Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 30 Mar 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained that the Council has not provided a satisfactory response to his complaint about a child protection investigation about his child. The Council was not at fault in the conduct of the child protection investigation or in responding to the complaint.
- Mr X complained that the Council has not provided a satisfactory response to his complaint investigated under the children’s social care complaints procedure. The complaint was about the way the Council dealt with a child protection enquiry concerning his child.
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)
- 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)
- The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Independent Investigator and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers the investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
How I considered this complaint
- I discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries. I considered the Council’s child protection duties. I gave the Council and the complainant an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
Child protection duties
- Local authorities have a duty to investigate if there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. They must decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. (Children Act 1989, section 47)
- These duties are set out in Statutory Guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children’.
- When a council receives a referral about a child who may be at risk it makes initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family and assesses the information.
- Where the initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm the council must hold a strategy discussion or meeting, jointly with the police where appropriate.
- If the strategy meeting decides to start a child protection enquiry, a social worker carries out a child and family assessment. The Guidance sets out the principles for a good assessment which should be child-centred, focusing on the action and outcomes for children and hearing their voice, where appropriate. It should involve the family, and identify strengths and protective factors as well as risks to the safety and welfare of the children.
- the Council will allocate the case to a social worker to carry out a child and family assessment
- “the threshold for section 47 will be met by virtue of the child being subject to a Child Protection Plan of another authority”
- the Council will contact the previous authority for information and, other than in specific exceptional circumstances, will convene an Initial Child Protection Conference within 15 working days.
- Mr X and his partner Ms Y have a young child, C. They have a history of living together, separating and reuniting. Ms Y has mental health problems and has had other children removed from her care.
- The Council placed C on a Child Protection Plan in February 2017 because of concerns about Ms Y’s mental health and allegations of domestic violence against Mr X. In November 2017 Ms Y left Mr X, taking C, and went to a refuge, saying she was fleeing domestic abuse. In January 2018 Ms Y and C went to live in another council area, Council 2.
- The Council transferred the Children’s Social Care case to Council 2. Council 2 continued and reviewed the Child Protection Plan. Mr X then resumed his relationship with Ms Y and started having supervised contact with C. He applied to the court for a Child Arrangements Order. The court ordered Council 2 to produce a welfare report. In the report Council 2 gave the view that it did not need to take legal action itself to protect C and the risks could be managed under the Child Protection Plan.
- In April 2018 Council 2 held a Review Child Protection Conference. This decided C should remain on a Child Protection Plan under the category of emotional abuse, and it added the category of neglect.
- In August 2018 Ms Y moved back to live with Mr X in the Council’s area. Council 2 produced an update to the court welfare report. This said it considered the threshold was still met for a Child Protection Plan. However it recommend there should be no court order as Mr X and Ms Y were living together as a couple again and Mr X had withdrawn his application for a Child Arrangements Order.
Events from September 2018
- Council 2 referred the case to the Council in September 2018 asking for a ‘transfer in’ Child Protection Conference. The Council considered the referral, noting that C was subject to a Child Protection Plan. The Council allocated the case to a social worker, SW1, to carry out a child and family assessment.
- SW1 carried out an unannounced visit to Ms Y at home in mid-October 2018. SW1 could not get into the home to carry out an interview as Ms Y said she could not find her front or back door keys and could not open the door.
- The Council held a strategy discussion with the police and decided it needed to continue with the child protection enquiry. Shortly afterwards SW1 arranged another home visit and saw Mr X, Ms Y and C together.
- SW1 obtained information from the police, health visitor and past children’s social care records. She completed the child and family assessment. The Council arranged an Initial Child Protection Conference for early November 2018.
- The Conference took place and Mr X and Ms Y attended along with representatives of other agencies. The meeting decided unanimously to place C on a Child Protection Plan under the category of emotional harm.
- After the Conference Mr X telephoned the Council to complain about the child and family assessment as he disputed the contents. He asked for a new social worker. After further telephone discussion with SW1 he said he was no longer prepared to work with her and would be making a formal complaint about her.
- The Council allocated the case to another social worker, SW2. Mr X said he did not wish to meet any other social worker until he received a response to the complaint. He spoke to SW2 and expressed his dissatisfaction with the assessment. He said the allegations of domestic violence were untrue and the problem was the lack of support for Ms Y and her mental health difficulties. He agreed to meet SW2 in January 2019. However there was a further incident between Mr X and Ms Y after which they separated. They later got back together. The Council reviewed and continued the Child Protection Plan.
- In January 2019 Mr X made his complaint to the Council about SW1 and the way she carried out the assessment. He complained that the Council were discriminating against him, victimising him, defaming him by calling him a perpetrator of domestic violence, and failing to provide support to keep his family together. There were two parts to the statement of complaint. The second part is not relevant to my investigation. The first part was as follows:
“[Council 2] scaled down our case to Child in Need. As soon as we moved back to City it has transferred to child protection. [SW1] visited my partner unannounced – we didn’t know what was happening or why; we were alarmed. [SW1] visited my partner while I was at work and my partner was on her own, and so she would not let [SW1] into our home. [SW1] said she would make an appointment to see us both and I outlined my terms: there was to be no speaking to anyone individually, because we feel you play us off against one another. [SW1] saw me and [Ms Y] to do the assessment for the ICPC [Initial Child Protection Conference]. In her report and at conference she said that I had locked [Ms Y] in the house; that she had concerns that I am controlling; and that I sell my partner cannabis. All of which is untrue. But the result is that the case is now in child protection.”
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint explaining it was important for social workers to see the people involved in a child and family assessment alone, especially where there were allegations of domestic abuse, to ensure that all parties could speak freely. It also explained that SW1 thought Ms Y might have been locked in the home when she visited her because she could not show she could open the door if she chose to leave. The response also referred to C having been on a Child in Need plan when he was living in the Council 2 area.
- Mr X was not happy with the response and asked to go to stage 2 of the complaints process. After further telephone and email discussions with Mr X, the Council agreed the scope of the complaint it would put forward for investigation at stage 2. The Council explained it would not consider any parts of the complaint that overlapped with a previous complaint he had made to the Ombudsman. This had been decided in December 2018.
- The Council appointed an independent Investigating Officer (IO) and Independent Person (IP) to carry out the investigation. The IO produced her report in May 2019. She broke down the complaint into several parts. She did not uphold any of them. But she noted it was a mistake to have said in the stage 1 response that C was on a Child in Need plan. She recommended the Council should apologise for this.
- The main findings in the IO’s report were as follows.
- The records showed C was on a Child Protection Plan, not a Child in Need Plan, when the case was transferred from Council 2. The Review Child Protection Conference confirmed this in April 2018. There was due to be a further review six months later, but Ms Y moved back to the Council’s area first and so the case was transferred as a child protection case.
- It was likely Mr X would have been aware that the Council would be treating it as a child protection case because he attended the Child Protection Conferences in Council 2 and had seen the court welfare report.
- SW1 made an unannounced visit to Ms Y because she had 15 working days to complete her assessment before the Conference planned for October 2018 and she did not have up-to-date contact numbers for Mr X and Ms Y.
- SW1 noted her concerns in the assessment report that Ms Y may have been locked in the house. But she did not state that Mr X had locked her in.
- The Council would expect a social worker carrying out an assessment to see the parents separately to obtain their views, and it was Mr X who was saying SW1 could not see Ms Y without him. There was a statutory requirement to carry out visits to see the child under a Child Protection Plan.
- There was evidence in the records to justify the view that Mr X was demonstrating controlling behaviour. This included threats to staff, the way he set terms on how he would allow contact with Ms Y, and his decision not to engage with the Council for several months.
- There was no evidence in the records that SW1 reported Mr X was selling Ms Y drugs.
- Mr X was not happy to be described as an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence as he had never had any convictions for this. However this did not mean the Council could ignore the allegations and there was additional evidence from the police, as well as a legal order against him in the past, which had to be taken into account.
- It was a multi-agency decision to recommend placing C on a Child Protection Plan. The decision was not based solely on SW1’s view.
- the Council had correctly limited the complaint to matters that had not been considered in previous complaints
- the stage 2 investigation was fair and thorough and the stage 3 Panel supported its conclusions
- It found no evidence to support Mr X’s complaint that he had suffered discrimination, victimisation, neglect or defamation of character.
- Mr X complained to the Ombudsman because he felt the investigation so far had not properly considered his complaint about discrimination, victimisation, neglect and defamation of character. He said the Council had ignored Ms Y’s mental health problems and had instead treated him as a perpetrator of domestic violence. Some of the events Mr X referred to in discussing the complaint occurred in the period covered by his previous complaint to the Ombudsman. Others related to a period after the end of the stage 2 investigation. I have not considered these events. I have looked at the period September 2018 to January 2019.
- I line with the Ombudsman’s role I have focussed on whether there was any fault in the way the stage 2 investigation and stage 3 Review Panel considered Mr X’s complaint. In doing so I have considered whether their conclusions were based on the evidence seen. I have included consideration of whether there is evidence Mr X was a victim of discrimination, neglect and defamation in the child protection enquiry during the relevant period.
- Having seen the Council’s records of the child protection investigation I am satisfied that it followed proper procedures. I agree it is important for social workers carrying out assessments to see individual members of the family separately, especially in cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse and control. I have not seen evidence that C was considered a Child in Need by Council 2. The records show when Ms Y moved back to the Council’s area he was on a Child Protection Plan made by Council 2. The evidence I have seen supports the findings of the stage 2 investigation on this point.
- Mr X takes the view that SW1’s assessment report was biased against him. In my view SW1 considered all the evidence obtained, including from the police and past social care records and discussions with and observations of Mr X and Ms Y. The report did not ignore Ms Y’s mental health problems. It recognised her difficulties and her need for support. It also referred to the allegations of domestic violence. In doing so it recognised that Mr X did not have convictions for previous domestic abuse. However SW1 raised concerns about past relationships where both he and his partners had made allegations to the police about violence. She was concerned this was a feature of Mr X’s relationships and was not sure why this pattern would stop now in his relationship with Ms Y. She was also concerned at Mr X’s repeated denial that he had ever behaved violently in the context of personal relationships. SW1 said this contrasted with information from the police which ‘strongly suggests’ several of his past relationships have been ‘volatile’. The report also noted that police checks on both Mr X and Ms Y had found a history of criminal behaviour involving violence. The Council would have been failing in its safeguarding duties towards the child if it had ignored allegations of domestic violence and information from the police.
- SW1 noted that Ms Y adamantly denied she had been locked in the house when she went to visit. Even so SW1 was concerned this may have been the case. She made it clear this was her view. The report does not say Mr X locked her in.
- The report also noted positive features of Mr X’s parenting and the potential risks to C if Ms Y did not receive support with her mental health problems.
- Based on the evidence I have seen I consider SW1’s assessment was balanced, thorough and measured. It weighed up the risks and protective factors and pointed to grey areas which needed further exploration. It referred to the view from Council 2 that the relationship was improving. But it noted the Council did not have enough evidence of this to assume there would be no further conflict affecting the child. In light of what was referred to as the “significant history of concerns and the lack of clear evidence of improvements” SW1’s manager authorised the report with a recommendation to keep the Child Protection Plan in place.
- The multi-agency Child Protection Conference considered the report and heard from Mr X and Ms Y. It made a unanimous decision to recommend continuing the Child Protection Plan. In my view the Council focussed on reducing the risk of harm to the child in line with its duties. This was a fluid situation which it kept under review as circumstances changed. I do not consider that the Council was at fault in the way it dealt with the child protection investigation. I have not seen evidence of discrimination, victimisation or bias. I support the finding of the stage 3 Review Panel on this point.
- Nor have I seen evidence of fault in the way the statutory complaints investigation was conducted or the way the council responded to the complaint. The investigation found one mistake in referring to information that came from Council 2. It has apologised for this mistake. I see no grounds to recommend any further action.
- I have not found fault in the way the Council carried out the child protection investigation or responded to Mr X’s complaint. I have therefore completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman