The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complained that the Council wrongly stopped her and her husband from adopting a child from the Durham area, despite being approved by the Adoption Panel to do so. The Council fully upheld the complaint but failed to offer any remedy for the injustice or properly explain how the situation arose. We found fault in the Council’s actions causing distress and uncertainty to Mr and Mrs B. The Council agreed to pay them £500.
- Mrs B complained that Durham County Council (the Council) unfairly prevented her and her husband, Mr B, adopting a child from the Durham area, despite them being approved by the Adoption Panel to do so. This caused distress and uncertainty to Mr and Mrs B. The Council has fully upheld the complaint but has failed to offer any remedy for the injustice caused or explain how the situation arose.
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 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.
- 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
- Mr and Mrs B applied to adopt a child in 2017. Mr B had issues from his past which meant the Council took longer to process their application because it needed to carry out extra checks.
- In August 2018 the Adoption Panel approved their application to adopt without any qualifications or restrictions and the Council began the matching process.
- The case records show that in October 2018 a social worker had personal knowledge of Mr B’s family and was concerned about placing a Durham child with Mr and Mrs B. In January 2019 the social worker’s manager said to Mr and Mrs B’s social worker that they had spoken to the adoption panel decision maker and they had agreed it would better to look outside Durham for a child.
- Mr and Mrs B’s social worker informed them of this decision during a visit in January 2019. The social worker said she did not know the details of the concerns but said she had covered the risks associated with Mr B’s family in her report for the adoption panel. Mr and Mrs B were upset but agreed to look for children outside of Durham.
- Mrs B said in March 2019 that a lot of the children available further afield tended to have more complex needs and were not suitable for them. In June 2019 an adoption worker in a different area raised concerns about the couple based on the information in the adoption report and did not wish to proceed with a match. Mr and Mrs B’ social worker updated the report with positive developments they had made since it was written. In July 2019 they were shortlisted for a child but were not selected as the other couple had more matching factors for the child’s needs.
- In August 2019 Mrs B said they would like to be considered for foster care as finding a child to adopt was proving difficult. Mr and Mrs B considered but rejected two further possible children due to the complexity of their needs. In October 2019 Mrs B was keen to pursue fostering in Durham. She raised again her concerns about the decision not to place Durham children with them. She said she was unclear as to the reasons for that decision. Their social worker said it was in relation to geography and Mr B’s extended family.
- The Council refused to carry out a fostering assessment due to where they lived. Mr and Mrs B agreed to continue to look for a child. In November 2019 they expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of progress and felt the decision the previous year had caused this difficulty.
- On 18 November 2019 they made a formal complaint to the Council about the decision in January 2019 to exclude them from adopting children from the Durham area. They said the children available to them from other areas mostly had complex needs and were not suitable for them. Also it was difficult for them to travel to places far away from home as part of the matching process. Mrs B felt that the Council had robbed her of the opportunity to be a mother and the process had been very stressful.
- The Council responded in February 2020. It upheld the complaint. It could find no written decision by the decision maker confirming that they could not be considered for children from Durham. It said key personnel from the decision-making process were not available to comment but it agreed that the Council had wrongly informed Mr and Mrs B that they were unable to adopt a child from Durham. The Council said that the current decision-maker had made clear that no prospective adopter approved by Durham could be discounted from being considered for a Durham child. The individual circumstances of prospective adopters should be considered as part of each individual case and reasons for not proceeding with any adopter would be electronically recorded by the social worker, countersigned by the team manager and shared with the prospective adopter. The Council apologised for what had happened and said they could now be considered for Durham children.
- Mr and Mrs B escalated their complaint in March 2020. They were unhappy that the Council had upheld their complaint in full but provided no explanation for what had happened or paid any compensation. The Council responded in April 2020 refusing to investigate the complaint further as there was no more to be gained and suggested they seek legal advice if they wanted compensation.
- Mrs B then complained to us.
- The Council agrees it was at fault in making the decision not to allow Mr and Mrs B to pursue the adoption of children from Durham: it contradicted the approval given by the Council two months earlier, there was no record of the exact nature of the concerns, why the decision had been made or who made it. Neither did the Council formally notify Mr and Mrs B in writing or give them the opportunity to challenge that decision. Furthermore, it was a blanket decision which failed to take into account the individual circumstances of each child who could be adopted.
- This decision caused Mr and Mrs B a significant degree of distress as they were keen to adopt a child from their local area for emotional and practical reasons. The exclusion from Durham meant there were fewer suitable children available and the logistics of matching with a child from elsewhere in the country were harder for them.
- I cannot say that Mr and Mrs B missed out on adopting a child because of the decision. The Council made significant efforts to match them with a child in spite of the restrictions and offered to continue with this in the local area from February 2020. I also welcome the improvements to the decision-making procedure implemented by the Council as a result of the complaint. However, Mr and Mrs B have been left with uncertainty as whether a successful match could have been found during that year if the fault had not occurred.
- In recognition of the injustice caused to Mr and Mrs B, I recommended the Council (within one month of the date of my decision) pays Mr and Mrs B £500.
- The Council agreed to my recommendation.
- I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Mr and Mrs B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman