Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 06 Apr 2022
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complained the Council failed to follow its own safeguarding procedures correctly when it became involved with her and her family. She also complained the Council failed to progress her complaint to Stage 2 after she asked it to. She said this caused her and her family emotional distress and led her to suffer financial loss. There was fault identified in the Council’s management of the safeguarding investigation. The Council has already taken actions to identify the fault but it has agreed to also provide Mrs X with a £800 financial award.
- Mrs X complained the Council did not follow its own safeguarding procedures after it received a referral indicating her child Y was at risk of harm.
- Specifically, she complained the Council:
- failed to escalate her complaint to stage 2 after she asked it to;
- failed to update its records to reflect inaccurate details of Y’s testimony; and
- failed to offer a suitable financial award to reflect the distress and financial loss incurred by Mr and Mrs X due to the Council’s actions.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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 made enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided. This included all complaint correspondence, the complaint chronology and case notes.
- I will write to Mrs X and the Council with the details of the draft decision. I considered Mrs X's comments before I made the final decision.
What I found
- The Children Act 1989 says the child’s needs and welfare are paramount and the needs and wishes of the child should be put first. This is so the child receives the support they need before a problem escalates. Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.
- Councils have a duty to make enquiries where a child is considered to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm (the term used in the Act). The enquiries must establish the child’s situation and to determine whether protective action is required (S.47 Children Act 1989). Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
- Where initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, the council and the police hold a strategy discussion. The purpose of a strategy discussion is to decide immediate safeguarding actions. A strategy meeting may also include other professionals involved with the child.
- Where emergency action is not needed the Council will meet with the family and agree plans to safeguard the child’s welfare. The child may be considered a child in need and safeguarding activity stopped. If the child is in need the council should consider what services are needed.
Child in need
- A child in need is defined in law as a child aged under 18 who requires either:
- local authority services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development; or
- need local authority services to prevent significant or further harm to health & development
Child Protection Plan
- A Child Protection Plan is a plan drawn up by the Council. It sets out how the child can be kept safe and what support they will need.
Child Protection Conference
- The purpose of a child protection conference is for the Council (along with all professionals working with the family) to share information and determine what needs to be done to ensure the child or children are kept safe. This could mean drawing up a child protection plan for the child or children.
- Mr and Mrs X have four young children. In November 2019, Mrs X’s youngest child Y made an allegation of sexual abuse against Mr X whilst at nursery.
- The Council began a Section 47 enquiry after receiving a referral from the Police. The Police also began an investigation. As part of the enquiry the Council interviewed Y several times. Mr X was not allowed to live with Mrs X or the children whilst the enquiry was underway.
- The Police concluded their investigation in January 2020 and decided to take no further action. The Council decided to make Y subject to a child in need plan.
- On 23 January 2020, the Council held a strategy discussion meeting. During the meeting Mrs X told the Council Mr X had returned to the family home against Council advice.
- Mrs X complained to the Council shortly after the meeting. She said the Council
- did not visit Y’s nursery to confirm the content of the initial referral;
- did not prevent Mr or Mrs X from collecting any of the children from school;
- recorded parts of Y’s testimony inaccurately and interviewed him in a manner that was not age appropriate;
- delayed the investigation which caused Mr X to lose out on time with his family and caused distress to Y and their siblings;
- Y’s disclosures were inaccurate and embellished by biased Council staff; and
- the Council’s social work team failed to adequately support Y during and after the investigation.
- it would contact Y’s nursery and confirm the information recorded in the referral. It had also given feedback to its social work department to ensure it took this action in future;
- Y had repeated the allegation twice and the Council had acted in proportion with the serious nature of the allegation;
- the Council found no evidence of bias in the manner the disclosures were treated or recorded;
- the Council agreed it interviewed Y too many times and it had raised this with its social work department; and
- the Council agreed it had not supported Y as fully as possible and confirmed it was implementing more training for its staff to prevent the issues it had identified recurring again in future.
- the Council did not stop Mr and Mrs X from collecting the children from school due to the time it received the referral; and
- the Council did not have to include the intermediary assessment on its files as it was carried out by police.
- that all agency social workers working for the Council receive the same safeguarding training as permanent staff;
- agency workers to be supervised by permanent staff members;
- the Council should make certain training mandatory for all staff;
- improvements to be made to the Council’s method of recording information; and
- an apology to be made to Mrs X and her family and a financial award considered.
- the Council should have included the intermediate assessment in its records as it was an important piece of evidence;
- the Council delayed the case and caused avoidable distress to Mrs X and her family;
- the social worker who questioned Y was not adequately trained and interviewed Y inappropriately; and
- the Council should consider contacting Social Work England to make a referral regarding the conduct of two of the social workers
- there was no statutory requirement for the Council to record the assessment on file;
- the social worker was suitably qualified to carry out the interview;
- it was not viable to ensure permanent staff members were on hand to supervise temporary members due to staff shortages; and
- there was not enough evidence to support contacting Social Work England
Council complaint handling
- Mrs X has complained the Council failed to escalate her complaint when she asked it to. The Council is required to keep to specific timescales when progressing complaints through its complaints process. It was noted by the Panel that the Council significantly delayed escalating Mrs X’s complaints and did not complete its investigation in time. Further, whilst the Council kept Mrs X updated, it did not acknowledge or apologise for the delay. Ordinarily I would consider this fault. However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple complaints Mrs X has raised, I stop short of criticising the Council for this part of the complaint.
Council record keeping
- Mrs X has complained the Council’s records were not consistent, and details of Y’s testimony were inaccurately recorded. The IO upheld this aspect of the complaint and made recommendations for the Council to improve its records keeping. I am satisfied this was a reasonable remedy to address this aspect of the complaint. However, at the time Mrs X brought the complaint to the Council, it had failed to confirm to Mrs X that it had updated its records regarding Y’s testimony. I consider this fault. It would have been best practice for the Council to relay this information to Mrs X and may have gone some way towards rebuilding Mrs X’s lost trust in the Council.
the Council social worker’s conduct
- Mrs X has complained the social workers appointed by the Council to work with her family demonstrated unprofessional and inconsistent behaviour. This complaint was upheld by the Panel and recommendations were made to address this point however the Council has opted not to follow them. I can understand this has caused Mrs X frustration however, the Panel’s recommendations were not mandatory and so the Council is not obliged to follow them. It is open to Mrs X to refer the matter to Social Work England if she remains unhappy with this part of the complaint.
- Mrs X has complained that the Council’s delay in closing the case led to significant distress and financial loss for her and her family. The Council has apologised to Mrs X and offered a financial award of £500 in recognition of this. Mrs X has requested a £15,000 financial award. It is not the Ombudsman’s role to use financial awards to penalise Councils. However, I do not agree that the Council’s offer is in line with the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies. I do not have evidence of the financial loss Mrs X incurred due to this matter but I am satisfied having consulted the guidance that it is appropriate to increase the financial award put forward by the Council. Mrs X may wish to pursue this matter in court if she seeks a more substantial financial remedy.
- Within three months of the date of the final decision the Council has agreed to provide Mrs X with a £800 financial award in recognition of the avoidable distress and inconvenience caused by the Council’s actions.
- There was fault in the Council’s actions. I have made recommendations for a suitable remedy, which the Council has agreed to. I have completed the investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman