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Norfolk County Council (17 018 099)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was no fault with the way the Council reached its decision to share information about a child protection investigation with the hospital where Miss B was giving birth. There was also no fault with the way the Council decided to follow the recommendations of the Child Protection Conferences. However, the Council failed to keep proper records which has hindered this investigation and left Miss B with some uncertainty about what happened and how decisions were reached. The Council has agreed to apologise, make a payment to Miss B and take action to improve its record keeping in future.

The complaint

  1. Miss B complains about the Council's actions after it received a safeguarding referral about her then partner's son. In particular, Miss B complains that:
    • The Council provided information to a hospital which resulted in restrictions on who could visit her and a delay in her being able to take her newborn baby home;
    • The child protection records show that Miss B’s son, J, was on a child protection plan under the category of neglect, when the allegation was about physical harm;
    • J was on a child protection plan for too long;
    • After a social worker said that J would be coming off the child protection plan, another social worker told her that J could be placed for adoption;
    • She was told that she would have to miss a meeting if she left the room to breastfeed J;
    • The Council sent confidential documents in the post without an envelope;
    • She lost her job and failed her university course because of all the meetings and home visits;
    • Her medical records incorrectly state that she was in care as a child;
    • The Council failed to properly communicate with her;
    • The social worker was unprofessional; and
    • The Council failed to provide her with support in the years before the safeguarding referral in October 2015.

What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the complaints contained in the first four bullet points of paragraph one above. The last section of this statement explains why I have not investigated the rest of Miss B’s complaints.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
  • it is unlikely we would find fault, or
  • the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
  • it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider the complaint.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

  1. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  2. We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), 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)
  4. 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 have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council has provided; and
    • given the Council and the complainant the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Where a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect that a child in its area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, it has a duty under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to make enquiries to enable it to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard or promote the child's welfare.
  2. In carrying out these section 47 duties, the local authority has the power to call on other bodies to help with its enquiries, including the police and relevant health and education professionals.
  3. If, following a referral and an initial assessment by a social worker, a multi-agency strategy meeting decides that the concerns are substantiated and the child is likely to suffer significant harm, the local authority convenes a Child Protection Conference. Certain bodies must attend if the local authority invites them to do so, including another local authority, and various health bodies.
  4. The Child Protection Conference decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include making a recommendation that the child should be subject to a Child Protection Plan.
  5. After the Initial Child Protection Conference, there will be one or more Review Child Protection Conferences to consider progress on action taken to safeguard the child and whether the Child Protection Plan should be maintained, amended or discontinued.
  6. Review Child Protection Conferences should be held within three months of the initial conference, and thereafter at maximum intervals of six months.
  7. The Child Protection Conference is a multi-agency body and is not in itself a body in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
  8. The Child Protection Conference plays an advisory role. But the final decision, for example whether to place a child on a Child Protection Plan or to discontinue a Plan, is the responsibility of the Council. We would generally consider it reasonable for a council to follow the recommendations of the Child Protection Conference unless there was good reason not to.
  9. Legal planning meetings are held when the social worker requires advice as to whether the ‘threshold criteria’ for a care order or supervision order has been met. The meeting should be attended by the child’s social worker, relevant social work managers, and the local authority lawyer. The local authority should decide whether it is in the best interests of the child to provide a further period of support for the family with the aim of avoiding proceedings, or whether proceedings should be initiated immediately.
  10. If the decision is taken at the legal planning meeting to undertake a formal pre-proceedings process, the local authority will send the parents and anyone else with parental responsibility one of two letters before proceedings. This letter will either be a letter before proceedings which states that proceedings are being contemplated or a letter of issue which states that proceedings are being initiated.
  11. Under the pre-proceedings process, the local authority must actively consider family and friends because if children cannot remain in the care of their parents, the Council has a duty to consider in the first instance placement with other family members and friends.
  12. Proceedings can be avoided if parents are able to demonstrate their capability to safeguard the child by working with relevant services to improve their parenting capability and/or agreeing to a protective placement for the child.

Key events and analysis

  1. In October 2015, Miss B was pregnant and living with her partner, Mr X, and his three children. The Council was contacted when one of the children, S, was found to have an injury. S initially said that Mr X had hurt him but then said that it was Miss B. S was placed in foster care and the Council commenced a child protection investigation.
  2. Three days after S was found to have the injury, Miss B gave birth to her son, J. She says that the Council provided information to the hospital about S’s allegation which she considers resulted in it restricting who could visit her and delayed her being able to take J home.
  3. Government guidance makes it clear that professionals should share appropriate information. It says that no single professional can have a full picture of a child’s needs and circumstances and everyone who comes into contact with them has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action. While the Council’s records do not show exactly what information it shared with the hospital, I do not consider it was wrong for the Council to share information about the child protection investigation.
  4. I do not consider it likely that the Council told hospital staff to restrict who could visit Miss B while she was in hospital, or that Miss B could not take J home. The Council’s records show that hospital staff contacted the Council to ask if Miss B could take J home and were told that she could. In any event, there was clearly no significant delay as Miss B returned home the day after she gave birth.
  5. A Child Protection Conference was held on 3 November 2015. It was decided to make all four children, including J, subject to a Child Protection Plan under the category of neglect. Miss B considers J was placed in the wrong category because the allegation S made was about physical harm.
  6. I have considered the Child Protection Conference records. They show that members considered neglect to be the appropriate category because, as well as concerns about physical abuse, there were concerns about S’s emotional wellbeing. The records state that it was a unanimous decision for all four children to be subject to a Child Protection Plan under the category of neglect.
  7. Given that the decision was unanimous, I consider it was reasonable for the Council to follow the recommendations of the Child Protection Conference. I have found no evidence of fault here.
  8. Miss B says that on 16 November 2015, a social worker said that she would be recommending at the Review Child Protection Conference that J be stepped down from the Child Protection Plan. But then on 20 November, the Council said that it was applying to the courts for a care order or supervision order for all four children. Miss B says that she was asked to provide names of people who may be able to care for J which caused her significant distress.
  9. The Council’s records do not include any reference to a conversation on 16 November. But they do show that the Council met with Miss B and Mr X on 20 November following a legal planning meeting where it had been decided to issue a notice of intent in respect of all four children. The Council also wrote to Miss B and Mr X confirming that it was initiating proceedings in respect of all four children.
  10. The notes of the legal planning meeting show that the Council decided to seek a care order in respect of S, but that further information was needed before deciding on the action to take in respect of the other three children. While it is not clear from the notes, it appears the Council intended to seek a care order or supervision order for the other three children. I do not consider the Council was wrong to ask Miss B for the names of family or friends who may be able to care for J.
  11. Miss B says that on 12 January 2016, a social worker said that the Council was going to court for a supervision order for J but then on 27 January 2016, another social worker told her that the Council was not going to court in respect of J but there would be a letter before action process. There is no reference to these conversations in the Council’s records.
  12. At the Child Protection Conference on 29 January 2016, it was noted that the threshold for care proceedings had been met for all four children. But that after seeing a lot of positives, the Council had decided that it would not initiate care proceedings for three of the children, including J, and would instead follow the letter before action process. This is a decision it was entitled to reach.
  13. Around a month later, the Council sent Miss B and Mr X a letter inviting them to attend a pre-proceedings meeting. It included the action it expected Miss B and Mr X to take to avoid legal proceedings for three of the children. The meeting had to be rearranged several times and eventually took place on 24 March 2016. During the meeting, the Council accepted that Miss B and Mr X had complied with all the Council’s requests, except for having a psychological risk assessment. The Council decided there was insufficient evidence to continue with legal proceedings regarding J.
  14. At the next Child Protection Conference in July, it was noted that the letter before action process was not needed, that Miss B and Mr X had completed a parenting course and they were no longer receiving home based parenting support. It was unanimously decided that J was no longer at risk of significant harm and no longer required a Child Protection Plan.
  15. Miss B considers J would have come off the Child Protection Plan earlier if it had been decided sooner that the letter before action process was not needed. The Council decided that the letter before action process was not needed because Miss B and Mr X had complied with most of its requests. This would not have been the case when the Child Protection Conference recommended in January 2016 that J should remain on the Child Protection Plan. I consider it was reasonable for the Council to follow the recommendations of the Child Protection Conference. I have found no evidence of fault here.
  16. The Council has not provided some of the documents I requested, the legal planning notes are incorrectly dated and there are significant gaps in the Council’s case records. I consider the Council’s record keeping in this case was poor. This was fault, has hindered investigations into Miss B’s complaints and has left Miss B with uncertainty about what happened in her case.

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Agreed action

  1. Within four weeks, the Council will apologise to Miss B for the failings identified in this case and pay £150 to her to remedy her injustice.
  2. Within six weeks, the Council will remind its social care staff that they should keep proper records of all contact with service users and a clear record of how they have made their decisions.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold Miss B’s complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice to Miss B. The action the Council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Councils are not required to postpone meetings to allow someone in attendance to breastfeed. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that she would have to miss a meeting if she left the room to breastfeed J because I consider it unlikely that investigation of this would find evidence of fault.
  2. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that the Council sent confidential documents in the post without an envelope. The Ombudsman does not usually investigate complaints about data protection issues. Miss B may wish to contact the Information Commissioner's Office about this.
  3. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that she lost her job and failed her university course because of all the meetings and home visits. This is because I do not consider we would be able to find evidence that she lost her job or failed her course as a direct result of any fault by the Council.
  4. The Ombudsman does not consider complaints about the NHS. For this reason, I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that her medical records incorrectly state that she was in care as a child. Miss B may wish to consider complaining to her GP or the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman about this.
  5. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that the Council failed to properly communicate with her in relation to contact with S. The Council has accepted that its communication with Miss B could have been better and it has apologised for this. I do not consider further investigation could achieve any more than this.
  6. The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) regulates social workers and considers complaints about unprofessionalism. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that a social worker was unprofessional because the HCPC is better placed to consider a complaint about this.
  7. The Ombudsman will not investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. I do not consider there are any good reasons to now investigate Miss B’s complaint that the Council failed to provide her with support in the years before the safeguarding referral in October 2015.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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