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London Borough of Harrow (18 012 580)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 26 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs X complain about the Council’s handling of a safeguarding referral, causing them stress and anxiety. The Ombudsman finds no fault by the Council.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X complain about the Council’s handling of a safeguarding referral. They say the Council’s actions caused them unneccesssary stress and anxiety.

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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. 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 spoke to Mrs X and I reviewed documents provided by Mr and Mrs X and the Council. I gave Mr and Mrs X the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision and I considered the comments provided.

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What I found

  1. The Children Act 1989 (the “Act”) says the child’s needs and welfare are paramount and the needs and wishes of the child should be put first. This is so the child receives the support they need before a problem escalates.  Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.
  2. Section 17 of the Act says a council has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.
  3. Before deciding what (if any) services to provide, a council should ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings regarding the provision of those services; and give due consideration to such wishes and feelings.
  4. Section 47 of the Act says, where a council has reasonable cause to suspect a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, it shall make such enquiries as it considers necessary to enable it to decide whether it should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.
  5. Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
  6. The council should make initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family, for example, health visitor, GP, schools and nurseries. The information gathering at this stage enables the council to assess the nature and level of any harm the child may be facing. The assessment may result in:
    • No further action
    • A decision to carry out a more detailed assessment of the child’s needs
    • A decision to convene a strategy meeting.
  7. A section 47 enquiry is carried out by undertaking or continuing an assessment.

Safeguarding referrals

  1. Anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to children’s social care and should do so immediately if there is a concern that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to do so.

Local procedures

  1. Harrow Local Safeguarding Children Board is a multi-agency body set up to ensure agencies work in partnership to safeguard children. It follows the London Safeguarding Children Board guidance and procedures.
  2. When a council receives a referral where there is reasonable cause to consider s47 enquiries it must decide what action to take. In most cases this will first involve an assessment.
  3. The focus of the multi-agency assessment is to gather important information about the child and family, to analyse their needs, and the level and nature of any risk and harm, and to provide support services to improve the outcomes for the child.
  4. Whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, there should be a strategy meeting / discussion.
  5. The strategy meeting / discussion must involve children's social care, the police and relevant health professionals. The referring agency may need to be included, as may other agencies which are likely to include the child's nursery / school.
  6. A strategy meeting / discussion should be used to:
    • Share available information;
    • Agree the conduct and timing of any criminal investigation;
    • Decide whether an assessment under s47 of the Children Act 1989 (s47 enquiries) should be started, or continued if it has already begun;
    • Consider the assessment and the action points, if already in place;
    • Plan how the s47 enquiry should be undertaken;
    • Agree what action is required immediately to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child;
    • Determine what information from the strategy meeting / discussion will be shared with the family;
    • Determine if legal action is required.
  7. A s47 enquiry must always be commenced immediately when there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm in the form of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
  8. The threshold may be met for a s47 enquiry at the time of referral, following checks and information gathering or at any point of the Council’s children's social care involvement.

What happened

  1. On 27 February 2018 the NHS contacted the Council with information about Mr and Mrs X’s son, Mr Y. The NHS reported Mr Y was a moderate risk to himself and others.
  2. The Council explains it had to consider the risk to those Mr Y may have contact with. This included Mr and Mrs X’s daughter, Z.
  3. On 2 March the Council spoke to Mrs X to discuss the NHS referral and Z’s circumstances. Mrs X says she gave the Council the information it needed and assurances that Z was safe. The Council discussed referring Z to a charity that supports children’s emotional and mental health.
  4. On the same day the Council spoke to Mr Y’s GP and mental health services. The Council considered the information provided warranted an assessment of Z under section 17. This was to allow it to explore concerns raised and determine any risk.
  5. The Council sent a request for information to Z’s school and received a response on 6 March.
  6. On 15 March the Council contacted Mrs X to arrange an assessment. Mrs X says she explained they did not need an assessment but were expecting a referral to the mental health charity. The Council explained it needed to carry out an assessment to take account of Z’s wishes and feelings. It wanted to identify Z’s needs before making any referral. Mrs X then said she would self-refer Z to the charity. The Council asked to visit the family to carry out an assessment the following day. The Council says Mrs X refused an assessment. However, Mrs X says she explained it could not take place because they had work commitments.
  7. On 19 March the Council spoke to Mrs X again. It wanted to speak to Z but Mrs X refused. Mrs X explained she had already provided all the information and they did not want or need an assessment. Mrs X says she asked if the Council had referred her to the charity. She was told this had not been done yet so she asked for the number to self-refer.
  8. On 20 March the Council spoke to Mrs X seeking permission to do an assessment under s17. Mrs X again explained she felt this was not necessary. The Council says it discussed raising the threshold to s47 to visit Z. Mrs X says she explained they had worked with the Council and given all the information needed. She said there was no risk of harm to Z and no need to escalate the matter. The Council provided contact details for the charity and Mrs X said she would self-refer.
  9. On 21 March Mrs X visited the Council’s offices on another matter but took the chance to speak to an officer. Mrs X says the Council told her the case would be escalated to s47. She says she explained this was not necessary, they had worked with social services and there was no risk of harm. She said if the Council insisted she would bring Z in to meet with them. The Council denies Mrs X offered to bring Z in, it has no record of this and says it would have recorded such an important matter. The Council’s records show Mrs X said she did not want an assessment or for social services to be involved but she consented to welfare checks.
  10. On the same day the Council contacted Z’s GP and school for welfare checks.
  11. On 23 March the Council held a strategy meeting with the police. Its records show it considered the information available and Mrs X’s reluctance for the Council to complete an assessment. The agencies decided the Council needed to undertake s47 enquiries so that the Council could make a robust risk assessment and speak to Z to gather her wishes and feelings.
  12. The Council then contacted professionals again to make checks under s47. It also visited Z at school to obtain her feelings and wishes. The Council’s records show it was considering closing the case based on the information provided by Z.
  13. On 28 March the Council told Mrs X they had visited Z at school under s47. Mrs X was unhappy about this.
  14. On 9 April the Council sent Mrs X its assessment outcome report. The Council was satisfied that appropriate support and safety planning was in place and so closed the s47 case.
  15. Mrs X then complained to the Council. She asked why it had made s47 enquiries, why it did not involve her in any meeting and what was the risk of harm identified between 21 and 23 March. She said there were inaccuracies in the report and disputed the content.
  16. The Council explained its involvement and said it decided the threshold for s47 was met following a meeting with the police. It apologised for errors in the report and agreed to keep a note on file recording the comments about the content of the report.
  17. Mrs X asked the Council to explain why it needed to see Z at school on 23 March when she had offered to bring Z in. She said there was no need for an assessment and she was unhappy the Council had not invited her to any meeting.
  18. The Council explained it had concerns about Z’s safety following the NHS referral and Mrs X had repeatedly refused an assessment. As a result, a single agency s47 strategy discussion took place. It considered the information received, that mental health services had concerns about Mr and Mrs X minimising risk and, that it had not been able to speak to Z. It decided the s47 threshold was met.
  19. Mr and Mrs X contacted the Ombudsman. Mrs X was unhappy the Council had escalated the case to s47 and felt it had still not explained why it had to see Z at school.
  20. I have summarised the points made by the Council in response to enquiries:
    • It denies Mrs X offered to bring Z in; it has no record of this and it would have recorded such an important point.
    • It had received information from health and education. As the primary concern was the lack of opportunity to see Z, it considered it acceptable to meet with the police and carry out a single agency enquiry/investigation with the aim of seeing Z.
    • Z’s parents continued to assert they felt there were no concerns and they did not feel an assessment/social services involvement to be necessary. The primary reason for escalation was due to not having the opportunity to speak to Z and refusal to engage with the assessment process.  
    • It has enclosed a chronology, copies of the initial referral, social worker case notes, records of the strategy meeting and the social work assessment.
  21. In comments on my draft decision Mrs X reiterated that on 21 March 2018 she offered to bring Z in to speak to a Council officer. And, she is very disappointed the Council did not record this. Mrs X also said it was not clear how a “moderate risk” of harm could become a “significant risk”, to meet the threshold for section 47.

Findings

  1. The NHS reported that Mr Y was a moderate risk to himself and others. The NHS did not make an assessment as to whether or not Z was likely to suffer significant harm. The NHS was not in a position to make such an assessment.
  2. Under s17 the Council had a duty to find out Z’s wishes and how it could best support her.
  3. The Council made initial enquiries and wanted to speak to Z but Mrs X felt this was not necessary and did not agree to this. I note Mrs X says she agreed to bring Z in on 21 March 2018, but the Council has no record of this. In the absence of any substantive record, I cannot say the Council was aware of this and then failed to take it into account.
  4. The Council did not have to decide the threshold for s47 was met immediately, rather it could make a decision at any time following the referral. The Council considered information about Mr Y and Z and took account of Mrs X’s ongoing reluctance to allow its officers to speak to Z. The Council’s records show it considered all the information available alongside the police and, on 23 March, decided the case now met the threshold for s47 enquiries. I appreciate Mrs X disagrees with this decision however, I cannot say the Council’s decision is wrong when it followed a proper decision making process. I therefore find no fault in the Council’s decision to make s47 enquiries.
  5. The Council did not have to invite Mr and Mrs X to the strategy meeting. I would expect the Council to invite health and education professionals if necessary, along with the police. However, the Council explains it had information from relevant professionals and decided it was acceptable to hold a single agency meeting. The Council’s records show it took account of relevant information and so I cannot say the Council’s decision was wrong. I therefore find no fault in the Council holding a strategy meeting with the police.
  6. The Council did not immediately refer Z to a mental health charity and after 2.5 weeks Mrs X self- referred. I do not consider this delay so significant to amount to fault. I am also mindful the Council wanted to assess Z’s needs before completing any referral. I therefore do not find the Council at fault.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. This is because I find no evidence of fault by the Council in the actions it took following a safeguarding referral.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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