Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 12 Dec 2014
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council recognised fault in the way a social worker carried out a child assessment. This was appended to a report to the court and the complainant raised this with the court. The Council advised the children’s mother to stop contact between father and child but there were safeguarding grounds to do so. The Council was at fault in refusing to consider the complainant’s complaint at stage 2 of the statutory three stage complaint process.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr B, complains the Council:
- Failed to respond to a safeguarding referral in a timely way;
- Carried out a flawed assessment;
- Encouraged his children’s mother to deny him contact in breach of a court order meaning he did not see his children, C and D for five weeks;
- Refused to progress his complaint through the statutory complaints process.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated complaints a, b and d.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. If there has been fault, the Ombudsman considers whether it has caused an injustice and if it has, she may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
- The Ombudsman cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3)
- The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Independent Investigator and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it. However, she may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
How I considered this complaint
- I discussed the complaint with Mr B and considered his documents and the Council’s comments on the complaint. I also considered Mr B’s and the Council’s comments on my provisional view.
What I found
- Mr B and the children’s mother, Ms E are divorced. In early September 2013, she made a safeguarding referral to Children’s Services after C alleged his father had used undue force.
- The manager who assessed the referral noted there had been previous allegations and recognised that it could be related to acrimony between the parents. She decided to open the case for assessment. There was no mention of any need for safeguarding action. The case was allocated to a social worker in early October. Since C made a clear allegation of physical abuse and the Council was aware the children had regular overnight contact with Mr B, I consider the Council should have taken more timely action. However, its delay in beginning the assessment caused no injustice to Mr B.
- In early November 2013 Ms E told Mr B that he could not have contact with the children and to telephone Children’s Services. Mr B says Children’s Services encouraged Ms E to stop contact in breach of a court order. It was open to Mr B to return to the court to get a further order on contact. In safeguarding situations, the child’s welfare must come first. Ultimately it was Ms E’s decision.
- It was four days before Mr B was able to speak to the social worker, although he left messages. The social worker told him of the allegation. This was three months after the referral.
- Mr B raised concerns with management because he felt the social worker was biased against him and she refused to accept information from him. He met a manager in early December who accepted that the social worker handled the assessment process poorly and apologised. She said she would record Mr B’s views of the assessment process on the children’s files.
- Mr B received the assessment later in December. He formally complained to the Council in January 2014 about the content of the assessment. He received a written reply in February 2014. The manager refused to amend the assessment. She placed his detailed concerns on the case record. Mr B considers the Council did not respond fully to the complaints he raised about the social worker. I agree with that view but the Council accepted fault and apologised. Since the officer no longer works for the Council I cannot carry out a robust investigation.
- Mr B asked to go to stage 2 of the complaint process on 18 February 2014. The Council replied on 14 March 2014 saying the social worker no longer worked for the Council and it did not consider that a stage 2 investigation would result in a further outcome. Government guidance ‘Getting the best from complaints’ states ‘Where the matter is not resolved locally, the complainant has the right to request consideration of the complaint at stage 2’. The Council maintains that the complaints were resolved but this is not the case because Mr B asked to go to stage 2 and then complained to the Ombudsman.
- The guidance also says that councils are ‘obliged to ensure the complaint proceeds to stages 2 and 3 of this procedure, if that is the complainant’s wish’. The guidance does not say the Council may refuse to accept a complaint at stage 2 on the basis of the likely outcome. The Council was at fault. I consider it failed to address Mr B’s complaint in a meaningful way and caused Mr B time and trouble.
- In its comments on the complaint, the Council said it considered the December 2013 meeting, the departure of the social worker and the commencement of a new assessment for the court resolved most of Mr B’s complaint. It said that if the initial report had not been superseded by the court report and a complaint about inaccuracy was upheld then the remedy would be to commission a fresh report by a different social worker, which is what happened.
- The manager who met Mr B in December wrote to him on 2 April 2014 and repeated her apology about the assessment process. She confirmed that Mr B’s views and detailed comments on the assessment were included on the children’s files. She referred to the further assessment for the court which was being carried out because Mr B applied for a residence order. Mr B says he spoke to the new social worker on 25 April. She confirmed she had not accessed the detailed document in which Mr B highlighted inaccuracies and raised issues about the information gathered. Her case record notes show that that she told Mr B she had not because she did ‘not want it to interfere with her report’. Mr B questions whether the first flawed assessment was superseded because the second social worker attached it to the court report. I do not find fault.
- The Council agreed to:
- Review the way it responds to requests to move to stage 2 of the complaints process;
- Make a payment of £250 to Mr B for his time and trouble.
- I am completing the investigation of the complaint because the Council accepted fault, took action and agreed to remedy the injustice caused.
- I did not investigate the complaint about the flawed assessment because this was presented to the court as an appendix to a section 37 report. Mr B wrote to the court on 1 May 2014 highlighting his concerns about the report and the appended assessment. The document was therefore before the court and I cannot investigate this part of the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman