Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council (18 001 679)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

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 complaint

  1. 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:
  1. 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
  2. failed to provide timely or adequate responses to his complaint to the Council about this.

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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). 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. 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. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

What should have happened

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Council has a procedure which it may invoke if it considers an individual complaining about its services are unreasonably persistent or vexatious.

Background

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

What happened

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A senior officer in the children’s services team provided an initial response to these complaints on 13 April. In her email she acknowledged Mr F’s concerns about the care Y’s mother was giving to Y and Q and agreed to change the social worker as soon as possible to get a new view on the situation. She also said that she could not comment on the concerns about legal action as she did not know what this was.
  5. The social worker was changed as agreed and then a meeting was arranged in May to discuss the concerns with Mr F and his father. By the time of that meeting Mr F had agreed he was happy with the responses to his complaint with the exception of his concerns that the social work team was discriminating against him on the grounds of his mental ill-health and that this meant he could not care for a child unsupervised.
  6. In June the Council sent Mr F a written response under its corporate complaints procedure addressing his concerns about being discriminated against on the grounds of his mental ill health. Specifically the complaint addressed his concerns that Mr F had been discriminated against as a parent with mental health problems and also that the social work team had told him that he could not have a child in his care unsupervised. The Council stated that concerns about Y’s care were addressed in the child protection case conferences and the core groups and that these related to all the concerns about Y’s welfare. The Council told Mr F in the letter that it was not the case that he had been subject to more checks than other adults involved in the child protection process regarding Y. The officer clarified that a psychiatrist who knew Mr F had completed an assessment of Mr F which said that he “…cannot not care for a child independently…” rather than he could not have a child in his care unsupervised.
  7. The Council says it followed up this letter with a further meeting between a senior officer in the children’s social care department, an officer from the complaints team and Mr F and his father in July. The Council says that Mr F continued to believe that the social work team had discriminated against him and so the Council agreed to consider his complaint about this further. It did not provide a further response until late October however and says the reason for this delay was partly due to staff leave in August and early September. The Council says it apologises for the avoidable delay after early September. The October response (which was provided by the same person who responded to the complaint in June) confirms that the officer spoke to members of the social work team again and looked at the case files again. She said that the social work notes in the case file from February 2018 demonstrated that social work staff had discussed their plans with Mr F to supervise his contact with Y to inform a risk assessment following information provided by Mr F’s psychiatrist about him. The notes said that officers had reassured Mr F that the reason for this was that they needed to understand whether his mental health condition would “predispose him to risky behaviour and whether this would place the baby at risk of harm”. The notes went on to say that in March the social worker met Mr F and went through the report provided by Mr F’s psychiatrist with him. The officer concluded that the evidence suggested that the focus of the social work team was not to discriminate against Mr F on the grounds of his mental health but to properly assess whether the affect of his condition on his behaviour posed a risk to Y, taking account of the psychiatric assessment/report.
  8. Mr F said he was still dissatisfied and the Council advised him that he could pursue his complaint to this office if he wished to pursue the matter further.
  9. In response to my queries about Mr F’s allegation that the Council had restricted his contact with Y, the Council said that during a review child protection case conference in early 2018 (before Y was born) Mr F suggested that he should look after Y for half of the time. The Council said that the professionals attending the conference were concerned this was not appropriate for a new born or very young baby and the conference agreed that Mr F and Y’s mother would need to work out how to both parent Y without her moving between them. In late January the Council’s social worker told Mr F that the social work team would need to complete a risk assessment before Mr F could care for Y by himself and that until this was completed he would need to have only supervised contact with Y. The Council says that Mr F was advised that he should seek advice from his solicitor about this. In February 2018 Mr F’s psychiatrist wrote a report to the Council stating “Given that Mr F’s mental health fluctuates quite frequently as a result of daily stressors I do not believe that he will be able to parent his child independently. The stress of caring for the child alone is likely to cause deterioration in his mental health”.
  10. Mr F and Y’s mother subsequently reunited and began living together and caring for Y together. Now that Mr F is living with Y’s mother there are no restrictions on his contact with his daughter. As I have stated above, the child protection plan was terminated in early 2019.

Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Agreed action

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Final decision

  1. 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.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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