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London Borough of Wandsworth (19 020 143)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 06 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms B complained about the way the Council failed to progress her adoption assessment and delayed in dealing with her complaint about it. This delayed her approval as an adopter by over two years. The Council accepted the failings, apologised to Ms B and offered her £2000. We agreed the Council was at fault and that the payment is appropriate to put right the injustice. The Council has agreed to assist Ms B to progress a new application now.

The complaint

  1. Ms B complained that the London Borough of Wandsworth’s (the Council’s) failures in progressing her adoption assessment and delays in dealing with her complaints have delayed her approval as an adopter by over two years. The Council has failed to explain:
    • why her case was not transferred to Adoption London South (ALS) in September 2019;
    • why the Council could not update her Prospective Adopter Report (PAR) as recommended by the Adoption Panel in 2018;
    • why her case did not return to the Panel in January 2019;
    • why action was taken instead which was not recommended by the Panel and which caused further delay;
    • why the Council has been unable to offer practical assistance to expedite the assessment with ALS or another agency.
  2. Its offer of £2000 is inadequate to remedy the significant distress caused by the delay and it has not offered any practical help to fast-track her application with another agency.

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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. 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 have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. Ms B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
  2. 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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What I found

Adoption London South (ALS)

  1. In 2019 the Council, along with a number of other Councils in the area, formed a new regionalised adoption agency (ALS) following new legislation in 2017 to improve adoption services for children and adopters. ALS is a separate body with its own management structure and resources, but it delivers adoption services on behalf of the Council.

Adoption assessments

  1. The assessment of prospective adopters is a two-stage process:
    • Stage one is the pre-assessment stage (it should take no more than two months to complete) where prescribed checks are carried out to decide whether the person should automatically be excluded. Three references are required and a medical check.
    • Stage two is the assessment itself which should be completed within four months. The assessment report advises whether the prospective adopter is suitable and advises age, sex and number of children which the prospective adopter could care for. The social worker will prepare a comprehensive report which will be presented to the Adoption Panel who can recommend approval, or not. The agency’s decision maker will then consider the recommendation.

What happened

  1. Ms B applied to the Council to adopt a child in April 2018. In November 2018 the Council submitted her case to the Adoption Panel. The Panel, on a majority decision, decided to defer her application to do further work and to fill in some gaps in the Prospective Adopter’s Report (PAR), with a view to coming back to Panel in January 2019.
  2. In January 2019 a team manager decided that Ms B’s case would not return to the Panel. No specific reasons for this were recorded. The Council undertook further meetings and assessments with Ms B over the next few months. Ms B says these were not recommended by the Panel. Her social worker last made contact with her in July 2019.
  3. In August 2019 Ms B made a formal complaint about the delay in progressing her adoption application and the failure to take her case back to Panel without explanation.
  4. On 1 September 2019 the Council’s adoption service transferred to ALS. But Ms B’s case was not transferred, nor was she informed of the new organisation or the possibility that her case could be transferred. No reasons were recorded for why Ms B’s case was not transferred to the new service.
  5. On 1 November 2019 the Council responded to her complaint. It acknowledged some shortcomings in the pre- and post-panel process:
    • the Council had not shared the minutes of the adoption panel with Ms B until now.
    • the Council had not sent a formal letter regarding the decision to defer.
    • there had been gaps in communication, fault in the process, the communication and the quality of the assessment.
    • there was a lack of recording of why decisions were made and why the case was not put back to the Panel.
    • the PAR lacked depth, rigour and critical analysis.
    • no reasons were given why further work was recommended and how it would inform the panel decision.
  6. The Council offered a three-way meeting with any future assessor, Ms B and the Council to address some of these issues and agreed to speak with ALS to identify a suitable date to meet with Ms B to transfer her assessment to the new agency.
  7. In January 2020 Ms B responded to the Council. She welcomed the apology and three-way meeting but said it didn’t move her forward. She asked about the possibility of updating the PAR and presenting it to the Panel or a new agency. She said she needed a commitment from the Council to pick up the pieces.
  8. At the beginning of February 2020 Ms B met with ALS and the Council. No minutes were taken and Ms B did not receive any formal feedback after the meeting. She was unsure what had been agreed but she was told she would need to register a new interest and start the process again.
  9. Ms B formally requested access to her records. The Council replied saying this would be a request under the Adoption Act rather than a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act and would be handled by ALS. Ms B then asked for the process to be put on hold.
  10. The Council wrote to Ms B at the end of March 2020. It said that the ALS meeting had been productive It said Ms B had three options:
    • to allow ALS to take on the case and continue the assessment;
    • to make an application to another agency; or
    • to withdraw her application.
  11. Ms B responded to the Council in April 2020. She wanted the PAR updated, but the Council explained that it could not do this because its adoption services had transferred to ALS. Ms B said the meeting had not been productive: it just confirmed that ALS would accept a registration of interest which meant restarting the process from the beginning. She was concerned that her previous social worker (who she felt had prejudiced her application) was now working for ALS and she wanted a different person to deal with it.
  12. After some delay, primarily due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the Council agreed to appoint an independent person to review Ms B’s complaint. In May 2020 Ms B spoke to the complaint reviewer. Ms B made lots of points about the whole process. In terms of moving forward she pointed out that what ALS said at the meeting (she could register an expression of interest) contradicted what the Council had said in its letter (ALS would continue the assessment). She had not received a response to her information request.
  13. The review was completed in early June 2020. It concluded that the Council’s response to Ms B’s complaints had been made in good faith but they had not fully addressed or explained the concerns she had raised. It acknowledged that due to a lack of records it had not been possible to answer those queries in full. It said there was clear evidence that the adoption standards were not followed and there had been significant drift for Ms B: her application had been neither completed nor closed. Her adoption journey with the Council had been complicated and delayed by the lack of management oversight, the change of focus in her application, the lack of explanation for not following the Panel’s recommendations and the failure to transfer her case to ALS. It also concluded that Ms B received minimal support or contact from her social worker after January 2019 which contributed to the delay.
  14. The review recommended:
    • The Council should provide an overview letter to Ms B to confirm that most of the delay stemmed from the Council’s mismanagement of the case, not Ms B.
    • Ms B should have one single named contact to oversee and coordinate the transfer of information to ALS or another adoption agency.
    • The Council should liaise further with ALS to clarify if and how they could continue her adoption application.
    • If the ALS option failed the Council should signpost Ms B to a different agency and consider providing additional resources to support a faster response from another agency.
  15. Ms B met over Zoom with the Council and the complaint reviewer in July 2020. The Council agreed it was unlikely to get any further with answering Ms B’s remaining queries due to the lack of records and staff moving on. The Council agreed it would provide a letter and would find someone to act as a single point of contact. Ms B said she had concerns over how an assessment with ALS would work because it said it could not guarantee that the previous worker would not be involved. She also felt there had been a lack of clarity over whether she would have to start her application from the beginning.
  16. The Council agreed that it would approach ALS to talk about moving Ms B’s application forward, check if there was anything potentially prejudicial which could impact on the application, and it would look into whether there was an alternative it could progress more quickly. The Council agreed to follow up these points and come back to Ms B. It also agreed to chase up the outstanding information request and consider a compensatory payment. The Council apologised to Ms B for the failures in her case.
  17. The Council did not write to Ms B until 3 November 2020. It said it had no influence over ALS, she would have to start the application process again and there was no guarantee that existing workers would not be involved. The Council offered Ms B £2000.
  18. On 14 December 2020 the Council sent Ms B a letter accepting fault in the actions taken with Ms B’s application from the Panel in November 2018 onwards, including the inadequate report to the Panel, the lack of support from a social worker, inadequate complaint responses and a failure to transfer her case to ALS in September 2019. It also said the Council had been unable to negotiate a late transfer to ALS and the adoption had been further delayed through no fault of Ms B’s. The responsibility for the drift and delay was down to the Council and not Ms B.
  19. Ms B complained to us in January 2021. She said she wanted to await the outcome of our investigation before proceeding with her adoption application.

Analysis

  1. The Council has accepted significant fault in dealing with Ms B’s application which has delayed Ms B’s potential approval as an adopter by more than two years. I agree the Council was at fault for failing to:
    • bring Ms B’s application back to Panel in January 2019;
    • provide any explanation for that decision and for why further work was pursued over the next six months;
    • provide regular and competent social worker support and communication to Ms B from January 2019 onwards;
    • complete her application before September 2019;
    • transfer her case to ALS in September 2019 or provide any explanation for that failure;
    • respond to her information request;
    • deal with her complaint in a reasonable period of time (it took 16 months); and
    • come up with a workable resolution, including clarifying with ALS at a much earlier stage how they would deal with her application. I understand the Council cannot direct ALS in any way, but it should have established in February 2020 that ALS would require a fresh application and could not guarantee previous workers would not be involved. It took a further 8 months to reach this conclusion.
  2. Ms B has been caused significant distress, frustration and confusion in addition to her time and trouble in pursuing the complaint. She also faces the prospect of having to start the assessment process from scratch. I welcome the fact the Council has apologised to Ms B and offered her £2000.

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Agreed action

  1. I consider the amount offered is in line with our guidance on remedies for distress, frustration and time and trouble over a prolonged period of time. However, I also recommend the Council:
    • establishes, within two weeks of my final decision, whether Ms B wishes to proceed with an application to ALS on the terms given or whether she wishes the Council to assist her to find an alternative agency; and
    • once Ms B has communicated her decision, the Council, within a further month, should appoint a named person to assist Ms B to progress her application with ALS or help her to identify an alternative agency and support her with the application process as quickly as possible. They should as a minimum maintain contact with Ms B on a monthly basis, and ideally fortnightly, until the process is completed;

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Final decision

  1. I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Ms B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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