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Cambridgeshire County Council (20 003 498)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 Mar 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs B have an adopted child. They complained about how the Council dealt with the placement of their adopted child’s birth mother in a mother and baby foster placement close to their home, and the issues arising from this. We find there was fault by the Council causing injustice for which an apology and appropriate financial remedy has been offered. The Council has also implemented service improvements. We find there was some fault in complaint handling, and the Council agreed to our recommendation to take steps to review and act on lessons learned about the framing of complaints.

The complaint

  1. The complainants, whom I shall call Mr and Mrs B, have an adopted child. They complained about how the Council dealt with the placement of their adopted child’s birth mother in a mother and baby foster placement close to their home, and the issues arising from this. They report that because of the Council’s actions they could not allow their adopted child her usual freedoms to play and exercise outside in the neighbourhood, impacting her development, and as parents they were caused significant distress and anxiety.

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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 considered all the information provided by Mr and Mrs B about their complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered all the information it provided in response.
  2. I took account of the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
  3. Mr and Mrs B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and I considered all comments received in response before making this final decision.

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What I found

Background

  1. Mr and Mrs B have a child, C, whom they adopted as a baby. At the time of the events complained of, C was four years old.
  2. On 20 May 2020, the Council arranged accommodation for C’s birth mother and her new baby in a mother and baby foster-care placement very close to Mr and Mrs B’s family home: in the Council’s words “literally just around the corner”. This came to light at a meeting of professionals on 27 May. The Council noted that the birth mother and baby were likely to be in the placement for a further 11 weeks, but that the birth mother had never met Mr and Mrs B and that reduced the risk of identification. It noted also however that C, whose name had been changed, and Mr and Mrs B’s other children would have seen the birth mother’s picture in the child’s life story book. The Council felt the situation was manageable. Mr and Mrs B were to be informed, and the foster carer would also be advised and asked to maintain confidentiality.
  3. The Council noted that liaison between relevant departments was needed prior to placement to ensure this scenario did not arise in future. Its records evidence internal discussions about the steps which would need to be put in place for liaison between relevant teams when a case came up where a previous child had been placed for adoption, allowing identification of a geographical area to be avoided, and to discuss cases if a proposed location was considered too close.

What happened next

  1. On 28 May in the late afternoon, a manager telephoned Mr and Mrs B to tell them what had happened. Mr and Mrs B were very upset and report feeling unsafe in their own home. They arranged to speak to the officer by telephone again the next day, and did so, discussing what had happened and what concerns this gave rise to. Mr and Mrs B wanted the birth mother moved urgently and say that the officer agreed that what had happened was incompetent and a major risk. In a further call later the same day Mr and Mrs B report the officer said they and their manager agreed the Council had been negligent. I will return to this point later in this statement.
  2. The Council’s records show that there was then further internal discussion involving the senior managers in all relevant departments. The Council noted Mr and Mrs B’s concerns and that they felt unable to let C out of the house, felt unable to go to the local supermarket, and had concerns that there was a safeguarding risk including around the possibility of the birth mother still being in contact with the birth father and possibly visiting the area, and that birth mother would like the area and wish to stay. The Council’s records include the following note regarding its assessment of the situation:
    “Birth mother does not know there has been a change of name for their daughter, it was confirmed that birth mother is only leaving the house if with the foster carer. Birth mother is very invested in working with the local authority so she can keep her baby in her care. The placement is 12 weeks so time limited. Aware that it would be unlikely that she would be offered permanent accommodation in [the area]. Adopters have not met birth mother and she will not know they are in the area. Birth mother has made progress in addressing previous concerns”.

Mr and Mrs B put concerns in writing and the Council responds

  1. On 1 June, after a further telephone conversation with the Council, Mr and Mrs B sent an email reiterating that the Council had referred to what had happened as negligence, and saying that suggestions which had been put forward by the Council included that they should move to a new house temporarily. They said they had kept C at home on the Council’s advice since being appraised of the situation. The Council advised Mr and Mrs B that they needed to follow the complaints process, which Mr and Mrs B were not happy with as they felt this was a safeguarding issue and should be treated as such, with more urgent action being taken to address their concerns. Further discussions about the matter followed, both internally and with Mr and Mrs B. The Council noted they remained anxious and concerned about the situation and were worried that the risks of seeing the birth mother would be heightened as Covid19 lockdown restrictions eased giving more opportunity to be out and about in the community. They felt C would be recognisable due to facial features and similarity to other siblings with whom the birth mother still had contact. The Council considered though that the likelihood of the birth mother recognising C was not so great, as she had no information or expectation that she would be in the area. The Council felt that Mr and Mrs B were occupied by their perceptions of the safeguarding concerns and that it was therefore hard for them to view the situation and the risks that this may present as manageable.
  2. The Council agreed to provide a response at stage 1 of the complaints procedure as quickly as possible, and to hand deliver this so that a discussion could then take place. This was done on 5 June. The Council set out what had happened, and that new measures had now been introduced to ensure that information on the location of older adopted siblings is checked prior to any future decisions being made around similar such placements.
  3. The Council acknowledged that it would have been better if a senior manager had informed Mr and Mrs B about what had happened face to face. It said that regarding the assertion that the Council’s officer had admitted negligence, the officer did not recollect having said this and had been concerned to support Mr and Mrs B with any interim arrangements they might wish to make to manage the situation in light of what had happened.
  4. The Council said it had not dealt with the matter under safeguarding: discussions with the safeguarding team had taken place and the Council did not consider there was a safeguarding risk.
  5. Mr and Mrs B were dissatisfied, particularly about the view taken that there was no safeguarding risk, and sent further emails to the Council which acknowledged the correspondence and agreed to escalate the matter to the second stage of the complaints procedure. The Council referred to the senior manager with overall responsibility for the multi-agency team which considers safeguarding matters, and said the matter had been given serious consideration and the view reached that the threshold for safeguarding action had not been met.
  6. A meeting with the Head of Service took place at Mr and Mrs B’s home to inform the stage 2 investigation, and after this there was a further exchange of correspondence before agreement was reached on the points of complaint. In the meantime, Mrs and Mrs B had emailed the Council asking it to be more specific about what they could allow C to do without risk in the local area while the investigation was ongoing. The Council said this was matter for Mr and Mrs B: the risk had already been considered and deemed low, as previously advised.
  7. The Council provided its stage 2 response on 24 June, with an apology for the slight delay in the agreed timescale for response. There were 28 heads of complaint. Upheld elements of complaint concerned the timing and way Mr and Mrs B were informed about the placement.
  8. Mr and Mrs B remained dissatisfied and on 24 June requested escalation to the third and final stage of the Council’s complaints procedure. The response was delayed, the timescale having been extended twice, on each occasion after Mr and Mrs B chased it.
  9. The stage three response was issued on 28 July. The Council again acknowledged that the information about the foster placement should have been given to Mr and Mrs B by a senior manager and in person, so that they had a clear picture of what had happened, why it had happened and a clear evaluation of any implications for their family. The Council said it was sorry this did not happen. The Council also accepted that if this had been done, the issue of whether this was a safeguarding matter would have been appropriately addressed at an earlier stage, its view being that in the circumstances of the case the risk was deemed to be low and the threshold to trigger safeguarding was not met. The Council accepted that language used in responses to Mr and Mrs B had been patronising, and that it was unacceptable that they had had to spend so much time on the matter.
  10. The Council offered an unreserved apology, and a payment of £750 in recognition of distress and anxiety. Mr and Mrs B were dissatisfied and set out that they considered a more appropriate sum to be £6,750. They set out that they had incurred expenses in looking after C when they felt attendance at nursery in the neighbourhood carried too great a risk of identification by the birth family, in taking C to exercise outside the local area and on two weeks holiday, as well as costs in obtaining legal advice and in pursuing the matter with the Council.
  11. The Council considered Mr and Mrs B’s representations and made an increased offer of £1,000, referring to the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies and to the difference between a remedy payment acknowledging impact of fault and compensation such as a court might consider.
  12. On 20 August, after Mr and Mrs B chased an update, the Council confirmed the birth mother had left the foster placement on 17 August. The Council also advised Mr and Mrs B that should the birth mother apply to the local housing provider for housing in the local area it would provide a professional view on the appropriateness of the proposal.

Analysis

  1. It was not fault to place the birth mother in the locality. However, the Council should have had in place a process whereby the suitability of the location would be considered taking account of other placed or adopted children of the same birth family. If such a process had been in place, the risk in placing the birth mother in this case so close to the adopted child would have been assessed prior to placement rather than afterwards, and on balance it is more likely than not that steps would have been taken to try to secure an alternative placement. The Council took immediate steps to address this failing in process and measures are now in place to facilitate cross-checking between relevant departments as appropriate, in order that suitability of placement locations can be properly considered.
  2. On the matter of risk, it is wholly understandable that Mr and Mrs B had concerns about taking C out and about in the local area when they were alerted to the proximity of the birth mother in the foster placement. However, once the matter had come to light relevant senior managers did assess the situation and having considered relevant factors reached the view that the risk was minimal. Notwithstanding Mr and Mrs B’s disagreement, that was a view the Council was entitled to take, exercising professional judgment.
  3. There is no documentary evidence that the Council admitted negligence, and I cannot take a view on what may have been said in private conversation to which I was not a witness. If Mr and Mrs B consider the Council has been negligent and wished to pursue a claim for damages on that basis, that would be matter for the courts.
  4. There were some faults in the complaint handling in this case. Some fault has already been acknowledged by the Council, for example delays in the process. There was also fault however in the way the second stage complaint was dealt with: the heads of complaint were largely phrased as a series of questions rather than agreed statements of complaint. That meant that for several points, no finding could be given. This appears to have arisen from a desire to accommodate how Mr and Mrs B wished to frame their concerns, but ultimately it was unhelpful in terms of clarity of findings.

Agreed action

  1. As noted above, the Council has accepted there was fault in the way this matter was dealt with and that there was a resultant impact on Mr and Mrs B and their family in terms of distress and anxiety. A payment of £1,000 in acknowledgment of this has been offered, and an unreserved apology given. I acknowledge Mr and Mrs B’s assertions about specific expenditure incurred in looking after C in the way they felt was necessary and appropriate in the circumstances, but I cannot attribute that to fault by the Council. The £1,000 offered is in line with the Ombudsman’s guidance and I therefore made no recommendation for further financial remedy.
  2. If the £1,000 payment referred to above has not yet been made, I recommended that the Council makes this payment within four weeks of the date of the decision on this complaint.
  3. In terms of service improvements, the Council has already taken suitable steps to ensure new processes have been put in place to avoid a similar situation occurring in future. I therefore made no recommendation in this regard.
  4. In terms of complaint handling, I recommended that within three months of the date of the decision on this complaint the Council reviews lessons learned from this case and reminds investigating officers of the need to have clear statements of complaint in order that clear outcomes can be achieved.
  5. The Council agreed to my recommendations.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis set out above.
  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 our decision with Ofsted.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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