Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 29 Nov 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained about delay and failings in the way the Council dealt with his complaint about children’s services. We found fault by the Council including excessive delay and failure to complete the complaints process and a failure to explain what improvements it has made to its procedures. The Council has agreed to pay Mr B a total of £900 and provide details of any procedural improvements.
- Mr B complains that Hampshire County Council (the Council) in respect of his complaint about children’s services:
- delayed in dealing with his complaint through the statutory complaints procedure;
- failed to arrange a stage three panel;
- failed to provide explanations for the fault identified in the stage two investigation;
- failed to provide a genuine apology;
- included references to domestic violence and abuse between Mr B and his ex-wife in the reports as fact;
- failed to provide evidence that the service recommendations in the stage two report had been actioned;
- failed to properly answer his complaints about the section 7 report or the actions of the social worker following the court hearing; and
- failed to fulfil the recommendation in the stage two report requiring the Council to provide an explanation as to where the information about his alleged arrest in 2015, came from.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated parts 1 to 6 of the complaint. Parts 7 and 8 relate to court proceedings and I cannot investigate them.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- We cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. Mr B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
- 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.
What I found
- 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). Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect
Child protection conference
- If the information gathered by the enquiries substantiates the concerns that the child may remain at risk of significant harm, the social worker will arrange a child protection conference within 15 working days of the strategy meeting.
- Certain bodies must attend if the local authority invites them to do so, including another local authority, and various health bodies. The Child Protection Conference decides what action is needed to safeguard the child. This may include recommending that the child should be subject to a Child Protection Plan.
Children’s Services complaints procedure
- The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
- Stage one should be completed in a maximum of 20 working days, stage two in 65 working days and stage three within approximately 50 working days, in total 27 weeks.
- Mr B and his wife have two children. They separated some years ago. Following the separation, the Police had informed the Council of a number of incidents of acrimony between the parents which led to the Council carrying out a child and family assessment in 2014.
- The assessment referred to ‘six domestic incidents and said these highlighted ‘the children’s continued exposure to domestic abuse’. The document makes clear that the domestic abuse referred to does not include violence. But it contains the phrase ‘domestic violence’ rather than abuse at one point.
- In May 2017 Mr B contacted the Council raising concerns about the welfare of his children. The Council said both parents had contacted the Council on a number of occasions making allegations about the other, so the Council started another assessment under section 47 of the Children Act. The referral form noted that there was no domestic violence involved in the situation.
- Following the enquiries, the Council held an initial child protection conference in July 2017 and made the children subjects of a child protection plan under the category of emotional abuse. A social worker (SW) was allocated to the case. The child protection plan ended in March 2018.
- During this period Mr B and his ex-partner were involved in private law proceedings over the care of the children. As part of these proceedings SW wrote a report recommending that Mr B’s contact with the children be reduced. The court decided to keep the contact arrangements the same.
Stage one complaint
- Mr B says he first raised a complaint in December 2017 about the actions of the Council in respect of his children. Some of these were about the ongoing court action. The Council responded to these by telephone.
- Mr B remained dissatisfied and wrote to the Council again on 18 January 2018 saying a new issue had occurred and he would follow up with full details of his complaint. He did so on 26 January 2018. The Council then requested clarification on 6 February 2018. Mr B submitted his full complaint in a 112-page letter dated 28 February 2018 (received by the Council on 5 March 2018). His letter complained about:
- the quality of the social worker’s report for court.
- the lack of contact from the social worker through the child protection process.
- the responses to his correspondence from a senior officer.
- his difficulty in obtaining a document introduced by the Council during the court proceedings.
- listen to his experiences and consider whether a review of processes was necessary;
- assure him that SW was made aware of the impact of the court report and her actions during proceedings;
- apologise for a data breach;
- confirm the case status of his children as he had received no update from the Council; and
- place his stage one complaint letter (highlighting errors in the case records and assessments) on record and cross-referenced with the assessments.
- it was satisfied that it had listened to Mr B’s experiences and would consider whether any reviews were necessary but would not share the details with Mr B due to data protection.
- it did not share Mr B’s views about SW’s behaviour but it would take management action where appropriate, which it would not share with Mr B.
- the Council had already apologised for the data breach.
- the children’s cases were now closed. It apologised for not informing him of this. It was unable to explore this further as the social worker was absent from work.
- It had placed Mr B’s letter (112 pages) as requested on the children’s case records.
Stage two complaint
- Mr B asked to escalate his complaint to stage two of the process on 10 September 2018. The Council did not acknowledge the request until 5 October 2018. In November 2018 the Council apologised to Mr B for the delay in allocating his complaint to an investigating officer. It said this was due to an increase in the number of cases escalating to stage two which was overwhelming the capacity of the investigators.
- The complaint was allocated to an investigating officer (IO) and independent person (IP) on 11 March 2019.
- The statement of complaint was not agreed until 7 October 2019. The Council said this delay was due to difficulties in refining the statement so it could be investigated.
- Mr B complained that:
- the Council had delayed in considering his complaint.
- there were faults with the child protection process including: he had received the Council’s report for the ICPC only 24 hours before the conference, the report and other assessments were inaccurate, he was never allowed to correct the errors, a social worker never visited him, and documents were withheld from him.
- there were numerous errors in the core group reports which were never corrected and kept being repeated.
- there had been significant delay in moving the complaint forward, due in part to resource issues and a shortage of investigation officers/independent people. The IO noted the Council had already apologised and upheld the complaint.
- Mr B had not been given the opportunity to discuss the report and comment on the factual inaccuracies at any point before, during or after the ICPC. There were significant errors in it and other reports/assessments which had been repeated and remained on the case records. The IO also noted that Mr B objected to a reference to domestic violence as fact without discussion with him in some of the reports. The Council’s response was that it may have been more appropriate to refer to ‘domestic abuse’ because in its view, the constant conflict between the parents which played out around the children did constitute domestic abuse. The IO upheld the complaint.
- there were repeated errors in the core group reports. The IO upheld this complaint.
Stage three panel
- Mr B wrote to the Council on 15 January 2020 expressing dissatisfaction with several issues. The Council directed him to a stage three panel. Mr B requested a stage three panel on 3 February 2020. The Council then spent some weeks trying to resolve the complaint locally, in accordance with its complaints process at the time.
- On 3 April 2020 the Council informed Mr B that it could not arrange a panel due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Mr B agreed to put the matter on hold. On 24 July 2020 the Council said that a remote hearing was being considered. It confirmed on 9 November 2020 that it could arrange a remote hearing. The Council could not arrange a convenient date for all parties until 25 March 2021. On 22 March 2021 a panel member withdrew so it would need to be postponed.
- Mr B said he could not endure any more delay and so he complained to us.
- In response to my enquiries the Council has said that no work had been done by the children’s services complaints team to understand what procedures have been put in place. But it confirmed the process did now include following up with the service after an adjudication to ascertain what improvements had been made.
delayed in dealing with his complaint through the statutory complaints procedure and failed to arrange a stage three panel
- The Council received Mr B’s full formal stage one complaint on 5 March 2018. Mr B received a response to this on 9 May 2018. The delay of one month was due to the Council sending the response to the wrong address. This was fault for which it apologised.
- The Council extended the stage one process with an informal resolution process taking two months. I appreciate this was part of the process at the time (which has since been removed) but it is not part of the statutory requirements and added to the delay. This was fault.
- Mr B requested a stage two investigation in September 2018. The process did not start until March 2019 and was not completed until January 2020. The investigation should have taken a maximum of 65 working days (13 weeks). It took 16 months, a delay of 13 months.
- Mr B requested a stage three panel on 3 February 2020. The panel was arranged for 22 March 2021 but was cancelled due to a member withdrawing and has never been completed. Even accounting for the agreed hold between April and July 2020 and the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, to take over a year to arrange a panel is fault exacerbated by the last minute cancellation.
- The whole process was not completed and took three years. This delay is excessive and has caused Mr B significant frustration as well as time and trouble in continuing to pursue the matter. The delay has inevitably affected the Council’s ability to carry out a thorough investigation given the difficulties in recalling matters and staff turnover.
failed to provide explanations for the fault identified in the stage two investigation
- The stage two investigation identified several instances of fault in the process and upheld all Mr B’s complaints. As I said above, the time the process took affected the quality of the information available; specifically the allocated social worker had left the Council and was not available for interview. This meant they could not offer an explanation for why they did not visit Mr B, why they did not send him the report for the ICPC sooner and why errors were not corrected in the reports.
- Further details would have provided a fuller report and perhaps given Mr B more satisfaction, but I do not consider this affected the overall outcomes.
failed to provide a genuine apology
- The Council’s letter of 15 January 2020 contained details of the faults and offered sincere apologies in two places for the impact of the errors. I have not identified fault with the letter of apology.
included references to domestic violence and abuse between Mr B and his ex-wife in the reports as fact
- The report with these references was written in 2014. The detail makes clear that there was no violence involved and some of the references were allegations. The Council’s view that domestic abuse rather than domestic violence should have been used is reasonable. It is too long ago for me to decide whether or not the references are accurate or justified. I note that the later referral form dated May 2017 states that the situation did not involve domestic violence. If Mr B wishes to pursue this matter he can request a review under the Council’s Right to Rectification process, which is part of the UK General Data Protection Regulation.
failed to provide evidence that the service recommendations in the stage two report had been actioned
- Neither the Investigating Officer nor the Council provided any details as part of the complaints process as to what actions had been taken to review and improve the procedures. In response to my enquiries the Council says it no longer inserts informal resolution into the three stage procedure and it also follows up the service after an adjudication to check what improvements have been made.
- It was fault for the Investigating Officer to accept the word of the senior officer that procedures had been improved without establishing any detail as to those improvements. It was further fault for the Council to fail to check what improvements had been made as part of the adjudication process. As the stage three panel never took place this issue has never been clarified. This has caused Mr B further frustration and uncertainty.
- In recognition of the injustice caused to Mr B. I recommended the Council (within one month of the date of my final decision):
- pays Mr B £600 for the distress, frustration and time and trouble arising from the excessive delay in and failure to complete the complaints process.
- pays Mr B £300 for the distress arising from the upheld issues in the complaint, including the failure to visit him, to accurately include his views in the child protection enquiries or to send him a copy of report in sufficient advance of the ICPC.
- explains to Mr B and to us what improvements the Council has made to its procedures to ensure the fault identified does not recur: specifically, the need to adhere to the timescales in the statutory complaints process, the inclusion of all relevant parties in the child protection process, the circulation of reports prior to the ICPC and the accuracy of report writing.
- I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Mr B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman