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London Borough of Merton (20 013 681)

Category : Children's care services > Adoption

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 27 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs X complained the Council delayed in how it responded to their request for financial support as adoptive parents. We find the Council was at fault. That has caused Mr and Mrs X avoidable distress and frustration. The Council has offered a financial remedy and to review its guidance on adoption allowances. We are satisfied this remedies the injustice caused.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X complain the Council delayed in how it responded to their request for financial support as adoptive parents. They said it then failed to communicate the outcome of their financial assessment and explain why they were ineligible for support.
  2. They said the Council would not accept their concerns as a complaint when they asked it to, and it subsequently delayed in providing its stage one and stage two response.
  3. Mr and Mrs X state the Council’s actions mean they have missed out on financial assistance they were eligible to receive. They have also been caused stress and put to significant time and trouble chasing the Council for a financial assessment.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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)
  3. 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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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mr and Mrs X.
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response.
  3. I referred to the Adoption Support Regulations 2005 (the Regulations) and the Statutory Guidance on Adoption 2013 (the Guidance).
  4. Mr and Mrs X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Adoption support

  1. The Guidance explains that the overall intention of financial support for adoptive parents is to ensure that “the adoption of a child or the continuation of adoption arrangements should not be prevented because of lack of financial support”. The Regulations 2005 set out the circumstances where a council may provide financial support to adopters. This includes where it is necessary to ensure the adoptive parent can look after the child and where the child needs special care that results in greater expenditure, such as where the child needs a special diet. Adoptive parents include those where a child has been placed in their care, but the court has not yet made the final Adoption Order.
  2. Adoptive parents should apply for all benefits and tax credits they are eligible for. Any financial support paid by the council should complement and not duplicate support available through the benefits and tax credits system. Councils can provide financial support through regular payments, lump sum payments and payments in special circumstances.
  3. The Council’s policy states that after a request for support, the social worker assesses the adoptive parent’s need for financial support including what it is for; whether the support should be a one-off payment or ongoing, and whether the amount should be means tested. The Council also completes a financial assessment (means test) based on the adopter’s monthly household and family income, their outgoings and the financial needs and resources of the child.
  4. The assessment is passed to the Council’s Head of Service who is responsible for making the final decision as to whether the Council will pay financial support. Where the Council decides to provide financial support, it should be included within the Adoption Support Plan. Any disagreements about the amount of support the Council proposes to pay should be escalated to the Assistant Director of Children’s Social Care and Youth Inclusion.
  5. Councils must consider any complaints about adoption support through the children’s statutory complaints procedure. This is a formal procedure set out in law.

What happened

  1. Mr and Mrs X were assessed and approved as adoptive parents by Adopt London South. This is a regional adoption agency made up of several London boroughs. I have referred to this as the Adoption Agency in this decision statement.
  2. Mr and Mrs X were matched with siblings who were the responsibility of the Council. The Council did not assess either child as having care needs that would require financial support.
  3. The Council placed the siblings with Mr and Mrs X in January 2019. In July, Mr and Mrs X emailed the Council asking for a copy of its policy on support for adoptive parents. They sent a further email the following month. In that they asked for financial support because Mr X had taken unpaid leave from work and that he had reduced his work hours for four months whilst he supported one of the siblings at a toddler group.
  4. The Council completed a financial assessment for Mr and Mrs X in December 2019. It finalised the assessment in March 2020. That assessment indicated the Council could pay Mr and Mrs X an adoption allowance of £167.52 a month.
  5. The Adoption Agency emailed the Council in May 2020. It asked it to send the completed assessment to the Head of Service for consideration for a one-off payment for the period Mr and Mrs X were asking for support for. The Council passed the completed assessment to the Head of Service; however, they left the Council without reviewing the assessment.
  6. Mr and Mrs X continued to contact the Council about the outcome of the financial assessment. They also raised it in the children’s review meetings with the Council that were held as part of the adoption process.
  7. Mr and Mrs X complained to the Council in December 2020. They said it still had not provided them an outcome to their request for a financial assessment. They asked the Council to financially reimburse them for:
    • Mr X’s reduced working hours in 2019.
    • Mrs X taking unpaid leave to care for children, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Their travel costs to/from the toddler group.
  8. Mr and Mrs X legally adopted their children later that month. The Council responded to their complaints at the end of January 2021. It said it had spoken to the Officer at the Adoption Agency responsible for organising the toddler group. They said:
    • Mr and Mrs X did not ask for financial assistance before starting the group and that they knew its location before joining.
    • Mr and Mrs X had confirmed they were financially secure as part of the adoption assessment process.
    • Mrs X had said she could take more than a year off work, and it was her choice to take additional time of work.
  9. The Council did not agree to provide Mr and Mrs X financial support. However, it accepted it had not told them about the outcome of the financial assessment it had completed in 2019 and partially upheld their complaint. It said that financial assessment reflected how much they would have received if they had adopted the children at that time. It said the Council would have to complete an updated financial assessment to consider if they were eligible for future support.
  10. Mr and Mrs X were dissatisfied with the Council’s response and asked it to backpay them the financial support.
  11. The Council sent its final response in March 2021. It said it would not reimburse travel expenses or Mr X’s loss of earnings. It said that the financial assessment it had completed in 2019 was done as “preliminary information gathering”. It said the Council had not agreed to provide Mr and Mrs X financial support therefore it would not make any payments retrospectively. The Council said that it should have communicated more clearly to Mr and Mrs X about the financial assessment. It did not apologise for its miscommunication. Mr and Mrs X remained unhappy and brought their complaint to the Ombudsman.

The Council’s response to enquiries

  1. The Council accepted there were significant delays in its response to Mr and Mrs X’s request for financial support. It said the Adoption Agency was newly set-up and Council staff had moved into the Adoption Agency. It said there was confusion over organisational responsibilities and a breakdown in communication both internally and with the Adoption Agency.
  2. It also recognised that it had not dealt with the complaint properly as it had not processed it through the statutory complaint’s procedure.
  3. It said the financial assessment completed in 2019 was for post-adoption support payments. It said that as the court did not finalise the adoption until 18 December 2020 Mr and Mrs X were not entitled to the support before that date. It said the Council should have explained this to Mr and Mrs X. In recognition of its faults the Council offered to:
    • Apologise to Mr and Mrs X for the delays in responding to their request for financial support.
    • Pay Mr and Mrs X a financial remedy of £300 for their time and trouble in pursuing the financial assessment and £300 for any avoidable distress caused.
    • Reimburse Mr X’s income reduction for August 2019 and for his part-time working between June and September 2019.
    • Complete a further financial assessment of Mr and Mrs X’s current circumstances.
  4. Additionally, the Council has said it:
    • has reminded all staff on the complaints team that any complaint about a child or any children’s services must be reviewed to ensure the correct procedure is followed.
    • will review of its Guidance on Adoption Allowances and Support to ensure it is clear on the financial support that is available.

My findings

  1. The Council completed Mr and Mrs X’s financial assessment in December 2019, however it failed to finalise that assessment or pass it to its Head of Service for review in a timey manner. That was fault.
  2. The Council’s Head of Service then failed to review that assessment and decide whether the Council would provide Mr and Mrs X financial support. That was also fault.
  3. The Council did not provide Mr and Mrs X an outcome to their financial assessment until January 2021 as part of its stage one complaint response. That was a significant delay of twelve months. That was fault.
  4. In that complaint response, the Council said Mr and Mrs X were not eligible for financial support until after the court made the adoption order and that the 2019 financial assessment was indicative only. However, the Regulations allow for adoptive parents to receive financial support before the court finalises the adoption. The Council’s failure to consider the assessment in accordance with Regulations was fault.
  5. The above faults have caused Mr and Mrs X avoidable frustration, uncertainty, and distress. It has also put them to avoidable time and trouble having to chase the Council for the outcome to the assessment. The Council has offered to pay Mr and Mrs X a £300 for the distress caused by its delays in failing to communicate the outcome of its assessment to them, and £300 for their time and trouble in pursuing their complaint. I am satisfied this offer is in-line with our Guidance on Remedies, which recommends a moderate payment of between £100 - £300 for any avoidable distress caused.
  6. The Council has also offered to make a financial payment to reflect Mr X’s income reduction during reset and to reflect his reduced work hours between June and September 2019. That reflects the Adoption Agency’s email to the Council in March 2020. As these were the factors that prompted Mr and Mrs X’s request for support in August 2019, I am satisfied in how the Council has considered their request for support.
  7. The Council said it will not reimburse Mr and Mrs X’s transport costs for toddler group. The Council has considered information from the Adoption Agency about the arrangements for the toddler group. There is nothing in its policy on financial support to suggest it should reimburse these travel costs. Any financial support offered by the Council is discretionary. The Council was not at fault.
  8. The Council has stated it will not reimburse Mrs X’s loss of earnings during the COVID-19 pandemic. It said Mrs X did not discuss the decision to take unpaid leave and that the Government provided financial support to organisations and businesses to support families during the pandemic. The Council has provided reasons why it will not reimburse Mrs X financially for her time taken off work. The Council was not at fault.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council has agreed to:
    • Apologise to Mr and Mrs X for the delays in responding to their request for financial support.
    • Pay Mr and Mrs X a financial remedy of £300 for their time and trouble in pursuing the financial assessment and £300 for any avoidable distress caused.
    • Reimburse Mr X’s income reduction for August 2019 and for his part-time working between June and September 2019.
    • Remind all staff on the complaints team that any complaint about a child or any children’s services must be reviewed to ensure the correct procedure is followed.
  2. Within three months of my final decision it will provide evidence it has:
    • Reviewed its Guidance on Adoption Allowances and Support to ensure it is clear on the financial support that is available and when.
    • Briefed relevant staff including those in the Adoption Agency of the procedure for requesting financial support.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault in how it considered Mr and Mrs X’s request for financial support. The Council has offered to pay Mr and Mrs X £600 to recognise the injustice caused by its faults and review its guidance on Adoption Allowance and Support. That remedies the injustice caused and will prevent a recurrence of the faults. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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