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Norfolk County Council (19 005 917)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 16 Jan 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council was not at fault for its actions in response to a referral which raised concerns about the welfare of Mrs B’s daughter. It acted in line with its statutory duties – and within its legal authority – by considering the available information, conducting an assessment, and closing the case.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to as Mrs B, complains that the Council conducted a social work assessment of her daughter’s safety after she was bitten by a dog. Mrs B says the referral to the Council was inaccurate and therefore the assessment was unnecessary. She wants an apology from the Council and for the records of the assessment to be deleted.

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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)
  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 considered information from Mrs B and the Council. I wrote to Mrs B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.

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What I found

What should have happened?

The Children Act 1989

  1. Section 17 of the Act sets out the duties and powers of councils in respect of children who they decide are ‘in need’. Councils have a duty to take reasonable steps to identify children in need within their area and, when identified, to assess their needs.
  2. Section 47 says councils must make enquiries when they suspect a child is suffering (or may be suffering) significant harm.

The Council’s children’s services procedures manual

  1. This manual says all contacts with the Council (about the welfare of a child) will be considered and, if the Council believes the child may be ‘in need’ (under section 17 of the Children Act), it will refer the matter for social work assessment.
  2. Before the Council discusses a referral with other agencies, it will seek the parent's consent, unless doing so could place the child at risk of significant harm (under section 47 of the Children Act). If there is a risk of significant harm to the child, a social work manager should authorise the discussion of the referral with other agencies without parental knowledge or consent. The authorisation should be recorded, with reasons.

What happened?

  1. In June 2019 Mrs B’s daughter was bitten by a dog at a family event. Mrs B’s sister, who is a nurse practitioner, offered to call the out-of-hours GP to ask for some antibiotics.
  2. Mrs B’s sister called the local NHS out-of-hours telephone number, described the situation, and asked to speak to the GP. However, the call handler advised her that Mrs B should take her daughter to A&E instead. Mrs B’s sister did not think this was an appropriate course of action, and said the wound was only superficial.
  3. Following this exchange, the Council received a referral from the NHS, suggesting that Mrs B’s daughter had not been taken to A&E when she needed treatment. A social worker from the Council called Mrs B and spoke to her and her sister about this.
  4. The social worker recorded concerns that the family had not followed medical advice (as they had not, at that point, taken Mrs B’s daughter to A&E), and had refused to provide certain information about the incident. The matter was referred for further assessment.
  5. Shortly after this telephone call, Mrs B took her daughter to A&E where she received treatment for the bite.
  6. Two days after the incident a social worker visited Mrs B and her daughter to gather information for the Council’s assessment. Mrs B refused to give her consent for the Council to discuss the referral with other agencies.
  7. The social worker recorded no concerns about Mrs B’s daughter being at risk of harm and, having discussed the matter with a manager, decided there was no justification for further social work involvement with the family.
  8. The Council closed the case shortly afterwards.

My findings

  1. When a council receives a referral which raises concerns a child’s welfare, it is under the legal duty to decide whether the child may be in need or suffering significant harm. It must then decide how to respond.
  2. If the council decides the child may be in need, it must assess those needs. If it decides the child may be suffering significant harm, it must make enquiries, and it does not need parental permission to conduct those enquiries if a manager decides they are necessary to protect the child.
  3. In Mrs B’s daughter’s case, the Council received a referral suggesting that she needed medical attention and her family had not allowed her to receive it.
  4. This may or may not have been an accurate description of events. However, whether the referral was fair to Mrs B – or whether it was necessary – is irrelevant. The fact is that the Council received the information and had to decide how to respond.
  5. The Council’s social worker spoke to Mrs B and her sister, and clearly had concerns about their initial response to the incident, and about the lack of information they gave her when she called them.
  6. It is not my role to substitute professional judgment for my own, or to decide – in hindsight – whether the merits of the situation did, in fact, justify further assessment. The Council made its decision having considered the evidence at hand, decided the circumstances did need looking at further, and explained its reasoning. I am satisfied that, in doing this, the Council acted in line with its statutory duties.
  7. After Mrs B refused consent for the Council to discuss the referral with other agencies, the Council had to decide whether her daughter may have been suffering significant harm. If so, it would have had the authority to override the lack of consent and make enquiries anyway.
  8. The Council considered this issue and decided there were no concerns that Mrs B’s daughter was suffering significant harm, so it closed the case without making further enquiries.
  9. In doing this, the Council acted within its legal authority and in line with its own procedures manual.

Conclusion

  1. Having fully reviewed the Council’s actions from initial referral to case closure, I can see no evidence of fault.
  2. Because of this, I see no reason to recommend that the Council take any remedial action.
  3. If Mrs B thinks the Council holds inaccurate records about her or her daughter, and wants them to be rectified or erased, she can ask the Council to do this under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If she is dissatisfied with the Council’s response, she can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

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Final decision

  1. The Council was not at fault for its actions in response to a referral which raised concerns about the welfare of Mrs B’s daughter.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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