Hampshire County Council (17 000 158)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Apr 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: the Council was at fault because it took too long to arrange a transfer conference when Miss X’s daughter, who at the time was subject to a child protection plan, moved to another Council’s area to live with her father. That fault did not cause injustice to Miss X. I have not upheld Miss X’s complaint about the conduct of the social work manager.

The Ombudsman’s final decision

Summary: the Council was at fault because it took too long to arrange a transfer conference when Miss X’s daughter, who at the time was subject to a child protection plan, moved to another Council’s area to live with her father. That fault did not cause injustice to Miss X. I have not upheld Miss X’s complaint about the conduct of the social work manager.

 

 

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The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss X in this statement, complains that:
      1. Hampshire Children’s Services did not arrange a transfer conference within the required timeframe when her daughter, Y, who was subject to a Child Protection Plan, moved to a different local authority area to live with her father;
      2. a social work manager (Officer A):
      1. threatened to end Miss X’s supervised contact with Y if she took up a job in July 2017;
      2. terminated Miss X’s contact with Y;
      3. had a conflict of interest because she has a personal connection to the father of Miss X’s child;
      4. altered her assessment reports.

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What I have investigated

  1. I investigated Miss X’s complaint about the delay in arranging a transfer conference when Y moved out of the Council’s area. I also investigated parts of her complaint about Officer A’s conduct. But I did not investigate complaints about Officer A’s reports to the Family Court or evidence she gave in Court proceedings for the reasons given in paragraph 3.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. This includes any complaint about reports written Council officers prepare for Court proceedings and any oral evidence they give in a Court hearing. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, as amended)
  2. 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)
  3. 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. The Ombudsman generally expects complainants to complete all the stages in the statutory complaints procedure for Children’s Services before he accepts a complaint for investigation.
  2. Miss X complained to the Council about Children’s Services’ handling of the case. The Council responded to the complaint at the first stage of the Children Act representations procedure in March 2017. Miss X was not satisfied so she asked for a Stage Two investigation. The Council refused to arrange a Stage Two investigation because:
    • some matters she raised in the complaint overlapped with legal proceedings in the Family Court;
    • it was concerned Miss X may not attend a meeting with the Investigating Officer and Independent Person and, if she did attend, she may bring her partner who was subject to a Family Court order prohibiting him from having contact with Children’s Services officers.
  3. For these reasons, we agreed to accept the complaint for investigation as an early referral.
  4. I have spoken to Miss X and considered her complaint. I also considered the Council’s response to my enquiries and evidence from the Children’s Services case records. This includes the Child Protection Plan for Y and relevant Court Orders and Court reports.
  5. Miss X and the Council have both taken the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments, along with new evidence sent by Miss X, before I made a final decision.
  6. 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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What I found

  1. Y is a young child who used to live with her mother, Miss X, in the Council’s area. Miss X is separated from Y’s father. There has been a dispute about the arrangements for Y’s residence and contact with Miss X.
  2. Following a section 47 safeguarding investigation and an Initial Child Protection conference in July 2016, Y was made subject to a Child Protection Plan. The Child Protection Plan identified that Y was at risk of significant harm due to neglect. At that time, Y was living with Miss X.
  3. Y’s father started private law proceedings in the Family Court to seek Orders to settle the arrangements for Y’s residence and her contact with Miss X. Miss X contested these applications.
  4. In September 2016 the Family Court made an interim order that Y should live with her father. The Order also specified the terms for Miss X’s contact with Y. The district judge ordered the Council’s Children’s Services to provide a report to the Court and both parents by 24 October 2016.
  5. Y moved to live with her father in September 2016. Y, Miss X and Y’s father all live in the same local authority area (I shall refer to this as Council 2).
  6. On 24 April 2017 Y’s Child Protection Plan was discontinued. She was not considered to be at any risk of significant harm while living with her father.
  7. In September 2016 and May 2017 the Family Court ordered Hampshire Council’s Children Services to provide reports (known as section 7 reports) for forthcoming hearings in the private law proceedings.
  8. Officer A prepared two section 7 welfare reports for the Family Court in May and September 2017.
  9. The Council closed Y’s case after the Family Court made a final Child Arrangements Order at a hearing on 17 October 2017.

Complaint a) – arranging the transfer conference

What should happen?

  1. The government has issued statutory guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (Working Together to Safeguard children – March 2015).
  2. The guidance deals with a situation where a child who is subject to a Child Protection Plan moves permanently to live in another local authority’s area. It says the receiving local authority should arrange a child protection conference within 15 working days of being notified of the move. The original local authority may only discontinue its Child Protection Plan after this conference has taken place.
  3. Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) co-ordinate safeguarding work and are responsible for developing local safeguarding policies and procedures.
  4. The Hampshire LSCB has published a procedures manual. It includes a procedure for dealing with children who move across local authority boundaries. It says:

“Where a Child subject to a Child Protection Plan moves out of the home area, anyone who becomes aware of the plan to move or the move taking place, must inform the child's Lead Social Worker or, if not available, the Lead Social Worker's line manager.

The Lead Social Worker will:

  • immediately inform Children's social care in the new area of the change in the child's circumstances;
  • send the child's relevant personal details to the new area including a copy of the most recent Child Protection Plan;
  • inform the 'home' Designated Manager (Children subject to a Child Protection Plan) of the changes;
  • inform the Core Group members of the change in circumstances;
  • attend any Initial Child Protection Conference in the new area.

Only when the new area has decided whether the child is to become subject to a Child Protection Plan or not should the child's details be removed from the List of Children who have a Child Protection Plan in the original area.

The date that the child's name is removed from the List in the original area will therefore be the date of the Initial Child Protection Conference in the new area when the decision is made.”

What happened?

  1. Y moved to live with her father in another local authority area in early September 2016 following the interim Order made by the judge in the Family Court. The Council was aware of the Court’s decision because Y was already subject to a Child Protection Plan and a social worker had prepared a statement for the Court.
  2. The Council says Y’s social worker, Officer B, first contacted Council 2 in early January 2017 to discuss the transfer of the case. But there is no evidence of this contact in the case records and the social worker no longer works for the Council.
  3. The evidence I have seen shows Y’s social worker (Officer B) contacted Council 2 to discuss the transfer of Y’s case on 23 January 2017. The officer at Council 2 who was responsible for co-ordinating child protection case transfers said she would speak to the team manager and get back to Officer B.
  4. I have seen an internal email from Council 2 which shows the administrator circulated Y’s details to colleagues on 25 January 2017 to arrange a “transfer in” conference. The email asks them to make direct contact with Y’s social worker and gives her contact number.
  5. Miss X sent me evidence that she contacted the Council by email on 24 February 2017 to enquire about the arrangements for transferring Y’s case to Council 2. She referred to the relevant statutory guidance. She raised this issue again in further emails sent on 28 February and 2 March.
  6. There is no evidence that the Council made further contact with Council 2 until 8 March 2017. Following contact between Miss X’s new partner and Council 2, Officer A then spoke to the administrator at Council 2. The administrator advised Officer A to resubmit the request for a transfer conference and Council 2 would consider it.
  7. On 9 March the Service Manager of the Child Protection team at Council 2 responded to Officer A’s request for a transfer conference. She said Y’s social worker had first made this request on 25 February 2017. She said the team manager at Council 2 and Y’s social worker at Hampshire had mutually agreed there was no need for a transfer conference because Y was safe in her father’s care and the Court had made an Order for her to live with him.
  8. The Service Manager said she was confused about the reasons for the Council’s request for a transfer. She said she did not understand how Y would meet the threshold for child protection in Council 2’s area. She said as another Court hearing was imminent in April 2017, it was her view that Y should not be transferred to Council 2.
  9. On 16 March the Head of the Council’s Safeguarding Unit pursued the transfer request with Council 2. He said:
    • “I am firmly of the view that there is a statutory responsibility which obliges [Council 2] to hold a CPC [child protection conference] and that indeed this should have happened some time ago.

The child concerned is still subject to a CP Plan to Hampshire but is now living in [Council 2’s area] with her father. […]

As I am sure you will recognize the statutory guidance within Working Together 2015 leaves no room for prevarication…

  1. On 17 March the Service Manager from Council 2 agreed to arrange a transfer child protection conference.
  2. On 29 March Officer A sent Council 2 a form giving further details about Y in advance of the conference.
  3. The Council held a Review Child Protection Conference on 24 April 2017. The Conference decided to end the Child Protection plan for Y. This was a scheduled review held every six months. As Y was no longer subject to a Child Protection plan from this date, there was no need for her case to transfer to Council 2.
  4. Y’s Child Protection Plan required a social worker to visit Y every fortnight. This was later changed to visits every three weeks from 17 February 2017.
  5. The Council has confirmed the dates when a social worker visited Y between September 2016 and April 2017. Visits were made at the required intervals to check on Y’s welfare.
  6. On 31 May 2017 the Family Court directed the Council to prepare a section 7 addendum report. The report was to make observations after Miss X had a hair strand test to detect alcohol and about the supervised contact between Miss X and Y. The Council had a continuing role in providing reports for the Family Court in the private law proceedings after the Child Protection Plan ended on 24 April 2017.

Analysis

  1. Y was subject to a Child Protection Plan so the Council should have notified Council 2 immediately when she went to live with her father in September 2016. It did not follow the statutory guidance in Working Together 2015, or take the required steps set out in in the LSCB procedure manual.
  2. The Council accepts it delayed in arranging the transfer conference. The failure to comply with statutory guidance and local procedures for safeguarding children is fault. The Council did not formally notify Council 2 that Y had moved to live in its area until January 2017. It appears that it did not insist then on a transfer conference when Council 2 questioned the need to arrange one. It was only when the Head of Safeguarding intervened in March 2017 that this was resolved.
  3. Did this fault cause injustice? Y was living with her father during this time. The social worker continued to make planned visits to see Y at regular intervals in accordance with the Child Protection Plan between September 2016 and April 2017. There were no concerns about Y’s safety or welfare. I do not consider the delayed transfer of the case caused injustice because Y was not considered to be at risk in her father’s care. The purpose of transferring the case to the new authority is to safeguard Y. I do not consider the delayed transfer caused Miss X personal injustice.
  4. However there is an important learning point for the Council here. Children’s Services staff must comply with the statutory duty to notify the new local authority, and liaise to ensure a timely transfer conference, when a child who is subject to a child protection plan moves out of its area.

Complaint b) – Miss X’s complaints about Officer A’s conduct

  1. Miss X made several allegations about Officer A. Officer A is a manager in the area team who took over responsibility for Y’s case. She is also responsible for overseeing the arrangements for Miss Y’s supervised contact with Y at a Children’s Services contact centre. Officer A had to ensure a room was booked and a contact supervisor was available at the specified times.

The threat to terminate Miss X’s contact with Y

  1. Miss X says Officer A threatened to end her contact with Y if she started full-time employment in the summer of 2017.
  2. The Family Court had determined the arrangements for Miss X’s supervised contact with Y. These were set out in a Court order which stipulated the days and times when contact would take place.
  3. I have seen the relevant email exchanges between Miss X and Officer A in July 2017. On 19 July 2017 Officer A sent an email to Miss X. She said Y’s father had told her Miss X may be starting full-time employment. During the school holidays, Miss X had two weekly supervised contact sessions with Y, each lasting for three hours. Officer A enquired how Miss X would manage to attend the contact sessions during the day in the school holidays.
  4. On 20 July Officer A sent Miss X another email. She asked Miss X whether she would be attending the following week’s contact session with Y. She said she would assume Miss X did not want to go ahead with the contact session if she did not reply by midday on 21 July. If she did not hear from Miss X, she would not provide a contact supervisor and facilities until further notice.
  5. Miss X regarded Officer A’s email as a threat to terminate her contact with Y. But I interpret it differently. The Court had specified the contact arrangements in the Child Arrangements Order. Officer A’s role was to oversee the contact and ensure a room and supervisor was available for these contact sessions. Officer A needed to know how Miss X would maintain her supervised contact with Y during the holidays, at the times specified in the Court Order, if she was about to start a full-time job. She also asked Miss X to confirm her attendance at the next contact session. These were reasonable requests for information. Officer A did not threaten to terminate Miss X’s contact with Y. She needed to know whether Miss X would be attending the contact sessions in order to book a room and a contact supervisor.
  6. I have seen no evidence that Officer A threatened to terminate, or did terminate, Miss X’s contact with Y. The Court made directions about the frequency and hours of contact. It was for the Court to decide whether to order supervised contact, where that contact should take place and the frequency and type of contact.

Allegation that Officer A had a conflict of interest

  1. Miss X alleges Officer A has a personal relationship with Y’s father and this creates a conflict of interest. She does not consider Officer A can be objective and even-handed and says she is biased in favour of Y’s father and his new partner.
  2. Miss X sent an email to Children’s Services on 23 July 2017 alleging that Officer A is a close personal friend of Y’s father. Miss X’s new partner contacted Council 2 in late July 2017. He claimed Y’s father has a business associate who is a personal friend of Officer A.
  3. Miss X and her new partner also say Officer A gave Y’s father her personal mobile number and sent him emails outside office hours. Miss X says she found this evidence in the papers Y’s father submitted to the Family Court. She could not say whether these emails were sent from Officer A’s personal or work email account. All of the emails Miss X forwarded from Officer A were sent from her work email address.
  4. Officer A says there is no truth in the allegations that she has a personal connection to Y’s father. Miss X has not provided any further evidence to substantiate these allegations.

The allegation that Officer A altered assessment reports about Y

  1. The Council says Officer A prepared the child and family assessment report for a child protection review conference held on 24 April 2017.
  2. Miss X was invited to attend the conference and to meet with the independent Chair before the conference started. Officer A also offered to answer any questions Miss X had during the conference. The Council says Miss X did not attend the conference or take up the offer of a meeting with the Chair. It says she did not give any reason for her non-attendance.
  3. The Council says Miss X has not given any further details in support of her complaint that Officer A altered assessment reports.
  4. We cannot investigate any complaint about section 7 welfare reports that Officer A prepared for hearings in the Family Court for the reasons given in paragraph 3.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed the investigation and upheld complaint a). The long delay in arranging the transfer of Y’s case to Council 2 was fault. However that fault did not cause injustice to Miss X.
  2. I found no evidence of fault in relation to complaint b).

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. In her correspondence with the Council, Miss X alleged that Officer A had lied under oath when she gave evidence and misled the Family Court. She complained about the content of Officer A’s Court reports.
  2. The law bars the Ombudsman from investigating a complaint about Court proceedings, including the written and oral evidence given to the Court by Council officers.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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