Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 08 Sep 2021
- The complaint
- The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- How I considered this complaint
- What I found
- Agreed action
- Final decision
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council included inaccurate information about its conversations with one of Mr B’s children in an assessment as part of a safeguarding investigation. It is unlikely that the outcome would have been different if this information had not been included, and the Council would still have made the children subject to Child Protection Plans. There was no fault when the Council did not share information with Mr B, and there is no evidence that it fabricated information or pressurised the children to give false information. The Council should apologise to Mr B, attach an addendum to the assessment correcting the inaccuracy, and share this with relevant professionals.
- Mr B complains:
- The Council did not share with him disclosures made between 2014 and 2020. It shared allegations with third parties such as the school, without investigating whether these had any basis and without allowing him to answer the allegations.
- In 2020, the Council did not share its report to the Initial Child Protection Conference (ICPC) with him, until the Friday before the Monday morning conference. This meant that Mr B did not have an opportunity to comment on the report or correct inaccurate information.
- The Council failed to gather accurate information from the children or assess the children properly.
- The Council has refused his request to remove what he considers to be unfounded allegations and inaccurate information from its files.
- Mr B says that the Council’s failures has meant the children were placed on child protection plans unnecessarily; his reputation has been damaged; and his family has been put under unnecessary stress.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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)
- We cannot investigate complaints about what happens in schools. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5, paragraph 5(b), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information provided by Mr B and discussed the issues with him. I considered the information provided by the Council including its file documents. I also considered the law and guidance set out below. Both parties had the opportunity to comment on a draft of this statement. I have considered their comments before issuing this final decision.
What I found
The law and guidance
- Anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to local authority children’s social care and should do so immediately if there is a concern that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to do so.
- The council should make initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family, for example, health visitor, GP, schools and nurseries. The information gathering at this stage enables the council to assess the nature and level of any harm the child may be facing. The assessment may result in:
- No further action;
- A decision to carry out a more detailed assessment of the child’s needs; or
- A decision to convene a strategy meeting.
- Section 47 of the Act places a duty on agencies, but mainly the council and the police, to make ‘such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether to take action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child in their area’.
- If the information gathered under section 47 substantiates concerns and the child may remain at risk of significant harm the social worker will arrange ICPC. The ICPC decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include recommending that the child should be subject to a Child Protection Plan. This is a plan to protect the child and sets out why the plan is needed, what relevant adults should do, and what support will be provided to ensure this happens. The plan is reviewed by subsequent Child Protection Conferences (CPC). It will end when the child reaches 18 or when the CPC decides it is no longer necessary.
- Mr B lives with his partner, Miss K and their two young children. The youngest child has communication difficulties and a learning disability.
- The Council received a safeguarding referral in 2014, following Miss K’s disclosure of domestic abuse, both physical and verbal in the home. The Council liaised with Miss K’s health visitor and midwife to see whether they had any information about what was happening. The case notes show that the Council’s Social Worker (SW) met with Miss K, who said there had been arguments and that Mr B had hit her a few times, but she was clear she did not want to engage in assessments. The Council referred Miss K to Women’s Aid. The Council’s case notes say there are no welfare issues about the children in terms of physical abuse. It was satisfied that Miss K could access help if she needed it.
- The Council did not tell Mr B about the referral. It recorded at that time that it did not need to assess the situation further because there was no social welfare concerns regarding the children.
- The Council received a further referral in 2018 when Miss K was pregnant again. She said the Mr B put her down verbally every day, and had said that he would make her leave the family home if she did not terminate the pregnancy. Miss K also said Mr B had pulled her from the car. She was clear he was not abusive to the children and she told the SW she was not fearful for her safety. The SW told Miss K that the Council would need to speak to Mr B and to the children. It told her again that she could access help and support at Women’s Aid.
- The Council spoke to the children’s school. The school reports that the Mr B is very involved with the children’s education and it has no welfare concerns about the children. The Council contacted the Police and found there was no criminal history. The SW visited the eldest child at school. The case notes say the child told the SW that the parents argued daily and he talked about the car incident. The case notes say that the SW could not understand the youngest child but the school said he had a good bond with Mr B.
- During this time a mental health professional seeing Miss K, told the SW that during a telephone call with her, she had overheard Mr B shouting at Miss K and threatening to make her leave the house. The SW’s case notes say she is trying to minimise the risk that this might escalate. The Council called a strategy meeting. It decided to close the case. The case notes say that it is likely there are arguments at home, but Miss K has been supported to engage with services. The notes also say that as Miss K has decided to stay in the relationship, intervention is likely to be riskier to the children, rather than supportive.
- In April 2020, Miss K was pregnant again. She told her GP that Mr B wanted her to have a termination and is angry with her. Mr B denies this but the SW noted that the Council had never assessed Mr B because the case had been closed, and so the risk was unknown. The Council contacted Women’s Aid to see if Miss K had engaged with it, and the children’s school. The children’s school told the SW that it had contacted Miss K’s workplace. Her workplace said that it had concerns about her and had referred her to Women’s Aid while trying to support her.
- The case notes show that again, the Council considered whether it should alert Mr B at this stage, and was mindful that if there was abuse, this could escalate. At this time, the school reported that it had telephoned the house and had overheard Mr B shouting at Miss K. The school called the Police due to the youngest child being especially vulnerable.
- The SW met with Miss K who said she will contact Women’s Aid for support. The SW met virtually with both children separately. Each had a teacher or teaching assistant with them. The SW’s notes of her conversation with the youngest child refer to his communication difficulties and that she let him lead the conversation. He talked about the Police coming and arguments. The notes say the conversation was brief and they talked about his day and toys too. The youngest child told the SW that his father had thrown his mother’s clothes. The case notes do not say that the youngest child told the SW that he saw his mother hit his father.
- The SW’s notes of her conversation with the eldest child describe that he disclosed that his parents argue and that Mr B threatens to force Miss K to leave. He said his father hits his mother when he gets cross.
- Mr B became aware that the Council are assessing the children. By this time, the COVID-19 restrictions were in place and the schools were closed to most children. The Council asked Mr B to send the children to school during this time and he asked if the SW’s assessment could be at another school because he was concerned that the teachers are influencing his eldest child to say that he is violent. Sadly, at this time, Miss K suffered a miscarriage.
- Mr B recorded a conversation he had with the children about violence at home. In the recording Mr B asks his eldest child about the SW’s interview. The eldest child said that he had told the SW that Mr B hits Miss K, but only because the SW told him that his youngest brother had said that. Mr B sent this to the SW and says that Miss K has poor mental health, and he keeps the family safe, he has been attacked by Miss K, he also says the youngest is vulnerable to COVID-19 and he is concerned about risk of him contracting this at school. The SW visited the children again virtually. The youngest child did not settle. The eldest child says his parents have stopped arguing.
- The SW sent Mr B and Miss K her child and family assessment. She sent this on the Friday and it would be discussed at the ICPC the following Monday. This was the first time that Mr B became aware that the Council had been involved with the family in 2014 and 2018.
- In summary relevant to my investigation, the SW’s assessment:
- Set out brief details of the safeguarding referrals in 2014 and 2018.
- Reproduced the notes of her recent conversations with both children, but then said that both children had witnessed their mum being hit.
- Said that Mr B and Miss K had said that the youngest child could not have answered questions about their home life as he would not understand them or be able to communicate his views consistently.
- The eldest child had said that the parents had stopped arguing but this needed to be sustained.
- Miss K has been offered support, but had not always engaged with this. Mr B said the children were not at risk of physical harm but Miss K has complex mental health issues, and in the past she had attacked him. He makes derogatory comments to and about her in front of the children, and he acknowledges that he has threatened to remove her from the house and thrown her clothes down the stairs in an attempt to stop arguments.
- Set out the parents comments and reproduced a recent email from Mr B with his perspective on Miss K’s disclosures.
- Set out the Council’s concerns that:
- Miss K had not engaged with support offered previous which raises a concern that she might not have an insight of the impact on the children of witnessing domestic abuse.
- the youngest is especially vulnerable to traumatisation due to his learning difficulties.
- discussions with Miss K indicate that the domestic abuse has undermined her parenting and authority with the children.
- domestic abuse may have been a factor in the loss of the baby
- Mr B has reported that he is the victim of physical abuse by Miss K, and that he cannot see the part he has played in causing harm to the children.
- Both children have said they have witnessed their Mum being hit.
- Mr B says during the ICPC, the SW said three times that both children had seen him hit Miss K. He maintains that he has never hit her, and also that the youngest child would not be able to answer or understands reliably that kind of question.
- The CPC minutes say it is concerned that the children see and hear arguments between their parents, that Miss K has not always engaged with support offered, the school is concerned about reports of domestic violence that have not been investigated. The minutes also say that the youngest told the SW that he saw his Daddy hit his Mummy.
- The minutes also say what the ICPC needs to know more about. This includes that there are alleged incidents of domestic abuse but there is no information about whether it is happening or not. The minutes set out the children’s views and report that the eldest child said he had given conflicting information about whether there is physical violence in the home.
- The Chair summarised and highlighted concerns about how the parents communicate in their relationship; that the eldest said he has seen his dad hit his mum, and both children have witnessed arguments; Miss K had not taken offers of support; and the children’s emotional life is unpredictable.
- The ICPC decided that both children needed a child protection plan with regard to the risk of significant harm from emotional abuse. Mr B says this was unnecessary because there was no abuse, and his eldest child had changed the information he had given and was pressurised by the SW to say he had seen domestic violence.
- The Council received an affidavit from Miss K that she had prepared with a solicitor. This said that the SWs report was not based on her statements, but on speculation and assumptions, and that the allegations set out in the report were not made by her. The Council questioned whether Mr B had put pressure on Miss K to do this. It explained to me that it questioned this because there had been repeated disclosures by her.
- The Council made numerous visits to the children (virtually and face to face). The Council remained concerned that the parents lacked insight into how arguments had impacted on the children, but had no other concerns about the children’s welfare.
- The Council convened monthly core group meetings of professionals and the family, to monitor the progress of the child protection plans, and subsequent CPCs to review the plan. During a CPC in August, the school representative said that the youngest child would not have been able to reliably understand or answer questions about his home life. This was not recorded in the meeting minutes, but Mr B made an audio recording of the meeting.
- Mr B made complaints to the school that the teachers had been conducting their own investigations and had influenced the SW’s interviews with them. The school considered Mr B’s contact to be aggressive and on legal advice, it reported this to the Police.
- Mr B says he was not aggressive and the school action was unfounded. A CPC reviewing the children’s plans later took this information into account and decided that the children should remain on the plan. The C&F assessment presented to the CPC on that occasion sets out what the Council remained concerned about. This does mention that the school had issued a legal instruction that Mr B should not come onto the school property and can only communicate with designated staff, but that the children present well in school and there are no concerns from the home visits, and that Mr B and Miss K provide a caring home that meets the children’s needs to a good standard. The C&F assessment also mentions that the Council remained concerned that Mr B used inappropriate questioning and recording of the children, that he had a lack of insight into the impact of these actions, and that the youngest child remained vulnerable due to a diagnosis of Autism.
- The children’s child protection plans were finally ended in July by the CPC. It agreed that Miss K and Mr B had engaged in the support offered and taken the steps asked of them.
- Mr B complained to the Council that it had fabricated the children’s evidence; over a period of six years had shared information with the school and the Police but had not verified any of the allegations with Mr B; had allowed the school to put pressure on the children to say that their dad was violent; had not considered his request for the children to be assessed elsewhere; and as a consequence, had placed the children on child protection plans when this was not necessary. Mr B said as a result his reputation has been damaged; his children had to change schools; Miss K could not work in schools as she had been doing; and Mr B lost income.
- The Council explained that it had not told him of the allegations for fear of increasing the risk to Miss K or the children; it refuted that it had pressurised or fabricated evidence from the children, or allowed the school to do this; that the assessments were factually accurate and based on information from a range of professionals.
Was there fault by the Council causing injustice to Mr B?
- The Child Protection Conferences, the schools, and the Police are not in the Ombudsman’s remit and I have not investigated their actions.
Inaccuracies in the Council’s assessment
- There was fault by the Council in its assessment in May 2020. The Council says in this assessment that the youngest child told the SW that he saw Mr B hit Miss K. However, this is not recorded in the SWs case notes of the conversations she had with the child, and it is not clear where this information came from.
- The assessment is contradictory because it has reproduced the notes of the conversation with the youngest child which mention an argument but nothing more, but elsewhere in the assessment the Council has stated that he did say he saw his father hit his mother. The school and the parents have both said the youngest is unlikely to be able to consistently understand or respond to these statements. On balance, it is likely that the youngest child did not say that he saw physical violence, and that the Council was wrong to include this inaccurate information in the assessment.
- This was distressing for both Mr B and Miss K, who maintain that there has been no violence or abuse. It has left them uncertain that had the Council not included this information, then his children would not have been made subject to child protection plans. I cannot say for certain whether this is the case, and so I have to look at whether on the balance of probabilities, the statement that youngest child had said this, was so significant that without it, the ICPC would not have recommended the children be made subject to child protection plans.
- My view is that it is more likely than not that the ICPC would have still recommended child protection plans without this error. The information before the ICPC from the SW’s assessment and from other agencies was that the children were witnessing or were at risk of witnessing arguments between Mr B and Miss K; that their mother had disclosed physical and emotional abuse and control; and that not enough regard was had for the impact on the children of this. The ICPC also noted that the concerns had not been properly established and Mr B’s views had not been obtained. It was clear on this. The statement that the youngest child had witnessed his father hitting his mother was an important piece of information, but there was other information from other sources. The minutes of the ICPC say that the children were placed on the Plans under the category of emotional abuse. It was not just about allegations of domestic violence.
The Council’s decision not to disclose the allegations with Mr B, but to share information with other professionals.
- Although we would usually expect the Council to alert the alleged perpetrator, this is not always advisable, and it is open to the Council not to do so provided it has good reason. I realise that it would have been distressing for Mr B to learn that the Council had previously considered safeguarding alerts and spoken to Miss K and the children. However, the case notes are clear that it considered at the time whether it should tell him about these and decided that if there was any substance to the allegations, then alerting him to its involvement might place Miss K and the children at further risk. I do appreciate that Mr B’s view is that the Council would have seen that the allegations were taken out of the context of Miss K’s mental health at that time, but we would not usually criticise the Council for taking action to safeguard children. There was no fault by the Council when it did not tell Mr B about its involvement in 2014 and 2018, and when it delayed sharing the assessment in 2020.
- Mr B is concerned the Council failed to investigate or substantiate the allegations. In 2014 and 2018/19, the Council decided that it was sufficient to refer Miss K to services that might help her such as Women’s Aid and a refuge if necessary. Again, it is open to the Council to decide this is sufficient based on the information it had at the time. The Council decided this managed any risk to the children and so it had no need to investigate the allegations further. I realise from Mr B’s point of view this might not seem right, but the Council’s focus is on managing any risk to the children’s wellbeing. This is not the same as proving whether a person is domestically abusing someone or not.
- I have looked at what information the Council shared with other agencies. It was appropriate for it to liaise with the school, health care professionals, and the Police, even if it had not yet alerted Mr B to the allegations. It would not have been able to decide on what action would be necessary or proportionate without seeking this information. I note that at the ICPC the school was clear that the allegations had not been investigated or substantiated yet as it mentions this as a concern. This indicates the Council was sufficiently clear, that these were allegations that had not yet been substantiated.
The Council’s assessment of the children’s needs
- The Council did not fail to assess the children properly. Although it did give incorrect information in the assessment about what the youngest child had said, the notes of the social worker’s conversations with the children do not indicate that the Council put pressure on the children, or fabricated any information. The majority of the information was about arguments at home at that time which were not disputed, rather than actual physical violence. The Council has assured me that the relevant SW had over ten years of experience of direct work with children and used child friendly practices. Mr B has shown me information that suggests that the SW had not been registered as such for ten years. I have not investigated this further because it is sufficient that the SW was qualified and had some relevant experience: I do not need to establish the number of years post qualification, or whether some of her experience was gained prior to her registration as an SW.
- The Council has acknowledged that it should have given more consideration to Mr B’s request that it assess the children away from school, as he was worried about the influence of the teachers on the children. However, Mr B here was asking for the children to go to a different school during the first period of COVID-19 restrictions. This would have been difficult to organise and may not have been in the best interests of the children.
- The school considered Mr B’s behaviour towards the teachers to be aggressive and took legal advice about this, which culminated in a report to the Police. Mr B disputed this and said the Chair of the CPC, by allowing this to be shared at a conference, allowed the CPC to wrongly decide that the children should stay on child protection plans. Information from Mr B indicates that the Chair gave wrong information to the CPC, about whether the school had raised concerns about Mr B’s behaviour before. However, the fact remains that the school found Mr B to be aggressive and I cannot see how the Chair can exclude that information from a meeting. In addition, it is clear that the CPC took into account other information and remained concerned that it was too soon to end the Plans.
- The Council told Mr B that it would not amend the SW’s assessment of May 2020 because it was accurate. Mr B has rights to ask that inaccurate information about him is rectified. It is not clear that the Council directed him toward this as a means of having the assessment amended. However, the Council has added Mr B’s views to the file. If Mr B remains concerned he can seek advice from the Information Commissioner.
- The Council will within one month of this decision show the Ombudsman it has:
- Apologised in writing to Mr B for the inaccurate information in the assessment of May 2020.
- Added an addendum to the assessment and any other of the child protection documents setting out my findings and correcting the information.
- Share this with those that received the inaccurate assessment of May 2020.
- I have completed my investigation. There was fault by the Council causing injustice to Mr B.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman