The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council failed to complete an Asset Plus assessment initially as its policy requires and this amounts fault. However, this did not cause injustice so the Council is not required to take any action
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr B, complained that the Council’s youth offending service failed to take proper action following his son’s attendance at a voluntary police interview after he took a knife to school in December 2019. Specifically he said it:
- wrongly presented a social work assessment completed by a children’s social worker to a joint decision-making panel in February 2020 which was the wrong type of assessment and that report also contained inaccuracies; and
- failed to complete an Asset Plus Assessment to share with the police before a decision was reached in March 2020 to issue his son with a youth conditional caution.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
- 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)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. We cannot investigate the actions of bodies such as the police when the matter complained about relates to the investigation of a crime. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 25 and 34A, as amended)
- This means that I cannot consider the decision taken by the police in relation to the crime committed in this case but I can consider the Council’s actions with regard to the assessments they conducted.
- 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 discussed the complaint with Mr B and considered the written information he provided with his complaint. I considered all the information before reaching a draft decision on the complaint.
- The information I have considered includes the Council’s comments in response to my enquiries and copies of three assessments. I was unable to read all the boxes that were completed on the Asset Plus assessment as they are clearly designed to be read on a computer system where the reader can scroll down which I was unable to do in the format they were provided to me but I consider I was able to gain sufficient sense of the form to understand its content.
- 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.
- Mr B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
What should have happened
- The Council has a policy entitled “Out of Court Disposals Operational Delivery Protocol”. This confirms that where there is a decision to be reached on an offence outside of the court arena the police can decide between taking no further action, a community resolution, issuing a youth caution, issuing a youth conditional caution or charging the young person.
- The policy explains that a youth caution may be given for any offence where a young person admits the offence, though does state they are intended for low level offences where there is a realistic prospect of conviction but it is not in the public interest to do so. It confirms that youth cautions form part of a criminal record but that they are considered “spent” at the time they are administered.
- The policy confirms that a youth conditional caution has compulsory assessment and intervention attached to it. It states “A youth conditional caution may be offered when a young person admits an offence, there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and when the public interest can be best served by the young person complying with suitable conditions rather than prosecution”. It goes on to say that it will be issued for offences at a similar level to the upper end to those that may be considered for a youth caution and that it is effectively a suspension of criminal proceedings while the young person in given an opportunity to comply with agreed conditions. There is at least one mandatory condition which can only last for three months. Youth conditional cautions are “spent” three months after they are administered.
- The policy says that out of court disposal decisions are taken by a Joint Decision Making Panel (JDMP) and information about young offenders is shared between the police and the Council’s Youth Offending Service (YOS). It confirms that details of youth cautions and youth conditional cautions are recorded on the Police National Computer (PNC).
- The policy requires the police to advise the Council’s YOS that a young person is in custody as one of its first actions following arrest and the Council is required to allocate a caseworker soon after. The allocated caseworker is required to access all information on the child including, for example, information held by the children’s services department and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). The caseworker then contacts the young person and their parent for interview and to complete an assessment before the JDMP meeting. The policy specifies that for youth caution and youth conditional caution cases this should be an Asset Plus assessment. The purpose of the assessment is to assess suitability for the identified intended disposal.
- Changes to the law in November 2020 mean that since then youth conditional cautions are not automatically disclosed in standard or enhanced DBS checks. This is not the case for youth conditional cautions issued before then.
- The Gravity Factor Matrix (Gravity Matrix) was drawn up by, among others, senior police officers, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office and the Youth Justice Board. It lists the key factors in deciding whether to charge, caution or conditionally caution a young person include whether they admit the offence, the seriousness of the offence, previous offending history, and the welfare interest of the young person. It says that “The first arrest of a youth under 16 for simple possession of an offensive weapon…with no aggravating factors will result in the first instance with a youth conditional caution…”.
- An Asset Plus assessment is an assessment and planning process put in place by the Youth Justice Board to identify strengths, needs and problems and facilitate planning for children who have committed an offence or at risk of offending.
- The Council says it uses a rapid assessment ordinarily to inform triage interventions. Triage interventions are typically used for low level offences.
- A single assessment is completed by a social worker when a child who meets the required threshold for involvement is referred to children’s social care for an assessment. It identifies identification of a child’s needs and risks and looks at the wider family and background. It also involves consideration of the views of other professionals involved with the family.
- Mr B’s son, whom I shall refer to as X, is a former looked after child whom Mr B adopted some years ago. In December 2019, when he was 13 years old, X took a knife into school. Mr B says X’s decision to take the knife into school was the result of a number of incidents including him being mugged at knifepoint and hearing about a number of incidents involving knives. Mr B says that he had been trying to get help for X from the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for a number of years.
- Mr B said that X did not use the knife in school and did not threaten anyone with it. The assessments completed by the social worker and the Youth Offending Service note that X showed the knife to a number of pupils before one of his peers told a teacher that X had the knife. Mr B says that he then attended the police station with X to attend a voluntary police interview. This was arranged because carrying a knife is in itself a crime.
- Following the incident X was excluded from school for 5 days then attended an alternative education provision for the rest of the school term. After this he returned to his usual mainstream school where a range of special provisions were put in place including daily searches to ensure he was not bringing a knife into school again.
- Mr B says that the police officer attached to the school recommended that the offence was forwarded for “triage” which is the lowest level of disposal and does not result in the matter being recorded on the PNC database.
- Mr B has complained about the events following that initial voluntary police interview. I will address this further below taking account of the evidence provided by Mr B and the council.
Actions taken by the Council’s Youth Offending Service
- The Council’s chronology states that the police contacted the YOS team in early February 2020 providing details of X taking a knife into school. The chronology states that the “national guidelines on youth knife offences state that a first instance of knife possession such as this be dealt with by youth conditional caution”. The case was allocated to a social worker who was on sick leave but was anticipated to return shortly after.
- The JDMP met four days later. The Council’s chronology states this was attended by police and a manager and caseworkers from the Council’s YOS team. Again the chronology states that the only out of court disposal available for a crime of taking a knife into a school was a youth conditional caution. It says the panel discussed mitigating factors with regards to X (having sought information about this from the Councils’ children’s services database) including a social care assessment which it says was dated February 2020. It goes on to say that a youth conditional caution was agreed “due to the nature of the offence”. The note of the Panel’s decision states that the police officer at the meeting said “He (X) fully admitted the offence in interview and stated that he had been a recent victim of an attempted robbery where the presence of a knife was threatened. The GM (Gravity Matrix) for this offence is 4 and there are no aggravating factors. The national guidelines on youth knife offences state that a first instance of knife possession such as this be dealt with by youth conditional caution, which I believe is appropriate in this instance”. The note of the YOS worker’s view at the panel was “YCC agreed due to nature of the offence. X has no previous convictions…and has never before been known to YOS…”. Mr B points out that the gravity matrix guidance in fact states that such an offence is 3. The usual action at level 3 is a youth caution or a youth conditional caution or could result in being charged.
- The chronology goes on to say that the YOS Practice Manager wrote to X’s social worker “setting out proposed YCC conditions and seeking her views”.
- In early March the chronology states that the social worker replied stating that the proposed conditions “looked good” and confirmed that the children’s services family support team was providing support to the family. On the same day the Practice Manager said that two social workers were off sick and so the case would need to be reallocated for an assessment to be completed by the end of the month.
- The national Covid lockdown was initiated just before the date on which the youth conditional caution was scheduled to be issued. Mr B asked for a meeting with the police to discuss this before the caution was issued and so the original date for the issuing of the caution was postponed.
- Due to the Covid lockdown period it was not until early May that a new YOS social worker completed a rapid assessment. This was signed off by her manager.
- Mr B asked for a review by the police as to why a youth conditional caution was agreed. A police inspector confirmed that a youth conditional caution was appropriate around two weeks later having reviewed the paperwork.
- In late May the YOS Team contacted Mr B to arrange an Asset Plus assessment as part of the youth conditional caution. The Council says this was to “help provide reassurance that all relevant factors had been considered to inform X’s intervention plan and to take account of recent concerns relating to his emotional wellbeing”.
- Shortly before the youth conditional caution was issued Mr B advised the Council that X had self-harmed and he submitted a complaint at stage 1 of the complaints procedure.
- The youth conditional caution was issued to X in June 2020 with Mr B attending the appointment with him.
- X attended weekly sessions with his YOS social worker and his mother until the youth conditional caution was satisfied in late August 2020. The YOS service formally ended its involvement with X by closing his case file in October 2020.
- The single assessment of X and the family comprising his parents and his adopted sibling was completed by the social worker from December 2019. This assessment says that the reason for the assessment was due to concerns about X taking a knife into school and to look at the impact his had on the family and concerns there was a risk of family breakdown. A manager has made comments on the assessment stating “The assessment will need to reconsider the complexity of the needs of both children and their difficult start to their early childhood years. Furthermore, I recognise the challenges their parents face in responding to these behaviours and the assessment will need to consider how family communication is supported to prevent a breakdown in family relationships”. The assessment refers to X having self-harmed in the past and notes that he had begun seeing a systemic family psychotherapist from September 2019. The psychotherapist was noted as having said that X’s decision to take a knife into school was not a sign of violent or anti-social tendencies but a sign of his vulnerability and a cry for help. The social worker noted that X had told her the reason he took the knife into school was for protection after his friend had been attacked. The assessment reached a number of conclusions for future support including the allocation of a new social worker, consideration of family therapy, a family coach and attendance at a CAHMS appointment in March 2020. It was approved by a manager on 11 February 2020.
- A rapid assessment was completed in early May 2020 by a Council Youth Offending Service social worker. This assessment provides details of what happened when X took the knife into school stating that when interviewed by the police, accompanied by his father, he admitted that he had taken the knife into school and provided a number of mitigating circumstances including:
- He had been assaulted by a group of boys around 5 weeks before the incident took place and shortly after the same thing happened to X’s friend;
- He had been upset and affected by a terrorist incident in London shown by the media; and
- Other pupils at his school had talked about knife incidents in London schools and stabbings of children leaving school.
Mr B’s complaints to the Council
- Mr B’s complaint in May was considered initially under stage 1 of the council’s complaints procedure and a response provided by a team manager in the YOS. His response stated:
- The JDMP considered the offence and the mitigating circumstances in February stating that in most case the offence that X had committed (carrying a knife) are dealt with in court but that due to X’s mitigating circumstances the police agreed an out of court disposal could be considered. The JDMP agreed that an out of court disposal was appropriate and that a youth conditional caution could be offered;
- A rapid assessment is usually used to inform triage interventions but that as the Covid lockdown was preventing an Asset Plus assessment taking place, the rapid assessment using as its basis the single assessment was used to pull together the activities that formed part of the youth conditional caution (attendance at a knife crime course, one to one work with the caseworker etc);
- The Asset Plus assessment was later arranged as well to reassure Mr B that all the relevant factors had been taken into account for the intervention plan and due to concerns about X’s recent emotional wellbeing
- His conclusion was that in usual circumstances an Asset Plus assessment would have taken place to look at the proposed youth conditional caution conditions but the Covid Lockdown made it difficult for the YOS team to offer this. He apologised for this but said that the Asset Plus assessment would not have altered the decision to issue the youth conditional caution.
- The stage 1 consideration of the complaint wrongly stated that X was arrested and the Director apologised for this;
- There was nothing wrong in the JDMP using the single assessment and that the Panel had taken account of the X’s mitigating factors including the robbery and X’s complex emotional needs. He pointed out that final decisions on out of court disposals are taken by the police; and
- Mr B’s complaint about the inaccuracy of X being arrested was upheld but not the information considered by the JDMP.
Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?
- It is not my role to reach a decision on the whether or not the right decision was taken in relation to the issue of the youth conditional caution. It is my role to consider how the Council reached the decision and whether it considered the matter properly before reaching the decision it was entitled to make.
- It is the case that the single assessment completed by the social worker was considered by the JDMP when it met in February 2020. Whilst X was not arrested the policy which states that “the allocated caseworker is required to access all information on the child including, for example, information held by the children’s services department and CAMHS and then contacts the young person and their parent for interview and to complete an assessment before the JDMP meeting. The policy specifies that for youth caution and youth conditional caution cases this should be an Asset Plus assessment. An Asset Plus assessment was not completed for the JDMP in February so I consider the failure to do so must amount to fault even though I note the Council has said this weas due to Covid restrictions at the time.
- However, the single assessment was presented to the JDMP and this was conducted by taking account of background information, details of what happened when X took the knife into school, included two interviews with X as well as other family members and the social worker obtained information from X’s school and his psychotherapist. Mr B is unhappy that the report did not contain information about concerns about X’s worsening and increasingly concerning behaviour dating back to 2018 but I am not persuaded that the inclusion of this information would have changed the outcome. I am therefore satisfied that the JDMP had relevant information that it could take into account when considering X. In addition, I am not persuaded that the outcome would have been different had the Council completed an Asset Plus assessment. This is because it seems clear, from all the guidance and the information provided by the Council, that much of the information included in the single assessment would have been included in an Asset Plus assessment but also under the Gravity Matrix the crime committed was one that would result in a youth conditional caution. The notes of the JDMP note also that the Panel took account of the fact that X had been the victim of a recent attempted robbery involving a knife. I also note that when the decision was considered by a scrutiny panel later on, that panel agreed that the outcome was appropriate and accorded with the relevant policy and guidance. For these reasons I do not consider the fault in not competing the Asset Plus assessment resulted in injustice as it is clear that a range of mitigating factors was put to the Panel and this was considered together with the Gravity Matrix guidance.
- Mr B also complained that there was inaccuracy in the single assessment. As I understand it this relates to the social worker saying that X was arrested instead of making it clear that he voluntarily attended the police station. I note the Council has already apologised for this inaccuracy. There is no evidence to suggest that this caused injustice in the form of resulting in a different decision by the JDMP.
- I recognise that Mr B is unhappy with the decision but this is not a matter for me and was ultimately a police decision. In the absence of injustice arising from the identified fault I make no recommendations for action by the Council.
- The failure to complete an Asset Plus assessment initially amounts fault. However, I do not consider this caused injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman