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Sunderland City Council (21 002 343)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 01 Dec 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr C complained the Council failed to follow Child Protection procedures, wrongly shared information with his children and was biased toward his children’s mother. As a result, Mr C said he and his children experienced distress due to their loss of contact. The Council agreed it was at fault on parts of Mr C’s complaint and apologised. We found its apology was not enough to remedy the injustice caused to Mr C and his children. The Council should make payment to Mr C to acknowledge the distress its faults caused.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr C, complained about the Council’s handling of a safeguarding investigation for his children. He said it:
    • failed to follow Child Protection procedures;
    • wrongly told his children he had physically harmed their mother and his ex-partner;
    • wrongly told his children he had a partner; and
    • was biased toward his children’s mother and his ex-partner, and wrongly decided he was the perpetrator of domestic violence.
  2. As a result, Mr C said he experienced distress due to the loss of contact with his children and the emotional harm the allegations caused him. He also said his children experienced distress due to emotional harm and loss of contact with him.

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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. 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)
  3. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  4. The courts have said that where someone has used their right of appeal, reference or review or remedy by way of proceedings in any court of law, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to investigate. This is the case even if the appeal did not or could not provide a complete remedy for all the injustice claimed. (R v The Commissioner for Local Administration ex parte PH (1999) EHCA Civ 916)
  5. We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. We cannot investigate the actions of bodies such as Children’s Safeguarding Partnerships. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 25 and 34A, as amended)
  6. 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. As part of my investigation, I have:
    • considered Mr C’s complaint, the Council’s responses and the Independent Officer’s investigation;
    • discussed the complaint with Mr C; and
    • considered the relevant law, guidance and policy;
  2. Mr C and the Council had the opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision. I have considered the comments I received before making my final decision.

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What I found

Relevant Law, Guidance and Policy

The Children Act 1989

  1. Section 47 of the Act places a duty on local authorities to make enquiries if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. Authorities shall make, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.

The Statutory Guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’

  1. The Guidance says 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 deciding whether:
    • The child needs 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 the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.
  2. 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. Both parents and the child will normally be interviewed as part of the process.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Council’s Safeguarding Children Partnership Manual

  1. This sets out the procedures the Council is expected to follow while ensuring the focus remains on the child.
  2. The manual also says concerns about domestic violence should include working with other agencies, including the Police. Enquiries should be made to check whether domestic violence or abuse has occurred. It should assess the child’s needs which includes current and past history, what they have witnessed and decide if the child’s safety is at risk. Risk may not be of physical violence but includes whether the environment is unsafe for the child.

What happened

  1. Mr C has two children and is separated from his children’s mother, Mrs X. A court order was in place for the children to live with Mrs X, but they should also stay with Mr C almost half of the time.
  2. In late 2017 the children were made subject to Child in Need plans and a social worker from the Council was involved in the children’s wellbeing. This was because of ongoing disputes and allegations between Mr C and Mrs X, which was found to impact the children.
  3. In early 2019 Mr C had a new partner, Mrs Y. She accused Mr C of domestic violence and reported this to the Police.
  4. The Police arrested Mr C. It also raised concerns about the children to the Council. Shortly after, the Police released Mr C without any charges.
  5. Mr C said Mrs Y told Mrs X about the domestic violence. So, Mrs X reported her concerns about his arrest and the domestic violence allegations to the Council. She also stopped his contact with his children.
  6. The Council spoke with Mr C following the allegation. Its Social Worker explained she had not pressured Mrs X to stop her children’s contact with him. She said this was Mrs X’s decision.
  7. The Council considered the safeguarding concerns based on the information it had received. It held a strategy meeting and decided to start a Section 47 enquiry to enable it to decide if it should take any action to safeguard the children. The Council did not involve Mr C in the enquiry, but it did involve his children.
  8. The Council and the professionals involved in the Section 47 enquiry decided the children should be subject to a Child Protection Plan. This was due to the domestic violence allegations, the environment the children had lived under and Mr C’s past behaviour. They believed the Children had experienced emotional abuse and may continue to do so.
  9. An initial Child Protection Conference took place, but Mr C did not attend.
  10. Mr C asked for unsupervised contact with his children. However, the Council refused. Its social worker told Mr C this was because he was not engaging with the Child Protection Plan to attend a domestic violence perpetrator course.
  11. Mr C said he had refused to attend the course because he was not a perpetrator of domestic violence. He also told the Council he had disengaged with the process because he did not believe its proposed plans had the best interest of his children at heart. He said they would not benefit from the traumatic experience of having supervised visits with him.
  12. In March 2019 Mrs Y admitted to the Police that she had fabricated her allegations against Mr C. He said this information was available to the Council’s Social Worker.
  13. Mr C also provided the Social Worker with photographs, emails, and text messages from Mrs Y which showed she had fabricated the domestic violence allegations against him.
  14. In Spring 2019, the court considered Mr C’s contact arrangements with his children. It found Mr C should continue having supervised contact with his children due to the ongoing Child Protection Plan.
  15. The Council’s continued to hold Child Protection meetings which Mrs X and Mr C attended.
  16. In summer 2019 the Court considered the Child Arrangement Order again. It found there was no evidence to suggest Mr C posed a risk to his children or Mrs X. It also found the Social Worker’s risk assessment was unreliable and should be discredited as Mrs Y had admitted to lying about the domestic violence. And so, the Court asked the Council to bring forward the Child Protection Review to reinstate Mr C’s access to his children.
  17. The Council moved its Child Protection Review forward. This led to Mr C again having access to his children.
  18. A month later the Court again considered the matter and Mr C’s access to his children was set out in the court order.

Mr C’s complaint

  1. In late 2019 Mr C complained to the Council about its handling of the Child Protection investigation. He set out 23 points to his complaint which included:
    • it had failed to follow the Child Protection procedures and to provide him with information;
    • it had wrongly told his children he had a new partner, and he had hurt his partner and their mother;
    • it had recorded incorrect information about him, and it was wrong to describe him as the perpetrator of domestic violence, violent, coercive and manipulative without conducting a risk assessment;
    • it had failed to review and disregarded the evidence he had provided which confirmed Mrs Y had fabricated the domestic violence allegations;
    • its Social Worker demonstrated bias towards Mrs X; and
    • the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) was wrong to not allow Mr C’s brother to attend the core group meetings. He also said the IRO behaved aggressively, was biased, dismissed police information, breached his data protection rights and failed to respond to his email.

The Council’s investigation

  1. The Council arranged for an investigating officer (IO) and an independent person (IP) to investigate Mr C’s complaint under the Children’s Statutory Complaints procedure. They considered the events from 2017 and the Council’s handling of the child protection concerns until the case was closed. The investigation did not uphold most of Mr C’s complaint. However, it was found:
    • the Council had failed to include Mr C in the Section 47 enquiry;
    • the Council had tried to prepare Mr C for the initial Child Protection Conference, but should have given him written materials;
    • the Council had not provided Mr C with copies of the minutes from the Child Protection meetings;
    • there was not enough evidence to determine anyone from the Council had told the Children about Mr C’s partner, nor that Mr C had told the Council he did not want it to do so;
    • on balance, the Council may have wrongly told Mr C’s children he had hurt Mrs Y and Mrs X. However, the children had also received this information from Mrs X;
    • the Council’s Social Worker was wrong not to acknowledge and review the evidence Mr C provided, which showed Mrs Y admitted fabricating the domestic violence allegations. The Social Worker should have included Mr C’s assertations in her report, but the information could not be relied on as it had not been confirmed by the Police at the time; and
    • the Council’s Social Worker should have gone further in her analysis and evidence base before completing her report and risk assessment. However, it was not found this meant she was biased towards Mrs X throughout the case.
  2. The Council followed the IO and IP’s recommendations and apologised to Mr C for the parts of his complaint which was upheld. It also said it:
    • sent Mr C copies of the core group meetings and updated its Social Work Practice Standards for the sharing of minutes and case recording;
    • has briefed its staff on the importance of ensuring accurate information is recorded within its documents, and to acknowledge emails within two days whenever possible;
    • has developed and implemented its Social Work Practice Standards which supports its staff and training to avoid appearing biased. It has supervision and quality assurance in place to monitor this;
    • has revised its Initial Child Protection Conference leaflet which it shares with those invited; and
    • it has set up a process to develop further practice skills for its social workers. This includes a training on completing Section 47 investigations.
  3. Mr C remains dissatisfied with the Council’s handling of the case and his concerns. So, he asked the Ombudsman to consider the matter. He said, although he is now allowed to see his children, one of them does not wish to do so. He said this is because of how the Council handled the domestic violence allegations against him.


  1. Mr C complains about matters which occurred more than 12 months ago. His complaint is therefore late. However, I am satisfied it is appropriate to exercise my discretion and consider his complaint from 2019. This is because Mr C complained to the Council and followed its statutory children’s complaints process. When this ended, he did not delay bringing his complaint to our attention.
  2. Multidisciplinary team’s core group meetings and the Police are not in the Ombudsman’s remit, and I have therefore not investigated their actions.
  3. When a council has investigated a complaint under the Statutory Children Complaints process, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it. We may consider whether a council has properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent officer, and any remedy the Council offers.
  4. I am satisfied the Council’s independent investigation was carried out in line with the Children’s Statutory Complaints procedure. This is because the IO and IP considered:
    • Mr C’s complaints and comments on their draft findings,
    • The relevant information and records since 2017,
    • interviewed and considered statements from all the individuals involved with the case; and
    • reached their findings within the statutory timeframes for such investigations.
  5. The IO found the Council was at fault on some of Mr C’s concerns. She recommended the Council should apologise to Mr C. The Council accepted the IO’s findings.

Failure to follow child safeguarding procedures

  1. The Council apologised to Mr C for its failure to:
    • include him in the Section 47 enquiry;
    • give him written materials before the Initial Child Protection Conference, although it had tried to prepare him for it;
    • provide him with copies of the minutes from the Child Protection meetings;
  2. These are serious errors by the Council. However, I found the Council’s apology was enough the remedy the injustice Mr C experienced. This is because I am not satisfied Mr C’s involvement with the Section 47 enquiry would have led to a different outcome. In reaching my view, I am conscious:
    • the Council were aware of his assertations the domestic violence allegations were untrue;
    • the Council spoke with Mr C before its Section 47 enquiry and the Initial Child Protection Conference;
    • Mr C decided not to attend the Initial Child Protection Conference, although, I understand his personal reasons for not doing so; and
    • the evidence available shows the core group meeting decisions were based on both the domestic violence allegations and the environment Mr C and Mrs X had created which it found was impacting the children’s wellbeing.

Wrongly told Mr C’s children about his partner and domestic violence

  1. There was not enough evidence for the IO to make a finding on whether the Council’s Social Worker told Mr C’s children about his new partner. I have not seen any evidence which could lead to a different outcome, nor am I satisfied this caused a significant injustice.
  2. However, the IO found the Council’s Social Worker, on balance, may have told Mr C’s children he had hurt his partner and their mother. She recommended for the Council to apologise to Mr C.
  3. I acknowledge the IO’s view was the Children also received this information from Mrs X, and I have seen no evidence the Social Worker acted maliciously. However, I am not satisfied an apology is enough to remedy the injustice this caused. This is because the Social Worker’s comments, in her position of authority, was likely to have had a greater impact on the children. It was therefore irrelevant whether this was new information, or if they had already received this information from Mrs X.
  4. I acknowledge Mr C believes this caused his relationship problems with one of his children, who still does not wish to see him. I cannot say the Council’s fault caused this as this may also be because of the fabricated domestic violence allegation and the environment between Mr C and Mrs X. However, I am satisfied this caused Mr C and his Children some unnecessary distress.

Council’s handling of Mr C’s evidence

  1. The IO found the Council’s Social Worker failed to acknowledge Mr C’s evidence which showed his partner had fabricated the domestic violence allegations. She said the Social Worker should have included this in her report, but it could not be relied upon until it was confirmed by the police.
  2. I agree with the IO, the Council was at fault for its failure to record Mr C’s evidence and its apology on this matter was enough to remedy the injustice cause.
  3. I acknowledge Mr C was wrongly accused of domestic violence by his partner and this has caused him significant distress and issues with his children. However, the Council is not at fault for the allegation. Its duty is to protect the children, and I am satisfied its actions ensured its concerns about the children’s wellbeing was prioritised.
  4. In addition, the Core Group did not remove the Child Protection Plan once the Police confirmed Mrs Y had fabricated the domestic violence allegation. Therefore, even if the Council had considered Mr C’s evidence, it is highly unlikely this would have led to a different outcome.

Did the Council show bias towards Mrs X?

  1. The IO did not find evidence the Council’s Social worker was biased towards Mrs X. However, she did find the Social Worker should have analysed the available information further before completing her report and the risk assessment.
  2. I cannot say what the outcome would have been if the Social Worker had properly considered the available information, which included only considering information which was relevant. However, this and Mr C’s evidence of Mrs Y’s fabrication on the allegations, were a missed opportunity for the Council to form its view of Mr C. I am therefore satisfied this caused Mr C some distress as his views, and information was not properly considered.
  3. However, there is no evidence to suggest this would have changed the outcome of the Child Protection Plan and Mr C’s access to his children. This was because the Core Group considered the environment around the children as its concern, not only the domestic violence allegation. It was first in late 2019 the Core Group was satisfied Mr C’s unsupervised access to the children should be put back in place.
  4. I understand Mr C may still be unhappy about the Social Worker’s actions and behaviour. He may therefore wish to complain to Social Work England about individual Social Worker’s behaviour.


  1. I agreed with the IO’s view and found fault by the Council. However, I found its apology to Mr C was not enough to remedy the injustice caused. This is because the Council’s Social Worker wrongly told Mr C’s children about the domestic violence allegation, which caused them and Mr C some unnecessary distress.
  2. I also agreed with the IO’s view the Council’s Social Worker failed to properly analyse the available information and Mr C’s evidence the allegation was fabricated. While I did not find this would have led to a different outcome, I am satisfied it caused Mr C some distress due to his loss of trust in the process.
  3. The Council took steps to address its concerns about its policies, procedures and staff experience as set out in paragraph 37. It has therefore already actioned any service improvement remedies I would have made.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice the Council caused to Mr C, the Council should, within one month of the final decision:
      1. pay Mr C £200 to acknowledge the distress he and his children experienced as a result of the Council’s faults.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault leading to injustice. It is on this basis I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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