consider they have suffered an injustice as a result of the delay in dealing with their complaint. I cannot say they lost out financially through the delay as the Council has offered to reimburse the therapy expenses incurred. However the delay caused frustration and meant they had to put time and effort into pursuing their complaint, including coming to the Ombudsman.
- The Council has agreed that to remedy the injustice to Mr and Mrs X it will take the following action within one month of the final decision on this complaint:
- apologise to Mr and Mrs X for the failings in the way it dealt with the complaint;
- pay them £250 to recognise the frustration and time and trouble caused by the delay;
- tell the Ombudsman what the process is for investigating complaints about adoption support services following the transfer of the service to ATV.
- review the way it dealt with the complaint in this case to see if the delay was caused by any flaws in the complaints system;
- review the information provided to users about complaints about adoption services and amend it if necessary so complainants are clear about the process;
- tell the Ombudsman the outcome of these reviews and any action the Council proposes to take as a result.
- I find that the Council was at fault in the way it dealt with Mr and Mrs X’s complaint under the statutory children’s social care complaints procedure. I am satisfied with the action the Council has agreed to take to remedy the injustice caused and so I have completed my investigation.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate the part of the complaint about failure to progress the Adoption Support Fund application. This is because Mr and Mrs X have a right to pursue this issue further through the statutory children’s social care complaints procedure if they are not satisfied with the outcome at stage 1. This would be the most appropriate route for them to take.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman