The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complains the Council failed to stop her foster allowance and delayed in dealing with her complaint about this. Mrs X says this caused her injustice as she now has a large debt with the Council. The Ombudsman finds fault with the Council in how it managed the overpayment and how it responded to Mrs X’s complaint. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mrs X, write off half of the overpayment and pay Mrs X for the distress caused.
- The complainant, whom I refer to as Mrs X, complains the Council failed to stop her foster allowance. She also complains about time taken to respond to her complaint about this.
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
- As part of this investigation:
- I considered the complaint made and the Council’s response.
- I discussed the complaint with Mrs X over the telephone.
- I made enquiries to the Council and considered the information it provided in response.
- I sent a draft of this decision to Mrs X and the Council and considered comments I received in response.
What I found
- In April 2017 the Council approved Mrs X and her husband, Mr X, as adopters. The Council matched two children, Y and Z, as potential children Mr and Mrs X could adopt.
- Y and Z came to live with Mr and Mrs X in July 2017, initially under a foster to adopt placement. The Council completed the foster for adoption paperwork in early July 2017. The Council told Mrs X a foster to adopt placement would allow Y and X to come to live with Mr and Mrs X under a foster placement before Y started school. From July 2017, Mr and Mrs X started to receive a foster allowance.
- In early August 2017 the Council held the adoption panel meeting. The Council also carried out a home visit to Mr and Mrs X. The notes from this visit say Mr and Mrs X are aware the fostering payment will stop once the agency decision maker’s decision (ADM) is made.
- On 9 August 2017 the adoption panel recommended Mr and Mrs X as suitable to adopt Y and Z and on 6 September 2017 the ADM was agreed.
- In October 2017 the Council carried out a looked after children review. The notes from this say Mr and Mrs X are aware the fostering payments will stop after the ADM is approved.
- The Council’s social worker carried out home and support visits from August 2017 to January 2018. The notes from some of these visits say Mr and Mrs X are aware the fostering payments will stop after the ADM is approved.
- In December 2017 the social worker told Mrs X to apply for child benefit. After applying for child benefit, Mrs X says she contacted her social worker in January 2018, to confirm what the payment she currently received was called. Mrs X says her social worker told her the Council had not stopped the foster allowance after the ADM was agreed in September 2017. Mrs X says her social worker told her someone from the finance team would contact her about this overpayment.
- In May 2018 the social worker carried out a home visit with Mrs X. Mrs X says she told her social worker she had not heard anything further about the overpayment. The social worker told her the finance team would be contacting her.
- Mrs X says she did not hear anything further until September 2018 when she received an invoice for £10,455.70 for the overpayment of the foster allowance. Mrs X contacted the Council and spoke to her social worker’s manager who told her she would pass this to the finance team and children’s department.
- In October 2018 Mrs X says she received a telephone call from her social worker’s manager however this was a courtesy call about the adoption. Mrs X says she explained she had not heard anything further about the overpayment. The Council arranged to call Mrs X back. A few days later Mrs X says she received a telephone call from the Council to say she would have to pay the overpayment back as the social workers would have told her about it or it would have been explained in the foster to adopt meeting.
- On 21 January 2019 Mrs X raised a complaint with the Council. Mrs X raised the following points:
- She felt pressured to follow the foster to adopt route by the Council and initially just wanted to adopt the children.
- The Council did not inform her about the foster to adopt allowance ending and she disputes being told anything about this allowance at the foster to adopt meeting or other meetings.
- She spent the allowance on Y and Z and cut her working hours when Z and Y came to live with her.
- Due to her current financial situation she is unable to pay the money back.
- It was a Council error which led to the allowance not ending when the fostering placement ended.
- The social worker and her manager did advise Mrs X the fostering allowance would end once the adoptive match was approved by the ADM.
- It did not agree Mrs X should not have to pay back the money. The Council apologised for the delay in the finance team notifying her about the overpayment and was willing to discuss a payment plan.
- It has raised the issues with the delay in ending the foster placement with the whole team to ensure such errors do not occur again.
Overpayment of the foster allowance
- I have considered whether the Council was at fault in how it handled the overpayment.
- The Council says the overpayment occurred due to a human error in entering in the wrong code on its system when the foster placement ended. The mistake was not noted until January 2018 and should have been ended in September 2017.
- I have found fault as had the Council updated its system properly the overpayment would not have happened. The Council said it has made staff aware of how to manage foster to adopt placements and how to correctly update the system when dealing with these placements. This is appropriate and would go some way to ensuring what happened here is not repeated.
- The Council says it made Mrs X aware the payment would stop after the ADM was approved however, Mrs X disputes this. The notes from some of the statutory visits and support visits carried out by the Council have a paragraph at the end saying Mr and Mrs X were aware the payments would stop after the ADM was agreed. These paragraphs in each of the visit notes are all the same and are included in some visits carried out before and after the ADM was agreed. The payment should have already stopped when some of these visits occurred therefore I do not see why they are included in visit notes after the ADM approval.
- In the foster for adoption paperwork there is a headed section for recording the financial details of Mr and Mrs X and any foster allowances. There is no record of the foster allowance being mentioned in this paperwork. I would have expected the Council to record details of the allowance in the foster for adoption paperwork. This would have been a good opportunity for the Council to evidence it explained what the allowance was for and when it would finish.
- The evidence shows the allowance continued to be paid to Mrs X as the Council did not enter the correct code on its system when the foster placement ended. However, the notes from some of the visits to Mr and Mrs X state they were aware the allowance would end after the ADM approval. On balance I am unable to say exactly what the Council told Mrs X about the allowance. Given it was a Council error which caused the overpayment, but some evidence has been provided to show Mr and Mrs X were aware of the allowance, the Council should write off half of the overpayment debt.
- I have also found fault with the delay in providing Mrs X an invoice for the overpayment. Mrs X knew she had received an overpayment in January 2018 but did not receive an invoice confirming the amount and liability until September 2018. This meant she did not have certainty about the amount of the overpayment or whether she would have to repay this back to the Council for a further 8 months.
- I have found fault with the Council’s complaint handling. At stage one the Council has 3 working days to acknowledge the complaint and 20 working days to investigate and provide a response.
- The Council took longer than 3 working days to acknowledge Mrs X’s complaint and took over 60 working days to provide a complaint response. In fact, when Mrs X chased up her complaint with the Council in March 2019, the Council told her it had a further 25 working days to investigate this which was incorrect according to its complaints procedure.
- The Council did not advise Mrs X in its response what she could do if she remained dissatisfied with its response to her complaint. I can see no evidence the Council responded to Mrs X when she wrote back to it expressing her dissatisfaction with its response. If the Council was not willing to progress Mrs X’s complaint further it should have made this clear to her setting out its reasons.
- Had the Council handled Mrs X’s complaint properly and progressed it to stage two, it may have been able to resolve matters with her and avoided the need to contact the Ombudsman.
- Within four weeks of my final decision the Council has agreed to carry out the following and provide evidence to the Ombudsman it has done so:
- Write of 50% of the debt Mrs X owes the Council from the overpayment of foster allowance and send Mrs X an invoice confirming the new amount.
- Pay Mrs X £250 for the distress caused as a result of the delay in sending out the invoice.
- Apologise to Mrs X for how it handled her complaint and pay her £300 for time and trouble in bringing her complaint.
- I have completed my investigation and found fault with how the Council handled the overpayment. This caused Mrs X injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendations to remedy the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman