Nottinghamshire County Council (18 016 699)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 13 Nov 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complains about the Council’s refusal to accept her and her husband to stage 2 of the process to become adoptive parents, causing distress. The Ombudsman finds no fault in the Council’s decision making process.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complains about the Council’s refusal to progress her and her husband to stage 2 of the process to become an adoptive parent. She believes the Council has discriminated against her because she suffered from anxiety in the past and because of her age and religion. This has caused her and her husband hurt, upset and fear this will affect their future adoption prospects with other agencies.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mrs X and I reviewed documents provided by Mrs X and the Council. I gave Mrs X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision and I considered the comments provided.

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What I found

  1. The Department for Education publishes statutory guidance on the process to approve adopters.
  2. At Stage One the adoption agency will focus on training and preparation. It will decide, through checks and references, whether the prospective adopter is not suitable to adopt a child and should not proceed further.
  3. Where an agency decides a prospective adopter is not suitable it must inform them of the decision and provide a clear written explanation.
  4. Those who wish to complain about this decision may make a complaint using the agency’s local complaints procedure. The Independent Review Mechanism is not available for decisions made during Stage One.
  5. The guidance says mild chronic conditions are unlikely to prevent people from adopting provided the condition does not place the child at risk or limit adopters in providing children with a range of beneficial experiences and opportunities. Agencies should bear in mind the possibility of providing support in appropriate cases. More severe health conditions may raise a question about the suitability of the prospective adopter, but each case will have to be considered on its own facts and with appropriate advice.

Equality Act 2010

  1. It is unlawful to treat someone less favourably someone because of age, race, religion or disability. It is not within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to say whether a council has acted unlawfully or in breach of the Equality Act. If someone considers they have been discriminated against, they can make a claim to the County Court or make a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

What happened

  1. In April 2018 Mrs X and her husband expressed an interest in adoption.
  2. In June a Council officer visited them at home. In July the Council officer visited again and asked them to complete a form to register their interest.
  3. Mr and Mrs X then attended training sessions. Mrs X says the Council did not raise any concerns or issues.
  4. On 30 October the Council asked to meet Mrs X to discuss concerns. Mrs X was unavailable and asked to reschedule.
  5. The Council then sent Mrs X a letter to say it would not progress her and Mr X to stage 2 of the process to become adoptive parents. It was concerned about the level of anxiety shown by Mrs X in needing to check every detail of the process. It said:

“When considering the impact of placing a child with you we were very concerned about how you would manage all the uncertainties in being considered for a child, plus the whole process around placing and supporting a child. We also had concerns about the impact of the raised anxiety levels on your daughter.”

  1. The Council offered Mr and Mrs X a meeting to discuss this further if they wished.
  2. In November Mr and Mrs X met with the Council. The Council’s records show Mrs X explained the need to check details with the Council and confirmed she no longer suffered from anxiety, offering to get a letter from her GP to evidence this. Mrs X said she had a good employment record with no time off for sickness and positive references from others. The Council said it would consider everything they had said and write to them again.
  3. The Council sent Mrs X a further letter confirming its decision not to progress the couple to stage 2.
  4. In December Mrs X complained to the Council. She said no-one had raised concerns with her previously and she denied showing any signs of anxiety. The Council made its decision without asking her GP for information or considering her good employment record. The Council knew she suffered from post natal anxiety in the past but she overcame this in 2016. The Council’s poor communications meant she had to constantly chase and check details, which the Council now perceived as a symptom of anxiety. She felt the Council decided without full information and was discriminating against her. She felt the Council had shown prejudice based on her age and religion.
  5. The Council acknowledged there were teething problems in the process. It explained the decision not to proceed was based on the level of anxiety Mrs X showed during stage one. For example, the number of emails, questions and phone calls in between groups was significant. The Council said:

“In our view, your high level of anxiety would be unmanageable should you progress further and this is based on the fact that adopters need to be able to face uncertainty, delay and rejection which they personally can deal with. Based on interactions between yourself and a number of different staff, it is our view that you would not be able to manage these challenges and would be unlikely to be matched with a child.”

  1. The Council apologised for not discussing its concerns with Mrs X sooner. It found no evidence its decision was influenced by race or religion.
  2. Mrs X asked to escalate her complaint.
  3. In its further response the Council reiterated concerns had been raised about the high level of anxiety Mrs X had shown, through the high number of calls and correspondence during the process. It decided based on the information available at the time and did not feel any information from her GP would change this. It explained its social workers could “form a view on whether a person is displaying tendencies typical of anxiety and the possible impact of this on the children who they are seeking to place for adoption”.
  4. Mrs X contacted the Ombudsman. She disputed her contact with the Council had been excessive and complained she felt discriminated against.
  5. In comments on the complaint the Council said:

“Mrs X was not discriminated against. The departments concerns about Mrs X’s anxiety arose from the observations of her behaviour by a range of staff. They were based on our assessment of her behaviour, not a medical diagnosis.”

  1. As part of my enquiries I asked the Council whether it had considered providing support to Mrs X for her perceived anxiety. In response the Council said:

“We are a child focused service and thus would not provide additional support for anxious applicants. As professionals we know the added stresses of adoption and thus would seek robust applicants to meet the needs of our children.”

  1. The Council also provided a copy of the information it relied upon in deciding whether to progress the couple to stage 2. I note this details the Council’s concerns and explains the basis for those concerns, with reference to its observations of the couple’s behaviour. Although the Council references Mrs X’s history of anxiety it notes she is currently stable. The Council records it has decided to end the couple’s application because:
    • It was not clear how Mrs X would manage with the rest of the process due to her need for constant reassurance;
    • It felt Mrs X’s behaviour would impact on a child;
    • It felt the family would need intense support both in the process and with any child.

Findings

  1. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider if there was fault in the way the council reached its decision.
  2. The Council considered the information it held about Mr and Mrs X and decided not to progress them to stage 2. It told them its decision and gave reasons. The Council then met with Mr and Mrs X and took account of the further information provided, including Mrs X’s assurance that she no longer suffered from anxiety. In consideration of all the information the Council reached a final decision. There is no evidence this decision was based on irrelevant factors, such as Mrs X’s age, race or religion. Having reviewed the information provided, I am satisfied the Council followed a proper decision making process. I therefore do not find the Council at fault and I cannot say its decision was wrong.
  3. Mrs X is unhappy the Council did not seek further information from her GP. However, the Council says this would not have changed its decision. I note the Council’s decision was based upon its observations of Mrs X’s behaviour and actions rather than any formal diagnosis. I am therefore satisfied with its reasoning that further GP evidence would not have affected its decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. This is because I find no evidence of fault in how the Council decided whether to progress Mr and Mrs X to the next stage of the process to become adoptive parents.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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