Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 08 Jul 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there is fault by the Council in relation to the delay in responding to Mr F’s complaint between July and October 2018 and the Council should apologise to Mr F for this. I do not consider there is fault in relation to Mr F’s complaint that the Council discriminated against him on the grounds of his mental ill health.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr F, complains about the actions of social workers in the Council’s children’s services team and about the handling of his complaint about this in 2018. Specifically he says:
- social workers wrongly focussed solely on concerns about his mental health condition to justify a decision to restrict his contact with his daughter during 2018; and
- failed to provide timely or adequate responses to his complaint to the Council about this.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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). 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 discussed the complaint with Mr F and considered the written information he provided with his complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered all the information before reaching a draft decision on the complaint.
- I gave the Council and Mr F the opportunity to comment on my draft decision and took account of the responses I received before reaching my final decision on the complaint.
- 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
What should have happened
- If a council is concerned that a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm, it may convene an initial child protection case conference (ICPCC). A number of professionals, who know and can provide information about the child, attend the ICPCC and consider whether the child should be made the subject of a child protection plan. A core group including the child’s parents/carers and relevant professionals will meet regularly to consider and monitor progress of the plan drawn up to address the concerns regarding the child.
- If a council considers a child is unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable level of health or development, or it is likely to be significantly or further impaired without the provision of services, they will consider the child to be “in need” under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The council will draw up a plan to ensure services are in place to meet their identified needs.
- The Council has a procedure which it may invoke if it considers an individual complaining about its services are unreasonably persistent or vexatious.
- Mr F has a child, Y, who is one year old. Mr F and Y’s mother separated but have now reunited and are living together with Y and a half-sibling, Q, who is an older child of Y’s mother.
- Y was made subject of a child protection plan before she was born in 2017 as a result of a number of concerns including the condition of the mother’s home and allegations from the half-sibling that his mother hit him. Y remained the subject of a child protection plan until January 2019 when the Council considered that the situation for her and her half-sibling had improved and that a child protection plan was no longer needed. Y is currently considered a child in need by the council and is receiving support under section 17.
- Mr F is diagnosed with a low to average cognitive ability and has a number of diagnosed mental health conditions and a queried diagnosis of aspergers.
- The Council says that Mr F complained to the Council several times from September 2017. Specifically, in its response to my draft decision on the complaint the Council says “…emails were received on an almost daily basis and staff were therefore in a position where they were having to both investigate the concerns raised by the complainant as well as trying to address his complaints, such that at one point officers did consider invoking the council’s unreasonable and vexatious complaint procedures…” It says his complaints related to the Council’s involvement with Y, Q and Y’s mother and his allegations that the Council discriminated against him due to his mental health conditions.
- The Council says that its approach to dealing with the complaints has been to arrange meetings with Mr F and his father to try to discuss concerns and the Council’s responses to these. In order to not invoke its unreasonable and vexatious complaint procedures it said it sought instead “…to resolve this by meeting the complainant and utilising the support of his father”. The Council notes that Mr F often emails large amounts of information to a number of people including his MP, the Chief Executive of the Council and Council members and officers. The Council has used meetings with Mr F and his father as a way of managing these high volumes of complaints and correspondence.
- In relation to Mr F’s specific complaint to this office the Council confirms that Mr F emailed two complaints to a large number of officers at the Council on 11 and 12 April 2018. I have seen the content of these two emails which seem to concern Mr F’s dissatisfaction with:
- the likelihood of the child protection plan remaining in place;
- legal proceedings that were being initiated (this was later confirmed to be private proceedings related to Y’s residency);
- problems with Y’s mother’s family which he felt were disrupting the core group meetings and included negative comments/views about his mental health difficulties;
- mixed messages from the social worker and the social work managers;
- the social worker failing to properly consider the conditions of Y’s mother’s home as part of her ability to properly care for her children and his request, therefore, that someone else deal with the case. He said he was applying to court for residency of Y; and
- Mr F felt victimised by the children’s services team.
Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?
- In relation to Mr F’s complaint that social workers wrongly focussed solely on concerns about his mental health condition to justify a decision to restrict his contact with his daughter during 2018, it is not my role to consider whether the Council’s decision was right or wrong but to consider whether its action amount to fault. There are no grounds which would lead me to conclude that its handling of these concerns amounts to fault. The Council decided it needed to undertake a risk assessment based on information provided by Mr F’s psychiatrist regarding the likely impact of his mental health on his ability to care for his child independently and this was within the context of Y already being the subject of a child protection plan due to other concerns. As a result of improvements the Council terminated the child protection plan and Mr F does not have restrictions placed on his contact with Y as he now lives with her and her mother.
- The Council appears to have tried hard to deal with Mr F’s numerous complaints. There was clear delay between July and October 2018 in providing a further response to Mr F and this amounts to fault which caused injustice in the form of avoidable frustration to Mr F. I consider that allowing the same Council officer to respond to the complaint on more that one occasion amounts to fault as the further response should have been undertaken by someone who had not previously been involved in the complaint. However, I do not have concerns about the quality or content of the further response so do not consider this fault caused injustice to Mr F.
- The Council will apologise directly to Mr F for delay in its handling of his complaint between July and October 2018. The Council will provide this apology in writing within one month of the date of this final decision statement.
- The Council will also ensure that complaints are not considered at later stages of the complaints process by the same officer who considered them at an early stage. The Council will confirm to us that it will ensure that arrangements are in place to ensure this and provide details of these arrangements within one month of the date of this final decision statement.
- There is fault by the Council in relation to the delay in responding to the complaint between July and October 2018 and the Council will apologise to Mr F for this. There is no fault in relation to Mr F’s complaint that the Council discriminated against him on the grounds of his mental ill health.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman