Devon County Council (18 013 412)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 02 Sep 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsmen will not investigate Mr and Mrs Y’s complaint about the way the Trust and the Council carried out a safeguarding enquiry. This is because an investigation is unlikely to add to the responses Mr and Mrs Y have already received.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs Y complain about the way a child safeguarding investigation was handled by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (the Trust) and Devon County Council (the Council).
  2. Mr and Mrs Y said that in February 2017, a paediatrician persuaded their children’s school to make a safeguarding referral for fabricated or induced illness (FII), but that there was no evidence to support this. Mr and Mrs Y said that this resulted in a distressing and poorly-handled s47 investigation. They said there were delays by the Trust which meant the investigation took longer than it should have done. They also said that the Trust’s response to their complaint downplayed the paediatrician’s role.
  3. They further complain that the paediatrician invaded their privacy by searching online for details of someone who had supported Mr and Mrs Y at a meeting as a private individual, but was also an NHS employee
  4. Regarding the Council, Mr and Mrs Y said the social worker did not engage properly with the children during the safeguarding process. They said they felt threatened by her comments and behaviour, and needed to engage a solicitor to support them through the process as a result. Mr and Mrs Y also said that they made a subject access request (SAR) for information from the Council, but that there were delays which breached the statutory timescale for providing the information. They said the paperwork they received was missing key information that should have been included. They also complain that there were delays in complaint handling.
  5. Mr and Mrs Y said the safeguarding investigation had a devastating effect on the family. They said that rather than being offered support, they were accused of and investigated for things that did not happen. Mrs Y said her own health has suffered as a result of these events. They said there has also been a financial impact, as Mr Y has had to take time off work to attend meetings, as well as the solicitor’s bill.
  6. Mr and Mrs Y said the Trust and Council have failed to provide a remedy. They are seeking an apology from both organisations. They also want the notes and records of the child protection process to be removed from their files. Mr and Mrs Y are also seeking reimbursement for their legal costs. They would like a complete response to their SAR request, and for their children with autism diagnoses to be placed under the care of a paediatrician.

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The Ombudsmen’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsmen provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. They may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if they believe:
  • it is unlikely they would find fault, or
  • it is unlikely they could add to any previous investigation by the bodies, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider this complaint.

(Health Service Commissioners Act 1993, section 3(2) and Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered information provided by Mr and Mrs Y over the telephone and in writing, including written information from the Trust and Council. I have also considered Mr and Mrs Y’s comments on a draft version of this decision statement.

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What I found

  1. Mr and Mrs Y were concerned that the paediatrician at the Trust persuaded the school to make a safeguarding referral. In line with the Children Act, anyone who is concerned that a child is suffering or at risk of harm should inform the Council. Health bodies should be alert to the possibility that children may be at risk of harm and refer their concerns to the local authority for assessment. (Children Act 1989, section 47(1))
  2. Councils must decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. This may involve an initial assessment and a ‘core’ assessment (a more in-depth assessment). Assessments are intended, for example, to analyse a child’s needs and the risk of harm to the child. Councils may also convene a Child Protection Conference. The Conference will decide whether any action is necessary to protect the child from harm.
  3. In its response to Mr and Mrs Y’s complaint, the Council said it “investigated, assessed and arrived at the same conclusion that your further information indicates - that there were no concerns that needed further child protection input but support for you as parents to manage the complex needs of your children”. The Council said that the outcome of the investigation was that support should be offered under Children In Need.
  4. However, although the investigation was concluded with no further child protection needed, the Council explained that concerns raised by other agencies “did mean that we had a responsibility to investigate under child protection procedures”. My view is that this is a reasonable response and is in line with the Children’s Act, which states that Councils have a duty to conduct an investigation if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
  5. In response to Mr and Mrs Y’s concerns about the social worker’s actions, the Council said that as the social worker no longer worked for them, they could not contact her about her professional judgment and opinion during her assessments, or about specific comments Mr and Mrs Y said she had made.
  6. I recognise it may be frustrating for Mr and Mrs Y not to be given information from the social worker about this part of their complaint. However in the absence of comments from the social worker, the Council said it reviewed the records of the assessments she had carried out. It said the records showed the social worker’s decisions were supported by her line manager. The Council also said that in child protection investigations “it is not unusual for families to feel uncomfortable; however I would expect workers to be as sensitive as possible when dealing with such issues”. Given that the social worker had left the Council, it seems reasonable for the Council to base its response to Mr and Mrs Y on the records available.
  7. I recognise the s47 investigation was a distressing process for Mr and Mrs Y and their children, and that the investigation was closed with no further action, meaning they felt it was unnecessary to start with. Mr and Mrs Y asked for the reports and information gathered during the investigation to be removed from their children’s files, as they were concerned that these remained in place. The Council responded that the assessment would not be deleted from the records. However, to reflect Mr and Mrs Y’s views, the Council placed on their records a further assessment that incorporated Mr and Mrs Y’s views. The Council accepted there was a delay in doing this after they had initially agreed to it, but they appropriately apologised for this. These seem reasonable steps to take to acknowledge Mr and Mrs Y’s concerns about the process and ensure these were reflected in the records.
  8. My view is that the Council has provided a reasonable response as to how the investigation was carried out in line with national policy on child protection, referred to above. It has also provided a reasonable response regarding the social worker’s involvement with the family.
  9. The Council accepted there had been undue delay in trying to resolve Mr and Mrs Y’s concerns as they arose. The Council apologised for this. The Council said service managers were expected to deal with concerns raised promptly, or to communicate with complainants if there were likely to be delays. It said that managers would be reminded of this and the impact of delays on families who are waiting for issues to be resolved. The Council offered Mr and Mrs Y £300 in view of the time and trouble they had taken to raise their concerns, and because of the “significant delay” in resolving them. This seems a reasonable way to address this part of the complaint, and it is unlikely an investigation by the Ombudsmen would achieve anything further for Mr and Mrs Y on this matter.
  10. Regarding Mr and Mrs Y’s complaint about the Trust, they said that the paediatrician “was the prime mover in actively persuading school to initiate a MASH [Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub] referral for alleged FII”. The referral document refers to “serious concerns from professionals… this family has been discussed with the paediatrician who supports this referral and has further information on the other children… We are requesting that a strategy discussion under FII takes place”.
  11. Mr and Mrs Y complained the Trust’s response did not reflect the paediatrician’s true role in the safeguarding referral. The Trust’s response said: “Professionals need to act in the best interests of the child and are aware that this is often extremely stressful for the wider family. As explained [the paediatrician] did not make the original referral to social services but contributed to the investigation as requested”.
  12. This response seems reasonable and based on the documents. The referral document does not indicate that the paediatrician made the referral, but rather that she “supports the referral” from the school, and as noted above, in line with the Children Act, anyone who is concerned that a child is suffering or at risk of harm should inform the Council. The referral document indicates that professionals other than or as well as the paediatrician raised concerns. The Trust’s response that “whenever any professional has concerns about the welfare of a child they are duty bound to share these concerns with social care, who are the lead agency for investigating such concerns” is in line with the Children Act 1989. As noted above, the legislation states that health bodies should be alert to the possibility that children may be at risk of harm and refer their concerns to the local authority for assessment. I have seen no indication of fault here by the Trust.
  13. Mr and Mrs Y also complained about aspects of the paediatrician’s conduct, saying that she researched details of the friend of Mr and Mrs Y who supported them at a meeting, and made a complaint to her employers. The Trust said she used a standard internet search and “social media information freely available to the public”. Mr and Mrs Y do not accept this response. There are clearly differing opinions here about what happened, and it is unlikely that an investigation by the Ombudsmen could add any further explanation.
  14. Mr and Mrs Y said the Trust prevented the Council from cooperating fully with their SAR for information about the child protection investigation. As an outcome of their complaint to the Ombudsmen, Mr and Mrs Y wish this information to be released to them. They may wish to bring this matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is better-placed to handle this part of the complaint, as it deals with complaints about information rights.
  15. Mr and Mrs Y complained about a lack of support for the family following the investigation. In its response to their complaint, the Council said it had arranged for a children’s social worker from the Disabled Children’s Service to support the family in establishing their eligibility for services.
  16. Finally, both the Council and Trust declined to make an ex-gratia payment to Mr and Mrs Y to cover their legal costs. As noted above, Mr and Mrs Y had appointed a solicitor to support them through the child protection process. Both the Trust and Council said that they considered that legal involvement, while supportive to Mr and Mrs Y, was not necessary, and therefore decided not to reimburse the fees. My view is that this is a reasonable response and it is unlikely an investigation by the Ombudsmen would achieve reimbursement of these costs for Mr and Mrs Y.

Final decision

  1. The Ombudsmen will not investigate Mr and Mrs Y’s complaint. An investigation by the Ombudsmen is unlikely to achieve anything further for Mr and Mrs Y.

Investigator’s final decision on behalf of the Ombudsmen

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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