Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 01 Oct 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr and Mrs X complain about their dealings with the Council over child protection proceedings involving their children. There was fault by the Council because of late cancellations of two intended child protection conference meetings. The Council agreed to remedy the injustice to Mr and Mrs X through a payment for their distress and time and trouble.
- The complainants, whom I shall refer to as Mr and Mrs X, are unhappy about their dealings with the Council over child protection proceedings involving their children. They say:
- The child protection conference meetings were cancelled twice even though they had taken unpaid leave from work.
- They have concerns about the conduct of the child protection conference meeting because no agencies working with two of their children attended; they did not get their say; reports were not provided in advance; there were inaccuracies in the reports; the chair convicted them of a crime without a judge and jury; and decisions were made on all three children without good reason.
- The Council failed to record the conference meeting.
- There was a failure to hold a core group meeting to consider and implement the child protection plans proposed for their children.
- The handling of their complaints was muddled.
- The local safeguarding children board which considered their complaint about the conduct of the child protection conference meeting was not independent as one of its members is an officer of the Council and its chair is an old colleague of the officer who chaired the child protection conference meeting.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the complaint and background information provided by Mr X and the Council. I discussed matters with Mr X by telephone. I sent a draft decision statement to the complainants and the Council and considered the comments of all parties on it.
- 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.
What I found
- Where a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect a child in its area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, it has a duty under section 47 to make enquiries to enable it to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. In carrying out the 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.
- If, following a referral and an initial assessment by a social worker, a council decides the concerns are substantiated and the child is likely to suffer significant harm, the council convenes a child protection conference.
- The child protection conference decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include recommending that the child should be subject to a child protection plan. After the initial child protection conference, there will be one or more review conferences to consider progress on action taken to safeguard the child and whether the child protection plan should be maintained, amended or discontinued.
Local Safeguarding Children Boards and the Ombudsman
- These are multi agency bodies which must include representatives from the local authority, police and health service among others. Their role includes producing local safeguarding procedures, and monitoring the work of promoting and safeguarding the welfare of children in the area. A local safeguarding children board will usually have its own procedure for dealing with complaints about child protection conferences.
- The complaints procedure is for people dissatisfied with the conduct or outcome of a child protection conference. The procedure covers complaints about:
- the way the conference was run
- decisions about whether a child should have a child protection plan.
- decisions about the category of concern the plan under which the plan was made (for example physical abuse, neglect, or emotional harm).
- to decide the conference followed proper procedures
- to support the original conference decision
- to decide that the conference did not follow proper procedures and recommend remedial action
- to reconvene a conference with the same or different chair to reconsider the decision. This might result in a different decision.
Background to the complaint
- Mr and Mrs X have three children in primary school. In the autumn of 2017, the eldest child alleged Mr X hit her with a spatula and this was corroborated by a mark on her arm. The school made a referral to the Council which was statutorily obliged to investigate the incident and the risk of future harm to the children.
- Following initial enquiries by the allocated social worker, the Council arranged an initial child protection conference meeting. Mr and Mrs X went to the Council offices for the meeting only to be told that it had been cancelled. Another meeting was arranged which was again cancelled. On the second occasion, Mr and Mrs X waited for half an hour and even met with the conference chair before they were told of the cancellation. They say it was because the social worker was not present.
- A child protection conference meeting eventually took place in January 2018. The outcome was that their children were placed on child protection plans. Mr and Mrs X complained about the decision to place their children on child protection plans as well as the conduct of the meeting shortly afterwards.
- The Council upheld their complaint about the postponement of the conference meetings. It accepted they should have received the report to the conference at least 24 hours in advance but they did not. It also accepted they should not have received the report until it had been signed off by a team manager. It accepted the social worker may have copied and pasted an earlier decision into the report for the conference but this was not passed to the team manager. The Council upheld their complaint.
- The Council did not uphold the element of their complaint concerning photographs of their child taken by the school following her disclosure. Mr and Mrs X queried why the photographs had not been provided to them before the conference. They also said the photographs did not show any marks on their child. The team manager said that the picture quality of the photographs was poor as it did not show the marks whereas they could be seen on a computer screen. The Council said the matter was discussed at the conference and was not pursued as both school staff and the social worker had seen the injury. The conference was therefore satisfied there was sufficient evidence of an injury.
- The Council did not uphold the element of their complaint that the team manager attended the meeting without meeting their children. The Council said the team manager had read the case notes and discussed the case with the social workers.
- The Council accepted there were inaccuracies in the reports presented to the conference but emphasised the purpose of the conference was to determine whether a child is at risk or potential risk of significant harm. It said any inaccuracies within the reports could be challenged but the conference made a decision based on the referral that Mr X hit his child having satisfied itself that act had occurred.
- Mr and Mrs X queried the team manager’s decision to put the case before the conference because the social worker who initially dealt with the case did not state it met the threshold for a conference. The Council accepted the social worker should have made his opinion clear but pointed out the decision on whether a conference is required is subject to a review by a team manager and a final decision by a district manager. The district manager explained that she had concerns on reading the initial report that the assault had been minimised by the social worker referring to it as a tap with a spatula. The district manager was also of the opinion the social worker had not explored other concerns raised by their child. These concerns were discussed at the conference.
- Mr and Mrs X said they were not given the opportunity to put their side of the story across and the conference chair (or independent reviewing officer) cut off the discussions abruptly. The Council said there were no time limits for the meetings nor guide lengths for the meetings. It said all presenting facts were considered and discussed with all professionals at the meeting. It said the independent reviewing officer made the final decision to place the children on child protection plans based on what the conference heard and the assessment of risk of harm to the children.
- The Council had also arranged a meeting with Mr and Mrs X to look into their concerns about the behaviour of the conference chair. The meeting was attended by the conference chair and another officer who was the manager of the conference chair.
- Mr X told the officers that all three of his children should have been represented separately at the conference meeting. He said the conference should not have proceeded because it was not quorate. He said all their schools should have been represented at the meeting.
- Officers told Mr X the number of agencies required to attend the conference was met and so the conference was quorate. They said the agencies did not have to send different officers for each child.
- Mr and Mrs X said the social worker completed a risk assessment of the family and although Mr and Mrs X confirmed the use of the spatula the social worker told them there was no significant risk of harm to the children. Mr and Mrs X denied using physical chastisement as a form of punishment and denied the other allegations reported by the school involving further statements made by their child and her friends.
- Mr and Mrs X said they were under attack at the conference and when they challenged the outcome they felt they were put on the back foot. They said the conference chair used inflammatory language which made the incident sound graver than it was. They said the chair did not allow them enough time to challenge the assumptions and views of the agencies at the meeting.
- The chair apologised to them for using what they considered was inflammatory language but remained of the view that using a utensil to hit a child was an assault and a premeditated act. He did not believe it was appropriate for that act to be minimised.
- The chair said he gave weight to the views of all agencies at the meeting and his decision was made in good faith and would not change.
- The chair said he brought the meeting to an end because he was mindful of time constraints for attendees having allowed lengthy discussion and opportunity for Mr and Mrs X to contribute to the meeting.
- The chair said the decision to place their children on protection plans was based on the finding that the parents deployed a discipline regime that involved the threat of hitting with a spoon and mouth washing with soap.
- The Council agreed to provide Mr and Mrs X with a copy of a chronology report referred to by their eldest child’s school at the conference as well as the minutes of the conference meeting. It also agreed to provide them with copies of the photographs showing the bruise on their daughter and consider their request for compensation for the two meetings which did not take place.
- Mr and Mrs X asked the Council to freeze the decision on the child protection plans while their complaints were investigated. The Council explained it could not freeze the decision pending resolution of their complaints because the complaints process cannot change the decision.
- Mr and Mrs X sent a further letter of complaint to the Council in February 2018. They asked for a stage two investigation of their concerns. They said the Council had not provided the audio recording of the conference meeting. They could not accept the Council’s explanation that the decision on the child protection plans could not be frozen pending resolution of their complaints because the statutory guidance “Getting the Best from Complaints: Social Care complaints and Representations for Children, Young People and Others provides for the freezing of decisions and care plans.
- They said the conference was not quorate in relation to their children because the agencies only had contact with one child. They referred to section three of the Hampshire Safeguarding Child Board Procedures manual which states:
“as a minimum quorum, at every conference there should be attendance by local authority children’s social care and at least two other professional groups or agencies, which have had direct contact with each child who is the subject of the conference”
- Mr and Mrs X repeated their belief the Council’s officers were biased against them and used factual inaccuracies to support unreasonable decisions.
- They chased matters with the Council in the middle of March as they had not received a response to their request for a stage two investigation.
- The Council wrote to them at the end of March 2018. The letter was titled ‘stage two corporate complaint response’. It said the substance of their further complaint was clear ‘being the way their complaint was being handled by children’s services, the lack of communication and the disregard for timings’.
- The letter stated both aspects of the further complaint were upheld and apologised to Mr and Mrs X for the department’s failure to respond within the published timescales.
- Mr and Mrs X asked the Council for a stage three investigation in May 2018. The Council sent a final response in June. The Council acknowledged there was a delay of three weeks in escalating the complaint to stage two. It apologised for the delay. The Council referred to an earlier letter it sent to Mr and Mrs X in which it explained it could not consider the statutory element of the complaint until and enquiry by the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board had taken place. The Council arranged the meeting of the Board in June 2018. This was longer than the 28-day timescale from the point of the request by a complainant.
- Mr and Mrs X had also written separately to the Council in May 2018. They complained about the child protection conference held in April concerning their children. They said a senior officer amended a report by the social worker which recommended an end to child protection plans for their children. They said the manager added the following inaccurate points to the report:
- Mr X threatened his eldest daughter with foster care.
- Their eldest daughter made disclosures that physical chastisement with a spatula was not a one off.
The cancellation of two conference meetings
- It is universally agreed there was fault by the Council because the meetings were cancelled at a late stage and without proper notice to Mr and Mrs X. The Council apologised to Mr and Mrs X. However, I consider a further remedy is warranted in this case given the unnecessary time and trouble Mr and Mrs X were put to in attending the meetings. I will return to the remedy later on in this statement.
The conduct of the conference meetings and the actions of the Chair
- These are matters which formed the complaint Mr and Mrs X made to the local safeguarding children board. It is not therefore for the Ombudsman to consider these matters anew.
The Council failed to record the meeting
- The Council already accepted it did not record the meeting. It offered Mr and Mrs X £250 to reflect their time and trouble in pursuing the matter. I consider this was a fair and reasonable remedy for their injustice and so do not consider a further remedy is now required from the Ombudsman.
There was a failure to hold a core group meeting to consider and implement the child protection plans proposed for their children
- The Council did not respond to this ground of complaint in its complaint responses to Mr and Mrs X. However, in its response to my draft decision statement, it says a core group meeting was not held straight after the conference meeting but in February 2018. The child protection plan was discussed at the core group meeting.
- It appears Mr and Mrs X were unaware of the core group meeting. It begs the question as to why they were unaware. However, I do not consider further enquiry into this matter is warranted. This is because I do not consider Mr and Mrs X suffered a significant injustice because of this failing to warrant further pursuit of this point by, or a remedy from, the Ombudsman.
The handling of their complaints was muddled
- Mr and Mrs X wrote severally to the Council on various points of complaint and its responses came from several officers. I found the stage two response to their complaint in March 2018 was poorly drafted and lacked substance. However, I do not consider this caused Mr and Mrs X significant injustice because their concerns were considered by the local safeguarding children board at a later stage.
- Mr X’s concerns about the Council’s explanation that it could not freeze the decision pending resolution of their complaints may be dealt with under this section.
- I do not find fault with the Council’s explanation. Mr X’s reference to the statutory guidance “Getting the Best from Complaints: Social Care complaints and Representations for Children, Young People and Others” is misplaced. The Council was not obliged to put their complaint through the statutory children’s complaints process. This is because the complaint was not made by a child or young person; a parent making a complaint on behalf of a child or young person; or a parent making a complaint about services to a child. Such complaints are usually made by or involve looked after children.
The local safeguarding children board which considered their complaint about the conduct of the child protection conference meeting was not independent as one of its members is an officer of the Council and its chair is an old colleague of the officer who chaired the child protection conference meeting.
- The Hampshire Safeguarding Children Board description of its membership states it is made up of organisations which will designate named people as their safeguarding children board member. Its membership must include the local authority with responsibility for children’s services. I do not therefore consider the board was statutorily required not to have an officer of the Council in its ranks.
- I do not consider the Chair of the Board was not independent or impartial because the Chair was a former colleague of the conference Chair whom Mr and Mrs X complain about. The board Chair was not in the position as an officer of the Council and it can be presumed the Chair would have a previous working relationship with many officers in what is a niche area of council business. The principle of independence does not mean the Chair must have no ties to officers of the Council but rather that the Chair acts independently of any previous ties.
- Where we find fault by a council we must go on to consider the injustice to a complainant and whether a remedy for the injustice is justified.
- Mr and Mrs X point out they had to take half a day’s unpaid leave on two occasions where the Council cancelled the meetings without notice. I cannot offer a remedy for their lost earnings as I consider it difficult to establish a direct link between their lost earnings and the identified fault. It is reasonable to expect Mr and Mrs X to have attended the conference meetings and as these take place during regular office hours they would have faced the prospect of taking time off to do so.
- But I recognise there was an unacceptable impact on them financially. I recommend the Council therefore makes a payment of £500 to them which recognises the distress they suffered and the time and trouble they were put to.
- There was fault by the Council. It agreed to remedy the injustice to the complainants and so I closed this complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman