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Surrey County Council (20 006 020)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 30 Nov 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council is at fault as there is evidence to show it was not even handed towards Mr X during a child protection enquiry, there were inaccuracies in its children and families assessment, it failed to amend minutes of a child protection conference as agreed and its advice regarding contact between Mr X and his son lacked clarity. The Council also wrongly refused to consider Mr X’s complaint. These faults caused distress and frustration to Mr X. The Council has agreed to remedy this injustice by apologising to Mr X and making a payment of £500.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains that the Council:
      1. Used inaccurate language in reports about him and his family;
      2. Failed to demonstrate appropriate professional behaviour and practice including not responding to communications;
      3. Failed to consider the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on his contact with his son;
      4. Failed to properly deal with his complaints;
      5. Failed to properly consider safeguarding issues.
  2. As a result Mr X considers the Council treated him unfairly which caused significant distress to him and contributed to him not seeing his son for periods of time.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated complaints a) to d). I have not investigated complaint e) as the Council was considering the matter through the Children’s Services Statutory Complaints procedure during my investigation.

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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. Our role is to consider public administration and service failure at a corporate level. We do not investigate individual’s fitness to practice and whether they have met the professional standards set down by their regulators. Such matters are for their professional regulators.
  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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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have:
  • Considered the complaint and the information provided by Mr X;
  • Made enquiries of the Council and considered the information provided;
  • Invited Mr X and the Council to comment on the draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. The Children Act 1989 and statutory guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children 2018’ set out councils’ responsibilities to safeguard children. Councils have a duty to make enquiries where a child is considered to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. The enquiries must establish the child’s situation and determine whether protective action is required (Section 47 of the Children Act 1989)
  2. Surrey Safeguarding Children Procedures set out how agencies, including the Council, should safeguard children. Its procedures for dealing with domestic abuse provide that the implications for children in the household must be considered. The procedures provide that where the parents are separated the agreed contact arrangements between the child and non resident parent should be considered as part of the assessment and any additional risk factors related to the arrangements should be taken into account.

What happened

  1. The following information is a summary of the key events in this case. It does not include details of all the events which occurred.
  2. Mr X and Ms Y were married and have a young son, Z. Ms Y also has three other children.
  3. In early 2019 Mr X reported to the police that Ms Y had assaulted him in front of Z. The Council started a children and family assessment (CAF) to assess the children’s needs and decide if the children were at risk of significant harm from witnessing domestic violence. This was carried out by officer 1, social worker.
  4. Officer 1’s report set out Mr X’s and Ms Y’s concerns. The Council considered the presenting concerns did not meet the threshold for intervention from Children’s Services.
  5. In summer 2019 the police attended an incident at Mr X and Ms Y’s property. It was alleged Mr X assaulted Ms Y and tried to remove Z from the family home which was witnessed by the children. Mr X was arrested and placed on bail. Mr X denied the allegations. Following the incident the police made a referral to the Council which indicated Ms Y was concerned Mr X would not return Z to her care.
  6. Ms Y subsequently obtained a non molestation order and prohibited steps order against Mr X which set out the contact arrangements for Z. Neither order made a finding of fact as to whether Mr X was the perpetrator of domestic abuse. The police also did not charge Mr X.
  7. The case was referred to officer 2, social worker, to carry out a CAF due to concerns about domestic abuse between Mr X and Ms Y. Mr X has said he telephoned officer 2 around late August 2019 to raise concerns about the incident and Ms Y’s behaviour. Mr X has said officer 2 was accusatory towards him and said she would call him back but did not. The Council’s records note Mr X’s call. The records state the officer called Mr X back a few hours later and Mr X gave his account of the incident. He also said he had recorded the incident.
  8. Officer 2 visited Ms Y and the children to start the CAF. The records note officer 2 raised concerns about Mr X taking Z to a family party due to concerns he might not return him to Ms Y’s care. The Council’s records also note officer 2 discussed her concerns with a manager and record their concerns about Mr X taking Z due to the incident in August 2019. Ms Y did not allow Z to attend the party. Mr X says officer 2 encouraged Ms Y to lie about the reasons Z could not go to the party. Mr X has also said the Council did not notify him of its advice to Ms Y to not allow Z to attend the party.
  9. Mr X visited officer 2 at the Council. The purpose of the meeting was for officer 2 to obtain his views as part of the CAF. The Council’s records note Mr X raised a number of concerns about Ms Y and denied the allegations of domestic abuse. He asked officer 2 to listen to a recording of an altercation between him and Ms Y. The Council’s records note officer 2 declined as she was due to attend another appointment and Mr X had recorded the incident without Ms Y’s knowledge. The notes record officer 2 said Mr X could send the recording to her by email. Mr X has said he sent a recording to officer 2 and followed it up with a text message. He has also said officer 2 would not accept the recording without Ms Y’s consent. The Council has said it did not receive the recording.
  10. Officer 2 completed the CAF which stated it was carried out due to concerns regarding domestic abuse, controlling and coercive behaviour between Mr X and Ms Y. The CAF set out Ms Y’s concerns about Mr X’s behaviour and Mr X’s concerns about Ms Y’s behaviour. It also set out the views of the children and Ms Y’s ex partner and officer’s 2’s analysis of the risks and strengths.
  11. Shortly after the completion of the CAF, the police were called to an incident between Ms Y and her new partner. The police made a further referral to the Council. The Council carried out a new CAF and held a strategy meeting which assessed the children as being at risk of significant harm due to the allegations of abuse against Mr X and Ms Y’s new partner. The Council convened an Initial Child Protection Conference (ICPC) to be convened.
  12. The ICPC was held in December 2019 and in two parts so Mr X and Ms Y could attend separately. The full minutes note Mr X’s concerns about Ms Y as set out in the CAF. Mr X has said the Chair accused him of domestic abuse but this is not recorded in the minutes.
  13. The ICPC placed the children on a child protection plan under the category of emotional abuse.
  14. The Council’s records note Mr X called the Council in early January 2020 to complain he had not been invited to the core group meeting to examine progress of the child protection plan. He also complained he had not received the minutes or summary from the ICPC. The Council has said these were sent to him in March 2020. Mr X has said he also complained that officer 3, a senior officer had not responded to him.
  15. Mr X had a meeting with officer 3. The Council’s records of the meeting note Mr X raised concerns that the Council considered him to be the abusive party and that the Council had not assisted him with contact or residency of Z. The record of the meeting notes the officer 3 said the ICPC had considered all the risks to the children. She also explained it was not social workers’ role to agree contact or residency. Mr X disputes he asked for help with residency or contact at this meeting.
  16. Mr X also requested a number of revisions to the CAF as he considered it contained in accuracies. Officer 3 agreed to amend the factual inaccuracies, including officer 2’s account of Mr X’s description of Ms Y’s behaviour. Officer 3 explained to Mr X she would not amend officer 2’s or the manager’s analysis of the case despite Mr X disagreeing with it.
  17. The children’s case was allocated to officer 4, social worker who carried out statutory visits to the children in accordance with the child protection plan. In spring 2020 Mr X contacted officer 4 as Ms Y would not allow face to face contact with Z during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an email to Mr X, officer 4 said the Council would not get involved in matters relating to contact as that was a matter between parents and could be decided by the courts. However, officer 4 said she could give advice as Z was on a child protection plan. Officer 4 said she would not wish for Z to travel long distances and put Mr X’s family at risk. She advised telephone or facetime contact as a temporary measure.
  18. Mr X raised a number of questions about officer 4’s advice and other matters which officer 5, senior officer, responded to. Officer 5 said the Council could not force a parent to allow contact but it did enforce contact if it had been directed by a court order. Officer 5 said Ms Y was advised that she would be breaching the contact order if she didn’t allow Mr X contact with Z and was advised to seek legal advice.
  19. A review child protection conference (RCPC) was held in March 2020. Mr X attended separately from Ms Y. The RCPC decided to keep the children on a child protection plan. The Council sent the record of this meeting to Mr X in June 2020.
  20. The Council held a further RCPC in June 2020 which stepped the children down from child protection to children in need. Mr X has said the Council did not notify him of the time of the RCPC. The Council has provided evidence to show that on 27 May it sent a letter to Mr X notifying him of the date and time of the meeting The letter stated the meeting would be via conference call.
  21. The Council’s records also show officer 4, social worker, contacted Mr X about the RCPC the day before the meeting and sent a text message in the evening stating the time of the meeting. The Chair’s record also notes she tried to contact Mr X without success.
  22. The Council’s records note the Chair spoke to Mr X some weeks later and he said he did not attend the RCPC as he was not informed about the time of the meeting. Mr X has provided a recording of his call with the Chair. This recording shows Mr X raised his unhappiness with the minutes recording there were concerns about him. The Chair clarified the minutes should state concerns between Mr X and Ms Y and undertook to change them. She also asked Mr X to put his concerns about the minutes in an email which he did. There is no evidence to show the Chair amended the minutes as she agreed to do.
  23. Mr X wrote to the Council setting out a large number of complaints about how the Council had dealt with him following the incident in August 2019, during the child protection proceedings and in response to his requests for help with contact during the pandemic. Mr X complained about the language used in the CAFs and he considered social workers had not adhered to their professional standards when dealing with him. Mr X also complained that the Council had not acted on his concerns about Z being at risk.
  24. The Council summarised Mr X’s complaint into four heads of complaint. The Council declined to investigate the bulk of Mr X’s complaints as it considered the complaints process was not the appropriate procedure to consider and social worker’s professional behaviour. The Council agreed to consider Mr X’s complaint about not acting on his concerns that Z was at risk of harm. The Council has considered this complaint through the children’s statutory complaints procedure.

Analysis

  1. Mr X has made a number of complaints about how the Council. However, I consider the crux of Mr X’s complaint is he believes the Council acted unfairly towards him as it wrongly considered he was the perpetrator of domestic abuse.
  2. The CAFs were carried out as the Council had concerns about the children witnessing domestic abuse. The reports do not state Mr X was the abuser. However, there is evidence to show the Council did not keep an open mind and was not even handed towards Mr X.
  3. Officer 2 did not listen to Mr X’s recording of an incident with Ms Y during his visit to her. There is also no evidence to show how the Council considered Mr X’s allegations that Ms Y was abusive to him, what it made of those allegations or what account was taken of Mr X’s allegations in early 2019 and the previous CAF. The recording and the previous CAF are evidence of the family dynamics so are relevant to the assessment of potential harm to the children. I therefore consider the Council is at fault for not considering this information. The record of the strategy meeting referred to Mr X as the abuser despite the Council not considering his counter allegations and the fact he had not been charged with an offence. This shows the Council was not open minded.
  4. On balance, I do not consider the Council to be at fault in how it made its decision to advise Ms Y not to allow Mr X to take Z to a party. The Surrey Safeguarding Procedures provide that the Council has to take account of the risk factors relating to the contact arrangements. The Council’s records show it assessed the risks. Child protection investigations are dynamic and the assessment of the risks to the child can change as more information is gathered and known. The incident of August 2019 and the police referral were relevant considerations when assessing the risks to the Z. It was for the Council to decide what weight it placed on the information it had when assessing the risks. I understand Mr X is unhappy with the decision but I consider the Council assessed the risk in accordance with its procedures so I do not have grounds to question its decision.
  5. I come to no view as to whether officer 2 told Ms Y to lie to Mr X as to the reasons Z could not go to the party as there is no documentary evidence to show what she said to Ms Y.
  6. I understand Mr X is unhappy the Council did not notify him of its advice to Ms Y as he considers leaving it to Ms Y to notify him could have increased conflict. I do not know why the Council did not notify Mr X of its advice. But I do not consider it is proportionate to pursue the matter as further investigation would not achieve any more for Mr X.
  7. I am satisfied the Council took appropriate action to notify Mr X of the date and time of the RCPC meeting in June 2020. The Council sent a letter to Mr X advising of the date and time of the meeting. Officer 4 also notified Mr X by text. I acknowledge Mr X does not consider it was reasonable for officer 4 to notify him of the time the evening before the meeting. But given the Council had written to Mr X with the time and date and sent the text in advance of the meeting, I do not consider this to be fault.

Inaccuracies in reports and minutes

  1. The Council has acknowledged there were some factual inaccuracies in the CAF reports. In particular, the Council acknowledged there was no evidence to show Mr X described Ms Y’s behaviour as set out in the CAF carried out following the incident of August 2019. The Council changed the CAF in March 2020 but the misquoting of Mr X may have increased the tension between Mr X and Ms Y.
  2. Mr X disagrees with comments made by Ms Y about his behaviour and the Council’s analysis of the risks to the children. But it would not have been appropriate for the Council to change the comments made by Ms Y or its analysis. The reports show Mr X was able to give his views for the CAF.
  3. Mr X has provided evidence to show the chair of the RCPC undertook to amend the minutes of the RCPC in June 2020 and he sent emails to the chair setting out his concerns about the accuracy as she requested. The Council did not amend the minutes as the chair had undertaken to do. This is fault. The Council should now amend the minutes.

Failure to demonstrate professional behaviour and practice

  1. It is not the role of the Ombudsman to decide if social workers have complied with their professional standards and practice. This is a matter for their regulatory body. We can investigate if social workers responded to Mr X as this is a matter of public administration. The Council has not provided the records of all of its communications with Mr X so I cannot know if the Council responded to all of his emails and telephone calls. But the resources required to investigate this matter would be disproportionate to what I could achieve for Mr X. So, I will not investigate this matter further.

Contact during COVID-19 pandemic lockdown

  1. I consider the Council’s advice to Mr X about contact with Z during the lockdown lacked clarity and was contradictory. The Council told Mr X that contact was a court matter and that it could enforce contact when there was an order in place. The Council should have clearly explained to Mr X that contact could only be enforced by the courts.

Complaint

  1. On balance, I consider there is fault in how the Council dealt with Mr X’s complaint. Mr X considers the summarising of his complaint meant it was not properly considered and officers were not held to account. The Council was not at fault in summarising Mr X’s complaint as it is not practical or effective to carry out an investigation into a large number of interrelated complaints. However, I consider the Council is at fault for declining to investigate Mr X’s complaints. The Council considered the complaints were for the regulatory body and GDPR. Mr X termed his complaints as being about breaches of professional standards but his underlying complaints concerned the administration of the child protection enquiry and how the Council had dealt with him. These are matters which the Council could have considered so it should have investigated Mr X complaints.

Injustice to Mr X

  1. Mr X considers the faults by the Council emboldened and influenced Ms Y’s decision making and contributed to him not having contact with Z. Mr X has said he had to go to court to enforce contact due to officer 4’s position that contact should be remote due to the national lockdown. He also considers the faults by the Council put him to significant time and trouble as he had to travel to attend meetings with the Council. He was also put to time and trouble in making his complaint.
  2. The child protection process is there to protect the child. The Council would have always had to carry out a CAF and consider the risks to the children due to the concerns about domestic abuse between Mr X and Ms Y and possible consequent impact on the children. This process will have caused distress to Mr X and put him to time and trouble. But that is a consequence of the process and is not as a result of fault by the Council.
  3. I acknowledge Mr X will have been put to time and trouble in making his complaint but I do not consider this to be avoidable. There is inevitably time and trouble involved in bringing a complaint so this is not avoidable. There was fault in how the Council dealt with Mr X’s complaint but I do not consider the Council would have resolved Mr X’s complaint without the need for him to bring the complaint to the Ombudsman. I therefore do not consider it is proportionate to recommend an avoidable time and trouble payment to Mr X.
  4. I cannot conclude, on balance, the faults by the Council influenced Ms Y decisions, particularly over Mr X’s contact with Z during the national lockdown. Ms Y is responsible for her own decisions and there are many factors which could influence them. The advice provided by Ms Y’s solicitor about contact is a matter for them.
  5. However, as set out above, the Council’s failure to consider Mr X’s recording, the previous CAF and allegations of domestic abuse by Ms Y shows it was not being even handed and did not maintain an open mind. This will have caused distress to Mr X during a very difficult time. The inaccuracies in the CAF, failure to amend the RCPC minutes and the lack of clarity in its advice about contact and the Council’s refusal to consider his complaints will have also caused distress and frustration to Mr X. The Council should remedy this injustice to Mr X.

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Agreed action

  1. That the Council:
      1. Sends a written apology and makes a payment of £500 to Mr X to acknowledge the distress and frustration caused to Mr X by not being even handed during the child protection enquiry, the inaccuracies in the CAF report, lack of clarity in its advice about contact and refusal to consider Mr X’s complaints. The agreed payment is in accordance with our guidance for remedying complaints.
      2. Amends the RCPC minutes of 2 June 2020 as the chair had undertaken to do in her telephone call with Mr X of 24 June 2020 to clarify the concerns were between Mr X and Ms Y. The Council should also consider Mr X’s email of 25 June 2020 and decide if it should make further amendments in light of his comments.
      3. Reviews its procedures for carrying out child and families assessments/child protection enquiries to ensure officers are even handed, consider counter allegations and all relevant evidence.
      4. Reviews its complaints procedures to ensure officers consider if there is an underlying complaint which can be considered through its complaints procedure.
  2. The Council should take the action set out at a) and b) within one month of my final decision and the action at c) and d) within two months of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. The Council is at fault as there is evidence to show it was not even handed towards Mr X during a child protection enquiry, there were inaccuracies in its children and families assessment, it failed to amend minutes of a child protection conference as agreed and its advice regarding contact between Mr X and his son lacked clarity. The Council also wrongly refused to consider Mr X’s complaint. These faults caused distress and frustration to Mr X which the Council has agreed to remedy in an appropriate and proportionate way. I have therefore completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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