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Dorset Council (20 003 763)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Dorset Council had already accepted it was at fault when it wrongly provided the complainant’s partner with confidential information about her. The Council will now formally apologise and increase the payment it offered her to acknowledge the impact of this.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Ms B, complains that the Council has failed to properly acknowledge the impact on her of a social worker revealing confidential information about her in a report it sent to her then husband in 2018. Ms B was in an abusive relationship and this information resulted in further abuse directed towards her from her then husband.
  2. The injustice Ms B claims is avoidable flashbacks, panic attacks and targeted abuse from her then husband related to the information wrongly disclosed by the social worker.

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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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Ms B and considered the written information she provided with her complaint. I made written enquiries of the council and considered all the information before reaching a draft decision.
  2. Ms B and the Council now have an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I will consider their comments before making a final decision.
  3. The time period covered by this complaint predates the establishment of Dorset Council in 2019. A different council, which was abolished at the same time Dorset Council was established, therefore took the action Ms B complained about. Dorset Council took responsibility for the complaint about this action and accepted responsibility for the fault it identified. For our purposes, therefore, Dorset Council was the body in jurisdiction.
  4. 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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What I found

What happened

  1. The Council accepts that one of its social workers gave sensitive information that Ms B had given her to her former husband. The information was included in a social work report completed in 2018 following an assessment completed by that social worker and which the social worker hand-delivered to the home Ms B then shared with her former partner. The Council accepts that Ms B had specifically asked the Council not to disclose this information to her former husband.
  2. I have seen the social work assessment referred to which formed part of a child protection investigation and confirms:
    • Ms B’s former husband had been a perpetrator of violence towards Ms B, children who had lived in the household in the past and children who were currently living in the family home over a long period of time;
    • there had been periodic involvement by children’s services due to concerns related to the violence in the household and alcohol abuse for several years;
    • there had been police involvement due to violence in the household;
    • there is a lot of information about Ms B’s background and childhood, about Mr B’s background and information related to children living in the family home.
  3. Ms B says the social worker told her by telephone that she had hand-delivered a copy of the report to the family and that she felt extremely distressed by this and rushed home to try to intercept in before her former husband saw it. Unfortunately she was too late to intercept it. She says that once her former husband had read the personal information she had given in that report (information she had not told him and that she had asked the social worker to keep confidential) he subjected her to verbal and emotional abuse and this heightened her existing fear of him. She says it also caused flashbacks, panic attacks and contributed to a recent diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  4. Ms B says she asked for a different social worker. She says this was initially refused and resulted in her having to attend an initial child protection conference which was convened as a result of the concerns highlighted in the social work report.
  5. In 2019 Ms B complained to the council about its breach of her confidential information in the report. This appears to have led to a meeting with officers in the children’s services team which resulted in an apology from a senior manager, an agreement that it would be made clear to staff that this should not happen again and an agreement to make a note on the case file detailing Ms B’s concerns and the impact the Council’s actions had on her. In early 2020 Ms B had a further meeting with Council officers. The outcome of this meeting was that the Council again apologised to Ms B and agreed it would think about how it would address the concerns and speak to staff about sharing of personal information.
  6. Ms B complained to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman later in 2020. We contacted the Council about the complaint and then the Council wrote to Ms B to say that she could wither pursue an insurance claim against the Council or pursue a complaint.
  7. It appears that Ms B agreed to pursue the matter with the Council’s insurers but when this was not completed she complained to this office again in August 2021. In September 2021 the Council confirmed that the insurance claim was ongoing.
  8. In April 2021 the Council’s insurance manager wrote to Ms B to say it was not liable and that compensation would not be paid. It offered a goodwill payment of £120 towards counselling for Ms B which she had expressed an interest in. It said the offer required her to undertake the counselling within a month of accepting the payment and that the offer was accepted as a full and final offer.
  9. In response to our enquiries and after further consideration the Council has now agreed to pay Ms B £1000 to recognise the distress this caused and a further £300 to recognise the risk of harm she was exposed to as a result of the information disclosed.

Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?

  1. The Council accepts that it was at fault in disclosing the information described.
  2. This fault caused Ms B injustice in the form of avoidable distress and exposing her to a risk of harm. She was also caused avoidable time and trouble by the Council’s handling of her complaint: I am unclear why the Council suggested that Ms B could make a claim against its insurers and do not consider the simple fact that she had asked for a payment to recognise the impact of the disclosure meant that the Council’s insurers should consider the matter. It was made clear to Ms B that pursuing a complaint would not result in a payment so she was left with little choice but the complaints procedure could properly have considered this matter and a payment. Had it done so I consider it likely the matter would have been resolved much more promptly.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council should formally apologise to Ms B for the injustice caused by the identified fault.
  2. Our Guidance on Remedies includes guidance on financial payments to acknowledge avoidable distress, harm or risk. Whilst such injustice cannot be remedied by a payment, a payment is an acknowledgement of the impact caused. In relation to payments for distress we recommend that payments are often a moderate sum up to £300 but where distress was severe or prolonged we may ask for a payment up to £1000 of exceptionally higher than that. Where fault has exposed a complainant to a risk of harm we recommend a payment of up to £500 or where the risk was significant or harm actually occurred a payment of up to £1500 may be appropriate. In addition, we can recommend a payment to recognise avoidable time and trouble if a complainant has been caused time and trouble in pursuing their complaint that would be considered more than is usual. Having considered this Guidance the Council has agreed to pay Ms B:
    • £1000 to recognise the severity of the avoidable distress caused. This the amount the Council has offered and I consider this is an acceptable amount. I do not consider there are grounds to recommend a higher payment;
    • £500 to recognise the risk of harm. This is higher that the sum suggested by the Council but I consider a higher payment is justified given the actions resulted in actual harm to Ms B in the form of emotional abuse in addition to an ongoing concern about the risk of ongoing or future harm; and
    • £250 to recognise its poor handling of the complaint.
  3. The Council will complete the action outlined above within a month of the final decision on the complaint.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and issued a final decision statement. There was fault by the Council which resulted in injustice to Ms B and that the Council will take the agreed action to recognise that.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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