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Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (20 008 827)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 09 Jul 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs B complained the Council carried out a flawed child protection investigation. We find the Council was at fault when it did not adequately represent Mr and Mrs B’s views when it completed its assessment. It also failed to provide them with a copy of the assessment in sufficient time. The Council has agreed to my recommendations to address the injustice caused by fault.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs B complained the Council carried out a flawed child protection investigation. They say there were several untruths written in the assessment on their family and they had little time to dispute these. They say the Council unnecessarily put their children on child protection plans.
  2. Mr and Mrs B say Mrs B lost her job because of the flawed investigation. They say the matter has caused much distress for the whole family.

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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 our information sharing agreement, we will share this decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered information Mr and Mrs B submitted with their complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered information it provided it response.
  2. Mr B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. The Children Act 1989 says councils have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need.
  2. These duties are set out in the statutory guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’. If a council receives a report of concern about a child, the referrer must have the opportunity to discuss their concerns with a qualified social worker. The council must then, within one working day, decide what response is required. This includes determining whether:
  • The child requires immediate protection.
  • The child is in need and should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
  • There is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.
  1. Where a council has reasonable cause to suspect a child in its area is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm, it has a duty under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to hold a strategy discussion and make further enquiries. These are to decide whether it needs to take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. A section 47 enquiry may be triggered if there are allegations about neglect or the abuse of a child.
  2. If concerns of significant harm are substantiated following section 47 enquiries, an initial child protection conference (ICPC) should be arranged within 15 working days of the original strategy discussion. This is a multi-disciplinary meeting whose attendees decide what action is needed to safeguard the child. The ICPC may decide to make the child the subject of a child protection plan which details what action is necessary to reduce the risk of harm.
  3. After the ICPC, if the decision is to place a child under a child protection plan, there will be core group meetings with the professionals and family to assess progress. There should also be review child protection conferences (RCPC). These consider the progress taken to safeguard the child and whether the child protection plan should be maintained, amended, or discontinued.

What happened

  1. The Council received a safeguarding referral from the police in February 2020 which alleged that Mr B was intoxicated and was being abusive and aggressive towards Mrs B. Mr and Mrs B’s three children witnessed the incident.
  2. The Council assigned a social worker (Social Worker A) to the case. Social Worker A visited Mr and Mrs B at their house. She spoke to Mr and Mrs B’s children.
  3. Mr B said the police’s referral was inaccurate and that his behaviour was not frightening towards Mrs B or the children.
  4. The Council held a strategy meeting with other professionals. All participants agreed the case met the threshold for section 47 enquiries as they were concerned about the children being at risk of harm.
  5. A different social worker (Social Worker B) visited Mrs B at her house. Mr B was not there. Social Worker B spoke to two of Mr and Mrs B’s children who said they were fine. Mrs B said her children understood Mr B’s actions were wrong.
  6. Social Worker A made a referral to Mrs B’s employer because of her role working with children. This progressed to a Position of Trust (POT) meeting. The purpose of these meetings is to share information relevant to the allegation that has been made about someone who works in a position of trust. Mrs B’s employer, Social Worker A and other professionals attended the meeting. They discussed the incident and the family’s previous involvement with the Council. The outcome of the POT meeting was for Mrs B's employer to investigate the matter further. She was suspended from her job pending further investigation the following day.
  7. Social Worker A completed her assessment of Mr and Mrs B’s family and provided them with a copy of it the evening before the ICPC. She noted the Council had been involved with the family for several years, but some of the same problems remained. She had concerns about the impact it was having on Mr and Mrs B’s children. She recommended for all three children to be put on child protection plans.
  8. The ICPC took place the following day. Mr and Mrs B said they disagreed with the assessment. Mr B said he did not agree with the police report. He also said he was attending counselling sessions. Mrs B’s mother said she disagreed with the assessment and believed it would have a huge impact on the family.
  9. The professionals that attended the meeting had concerns about Mr and Mrs B’s children being exposed to arguments and disputes. They were also concerned the incidents had been ongoing for several years. They all agreed that Mr and Mrs B’s children would be subject to child protection plans under the category of emotional abuse.
  10. The Council assigned another social worker (Social Worker C) to Mr and Mrs B’s case on 23 March. He called Mrs B on 6 April and agreed a home visit for the following day. He called Mrs B the following day and cancelled the appointment because he had to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  11. The Council appointed duty social workers to visit Mr and Mrs B on 9 and 22 April. Mr and Mrs B said they were not happy with Social Worker A and felt they had not received enough support.
  12. Social Worker C contacted Mr and Mrs B on 28 April and said he would visit on 7 May. This visit did not happen.
  13. The Council assigned a final social worker (Social worker D) to Mr and Mrs B’s case on 15 May. She visited them on 21 May. They said they were frustrated about the change in social workers.
  14. The RCPC took place in June 2020. Mr B said they had received little support from the Council and there had been a lack of intervention to progress the child protection plans. He also said he was still attending counselling sessions. The Chair of the meeting said the delay in assigning a social worker was due to staffing issues. Mrs B said the family had made progress and were getting along well together.
  15. The Chair noted there had been a drift in the child protection plans which had impacted on progress. The professionals in the meeting agreed that Mr and Mrs B had taken significant steps to address alcohol misuse and mental health issues. However, the decision was made for Mr and Mrs B’s children to remain on child protection plans because further work was required to understand their lived experiences. The professionals also wanted more information from Mr B on the support he was getting to address his mental health and alcohol misuse issues.
  16. Mr and Mrs B complained to the Council. They said Social Worker A bought the assessment round to their house the evening before the ICPC and so they had little time to question anything. They also said the assessment contained several untruths and Mrs B was facing disciplinary action from her employer because of the untruths. Finally, they said Social Worker C did not visit them or provide support.
  17. The Council issued its response to Mr and Mrs B’s complaint. It said Mr and Mrs B did not ask any questions when Social Worker A gave them a copy of the assessment. It also explained that the information in Social Worker A’s assessment was based on conversations with their children and the police. Finally, it said it assigned Social Worker C to their case from 23 March to 2 May. During this time, face to face visits did not take place because he was in self-isolation or on sick leave. It said it could have done more to ensure there was better communication between them and Social Worker C. However, it did send duty social workers to provide support to Mr and Mrs B.
  18. Mr and Mrs B emailed the Council and said their main concern was Social Worker A had written the assessment based on her assumptions and not facts.
  19. The Council met with Mr and Mrs B to discuss their concerns. After the meeting, the Council agreed to:
  • Apologise to Mr and Mrs B by 10 August.
  • Write to Mrs B’s employer sharing the apology and the outcome of the POT meeting by 28 August.
  • Review by 10 September whether there was scope for it to bring the RCPC due in November 2020 forward.
  1. A POT review meeting took place in July. The notes show that Mrs B’s employer had arranged a disciplinary hearing to address the concerns formally.
  2. The Council wrote to Mr and Mrs on 10 August and apologised for the way Social Worker A conducted herself. It accepted it could have done things differently.
  3. Mr and Mrs B emailed the Council on 23 August and said they had received an apology but had not heard anything about the inaccurate assessment.
  4. The Council spoke to Mr and Mrs B on 30 September. It agreed to amend and update the original assessment.
  5. Social Worker D visited Mr and Mrs B and their children. Mr and Mrs B said they did not understand the safeguarding concerns and felt the police, Social Worker A and other professionals had told lies. Social Worker D said she wanted to hear Mr and Mrs B’s views in the new assessment.
  6. Social Worker D provided Mr and Mrs B with a draft copy of the new assessment on 23 October. Mr and Mrs B said it was unfair for a new social worker to take over.
  7. Mr and Mrs B emailed the Council on 28 October. They said they did not understand the purpose of the new assessment because it did not address their concerns that Social Worker A failed to consider their views. They also said that if Social Worker A had given them the original assessment in enough time it would have allowed them to dispute what was written.
  8. The Council responded on the same day and said the purpose of the new assessment was to rectify the inaccuracies made in the previous assessment. However, it could not delete the original assessment.
  9. Mr and Mrs B emailed the Council and said they were unhappy with how it was treating them, and they had not received a formal apology. They said the untruths in the assessment led to Mrs B losing her job.
  10. The Council wrote to Mr and Mrs B and apologised that Social Worker A dropped off the assessment the night before the meeting. It said Social Worker D had prepared a new assessment to address the inaccuracies. It also said there should have been a better transition between social workers. Finally, it said it had learnt lessons in completing assessments and the information in them should be factual and evidence based.
  11. Social Worker D provided Mr and Mrs B with the final copy of the new assessment. They recognised it was better but said it did not help their case.
  12. The final RCPC took place a few weeks later. Mr and Mrs B met their targets and so the child protection plans ended.
  13. The Council wrote to Mr and Mrs B on 26 November and said it had provided them with a detailed response to their stage one complaint and it had acted reasonably to resolve their concerns. Therefore, it said it would not progress their concerns to stage two of its complaints procedure and instead they could refer their complaint to the Ombudsman.
  14. Mr and Mrs B remained dissatisfied and so referred their complaint to the Ombudsman.
  15. Mrs B sadly died during the early stages of my investigation.

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Analysis

  1. The Council accepts it should have sent Mr and Mrs B a copy of the assessment well in advance of the ICPC. I agree this is fault. Mr and Mrs B were clearly left very distressed that they had little time to dispute the information in the assessment.
  2. The Council also accepts that Social Worker A did not fully consider Mr and Mrs B’s views and therefore there were some inaccuracies in the initial assessment. I have read the initial assessment and have reviewed Social Worker A’s interaction with Mr and Mrs B and their children. Some of the inaccuracies that Mr and Mrs B highlighted are down to Social Worker A’s professional judgment and the police’s record of the incident. However, there were also some assumptions in the assessment that were not evidence based.
  3. The Council’s records show Social Worker A only visited the family home once and therefore she had little involvement with the family before she completed her assessment. It is clear this fault caused Mr and Mrs B upset and frustration.
  4. I have considered whether the situation would have been different if Mr and Mrs B had been given more time to read and contribute to the assessment. The notes show that Mr and Mrs B were able to express their views at the ICPC. The professionals in the meeting, which included representatives from the police and Mr and Mrs B’s children’s schools, heard Mr and Mrs B’s views but they still had concerns about the children’s emotional wellbeing. The professionals did not just focus on the content of the assessment, they also considered previous incidents that had taken place and formed their own judgment of the situation. Therefore, on balance I cannot say a different decision would have been reached if the fault had not occurred.
  5. I cannot find a direct link between the initial assessment and Mrs B losing her job. The first POT meeting took place before Social Worker A completed her assessment. The meeting was attended by Social Worker A, Mrs B’s employer and other professionals. I have reviewed the minutes of the meeting and I am satisfied it was conducted properly because all professionals had an opportunity to express their views and consider the case in detail. All professionals agreed that Mrs B’s employer should conduct its own investigation.
  6. Social Worker C did not visit Mr and Mrs B during the time he was assigned and therefore they had different duty social workers visiting them. I accept this was frustrating for Mr and Mrs B as it meant they did not have a stable point of contact and as a result the child protection plans were allowed to drift.
  7. When the Council responded to Mr and Mrs B’s complaint, it apologised to them for the way Social Worker A conducted herself and that they had little time to prepare for the ICPC. It also accepted there should have been a better transition between social workers and it agreed to issue a new assessment to address the inaccuracies. It said it had learnt lessons about completing assessments and the information in them should be factual and evidence based.
  8. I welcome the steps the Council has already taken, but I consider it needs to take further steps to fully address the injustice caused. I recommend that it issues a further apology to Mr B and pays him a symbolic payment of £250 for the upset, distress and frustration caused. I also recommend the Council provides evidence of the lessons it has learnt in completing assessments. Finally, I recommend the Council makes a further service improvement to ensure its social workers are aware they must send relevant reports to all participants well in advance of any meetings.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by fault, by 6 August 2021 the Council has agreed to:
  • Issue a further apology to Mr B.
  • Pay him £250 which is a symbolic payment to reflect the upset, distress and frustration caused.
  • Provide me with evidence to show the lessons it has learnt about completing accurate and evidence-based assessments.
  • Sent written reminders to its social workers to ensure they send relevant reports to all participants well in advance of any meetings.

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Final decision

  1. I have found fault by the Council, which has caused an injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendations and so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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