Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 30 Mar 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr J complains about the Council’s response to his referral about the safety of his children. The Ombudsman has found no fault.
- Mr J complains about the Council’s response to his referral about the safety of his children, K and L. In particular, Mr J complains the assessment did not consider all the evidence and the resulting report was inaccurate and contained flawed conclusions.
- Mr J says this has led to a failure to safeguard his children.
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)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr J about his complaint and considered the information he sent, the Council’s response to my enquiries and:
- Statutory Guidance Working together to safeguard children (“the Guidance”)
- The London child protection procedures (“the Procedures”)
- Bromley Threshold of needs guidance (“the Thresholds document”)
What I found
- The Children Act 1989 says councils have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need.
- If a local authority receives a report of concern about a child, the referrer must have the opportunity to discuss their concerns with a qualified social worker. The council must then, within one working day, decide what response is required. This includes determining whether:
- the child requires immediate protection, or
- the child is in need and should be assessed under section 17 of the Act, or
- there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.
Child in need assessment
- Multi-agency assessments under section 17 of the Act (known as child and family assessments) must be carried out within 45 days from the safeguarding referral. The purpose of the assessment is to gather information and to analyse the needs of the child or children and/or their family and the nature and level of any risk of harm to the child or children. The child must be seen by a qualified social worker, who should also interview the parent and “any other relevant family member”.
- Following the assessment the Council will decide whether to:
- take no further action;
- develop a child in need plan for the provision of services to promote the child's health and development;
- carry out specialist assessment for a more in-depth understanding of the child's needs and circumstances;
- undertake a strategy discussion and a section 47 child protection enquiry;
- take emergency action to protect a child.
- Mr J has two children, K and L, who were living with his wife, Ms C. Mr J and Ms C were separated.
- In May 2019, Mr J made a safeguarding referral to the Council as he was concerned about the safety of his children. This was because Ms C had been sexually abused by her father (Mr N) when she was a child. Mr J was concerned that Ms C may be allowing Mr N to have unsupervised contact with K and L. He sent the Council an email Ms C had previously sent describing the historic abuse.
- The Council decided an assessment was required under section 17 of the Act. During the assessment the social worker spoke on the phone to Ms C and staff from the children’s schools. She visited K and L at home and spoke to Ms C’s mother, Mrs N. The assessment report says the Council had written to Mr J to set up an appointment, but he did not receive the letter.
- Ms C told the social worker the sexual abuse had been an isolated incident and the Council had allowed her to return home. She said Mr J had tampered with the email he had sent to the Council. The assessment noted that two incidents of domestic violence between Mr J and Ms C had been reported. The assessment decided there had been no neglect or abuse of K and L, but the social worker drew up a “safety plan” for Ms C to follow. This included not allowing Mr N to have unsupervised contact with K and L, and for Ms C and her mother to ensure their safety.
- The Council considered the risks to K and L were mitigated by the safety plan and closed the case. It sent the report of the assessment to Mr J in July 2019.
Mr J’s complaint
- Mr J complained to the Council after receiving the assessment report. He said it was biased towards Ms C. Mr J said Ms C had lied to the social worker about the extent of the historic abuse but her comments had not been checked. He denied tampering with the email. He complained the social worker had not met with him or his mother and he had not been able to comment on a draft of the assessment report. He said the assessment had ignored his concerns and had reached flawed conclusions.
- The Council met Mr J on 13 August 2019. Following the meeting Mr J made further complaints that the assessment could not now be amended even though it contained typos, some of which affected its meaning. He challenged the social worker’s view that the safety plan would not be altered even if the facts were different. He also queried her suggestion he could call the police if he was concerned about Mr N holidaying with K and L. He said this would not be possible because Ms C and Mrs N were charged with safeguarding K and L.
- The Council responded to Mr J’s complaints on 23 August 2019. It apologised for the typos in the assessment report. Drafts were not issued, and it could not amend the report as it was a record of Ms C’s comments. The social worker’s advice was to share any new concerns about K and L’s safety with the police.
- The Council said it had considered Mr J’s views in developing the safety plan, but the duration of the historic abuse would not have changed the outcome. This was because “the focus of the assessment was to review the safety needs of the children and to ensure that the safety plan will be effective.” Mr J complained to the Ombudsman.
- When the Council received the safeguarding referral in May 2019 it decided K and L should be assessed under section 17 of the Act. This is in line with the Procedures and Thresholds document.
- During the assessment the social worker saw K and L and spoke to Mr J, Ms C and her mother. She also contacted K and L’s schools. This is in line with the Procedures as there is no requirement to meet face to face with family members.
- The assessment decided K and L were not suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and that a section 47 enquiry was not needed. However, the Council considered a child in need “safety” plan was required to mitigate the risks to K and L of contact with Mr N. This is in line with the Guidance.
- I realise Mr J considers the safety plan was not sufficient and I understand his concerns about the accuracy of the information gathered during the assessment. The purpose of the assessment was to establish the level of risk K and L faced. The safety plan to mitigate those risks was a matter of professional judgment and is a decision the Council was entitled to reach. The Ombudsman cannot question the professional judgment of council officers unless there is evidence of procedural fault in the way the decisions were made. I do not consider that to be the case here. The social worker sought the views of relevant professionals and family members and the assessment document sets out the reasons for the decision. The Council was aware of Mr J’s concerns and the dispute about the extent of the historic abuse. There is no evidence of fault in the way the assessment was carried out or in the way the safety plan was made. I therefore cannot question it no matter how much Mr J disagrees with it.
- Mr J complains about errors in the assessment report. The Council was not required to issue a draft assessment report to Mr J, so I do not find fault there. The Council cannot amend the report as it is a record of the discussions and social worker’s views at the time. However, I consider a note of Mr J’s concerns should be placed on K and L’s case records.
- There was no fault by the Council. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman