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West Sussex County Council (20 004 993)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 03 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains that the Council’s failure to communicate with him about an investigation into his children directly affected his contact with them. The Council accepted it was at fault and had caused injustice before our intervention. Mr X says the Council’s remedy is inadequate. The Council has now agreed an enhanced financial remedy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I refer to here as Mr X, says the Council’s communication failures influenced him to stop contact with his children. He says the Council’s remedy is insufficient compensation for the distress caused and the ongoing impact on his family life.

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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 spoke to Mr X and considered information provided by Mr X and the Council. I also considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies. I shared my draft decision with Mr X and the Council and gave them the opportunity to comment before finalising my decision.

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What I found

Safeguarding investigations and the Council’s procedures

  1. Councils have a duty to make enquiries if they are concerned that a child may be at risk. They may carry out assessments and can ask a parent to stop contact with a child during their investigations.
  2. Under the Council’s child protection and safeguarding procedures, child and family assessments must be completed within a maximum of 45 working days of the date of the referral into the Council. The procedures require the Council to inform family members of the outcome of the assessment.
  3. The Council’s procedures also state that parents’ permission should be sought before discussing a referral about them with other agencies unless this may place the child at risk of significant harm or lead to the loss of evidential material.

What happened

  1. Mr X has two children. He is separated from their mother. Until 2020 he saw his children for two weekends a month and during school holidays. In April 2020, following an allegation by his son, the Council decided to carry out an assessment of the family.
  2. Mr X says a social worker instructed him to end contact with his children until the assessment was complete and a decision made about next steps. The Council’s records show that in the first week of May both children, who were then aged six and seven, said they wanted contact with Mr X.
  3. During the assessment the Council contacted the children’s GP and school without seeking Mr X’s consent.
  4. Between the end of May and mid-June the Council closed its file on the family, having decided to take no further action. It did not inform Mr X of the outcome of the assessment. On 22 June Mr X emailed the Council for an update. The email makes clear that Mr X was under the impression that the Council was conducting an investigation into him and that until it was concluded he could not see the children. He asked how the children were, pointing out that he had not now seen them for several months. The Council did not reply.
  5. In July Mr X learned from his children’s school that their mother had moved them to a different school. He complained to the Council and received an email stating that his enquiry had been transferred to a different part of the system and would not be treated as a complaint. Receiving no response, he complained again in August, pointing out that he had missed his daughter’s birthday. He asked if he would be taken to court or banned from seeing his children or whether he would only be allowed supervised visits.
  6. The Council did not keep a record of Mr X’s communications or respond to him until mid-September, by which time he had approached the Ombudsman.
  7. At Stage 2 of the complaints process in March 2021, the Council upheld all Mr X’s complaints. It found failures in communication and record keeping and a failure to follow the Council’s safeguarding procedures with regards to the approach to the children’s school and GP. It also found that until this stage the Council had wrongly refused to share the outcome of the family assessment with Mr X, in breach of the published protocol. It said Mr X’s complaints had not been robustly investigated at stage 1.
  8. The Council consulted the Ombudsman’s document: Guidance on good Practice: Remedies and awarded £500 to Mr X to compensate for his time and trouble in bringing the complaint, as well as potential loss of time spent with his children. It also provided £200 for him to spend on his children. The Council also wrote to the children’s mother to make clear that Mr X was not responsible for the breakdown in contact.
  9. Mr X says the remedy is inadequate to compensate for the separation from his children and the distress he suffered in believing he was under investigation for many months. While his relationship with his former partner was difficult, he had managed to establish a settled routine of contact. He told me that during the period of his absence his former partner “disappeared” with his children. Shortly after learning from the Council in September that he was free to contact his children he visited their home and discovered they were no longer living at that address.
  10. Since then Mr X has been unable to establish the family’s whereabouts. His former partner has threatened to call the police if he telephones her again. Mr X fears the consequences to his employment of a complaint to the police. He wants to apply via the family court to re-start contact but says he cannot do this if he does not know the family’s current location.
  11. He says that while the Council is not responsible for his ex-partner’s actions, had contact continued he would be much better placed to respond to any attempt by his ex-partner to relocate and “disappear”. He says as so much time has passed, he is now obliged to spend money (including, potentially, hiring an investigation service) to find his family before he can start legal proceedings to resume contact.

Analysis

  1. While the Council consulted the Ombudsman’s remedy guidance before deciding the remedy, the amount offered is inadequate. £200 is an acceptable amount to compensate for Mr X’s time and trouble in bringing the complaint. £300 is insufficient to compensate for the distress caused by the Council’s failure to communicate with him and the disruption to his family life.
  2. Mr X’s email of June 2020 shows that he was under the impression the Council had banned him from contact with his children. His email of August 2020 shows that he feared being banned from contact with his children on a more long-term basis or subjected to supervised contact. He did not receive the results of the Council’s assessment until 2021.
  3. The impact on his relationship with his children has been profound. He has not now seen them for more than a year. While the Council cannot be held responsible for Mr X’s former partner’s decision to relocate, its actions meant Mr X did not discover this fact as quickly as he should have.
  4. A more suitable remedy for the injustice suffered by Mr X is £2,000. This higher figure reflects the significant impact the Council’s actions have had on Mr X.
  5. The Council has agreed a total remedy award of £2,200. Mr X has already received £500 from the Council. A further £1,700 remains to be paid.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed that within one month of my final decision it will pay Mr X:
      1. £200 to compensate for his time and trouble in bringing the complaint; and
      2. £1,500 to compensate for the distress caused by the Council’s communication failures and the impact of these on Mr X’s relationship with his children.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council had already accepted it was at fault and had caused injustice and has now agreed to provide an enhanced financial remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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