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Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (17 010 894)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 04 May 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman finds fault with the Council’s communication with the complainant about its contribution towards her children’s nursery fees. This led to unnecessary confusion for the complainant. The Council’s poor record-keeping contributed to this. The Ombudsman recommends the Council apologise for this confusion. However, the Ombudsman is satisfied the Council has now taken action to improve its record-keeping.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will call Mrs D, is complaining about the care and support provided to her family by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (the Council). Mrs D complains the Council:
  • Told her it would pay her children’s nursery fees but later refused to do so;
  • Failed to make appropriate efforts to contact the father of her eldest child to discuss the family’s situation; and
  • Failed to carry out a timely assessment of the risk posed to her children in respect of their visits to her husband in prison.

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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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. In reaching this decision, I considered information Mrs D provided and discussed the complaint with her. I also considered documentation the Council provided, including the case records. In addition, I considered relevant legislation and guidance.
  2. Furthermore, I considered comments from both Mrs D and the Council on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Section 17(1) of the Children Act 1989 places a statutory duty on local authorities to safeguard, and promote the welfare of, children they consider to be “in need” by “providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.” This can include providing financial assistance.
  2. Sections 17(10)(a) and 17(10)(b) of the Children Act says that a child should be considered “in need” if:
  • “he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority”; or
  • “his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services”.

Key facts

  1. In 2015, Mrs D was living with her husband, Mr D, and their two children. In addition, Mrs D’s child from a previous relationship lived with the family.
  2. In November 2015, the police told the Council that Mr D had been charged with a crime. A duty social worker carried out an assessment of the family and directed that Mr D should not have unsupervised contact with the children. The family also agreed that Mr D would move out of the family home pending a further assessment.
  3. The following month, the Council held a Child In Need (CIN) meeting to discuss the case. The meeting agreed Mr and Mrs D would continue to work with social services to safeguard the children. It also agreed Mr D would not return to live in the family home for the time being.
  4. In February 2016, the Council reallocated the case to a social worker in the local team.
  5. In March 2016, the police arrested Mr D for another, more recent, offence. At a CIN meeting later that month, Mrs D told the Council that she no longer wanted Mr D to have contact with the children at the family home. The Council agreed to contact Mr F, the father of Mrs D’s eldest child, to involve him in the CIN planning.
  6. The family subsequently moved to a different area. In May 2016, the Council allocated the case to another social worker in the relevant team.
  7. In August 2016, a further assessment found that Mrs D understood Mr D may be convicted and imprisoned. However, the assessment noted that Mrs D felt Mr D was innocent and posed no risk to the children. The assessment found the situation would need to be reviewed following Mr D’s trial and that a risk assessment should be undertaken. In addition, the assessment noted a social worker tried without success to contact Mr F.
  8. In October 2016, Mr D was convicted of the charges against him. Shortly after this, Mrs D requested that social services cease contact. The Council subsequently closed the case. The following month, Mr D was imprisoned.
  9. Mr D’s probation officer asked the Council in November 2016 to assess whether the children would be at risk if they visited Mr D in prison.
  10. In December 2016, the Council wrote to the probation officer. The Council acknowledged the prison environment was not a positive environment for children. However, it said it was satisfied Mrs D was aware of this and was able to prioritise the children’s needs.
  11. The Council arranged both a Stage 2 investigation and a Stage 3 review panel to consider Mrs D’s subsequent complaint.

Analysis

Nursery fees

  1. Mrs D said she had been required to place the children in nursery when she returned to work after her maternity leave as Mr D could no longer look after them unsupervised. Mrs D complained that a social worker assured her the Council would pay for the nursery fees.
  2. The Stage 2 investigation found the Council had agreed to pay £200 per month towards the children’s nursery fees in the lead up to Mr D’s trial. This equated to £25 per week for both younger children. However, the investigation found no evidence to suggest the Council had agreed to pay the nursery fees in their entirety.
  3. The Stage 3 review panel considered the matter further. It also considered additional evidence from the safeguarding lead at the younger children’s school. The safeguarding lead said “[t]here were numerous conversations around childcare at CIN meetings. [Mrs D] raised issues around payment and it was implied by [the social worker] that this was going to be resolved. [The social worker] would reassure [Mrs D] that she was going back to the office to speak with her manager to resolve the issue.”
  4. A senior Council manager told the panel the financial support it provided to Mrs D had only been for a limited period. The Council said the children were no longer considered to be ‘in need’ and were no longer receiving input from social services. The manager said the Council’s contributions had been relatively high. She said the social worker would not have been authorised to commit to any further expenditure.
  5. I have reviewed the CIN meeting documentation and identified only one reference to the nursery fees. This is in the notes of the meeting in September 2016, in which it is recorded that “[s]ocial care continue to support with £200 per month pending the end of the trial.” I found no evidence to suggest the social worker told Mrs D the Council would pay the nursery fees in their entirety, and it had no duty to do so.
  6. The Council accepted that Mrs D’s children were ‘in need’ and that it had a duty to provide a “range and level of services” appropriate to the children’s needs. To this end, the Council did contribute towards the children’s nursery fees in recognition of the family’s difficult and sensitive situation. This was in keeping with the Council’s duties under the Children Act. I find no fault in this regard.
  7. Nevertheless, it is clear there was confusion about the fees. Both Mrs D’s correspondence and the comments of the school safeguarding lead support this conclusion.
  8. In my view, this was compounded by a lack of detailed record-keeping for the CIN process during this period. It is clear from the safeguarding lead’s comments that professionals discussed the children’s fees during several CIN meetings. However, the notes of the CIN meetings record no meaningful discussion around the fees.
  9. The Council’s duty to provide support to the family arose from the fact that it considered the children to be ‘in need’. Despite this, the CIN planning documentation makes no mention (beyond the notes of the meeting in September 2016) of the Council’s contribution to the nursery fees. Nor does it record why the Council considered a contribution to be necessary.
  10. This is fault on the part of the Council and contributed to the confusion around this issue.
  11. In response to my draft decision, the Council explained that, since the events Mrs D is complaining took place, it has put in place a Quality Assurance and Improvement Framework. The Council provided me with a copy of this document.
  12. The Framework makes provision for monthly case file audits by both team managers and heads of service. These audits consider the quality of both practice and record-keeping in selected cases. The audit results are then reported to the senior management team. In addition, the Council explained that it has scheduled additional training for social workers in this area.
  13. Taken together, I am satisfied these measures demonstrate the Council has taken robust and appropriate action to reduce the chance of similar problems occurring in future. I recommend no further action on this point.

Contact

  1. Mrs D complained that the Council failed to make appropriate efforts to contact her eldest child’s father, Mr F, to include him in the care planning discussions. Mrs D said Mr F has an important role in protecting her eldest child and that his exclusion compromised the safety of that child.
  2. The Stage 2 investigator found there had only been one attempt made to contact Mr F between November 2015 and November 2016. The Council accepted this and told the Stage 3 review panel it would contact Mr F as soon as possible.
  3. In its letter of October 2017, the Council said an officer had attempted to contact Mr F in June 2017. However, the Council said this had been unsuccessful and that, in the absence of any further contact details for Mr F, it could not pursue this further.
  4. Mrs D is correct to say the Council should have acted to include Mr F in the CIN discussions and planning. That it did not make reasonable attempts to do so initially is fault. This is reflected in the Stage 2 investigator’s findings and the recommendations arising from the Stage 3 panel review. In my view, these findings address the Council’s failure to involve Mr F in the CIN process between 2015 and 2016.
  5. I appreciate Mrs D’s frustration that the Council has still been unable to involve Mr F in discussions around his daughter’s care. Nevertheless, the Council cannot be held entirely responsible for this.
  6. Mr F told the Stage 2 investigator he did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation when a social worker first attempted to contact him in April 2016. This is reasonable to an extent. However, by the time of the Stage 2 investigation, he was aware of the serious concerns surrounding the family. It was open to Mr F to become involved in discussions about his child’s care at that stage, but there is no evidence that he did so.
  7. The Council’s response of October 2017 shows it did attempt to contact Mr F again in June 2017, though without success. The Council said it could only involve Mr F with his “consent and engagement.” I consider the Council’s position to be reasonable in the circumstances and find no fault in this regard.

Risk assessment

  1. Mrs D complained the Council failed to carry out a timely assessment of the risk posed to her children by their visits to Mr D in prison.
  2. The Stage 2 investigation found professionals did not undertake a formal risk assessment following Mr D’s conviction and sentencing, and before closing the case. The Stage 2 investigator found the information provided to the probation service in November and December 2016 made no reference to certain important risk factors. This included the fact Mr D had by then been charged with more recent crimes. The investigator also noted the information provided by the Council made no reference to historic concerns about Mr D’s behaviour and that of his friends in the community.
  3. The investigator also interviewed the senior Council officer who wrote to the probation service in December 2016. The officer said colleagues had not passed on some of this information. She acknowledged that, had she been aware of all relevant factors, her conclusions might have been different.
  4. The Council accepted the investigator’s findings and discussed these issues further at a Stage 3 panel meeting in May 2017. It agreed to contact the probation service to determine whether the assessment “is current, multi-agency and fully informed, with Rotherham Children’s Social Care providing input into any future assessment as required.”
  5. The records show professionals identified several potential risk factors during their work with Mr and Mrs D and their family. They also recognised a risk assessment would be necessary following the conclusion of the trial. Despite this, the Council closed the case after Mr D’s conviction without completing a formal risk assessment.
  6. I share the Stage 2 investigator’s view that the Council should have undertaken a risk assessment that properly considered all current and historical risk factors. This would have allowed professionals to make an informed decision about whether the children’s continued contact with Mr D represented a significant risk to them. That it did not do so is fault.
  7. In October 2017, the Council told Mrs D it had reviewed the information provided to the probation service in December 2016. The Council said Mrs D had been “assessed as being able to parent and prioritise your children’s needs and there is no ongoing social care involvement with your family. The social care view regarding contact was that, within the prison setting, you could supervise the contact between [Mr D] and his children; and that you would be able to re-evaluate the position and take appropriate protective action to prioritise your children’s needs, even if this meant ceasing visits to the prison.”
  8. However, the Council said Mr D had now been charged with further offences. On this basis, the Council said it had decided contact between Mr D and the children should cease pending a risk assessment. The Council said the probation service shared this view.
  9. I accept the Council’s position in respect of Mrs D’s ability to take appropriate action to protect her children. The records suggest Mrs D was fully aware of the nature of Mr D’s convictions and the need to supervise the children’s contact with him during visits. In my view, any risk to the children during this period was further mitigated by the fact Mr D was in prison.
  10. In February 2018, the Council completed a detailed risk assessment of Mrs D and her family. This includes an assessment of the risk posed to Mrs D’s children by their continued contact with Mr D in prison. I have now had an opportunity to review the assessment and am satisfied it is appropriately thorough and in keeping with the Council’s duties under the Children Act 1989. I recommend no further action on this point.

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Recommended action

  1. Within one month of my final decision statement, the Council should:
  • Write to Mrs D to apologise for the confusion surrounding her children’s nursery fees.
  1. The Council should provide the Ombudsman with a copy of its letter to Mrs D.

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Final decision

  1. I found no evidence to suggest the Council agreed to pay the children’s nursery fees. Similarly, in my view, it had no duty to do so. However, I found there was confusion around this matter and the Council’s inadequate record-keeping contributed to this. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mrs D for this.
  2. The Council has demonstrated that it has taken appropriate action to improve record-keeping and monitor this on an ongoing basis. I am satisfied this will reduce the possibility of similar problems occurring in future.
  3. I also found fault with the Council’s initial failure to contact Mr F. However, I am satisfied the Council has now made appropriate efforts to do so.
  4. In addition, I found fault with the Council’s failure to undertake a risk assessment before closing the case. The Council has now completed a risk assessment and I am satisfied this is appropriately thorough.
  5. In my view, the agreed actions I have set out above represent a reasonable and proportionate remedy for the injustice arising to Mrs D from the fault I have identified. I have now completed my investigation on this basis.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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