North Yorkshire County Council (19 020 874)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 08 Dec 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained the Council poorly managed the child protection investigation it carried out when his partner, Ms Y, was pregnant. He says this caused them distress and ill health. There was no fault in the action the Council took to safeguard the child. There was poor communication which caused Mr X and Ms Y uncertainty and distress. The Council has already apologised for this, which is an appropriate remedy.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council poorly managed the child protection investigation it carried out whilst his partner was pregnant. He says the investigation was prolonged, disproportionate to the perceived risks and there was poor communication. He says the matter disrupted their lives and caused him and his partner distress and ill health.
  2. The Council partly upheld Mr X’s complaint but he says it did not offer a suitable remedy. He wants the Council to provide a financial remedy to acknowledge the impact of the faults on him and his partner.

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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. 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)
  3. Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I read Mr X’s complaint and spoke with him about it on the phone
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered information it sent me.
  3. Mr X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on the draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Legal and administrative background

  1. Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on councils to make enquiries to safeguard or promote a child’s welfare, where there is reasonable cause to suspect a child in its area is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.
  2. The initial enquiries must establish the child’s circumstances and decide whether action is needed to protect the child.
  3. When an initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, the council and the police must hold a strategy meeting. The purpose of this discussion is to decide if immediate safeguarding actions are needed and/or whether there is a need to make further enquiries under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989.
  4. If a council makes enquiries and following these, concerns of significant harm remain, the social worker should call an initial child protection conference.
  5. The child protection conference decides what action is needed to keep a child safe. It may decide a child needs a child protection plan. The council will then arrange “core group” meetings attended by parents and professionals to monitor progress against the plan’s aims and objectives.
  6. A council may call a Public Law Outline (PLO) meeting if it is considering care proceedings. This is a legal planning where the council and the parents can have legal representation. The aim of the meeting is to discuss a council’s ongoing concerns and agree what action is needed to avoid a council starting care proceedings.
  7. A child cared for by a council is called a “looked after child”. The child will usually be cared for by foster carers until they can be returned to their parents care or other decisions are made about their future.
  8. An Interim Care Order is a court order that gives a Council parental responsibility for a child. It means a council can make decisions for the child and override the wishes of the parents. The child is treated as a looked after child and subject to statutory reviews. It will last for the entirety of a childhood unless discharged.
  9. An Interim Supervision Order is a court order that places an obligation on the council to advise, assist and befriend a child. It lasts for a year but can be extended for up to three years. It does not give the council parental responsibility and the child is not “looked after”.

What happened

  1. Mr X lives with his partner, Ms Y. Ms Y became pregnant by Mr X in 2018.
  2. In January 2019, the Council received a safeguarding referral. The referrer told the Council Ms Y was pregnant, and they were concerned that once born, the child may be at risk of significant harm caused by Mr X.
  3. The Council contacted Mr X and Ms Y to discuss the concerns. Mr X and Ms Y did not accept there was any risk and Mr X disputed information provided by the referrer about previous offences and convictions.
  4. The Council decided to further investigate the risks and with Mr X and Ms Y’s consent, completed a child and family assessment. The Council was concerned Ms Y did not consider Mr X a risk, despite his previous convictions. It was also concerned there was a very limited support network around the family of people who were fully aware of Mr X’s history and who could help protect the child from harm.
  5. Mr X and Ms Y disagreed with the outcome of the assessment. They withdrew their consent for the Council to speak to their friends and family and refused to engage further with the Children and Family Service.
  6. In February 2019, the Council held a strategy meeting. Those present considered the information and there were significant concerns. They decided they needed more information to fully assess the potential risks and agreed to progress to Section 47 enquiries.
  7. The Council considered the information gathered during the enquiries. It decided that due to Mr X’s previous convictions and Ms Y’s unwillingness to understand and accept the risks, there was potential risk to the unborn child. It decided to proceed to an initial child protection conference.
  8. The Council held an initial child protection conference at the end of February. Mr X and Ms Y attended this meeting. Those present expressed concern about Mr X and Ms Y’s lack of engagement with the Council, the dynamics of Mr X and Ms Y’s relationship and that Ms Y was isolated from her support network. They decided the unborn child needed a child protection plan to build towards ensuring their safety.
  9. The child protection plan recorded the need for:
    • a pre-birth risk assessment;
    • a family network meeting to establish a network of safe people around the child and to write a safety plan;
    • a pre-discharge meeting at the hospital once the baby was born.
  10. In March 2019, the Council discussed the plan with Mr X and Ms Y at a core group meeting. Mr X and Ms Y agreed to the pre-birth assessment, to explore the possibility of a family network meeting and consider who they wanted to include in their safety network.
  11. The Council asked Mr X and Ms Y to identify possible friends and family who could form part of the safety network. Mr X and Ms Y said they were not close to their families. They did not consent to the Council contacting any of their friends or relatives to discuss it further.
  12. In April 2019, the Council completed the pre-birth assessment. The assessment highlighted the risks and re-affirmed the need for a family network meeting and safety plan. It said until a safety plan was agreed, Mr X should always be supervised by someone other than Ms Y when with the baby.
  13. Mr X and Ms Y did not provide details of other people who could form part of the safety network or agree to a family network meeting. The Council was concerned at the lack of progress in agreeing a safety network as Ms Y’s baby was soon due. It decided it needed to consider legal care proceedings. It arranged a Public Law Outline (PLO) meeting.
  14. Mr X and Ms Y attended the PLO meeting with legal representation. It discussed the concerns and the Council set out what needed to happen to avoid it starting legal proceedings. They discussed who could be part of the safety network and who Mr X and Ms Y did not want in the network. Ms Y agreed for the social worker to speak to one of her relatives.
  15. Two weeks later, in May 2019, the Council held a further PLO meeting. Ms Y provided the names of two friends that could be part of the safety network. She also said a relative had agreed to come and stay with her for the first week after the baby’s birth. The Council told Mr X and Ms Y they needed more people for the safety network. Mr X and Ms Y agreed to try and identify potential people and have a family network meeting the following week. The Council told Ms X and Ms Y if they could not ensure sufficient safety for the child, they may have to consider Mr X and Ms Y living apart whilst further work was carried out. Failing that, it could take the case to court. The Council did not send Mr X and Ms Y minutes of this meeting.
  16. A few days after this meeting, Mr X and Ms Y’s baby, Z, was born.
  17. Ms Y’s relative stayed with the family initially after Z was born. However, after a disagreement, Mr X asked Ms Y’s relative to leave. Mr X said there was no one else who could supervise his contact with Z.
  18. At the end of May the Council held a review child protection conference. It noted concerns that:
    • Mr X and Ms Y were not fully engaging with the Council;
    • Mr X and Ms Y had still not identified an appropriate support network;
    • A safety plan was not in place.

It set a deadline for Mr X and Ms Y to work with the Council to improve their safety network plan within 48 hours. It decided Z should remain under a child protection plan.

  1. Mr X and Ms Y did not improve the safety network plan. The Council discussed the case internally and decided it needed to start care proceedings. It completed the report for court and recommended the court make Z subject to an Interim Supervision Order.
  2. Five days before the hearing, it tried to contact Mr X and Ms Y to tell them about the legal action. The Council visited Mr X and Ms Y’s home and tried to call Mr X twice. It did not get a response.
  3. The day before the hearing, the Council made several attempts to contact Mr X and eventually spoke with him on the phone. It told him the case was going to court the next day. An officer visited the family home that afternoon and provided Mr X and Ms Y with the court paperwork.
  4. The Court heard the case and considered the information submitted by the Council. The court made Z the subject of an Interim Care Order.
  5. Mr X and Ms Y were unhappy with how the Council completed its assessments and interventions and made a formal complaint. They complained:
    • The social worker involved was insensitive and shared confidential information without consent;
    • The Council did not tell them the timescales involved in the process and they felt lied to about what would happen next and when;
    • The Council had not fully explained the concerns and told them what they needed to do to avoid the Council taking the case to court;
    • The Council was not open with them about why started court proceedings and gave Mr X and Ms Y very little notice of the court hearing.
  6. The Council partly upheld the complaint. It accepted that:
    • It may not have clearly explained the process and timescales to Mr X and Ms Y;
    • It had not ensured Mr X fully understood the Council’s concerns and what action was required to prevent the Council taking the case to court.
  7. The investigation found there was a lack of openness in the way the matter was put before the court. Mr X and Ms Y should have been left in no doubt after the PLO meetings that they needed to identify a safety network or the Council may start court action. The investigation found the Council did not made this sufficiently clear. It also did not provide Mr X and Ms Y with minutes from the second PLO meeting. It apologised to Mr X and Ms Y for this and said it would review its PLO process within 28 days.
  8. Mr X and Ms Y remained unhappy and Mr X brought the complaint to us. He said the Council had told him the investigation would last about three weeks, but it had taken much longer, been unnecessary and caused him and his partner distress. He said the Council had partly upheld the complaint but not offered a suitable remedy for the upheld parts and the distress caused.
  9. In its response to our enquiries, the Council said it had now uploaded the minutes of the second PLO meeting onto its system and provided us with a copy of these. It said although it accepted fault with its communication, it was the actions which caused Mr X and Ms Y distress and the actions it took were necessary to safeguard Z. It said this was confirmed by the court’s decision to issue a Care Order, rather than a Supervision Order. It said it had apologised to Mr X for its poor communication and reviewed its procedures. It considered this sufficient to remedy the injustice caused.

Analysis

  1. I have seen no evidence the Council told Mr X the safeguarding process would take about three weeks. The evidence shows the Council explained the process to Mr X and Ms Y in January 2019 and kept them informed of its decisions and action required between January and April 2019. Mr X and Ms Y did not always fully engage with the Council, but this is not Council fault.
  2. The Council upheld that it did not provide Mr X and Ms Y with minutes of the second PLO meeting in May 2019 and that there was a lack of openness in how the matter was put before the court. I agree with this finding. The lack of minutes would have increased the chance that Mr X and Ms Y did not fully understand the seriousness of the situation. I have also seen no evidence the Council explained to Mr X why it had decided to start care proceedings and discounted the option of him living apart from Ms Y whilst it completed further work, as discussed in the PLO meeting. This poor communication is fault and caused Mr X and Ms Y uncertainty and distress.
  3. When it received the safeguarding referral, the Council acted as we would expect by making enquiries and considering the information gathered. There was no fault in how it decided to progress to Section 47 enquiries, initiate child protection procedures and to put the case before the courts. Although there was fault in its communication with Mr X and Ms Y in May 2019, there was no fault in way the Council came to its decisions about what action to take.
  4. After deciding to start court proceedings, the Council made several attempts to contact Mr X to tell him and Ms Y about the upcoming hearing. It visited his home and tried to call him several times. It is unfortunate it did not contact Mr X until the day before the hearing, but it made appropriate efforts to do so. This is not fault.
  5. Although Mr X wants a financial remedy, I do not consider this appropriate. I have found no fault in the action the Council took to safeguard Z. The Council has apologised to Mr X for the poor communication and reviewed its PLO procedures. These are appropriate actions to remedy the injustice caused.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault, but the Council has already remedied the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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